Misadventure

I hardly dare tell the story. I know how it sounds. But the thing is, I already went. I already did it. And by myself, too. Hitchlessly. Took myself there, got around, made it back again with only a minor foray into the hospital to show for my troubles. There were no major problems, no incidences to speak of. I was a female traveler, flying solo, getting myself around SE Asia, being competent and on-the-ball the entire way; having fun, of course, and remaining inappropriate, of course, but competent, functional, like a Packsafe handbag or colourful socks. Others looked to me for advice and direction – not existential but important nonetheless. I navigated new cities, negotiated bad deals on bargains I didn’t need and traveled in successful mediocrity from place to place without disaster. In short, dear reader, I knew where my shit was at.

Fastforward a few months. I’m flying back to Vietnam. I’m participating in a skate tournament: speed slalom, are you kidding me? It’s organized for me, everything is arranged on my behalf. All I have to do is show up.

3 days before I leave I can be found at immigration getting my re-entry permit. I feel smug. Look at me, remembering my administrative loose ends like a queen – on it, in control, the boss.

“Don’t you need a visa?” Wei asks me.

“No,” I say, “I asked”, I tell her, “Lion says I don’t”. Matter solved. Unarguable. Lion travels all over for skate competitions. He too knows where his shit is at.

“Oh,” says Wei in her considering and thankful manner. “Is he British?”

“No,” I say, “He’s Thai,”, I tell her, and then I say more things to justify the veracity of his knowledge. But even as I hear myself saying words, there’s the worried tightening of intestines, the stomach-clench of anxiety. I think back to trip 1. I got a visa in advance that time, but why? There was a reason, I know there was. What was it? How does this memory relate to my current situation? There’s something important here, I can feel it, but it’s just out of reach. My brain’s sounding a warning call into the fog, but it’s not clear whether this is the real deal or just a drill. A drill, surely. They would’ve told me. Someone would’ve mentioned it. I’m no longer sure. The ghost warning remains indistinct. There’s a thought in there somewhere, Jim, but not as we know it.

I go home. I get on Google. The first thing I see are the mighty and glorious words VISA ON ARRIVAL. The concertina relaxes. A sigh of relief. ON ARRIVAL, by air. Simple. And of course, last time, overland, buy in advance. I relax. I am safe.

Even when the flight attendant – the last checkpoint before the plane; mentally I’ve boarded, I’m flicking through the in-flight magazine, looking at the people on the safety brochures; we’re taking off! It’s happening! I’m on my way! – even when she says to me “Visa?”, there’s no glimmer of fear. I’ve looked this shit up, man, I know what I’m talking about.

She looks at me, taps my old, used Vietnamese visa…

Ah.

There’s a peculiar beauty in the absoluteness of being refused boarding on a flight. Your expectations for your day, your evening, your weekend, your fortnight judders. It’s physical, a crunching of gears that puts the world off-kilter. I was living in the 5-minutes-from-now, I was in the future; I was at the skate event, I was laughing off my slalom failure, I was open-mouthed at the skate cross, cheering the kids who’d come with us… and now this? Thwarted? Denied? Suddenly I’m facing a wall of quiet refusal so impervious that it’s almost impressive.

Being led the wrong way through immigration is fun. People look at you like you’re some kind of drug smuggler. I’m as clean as roses in real life so the perceived notoriety is briefly  pleasing – after all, nobody knows. I could be anyone, a baddie, a gangster, a Notorious Person. Or not.

Right now I’m in the business centre of the posh airport hotel tapping this into a Word document that will cost 250 baht. I’ve just paid 70USD to apply for a visa I could apply for for nothing at the embassy. The visa itself will cost 50USD, the flight changes well over THB1000. All because I’m too apt to trust what I’m told, to trust others to think for me so I don’t have to think for myself.

It’s 8.55am and I’ve been awake for 24.5 hours after a quick hour-and-a-half’s nap on the airport floor this morning. But even as I wait, I find myself doing the occasional little grin. An adventure is in progress, an anecdote in the making. We get so little time, we may as well enjoy what we can, right? Even if it isn’t quite what we expected or hoped it would be? Who knows.

 Stay tuned for the next installment of Enid’s Misadventures.

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Undead and anxious: the ohs and lows of Bangkok life.

Still in Kok city. Remain undead.

I have done Tourism. I went with friends to see the world’s largest golden teak house. It had everything you would expect from the world’s largest golden teak house, for example it was large and it was also teaky, and it exuded a definite aura of housiness that one could not quite ignore. It lacked an over-abundance of goldenness but, nevertheless, there were obvious and serious security concerns in play. We had to buy curtainskirts to cover our legskins so as not to offend the security guards and decorative torn-out elephant teeth, and I had to buy a t-shirt to cover my shoulderskins for the same reason, and we had to be sensuously frisked by bored ladies in uniforms to ensure that our mobile phones and assorted picture-taking technology had been left behind in lockers built specifically for the purpose. Yes, taking photographs, ownership, cultural appropriation; but also human rights, the internet, cat pictures.

My curtainskirt is sprawled dejectedly on my bed like a discarded cloth that isn’t quite a curtain and isn’t quite a skirt. It reminds me of the mattress from Hitchikers Guide to the Galaxy, and Yossarian’s liver pains, except that it is blue.

Because teaching is so easy and not at all stressful, and because I am definitely excellent at managing my time, and because my reaction to stressful situations definitely isn’t to tuck myself away into a smalldark and womblike corner and get a bit drunk on the floor in the shower and indulge in melodramatic catastrophic imaginings, I have decided that I will try to organise a roller derby team. There are many reasons why this is a terrible idea but, as with all the good ideas worth having, I’ve so far been successful in managing NOT to think about the situation too much, and am just forging ahead unthinkingly without any real idea of what it takes to set up a sports team. No pressure or anything, but it MUST SUCCEED or it will, naturally, be a reflection of all my deepest failings as a human being.

When I get around to lamenting all my deepest failings as a human being (which I like to do fairly often, being a pro-active sort of woman who likes to keep on top of things to ensure that they remain manageable), I usually meditate on such earth-shattering situations as feeling too awkward to make conversation with my landlady because I still don’t speak Thai and she doesn’t speak any English. Or, for example, fully intending on going to do A Social Thing but talking myself out of it at the last moment when I’m so close to the venue that I could reach out and slap the door and it’d be entirely stupid for me to do anything else other than go inside and meet everyone. Or, for example, when I’m trying to make friendly conversation with a colleague by commenting on their bust lip, only to have them retort, you bloody well know it’s a coldsore. Except that I don’t have my glasses on and I can’t see his lips properly or understand what the fuck he’s saying to me, or why he looks so pissed off, or why the atmosphere is suddenly hitting a hot 36 AWKS, and, because of Life and Failure, I have to make him repeat it THREE TIMES, each time looking at him with an awkward smile and confused pause while my brain ticks over trying to gather the shards of words he’s said and tetris them together to form something comprehensible. And, of course, it has to be in an office of people so that it seems as if I’m purposely making him explain his situation repeatedly and in public as if to shame him. And, perhaps worst of all, IT’S JUST A FUCKING COLD SORE, WHAT’S THE PROBLEM? It’s irritating, yes, but it’s a COLD SORE, so I can’t even empathize and can only be embarrassed at my failure to hear, failure to anticipate what’s being said, failure to understand why it’s awkward and failure to halt my role in the escalation of the awkwardness of the situation. Or additionally and just for lolls, breaking off in the middle of telling a man that he looks like a young Bruce Willis to add Oh, I have no idea why I’m telling you this, I just thought it and now I’m saying it, this is awkward, well I’ve started now… and going on to finish the sentiment in the same breath. I had to excuse myself immediately afterwards, OBVIOUSLY, as the flush crept up my cheeks and I willed myself to die a thousand silent deaths staring intently at the drinks menu at the bar and hoping nobody would notice my presence. Mein Gott. Get a grip. It was OK really, it was the night of the Vodkrimes and we were all friends at the end and because it was the night before the Hangover day that ought to have been FAR worse than it was, and it was especially good because I made two friends and one of them came to the BRD social and seemed dead keen and was hilarious and is definitely someone I want to befriend if my personality decides to allow it.

And now breathe…

So here I am. Kok city. Nighttime. On my bed, under the slow whirr of the fan whose stirring of the air almost persuades motes of dust to change their wafting course. The glass door to the balcony is open and from outside there are Assorted Sounds. I think of Bear vs Shark, about the noises against which we understand the very idea of silence, of lino – you fooled me, where’s the seam? – of sexy chocolate cake advertising and of electric pillows that throb and murmur into the ear of a main character who still hasn’t gotten up off the sofa yet even though we’re three chapters in.

