PanAmerican – Interlude – A Letter to Canada

In order to get Amp’s Canadian visa, we had to compile an ungodly amount of information about our bank accounts, recent travels, our relationship (we basically printed the entire Facebook Friendship page with our shared pictures and trips), and had to write a letter formally requesting she be allowed to pass through Canada on the motorcycle trip. That letter was pretty damn dry — I included the phrases “vouch for her character”, “financial solvency”, and “earnestly hopeful”. I somehow doubted that the Canadian embassy staff member would be kind after reading something that boring, so I also wrote the following…

Appendix B

The Much More Interesting Story of How Christian and Amp Met

The attached letter is, necessarily, almost criminally boring. I hope you’ll find this more entertaining.

When Amp and I met, we were both working for Wall Street English, an English school targeting university students and young professionals. Amp was the trainer for the front desk service staff, the “Service Officers” (officers? Really?), while I was a teacher in the Ladphrao center. I was interested in becoming a service manager and as part of the candidate training all of us who were qualified had to go through training for service officers – led by Amp.

Sparks flew quickly between us, but definitely the wrong kind. I was too American, she says, though I think she just didn’t appreciate my eagerness and ability to recall vast amounts of information – it didn’t fit with the Socratic way she tried to teach when I had read the answers from the manual they gave us. For me, I dismissed her after I tried to start up a friendly conversation as we all went to lunch and she issued a curt “it’s none of your business” to me. Granted, I probably shouldn’t have asked my trainer why she had chosen to remain a virgin till 25, but I was young and curious. And, honestly, a bit blind and naïve. (And she says obnoxious, but really? Let’s stick to young and curious. It’s kinder. For the kidner.)

If it weren’t for us going through a training together a few weeks later, I doubt we would have ever said more than a few words to each other at a time. We both went in for management training, and the cool animosity continued. But Amp, if you ever meet her, has a certain amount of gravity about her, a confidence that I found really attractive, even if annoying – the boss asked us each to come up with an ‘icebreaker’ game, and Amp flat out refused to join the one I’d developed. She wasn’t a joiner, but somehow she wasn’t bothered by not joining teams. She seemed to have no need of others’ approval. I couldn’t relate, but I did envy that.

Mid-week I found out she really, really liked brownies from a nearby restaurant, so I bought a pan for the whole class, knowing that there were too many and I could give her extra. The ice broke just a bit. Just barely. At the end of the week we all went for dinner. She and I ended up seated across from one another, and talked throughout the evening. It turned out she was really interesting, a kind of Bangkok hipster, but with less pretention. She liked indie movies and knew cool spots to hang out in the city. It also turned out that she absolutely refused to eat anything green (no vegetables!) and wouldn’t drink any alcohol. But I got her to try a little of each before we all parted ways.

Because I was trying to show leadership, I set up a dinner with the other trainees about a week after that, and that’s when I found out more about Amp’s heart condition. She’d been born with a congenital hole in her heart, only discovering it because of a smart x-ray tech when she got her physical for her Australian visa. But more intriguing, she had me feel her heartbeat, which was pumping out 120 beats per minute while resting, and we had an oddly intimate moment with my hand on her breastbone, trying my best to be conservative in my placement. She swears it was unintentional.

Bangkok was flooding, and none of us knew one day to the next whether we would be working. It was unsettling, but kind of cool. All the trainees went to a party at one trainee’s apartment, and we had to clamber over a four-foot sandbag barrier to get into the parking lot. Amp doesn’t drink, but the party atmosphere had us all more relaxed. She had this habit of pulling her shoulders up (stress from knowing about the heart surgery, I think) and I wanted to see if I could relax the muscles there, so for two hours during the party we sat on the living room floor, me just behind her, and I massaged her neck and shoulders. At the end of the night we decided to meet up for a movie the next day, since neither of us was working with the floods around our areas. (Now, again, I should note here that Amp swears that I actually invited myself along to a movie she was already going to see. That doesn’t fit with what I remember, so we’ve agreed to disagree.)

