I can’t believe it’s been over two months since my last post. That’s mostly because I got a new job, which consumes my working week. Any free time I have has been spent with friends or writing for various publications.
When my new job’s Board of Directors offered me a position, the President said, “You cannot write about our school.” (The most I can say is that it’s an all-boys school.) At the time I laughed and said, “That won’t be a problem.” What I wanted to say was: why would I write about a bunch of teenage boys? How interesting can they be?
Turns out, they are very interesting. The Lord of the Flies is real, and there’s at least four or five Piggys in my class. One kid already fell down a flight of stairs, and my students did nothing but take his shoes off and poke him. There have been several moments where I want to say, “Why didn’t you get an adult?!” and then I realize I’m the adult. (I think this is why alcohol isn’t sold in Thailand between 2 and 5 pm. All of the teachers would guzzle a bottle of wine before the end of 6th period.)
I also can’t write about my school because my students have found my websites. So hey, guys.
And now, a quick recap on my travels from the past two months.
First Trip: Penang, Malaysia
I went to Penang, Malaysia because I needed to reset my visa for my Lord of the Flies job. At first I told coworkers I was going to Kuala Lumpur. “KL sucks,” they said. “It’s just a big, fancy city with nothing to do.” So I changed my plans to Penang. Then they said, “Penang sucks. It’s boring and there’s nothing to do.” I stopped listening to everyone and decided to just stick with Penang. I’d survived boring Vientaine; couldn’t I survive boring Penang?
Maybe my coworkers and I have different levels of boring and exciting because I LOVED Penang. The small city reminded me a lot of Savannah, GA: historic buildings, cobblestone streets, no sky scrapers, a port, and art at every turn.
When my friend and I first arrived at Penang, we found out the power box to our AirBnB had been stolen. The AirBnB owner rushed over and shuttled us to a row of townhouses he and his boyfriend owned. “Do people steal power boxes often?” I asked.
“No,” the guy said. “This has never happened before.” (Again, stealing a power box is also something I would both expect and not expect in Savannah.)
The switch ended up being fantastic. My friend and I got an adorable two-story townhouse with garden-esque swings in the living room, an outdoor courtyard that led to the shower and bathroom, and my bed was even suspended off the ground like a gigantic full-sized mattress hammock.
Whoever spearheads the tourism industry in Penang is a genius. Although my coworkers hated KL, I think most travelers to Malaysia either visit KL or the beaches. Penang is at the bottom of the destination ladder. However, what does draw people to Penang are the photo opportunities. Asia is really into the selfie and Instagram culture. Obviously the West is into that, too, but there are actual “selfie spots” in Asia: staged photo areas made just for Instagram (there’s a large swing and a giant bird’s nest in Bali just so people can take their pictures in them).
To lure social media obsessed millennials, Penang has several museums that are just for picture taking. My friend and I first went to the Upside Down Museum, where everything is bolted to the ceiling to make you feel as if you’ve walked into a home that was turned on its head. Museum stewards pass you from room to room, and position you so that you and the thousands of other Upside Down Museum visitors have identical photos.
What I also liked about Penang was the seamless blending of cultures. There’s China Town, Korea Town, and Little India, and there’s no noticeable divide between any of them. In Chicago, there’s also a China Town, Korea Town, Little India, and countless other national neighborhoods, but they’re separated by blocks and blocks of just plain ol’ Chicago. In Penang, the neighborhoods were next to each other and it was hard to tell when you walked from one to the other except that some of the street decorations changed.
If you like small historic cities with great food, great nightlife, and street art, Penang is the place to go. And if you know and love Savannah, Penang should definitely be at the top of your Travel Bucket List.
Second Trip: Hua Hin, Thailand
Maybe I’m going through my first ever bout of homesickness for the U.S., but Hua Hin reminded me of a Florida beachtown like Fernandina or Palm Beach. Like Penang, there were no sky scrapers and the tallest structures were temples and a Buddha statue. Like Florida, the ocean is a mix of blue and turquoise, the sand is white, and there are surfers trying to ride baby waves that Californians would laugh at.
Whereas Penang was walkable, Hua Hin seemed easiest to get around by bike. A friend and I rented a moto from our guesthouse, and were able to zip around to the Cicada Market, some temples, and the Artist Village. Without a bike I don’t think we would have seen as much as we did or we would have been shelling out a lot of Baht for taxis.
As the child of artists, I geeked out hard over the Artist Village. It’s inland from the beach and you need a car or moto to reach it. It’s set up like a small village with open-air houses clustered together. Each house is packed with art: oil paintings, acrylic paintings, ceramic sculptures, glass, driftwood creations, etc. A few artists sat in the houses working on new pieces. I don’t know how long we were there, but I could have stayed all day. I ended up buying an oil painting from a Thai artist who was painting inside one of the houses. He also gave my friend a free painting because my friend is Indian and the artist loves India.
Third Trip: Khao Yai (sort of)
I booked a weekend trip to Khao Yai National Park during a week when my students were driving me up the wall and the school got a long weekend because of hand, foot, and mouth disease. I wanted to get away from Bangkok, and since I’d already done the beach I decided to head up north.
The trip to Khao Yai was my first time traveling solo in Thailand. Part of the reason I went solo was to see if I could do it solo. Despite my post about being more confident in Thailand, if I’m with someone I largely let them do the talking. With Khao Yai I wanted to do everything myself: find the bus, find the resort, etc etc.
Finding the right bus ended up being easy because two bus station attendants immediately set upon me and rushed me from the ticket window to the correct bus. When I said I was going to Muak Lek, the bus station lady looked at me oddly.
“Muak Lek?” she asked.
“Yes? Muak Lek?”
“Muak. Lek?” She raised one eyebrow as if to say, are you sure?
I pulled out my phone and showed her the spot on Google maps. She sighed and shrugged. “Muak Lek.”
I fretted slightly when the bus driver had the same are you sure? reaction to my Muak Lek ticket. The ride took about two hours. The bus pulled over onto the shoulder of the highway and the bus attendant came to my seat and grabbed my bag: “Muak Lek.”
As the bus pulled away I realized why everyone seemed confused about my destination. Not only was I the only person who got off at Muak Lek, but the stop was just a small shack on the side of the highway with a sleepy, practically empty market behind it. I called the resort where I was to stay and tried to explain where I was.
“Are you by a clock tower?” the concierge asked.
“Umm there’s an overpass.”
“What did you pass before the bus dropped you?”
“A cow sculpture.” I could almost hear the man drop his head in frustration. “There’s a broken down bus beside me,” I said. “Does that help? If you drive down the highway, you can’t miss it.”
Somehow the man did find me and he shuttled me to the St. James Resort, which had had a special deal on Agoda and was the entire reason I decided to be bougie and stay at a resort rather than my normal cheap AirBnB route.
Turns out, the resort is 44 km away from the entrance to Khao Yai. The resort is almost exclusively geared toward golfers, and not only did I stick out because I was one of only a handful of guests on the enormous property, but I was the only one there not playing golf. My lack of golfing also limited the places I could go because much of the resort was a “Golfers Only” golf course. Instead, I spent the weekend looking at the gorgeous mountain view from my room, enjoyed the luxury of having a bathtub again, and sat at the golf shack drinking Chang and eavesdropping on British men talking about their Thai wives and girlfriends.
Next up: a quick weekend trip to Jaipur, India and a few weeks in Japan and Hanoi, Vietnam.
I keep going back and forth with this post. On the one hand I’m like: “It’s been one year since your life collapsed. Look how far you’ve come! Write about it!” Then I start writing and I think: “Goddamn why are you still SO SAD?” Then I cocoon myself in between blankets and pillows, put on my dad’s dogtag, and watch comedy shows on Netflix.
On May 5th I got a tattoo of a semicolon. It both represents that I’m a writing nerd and signifies the partial end of one sentence (life) and the beginning of another, but without a full stop period. The tattoo only took five minutes to get (roughly the length of one Coldplay song), but I’d been thinking about it for a while. I chose May 5th because that was the one year anniversary of my life falling apart.
On the night of May 4, 2017 I lay in my living room on an air-mattress-turned-couch. I’d sold most of my furniture in preparation for a move, and my apartment was half in and out of boxes. I watched the “Casino Night” episode of The Office. The next evening I would graduate from my three-year Master’s program. I tried not to think about how my dad would not be at the ceremony because he’d died unexpectedly ten months previous.
Just as Jim and Pam kissed for the first time ever my boyfriend, R, called. “I have some bad news,” he said. I thought he was going to say he couldn’t make it to my graduation because of a business trip. Instead he dumped me. Typical engineer, it was quick, methodical, and so cold I could almost imagine him holding a crumbled To Do list in his hands with “break Georgia’s heart” as the last item not crossed off. He said he’d been thinking about ending things for months, but didn’t know how to tell me. Apparently over the phone at 11:30 p.m. the night before my graduation was the ideal moment.
And that was that. My seven year relationship (nearly thirteen if you include the six years we were best friends) ended without any sort of warning and without me having a say in the matter. It was like experiencing my dad’s death all over again.
To be totally honest: this broke me. I had just barely been keeping myself upright after my dad’s death. My counselor told me to lean on people in my grief, and I did. I leaned on R the hardest. When that leg of my wobbly chair was also kicked out from under me, I gave up. Grief is exhausting. A double douse of grief? Unfathomable. I spent the next several months telling my counselor “I’m not going to survive this.”
“If you think that way,” she said, “then you won’t.”
Four months after R said he had “some bad news” I moved to Asia. I didn’t go for the cliche Eat, Pray, Love experience. Sure, having a handsome Brazilian lover would be great, but I didn’t look at Thailand as starting over or building a new life. I’d wanted to move to Asia ever since graduating from undergrad. R and I had planned to move to Asia together, but it turned out he never really intended to go. I decided to continue with the move because I didn’t know what else to do.
I don’t know what I expected from Thailand. I knew I wasn’t going to move here and immediately be happy, but I thought I’d at least gain some feeling of accomplishment or pride. Instead, when 10:30 a.m. May 5th, 2018 (May 4th 11:30 p.m. EST) rolled around—exactly one year since the Bad News Phone Call—I felt…nothing. I rode a BTS train to work. I looked at my phone when it hit 10:30 a.m., sent a few friends a happy one year anniversary of my life imploding! text, and went to work. That evening I got the semicolon tattoo, and then I headed to meet a friend at a rooftop bar.
On the way to the rooftop bar I thought about what had changed in the past year. Sure, I’d moved to a new country, started a new job, and made new friends, but given my history that didn’t feel that spectacular. It just felt like my usual transient life. My personality had changed a bit: I’m a bit more upfront about my feelings and less likely to tolerate bullshit, whereas I used to bend over backwards and forwards to do anything for anyone even if I didn’t particularly like them. I’m a lot calmer and more apt to let things roll off my back because, let’s face it, I’ve seen how awful life can be so everything else pales in comparison. I’m also a bit more likely to just drop and leave anything/anyone that even slightly upsets me, which is a boon and a curse.
I was at the rooftop bar for an hour when suddenly an older man beside me collapsed. I was standing at the bar, waiting to order a drink, when the bartender gasped and shouted in Thai. A bald man stood beside me and he turned just in time to catch the older man, who grasped at the lip of the bar. The bartender, bar manager, and house manager all ran to the man. Everyone cleared as much space on the crowded floor as possible. I bolted to the opposite side of the room. I tried to catch my breath while my friend asked what had happened.
I wasn’t at home when my dad collapsed. While my mum and I were at the hospital, our neighbors called someone to clean the house before we returned home. I have never seen any physical evidence of what happened to my dad. To me, Dad was there one moment and then he was gone without a trace. All I can do instead is replay over and over what I think happened. Seeing the man collapse at the bar was like seeing my morbid imaginings come to life.
Thankfully, the man was okay. He walked out of the bar with the help of the house manager. I spent the next hour halfheartedly flirting with a Brazilian guy (maybe there is an inkling of Eat, Pray, Love after all) to distract myself. I wanted to curl onto the ground and cry. 365 days, a move halfway across the world, and yet it felt like nothing had changed. One small reminder of my dad still brought my energy to a grinding halt for days or weeks. If a date went well I took steps to push the guy away because it’s hard not to believe that every relationship will end in crushing heartbreak just like the last one.
Before you close your browser window and think, “Oh my god this girl is too sad and beyond hope,” I promise this will end on a slightly more uplifting note (because it can’t get much sadder, amiright?).
I left the rooftop bar and went to a friend’s apartment. On the way there I called another friend. Both of them let me cry and rage and babble and just generally fall apart and, with their help, put myself back together again. In all honesty, my friends didn’t even have to do anything. They just listened and showed me that they were there for me.
Days after the tattoo, the one year implosion anniversary, and the man collapsing, I realized that there’s been another change I hadn’t fully acknowledged: my trust in friends. I’ve always made friends easily, but it takes me a while to make good friends. I tend to keep people at arm’s length and tell myself if this person suddenly leaves, that won’t bother me because we were never that close anyways. I chalk this up to my transient impulse and how I tend to just up and move and leave whatever community I’ve established. After losing my dad and R, friends seemed to come out of no where to lend their support. They flew or drove from states away to be with me; they planned weekend trips to keep me company; they fed me; they gave me Mr. Darcy dolls and break-up playlists; they sent words of encouragement, helped me move, let me crash in their apartments, and let me call day or night to talk about anything. People I hadn’t talked to in years reached out. Even people I’ve only known for a short time in Bangkok have been immensely caring and helpful.
I’ve always known I had awesome friends (and coworkers!). I just didn’t know how many I had until this year. Obviously I wish I could have figured it out a lot sooner and through a different avenue, but it’s heartwarming to know that even when life seems to be collapsing like a massive sinkhole, I have so many amazing people to help pull me back up.
Just a small sampling of these kickass people.
So cheers to all of you wonderful people! You’ve helped make this past year a little bit more bearable.
Oh god, was that cheesy? That was cheesy. Here’s a gif to make us all feel a little less awkward:
When I asked my Thai friend about Songkran, she looked me up and down, laughed, and said, “You’re a walking target.”
She used her spoon to dig out a chunk of mango from our shared bingsu. “We throw water at foreigners,” she said. “You’re going to get soaked.”
I’d heard about Songkran when I first arrived in Bangkok, but not much detail. A few people called it “the water festival.” I imagined people boating or placing flowers in the Chao Praya River that cuts through the city. It wasn’t until my friend and I shared the bingsu at the night market that I realized water would actively be involved. Of course it would be. Just like the shrimp or whiskey festivals in coastal Georgia—you don’t just stare at the shrimp or whiskey. You consume it. Or, in Thailand’s case, you throw it.
Songkran is Thailand’s most famous festival. Also known as Thai New Year (Happy 2561 everyone!), the name Songkran comes from a Sanskrit word meaning “passing” or “approaching.” Lots of Thais head home to spend the holiday with their families. Everyone wears colorful, Hawaiian shirts. The water is a sign of respect and well-wishing. It represents washing away someone’s bad luck so that they have a happy new year. Elders, monks, and Buddha statues get the water poured gracefully over their hands and heads. Everyone else gets the water chucked at them, basically drowning them in good luck. (And let’s be honest, after my past few years, someone can just dunk me in a pool of luck.)
As Songkran’s three-day celebration neared, friends and coworkers kept doling out advice: Stockpile food and alcohol; Don’t leave your apartment unless you have to; Accept that you’ll be soaked for three days; People will rub a floral-scented powder on you without asking for permission; You’ll get groped; Don’t punch anyone who grabs you; Leave your cell phone at home. I wasn’t sure whether to be excited, annoyed, or nervous. Having water thrown at me seemed funny, and a splash of ice-cold water would be a welcomed relief from Bangkok’s heat. Having people smack me with powder…that did not seem like a good time. My natural instinct would be to hit anyone who grabbed me out of the blue. Also, I wear glasses. If they break, I’m screwed.
Since no one could give me specific details on what to do or expect during Songkran, below is a step-by-step guide based on my personal experience.
Step 1. Be Waterproof
On the first day of Songkran, I wore a swimsuit under workout clothes. I knew I was going to get wet, but I still questioned just how much. Were friends exaggerating when they said people would pour buckets of water on me? I popped my phone, money, and train pass into the waterproof pouch I normally reserve for kayaking, slung a water gun over my shoulder, and headed out the door.
I made it about two blocks from my apartment before getting wet. A woman and six kids leaned over the railing of the sidewalk and threw water at passing cars. When the woman noticed me she motioned to the kids. All seven scrambled to refill their cups and buckets. I had to pass with only a few inches between us so they mostly tipped the water against me. Thank god the kids were toddlers and could only reach my waist. The lady dumped her cup on my head.
For the full three days of Songkran I was doused with water fairly consistently. One morning I was splashed on the leg while leaving the train station. Another afternoon I was walking alongside a road and felt a spritz hit my face. I turned and saw a guy smiling and holding a water gun like he was Bruce Willis in Die Hard. At a club, two men chucked buckets of water at my friend and me. Then the club itself kicked it up a notch and turned on the sprinkler system.
Step 2. Join the Festivities
If I live in Bangkok for years, maybe I’ll become as annoyed with Songkran as my coworkers. Since I’m still a newbie, I went with friends to Silom, one of Bangkok’s two big Songkran celebration areas. Silom, Bangkok’s unofficial downtown, was cordoned off from traffic so that revelers could have the largest street water gun fight you’ve ever seen. People ambled up and down the street for about two kilometers, shooting each other with water. Then they’d turn around and do it again. It was like the world’s slowest, wettest parade.
A video from the Silom celebration.
Step 3. Drink
I’m sure I’m going to get some flack for listing this as a “how to” step, but when you’re being pelted with water nonstop, you need something to take the edge off. Some of the water guns felt like water cannon. At times you’re being sprayed from multiple directions, and there’s always that idiot who shoots you right in the face (or in the ear—why?). Do you really want to be stone-cold sober for that?
Take a shot or two before joining the festivities or pop down one of the Sois and have a drink at a bar. Or you can take the classy route like my friends and I did: buy beers at the 7/11 and shotgun them outside the automatic doors. Then fill up your gun with water and jump into the fray.
Which leads me to the next step…
Step 4. Have a Working Gun
At first I didn’t want to buy a water gun for Songkran. I don’t love calling attention to myself, and spraying unsuspecting strangers with water just felt uncomfortable. I bought a gun only when I realized I needed it not to spray people, but for my own self defense (how American of me, right?).
I bought a Mickey Mouse gun specifically because it reminded me of my dad and I like to include his memory in every holiday (even if it’s a holiday he’s never taken part in). Unfortunately, my gun sucked. Water spurted from the gun like a hose slowly being turned off. The water also wouldn’t stop. I tried tilting the gun to the sky or plugging the hole with my finger, but nothing worked. A pathetic stream flowed out of the gun until the water reserve ran dry. I spent most of the time at the Silom Songkran festival using my friends as human shields.
Step 5. Stay With Your Buddy
This is specific to the large water gun fights. The water fights are crowded and just plain bedlam. Your cell phone is tucked away in a waterproof pouch, which makes it hard to use. If you get separated from your friends during the water fight you might as well make new friends because you won’t find your people again.
Step 6. Always Be Prepared
After one day of Songkran in Bangkok, my friend and I traveled to Koh Samet for the long weekend. We took a bus to Ban Phe, a ferry to the island, and a songtaew to our hotel. A songtaew is a taxi-like pick-up truck with a raised roof and benches in the flatbed. As the truck motored down the narrow streets, locals threw water at us. The whole ride was like a water based war zone. Kids shot at us from the side of the road. Whenever the truck stopped, they ran and threw buckets of water. At one point half a bucket was poured straight over my shoulders.
Step 7. Enjoy
This step is really just a combination of Steps 1-6.
Songkran is a fun holiday. Everyone is happy because they’re off work and it’s the turn of the New Year: a time to make a new start. Unlike in the U.S., where the New Year happens during the coldest months, Songkran can be spent outside in a bathing suit and shorts. Some of the water guns are aggressive, but, on the whole, having ice-cold water thrown at you in ninety-degree heat feels really good. Playing with water guns makes you feel like a kid again, and at least the powder stuff you get hit with smells nice. Even in a city as large as Bangkok, you feel like you’re on a beach holiday.
The U.S. could really benefit from a holiday like Songkran. Obviously we have things like Thanksgiving and the Fourth of July, where everyone celebrates in roughly the same way, but it’s fun to have one specific thing that everyone takes part in (Songkran: the water, Holi: the colors, Batalla da Vino: the red wine).
My Number One Tip:
Everyone should come to Thailand and experience Songkran! Even if it’s just for a day. Then you can escape to a beach, where you’ll still get wet, but who cares—it’s only water.
When you move to a country that has a completely different culture from what you’re used to, it’s easy to commit a faux pas here and there. When one of my friends first moved to Thailand a coin rolled down the floor of her classroom and she stepped on it to make it stop.
