The Good, the Bugs, and the Ugly
A Little Romp Through Some Travel Stereotypes
At four-thirty in the morning, itâ€™s pretty noticeable when someone is yelling or talking unnaturally fast.
My brain cells have hardly woken up, standing in line at Passport Control at Suvarnabhumi Airport, Bangkok. The blonde woman in the red Billabong sweater, the one whose departure card and AirAsia e-ticket looked like they had spent six weeks buried in a shove-it-in backpack, whose shoelaces are untied and trailing on the marble floor, is in front of me again.
Behind me, a brunette lady speaking French is yelling across to her dark blonde friend in the other line parallel to us. Back and forth they yell in a lively, fast conversation.
At this hour, I would rather they didnâ€™t yell so much. My neurons protest to the volume; itâ€™s too early for conversational cha-cha. I wish they would just shut up.
The dark blonde in the other line has now joined our faster line, still talking at high speed to the brunette. My neurons have now taken up a chant, Please be quieter, please be quieter, some of us are still asleep.
THUD. A shriek, â€œNo!â€ I turn to see the brunette has fallen like a felled tree, hitting the hard floor with her head. Dark blonde is frantically saying, â€œNo, someone please help! A doctor!â€
The blonde in the red sweater rushes to the floor beside the brunette. Checks her carotid. â€œSheâ€™s not breathing!â€ she reports, glancing at the people who have now crowded around. â€œIâ€™m a doctor,â€ she says to the dark blonde friend, who is now slumped on the floor, caressing her friendâ€™s face, repeatedly saying, â€œNo, Nancy, no!â€
An immigration officer runs to the phone, calls for help. From where I am now frozen in shock, I spy her toes with the nails painted a bright turquoise, turning blue.
Another immigration officer leaves his desk, comes over to look, says in Thai, â€œwe called the medic.â€ I translate for everyoneâ€™s benefit, relieved at least I can help in some way and donâ€™t feel quite so useless.
Blood trickles out of the brunetteâ€™s mouth. She is fast losing color. Her body shakes in tiny tremors; her hands turn to claws in an epileptic fit. The blonde doctor turns her over on her side, positions her arms on her belly. A gasp, and she begins to breathe again. All of us standing there breathe collective relief.
The medical team finally arrives. Itâ€™s been a long eight minutes. The medics take care of the fallen woman, hooking her up to an EKG machine, taking her blood pressure.
The immigration officers herd us onto another line, away from the crowd trying to help the woman. I am behind some twenty people now, a tourist couple in front of me.
The woman says to the man, â€œJust like Amazing Race.â€ He says something I canâ€™t quite catch in reply, to which the woman says, â€œToo much LSD on the way in.â€ Sheâ€™s smiling.
In the pre-departure lounge, I settle into writing down what happened in my iPhoneâ€”something concrete to do, to stave off the feelings of guilt and shock. Did I really misjudge the blonde doctor in the red sweater, calling her disorganized in my head? Did I really wish the brunette would just shut up? Sometimes, you can really learn a lot traveling by yourself, if youâ€™re paying attention. And what did the woman in the line mean with her comment about LSD? Are drugs really that big of a feature in travelersâ€™ lives in Thailand? My neurons are definitely awake now, chewing on these questions.
â€œExcuse me sir,â€ I hear. I turn to see an AirAsia staff approaching an older man in bright yellow pants wheeling a carry on bag that clearly looks to be over the size limit. Yellow pants stops. â€œWhat?â€ he demands. His tone implies he is annoyed and should not be bothered.
â€œYour bag,â€ the staff says, â€œitâ€™s oversized.â€
Yellow pants leans over the shorter man, barks, â€œAnd what do you want me to do about it? Iâ€™m already here.â€ He spins away, dismissing the airline staff. And the airline staff just cowers away with his tail between his legs.
On the seat sheâ€™s just found, Yellow Pantsâ€™ female companion looks around at the rest of us in the lounge.
Will this day get any better, I wonder.
On the flight Iâ€™m all right, but I canâ€™t sleep. Usually I love sleeping on planes. Before takeoff, when the engines are humming, is the best time to clip on the belt, slouch down in the seat, and doze off. But this morning, understandably, my neurons are rebelling from my usual pre-flight standard procedure.