In the Chinese graveyard across the way, the huge centipedes I have only ever seen as carcasses ripple through the undergrowth and the strange fish haul themselves across slick, wet, tangled grasses from one flooded depression to the next, as if they weren’t fish at all but slimy air-breathing mermaids, or appalling similes. Frogs bark, old men with rum-reddened cheeks shouting Opinions-with-a-capital-O across the gentlemen’s club. Rats skitter across the street. Newts scamper up and down my walls like nervous tourists at a zoo. The weird worm larvae I discovered in the cracks on my bathroom floor burble into nothingness in the comforting bleach-bath I poured just for them. THE FREAKIN’ MOSQUITOS GNAW AWAY AT MY FLESH LIKE A BUNCH OF CHAVS ON THEIR FIRST MACCY Ds OF THE DAY. Oh Nature!

You wouldn’t believe it but life is good, I think. I order from all different kinds of food stalls these days. I watch movies and arrange roller derby things and hang out with my colleagues. I say numbers and basic pleasantries in Thai. I go into the occasional class and feel as though I can teach competently, and occasionally I even come out thinking the same thing. I understand how my attitude affects the outcome of the classes I teach and remembered that sometimes worrying doesn’t get you anywhere and that, even in the face of failure, it’s better just to say FUCK IT and try to have fun. You can’t win ’em all, and I am reminded of the huge position of privilege I have as someone who had a job good enough to be able to earn herself the money to pack up her life and move to Bangkok almost on a whim but not quite, and mostly because the flight tickets were cheap at the time of booking, and try to teach even though it may not come naturally and after all that come to the conclusion that, even if I fuck it all up and have to leave  then it wouldn’t, actually, be the end of the world, not really; it wouldn’t matter in any serious way, I can afford my plane fare home and as long as that’s the case I may as well enjoy this experience while it lasts. As a human once said, you didn’t come to Bangkok to work a high-powered job and earn a shitload of money. Hell no. No I did not. So more fun. More massages and more all-nighters. More skating in the park and falling asleep on the grass. More exploring unknown BTS stops and more bus rides and more wandering in the Bangkok smog. More culture. More notculture. More exploring and less worry, less pressure. (But still a bit of worry, and still a bit of pressure. What’s life without it?).

Anyway. Enough. It’s time for presents.

Here’s something I really liked that I hope you’ll like too. I listened to some short stories during the Day of Death, and this is one. It seemed to me to be a perfect creation, all images and snippets, the way I remember things in life, confused and unsure, detached, close-up, profound; on the outside looking in, reaching, close but never touching. Notes from the house spirits by Lucy Wood. It’s here if you’d like to listen: http://www.theguardian.com/books/audio/2012/dec/31/jon-mcgregor-lucy-wood-house. I hope you don’t despise it with every fibre of your being.

Fruits of hilarious failures

This entry is from a few weeks ago. Apparently I typed it all up then pressed ‘save’ instead of ‘publish’. GOOD ONE.

It starts like this:

Did I tell you about the time I got chewing gum in my hair? About the time I fell over the ground and landed on my chin? About ALL the times I’ve spent wobbling on one leg in uncomfortable proximity to a moto driver because I can only dismount moto taxis with extreme clumsiness? What about the time I didn’t eat a proper dinner because I’m too awkward?

My experiences of the world – particularly of human interaction – are DRENCHED in awkwardness. Not just that cutesy, oh-isn’t-that-adorable kind of awkwardness. It’s more of an OMIGOD-SOMETHING-COMPLETELY-MINOR-JUST-HAPPENED-AND-NOW-I-WILL-HAVE-TO-CHANGE-MY-IDENTITY-AND-MOVE-TO-AN-UNINHABITED-MOUNTAINOUS-REIGON-SOMEWHERE-IN-ORDER-TO-ESCAPE-MY-SHAME kind of awkwardness. If it takes more than 7 seconds to find my purse at the checkout, I’m hitting an uneasy 3 on the awkwometer. If I’m at the front of a queue, it’s a face–warming 6. SPEAKING WITH WORDS FROM MY FACE (never recommended) usually registers around 7 awks as a general background level of awkwardness, with additional awks for the horrible pauses, misspeaks, musunderstandings and general tripe registering additional awk levels on top. Much of my life is lived on these secret and imaginary upper plains of awkwardness. It’s catastrophizing. It’s ridiculous.

I moved house this weekend (reminder: this is an old post!). Everything resets. Remember all those walk-bys I did when I first started living in BKK? Well, by the time I left Bang Na, I was positively NORMAL in my food ordering. I’d just wander up to a stall and just GET something, as if it was EASY. I said stuff in Thai and they gave me food. Sometimes we extended the conversation: they let me taste it and I told them AROY MAAAAAK! (very delicious). Well, I’m in a new neighbourhood. The food places here are less numerous and different – I don’t know them and I don’t recognise their wares. There is no yam nam. No stewed pork. No chicken-foot soup. I am bereft. The process starts again.

