Thursday, February 17, 2011

Thailand Positives... Finally

Oh, Firenze, how I miss you...

I remember coming back from Italy in August with a mostly negative outlook on the people of Italy. But as time fades, I look back fondly on some of the Italian people I was lucky enough to know (particularly the family I lived with for my first 5 weeks and a younger couple who ran a night cafĂ© a block off of the Duomo [it’s been so long I forget their names]), and also start coming up with reasons for why I was so down on the culture in the first place.

One of my favorite places to drink in Firenze, on the dam in the middle of the Arno

When I got back to the States, to anybody who asked How was Italy, I would immediately point out how self absorbed and unwelcoming I found the people. But it wasn’t really fair for me to generalize all of the Italians in that way; I really should have been more specific. Since I spent almost all of my summer in Firenze, any judgment I made on Italy was shaped primarily from my experiences with Florentines, not all Italians (hell, I didn’t even make it to the East Coast or south of Rome). So to be clear, I found Florentines to be self-absorbed and unwelcoming.

But even then, can I really blame them for acting that way? For six months of the year, Americans infest Firenze like the seven plagues. And if it isn’t the older retirees who won’t spend money outside of their all inclusive tours while losing all sense of patience for anybody that doesn’t understand English, then it’s the university students who get drunk in their public squares and pee on their monuments. So, understandably, it breads a certain dislike.

This is a famous sit from one of the bridges in Firenze; couples would lock a lock to the bars as a symbol of their everlasting love.

In the end, I found Firenze to be split into two types; 1). The tourist hawkers in the center of town who were overly friendly but only because they could smell the newly minted Euros in your billfold. 2). Everyone else, who wasn’t concerned with tourism and only wanted to be left alone. Once they could tell you were foreign, they just didn’t care for you (and they certainly didn’t want to hear you butcher their language while trying get to know them). While I was living there, it was certainly off-putting and (more importantly) frustrating; while traveling or living abroad, I like meeting new people—especially locals. But in retrospect it makes total sense. I’m definitely willing to give Italy another chance, but definitely not in a big tourist trap type city such as Firenze (although I really enjoyed traveling through the other parts of Tuscany).

There were other aspects I didn’t appreciate about Firenze culture that I suspected could more accurately be placed in a general Italian category: the creepiness of the men, their inability to walk like civilized human beings on the sidewalks (how hard is it not to walk four abreast, or avoid walking straight into someone going the opposite way), the length of their phone conversations when sitting next to you in public places or on public transportation, and the creepiness of the men (seriously, very creepy).

The replica David at the Piazza de Michelangelo in Firenze

But the one thing that can consistently leave a bitter taste in your mouth is a final impression. For me, it was on my flight home from Rome to Detroit, which reminded of the utter indifference Italian people had towards parenting—mainly the way children acted in public spaces and the lack of concern or discipline they showed towards it. There were kids running up and down the aisle-ways the entire flight (I’m not kidding when I say the entire flight; all eight hours), who not only continually bumped into unsuspecting passengers (often waking them up [this happened to me twice]), but amplified their annoying behavior by screeching and yelling non-stop. One of the worst flying experiences I ever had to go through.

The Duomo; or as the tourists call it, 'the domo'

Now that might not sound like a reasonable explanation for why I held such a lasting grudge. And you’re right. It’s not. For the most part, everything I wrote above is fairly irrational. I had an amazing time in Italy, met some fantastic people (foreigners, ex-pats, and Italians alike) who remain friends to this day, got to take advantage of numerous incredible experiences (biking through Tuscany and attending a Fioretina FC match), and I know I’m a much better person for the experience.

In good time, if not already, I’ll look back on Thailand with the same fondness. The similarities are eerie enough: the dishonesty I felt, the impersonal encounters, and the longing to meet real locals (or more accurately, finding myself only visiting places filled with foreigners). Plus the all-important negative lasting impression (if you don't recall from a previous post, our taxi driver tried to charge us three times the normal rate for our ride to the Bangkok airport). But I’ll get over it; in fact I already can’t wait to go back for another crack.

It was raining one day at the beach, so I grabbed my book and enjoyed a refreshing drink

All I have to do to forget my negative memories of Thailand is flip through my pictures. A quick tour though iPhoto has me reminiscing about the amazing people I met and places I saw. First, the people.

On Koh Lanta I met the stangest diversity of people, mainly through the daily beach-volleyball game that started at around 4:30 p.m. everyday. It was a motley group of people that at any time could include Swedes, Fins, Thai (two lady-boys who could have beaten Ice Man and Maverick), Germans (every one of them spoke excellent English), Aussies, Swiss, Italian (this guy named William who spent every winter in Koh Lanta, was a bit of an asshole in only the way an Italian can be , and loved to utter bravo after every good point), and then a lone American (me).

The damn Canadians

There was also a Canadian couple from Vancouver who were spending the winter in Southern Thailand; the girl (Sui) was running her fashion company from her blackberry, while the guy (Chris) was picking up spare jobs leading diving trips to small islands. Visiting them while I happened to cross paths was Chris’ Mother (Paulette) who adored her son beyond belief, had a wicked smoker’s voice, and never had a problem telling you what was on her mind.

I also met a gay English couple (Ian and Oliver) who were writing off the vacation to a business expense as they were “investigating tailors and manufacturers in the market for production of some of their lower end product.” They ran an upscale clothier that specialized in coming to the client for fittings, because, as Oliver put it, “If you asked our clients to go shopping, they wouldn’t even know what you were talking about.”

