Brenna’s Blog

Bumbling Tourists April 17, 2010

Filed under: Uncategorized — brenna @ 3:28 am

So often, in tense cross-cultural situations, I try to remember that they are almost always based in misunderstanding. Something may seem frustrating and ridiculous to me, but so often it seems that way because I’m missing a critical piece of information. I’m missing language, tone, or something else entirely that is resulting in anger and frustration all around. Case in point:

Kelly was headed out of the country back to the US on the same day that Matt and I were headed to Phnom Penh. This was handy, because it allowed us to take a taxi to the airport together, rather than catching a shuttle. Kelly felt better heading to the airport with us. I felt better about not riding in an unknown shuttle. Matt was just fine with whatever plan we worked out.

Being the Thailand-travel savvy person that I am, I have a bias against waiting taxis. In my experience, the waiting taxis hanging out around touristy areas exist to rip-off tourists who don’t know any better. Flagging down a moving cab is much more likely to result in finding a fair, metered ride. So when we headed out from our hotel at 4 am to catch a ride to the airport, I scanned the road for moving cabs, ignoring the crowd of cab drivers who were poised at the mouth of our guest house alley.

“There’s one!” said Matt.

He was correct, in that the taxi was moving. But I had just seen it take off from down the road. I was wary. Still, I was ready to be in a cab and on our way, so I opened the door of the cab and asked, “meter?”

“Where you going? Name a price,” the driver replied.

“No.” I said, shutting the door of the cab, and turning to walk away. When a driver has a fair, standard way to charge you that he chooses not to employ, you had better believe he’s doing it for a reason. The reason being that he can rip you off. I don’t deal with fixed price cabs.

“Okay! Okay!” he shouted after me, pushing the door open again.

We piled our things into the trunk and settled in for the hour long ride. And then Matt glanced at the gas gauge, which was hovering just below empty. The gas light was lit. Oh dear.

“You need gas?” Matt asked, pointing to the gauge.

“Yes, yes,” said the driver smiling.

“You’re going to stop at a gas station?” Matt pressed, frowning. The driver nodded a bit, and then continued to drive.

Five minutes later, I looked at Matt nervously. We had not yet stopped, and we were just about to head out of the city, making finding another cab difficult if we ran into trouble. I pointed to the  gas gauge again, and said, “We need gas.” He nodded, pointing to the gauge. “Yes,” he said.

I watched Kelly’s eyes turn worried. Matt looked at me. We were stopped at a red light. I looked back and saw an unoccupied taxi behind us. “I think we should pay and get out,” I said. Matt and Kelly quickly nodded in agreement. Matt dug through his pocket for the amount on the meter. I tapped on the trunk, as Matt and Kelly asked him to open it. I flagged the cab driver behind us.

Small problem, the cab driver refused to open the trunk. We started out one at a time, asking him to please open the trunk. He gestured to the gas gauge, and said, “No.” Our chorus grew louder, until we shouted in angry unison, “Open the trunk!”

“We’re going to call the police,” said Kelly, and Matt started to pull out his phone. The trunk popped open. We grabbed our luggage and scuttled quickly to the waiting cab, all three of us shaking. The new driver quickly flipped on the meter, and we settled in for the ride, coursing with adrenaline. Matt and Kelly equally conceded that my gut feeling had been correct. I hadn’t felt good about that driver. I told Kelly that perhaps her initial instinct was right, we should’ve taken the shuttle. We all felt very unified by our Bangkok Taxi Driver Bad Experience: Take 2.

Cut to three days later. Matt and I are in a restaurant in Cambodia, recalling the incident over a french dinner in a cute little cafe.

“Wow, that was…” Matt said shaking his head, recalling the moment of our escape.

“Ya, I know,” I said, “I mean, I think we were generally safe. I’m thinking maybe he would have taken us out to a more remote gas station and made us pay for the gas or something. ”

“Ya, probably. One thing I just can’t figure out, he kept pointing to the right side of the dashboard…oh…my…gosh…” Matt trailed off, his eyes widening in a moment of clarity. “It was natural gas.”