Plus there are five young backpackers sitting in the row in front of me. Theyâ€™re all trading notes in Swedish, listening to their iPods and switching and sharing songs.
I lose myself in Gladwellâ€™s â€œWhat the Dog Sawâ€ for three and a half hours. At least reading, I can shut off the rest of the plane.
Arriving in Denpasar, I get the usual 30-day visitorâ€™s visa and am ready to float through customs. I purposefully flew AirAsia because it forces me to pack light. I have a few clothes, three books, the lightest camera equipment I own, and the thinnest Macbook available on the market right now. Everything in total weighs 20.4 kilos, and I am not and have never been in the habit of carrying any gold or contraband since I started air travel at the age of seven, so I donâ€™t expect being stopped by Customs.
The Swedish backpackers and the woman whose shoelaces are untied float through, but I, with my five thousand dollar watch from Stockholm and three hundred dollar shirt from Milan (I always wear expensive stuff when I travel alone because I have the mistaken idea that it prevents me from being harassed, especially in Asia), have to open my bag and get it scanned. â€œChemical scan,â€ the Customs officer informs me.
I donâ€™t know if itâ€™s my Sinead Oâ€™Connor haircut or my mixed Chinese-Malay-Spanish features, or that I am arriving from Thailand, location for famous drug-saturated books as â€œThe
Beachâ€ and â€œThe Backpackerâ€ that makes me suspect as either (a) drug courier or (b) bomb conduit or (c) random victim, but I wait patiently while the computer says I am (d) none of the above. â€œClean!â€ the Customs officer announces, gesturing for me to lock my bag back up.
In the meantime, I count, seventeen backpackers pass us by.
Finally, I have arrived. Itâ€™s only 11.30 am in Bali. My friend Ngurah meets me, recognizing me despite of the new hairless do, and we speed off to Ubud, my favorite place to stay.
At the Fibra Inn, I have the â€œDeluxe Room.â€ Happily the receptionist shows me my room, which has a bathroom thatâ€™s al fresco. Tropical plants surround the stones forming the floor of a shower area. I get to pee under the blue skies of Bali. Wowwee.
The only rule I have for staying at cheap hotels is that I must be able to touch the bathroom walls. If I can touch the walls without feeling icky, the place is clean enough to sleep in after I spend the whole day outdoors.
My first outdoor shower! Thereâ€™s no soap! But I take it in strideâ€”after all what could happen now? Everything bad happened this morning and itâ€™s a glorious day and I have an al fresco bathroom, and the hand soap provided is just fine.
I reach for the shower head so I can rinse and feel a piercing bite on my left palm. â€œArrrgh!â€ (So people do say this when in sudden pain, says the metacognitive nerd inside my head.) I shake my hand as soon as I feel the sting, and a wasp, around an inch long from head to thorax, falls to the floor. â€œThat hurt, you asshole,â€ I say to it, just before I squash it dead under my Hawaiian floral patterned rubber sandals.
Then I turn the shower on it with a vengeance, thereby flushing it down the drain into the void of bathwater, forever.
My hand hurt, and when I tell Ngurah about it, he says, â€œYou should have eaten it.â€
â€œMy father,â€ he says, â€œgot bitten by a snake once. He killed it, then he roasted it over a coal fire and ate it.â€
â€œI flushed it down the drain,â€ I say, then being a long-time resident of a Buddhist culture, I add for political correctness or defensiveness or both, â€œI wanted to hurt it. So I killed it.â€
And Ngurah says, â€œThatâ€™s OK. He did it to you first.â€
Later that night, as I finish peeing under Balinese stars, I spy a spiderâ€”gray, hairy, leg to leg diameter around 1.5 inchesâ€”scramble out of the shower onto the wall beside my toilet.
â€œBehave,â€ I tell him, â€œor I, the insect crusher of Ubud, will strike again.â€ I rub my left palm, where the wasp bite still throbs.
The spider runs somewhere, and in the splotchy darkness I cannot see him.
Later under my mosquito net, snug with a book, I think I see a shadow cross my peripheral vision. Turning to the wall beside the door to the bathroom (bath space?), my friend the giant spider sits on the wall.
And there he stays all night, quiet and watchful.
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