Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Two Days in Thailand

“1300 Baht.” “No, no, 800 baht.” I shook my head and indicated I was going to need a lower price. I had been told to offer back 50% of whatever I was offered. As I had come out of the terminal and looked around for taxis, I had surveyed a “fixed rate” sheet and the beach where my hotel was – Kata Beach – had a fixed rate of 750 baht. As of this writing 1000 baht is about $30US. Of course, my rather tired brain had forgotten that those rates don’t really matter at 3am. That’s the time it was…

One of the nice things about flying a budget airline is the privilege of bragging to other people about how cheap it was for you to fly. Prior to this flight I could have bragged: “Hey, I flew from Singapore to Thailand for $60, man!” Now I got to brag: “So, I showed up for my flight 90 minutes early and it was delayed for 7 hours, so I got to sleep until then…hey, wait!” Customer service doesn’t really matter to a budget airline. So you’re delayed 7 hours and it changed your plans a lot – so what? You can’t complain because you paid next to nothing. Later, on our 25% full flight, I understood why they weren’t motivated to move a bit faster. Budget airline – budget dependability.

It didn’t matter at this point. I was tired and I wanted to get to my hotel. The driver pulled out the map – “Kata Beach…65 km, boss…long way…for you, special price, 1200 baht.” “No, 1000 baht.” He smiled and shook his head. I always feel ridiculous, like most Americans do, when I bargain. Part of it is the fact that I own a company that charges the highest rates in town for what we do, so the way that I usually react to a price “reaction” from a client is “Oh, is that a lot?” or “Well, if price is an issue, then I don’t think we are the best fit for you.” I feel like a chump bargaining because I would rather just get to the “best price” right away – my mother, sisters, and a large majority of my relatives would disagree – but there’s plenty of bargaining for them to be had if they want it. I’m mostly retired.

We went back and forth a bit more. I did a bit of mental math – 65 km – it would be about an hour on the curvy coastal roads. Who knew where the guy lived – maybe he had to drive all the way back after taking me to the tip of the peninsula. “Okay, okay,” I said, beaten. It was about $35US, which is a perfectly reasonable cab rate (less than I would pay from Kansas City International to my home in Overland Park, Kansas). Odd that I felt beaten even though I didn’t even want to bargain in the first place.

We made our way onto the road, with an extra passenger – a friend of the cabbie who would need a ride. The driver didn’t ask me if I minded probably because he knew that like most Americans, I would have responded with a typical sanguine, “Sure, why not?” Perhaps one of the greatest reasons the last ten years has been so jarring to the world is the cognitive dissonance of the smiling, friendly, pay-full-price American with the war-oriented, diplomatically-ignorant, improvident Colossus that neoconservatives and Fox News have cheered on. How can such a clearly friendly and amicable people be so ignorant, warlike, and bad with money?

We passed a 7-11. The chain clearly had a presence here just as it did in Singapore. One of the things I have finally come to terms with is that the rest of the world LOVES American products. It loves them because of these products are ingeniously designed, because they appeal to the lowest common denominators in everyman, but probably, the world most loves American products because these products are easy to use. What's not to love? So, as I write part of this piece in a Starbucks, one of only a few locations in Patong Beach with wireless internet for the public (the other is a McDonald’s, and since I haven’t stepped foot inside a McDonald’s for 5 years, I thought Thailand would be a particularly bad place to do it), I’ve finally accepted that it is okay for others to like American products. It’s funny, especially around my liberal friends, who love to talk about how cool they are for knowing the most out-of-the-way eatery or the most obscure band, to watch people react to corporate culture. “Omg, Stephen, you went to a Starbucks in PHUKET? I would have staged a damn protest. Freaking Starbucks.” Forget that Starbucks is largely responsible for paving the way for Italian coffee as we know it in America. Forget that almost all of their coffee is fair-trade and that the coffee is damn good for the 98% of us who don’t have sommalier’s olfactory sensibilities, or who live in Lawrence, Kansas ( also insert here Laguna Beach, Santa Monica, Berkeley, Portland OR, Seattle, The Village, or Boston), whichever comes first. Supporting small businesses is cool man, trust me, as a small business owner I drink that kool-aid...but I don't get crazy about it.

“Where from, Boss?” “America.” “Ok, ok.” Quiet beachiness was on either side of the road. Dogs wandered onto the road and we were driving slowly enough that we could just flash the lights at them and get them off the road. We could have been driving down the road to the Florida Keys or the narrow road from Cabo San Jose to Cabo San Lucas. It was quiet and lovely.