“What? What does that have to do with anything.” I asked.

“The taxi…it ran on natural gas. I saw the fuel tank in the trunk…oh..” Matt said, shaking his head, “He was pointing to the side because there was a separate meter. He was trying to tell us that he had plenty of gas.”

“Oh. Oh no…” I breathed out, as I replayed the moment in my head. The indignation. The righteous anger. “Bummer.”

We continued to shake our heads for awhile. To be fair, our defenses were raised by his first refusal to use the meter. And our defenses were further raised by the language confusion surrounding the gas meter. But still, I think about the confusion that the driver must have felt. The frustration at losing a lucrative business deal for no apparent reason. And I wince still.

How many times must it happen? Someone thinks they have been ripped off, taken advantage of, cheated. When really, they are just thoroughly confused. The other  day, I read rant on a Chinese hotel review website from a woman who was convinced that people at the front desk were pretending not to speak English when she wanted to hire a taxi not associated with the hotel. Her complaints piled up one after the other. She hated the reserved room she was shown and then they “conveniently” showed her a different more expensive room, which was “worse than the first.”

Coming off of my own bumbling tourist trip up, I read that review with different eyes. Maybe she was getting ripped off. That’s pretty much standard dues for budget travel in Asia. But I’m willing to bet that at least some part of it was the same old language/cultural misunderstandings that caused me to shout at a taxi driver who was just trying to give us a ride to the airport.


Kittens in Cambodia April 11, 2010

Filed under: Uncategorized — brenna @ 4:14 am

We’re in Cambodia now, safe from the red shirt protests. We spent the day touring the killing fields and interrogation prison of the Khmer Rouge era. So…not the most uplifting day.

Cambodia can be draining. I remembered it being draining last time I visited, at least in Phnom Penh, so I tried to develop a general emotional strategy for this time. I keep telling myself that this poverty, these children pleading for money on the streets, it all exists all the time, regardless of where I am. I am just as responsible to this suffering at home as I am right here and right now. I need to take the actions that I would take in any normal circumstance, and then I need to let it go and have joy at this incredible experience that I get to have. We’ll donate to an organization, we’ll treat people kindly, and we’ll pass out spiderman and hello kitty stickers to the kids on the street. And we’ll let it go. Or try to.

Last night we ate dinner at a little sidewalk café overlooking the Tonle Sap River. We watched the motorbikes pass, crammed with bags of rice, or blocks of ice, or maybe just an extra passenger or five. We watched tuk tuks filled with white tourists clutching copies of Lonely Planet as they scanned the storefronts for their destination. There were Lexuses (Lexi?) filled with wealthy Khmers headed to night clubs, bicycles teetering with fruit for the market, and motos driven by teenagers who were texting when they should’ve been watching the road (a new cultural universal).

We also watched a little girl down on the sidewalk in front of us, not more than six. Her pink shorts and mickey mouse shirt were scruffy and coated with dust. She sat stretched out on a beat up lounge chair, tapping away on an old nokia cell phone. I think she was playing snake. A tiny kitten was curled in her lap. The kitten looked like it hadn’t seen much food in its short life. It pawed at the girl’s stomach. She picked it up roughly, held it tightly to her shoulder, and patted its tiny kitten bottom. Then she flipped it over and cradled it like a baby. She pulled at the kitten’s paws, then wrapped her hands around its mouth briefly suffocating it. I expected the kitten to protest eventually. It didn’t. She would slap it—hard, then gently kiss its head. She bit its paws, and then left it for a bit to play on the cell phone. It slept curled in her lap every moment that she wasn’t flicking its ears or pulling on its legs. It was alternately adorable, horrifying, and fascinating to watch.

The girl was sitting at a book stand, and we soon realized, was the sole book seller. Her parents were nowhere to be seen. Eventually they did return briefly, at separate points. Her mother brought her a bowl of soup. Her father and brother stopped in to chat for a moment and play with the kitten, each of them carrying their own basket of books to hawk to tourists. The little girl picked up the kitten by one leg and let it dangle for a moment. Her dad saw her and grabbed the kitten, showing her how to hold it by the scruff of the neck. He handed the kitten back and walked away. She grabbed the kitten again by one leg, and hoisted him onto the table full of books.

