July 9, 2007

Birth of a Backpacker
Bangkok, Thailand

An invitation to travel with me in SE Asia accepted, I find myself guiding, watching, encouraging, and learning as a newborn backpacker experiences the strange and unfamiliar.

I arrived at the airport well in advance of her flight's arrival. I expect to have to deal with the unexpected these days, and the last thing I wanted was to have a blond, 21-year-old American girl (on her first trip overseas) walking past customs and into a mess of aggressive taxi drivers without a friendly face in sight.

Bangkok's new international airport is a pretty sight at night—looking sort of like an illuminated greenhouse—and the views that can be had of the entire ticketing level from an elevated restaurant are quite enjoyable. The arrivals level, on the other hand, is a logistical mess.

Passengers spill out of one of three different exits, and are immediately faced with a do I go left or right? decision. Crowds on each side of the exits are not allowed to cross to the other, so that there's no one particular spot that anyone can stand out to guarantee their arriving party member(s) will walk past them as they exit.

This was stressing me out a bit. If I blinked and missed Lindsey, she could end up searching for me in the opposite crowd—leaving me to hope she was clever enough to look in the mess of people on the opposite side of her exit area (before catching a taxi to our hotel in town).

I was panicked slightly when I checked the arrivals board, and saw that her incoming connection from Tokyo had arrived a full hour ahead of schedule. For a flight that short, such things seemed rather improbable, but all the information screens displayed the same: LANDED 22:15.

Time lapsed and I was growing more and more concerned, until I saw her in the crowd—chipper, but worn from airline food and twenty-something hours of travel. She had left Arizona on the morning of the fifth, and it was now the evening of the sixth in Thailand.

Back at the hotel, I sized up her new Kelty backpack and grinned, telling her how exceptionally proud I was of her (for the pack-job she'd done). I was truly amazed that a girl her age, and with her prior international travel experience, had enough discipline not to bring half her closet with her. She said my packing list had helped out a great deal.

I was doubly impressed when she told me she'd taken her backpack on the flight as a carry-on (like I had when traveling to BKK), having checked her small day-pack at the ticketing counter containing all the liquids and creams you're not allowed to fly with any longer.

It was just after midnight, and I figured she'd want to call home. I took her to a 24-hour Internet café and introduced her to Skype. The calls are relatively inexpensive when using VoIP to phone internationally, and I was happy to let her dial away using my account.

Lindsey on Khaosan Road

Afterwards, a brief exposure to the crazy Khaosan Road area (the center of the backpacker universe in SE Asia), and then back to the room to let her sleep. I had the option of leaving her to attend Thai Ben's birthday party, but I was rather exhausted myself, as the evening prior was spent tossing and turning over lost photos recovered earlier that day.

Bangkok

Bangkok really comes alive at night, so most travelers occupy themselves during the day with shopping or sightseeing tours that take them out of the city. Daytime temperatures are hot and sticky, and having air conditioning in our room meant that I was less than motivated to run around for hours on end. Lindsey's internal clock is still screwy, and I haven't minded in the least that she's wanted to sleep a hot afternoon or two away.

I must say, when it comes to bargaining, this girl hasn't missed much of a beat. I think a lot of travelers are shy about haggling down the inflated price of things, but Lindsey seems to be taking to it very well.

I'm encouraging her to shop her heart out, as the places I plan on taking her over the next three weeks of her holiday (starting in Bangkok and ending in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia) won't have anything she'll want to buy.

Today we awoke and traveled to the (in)famous Chatuchak Market—Bangkok's gargantuan weekend market. With over 150,000 stalls and an estimated 200,000 visitors/day, everything is sold at this place—from puppies and chickens to clothes and antiques. It's a terribly hot, sweaty mess of vendors and shoppers in a covered, confined area that my good friend Aaron has done everything in his power to avoid during his years spent in Thailand.

Forget dealing with those greedy bastards around Khaosan Road—this is the place to shop for gifts and accessories to add a bit of Thai to your home. Lindsey left the market today with a bag of loot that challenges Santa's Christmas sack for supremacy.

As I have no home to purchase goods for, I made only two simple purchases the entire afternoon: A few pair of eyelet screws of varying size, and two knives (which I absolutely love). I have been without a knife to cut fruit (and other things) since I arrived here in May, and have been waiting for an opportunity to buy something pleasing.

Going to the cinema is also a popular way people pass a hot afternoon in Bangkok, and with our crazy shopping experience behind us, I suggested we take the monorail to SE Asia's largest mall to take in a movie. There was only one film on my mind that I wanted to see: Transformers. These things were the television/toys of my childhood, and watching the visual orgy of action on the big screen was intensely euphoric.

Funny thing is, that the day after a movie is released, you can usually find it playing at a restaurant near Khaosan Road. The bootleggers are fast.