English fluency is abysmal in Thailand – but who needs to be fluent? Arabic numbers are universal, and people routinely bargained by typing in the number they wanted into a hand-held calculator that the vendor thrust at them. Thai sounds like a mixture between Vietnamese and Malay, and since I confess complete ignorance to Thai’s origins or alphabet (though I can recognize instantly the characters which comprise the brand of Tom Yum Ramen soup I have bought for years…N.B. to my fellow whiteys: I don’t mean “Top Ramen” or the other trash ramen you can buy at a normal supermarket, I’m talking about the designer ramen you can only buy at ethnic grocery stores and feature little to no English on the packets. I’ll speak more about this delight some other time) perhaps that limited aural assessment is accurate.

We got to the hotel and no one was at the front desk. The cabbie patiently called the front desk with his cell phone, hoping someone would hear the ringing. It was to no avail, and about 20 minutes later our front desk person was back – he had been off running an errand. I paid the cabbie – he put his hands together as if he were praying, and bowed to me. I quickly did the same, thinking it to be customary (it is, I found out later). I went upstairs to my room, sent a few text messages, and went to bed.

I was only in Phuket for two days but I had two priorities – not “normal” Phuket party priorities.

First, I had to finish editor’s-level proofing a manuscript for a book I would publish in Spring 2010 – I had had it with me for weeks now and with the vacation winding down I absolutely had to finish it, and I had only gotten 50 pages into the 400 page scholarly work (also, editor-level reading means you cannot enjoy the book as a normal person – you are constantly looking for typos, variations in style, noting if the right tone has been struck in a particular passage, wondering if the footnotes extensive enough…it’s like watching the director’s commentary track on a DVD and then being quizzed on both the actions in the movie and the commentary).

If I got that handled, I also wanted some custom-tailored suits. Such items are very expensive in America (anywhere from $500-$2000 a suit), but not so here. Why not? Fake fabrics? Nah. Bad worksmanship? Nope. The proprietor explained to me at the end of our transaction (I had bought 2 suits and 6 shirts, all custom-tailored, for about 25% of what I would have paid in America): “We don’t pay very many taxes here. If we do get an inspector from the government here who says something to the effect of ‘we think you owe more taxes’ I tell them to wait while I get our records. I then bring out an envelope with the right amount of baht in it, and that’s that.” So there it was: cheaper prices because of laxer enforcement of laws, with a dash of bribery.

As I walked around outside I laughed a bit about how uptight we were in America about some things. Here, people were walking around with beers in their hands – and no one was walking into traffic or causing problems – why did we think it was so terrible to let people drink in public? Why do we feel we need to tax businesses so much that they pass the cost onto the consumer so much so that the disparity between buying a tailor-made suit in Phuket and the exact same one – same material and tailoring – in London or New York is a ten times multiple, completely unrelated to the exchange rate? In either case, I didn’t worry about it too much longer, I was going home with some awesome new suits, tailored in 24 hours.

In either case, even though I pride myself on not being a consumerist, I was worried at the feelings that such bargains stirred in me. One of the major indictments of the American economy is that anymore it is motivated by the most base and empty needs of self-validation. Americans are ever more denuded of culture, meaning, and religion, so buying things becomes more and more a way to have worth and meaning in life – but as 2010 begins it is clear to me that America – which has, through our thieving Federal Reserve, tried to slowly buy its unbelievable debt and then gradually inflate it away – is headed for a depression of record proportions. Not only do we have no money, but we have no instruments with which to earn real revenue – we don’t make anything – and in a recession people back off from buying services – which is mostly what we do in America (the funniest career being in “financial services,” a term I think history will equate with “Nazi,” “charlatan,” or both, in the tradition of Tarantino’s Inglorious Basterds).

I made this a constant theme in any extended conversations I had with those who spoke the glorious English language. I cannot speak for those who speak other languages, but English speakers enjoy engaging each other in foreign locations. Two things were agreed upon, 1) the “Great Recession” would get worse globally, and even more so in the West, and 2) Americans were heavily in denial about it. “it can’t happen here” should be set to music and become our new national anthem.

***

My second day in Phuket offered its own bit of knavery (and I don’t often get to use that word – you will see why it is le mot juste presently). There is an enormous underground economy in the city. As I alluded to above, it is part of why prices can be kept low. However, there’s always a price to be paid.

My bought-two-weeks-ago-already-falling-apart American Tourister backpack would not make the return flight to Singapore, much less the continued journey to Tokyo and then to Los Angeles. I needed a new backpack and a larger duffle bag to accommodate the purchases of the trip. I took the taxi to Phuket Town, which featured a 5-story Robinson’s. Now, of course Robinson’s is a chain, but I wanted genuine articles, not some knock-off on a street corner. I also knew that if I flashed my passport they wouldn’t charge me GST, and so I wouldn’t have to go through the shuffle of paperwork at the airport later. The cab ride was 400 baht – outrageous, really, but I was already so beaten that I put up little, if even any, resistance. On the way there the cab driver claimed that he wanted me to stop by a tourist store because he would get a “gasoline coupon.” Someone once said that there were lies and damned lies (I say someone because it's been attributed to no less than 5 different people). This was a specimen of the latter, of course. He was going to get a commission – whether or not I bought anything. I said no. He turned on the plaintive pleading. “Please boss, help me out, just five minutes.” Shaking my head, I exhaled an “Ok,” thinking I might knock out the final five or six family gifts I needed to buy.

