Way-Stops at the House of Pain
Written By: Orman Day
“He has seen but half the universe who never has been
shown the house of pain.” – Ralph Waldo Emerson
Wyoming – 1969
After riding freight trains to New Orleans for Mardi Gras, I’m hitchhiking home through the snow with not twenty cents in my pockets. I would never beg for even a penny, so I’m grateful when I’m given a can of pork and beans, which I’ve never eaten before. As I spoon from the can, I ravenously seek a chunk of meat. Finally, it dawns on me: there’s no pork in my pork and beans.
Canada – 1973
I buy a Greyhound pass in Southern California because I figure my hitchhiking days are over at age twenty-seven. But I grow bored with bus schedules and terminals, and convince a young Toronto woman—who can’t find a cannery job in the port city of Prince Rupert and is down to her last Canadian dollar—to thumb with me to Alaska. Kathy is short and her hair is dark and pixie cut, and she carries a canvas bag and a flute. The first night we scale a gate, edge past groaning Angus cattle and sleep restlessly on a mound of hay inside a barn.
We make love one night in a motel, but in the morning when my kisses and caresses stir her into a frenzy, my virility abandons me for the first time in my life. Kathy’s confused at first when I explain I’m exhausted and this has never happened before. She’s angry about her reliance on me for sandwich meat and sodas, and now I douse the flame I awakened in the barn. Kathy channels her frustrations at my impotence. She’s not going to give me a chance at atonement.
Canada – 1973
Kathy and I are kicking rocks and singing at the side of the Alaska Highway—two winding lanes of undivided loose gravel—when Doug stops his pickup truck. None of us buckles a seat belt. Doug says he’s looking for things to do and will take us up the road a ways. He steadily chugs beer from bottles he heaves into the passing forest while describing himself as thirty-five, an alcoholic, an Ayn Rand devotee, a graduate school dropout, an American expat, a divorcee who’s having an affair with a married woman who “never knew what sex was until she met me.”
Doug keeps driving us farther and farther north because he’s been “starved” for the intellectual conversation we offer him. The alcohol turns him morose at times and he says sometimes he wants to drive into a wall. I joke I don’t want to go into the wall with him. When he says the truck had two flat tires earlier in the day, I quip that bad things come in threes.
While holding the hose at one of the highway’s infrequent gas stations, Doug asks Kathy to back up the truck. She’s elated because she’s never before driven a truck, so Doug lets her continue to take the wheel, both of us unaware she only possesses a learner’s permit. She pushes the truck to speeds as high as eighty. Doug mentions something’s wrong with the steering, but Kathy says she doesn’t notice any problems.
She takes a curve wide and we face a diesel truck. She swerves to the right and our truck fish-tails into a ditch. In her inexperience, Kathy brakes sharply and the truck goes into a roll. I tell myself, “So this is how it ends.”
The truck halts right-side up. Staring ahead at a glassless window, surprised to be conscious, I pray Kathy’s alive. She is. So’s Doug. I examine them for injuries, and then discover my wool shirt’s torn at the right elbow and the skin’s bloody and deeply cut. A motorist gives me a medicinal shot of rye. Drunker than I had imagined, Doug curses crazily because he had borrowed the truck from a friend.
Barney the diesel truck driver takes us south to the Pink Mountain Motor Inn, where staff members wash and dress my wounds. Kathy’ll work there while Barney, Doug and I continue to Fort St. John and its hospital.
Needle-phobe that I am, I grow nauseous and wince as the doctor sews twenty-seven stitches. In exchange for a newspaper account of my accident and a portrayal of those who helped me, the local newspaper publisher gets me a free hotel room and gives me twenty dollars.
The next day, Kathy yelps with glee and leaps into my embrace. After thanking the motel staff, she and I crawl beneath the tarp of a pickup bed loaded with the camping gear and commercial fishing equipment of two Colorado men bound for Seward, Alaska. The driver gives us a jar of his mother-in-law’s spice cake, which Kathy and I feed each other. We part a few days later.
