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Erin in Asia

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Don't Try This at Home

"You can have a man killed for 1000 baht, you know," a friend said to me over tea and biscuits in his apartment. He was the second person in as many days who felt compelled to tell me I could have someone "knocked off" for about $20 U.S.

"Do I look like I need someone killed?" I wondered. Actually, I knew it was just the opposite: These men wanted to impress little innocent me with their first-hand knowledge of Thai corruption.

I admit I've had little exposure to the seedy underworld of Thailand. I have spent a lot of time with Thai officials, but from the Special Operations police officer I stayed with to the welfare officials I worked for and the soldiers I taught computer classes to, everyone has appeared quite normal. It's not that I know what a corrupt officer should look like. It just seemed impossible that these tiny men in their tight brown uniforms and disproportionately large white smiles could possibly be capable of the murder and bribery mentioned in the papers almost every day.

That is, until I experienced it myself.

I saw no murder or anything particularly exotic, mind you, but I did get a glimpse of the way things really work. It happened as I sat in the passenger seat of my friend's car. Like all the other cars in inner city Bangkok traffic, we swerved, switched lanes, and honked incessantly en route to our destination. As usual, my friend talked excitedly about work, narrowly missed knocking over a family of five on a motor scooter, then almost rear-ended a taxi and nearly got us crushed by a huge charter bus.

I was musing at how all of this used to bother me and how accustomed I had become to this video-game style of driving, when suddenly a policeman on the street corner beckoned us. I couldn't imagine what offense caused this rare event. We pulled to the curb and he walked around to my friend's window. They spoke briefly in Thai, then the policeman returned to his car for a moment.

My friend informed me that I was the problem. I wasn't wearing my seatbelt. Now, in my defense, I am a really diligent seatbelt wearer. I am. It's just that I had been using public transportation so much I had gotten out of the habit. I apologized and was about to ask her how much the fine was when the officer returned to the car.

My friend's voice changed to the sweet, pleading tone that she uses with her brother, parking attendants, and other people she needs to charm favors from. Not understanding her words, I tried to imagine what she was saying — the things we all say in the United States when we try to get out of a ticket.

  • "I'm so sorry officer. The seat belt is broken. We are actually on our way to get it fixed right now."
  • "She's a foreigner. She doesn't know better. I'll make sure she wears one from now on."
  • "She just got in the car and was about to put it on."
  • "It'll never happen again."

They talked for a few minutes, and it looked to me like we weren't going to get out of it. I waited for the ticket pad to come out of the back pocket. Then, suddenly, the policeman left. We were off the hook. I shouldn't have been surprised — my friend is amazing when it comes to that stuff. We carefully pulled away, and when we were out of sight, a huge smile broke across her face.

"So?" I asked.

"I told him to just write me the ticket."


"I told him I didn't want you to see me give him a bribe, because it would make our country look bad to this innocent volunteer who was here to help us. So, I said ‘Just write me the ticket.'"

It had been all she needed to say. How would it benefit the policeman to write out a real ticket? It would take 15 more minutes and get him nothing. That's 15 minutes he could use to extract some cold cash from a less charming violator.

We laughed in victory. This was even more satisfying than getting out of a legitimate ticket in the U.S.

"Just write me the ticket." The perfect line in Thailand, but I don't think I'll try that one at home.

Home at Last

It's been over a month since I returned from Thailand. I still haven't experienced any culture shock, and I am afraid I haven't changed much. I was sure I would return wiser, skinnier, tanner, with lots of perspective and worldly knowledge to share. But somehow, here I sit with the same Midwestern pallor, healthy layer of fat, and half-inch brunette roots I have every winter. I swear a transformation happened on the plane somewhere over the Pacific Ocean. So much for dazzling everyone with my healthy good looks.

Still, there might be a chance I will conjure some nuggets of knowledge, that I will uncover some perspective on the trip. I have had plenty of opportunities to explore this possibility. As I weaved my way through holiday parties in last year's fashions, cocktail in hand, I tried to creatively answer the questions about my trip. I got many of the same questions, but never seemed to give the same answers. What was it like? Are you glad to be back? Did you feel safe? Did you have running water? Can you speak Thai? I changed my answers so frequently I wonder what the truth is.

I'm starting realize that there may not be one single truth about my experience. Every moment I look at the trip through a different lens, and filter it once more before delivering an account to my audience:

  • "Thailand was great, but you should go to Bali." (Translation: I know you don't want to hear anything heavy duty, but you like to travel, so I'll try giving you some useful travel advice.)
  • "You know, the poverty and pollution in Bangkok, was really bad, but it seems so much worse here. I see so many more homeless and desperate on my front doorstep on Market Street." (Translation: I just walked past a lot of people sleeping on the sidewalk. It's the first thing to come to mind.)
  •  "It was the most amazing experience." (Translation: I don't know you well, and I'm not sure what you would be interested in. I'll just let you know that I'm not a worldly traveler and I don't take this experience for granted. Usually followed by one of my standard stories.)
  • "I am so glad to have a real flushing toilet, toilet paper and soap. In Thailand, they have these squat toilets that are just porcelain holes in the floor. So, for instance, you go into a stall in the bus station, and there's water all over the floor, and you have to squat over the toilet, balance yourself and hold your pants out of the way. Keeping the pants clean is a talent in itself. You have to roll up the bottoms so that they don't get wet on the floor. Then, you pull them down and hold them in position with one hand so that you neither pee directly on them, nor get splashed back on them from being so close to the bowl. The other hand often needs to be on the stall so you don't roll over. Then, if you forgot to bring toilet paper, you have no way to wipe! And there's no flusher, just a big Rubbermaid trash can full of water. You grab a little plastic bowl, scoop out the water, and pour it into the bowl. This is why there's water all over the floor – people spill over the sides. So by this time, you've touched a million surfaces, probably got splashed, and are completely germ infested. When you finally leave the stall, there's never soap, rarely water to wash with. (One of my favorites. Risks the implication that Thailand is uncivilized, but always a winner and exactly the kind of story people want to hear. Especially useful for large audiences, accompanied by visuals of squatting, etc.)
  • "Before I left, I read and heard that Thailand is the Land of Smiles. It's actually true. Everyone there smiles all the time. It was great for me because usually I couldn't communicate any other way. So I got really used to it. But I didn't really realize it until I came back and got on the Muni (San Francisco's subway). I was used to smiling to everyone, and when you smile here, people usually either look at you like you're crazy, turn away real fast, or think it's an invitation to ask you out. Occasionally, you get someone to smile back. That's fun. I hope I keep doing it anyway." (Another standard, good for most audiences.)
  • "God, I can't believe this meal is fifteen dollars!! In Thailand, I could have a really yummy meal for fifty cents. " (I know I've already said this one hundred times and it's really annoying. I'm trying to bite my tongue.)

So at this point, my trip seems to be an amalgam of disjointed thoughts, some good, some bad, some neutral. I can't give anyone a "true" picture of Thailand or even how I feel about Thailand. Perhaps I'll never completely synthesize these thoughts.

But there is one point that I almost always mention. Yes, I had an amazing time. Yes, I saw new things, learned new things, made a difference, made new friends, explored tropical beaches. I am really glad I went, and I will travel like this again. But more than anything, this trip made me realize how much I truly love my "real life." No matter how much fun I was having there, I always knew my life waiting for me at home was even better. This life is filled with these really caring, funny, generous people I call my family and friends. People who actually encouraged me to go explore the world and then begged me to come home. I'm so glad I did.

Copyright © 2001 Erin Neel