That’s the thing about Cambodia, and so many foreign places really, it’s so hard to know what you are actually seeing. Am I watching a little girl who is copying the abuse that has been done to her? Or just seeing a little girl playing roughly with a kitten? Is that lovely, young Cambodian woman eating dinner with that old, white man because she enjoys his company or because… It’s so easy to make up stories in my head. To look at every snippet of life that I see and assign it to right or wrong. But I don’t know the story. For right now, I have to just keep letting it go.


Tigers and Trains April 8, 2010

Filed under: Uncategorized — brenna @ 11:52 pm

The other day, we played with baby tigers. Anyone who knows me will recognize my expression in the picture below–unbridled joy reserved for up close contact with baby animals. The more exotic the better. The tigers live at a place called Tiger Kingdom, close to an elephant camp and about a dozen other tourist attractions. Considering the sad chains and sharp training sticks present at even the best run elephant camp, I was a little nervous about the state of the animals at a tourist attraction that allowed people to pet full grown tigers. Still, on the website it stressed that no tranquilization was used, and the animals were treated well.

The website seemed to prove true. The grounds were lovely, the animal enclosures were very green and relatively large.  We only hung out with the baby, baby tigers because we are wimps, but the trainers were very gentle with them. They hold a little stick that they tap on the ground when the tigers misbehave. When a little guy nibbled my finger, the trainer tapped his nose softly.

The cuteness:

BABY tiger.

The next day, we went on a zip line course through the treetops outside Chiang Mai. Incredible, and so fun. The group behind us included one guy who chose to scream like a wild banshee on every jump. I think he was trying to entertain the rest of his group. Get it? High pitched screaming is internationally hilarious, right? I’d share more, but I’m guessing it’s more fun to go on a rainforest zip line adventure than it is to read about a rainforest zip line adventure, so I’ll leave it at that.

The train ride back to Bangkok was uneventful–until the train stopped about an hour outside the city. I figured it was just another stop, until we failed to start again. Eventually, one of the train workers told Kelly that we had to get off the train and go to another train on the next track over. We were on a sleeper train, and the train he pointed to was a much more crowded 3rd class train. “Move quickly,” Kelly said, wheeling her suitcase down the aisle. I grabbed my things and hurried to the next train, figuring the train had broken down.

After we’d settled into our seats, Kelly leaned in towards us. “Someone died in our train car,” she said. The train worker had told her. That’s why the train was stopped. I’m realizing as I write that I have no way to transition away from “and then we realized that someone had died in his sleep mere feet from us.”

So that was strange.

Here’s a picture of Matt drinking like five different things at breakfast:


Papers April 6, 2010

Filed under: Uncategorized — brenna @ 9:07 am

Two nights ago, Kelly, Matt and I took an overnight train from Bangkok to Chiang Mai. We were feeling pretty self-congratulatory during the day that we’d brushed off the jet lag. We’d all slept on the plane for several hours, and then at the hotel for another few hours. Still, by the time we reached the train station at 7 pm, we were each walking in a haze of drowsiness. Kelly drifted in and out of sleep on a hard plastic chair in the train station. Once on the train, she curled up in her seat and immediately fell back asleep.

A girl from Holland was her seat mate. Since Kelly wasn’t talking, she turned to us to chat. We talked for an hour or so about life and politics. She was 22, graduated, and exploring the world for a year on her own. We asked if it was lonely, and she said she’d picked up friends along the way until this leg of the trip. She’d just arrived in Thailand. “To be honest, yesterday was my first day alone,” she said. She sounded confident, but her eyes showed a little flicker of fear. Traveling alone in the US when you are  fluent in English is one thing, traveling alone in Thailand is another. It’s very safe, and relatively easy to get around. Still, when you get off a train and twenty tuk-tuk drivers are crowding your personal space, begging to drive you to the next guest house, it’s nice to take it as a team.