“The class gasped,” she told me. “The money has the face of the king on it. I basically stomped on the king.”
Thanks to her I knew to keep my feet clear of any Baht. I also knew a few other cultural taboos such as don’t point at anyone with your finger or with the bottom of your foot. Still, two weeks ago, in an attempt to get a student to say “foot” instead of “feet” I lifted my leg in the air, pointing the bottom of my shoe right at a young girl. The foot-assaulted student visibly shrunk and the others went, “Ooooooo.” I turned red and apologized profusely.
I’m lucky that most of my faux pas are committed in front of my students because they’re very forgiving and seem to find me funny (which I think is a good thing?). In one of my first classes I tried to discuss a new vocabulary word: protest.
“Have any of you gone to a protest?” I asked.
“Do you know what a protest is?”
“Like a riot,” one student said.
“Right, but it doesn’t have to be loud or violent. It can be a peaceful protest or a silent protest.”
“Would anyone join a protest?”
Students shifted in their desks, looked at the ground, and twisted their mouths. Even though they’re adults, they looked like kids who’d been caught cheating on a test.
“No one? Has anyone seen a protest?”
My most talkative student said, “We don’t have those in Thailand.”
“You don’t have protests?”
“How can that be possible?”
Another student chimed in: “We had protests a few years ago. Yellow Shirts and Red Shirts, but no more.”
“You’ve never had another protest?” I asked, skeptical. Everyone looked away. “That cannot be possible,” I said. “There must be something people disagree with that they protest about. What about the Women’s March?”
I pressed the topic further, but my students refused to respond. Later that evening I met a friend for drinks and told him about the class. “Georgia,” he said, “Thais don’t talk about politics. It’s not like the U.S.”
“They don’t talk about politics or they can’t?”
“A bit of both. Thai people are incredibly resistant to talking about politics.There are some instances where you can get in legal trouble for it. They just don’t do it, especially in a group setting.”
“So you mean I was trying to force them to talk about something they’re not allowed to talk about?”
The following week I apologized to my class. I learned that a group of five or more people talking about politics in Thailand can legally be arrested. I knew that didn’t include a classroom setting, but it explained why my students had been noticeably uncomfortable. The next time a vocab word teetered on the subject of politics I covered it only briefly:
“Do you have debates in Thailand?”
My talkative student responded no before I finished saying -land.
“Awesome. Moving on…”
Being American, I am especially wary of committing a faux pas. Not only are Americans stereotyped as rude, entitled travelers, but our current political/social climate is only reinforcing that image. When I first moved to Thailand, two Americans were arrested for posting a photo of themselves mooning the camera in front of a temple. Mooning and traveling is apparently something these two Americans do and they even had an Instagram account called Travelling_Butts, which has since been taken down. This is a prime example of what people expect from Americans: doing stupid stuff without fear of consequences because ‘Murica. You have to dress “modestly” in Thai temples: cover your shoulders and wear something that goes past your knees. Showing your ass in front of a temple? That’s just blatant ignorance. It’s thanks my idiotic countrymen like the Travelling_Butts that I am über cautious of disrespecting or insulting Thai culture (or any culture for that matter).
My latest faux pas happened last weekend. I took someone’s shift at work and afterwards headed for the train station at an hour I wasn’t used to. I had my earphones in with my music on low. As I entered the train station I heard anthem-like music playing over the loud speakers. It wasn’t very loud, but it was noticeable. In Thailand, when the national anthem plays, everyone stops and listens. If you’re in a crowded train station it’s like a large flash mob suddenly freezing in place. Unfortunately, the station I was at wasn’t crowded. There were barely ten people around me. I looked at the ticket machines. A Japanese family fiddled with money and argued over the train map. Another man beeped his BTS pass and walked through the turnstile. The guard that stands at the turnstile stood a bit more rigid than normal, but she didn’t salute so I figured the music piping over the loudspeakers wasn’t actually the national anthem.
I walked up to the turnstile with my BTS card in my hand. I then saw a man frozen in place near the escalator. I stopped mid-step. The BTS guard and I made eye contact. I looked back at the Japanese family still trying to slip coins into the ticket machine. Then I looked over at the ticket booth, which, had I been a smarter person, I should have looked from the start. Both ticket takers stood in front of their chairs and stared straight ahead. Ah shit.
Like someone playing freeze tag, I stayed frozen with one foot on the ground and the other mid-step behind me. My arm stretched slightly towards the turnstile, ready to beep my BTS card. Did I look ridiculous? Absolutely. Did I feel ridiculous? Shockingly no.
A friend had told me how she and a date were in a train station when the anthem played. Everyone around them froze, but her date kept moving. He said it didn’t matter because neither of them were Thai. The whole thing happened so fast that my friend kept walking. Later, she said she felt insensitive. “We’re guests in this country,” we both agreed. “We have to respect their traditions and take part when we can.”
Although I looked like one of those robot street performers waiting for someone to drop money at my feet, I didn’t feel ridiculous. I hoped my comical stance displayed my respect for my host country. Being white and blonde it’s pretty obvious that I am a foreigner. When the music stopped I beeped my card and walked through the turnstile. The guard laughed as I walked by and gave a slight bow. I shrugged. “Whoops.”
On the escalator I made note of the time. The next time the anthem played, I would stand still like a normal person instead of freezing like a startled squirrel.
I am crap at ordering street food. Bangkok is practically bursting at the seams with food stalls, food carts, and foldout tables laden with 25 Baht banana leaf wrapped goodies, and yet I rarely order anything more than a coconut or iced coffee. This has nothing to do with sanitary worries or being picky about food; it’s all to do with my embarrassment at the language barrier. In every other country I’ve lived in or traveled to I have either known the language or known enough to get by. Thai is a tonal language. Apparently I’m tone deaf. My students try to teach me how to say simple words and phrases, but just like they can’t make a vee sound, I can’t mimic anything they say. This means that to order street food, I can only stand there, smile, and point. I know that that’s an acceptable way to operate, but, after living here for nearly three months, simply pointing and smiling makes me feel ashamed.
Last week, however, my shame-at-not-speaking-your-language meter was finally broken.
It started with a trip to Vientiane, Laos to apply for a visa that would allow me to stay in Thailand for more than thirty days at a time. The trip started on a sour note when I landed in the hospital the first night (#foodallergies). Only the doctor spoke English. The rest of the evening was spent with nurses smiling at me, squeezing my shoulder, pointing at needles, and periodically checking the IV drip. All I wanted to do was return to Bangkok. I spent the next four days wandering the city, staring wistfully at Thailand across the Mekong River. When I finally got the visa I practically ran to the airport: Finally! I can leave Laos!
I returned to Bangkok and brought my passport to my school’s HR office. The next morning a text from the HR manager woke me: Your visa is not stamped.
I responded: What?
When you came through the airport, they did not stamp your visa.
And that means…?
Come to the office now.
I arrived at the school an hour later. The HR manager showed me where the airport Immigration officer had ignored my visa completely and given me another thirty-day tourist visa again.
“So what do I do?” I asked.
“This must be fixed today or else your visa will be invalid.”
I imagined the smiling faces hidden behind surgical masks. Nooooooooooo!
The HR manager suggested I go around the corner to Bumrungrad International Hospital. The hospital has an immigration department for patients who need visa extensions.
I went to the hospital’s business center on the 10th floor. A nurse bowed and took my passport. He flipped to the tourist stamp. He pointed at the expiration date, smiled, and handed it back to me. This doesn’t expire until the end of April, he eyes seemed to say. I flipped to the visa and pointed at the entry date. Then I flipped back and pointed at the tourist stamp. I did this several times until the nurse gasped. He took my passport and showed it to a woman sitting at a computer. Her rose colored skirt suit made me think she was the boss. She walked my visa back over to me. “What room?” she asked.
“I’m not a patient here,” I said. “I work around the corner. My job sent me.”
She nodded and spoke to the nurse and a secretary. They went back and forth in Thai for a bit. Finally she handed my passport back to me. “My staff is going to Immigration in Changwattana at one. They will take you there and bring you back.”
I took a seat in the lobby. About five other people sat on surrounding chairs and couches. A guy sitting directly across from me flipped through the pages in his passport. He looked about my age. I tried to read the front of his passport booklet, but his hand covered the gold lettering.
The secretary and the lady in the rose suit came over. Rose Lady held out her hand for my passport. She handed it to the secretary, who dropped it into a Ziploc bag. Rose Lady stepped aside and gestured to the elevator. Followed by the other guy with the passport and about ten other people, we all went down to the ground floor. Rose Lady held her hand towards a couch in the waiting area. In Thailand, it’s rude to point with your finger, so every time she gestured for me to go somewhere or do something she did it with a sweeping open-palm that reminded me of movies where princes ask someone to dance at a ball.
It was hard to tell who else in the lobby was heading to Immigration. The hospital caters to an international crowd, and it was clear that everyone (except the staff) was an immigrant, mostly from the Middle Eastern. I tried to catch the attention of the other guy with a passport, but he was engrossed in flipping through his booklet.
A white van pulled up. Rose Lady did another “shall we dance?” gesture. The guy with the passport and I climbed into the van. The secretary took a seat next to me and Rose Lady sat in front by the driver.
“Do you do this often?” I asked the secretary.
She smiled at me.
“No?” I said.
She smiled and shook her head, which I took as I don’t understand you rather than an answer to my question.
The drive out to Immigration didn’t take long. When we got there, Rose Lady talked to the secretary and van driver while the other guy and I stood by the van. He smiled at me and gave a little wave. This is normally when a sane person would say hi, I’m so-so, but this was my first time getting a real look at my visa trip buddy. Before I’d only seen his profile and the top of his head as he looked down at his passport. Now we were inches apart and looking right at each other. He. Was. GORGEOUS. He was taller than me and had muscular arms, dark brown hair, and a tan that made me picture him living on a beach somewhere. He looked like a Disney prince. When he smiled I laughed nervously and ran my fingers through my hair, which I do more as a nervous tick rather than any kind of seductive look-at-my-hair move.
The Disney prince and I followed Rose Lady into the building. She took a back entrance and told us to hangout in the crowded waiting room. I made my way to the back of the room and found a column to lean against. Disney Prince followed. He smiled at me as he propped himself against the other side of the column. Suddenly I didn’t care about my visa. Send me back to Laos! I just wanted to talk to the Disney prince.
I tried to think of the best opening line. Something funny and/or clever. I was grateful I’d actually dressed up a bit rather than arriving at my school in jean shorts and a workout tank top. I poked my head around the column. “Are you getting your visa extended?” I asked.
Disney Prince smiled and leaned closer. He cupped his ear.