I wandered through the large store, which was fairly busy with other tourists who had been snookered, willingly or no, into the same scam. I wandered over to the items I wanted to buy and noticed a rather permanent-looking “50% off Sale” sign. Okay, so this guy brings me here, I see 50% off, so I buy, and then he gets a commission off what I buy, probably, and the company still makes money, so these items are really marked up. I handed over my credit card. WE then went on to Phuket Town.

After I picked up new luggage at Robinson’s (the cab driver who had pleaded to be helped claimed he “had an appointment” and thus couldn’t wait for me. I felt like such a whore – except that I had paid him cab fare and had enabled his commission – so it was like paying to be a prostitute) I came out looking for a cab. “You need cab?” “Yes, I need cab.” “Where to?” “Kata Beach.” “400 baht.” “No, 300 baht.” The same pained, half-crazy look that I had come to realize was de rigueur when a tourist quotes a reasonable counteroffer came over his face. He shook his head. “300 baht is what I paid to come here.” I, of course, didn’t mention that was a total lie, and that I had not only paid 400 baht, but had dropped 2000 baht on souvenirs on the way. If you can’t beat them, join them, I thought. “Look, I’m not paying more than 350 baht. I’ll walk.” I was serious – I wasn’t going to play their games. The cab driver came up and asked, “Have you stopped at any souvenir stores?” Sigh. “Yes, I did this morning. A big one.” “If I take you, 350 baht.” So I would have to play the game. “Okay, okay.”

I went to this store, more than four times bigger than the other store, and filled with even more milling tourists from even more buses. I left after the dutiful ten minutes of browsing through mostly garbage.

I got to Kata Beach, staked out a chair and ordered Pad See Eau (wide fried noodles served with bak choy, egg, chilli, and sweet soy sauce), an Orange Fanta, and opened up the manuscript. I only had a hundred or so pages to go, and it was such a beautiful day.

The manuscript I was working on was the first substantive and scholarly work on the absolute disaster that the post-Vatican II Novus Ordo Missae – “New Mass” in regular-people-speak – was. It will be the first lengthy book so published in my lifetime (there have been some others of a little larger than pamphlet length), and will cause a great stir among the Catholic Traditionalist community that will receive it with intellectual honesty. It will be my publishing house’s sixth book and while it will not become a runaway bestseller (I don’t have any pictures of tall leggy blonde Republican warmongers masquerading as conservatives to plaster on it, nor do I have the built-in unthinking yes men of Right Wing Talk Radio to buy it. I agree with Albert Jay Nock that literacy is overrated, for it often cheapens what we print.) I have always tried to remember what Henry Regnery once said about publishing (before he started printing the garbage of idiots): “The books that are most needed are often precisely those that will have only a modest sale." I found it consistently amusing that I was giving the publisher’s eye to a scholarly work with more than 50% of the footnotes in Latin while surrounded by people who had such strange ideas about swimwear.

There was Gorilla Man, who had enough hair on his body to make up for hairless guys like myself. There was Topless Lady, who had her probably 10 year-old son help her adjust her chair. There was Show-Off Girl, with enough ink to be her own ad for a tattoo parlor, and who consistently felt the need to stand up and exhibit her leave-nothing-to-the-imagination “clothing” if it might be called such. There were Gay Men on Holiday, who made sure even what little swimwear they were wearing was stylish and worn with the appropriate panache. There was also You’re Way Too Fat to Be Wearing that Man and Woman, who made you ask the incredibly obvious question – why do you think you can wear that and subject the rest of us to all that cellulite and undigested donut remains: have you no decency?

I finished the afternoon by way of a lovely conversation with my British neighbors on the sand. They had been there for four weeks, and were staying three more. They were trying to weather the recession in a place where the Pound Sterling stretched furthest. They were definitely in the right place.

For some reason or another, on both nights, monsoon rains stayed away all day and allowed us to enjoy the ocean unmolested, and then poured their wrath down after sunset. Convenient for the beach – inconvenient when you need to get to the airport and there’s only one road up a peninsula and you’re not the only one trying to make a flight.