The train worker set up our sleeping bunks, and Matt and I settled in to watch a movie. The girl from Holland rustled through her bag. “I can’t find my ticket,” she said as she began to dig through her wallet. “Oh no, bummer,” we murmured sympathetically. I watched her a bit longer, unsure what to do. “I just had it,” she said, her voice cracking a bit, “it was right here. I showed it to the man before I got on the train.” Her face started to look a bit sick with worry as she searched the ground. “Maybe it fell under the seat when they made your bed,” Matt offered. “I already checked under the mattress, and behind the seat,” she said.

I know that sinking feeling. You know it will be alright eventually, but at that moment, all you can think of is being deposited at the next stop at 11 pm with no way to find a guest house. You know that you don’t have the words to speak your case, to tell them why you don’t have the ticket that you need to be on this train. I’ve never lost  a ticket, but I’ve had my moments of panic, when the train, or plane, or bus ticket seems lost. In those moments, you just want someone in it with you, someone you can make it okay.

I watched her, helpless, unsure what to do. I was pretty sure they would just have her pay for a new ticket, perhaps let it slide, but you can never really know until you ask. In travel, it feels so frightening that little slips of paper hold so
much weight. Eventually, after giving up the hunt for the lost ticket, she did ask. The man she talked to just told her to go to sleep, told her that it would be alright. I sighed in relief on her behalf, and checked my bag again for our tickets. And passports. And future hotel reservations.

I thought about foreigners, and what it feels like to be one. I hope that I will always help.


When Money Doesn’t Matter–or When It Does April 3, 2010

Filed under: Uncategorized — brenna @ 8:36 pm

We are here and safe. Coming off of 6 hours of sleep, some pad thai, and a thai tea, I’m feeling much better about life. I was shocked by the smooth travel–no delayed flights or visa confusion upon arrival. All of our bags arrived. We easily waved off overpriced hired cars and headed straight for the public taxi stand.

Our 3am taxi driver from the airport seemed proficient until we hit the long, smooth freeway into the city. We were quiet in the car, tired and ready to reach the hotel. Then I felt the car swerve a bit. I glanced at our driver’s eyes in the rearview mirror. He was falling asleep. I said “hey!” and then poked matt to tell him to wake up. He kept drifting, as the three of us kept glancing at each other in fear. Then Kelly started speaking to me loudly in Spanish. We were pretty sure the driver didn’t speak english, but it felt better to speak in a language we were sure he didn’t understand. The voices kept him awake well enough. I poked his should and said “don’t sleep” a few times. He rolled down the window. I told him to turn on the radio. Matt started clapping along to the tune. He started dancing a bit. We eventually made it to the hotel, each of us shaking. Really, once he got off the freeway he was fine and awake, but our lack of an exit strategy was terrifying.

The first hotel that I had tried to reserve through email was full. Thankfully Bangkok never sleeps, so we were able to walk to another guest house. Guest house number two was recommended by Lonely Planet…we thought. Turns out there is a significant difference between Merry V Guest House and NEW Merry V Guest House. A difference that involves the presence of sheets in the rooms, and private bathrooms. When you need a flashlight to find your room, you know it’s time to pick a new hotel. So we did.

We walked up to the desk of the new hotel. “It will be 1800 baht…” she said. “Fine! Perfect!” I said. “…but I can give you a  discount to 1500…” My bargaining skills were turned off. I’m glad she had pity on me. Not that we cared at that point. The previous hotel had been 200 a room (<$10). But at 3:30 am, $42 for a clean bed and a shower sounded like a fabulous deal.

We’re regaining our traveling legs. We’ve managed to purchase tickets for the train tonight. Purchase food. Call taxis. I forget how hard it is not to be understood. I keep trying to speak in Spanish, my default foreign language, much to Matt and Kelly’s amusement.


ps-Last night on the street I saw a kitten and a rat. They were the same size. Kelly validates this story.