“Are you getting your visa extended?” I asked again.
He pinched his eyebrows together. He shrugged.
“Ah. No English?”
He shrugged again. He didn’t understand either of my questions.
I pointed at my mouth. “Language?”
I waved my hand. “It’s okay. I’ll stop.”
We leaned on the column for another few minutes. Disney Prince tapped my shoulder and pointed to two empty seats. We sat down. I’d recently discovered a translation app on my phone: you speak into the phone in one language and it translates it to another language. It’s sort of like Google Translate, but more instantaneous and with more inflection. I tossed my phone back and forth. How do you use the translation app without a) looking like a complete nerd and b) not even knowing what language the other person speaks. His passport had been royal blue. What country had a royal blue passport?
Rose Lady appeared beside us. She handed her cell phone to Disney Prince. “Translator,” she said. Disney Prince listened for a few minutes and handed the phone back.
It hadn’t occurred to me that Disney Prince didn’t speak Thai. He didn’t look Thai, but I’d somehow assumed he knew the language. When Rose Lady handed him her phone, I realized Disney Prince probably knew even less Thai than I did, which is a real feat. Speaking Thai would make my life easier (and make me feel less rude), but I can get by in Bangkok with just English. I can get by in a lot of countries with just English. But if you can’t speak English or Thai…what do you do? Disney Prince was an actual client of the hospital. Was he sick? Was someone in his family sick? I hadn’t been too worried about miscommunication at the hospital in Laos because the owner of my guesthouse, a Laotian woman who was fluent in English, had driven me there and stayed with me. What would I have done if I only spoke French? Or Portuguese? What do you do if you don’t know a word of the local language or a global language? How do you communicate with the hospital staff? How do you ask anyone for anything? And most importantly, how was I supposed to ask this guy out for drinks if we didn’t know a single word of each other’s language?
Disney Prince’s phone rang. I leaned in, hoping to hear how he said ‘hi’ and thus figure out what country he was from.
Even his baritone voice made me want to giggle like a grade schooler, but it didn’t help place his country.
We sat in the waiting area for two hours. Every now and then we’d brush arms or legs, smile, and then turn back to staring at our phones, the floor, or, in my case, being a creep and looking over the shoulders of the people in the row in front of us: one guy was reading a mystery novel, whose title I couldn’t catch, another was reading a Wikipedia article about the bombing of Laos, and another was creating a flyer for a big football match happening outside of Beijing. When our numbers were called, we got up and made our way to the front. It was nearing four p.m. and the crowd was getting restless. A tall man pushed past me, making me stumble into some chairs. Disney Prince moved some people aside and cleared a path for me. We weren’t able to talk to each other, but I was pretty sure we were falling in love.
Disney Prince spoke to the Immigration officers first. He sat in a chair while the officer and Rose Lady talked back and forth. Then I went in and, again, flipped between my visa and the tourist stamp. The officer looked annoyed. I didn’t know if it was at me or the airport dope who didn’t bother to look at my visa page. She stamped the page, wrote something in the passport, and handed everything to Rose Lady. I returned to the waiting area. I stood near the tall man who had pushed me. Disney Prince sidled up beside me and gave me a thumbs up.
Thirty minutes later we each had our passports back. As we followed Rose Lady back outside, I held up my passport. Before I could ask, “Where are you from?” Disney Prince held up his. “Kuwait,” he said.
“Ah! Kuwait!” I proclaimed, a bit too exuberantly. Disney Prince laughed.
The ride back to Bangkok took over an hour. About fifteen minutes into the ride I turned to Disney Prince.
“Vacation?” I asked.
He leaned forward.
“Vacation in Bangkok?”
He cocked his head.
I put my arms out like a plane and swayed back and forth. I pointed at the skyline. Disney Prince looked at the skyline and then back at me. Shockingly, my charade had not conveyed my question: are you vacationing in Bangkok or are you living here? Because you’re gorgeous and I think we should go get a drink.
When we arrived back at the hospital, Disney Prince stuck his hand out to shake mine. “Nice to meet you,” I said. He waved his passport at me.
As I walked back, I realized six hours had passed and I’d used only a handful of English words. In fact, after leaving my school I’d been relatively silent throughout the whole ordeal. Even Rose Lady hadn’t been that proficient at English and the Immigration officer hadn’t said a word. For two months I’d been terrified of situations where I could only communicate using hand gestures. Not to get too cliche, but words are my life and not being able to use them is frustrating. Yet somehow this trepidation had disappeared for the past six hours. I joke that Disney Prince and I were in love, but we had formed a real partnership throughout the afternoon: staying next to each other and always making sure neither of us was left behind. We were able to form some sort of connection and the only word we’d both understood was “Kuwait.”
When I returned to my neighborhood, I walked through my usual row of street vendors. I thought back on the day and how I’d accomplished so much without having to speak. Maybe it was because the hospital staff was so nice. Maybe it was because Disney Prince had such an enchanting smile. Or maybe it was because I’d had no other choice than to fumble through the day in order to validate my bloody visa. Whatever it was, I finally walked up to a street stall and ordered food. Then I walked up to another and another. By the time I got home, I had enough food to last a week.
The first time I went to California I hated it. I don’t know why, I just did. On the surface California had everything I loved: beaches, otters, National Parks, diverse cultures, art scene, hippies, liberals, Mexican food, and a landscape ranging from surfer ready beaches to sprawling metropolises and imposing mountain ranges. Despite checking all of those boxes, however, when I first traveled to California at fourteen-years-old I thought it was blegh. I was tagging along on my mother’s business trip. We started in Pasadena, hit the typical Los Angeles and Hollywood spots, and drove along Highway 1. California was in the midst of “June Gloom,” and therefore colder than you’d expect for the beginning of the summer. I bought a hoodie at the boardwalk on Venice Beach and thought, “This coast sucks. The east coast is so much better.”
I returned to California fifteen years later. It was the first Thanksgiving after my father’s death. Neither Mum nor I wanted to celebrate the holiday at our home in Georgia, where Dad’s missing presence would feel like a too-tight turtleneck. Mum and Dad had met in California, and she wanted to visit their old stomping grounds and see some old friends. I agreed just to make her happy.
We started in Los Angeles and then drove to Morro Bay, Malibu, Ojai, Santa Barbara, and San Diego. As you do, we ate fabulous Mexican food, saw elephant seals, and I spent about five combined hours watching otters float and swim in the ocean (did I mention I really like otters?). On the fourth night I called my boyfriend from Santa Barbara. Like me, he also didn’t like California, but unlike me he had/has never actually been to California. I told him that we were completely wrong about the state. California is awesome!
“It’s full of hippies,” he said.
“I love hippies,” I said.
“It’s too vegan and people with hybrid cars.”
“Just try it,” I said. “We should take a trip out here. There was a giant Trump sign spinning above a Kia dealership in LA. There are uber liberals and uber conservatives out here. It’s like something for everyone!”
“The gun laws are some of the most restrictive in the country.”
Guns were something my ex and I could never agree upon. He believed you should have guns upon guns upon guns. As of last year he had four or five guns (he lied about purchasing the last gun in an attempt to rile me up–what a charmer!).
So that’s yet another win for California: restrictive gun laws!
By the end of that Thanksgiving trip, I was in love with California. The coast, the cities, the diversity, the food–I understood why it was the most populous state in the U.S.
Pictures from the Thanksgiving trip to California. Why did I hate this state?
This past December, Mum and I once again flew to California to spend a holiday. Now that I’m living in Bangkok and Mum is still in GA, we decided to meet halfway for Christmas. Somehow, California was deemed “halfway”: a twenty-nine hour journey for me, a five hour flight for her. Tooooooootally halfway.
Once again, I fell in love with California. This time we headed north up to Sequoia National Park and Yosemite. I love National Parks and I knew Yosemite would be great, but its beauty still amazed me. However, what really got me were the giant sequoia trees. As we drove around the snowy, unsalted roads, I kept swerving to the side because I was too busy staring up at the trees the way I would a skyscraper. These trees are just massive. Beyond massive. I learned that the most common reason a sequoia falls down is its size: it simply gets too big for itself and then BOOM! You know that saying, If a tree falls in a forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound? I am confident that a sequoia makes a sound, and I am confident that someone hears it even if they are not nearby.
I grew up a staunch east coaster. I love the Atlantic Ocean, the I-95 drive, and all that the EC has to offer. I liked visiting the western U.S., but never had any desire to move there. “If I end up in the U.S.,” I always told people, “I’ll either be in Chicago or somewhere on the east coast.” While I still think I’ll eventually settle in Chicago one day, California has made it onto the list of Places I Want to Live. Will I be able to afford it? Probably not. I’ll get a fancy box or maybe I’ll just live in a car because what artist can actually afford to live and eat in California?
However, I think struggling to make it in CA would be worth it. Between having places like San Francisco, San Diego, Yosemite, Joshua Tree, and Big Sur at your disposal, how could you ever be board? And then you have the Pacific Ocean, countless arts and cultural things to do, and, hell, if you’re a gun nut, I am positive you can find a shooting range and you can shoot your bloody heart out. California, after all, is not just “full of hippies.” It’s full of almost every type of person you can think of as far as race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, social class, education status, religion, etc.
For me, California is like the movie Love Actually. The first time I saw Love Actually I hated it. On the surface it had everything I loved: dry British humour, Hugh Grant dancing, Colin Firth in a wet shirt, music, and London. It checked all the boxes on Georgia’s Best Movie Ever list. Instead, Bill Nighy annoyed me, I found the Portuguese girl flat, I didn’t understand why Keira Knightley kissed her husband’s best friend, and the woman everyone kept calling fat was not fat. Then, for some reason, I watched Love Actually a second time and LOVED. IT. Bill Nighy? Hilarious! Keira Knightley? Still an odd choice, but it was just a kiss and maybe there wasn’t tongue. The Portuguese girl? Lovely. The “fat” chick? Still not fucking fat.
California was the same way. The first time, I hated it. I don’t know why. Maybe it was because I was unexpectedly cold. Maybe it was my first time being forced to explore solo while my mum sat in meetings. Maybe I was PMSing. Who knows. But the second go-around in Cali? And the third? Love. Love, love, love!
California, you’re awesome. Let’s live together someday?
When I came to Bangkok, I planned to keep dating around and enjoying the single life just like I did back in the U.S. Obviously every time I write about my ex there’s still some bitterness and anger there (Ross, if you’re reading this, just like you’ve apparently been looking at my LinkedIn profile, fuck you) so I think it would be unwise to really date someone until those feelings have finally mellowed some (what if they never do? Is that possible?).