We were close traveling companions or lovers for intense days or weeks, or maybe I was the stranger who came to town and lifted them out of their dull routine. And now we’re parting. Sometimes they shed tears. Sometimes I shed tears. Sometimes we both shed tears.
Alone that night on the train or the bus or afoot on a roadway with my thumb out under a streetlight, I want to cry out the words of Amy Lowell: “Moon! Moon! I am prone before you. Pity me, and drench me in loneliness.”
Kenya – 1974
A railroad clerk, Dad died of encephalitis at age sixty-one in November shortly before I left to circle the world with money I saved as a railroad carpenter, a job he secured me though I didn’t know a jigsaw from a hacksaw. He was an inveterate viewer of television travelogues, and encouraged me to make the journey he had not.
Nothing’s going right for me this night in March when I’ve checked into a cheap Nairobi hotel after my arrival from Jo’burg, where Carlie and I parted. Visa difficulties. The hotel clerk’s gouging me. Airplane ticket problems. Streets beset by thieves. A God who seems unreachable.
I miss Dad, and can’t even send him a postcard. Watching myself in the mirror, I keen with a bereavement I fear will overwhelm me. I lie on the bed and try to smother my sobs in a pillow with a wrinkled case.
India – 1980
On an overnight bus ride taking me down from the Himalayan town of Dharamshala, I share a ragged cushion with two other passengers. To ease my claustrophobia, I sit next to the window, but I don’t dare hang my arm outside, not after reading a story about a surgeon whose arm was sheared off by an oncoming bus.
India’s drivers are the most reckless I’ve experienced since Cairo, so I purse my lips when I see wreckage at several places and a bus teetering over the side of a bridge spanning a deep gorge. If all of us bus passengers are incinerated in a collision with a truck—not an impossible scenario given the games of chicken played by drivers—the story would only rate a couple of newspaper paragraphs, and my mom and sisters would receive a handful of rupees in compensation.
These thoughts and the crowded seating arrangements are making the ride unpleasant enough when I feel Delhi Belly welling up inside my abdomen. How many waiters brought me a carafe of water and said it was safe when they knew it wasn’t? And what about those street vendors? Do they suction up their water from a stagnant pool? The bus driver refuses to pull off the road. It isn’t a matter of “Am I going to poop in my pants?” but “What am I going to do after I poop in my pants?” I wonder if I can control my bowels for the next thirty seconds, let alone two hours. Looking for the positive, I figure I won’t have to share my seat anymore.
Finally, the driver stops for a break at a terminal and I gallop to the squat toilets. An hour later, diarrhea begins to surge anew after a tire on the bus providentially explodes beside some bushes. The bus isn’t carrying a spare, so I have an hour to evacuate every last shred of chapati and samosa.
At hostels scattered around the world, we backpackers entertain ourselves by turning these tribulations into comic monologues. My bus ride anecdote elicits hoots and snorts in recognition. During a tale-swapping session in China, though, a British bloke recounts an experience surpassing my own. Besieged by diarrhea on an Indian train, he shuffles from car to car looking for an open toilet, but every door has been locked from the inside by stowaways. Given no other choice, he stands between two cars and turns his bare backside to the breeze.
After a bus lets us off in the dark Andes, my Swiss traveling companion Martin and I search for cabins near sulphur baths. Finally, Martin insists we bed down for the night outside even though the weather’s brutally cold. He zips himself into his cozy sleeping bag. I don’t have one because I found on other trips that a bag is bulky and seldom used, so I wrap myself in a thin youth hostel sheet.
After the temperatures drop, I worry I’m going to drift into hypothermia. I ache with cold while I walk in circles and ache with cold when I sit down. I put on all my clothes, stretching a sock across my nose. After shivering for hours, I beg Martin to let me put just my feet inside his bag. He refuses. I turn my anger into inner heat and swear I won’t get sick. I close my eyes and imagine myself naked, sliding into bed with a woman I met in Mexico. I feel the warmth of piled comforters and her body heat. I survive the sleepless night, and by the time we reach Otavalo in Ecuador, I’m still healthy, but Martin’s nose and throat are full of phlegm.