On the day in question, I’d had an annoying afternoon that meant I missed a Cultural Tuesday day trip. I was feeling tired and disheartened. Despite the sticky heat, I fancied a hot meal to warm my cockles (I don’t have a kettle yet, therefore NO TEA), so I went for a food search, my first proper exploration of the area. I employed the age-old technique of the walk-by, of course, for that is my way. One of the stalls I saw had a sign written in Thai and English: sliced grilled beef salad, among other things. Clearly my best bet, I thought. I’ll go there. It was decided.I was committed.

I carried on walking.

I went to the 7-11 to look for an iced tea and some courage. When I came out of the 7-11, I started to wander off towards the BTS for reasons that aren’t exactly clear to me, but managed to remember the plan and turned around. I approached the salad man’s stall. Yes, the sign is in English. Yes, the prices are displayed. This is the one.

I almost walked past for a second time.

My body was turning towards the guy but my legs hadn’t seen the memo and continued marching resolutely forwards. Clearly I hadn’t fully committed to this venture. Memo to Legs, Your cooperation is appreciated. Best, Brain. I probably would’ve carried right on walking had the guy not looked up at me just before I drew level with him. BUSTED! I had to stop after that. He’d spied my interest so walking on at this point would’ve been even MORE awkward, and I did actually want to eat there so what’s the problem? LEGS, WE’RE STOPPING OK?

I stopped. I said hello. In Thai. Awkwardly. The man nodded at me, waiting. I asked for a grilled beef salad. In English. Because it was written on the sign in English and I don’t know how to ask for it in Thai. I only know the words for rice (khao), chicken (gai), spicy papaya salad (som tam), that other salad I like (yam nam), soup (nam sup), pork (moo) and others equally as useless in the situation I’m describing. Ignorant bloody farang.

So anyway. I asked. And – and here’s where it got problematic – the man responded. With WORDS. Uhoh. Not only that, he responded with words in Thai, as if I’m living in THAILAND and that’s the LANGUAGE or something. An immediate 20 awks because I KNOW I should be able to understand what’s going on here, and I’m paralysed at the side of the road, gaping at this poor guy because I don’t speak the language and my brain’s sidled off somewhere and left me to deal with the situation alone. Cheers brain, nice to have you on board.

I mumbled. Looked quizzical. He spoke. I nodded a bit, tried to pick out a word I might know. I think I said ‘yesno’ at one point. Pointed. He tried again. I smiled apologetically. Shrugged. Made vague, meaningless gestures. He came around the front of the stall and jabbed his finger at the item I’d ordered, speaking in what was clearly the most basic Thai he had at his disposal. Still, ignorance reigned. What techniques do normal people have to deal with these situations? NOTHING bad has happened, yet I’m looking around for a hole to jump into. WHY CAN’T I COMMUNICATE WITH THIS MAN? WHY IS IT ALL SO HORRIBLE? Probably a normal person would shrug this off, find some alternative method of communication, or maybe they just wouldn’t care? There was a long moment in which he looked at me in frustrated irritation.

I stood there, umming and aaahing.

Kept standing there.

It was a REALLY long moment. That probably lasted about 3 seconds.

In the end some kid I hadn’t noticed at the other end of the stall (Jesus, I thought, there are WITNESSES) explained: he didn’t have any beef left. Simplez. I smiled, grateful, guilty, waved, apologised profusely – and uselessly – in English, walked away quickly with my cheeks prickling, face down, determined to learn Thai or never step outside my room again.

After that, there didn’t seem to be any other food anywhere in the world. There were other stalls, obvs, though not many, but I felt too awkward to try again. I managed to purchase two oranges and some rambutan from a woman a few stalls up and returned to my room in disgrace. I ate the oranges. The rambutan had beetles on them, but I ate them anyway. Minus the beetles.

There’s always tomorrow, right?

PS/ I did eventually go back and get a spicy beef salad… TWO WEEKS LATER after having walked past the stall at LEAST 4 times every day. It was spicy, beefy, salady and delicious.

Day 5: Still Alive

Day 5. Status: still alive. I have worn my cardigan every day that I’ve been here, including in the 35 degree heat. Especially in the 35 degree heat. Never underestimate the power of Cardigan.

Today I ate self-assembled soup-in-a-bag, fresh from a food stall. I took my passport to the Vietnamese embassy, went up along the river for 40 baht, made my way to Khao San Road. After a few walk-bys I tried haggling and was dreadful. I bought some hippy, backpacker clothes in an effort to fit in. I came back along the river at sunset for free, and met a Thai man named John who gave me his address, wants me to send him a postcard from Leeds.

Last night I visited my second sex district, went on a motorcycle taxi, and got drunk with some retirees. As your dedicated correspondent I would like to report the following news, just in: feeling hungover in a hot country is All The Bad.

My first night out alone in the Big Smoke. I went to Nana, soi 11, highly recommended. It was jam-packed with bars, restaurants, stalls, lights, beer, backpackers, locals, prostitutes, weird old white men and a night market selling the usual assortment of dildos, fake North Face bags, weaponry, and kids’ t-shirts. This part of the city is where “Little Arabia” and “Little India” are so all of the different foods are on the menu. I ate Thai again, but not right away. I did my standard awkward triple walk-by before toughening up and tentatively ordering some food and a beer from a street vendor with chairs and tables set out along the kerb. In English. iFail. Met a Canadian couple – the woman, one of these excellent humans who don’t get self-conscious or lost for words; the man awkward and shy and obsessed with trains. Us socially inept people need to stick together. We all ended up eating together, discussing the relative merits of cold-water versus warm-water crabs with a couple of South Indian guys. Then a Thai woman wanted to park her party bus where we were sitting – that’s not a euphemism – so we paid up and went our separate ways.

I ducked into a packed-out kerbside bar named Charlie’s, half-hidden along a little sub-soi. Here I met Lynn and Stuart, my 60-something retirees from Manchester. They had the only table with a spare chair. I asked if I could use it, sat down, got chatting. Stuart bought a round. An hour later I realised I’d missed the last BTS home. We were pretty spiffy by this point and, yes, I did just use the word ‘spiffy’, what of it? We crossed the road and went for late drinks at one of the party buses on the kerb, little VW vans that’d been converted into colourful cocktail bars with fairy lights and loud Western music. That brilliant Thrift Store song played. Time passed.

Lynn and Stuart became worried about me getting home. They offered me the sofa in their hotel room, insisted I stay rather than trying to negotiate the city at stupid o’clock in the morning. I considered it – the idea of waking up in the morning having spent the night on the hotel-room sofa of a couple of hungover retirees who’d probably not remember who I was or why I was there was appealing. But I declined. It’s early days. I don’t need to collect all the anecdotes in one go. Having said that, the A-Pair-Of-Retirees-Got-Me-Drunk-Then-Tried-To-Get-Me-To-Go-Back-To-Their-Hotel-Room-With-Them angle is a good one. But it would do them a disservice. They were lovely. Once they’d gone, I managed to get a taxi home. The guy stopped on the way back, parked up right in the middle of the road and got out to chat with another guy in a taxi on the other side of the road, never mind the rest of the traffic on the road. This happened twice. I eventually realised this was because he didn’t know where he was going and was getting directions. Not to worry, though: I got back alive.

Day 5 and still alive. Who’d’ve thought it? I’ve had some successes and some failures. I walked back from the BTS tonight because a taxi refused to take me, then motorbike man #1 took one look at me and rode off, then motorbike man #2 tried to massively overcharge me. I got tired of asking and walked it. 30 minutes down a brilliant Thai-filled street. They stare at me like I’m the only farang they’ve ever seen, and I look at the floor and feel uncomfortable. It’s a good street though: markets, stalls, real Thai apartments, garages that spill into the streets, bundles of hundreds of overhead wires not much higher than your head, hairdressers, family-owned internet houses, shacks and sois and smog.

The chorus of dogs has started. That means it’s time for bed. You lot should be here. It’s really somethin’ else!

Wordfart

Shit off NaNoWriMo. Nobody likes you anyway.

Except all of those millions (…hundreds of thousands? I’m not good with numbers) of people who are already cruising past 35K when I’m stuck back here in my halting, spluttering, rusting-around-the-outside, paint-flaking-off, crumpled-bonnet Skoda of a 15K wordfart.

Shitting heck. Just thinking about the atrocity exhibition that is my NaNoWriMo makes me feel all wrong, like being watched by a lone smug giant eye of Neil FRIGGIN’ Gaiman, gazing down on me from above like the I’m-so-cool Messiah of slightly kooky stories.

Ugh.

Skullduggery could take down Carabas, any day.

Did I really just write that?

Good. Shoot me now.