I went on a handful of dates my first few weeks here: an IT guy from Pakistan, an IT guy from India, a writer from India, a statistician from India, a dancer from Chicago, and a PhD student from Sri Lanka. (Yes, I am aware of the developing pattern. It’s not intentional. White guys in Bangkok don’t want a white girl.) They were all fun, and weird, in their own ways. The Pakistani guy was really funny, but fell a bit hard a bit fast (he still texts and says things like, “Tell your mother her future son-in-law says hi!” He’s joking, but at the same time…is he really?). The writer was smart, but young—very, very young. Like, same age as my college students and, therefore, almost-a-decade-younger-than-me young. No. Just no. The Chicago guy was nice, but too into limb-pulling, and the Sri Lankan is sweet, but, like the Pakistani, we may have to have the “I am not looking for a relationship” conversation soon.
Then there’s the statistician: Kushal*. Kushal and I met during my second week in Bangkok. We’d connected via Bumble. I liked his profile because not only was he attractive and had a warm smile, but his bio was clever with just a touch of self-deprecating humor. We went out to a French restaurant just down the street from where I now work. We talked about our past relationships and I learned that, like me, Kushal had also recently been dumped by his long-distance long term girlfriend. “I’m on Bumble just looking for friends,” he said. “I hope that’s okay.”
“Totally fine,” I said. “I am not looking for a relationship anytime soon.”
We parted ways with a hug and that was the end of the night. Well, that was the end of the night with Kushal. I headed down the street to meet another guy for drinks; a guy who I thought was a friend, but it turns out he wanted to be more than friends and has since stopped talking to me when I had to have the “I think you’re cool, but we’re not dating” conversation. Single life: it’s a love/hate relationship.
For our second get together Kushal and I met at a craft beer bar. Because he’d said he was just looking for friends, I assumed that meant we were just hanging out and would again part ways with a hug. That, however, did not happen (is any guy going to want to date me again after they learn I’m writing about them?). Kushal was much more flirtatious than the first get together (date? what makes it a date?): compliments, innuendos, and comments like, “Maybe I’ll get to see that tattoo on your mid-back soon, eh?” The night ended at his apartment. Since joining the dating life, I’ve learned to never spend the night with a date because, for some reason, spending the night makes me feel just slightly attached. Kushal was tall, smart, and funny—just my type and, therefore, way too easy to fall for. Once the fun was over, I practically ran out of that apartment: kthanksthatwasfunbye!
Our next few meet ups followed the same pattern as the craft beer night: dinner and/or drinks, witty and flirtatious banter, and back to his place. Because I am still single I continued to use Bumble and Tinder. During one week, I met with Kushal on a Thursday and went out with another date the following evening. This guy (we’ll just call him IT Guy) was, again, just my type: tall, smart, and funny. We had a few beers, grabbed a wine bottle, and headed back to my place. At my place we chatted and drank some more. When he leaned into kiss me, I kissed back, but the moment his hands went to my shirt I stopped him.
“No?” he asked.
“No?” I said, not totally sure why I stopped him. Up until that point I’d been living out my dream of being Samantha from Sex and the City: date around and be confident and footloose and fancy free. This guy was cute, a good kisser, and I’d had plenty of liquid courage. So why was my brain saying no?
We kissed again until my hands, again, pushed him away. “I’m sorry,” I said. “That is just not going to happen tonight.” I said something like I was tired or I didn’t hook-up on the first date. In truth, what was going through my mind? The previous evening with Kushal.
I showed IT Guy out of my apartment. I face-planted on my bed, mentally kicking myself. That had to be a fluke, right? I wasn’t actually turning some guy down just because of some other guy, right? My heart is supposed to be dead and cold so that it can never be crushed again. That’s the healthy response to an earth shattering break-up, right? (Once again, Ross, fuck you.)
Let’s also take a moment here and point out that the “whatever it is” with Kushal was not a bed of roses. Yes, we got along great, but there were times where, in-person, he’d say, “Let’s do such-and-such this weekend.” I’d text the next day to follow up on that and I’d get a response somewhere along the lines of, “Ummm about that. Um no. Can’t.” I get that I am a writer so my texts are typically more thought out and have full sentences, so I need to cut other people some slack, but come on. At least sound a bit less flippant?
During one of our last meet ups of 2017 Kushal told me about a new job he’d been interviewing for. When we first met, he’d lamented about how much he hated his current job. He seemed to hate Bangkok in general, but I assumed that was because he and his girlfriend had broken up due to long-distance (him in Thailand, her in South America). I could sympathize because when Ross dumped me he cited his unwillingness to move to Asia as the primary factor. I spent about a month thinking, I don’t want to move to Asia. Asia is stupid. Traveling is stupid. I want nothing except to be with Ross, before I got a reality check and realized one person was not worth such a boring, sheltered life.
By our second meet up, Kushal had landed an interview with a new company. By our third, he’d gotten a second interview. On our fourth, he prepared for his third. Right before Christmas he had just one more interview to pass and then he’d get a final decision as to whether or not he got the job.
We sat in a Starbucks one evening and he talked about his long day and all he had to do before the end of the year and the final interview. “If there’s anything you want for your new apartment you’re welcome to come over and get it,” he said. “I had another friend come over yesterday and she picked out a bunch of pots and pans.”
“Why are you giving your stuff away?” I asked.
“Because I’m moving.”
“For the new job?”
“Whether I get the new job or not. I’m not going to stay in my current apartment.”
“But why get rid of all of your stuff?”
“In case I get the new job.”
I stared at him, still trying to decipher why you’d get rid of everything just to move to another area of the city. “So you’re giving everything away because you don’t want to move it?”
“You don’t want to move it across Bangkok?”
“Wherever I end up.”
“…Where is the new job?”
I took a sip from my drink and raised my eyebrows in what I hoped was a that’s-so-interesting-I-am-totally-not-disappointed-or-sad kind of way. “Ah. Dubai. That’s cool! I didn’t know that.”
His voice went up an octave. “Did I not say the job was in Dubai?”
I had pulled a similar stunt back in the U.S. I was dating a nice guy, told him I was going to Asia, but neglected to add the word “moving.” I didn’t want to say I was moving to Asia because why would you keep seeing someone if you knew they were moving to the other side of the world? As I sat in the Starbucks booth across from Kushal, I wanted to laugh and slam my head down on the table. Hello, Karma, you bitch.
By the time I left Thailand for a ten-day Christmas holiday in the U.S., I was ready to forget about Kushal and start going on dates with random guys again. He hadn’t officially gotten the job in Dubai, but I was fairly certain he would. He was also still doing the “let’s do this!” in person and then “ummm maybe not” via text the next day. I wanted my heart to be dead and cold after my ex, but clearly an inkling of feelings was starting to bud up for Kushal. I was determined to stomp them out before returning to Thailand. I vowed to “dump” any other future guy I may start to develop the slightest hint of feelings for. Mindless, emotionless dating from now on—huzzah!
Upon returning to Thailand, I stood in the Immigration line at the airport. I pulled out my cell phone and scrolled through the messages that had been sent while I’d been in the air for nearly eighteen hours. Then texted Kushal. Why? I wasn’t even technically in Thailand yet because I still had to get my Visa on Arrival, and I had screwed up purchasing my exit ticket so I was just the tiniest bit nervous that I would not be allowed into the country this time. So why text Kushal the moment I landed? Because apparently I hate myself.
Immediate response from Kushal: “Georgia! You’re back!”
And that, ladies and gents, is all it took for me to get sucked in once again. Sucked into feelings for someone who is absolutely moving to Dubai. Just kill me.
So the past two weeks have been spent making plans with Kushal, and blowing off the other nice guys who have asked me out. I did got out with one guy, but spent the entire time faking “the spark” because all I really wanted to do was hangout with Kushal. I texted this sentiment to my best friend back in the States. “Awwwww,” she replied. “You like him.” I couldn’t find an accurate emoji to express please just stab me in the eye and the heart because I never wanted to like anyone ever again. Also he is leaving the country. It’s like I am destined to never like a townie.
Last night, I met Kushal at a restaurant called Cabbages and Condoms. He’d officially resigned from his job and, because he’s Indian, can only remain in Thailand for seven days when unemployed. First off, Cabbages and Condoms is an awesome restaurant with great food, a cool outdoor area, and much of the proceeds go towards sexual health and education. And your bill comes with two condoms. How great is that?
It was also, I thought, a humorous place to have a last meal. Kushal was recovering from a severe flu that required a visit to the hospital, so while we were surrounded by phallic shapes and spoke in nothing but sexual innuendos, there would be nothing actually physical happening that night. (He didn’t want to pass his illness onto me. I, on the other hand, had done the really smart thing by overdosing on Vitamin C and taking preemptive cold medicine because I am a wise and responsible adult, who clearly exhibits self-control.) As per usual, our original bonding topic of shared heartbreak came up. Kushal was on an incredible concoction of drugs that made him somewhat loopy and a tad more chatty than usual.
“After you experience heartbreak like we have,” he gestured between us, “your instinct is to be cold and dead forever, but you can’t be, right? I mean, at some point you’ve just got to take the plunge again.”
“I suppose so,” I said. “But I’d rather be dead and cold.”
“This is coming from someone who has had two fiancées.” Kushal looked around the room for a waitress.
I sat straighter in my chair. “I’m sorry. What?”
“Who has had two fiancées?”
He raised his hand to get a waitress’s attention. “Have I never mentioned that?”
“Oh. Yes. I’ve been engaged. Twice.” He waved at a waitress. She breezed past without turning in our direction. I stared at Kushal until he got the hint that I wanted to learn more about the engagements. “Is it really that big of a deal?” he asked.
“Not a big deal, but I dated Ross for seven years and we never even got close to being engaged. Please tell me about these two engagements.”
“Well,” he said, “the first was my girlfriend of eight years. We were engaged for three years while she lived in Milan and I was in India. That fell apart just because of the distance. We’re still friends and there wasn’t a falling out. We just fell out of love.”
“And the second one?”
“That was the last one.”
“What last one?”
“The South American one.” He started to raise his hand again.
The waitress looked as though she would just walk by again, so I turned and smiled at her. I asked for another water, and then turned back to Kushal. “So when you said your girlfriend dumped you in July, you meant your fiancée dumped you.”
He smiled nervously. “Yes.”
“That’s a big deal!”
I wanted to tell him that, had I known the previous girl had been a fiancée, I probably would have done a better job at keeping my feelings at bay. Knowing someone has been dumped by a fiancée—someone who they’d had a verbal and emotional commitment from that they’d spend their lives together; something I never got from Ross—gives the break-up a lot of heft. A mutual break-up with a fiancée or if you are the one doing the dumping—that’s different. That’s maybe just a tiny bit less devastating for you (the dumper, not the “dumpee”). Kushal and I had talked at length at how devastated we’d been at being dumped by people we thought were the loves of our lives. Kushal said he’d wanted to throw himself off of his balcony. I thought that had been hyperbole. Knowing the ex was his fiancée…well clearly he wasn’t exaggerating.
At the end of the night we walked out of the restaurant and hugged. “I’m sorry I’m sick,” Kushal said.
“Oh! Also, I’ll be back next Wednesday.”
“Yes, I thought tonight would be our last night together, but it doesn’t have to be. I’m leaving to go scuba diving for a few days, but I’ll be back Wednesday. Could you reserve the day for me? I’d like to spend it with you.”
I’d been mentally preparing myself to have the Cabbages and Condoms night be our last night together. Hell, I’d even dressed up for the occasion. I wanted to say, Would you just let me rip the band-aid already? What the hell are you doing to me?!
Instead, I pulled out my phone and checked my schedule. “I have to work,” I said. “But I can see if someone wants my shift.”
On the train ride home, I texted a Bangkok friend. “Tonight was not the last night with Kushal,” I said. “He’ll be back next Wednesday.”
“What the hell,” she responded. “I’m getting whiplash.”
“Girl, you and me both!”
A few weeks ago I took a Thai cooking course at the Silom Thai Cooking School. I learned about the course through a Girls Gone International Meet Up group, and it looked like a fun way to spend a Sunday.
As far as the course goes, I had zero expectations. I hate cooking. I was joining the class/Meet Up group for the twin purposes of trying something new and hopefully making some friends (I’ve been dating up a storm in Bangkok, but I need some lady friends!). I could spend months eating the exact same meal every day (in fact, I have a piece about that published here). This is partly because I have a strained relationship with food, but also because I’m just plain lazy. Why braise chicken, blanch tomatoes, and bake corn souffle (are those dishes that go together?) when I can be just as happy eating rice and veggies from my rice cooker?
The course started with a trip to a street market. About thirty students met across the street from the market, and then we were split into three groups. The nine of us with Girls Gone International made up one group. Our instructor/chef was a petite Thai woman who introduced herself by saying, “When I ask ‘what is your chef’s name’ you say ‘aeyyyyyy!‘” She said ‘aeyyyyy’ like Joey from Friends.
At the market, Aey showed us the different types of vegetables we would be cooking with: onions, peppers, a fruit that looked like a green brain (this may have been a type of lime?), mushrooms, green beans, etc. She held up a small red pepper. “We eat this a lot in Thailand,” she said. “But for you this is too spicy,” she gestured to all nine of us, who were clearly not Thai. “This pepper is strong, but mighty–like your chef! And what’s your chef’s name?”
After the market we went to the cooking school. The school itself must be quite large because I never saw or heard the people from the other classes again.
The first dish we learned to make was Tom Yum Goong: Spicy Sour Shrimp Soup. Everyone got a tray, which we loaded up with the spices and veggies that we needed.
Aey included the small-but-mighty pepper. She said if you liked authentic Thai spicy, then include the whole pepper. If you didn’t, try only a half or maybe a fourth. Only two of us used a whole pepper.
Then we went out into the hallway to cook the food on gas stoves that were so hot I was sure my arm was in more danger of getting singed than my taste buds.
Next we made Pad Thai with shrimp.
Then it was on to the Masaman Curry with Chicken and Potato. This was my favorite dish to make because it required making our own chili paste. To make the paste you gather a fairly large group of spices and herbs:
4 pods cardamom
2 inch piece cinnamon sticks
1 tablespoon coriander
1/3 tablespoon cumin
4-6 Dried whole chilis
1/2 inch piece julienne galangal
1 head garlic
1 stalk lemongrass
1/3 tablespoon peppercorns
1 tablespoon salt
1 teaspoon shrimp paste
You roast the garlic and shallots together for about five minutes. Then you chop the chilis into confetti-sized slivers.
Once you’ve roasted the garlic and shallots and minced the pepper, add everything to a giant mortar and pestle, and grind the shit out of it. Aey had each of us bash the ingredients into a paste. She said to “use your anger” and perhaps “think of your ex.” Each girl banged the pestle and laughed that they must not have a lot of anger.
When the mortar and pestle got to me I did exactly what Aey said and pictured my ex’s face. I hit the mortar so hard that everyone stopped talking. I laughed, a bit embarrassed, and said, “I think I have some anger.” Then I proceeded to beat the hell out of that paste while picturing my ex’s stupid face with that one crooked tooth he was always self conscious about (what? me bitter? noooooo).
While we ate our anger curry, Aey prepared the final dish: mango sticky rice. This dish is delicious, but I still don’t totally understand why the sticky rice isn’t served cold. I think I want it to be like an ice cream substitute?
At the end of the course, everyone got take-home chopsticks and a cookbook. The course was much more fun than I was expecting, you got a lot of bang for your buck (we ate five dishes, stayed for four hours, and only paid about $30). For as much as I typically avoid cooking, I am actually considering taking another class at this school. Once I settle into my new apartment I’m even going to try my hand at preparing one of these dishes without the helpful, exuberant eye of Aey. And you better believe I’m going to get my own mortar and pestle now. (Do you think there are custom-made ones with photos printed on the bottom? Should I start marketing those? Because, personally, I think that is an amazing idea.)
And I’m happy to report that I did make a friend! Huzzah! It was the other girl who also wasn’t afraid to put the whole small-but-mighty pepper in her dish. Clearly I have found a kindred spicy spirit.
I have been in Bangkok for nearly three weeks. I haven’t written anything about it because trying to get situated has taken up the majority of my time. The other night, however, was just plain weird, and I feel like it accurately captures my life in Bangkok thus far.
Six years ago, when I moved to Chicago by myself, I learned about Meetup.com. This site allows people all over the world to create groups that attract people with similar interests. There are art groups, hiking groups, knitting groups, let’s-just-get-drinks-together groups, etc. etc. I met some of my closest Chicago friends through Meetup groups. Hoping to have similar success in my new city, I jumped into the Bangkok Meetup world with gusto. I joined three writing groups, two expat groups, one international women’s group, a language group, a hiking group, and a wine group. (Remember that post about my inability to relax? I’m still working on it.)
In my first nineteen days in Bangkok I’ve tried out six of the nine groups. Most have been great. Some have been weird. I went to one writing group that can simply be summarized by saying some male writers make me want to shove a pen in my eye, or their eye if they’re within arm’s reach. I went to two separate expat Meetups and met some really cool ladies who I’ve hungout with since. Then there was the second writing group, which wasn’t having a Meetup anytime soon, but the organizer told me about another group that he runs–Dinner and a Film–which he thought I’d find interesting. I’ll try anything once so I signed up for the upcoming dinner in which six or so people would meet at the organizer’s apartment, eat, and watch Angelina Jolie’s film “First They Killed My Father.” (That sounds like an odd film choice for a dinner party, but each party is themed by a country. That night was Cambodia.)
The day before the Dinner and a Film Meetup I got a message from the organizer, Sid, asking if I could come over at three to help prepare food. I thought that was a bit strange (because I am not a cook and have never implied that I am a cook), but the message was worded in such a way that I thought at some point I must have volunteered to help. I told him I could come at four because the dinner wasn’t until six. Were we seriously going to cook for three hours? (Again: I DO NOT cook. Rice and sautéed veggies are the extent of my patience in the kitchen.)
I arrived at Sid’s building and waited for him in the lobby. While I waited, I wondered if I was being stupid for agreeing to come to this man’s apartment solo. I’d never met Sid. I knew nothing about him except he claimed to be a writer. I didn’t really know where I was in Bangkok, and, on top of that, I hadn’t told anyone where I was going. A college friend of mine had a tragic experience with CouchSurfer a few years ago. I think about her each time I use sharing economy companies like AirBnB or Uber. Waiting for Sid made me think about what happened to her, but I blamed my uneasy feeling on the prospect of conversing with Sid for two hours before anyone else showed up. Still, awkward conversation jitters aside, I did have a small knife tucked into the front pocket of my shorts. Just in case, you know?
Sid led me up to his 32nd floor two-bedroom apartment. He gave me a tour, pointing out the view of the second tallest building in Bangkok: Baiyoke Tower II. “The top has a restaurant that rotates,” he said. “So, you know, you can drink and spin.” Sid was from India, looked about fifty, and told me that he’d recently separated from his wife, who had moved back to India with their daughter. My hand reflexively fingered the knife in my pocket. He showed me the kitchen, where everything was already prepared except for the soup. “That should only take about thirty minutes,” Sid said. Then why am I here? I wanted to ask. If the food is already prepared, why am I here at four? Why did you originally want me to come at three?
Sid showed me a book he’d published. He talked about another writing group in Bangkok–a group I’d joined, but hadn’t been to yet–and how the host of that group has everyone do minute-long free-writes, and then she collects the free-writes and publishes the writings as her own poetry.
The conversation turned to dating and Tinder. I told him I’d mostly been meeting guys from India (and one from Pakistan, but Sid said that that was basically India).
“Do you like Indians?” he asked.
“Yes?” I said. “I think it’s just a coincidence they’ve all been from India. I’m not specifically seeking out guys from one country.”
“I do not like Indians.”
I cocked my head. “Why?”
“There is a saying in Thailand,” he said. “If you see an Indian and a snake, you kill the Indian first.”
I stared at him.”Because they are…?” I tried to think of what stereotype could possibly prompt that saying. Since coming to Asia I’ve realized that I don’t know that many Asian stereotypes (which I think is a good thing?). At least not country-specific stereotypes.
Sid launched into a long story about how two of the biggest (and wealthiest) criminals in Africa are Indian. In Thailand, the richest people are Thai, but the second richest are Indian (possibly Thai-Indian? I wasn’t clear on that detail). Then he talked about a time he and his son were waiting to catch a train at one of Bangkok’s busiest terminals. “My son doesn’t really know what it’s like to be Indian,” Sid said. “My wife and I left India when he was five.” He said that he and his son were queued up to board the train. In Bangkok, there are arrows on the ground signifying where passengers board and depart (Chicago would really benefit from this system, but I doubt anyone would actually abide by it). “My son and I were lined up on the arrows just like the Thais,” Sid said. “The platform was crowded, but quiet. Then this loud raucous came up the escalators. It consumed the entire platform.” He slowly raised his hand, mimicking an escalator. “It was a big group of Indian men. There must have been twenty of them. Then the train arrived and the doors opened. Not many people departed and the cars were packed so everyone waited to board the next train. The Indian men, however, went into India-mode. They ran up and down the platform, yelling in Hindi, pushing and shoving, and they did not stop until every single one of them was in a car.” Sid nodded as if he’d just made his point. “My son looked at me and asked, ‘Is that what it means to be Indian?'” Sid nodded again. “That is why I do not like Indians.”
The extent of my food preparation finally happened around 5:30: I blanched and cut six tomatoes, then filled a pot with six cups of boiling water. That was it. At six p.m. another person finally arrived: a retired man from New York City. Sid poured wine for the three of us. The retiree and I sat in the living room. We swapped stories about traveling in Iceland. Sid made some finishing touches to the dinner.
I felt weird being the only woman there. The atmosphere wasn’t threatening, but I just felt strange, as if I was somewhere I absolutely did not belong. Perhaps comparable to walking into a Masonic temple? A writing teacher of mine once told a story about traveling in Europe, accepting a cookie from two men, and then waking up having been drugged and rob. “The female travelers I know wouldn’t have gotten themselves into that situation,” he’d said. “They’d be more on guard and smart enough not to accept food or drink from strangers, especially strange men.”
Sid offered to pour me another glass of wine. As he walked into the kitchen, the retiree winked at him. My hand once again felt for the knife in my pocket. I don’t really know why I carry this knife. It was a second year anniversary present from my ex. When he gave it to me I said, “You could have just gotten me earrings.”
“Everyone should have a knife,” he said.
“So I can shank someone?”
“It’s just a good thing to have. They’re useful. You can cut something if you don’t have scissors, you can use it to clean your nails, or, yeah, you can shank someone.”
Now I mostly carry the knife in my purse out of habit. It has come in handy from time to time (although I’ve never shanked anyone) and, especially when I’ve gone on Tinder dates, it’s just made me feel more at ease having it. In reality I doubt I’d ever actually use it for defense, but it’s nice to have the option.
Sid handed me the second glass of wine and took a seat in between the retiree and me. “Is anyone else coming?” I asked, trying to sound as casual as possible. I really wanted to say: Seriously, is ANYONE coming? And are any of them women?
“A Thai guy said he was coming,” Sid said. “And some woman is bringing a man with her.” Finally–a lady.
Still, another half hour went by and no one else showed. Sid and the retiree each shared a story about Cambodia, and then we ate the soup and beef curry that Sid had basically made by himself with barely any assistance from me.
We started to watch “First They Killed My Father,” a movie about the killing fields in Cambodia, but the retiree found it (understandably) too upsetting. Sid mentioned a TV series he liked called “The Night Manager.” The show stars Tom Hiddleston and Hugh Laurie, and has to do with war-mongering and the Arab Spring. While he scrolled through his Google Chrome choices, I got a text from a girl I’d met at an expat Meetup. She asked if I wanted to go out for dinner or a drink. This was such fantastic timing because I still hadn’t thought of a polite way to finally excuse myself from Sid’s apartment.
Sid, the retiree, and I watched one episode of “The Night Manager.” When Tom Hiddleston started having very sexy sex with a gorgeous woman, all while I’m being flanked by Sid and the retiree, I just wanted to crawl into a hole. Before we could start another episode I made my excuses and bolted, but not before Sid gave me a copy of his book and a to-go bag of Indian food.
The expat girl (I’m going to call her M) and I had drinks at a rooftop bar, and then we went to a popular clubbing street. M was dressed super cute and ready for a night out, but I was in partially ripped jean shorts, a workout top, and flip flops. Just to add to the package, I had a medium sized purse, which was jam-packed with my large wallet, writing journal, Sid’s book, and two Ziploc bags of beef curry and palak paneer. So, needless to say, M and I didn’t know if I’d even be allowed into any clubs. Thankfully everyone’s standards had been lowered and I got into a Cuban club and an Australian club. I love dancing and I will happily (and sweatily) dance until dawn, but doing it with a purse full of books and curry was…well I certainly did not feel like the sexiest thing on the dance floor. Hell, I felt like the least sexy thing in all of SE Asia at the moment, but whateves there was Latin music to dance to!
After dancing, M and I went to McDonald’s (don’t judge). When I thanked the cashier a woman beside me asked where I was from. Because I thought she was some random person who I’d exchange two sentences with, I said Chicago.
“I’M FROM MINNESOTA,” the woman said. I turned and pointed to M as she also exclaimed, “I LIVED IN MINNESOTA.” The three of us had a Midwestern gush fest. M and the lady found out they’d lived right down the street from each other in Minneapolis. The woman was pretty drunk. She started to tell us about a bar she and her fiancee owned in Bangkok.
“Are you two lesbians?” she asked.
“No,” M and I both said. “Heteros and single.” (M and I had originally bonded over sadly similar breakup stories.)
We swapped numbers with the woman and she said we should all go walking sometime. She grabbed my thigh and squeezed it hard. “This is a runner’s thigh,” she said. She squeezed again. “Just like my thighs.” Then she left, and M and I finished our food.
M lived close enough to walk home. I stayed on the corner and hailed a cab. When I gave the driver my address, he kicked me out of the car saying, “Much too far, miss.”
“Are you serious?” I asked.
“Too far. Too far.”
I got out and tried again. And then again. And then again. After three cabs and a motorbike turned me down, and one Uber just flat-out didn’t show, I wondered what the hell I was supposed to do. It was 2:30 a.m. The trains stopped at midnight. My apartment was nearly sixteen kilometers away. I leaned against a light pole for a bit, watching pretty, young prostitutes calling out to older men.
The whole night felt like a weird culmination of my first two weeks in Bangkok. There was the awkwardness of meeting new people and wondering if I made a wise decision by going somewhere solo. There was the theme of putting myself in odd situations with strange men (I’ve gone a tad overboard with the Tinder and Bumble dates because I didn’t know how else to meet people for a while. Some of those dates may get their own blog posts.). There was also the part of the night where I enjoyed being in Bangkok, meeting new and interesting people, being back in a big city again, clubbing, etc. I was having fun, but also felt out of place (in real life: because I’m a foreigner in Bangkok; that night: because I was dancing in clubs with a purse full of curry). And then there were the plain what the fuck do I do now? moments, such as standing on a street corner, wearing clothes I normally reserved for hiking, surrounded by beautifully dressed prostitutes, without a bloody clue how to get home other than walk.
I tried Uber one more time. When a man in a black Toyota appeared I could have kissed him. I’d had a fair amount to drink so I thanked him a bit too much. When he offered me a free water bottle I nearly said I loved him.
I finally made it back to my tiny pink and white studio apartment around 3 a.m. I opened my purse and found that the curry had spilled all over Sid’s book. I also saw that the Minnesotan thigh-squeezing lady had texted me her life’s story, which included her excitement over finding hairstylist in town who apparently does good dye jobs. I shoved the book and the food into the fridge, called a friend in the States and said, “You will not believe the weird damn night I just had.”
I didn’t really know anything about Indonesian food before coming to Bali. I knew rice was involved and I assumed dishes would be flavorful. My lack of knowledge was a bit pathetic because my brother-in-law, who is Balinese, is a chef in Bali. He works for a swanky restaurant that focuses on Indonesian cuisine (I have a theory that Anthony Bourdain will soon visit this restaurant and feature it on Parts Unknown, and then my brother-in-law will officially become a world famous chef). So, ya know, maybe I should have at least known the name of a dish or two before arriving, but I didn’t.
During my two-and-a-half weeks in Bali I made it a point to eat Indonesian fare whenever possible. Most of the time I was eating stuff that was specific to Bali, but some of the dishes cross over all of the 17,500+ islands. One aspect of Indonesian food that separates it from other Asian cuisine is that it doesn’t use a lot of oil. For example, when making fried rice (Nasi Goreng), the Indonesian dish will use instant chili paste and steaming rather than the Chinese version of dousing it with soy sauce or fish sauce. Indonesian food also seems to be a bit less sauce-heavy than Indian food.
Basically, Indonesian food is delicious. I’ve mentioned before that I’m not much of a food writer, and my descriptions of taste are pretty crap. The best I can do is to say it’s not as salty as Chinese food nor as minimal as Japanese cuisine (think sushi, Bento boxes, etc.). Each dish had traces of onion, bell peppers and chili peppers, and they tasted like someone grabbed a handful of plants from outside and mashed them up (I mean that in a good way). Everything also had a kind of smokey hint like it was either cooked over a fire or there was smoke nearby (and if your restaurant is in the rice fields then fire is constantly nearby). There’s also a lot of frying going on, which I have no complaints about.
Oh, and things are spicy. I think a lot of restaurants were going easy on this blond bule (me) in the spicy department. Normally I like things so spicy that my taste buds are burnt off. That only happened once in Bali and it was a homemade chili sauce from a warung (my mouth went numb, my throat went numb, everything). Besides that, certain dishes were spicy, but nothing too crazy for a Western palate. Again though, that could very well be a result of me being Paley McPalerson and maybe I just wasn’t ordering traditionally spicy dishes. Clearly I’ll have to go back to Indonesia and find out!
One of my millennial failings is that I don’t take pictures of my food. I’m not a foodie, so why bother? In Bali, however, I couldn’t stop taking photos because Indonesian food not only excels in taste, but presentation, too. It didn’t matter where I ate–a fancy restaurant, a hipster cafe, or a small warung (kind of like a Mom and Pop stand/restaurant) on the side of the road–everything was presented beautifully! Even the takeout food had a unique look; at least when compared to the U.S. In the States we pack to-go orders in boxy Styrofoam. In Bali it’s tied in plastic bags. Even soup! When I first saw someone spooning food into a small plastic sandwich-looking bag I was worried how sloppy and messy it would be to carry and then dish it out. Turns out my worries were unwarranted. Tying the food in a fairly air-tight plastic baggy makes them very easy to carry, and then you just cut a hole in the bag and pour the contents into a bowl. So simple!
Now here comes the mean part of this blog: photos of all the wonderful food! Feast your eyes and drool. (Also, my apologies that I don’t remember what some of the dishes were called.)
I’m going to start with this photo first. It’s from the menu of the Savannah Moon restaurant in Ubud, and it gives a pretty good synopsis of traditional Indonesian dishes.
And now onto the dishes…
Something that came up in my recent workshop was the difference between a traveler and a tourist. We didn’t decide on any exact definitions, but we summarized that a tourist is just passing through and wanting the bare minimum taste of an area, while a traveler wants to be immersed in the culture. Basically: tourist = tapas; traveler = banquet-style feast.
As we talked about this, I thought to myself, “Well obviously I’m a traveler. I’ve lived in several different countries, I’ve traveled a lot and I don’t stick to large resorts or guided tours–I’m a traveler. Plain and simple.” Preparing to travel to Asia also made me feel as though I earned the title of Traveler. Obviously, being an American, traveling through Europe isn’t enormously bold because European and American cultures share many similarities: English is widely used throughout and the countries are highly developed. I have also lived in Europe and have a pretty strong grasp of the cultural dos, don’ts, and expectations. Europe is just not a daunting place for travel (for me; I won’t speak for everyone or belittle anyone who may be anxious about traveling to Spain, Greece, Austria, etc.).
Traveling to Asia, however, does feel daunting. There are cultures vastly different from anything I’ve ever experienced. Most of the languages and alphabets are well out of my grasp (I’ve been in Bali for ten days and all I can say in Bahasa is cat, not yet, and the slang term for a white person), and everything is just a little more chaotic and a little bit less obvious than what I’ve known for the past twenty-nine years. I’m also a full twelve hours ahead of my friends/family in the States whereas before I’d only been five or six hours ahead.
Despite all this, the whole time I’ve been in Bali I’ve thought, This isn’t so hard. I can do this; I’m adaptable. I can cross the street, I have a phone plan–I am a totally capable and confident solo traveler. The fact that I was being led by my sister, a Bali local, did not escape my notice and I knew a good bit of my confidence came from her, but still I felt that I was succeeding on the Traveler path I’d always wanted to follow.
And then I found myself needing to spend a whole day without my sister (with the possibility of multiple days). I won’t go into details, but a family emergency came up and I felt I needed to make myself scarce in order to make everyone’s lives a little bit easier.
Until the reality of being totally independent in Bali cropped up, I hadn’t realized just how much I had been relying on my sister. Yes, she speaks the language and drives and knows where to go, but this is also her turf. Traveling around Bali with her is like someone traveling around Chicago with me–very little will go wrong because I know the city inside and out. Being with my sister (except for a panicky night fueled by intense jet lag and not having slept for 20+ hours) nervousness rarely entered my mind. Without my sister, however, I could actually feel my hands start to shake. Suddenly I had to figure out where I wanted to go and what I wanted to do. I would then be there by myself, figuring things out by myself. I knew I could play it safe and just write at a Starbucks near her house, but what fun would that be? Is that what a traveler would do or a tourist would do? I wanted to go to Seminyak, a town about an hour’s drive with traffic from my sister’s place, but I’d have to get there solo and then find my way back solo. And what would I even do in Seminyak? Go to a restaurant by myself? Try to awkwardly ask directions by myself?
There are multiple layers of pathetic going on here. The first is that yes, I can go to restaurants by myself and get around by myself. I do it all the time in the States. But suddenly I’m in a foreign country and it’s like I’ve never spent a day alone in my life? What? Also: I am not completely alone and helpless. I’m acting as though I’ve been dropped in the middle of the Congo with a spork and told to fend for myself. I’m in Bali, an island so rife with travelers that all I have to do is look up from my laptop and I’ll see a fellow foreigner (there’s a guy next to me right now wearing a Billabong t-shirt). I have a SIM card and therefore access to Google Maps and GoJek (sort of like an Indonesian Uber). I am in a functioning country with electricity and WiFi and cars and people and I need to calm the hell down.
What worries me is: if I’m nervous about a few solo days in Bali, what am I going to do when I head to Thailand solo? Actually solo? There’s no sister or friend there to take me under their wing. And what am I going to do when I want to travel anywhere in the future? I can’t always depend upon someone to go with me, and isn’t it sometimes more fun to go it alone at your own pace?
I’m worried that I’m not the adventurous traveler I’ve always claimed to be. At least, not when it comes to solo travel. Not even thirty years old, I’ve traveled a lot, but almost always with someone. The few times I’ve traveled solo have been in the U.S. and it was only for a night or two. With another person in tow I’m brave. By myself, I’m just the tiniest bit petrified. Maybe I’m a traveler when I’m with someone, but a tourist when solo.
I also want to add that it doesn’t help that I wasn’t supposed to be doing this alone. For a full year I was led to believe that my boyfriend was going to go on this journey with me. Then it turned out he was lying the whole time and pulled the rug out from under me on the night of my graduate school graduation and was like jk I never wanted to go to Asia with you or ever so bye. I wish I didn’t, but I often think about what it would be like had he come with me. I think we would have had a great time, and I know I would feel much more confident. Having a travel buddy is always nice, and it’s especially great if it’s someone you feel connected to. Then again, if my ex magically showed up in Bali I would probably just run him over with a motorbike, so I’d be traveling solo no matter what at this point.
I don’t know if I’m a real traveler or not. Right now I certainly don’t feel like one. Travelers always seem confident and flexible and able to move about without any solid plans. I don’t have a plan other than “be in Asia” and quite frankly it’s terrifying. Exciting, but also terrifying. Or maybe that’s part of being a traveler? Being scared, but doing it anyways? Having a general plan, but not a definite itinerary (I do love a good itinerary)? I don’t think I’m a tourist. Tourists usually have plans (and plane tickets out of the country, which I do not have and it’s fine I’m not worried about it YOU’RE WORRIED ABOUT IT AND I AM TOTALLY NOT PANICKING.)
Perhaps I’m a traveler in training. A traveler pending? Pending traveler? What does make a traveler? Mindset? Extended stays? Traveling light? “Roughing it”? Dictionary.com defines traveler as “a person who is traveling or who often travels,” and tourist as “a person who is traveling or visiting a place for pleasure.” (This is also not a judgement on which is better: traveler or tourist. I think both are great and it depends on which makes you the happiest. At least you’re traveling!) I’m traveling for pleasure, but it’s not exactly the let me lounge on this beach chair and sip gin and tonics without a care in the world kind of pleasure. It’s more of a this is terrifying what the hell have you gotten yourself into, but one day you will be glad you did this kind of pleasure. An anticipated pleasure.
Have thoughts on what makes a traveler vs a tourist? Leave a comment below!
Don’t be a hero, fellow travelers (and fellow millennials). You may think you can stay in a new country for an extended period of time without the need for cellular data, but you can’t. I mean, obviously you can, but why?
When I first landed in Indonesia I had no plans to buy a SIM card. Since Bali isn’t my final, long-term destination in Asia, I thought I could make-do during my two and a half week stay. I’d been to Jamaica, Iceland, and Ireland without needing more than a WiFi connection to use my phone, so why would Bali be any different?
For starters, I was only in those other countries for five to ten days. I was also with fellow travelers, people who were exploring and largely sticking to the same schedule as me. In Bali I’m with a local, my sister, who is an amazing tour guide, but has her own life and doesn’t need to stick with me at all times (not that travelers have to stick together at all times and, in Bali, I’m obviously the one sticking to my sister because there is no way I have the confidence or skill to drive on these roads).
I don’t think I’m a total cliche technology-obsessed millennial (I can sit through movies and plays without checking my phone), but not having instant connection at my disposal was tough. When I wanted to call my mum or text a friend, I couldn’t. If I needed to look up a restaurant or the nearest pharmacy, I couldn’t. When I needed directions to my sister’s place, I couldn’t look that up either. I know that people have not always carried mini laptops in their back pockets and they got around just fine, but we’re not in that kind of world anymore so why try to force it?
I lasted a full seven days without succumbing to a SIM card. I finally folded after one night when my sister and I went to a popular beach resort for dinner and drinks. We stayed at the resort for hours and by 9:30 p.m. my sis was ready to head home. I, however, had met a guy and wanted to stay. My sister gave me detailed instructions on how to catch a taxi from the resort back to her house, and I assured her I wouldn’t be leaving the resort and thus wouldn’t lose my WiFi connection.
(Can you already see where this is going?)
The guy and I had a nice time at the resort: we chatted, walked on the beach, had a drink, and danced. When he asked if I wanted to go back to his bungalow (located down the street from the resort) I hesitated: without cellular data (i.e. a working phone because without the data it’s just a small computer) I wouldn’t be able to call a taxi at the end of the night (there are some fake taxis in Bali so I felt more secure calling one on my phone rather than just hailing a car spray painted to look like a cab). If this guy’s bungalow was further than “just a few blocks away,” I couldn’t Google Map my way back to the resort if I needed to. Hell, I couldn’t even call or text my sister.
I weighed the pros and cons and settled on the best choice: go to the bungalow. YOLO, amiright?
Some people may read this and freakout and tell me that, no matter whether I had cellular data or not, leaving the resort was the irresponsible option, and to those people I say: yes, you’re right, but I’m my own person so chill. I’m not encouraging everyone to go home with some guy they just met (although he was the SPITTING IMAGE of Ryan Gosling soooooo), but I did and it was great and I clearly made the right choice. However, the experience did make me finally realize that I didn’t just want cellular data, I needed it. How else could I text my sister to tell her I wasn’t dead (and that I wasn’t coming home)? Knowing I could call a taxi or Google Map my way back to the hotel would have also put me at ease right away rather than spending a few moments thinking this is how Lifetime movies are made.
The day after meeting Doppelgänger Ryan Gosling my sis drove me to a kiosk where I paid $10 for an Indonesian mobile number and a month’s worth of 4G data. Now, if I need my sis I can text her, call her, or WhatsApp her, all without needing to use some cafe’s WiFi. I can also be more independent and use GO-JEK (like an Indonesian Uber app, but with way more options than just calling a car) to catch a ride somewhere rather than burdening my sis. With a SIM card I can text or call friends/family anytime I want. I can also meet Doppelgänger Ryan Gosling on the beach, which is definitely lacking in WiFi.
So, millennials, travelers, and everyone else: when you arrive in a new country, don’t just put your phone on airplane mode and reside yourself to using it only when you’re connected to WiFi. Get your technologically-fueled butt down to a store or stand or kiosk and buy a damn SIM card. Even if you’re planning on going off-grid and trekking deep into the wilderness, it can’t hurt to have the cellular connection as an In Case of Emergency option, right? And for only $10? With a SIM card/cellular date you’ll have greater freedom, greater convenience, and can get around faster and easier. Would a paper map or queuing at a taxi stand work just as well? Probably. But won’t you have more adventures if you know that the cell phone in your back pocket can always bring you home?
**Before you leave your home country, make sure your cell phone is unlocked. A new SIM card will only work if your phone is unlocked. I found that calling my U.S. cell provider was the fastest way to finding whether my phone was unlocked or not.**