I arrived early the next day at CentralWorld for our semi-date-like-thing, and chilled at a Starbucks behind a bookshop to write a letter home. It turns out she loved the idea of me loving coffee, books and handwritten letters, but I wouldn’t know that for months. She was a bit recalcitrant when she arrived, a bit closed off. We had coffee and sat on a fantastic leather couch (we later decided we would need one for our house someday, but again, that wasn’t till much, much later), chatted a bit, went up to look at movie times. The next one we both wanted to see was Melancholia in a few hours, so we wandered the mall and chatted. I don’t remember much about what we said, but I remember visiting a few furniture shops and comparing favorites, playing with Lego at the Toys’R’Us, and me pretending I was going to toss her over the railing from a few floors up, which caused her to grab me really tight. (Again, a little difference here – I think this was playful and fun, but she now claims that she didn’t enjoy it, even though I think she really did enjoy somebody breaking through her shell and not being thrown off by her often-cool exterior. Agree to disagree.) In the movie she started crying heavily. I didn’t know what to do, so I put my arm around her. (Not like a first-date let-me-see-if-I-can-do-this type move, but more of a what-the-hell-do-I-do-with-this-crying-woman gesture. It turns out that she cries during nearly every movie she ever watches. Really, even the comedies. Every movie.) Anyway, we had dinner after, and stayed till the mall closed around us. I offered my arm – she took it, and said, “I can see why people like this.” So  small, but I felt like a million bucks.

(I should put in a little side note, here. Amp was a virgin, but more than that, on our first date she told me that she had never even kissed one of her boyfriends (or girlfriends- she’s bi), or held hands, and, furthermore, that if we dated, I shouldn’t expect to see her more than about once a week. I said we’d see how it went. She was okay with that.)

Our next date was two days later, another movie, this time at her favorite theater, a little tiny complex in RCA. Not working for a few days was great – we showed up early and spent the day. We talked at Starbucks, we talked at the little café in the cinema lobby over ice cream, and when we sat down for the movie I put my arm around her and she curled right up to me. “This feels really natural.” It did. Afterward we started talking about places open late, and went to a British pub, The Black Swan. I put my arm around her again, and once, when her eyes were closed for a story I was telling, I kissed her. Then we kissed again. And again. The pub shut down at midnight, so we went to an all-night breakfast restaurant, and kissed some more. We were both exhausted, but we wanted to stay. At 3 a.m., after I’d started to nod off during our conversations, we decided to go. When I put her in the cab and said goodbye, she kissed me one more time, saying “17!”, which was apparently how many times we’d kissed. And how many times she had ever been kissed, in her whole life.

Again, two more days and we were out at the movies. This time was after work – the company couldn’t figure out where the floods were going to be, so they opened and closed school centers pretty much at random – so we met up at a mainstream Cineplex in my area. We sat on a couch in the back of the theater and kissed through the whole movie (no waste, the movie was “In Time” with Justin Timberlake), and kept exploring. She was incredibly passionate. At the end of the movie, though, it was too late to go anywhere. I wanted her to come home with me, she wasn’t sure if she should. She did, but only once I promised we wouldn’t do anything new. That was tough, but fun, that night. Less fun, she left at four a.m.

It took some time before she would spend the night. We weren’t going to sleep together (though eventually she relaxed on that – thank goodness!), but even so, I wanted to spend the whole night together. Every second day we met up for a couple weeks, playing favorite YouTube clips for each other (she likes “Happy Tree Friends”, which I still find a bit odd) and sharing stories and, of course, making out.

A couple weeks later she went to the hospital for exploratory surgery. I bought flowers after work and showed up, but she wouldn’t let me in. I stood outside with the flowers and, just for just a couple of minutes, let myself cry. I was worried, and didn’t feel like I could do anything. Yes, it was too soon in our relationship, but I really needed to be with her, to know she was okay. Instead I got our friends to write her get-well postcards, and dropped off a stack with flowers at her apartment after she got out.

We went away a couple weeks later by bus, when Bangkok was officially shutdown for the floods and all of our friends were fleeing for the beaches. On the way south we talked about dating other people, talked about not dating other people, talked about being past that. On the way south we made out furiously, and it was a lot of fun, even though we had to be really discrete so our friends in the next bench couldn’t see. We were exhausted when we arrived.

We stayed together, finally, really slept together in Krabi. But beyond the usual first-bloom romance, there was an edge – Amp told me how serious her heart condition really was, that elevating her heartrate could cause a heart attack, that the doctor gave her six months to live without surgery. I remember feeling the shock of it, and putting aside any of my questions about the relationship, and deciding my job right then was just to make sure she made it through her surgery okay, no matter what.

The rest of the story, in overview…

In January I was spending my days as a new manager and my nights on the couch in her surgery room. She’d come through well, but I couldn’t shake the image of her coming out of surgery so tiny and frail, the feeling of absolute impotence while she was being operated on. I wanted to protect her, but there was nothing to be done, so I came and stayed while she slept. Something small, all I could do.

She got out quickly, was soon able to walk around again like normal, and travel again. We spent the next months working furiously at our jobs – turns out I wasn’t very good at being a manager – and taking whatever time we could to travel around Bangkok. We spent a weekend at Amphawa, a beautiful example of older Thai culture with canals instead of streets, we spent a weekend at a six-star resort because of an amazing voucher, we spent a weekend away at Ayuthaya, the ancient town, and a weekend at Lopburi, the monkey town… you get the idea.

It was far from perfect. I cooked dinner on Valentine’s Day, a pasta cream sauce with shrimp (Amp’s favourite) and onions (minced super, super finely) only to have her spend 45 minutes picking out all the little onions (it was not only green, but all vegetables, that she refused to eat). She was upset when I had lunch with a female coworker, when I was flirtatious with women in general. Some of that was a clash of cultures; most of it was me not really knowing proper boundaries. (Remember the bit about naivete at the beginning? We’ll just go with that here again. It’s kind.)

And I was stressed. My job wasn’t going well for the first few months, and when I started to learn how to do better, the center air conditioning broke and our students refused to study. I kept getting more and more behind, and my boss asked me to step down, to go back to being a teacher in another center and quit management. I couldn’t do it, so I quit.

Amp and I already had a trip planned to Chongqing, China, and we went anyway – at least this way I didn’t need to take paid time off. It was a great trip, and I was even more excited because I’d decided to work in Beijing for the next year. Amp was going to take advantage of her Australian visa then come join me.

She didn’t.

Rather, she did, but not permanently. After a couple of difficult months apart, she flew from Sydney to Beijing for Christmas, and we spent an amazing month together. We fought, as we always have, but we traveled and had fun and it was great coming back to the apartment and coming home to her. But then she left, and we hoped she could come out in a few months and find work in Beijing so we could be together. Without a native English-speaker’s passport, though, teaching was essentially off the table. Other jobs would be even tougher to get. We fought often over the next few months, fighting for what we both wanted, but always making it through. In June she came out again, and again it was a great month. July and August were tougher, and when we decided that we couldn’t be together in Beijing, we decided to move back to Thailand together at the end of my contract.

Meeting up again in October was amazing, knowing we actually had a chance to be together long term. We were both starting to learn more about the relationship and heal from some of the rough patches of the previous months. I’d read a book by the Friels on relationships, and we started to apply some of the principles. I began to understand where I’d overstepped the boundaries of a respectful relationship with my female friendships, and we began to move past some of our arguments. It’s been a slow process, but it began that fall.

Our early days in Chiang Mai have a sort of Polaroid gloss. We spent the first week looking for an apartment, riding around with the two of us on a little rented scooter stopping methodically into search and every apartment building we saw. When we finally saw our current apartment, we were exhausted at the end of a long day, and the apartment was catching the last rays of sun setting behind Doi Suthep with a gigantic picture window. We’d found our home.

Every day I worked trying to develop online income and Amp applied for local jobs, but every night we explored the city. We went to markets, karaoke, bowling and cheap restaurants. By December we both had work, though it wasn’t too lucrative, and we were making it. I felt like we were in a movie about the early days of success for some company founders. (Sometimes I still feel that way.)

In January I flew my parents out for a Thailand vacation, something Amp and I had been planning for months with money I pulled from my old retirement account. It was their first time to meet, but they knew a lot about each other. We traveled to southern Thailand, back to Amphawa, up to northern Thailand and over to Cambodia. My parents were in awe of everything, and quickly adopted Amp as a daughter.

I bought a motorcycle at the end of our vacation, when we were in Bangkok. The engine froze while we were in traffic, and Amp decided she never wanted to ride together again. I was devastated. But over the next few months she was a little more open to short rides, and we travelled slowly and carefully to a few new places, driving on top of Doi Suthep and to the forests near Chiang Dao. She began to enjoy it.

The next few months we worked hard. In May I went on a motorcycle trip with two good friends, Lee Baker and Johan Pellsater, and when I came back I wanted to ride more. Amp and I spent every weekend of June on a motorcycle visiting resorts around the north. In July I had to return to Colorado for a funeral and a wedding, but in August we started up the traveling again. And we kept it up in September and October – every week when we were in Chiang Mai, we tried to go visit a new place. Sometimes our friends came with us, sometimes it was just the two of us, sometimes it was one night and sometimes it was four; it was always what we needed. We continued to get closer, to build memories.

In November we flew to the US to spend Thanksgiving and the rest of the holidays with my family. It was the first time I’d ever introduced a girlfriend to my extended family, but it went well; aunts, uncles and cousins universally agreed she was a keeper. Since we’ve returned home I think she keeps in closer touch with my family than I do, which to be honest is great, since my communication gaps always led to vague fears that I’d experienced some catastrophe.

We keep up our frequent travels now, and want to continue. This summer is the final countdown to the motorcycle trip we’ve been planning, and we’re both really excited about the days of riding through forests and mountains and the nights spent in our tent. We’re excited about making even more memories that we’ll keep together forever.

PanAmerican: Home to Canada – 19-30 August, 2015

Before starting the Pan American, home was in Chiang Mai, but I hadn’t planned on returning. (Not to spoil the ending: I’m writing this from a Chiang Mai coffee shop.) We left Thailand with several gigantic suitcases; even knowing most things would be left in Loveland before we started the ride, we still thought we would have plenty of space on the bike. How little we knew.

For several months I’d been purchasing gear for our adventure. (I’ll post a full list of essential gear shortly.) A down quilt made in Seattle, a North Face tent, cooking sets, pelican boxes altered for a motorcycle from Caribou Cases – I was channeling my excitement into online shopping. Gear, check.

Because of Amp’s US visa (she’s Thai), she didn’t need a visa for most countries in Central and South America. Canada was another issue, but one that went surprisingly smoothly, in part due to a letter I wrote begging the Canadian consul to allow us to take this trip together. I was so excited about the trip, so optimistic, that nothing seemed like an obstacle. Visas, check.

We were lucky enough to fly through London on the way to the US. Technically Thais aren’t supposed to transit through the UK, but again, some excited begging to an official allowed us to roam free.

Riding the London “tube” to Paddington Station – that still makes me smile. Our 20-hour layover was as packed as could be: we grabbed a pint at a proper pub (cider, a breakthrough for us as I always wanted to have Amp drink with me, but she generally disliked alcohol – it was a shadow of many more breakthroughs large and small in our relationship over the trip), then got up early the next morning (yay, jet lag!) to walk downtown London, wandering past the London Tower Bridge, Globe Theater, and the Buckingham Palace before we had to return to the airport and continue our flights.

London at night – The Rose & Crown Pub
Our London hostel
London Tower Bridge!

The next week was a crazy rush. Because of my expat tax status, I had to limit my days in the US and I was worried about pushing the Alaskan summer season too much. (As it turns out, I wasn’t worried enough, but more on that soon.) In addition to trying to wrap up a few work projects, we spent our days installing equipment on the motorcycle, shopping for all the items I hadn’t been able to order ahead of time, and packing and repacking and repacking and repacking our bags. That’s not a typo – we started with a huge pile each of “essential clothes and gear”, and had to keep subtracting from it repeatedly as the cases still wouldn’t fit everything.

Finally, the bike had the case mounts installed, I had a good tank bag and waterproof duffel bag. Our departure day was already half over, but we were leaving. I couldn’t have been happier when we said our goodbyes at the curb in Loveland (with echoes of my first motorcycle trip six years earlier) and we drove off to start our adventure.

Mounting the Caribou Cases
Ready to go! But not.

We didn’t get very far. The bike was so heavy that when parked on flat ground, the main spring compressed, and the bike would fall. It nearly fell at the gas station of our first fill up, and Amp had to hang with all her weight on one side to keep it from falling over. I figured I could live with that for fillups; what I couldn’t live with was the way the bike bucked side to side in the slightest breeze, threating to throw us off the first overpass. (Part of this was due to some basic KLR650 problems, but a few modifications help immensely, and I’ll write those up, too – I wish I’d known that then, instead of figuring it out two years later.) Scared, I pulled over and looked up the nearest Kawasaki dealer to get a heavier rear spring installed. My dad drove out to pick us up from the dealer, and we went back to the living room to repack our boxes yet again.

I will say this – nothing is as motivating as the fear of dying and killing your closest human companion. We left with “only essentials”, but the bridge made us both feel like we could do without at least 20% of what we’d packed, and when we drove back to the bike, our boxes were much lighter.

We discussed giving up for the day at that point. At four o’clock in the afternoon, making an early start the next day was tempting, but would have also been too discouraging, so we started again.

Grooves along the road made some of the travel tricky, but otherwise that afternoon was spectacular. The weather was warm, but traveling along the highway with a breeze blowing past, everything was beautiful. The US is amazing on a motorcycle, even more especially the west, where we rode by pastures just starting to turn golden, ate dinner at a little no-name diner, and rode into the starry night, not stopping till almost midnight to spend the night at a hotel.

Notes from Day 1:

Weight of gear initially:

Tank bag – 6.7 kg
Amp’s backpack – 3 kg
Right side case (Christian’s) – 16.3 kg
Left side case (Amp’s) – 15 kg
Duffle bag with security cable – 15.2 kg
Top case – 17.2 kilos

Weight of gear after oh-my-god-we-almost-died repack:

Tankbag – 6 kg
Amp’s backpack – 2.6 kg
Christian’s case – 13.7 kg
Amp’s case – 15.2 kg
Duffle bag and security cable – 9.7 kg
Topcase – 14.7 kg

Merging onto our road
At least someone’s excited!

The first day of a ride is one of the happiest, while enthusiasm is still more important than a sore bum. Our next day on the highway began to be more difficult, but getting off into the small roads of rural Wyoming helped. From my notes that night:

Day 2: 415 miles

Today was long and hard. The first few hours we were buffeted by winds, having to go slowly through the hills of northern Wyoming. After a few hours of straight, stressful roads, I was questioning my choice of this as a lifestyle.

It wasn’t till the evening that some of the upside really came back. We got off the interstate and onto a country road, and wound our way through Montana. The winds died down, blocked by mountains and trees, and traffic thinned. The sun set with a fiery glow and golden crown, we saw hawks and spotted fawns, and rode through mini-climate pockets of warm, grass-scented air. There’s no way we’re making it to Canada tonight, and I’m stiff and sore from a 12-hour span of riding (breaks included), but that finish was what I needed to feel good about this trip.

Plus, we meet people when traveling like this. Everyone is curious about the bike and where we’re headed. At a gas station on the Native American reservation we met a man who had ridden a KLR650 around Bolivia. At dinner we met an older gentleman (along with his family) who’d had one of the original Goldwings, and had lived in the little Montana town for 95 years, though he didn’t look yet 75. His wife was beside him, wishing us a safe journey before they drove off (in a car driven by the 95 year old!) together. He said his secret was marrying a good woman, and having a good son; it makes me think perhaps the secret is appreciating the people you love.

More adventures tomorrow. And hopefully a new country for Nin’ta and I.

Some people naturally look great resting from the road
My other sweetheart outside

One more day brought us to the Canadian border, cold and tired, but thrilled to be visiting another new country together, having tasted our new lives. That night we spent in a hotel with a water slide, which had immeasurable appeal to my inner child – but wasn’t that the point? Isn’t all travel a chance to let our inner child out, to nourish the parts of us we normally pack away for practicality, to give ourselves a chance to explore all of who we are?

Notes from Day 3: 315 miles, Lewiston to Cardston

We need more winter gear. At least a second pair of mittens. We finally had a day of beautiful riding, but cold, caught between wind, rain or both. We veered through the Blackfeet Nation to get closer to the Glacier mountains, but went back to the plains because of the rain. I think on our next long ride I’ll be wearing wool.

At lunch we met a couple of guys walking the Continental Divide trail, almost done after more than 2000 miles. I’m putting a bookmark on that for the future.

Further north we saw the mountains, largely obscured by the smoke at first (fires in the PacNW), then clear — beautiful forests and lakes finally coming in to view.

After our second rain flurry we finally came in range of the border, and knew for sure we would make it. We stopped to have a cup of coffee; I was worried about Nin’ta getting hypothermic. The border agent was grumpy, but I would have been, too, sitting in a cold shack on the side of the road.

Canada! We’re in. At the first town we gave up on camping (just one more night!) and stopped off at a hotel with a hot tub and water slide. Well, well worth it.

We also decided to take a couple of days in Waterton instead of pushing on to Banff right away. Hopefully today we’ll get our blog up and running, too — so far all our notes are just on our phones. And hiking tomorrow? Or…? Who knows — we’re travelling!

Too beautiful
The last cup of coffee in the USA
oh, CANADA!!!