Nice movie seats

Theatres can get very, very posh in this part of the world, with private, clam-shelled booths that look more like beds than chairs. And one of the little cultural oddities that I wanted to expose Lindsey to is the standing tribute to the King of Thailand before each movie. The closest I've seen to it is the standing for the national anthem before a sporting event. After the previews a short film is run, during which time everyone in the theatre must stand. Afterwards, people sit and the movie begins.

There's a bunch of stuff that I want to show Lindsey at night, but she's been crashing in the early evening. I really want to show her a bit of the real reason many people come to Thailand:Sex tourism. To ignore it would be ignoring a major component of the travel industry here. After all, you never forget your first ping pong show.

But I'm reluctant to expose her to such things, even in a safe, silly part of Bangkok that I know she'd be OK with. It's probably because I'm not feeling the kind of connection with her that makes me want to do such things. Going to a ping pong show as a couple looks like fun, but we haven't even come close to reaching that point. And until we do, I'll leave that entertaining activity out of the itinerary.

Crazy, Scary, Intimidating

I awoke and looked over to Lindsey this morning, finding her staring up at the ceiling with a strange look on her face. I asked her what was wrong. She said she was feeling a bit homesick.

I heard this and felt like I'd done something wrong—or hadn't done enough of something. I guess I was just generally confused by the statement.

I don't know what it's like to be homesick. I don't think I've ever had this feeling, strange as that may sound. I never had it when I went away to uni, I never had it when I lived in my own place in Arizona, and I've never had it whilst abroad.

Maybe I'm too adaptable for such things. Maybe I've been homesick and didn't realize it. Maybe it's just the way I can instantly feel at home no matter where I'm at. Maybe all that moving around as a child has allowed me to focus and draw on inner-comforts, rather than wish for tangible familiar ones.

I guess what I can't do is relate at all to the way Lindsey was feeling. Here she is, in a wild new environment full of never before experienced sights, smells, and languages—and she misses home? It's a common sensation that travelers experience that I can't seem to wrap my head around—especially when they're as fresh out of the gate as she is.

Some things are scary for Lindsey—she tells me as much. I'm to blame for some of them. Some of my good-intentioned warnings and advise must come off as frightening.

Lindsey asked me about anti-malaria medication, and I gave her my (negative) opinion of it. Even though the disease can be fatal, I, like many long-term travelers, prefer to take a reactive stance (instead of a potentially unnecessary proactive one). I read to her from the guidebook about the possible nasty side effects of the tablets, and then the symptoms if contracted. Sort of a lose-lose situation, if you get it or you take the pills and you don't.

I told her I was less concerned about malaria, and more worried about getting dengue—also known as breakbone fever, because it feels like someone is taking a hammer to each bone in your body. The dengue mosquito bites day and night, and there's no vaccine against it.

So, when coupled with my warnings about bag slashers, pick pockets (and the common distractionary tactics they might use on her), crooked taxi drivers (and how to avoid them), tuk tuks, bus thieves, street crossings, and drink drugging—I think she's been a little overwhelmed. But I've given this advice up over several days, mixed in with other very useful pearls, and still felt it necessary to give the girl a crash-course in traveling as a backpacker (to help her better identify threats and protect herself).

It hasn't just been me, though. Friends and family, and friends of her family, have been chiming in with their own advice since she started planning to come out here. I watched as she read an e-mail from a her mom, warning about someone she knew who got ill from contaminated water in a fruit shake. …and here we had just finished one moments earlier.

It's that kinda of stuff that's floating around in her head, and keeping her from enjoying the best thing Thailand has to offer: Food. I can't help but be a little disappointed by her lack of culinary curiosity—choosing to pretty much consistently stick with a fried noodle and veggie dish (phat thai), or a slight variation of it.

We're in the hotel room one evening, and she's telling me about this amazing little unknown Thai restaurant in downtown Phoenix, and the great, inexpensive dishes they serve. I listened, but all I could think was: You're IN Thailand! This is as real as it gets! Lets get something different in your stomach!

Eating and exploring new foods has always been such a fun part of Asia for me, it's a bit sad that she doesn't seem to want to ride/share that adventurous wave with me. I offer her a sip or bite of each any every thing that I order, but more often than not it seems to be turned down with a "No, thank you."

Sometimes I forget this must all be happening really fast for her though. It was my hope that I'd be enough of a safety net that she'd be able to explore without inhibition, but it looks like I'll just have to give her time. To each their own. I can only encourage, and hope that she feels satisfied when she returns home.

Baby Face

For whatever reason was behind it, I shaved my beard off late tonight—and the second after I did it, I regretted it.

To look in the mirror and not recognize yourself—this is one of the strangest feelings I've ever experienced. When the mental image of face doesn't come close to the reflection in front of you, it's really quite disturbing.

It feels like I jumped into a time machine and traveled backwards 15 years. I'm staring at a younger, softer Craig—and I don't like it. I don't like this look, and can't believe I ever thought it was normal.

The beard is going to be regrown. I don't want to see my reflection in the mirror and feel this way any more.

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