***

My cab driver was late in picking me up and when he said “45 minutes” to the airport – which would put me there 45 minutes before an International flight; a sort of time shaving that would bar me entrance onto some US domestic flights – I hoped he was being extremely conservative. It was pouring rain outside and we were going 40 km/h. I sat back in my chair.

What would the mature man do? Realize there’s nothing he can do about the situation and sit back and hope for the best? What does the smart man do? Pray. And so I did. I varied between asking Our Lord and His Mother for help in getting to the airport on time, and if not, that His Will be done – perhaps I wasn’t supposed to get on the flight.

See, if I don’t make that flight, I don’t get back to Singapore in time to unpack from this trip, then repack for the flight to Tokyo. If I miss that flight, then I get back to America even later, and I had been gone a long time…the longest vacation I had taken in my life to that date.

The turns seemed endless and the rain obscured any signs I might see of “airport this way” or some comforting reassurance. On the few occasions I could spot a sign it was mostly in Thai, with very small block letters of English underneath – and there were no distance measurements.

At 9:00pm I started leaning forward in my chair, like a cyclist in the Tour de France. Somehow psychologically it gave me comfort to know that despite the fact that I was hermetically sealed inside a vehicle, my posture indicated with deadly seriousness that I was in a rush. My driver noticed the lean and probably laughed inside. Then drove faster…he wasn’t going to let my frantic aerodynamic pose be wasted.

When we got there (finally) it was 9:15pm. My flight was at 10pm. I bounded out of the car through the sliding doors into a…security checkpoint? My bags went through a scanner, and everyone, thinking this was a joke apparently, walked through the metal detector, set it off, then stepped to the side for the wand inspection (this was a initial inspection – I would still have to go through another when I got my boarding pass). Well, when in Phuket…I then raced to the next terminal over (my driver had dropped me at the wrong one) and managed to catch a JetStar employee just as she was about to shut down the desk. She started incredulously at my huge duffle bag while I was checking in. “You are on JetStar Light, so you are only allowed 10kg.” My bag was displaying 12.22kg. JetStar is one of those Easyjet-esque no-frills airline where you get charged for everything – sometimes even if you have carry-ons that are too heavy. “And you have a backpack, too.” I shrugged, looked purposely dumb, and said that I had done a bit of shopping. She told me that she’d let me go through, but they might stop me at the gate and charge me there. I told her I would take my chances and sped to security.

Again, the security measures were a joke, much like they were in the United States before 9/11…hey wait a minute, they’re still a joke. I might have been in Asia for a week, but I didn’t miss the fact that the probably-government-staged “Underwear Bomber” managed to buy a one-way ticket with cash (red flag #1), get onto a flight without a passport (red flag #2), and got walked through security by what witnesses have identified as a “well-dressed Indian man” (dot, not feather, and red flag #3 FTW). See, here’s the thing. If you don’t invade countries for oil, don’t mess in the internal politics of sovereign nations, and you don’t believe in empire, there’s not really a reason to attack you, and the rest of the world will understand when you lash back at people who do attack you without cause (as the entire world did for about a week after 9/11 before we squandered global goodwill in one fell swoop). Republicans, as well as the purblind Obama Administration, would have you believe that the Bin Ladens of the world want to kill us because of Britney Spears. No, oh Ivy-educated ones, they want to kill us because we’re over there. For all the insignificance of Thailand militarily, it was comforting to know that somewhere, somehow, people managed to worry about their own countries before inflicting their know-it-all policies on the rest of the world, and that the Thai, who have the freedom to fly without being patted down or body scanned, seem to have escaped the clutches of the so-called “freedom-hating” Muslims. But let’s leave President Bush’s third term, carried out by his yes-man, President Obama, aside.

I made it through security and spotted…A Dairy Queen.

Now, many of you who know me know that I don’t eat fast food (Chipotle and Inn-N-Out Burger are not fast food, they are examples of good food fast, but I don’t worship at the altar of Inn-N-Out like it’s God’s gift…but, I digress) but for the first time in three weeks, I wanted a chili dog. A big fat one. Maybe two. It’s not like I needed to eat more. I’m fairly certain I had gained ten pounds in Singapore. No joke. But for the first time in three weeks I wanted American food. It made me feel good, and was a reminder that I would be home soon.

Perhaps that’s the greatest gift of travel. When I returned after my semester in Italy my sophomore year of college, I didn’t eat pasta for six months. I had dived into the culture wholeheartedly when I had been in Rome, and being home meant everything I knew. In learning what you don’t know about every place that isn’t home, you often find out many things you didn’t know about why you love the place you call home. And on the morning after the Twelfth Night of Christmas, I too could appreciate that the Wise Men were coming home to the Lux Mundi.

Somewhere over the South China Sea, on approach to Tokyo
On the Feast of the Epiphany of Our Lord Jesus Christ, MMX

No comments: