Saturday, March 31, 2007

Sleeper Cars

In America, I admit to being a somewhat squeamish traveler. It’s been many years since the prospect of playing in the hotel elevator was enough to distract my mind from the germs on the TV remote. I think I even balked at the two, maybe three, star hotel in Paris. And here I am on a sleeper car of a train that could maybe use a deep cleaning. The toilet is, quite literally, a hole over the train track. A single sheet separates me from a mattress that contains who knows what kind of grime. And it doesn’t bother me at all.

Low expectations are key, I think. I expected the dirt and smoke and heat. I prepped myself for toilets that would challenge both my gag reflex and my balance. I was ready to eat food from street vendors cooking unidentifiable items in large vats of oil. To forget that I ever used to smell good. And I sort of love the letting go. “Mai pen rai.” “No worries.” I haven’t showered in two days. “Getting ready” in the morning means little more than a smear of sunscreen. Sleep is easy, brought on by pure exhaustion.

I may be forever cured of my jumpiness as a passenger during car rides. I tend to always offer to drive because of my inability to trust that other people will drive with the same cautious perfection that I would. Stop laughing Onge. A few taxi rides in Bangkok left me with two choices, chill out, or die of a heart attack. Lanes do not exist. Other cars do not exist. Speed limits do not exist. Traffic lights are more like traffic suggestions. No wonder most Thai people practice meditation, it’s crucial to survival.

It’s light out now, 7 a.m. I went to sleep in the light and sharp lines of the city. Now I’m rolling through the middle of a tropical forest. The dirt is brighter here, more orange-y. I imagine my grandma here, pointing out every variety of plant as we pass it. “That is a banana grove,” she would say. “In the reign of King Rama IV, he ordered that every peasant would plant a single fruit tree in this area of the jungle.” She always has stories like that, always a tour guide. Sometimes my friends make fun of my random knowledge. To that I say, sorry, it’s genetic.

The two train seats fold into little bunks, caves almost. I’m tucked away in my little cave, separated from the hallway by a thin blue curtain. The train will stop after a bit. I will struggle with my luggage, pulling it recklessly down the steep steps. I will climb into a tuk tuk, or maybe a bus. I will take a shower in a bathroom that may or may not sport an impressive collection of mold. I will collapse into bed. And I won’t worry about whether or not the sheets are sterile.

Friday, March 30, 2007

A Word of Advice Relating to Dolls


There are few experiences more humbling than travel in a foreign country. They call us “farangs,” foreigners, but they could just call us dumb. If you try to buy a 39 baht water bottle with a 1000 baht bill, the lady at 7-11 will just laugh at you. But those are the only bills that come out of the ATM, making anything smaller a prized possession. Blaine and I have always had a nebulous financial relationship. At home, we buy things together and then work it out later. Here, there is no hope of ever figuring out who owes what. It’s more like, “Blaine, I need 20 baht right now.”

I’m learning to surrender to the feeling of being constantly lost. I’m pretty good at that already, since I still manage to get lost in San Luis Obispo on a regular basis. My only hope is the small yellow business card for the hotel we’re staying at. I cling to the knowledge that I could always just hand that to any cab driver and get back to where I’m supposed to be.

No, my worry isn’t really getting permanently lost. It’s more just the annoyance of never being able to find what I want. I was told there was an internet café close to where we were staying, so a group of us set out to find it. Please remember that the air outside is thick. It’s sort of like a humidifier has been running at full blast in an enclosed space. And a heater. And someone has been smoking. So, we walk to the end of the street, and back. No internet café. We pull out our Lonely Planet Thai Phrase Book, the pink one that we almost all have copies of. Someone commented that those little pink books make us look like such tourists. I was like, “Yes, because otherwise we’d fit right in.” Rhan indu-net. Internet café. We asked the lady at 7-11. “Rhan indunet?” A puzzled look. We hand over the little book, pointing to the phrase. “Ahh, internet.” Right, lesson learned, when in doubt, speak English. She waved us down the street and to the left. Here’s the second lesson. Thai people will never tell you they don’t know where something is. That would be unkind. No, they will direct you…somewhere. Three times we asked directions; three times we were waved onward. Each time we asked directions, the shop owner would look hopefully at my friend Alex, who is Vietnamese, but apparently looks Thai. He’d shake his head, no, he doesn’t speak Thai. Defeated, they’d turn back to me, try to give directions. Somehow everyone knows the word “left.” This would be helpful, if the internet café actually was to the left. After three blocks in staggering heat we returned home without an email fix. We later found that the internet café does exist, two doors down from the 7-11, but it doesn’t open until ten a.m.

It’s all disorienting. The heat, the smells, the noise of the streets. Just the stench of dried fish lying out in hundred degree heat would have had my lunch on the ground, if I had been brave enough to eat anything for lunch. But then there are the saffron robed monks, the bare-bottomed babies jumping into the dirty Klong River, the 20 cent iced pineapple chunks. It’s worth being a farang. It’s worth being lost and misunderstood. I don’t want to be at home, I want everyone to be here with me.

Tuesday, March 27, 2007