Brazil – 1984
In an outdoor restaurant near the border with Argentina, I converse with two young Dutch women, Alie and Antje, both blondes. They dumbfound me in two ways. Not speaking Portuguese or Spanish, they spent the day fruitlessly seeking directions to Iguazu Falls, a dozen miles from our table, and had given up on seeing the massive cataracts. To me, this was like going to Anaheim and not being able to locate Disneyland. Second, Alie’s been constipated for two weeks—and isn’t worried about it. Benevolent Aquarian that I am, I buy Alie prune juice and agree to show them the falls the next morning.
After we gaze upon the falls from a catwalk drenched in mist, we board an overnight bus for Curitiba, where the two of them are staying in a small house on a huge estate owned by a wealthy, debonair man named Sagio. Alie fell in love with Sagio during a Greek vacation. He stayed at her home in the Netherlands for three months and then invited her to Brazil. During a romantic week in Rio, he showed her and Antje the Sugar Loaf Mountain, the beaches, and nightclubs with scantily-clad dancers. Then he brought them to his estate, which includes a soccer field and a covered picnic area large enough to seat two-hundred guests.
Alie’s serenity didn’t last long. On the way to his bedroom one day, Sagio introduced a girlfriend to the women, who couldn’t help but hear their moans and bed squeaking through the thin wall. When his girlfriend isn’t around, Sagio tries to lure Alie to his bed again. Most women would’ve packed their bags, yelled obscenities and stalked out the door. Not Alie, who decided he owed her three months of room and board.
Because he’s going to celebrate New Year’s at a fashionable resort, Sagio says I can stay at his house in his absence. However, Antonio, a gruff gun collector who shares a small cabin on the grounds with the maid, doesn’t like the idea, and shortly after I arrive, makes a point of locking Sagio’s bedroom.
The women and I drink our absent host’s blanco and tinto wines while Alie details her grievances. Much as I’m embarrassed by the memory, I admit I let a German woman visit me in Whittier. After Christiane and I shared my bed for several workdays, I introduced her to my girlfriend, who gave up her bedroom to the fraulein while we slept together in the front room. I really can’t explain to the women how Sagio and I could be so cruel.
During Antje’s frequent bathroom trips, I kiss Alie. When Alie says she’s thinking about writing Sagio’s girlfriend a note about his infidelities, I suggest a better revenge: make love with me on the dining room table. After several smooches, though, Alie tells me she thinks of me as a father. I quickly calculate: she’s probably twenty-one and I’m thirty-eight. A difference of only seventeen years. “Me, your father?” I say. “That’s absurd.” Mentally I blame her lack of interest on her distended belly rather than my creeping baldness and the gray lurking in my beard.
In the morning I awaken on the couch, and under darkening clouds stroll to the picnic area to write. When I return, Alie and Antje sit grimly at the table. No breakfast trays. No electricity or gas. I suggest they ask the maid to bring food and tell Antonio to turn back on the electricity and gas. They say they’d feel awkward. Their solution? Just as a torrential downpour begins to rattle the cabin, I’m supposed to hump my possessions several blocks and, without shelter, wait for a local bus. As I turn up my collar and lean into the rain in the doorway, Alie brightens and says, “I hope we see each other again.”
Tanzania, Brazil, New Zealand and Louisiana – 1973, 1985, 1989 and 2002
I’m angry when thieves steal my camera out of a Land Rover in Tanzania, snatch my Rock In Rio tickets and money belt in Brazil, and grab my cash-laden trousers in a New Zealand motel. Near the end of my two-month voyage down the Mississippi, though, I weep in pity for the lost souls who swept away my untended canoe without caring they could be dashing a boyhood dream.
China and Tibet – 1985
Given how I travel, I’m lucky I don’t leave Africa with sleeping sickness or bilharzia. And I don’t return home from India with typhoid or dengue fever, or from South America with Chagas disease or cholera. But by the time I arrive home from China and Tibet, I’m stricken with hepatitis A—a disease borne by fecal matter—because of the unsanitary restaurants and squalid toilet facilities frequented by vagabonds like me. I’m weary, but I haven’t lost my sense of humor.
Thailand – 1994
My spirit refreshed by the golden glow of the giant Buddha inside Wat Pho, Bangkok’s Temple of Enlightenment, I decide to revitalize my sagging middle-aged flesh in a morally uplifting manner. I cross a courtyard where a monk blesses amulets and peek through a screen at a prestigious massage school.
Fan-stirred breezes wash back and forth across eighteen beds where masseuses and masseurs knead the muscles and realign the skeletal systems of recumbent Thais and farangs…foreigners of European ancestry. No one’s shuddering or yelping with pain and everyone’s clothed, so I pay four dollars in baht for a half-hour introductory session of traditional Thai massage. This is not to be confused with the non-traditional form of Thai massage offered in Patpong whereby both parties shed their underpants and inhibitions.
Reclining, I close my eyes and let the fingers and feet of a lithe young woman practice her graceful craft. My flesh becomes a stage for a ballet danced by a feathery imp. Except for an occasional twinge of pain, my lips hold a smile reminiscent of the Buddha’s.
This massage leaves me light and lyrical, so I decide to have another one when my girlfriend Debbie and I reach the northern city of Chiang Mai. My limbs aching from dodging traffic as I make my way from temple to temple, I present myself at the Old Medicine Hospital and in a moment of madness, pay ten dollars for not one, but two hours of massage. This time I’m placed in the hands of a short, wiry man in his sixties.
He has me whimpering within minutes, using fingers and toes that could drill through sheet metal. Just as I’m clinging to the edge of my pain threshold, he rolls me sideways and jumps up and down on my calves, squeezing out the lactic acid or the negative life force or whatever they call it. Not being able to communicate in Thai, I can only sigh deeply, drawing giggles from matrons lying on neighboring mats.
During my ordeal, I regret the stair steps avoided and the cheeseburgers devoured. I rue those times when I skipped Jazzercise so I could save a few bucks at an early matinee. Mental torment piled upon physical. As my masseur refashions my stomach muscles, I try not to think of the sky burial I had witnessed years earlier in Lhasa. I drive away the thought that Tibetan vultures are excavating my entrails.
Finally, as my masseur is hopping atop my inner thigh, I time-travel back to that moment when I stood in the smoke of joss sticks in Wat Pho. I take back my banal wish and make a new one. Please, I intone, let me endure this pain without further dishonoring the Baby Boomer generation.
My wish comes true. My personality cleaves in two and out bursts an insight: my pain is nothing but illusion, although an extremely realistic illusion. Afterwards, I hobble next door to a cafe, sink heavily into a chair, and make a love offering of ice cream to my Buddha belly.
Mississippi River – 2002
I’ve been pestered by mosquitoes on six continents, but they don’t inflict the horrible pain of flies along the banks of the Mississippi River. When I’m fighting to keep our canoe from capsizing or being sucked into a whirlpool, I can’t take a hand off my paddle to swat at flies gnawing on my calves. Their chomping makes me curse loudly and shake my legs wildly enough to rock the canoe, but I know things can always be worse. In Brazil, an Austrian showed me the slits on his leg where he’d been bitten by a vampire bat.
At sea and in Spain – 2015
Ignorance’s bliss allows me to feast at an endless buffet on the two-week cruise bearing Debbie and me from Florida to Barcelona. During stays in the port city and Madrid, I can’t amble past a heladeria without buying scoops of pistachio and dulce de leche gelato.
A year away from my seventieth birthday, I’m mildly displeased with the traveler I’ve become. Sightseeing, I sit on a bench eating a candy bar while Debbie wanders the byways. When we stand still in front of a painting by Picasso or Goya, the unsteadiness in my legs forces me to place a hand on Debbie’s shoulder. Because of my girth and the stiffness of my knees, I have to slide into the deep bathtub at the hotel, careful I don’t shatter my metatarsal bones braking my descent. Climbing up and down the metro stairs, I cling to the railing and half-expect my tibia to snap. On the flight home to Maryland, I frequently walk the aisle so I’m not felled by an embolism.
I can no longer ignore my bulging belly, my need for naps, the demands of a sweet tooth, the slight trembling in my left hand when I grip a coffee mug. Pierre de Chardin said, “Growing old is like being increasingly penalized for a crime you haven’t committed.” I disagree. I’ve committed a crime and it’s called gluttony.
“Pain and pleasure,” wrote Laurence Sterne, “like light and darkness, succeed each other.” And so it’s been with my journeys.
Leaving my grief behind on a flight north from Nairobi, I meet Jackie, a beautiful young woman with blonde hair and freckles, and we end up cuddling and kissing all the way to Frankfurt.
India’s heat drives me into the cool Himalayan town of Dharamshala, where I conduct a personal interview with the Dalai Lama, the exalted spiritual leader, who explains that “if you have fear of some pain or suffering, you should examine whether there is anything you can do about it. If you can, there is no need to worry about it; if you cannot do anything, then there is also no need to worry.” One cause of pain: attachment, for instance, to the flat stomach of your youth.
Not long after that frigid night outside in the Andes, I immerse myself one Sunday afternoon in a thermal pool in the resort town of Banos. My Swiss companion clowns with three young women who say they want to go dancing. The discotheque’s closed, so we roust the owner from his siesta and for five dollars rent his establishment—complete with flashing lights, disk jockey and drinks.
Because Alie and Antje exile me out into a storm, I spend New Year’s Eve on a Rio beach, dancing to music pulsing from a trio elétrico truck, drinking champagne, witnessing a waterfall of fireworks, and cheering up Helene, a gorgeous woman who flew from France for a vacation with her boyfriend, only to be jilted on arrival for another woman.
After an unhappy ending to a Carnival romance with a Brazilian woman named Julia, my sorrow dissipates on a bus ride north because a flirtatious woman laughs when I light a waterproof match and hold it out into the rain.
A new friend lets me borrow a canoe to replace my stolen one, so I’m able to paddle into New Orleans and kiss the ground.
After a stern warning from my doctor, I realize my days of cruise ship buffets and gelato cones are over. I discover the pleasure of nibbling on almonds, sipping peach passion tea, and pedaling an exercise bike while watching an episode of True Blood or Dexter.
And finally, looking back at my travel notes and snapshots as I near my milestone birthday, I uncover the truth in the words of Kahlil Gibran: “Your pain is the breaking of the shell that encloses your understanding.”
Photo credit: Kathleen Gunton
Orman Day, now residing in Maryland, has had prose and poetry published by such journals as Creative Nonfiction, Alembic, SLAB, Los Angeles Review, Weave, Bitter Oleander, Perceptions, Isthmus and Portland Review.
He’s assembling his published travel essays into a book about his backpacked travels in more than 90 countries and the 50 states. Among his experiences: spending a night in the New Orleans jail during Mardi Gras, witnessing a sky burial (two corpses, hundreds of vultures) in Tibet, bungee jumping off a New Zealand bridge, freight hopping out of Los Angeles, enduring a two-month canoe voyage down the Mississippi, and thumbing tens of thousands of miles on six continents.
During his California boyhood, he was a hand-bell-swinging Christmas Tree at Disneyland. As a young man, he won a boat on “Let’s Make A Deal” while dressed as a frog. As a 70-year-old man, he spends much of his time living in the past. He and his 99-year-old aunt created a YouTube video which can be seen HERE. As viewers will note, their video is not a viral sensation.