Then there was a 15-year old Norwegian kid (visiting his father who had a house in Thailand) also named Oliver who spoke perfect English, tried to teach me some Thai (unsuccessfully), was amazed when I told him I didn’t have a PS3 or Xbox360 (he had both that he had paid for from his earnings as a bus boy in Norway [when I was fifteen, I was taking out the garbage once a week for beer money]), and, for a teenager, could handle his Bicardi Breezers like a seasoned pro.

Then there was my Austrian buddy Armin, who I met while traveling from Railay Beach to Koh Phangang. He saw that we shared a destination (in Thailand, the travel companies brand you like cattle with a sticker bearing your end point) and struck up a conversation. Armin ran his own electrician company, had traveled through Mexico and even spent some time in Cuba, spoke fluent English (his favorite phrase to use in exasperation, come onnnnnn) and was a born conversationalist like myself (the content might not always be there, but the spirit is).

My Austrian buddy Armin, carefully reading his Southern Thailand guide.

Not all of my encounters were so satisfying, like the group of South African girls I had drinks with in Railay. I never thought that the white South African accent sounded so similar to Cher from Clueless. I ended up wandering off after one of them used the word colored when referring to a native. There were also the roving bands of Australian guys who were there for the obvious reasons and didn’t give a rat’s ass how obnoxious they were. You could spot these guys a mile away; Chang or Tiger Beer singlet, Quicksilver board shorts (buy Aussie!), flip-flops (or thongs as they call them), and sunnies (sunglasses) covering their eyes as they scan the bar for the cheapest looking prostitute. Okay, that may be a little harsh; I find Australians to be extremely entertaining, it’s just that South East Asia is like their Cozumel.

But even the few annoying foreigners I ran into couldn’t ruin all the incredible friendships I made (and this even isn’t mentioning all the equally amazing people I met in Malaysia). There were the two lovely Irish girls I intruded on at my hostel in Bangkok; they had started traveling in India and were making their way to Laos, Vietnam, and Cambodia before heading down the Malay Peninsula and ending up in Sydney where they expected to find jobs. There was also the trio of girls from Quebec City who just had that French-Canadian intrigue about them (beautiful, skinny, smoked cigarettes), but instead of being apathetic and disgusted that I was American, these girls were actually cool. I briefly considered following them to Koh Tao, but decided that might be too much.

All in all, I met a ton of cool people. But as you can tell, most of them were foreigners. And from my previous posts, you can probably guess that I won’t have anything positive to say about many Thai people. It is tough, because the only Thai people I encountered were serving me a beer rather than sharing one with me. Of the three places I spent significant time (Koh Lanta, Railay, and Koh Phangang), I met zero Thai tourists or vacationers. With good reason though; it was the absolute peak season and there’s a reason these places are so popular with foreigners.

I’ll make an apt comparison for my American readers. There’s a reason South Carolinians don’t vacation in Hilton Head, because it’s filled with people from Ohio (South Carolinians most hated adversary), it’s more expensive (meaning you get less value for your money), and there are better beaches and golf courses all along the South Carolina coast (Fripp, Kiawah, Edisto, Folley, IOP, Pawley's, and my personal favorite Sullivan’s Island).

God, do I miss that food.

Thai people aren’t going to the spots I went to for the same exact reason; in their eyes it’s a rip off and they know of better places to go anyways. And as a yuppie-white person, it’s my ever lasting dream to find out where those places are so I can one day say, Oh, you went to Koh Samui, I heard that’s… nice. But next time you’re in Thailand, you should check out Koh (insert obscure island here). I heard about it from a Thai friend (name-dropping of an indigenous friend is always a plus) and it was paradise on earth. I was the only foreigner there (this is the killer).

So all of my encounters were made from the type of economical encounters that don’t usually precede friendship. But I’d be remiss in not mentioning Jip, the proprietor of the bungalows I stayed in on Koh Lanta (Blue Moon Bungalows on Long Beach). I was recommended the place from two English girls I had met in Kuala Lumpur, and they actually told me to ask for Jip. Amazing guy and super laid back: never wore a shirt or shoes, never worried about bills (I would often forget to pay for a coke or pad-thai only for him to casually ask me if he remembered correctly the next time I sat down to eat), and helped me out with anything and everything (where to go, what to eat, and how to get to my next destination). I’m also pretty sure he was supposed to charge me for wi-fi and just never did.

Jip and the chef at Blue Moon Bungalows in Koh Lanta (I can't believe Jip was wearing a shirt here)

Then there was the restaurant that was right next to my room (they didn’t have a bungalow for me, but set me up in a room with a fan, giant bed, and no bugs [a rarity for beach-accommodation in Thailand] for a cool $10 a night). I tried to spread the word, but it really was some of the best food I have ever tasted (easily the best pad-thai I ever had). The chef, who was the only other employee there, would let me watch him make the food; everything was fresh, it was all absurdly cheap (no more than $4 for a meal) and he knew exactly how spicy I liked it (most of the food served in Thailand is left for you to spice it yourself, and I tended to go overboard). I’ll just let the pictures do it justice.

There were certainly other aspects of Thai culture I really enjoyed: the buses (cleanest and nicest buses I have ever been on; they had forty-inch flat screens showing movies), the food (Lord, do I miss the food), the beer (Chang is cheap, tasty, and has over 6% alcohol content), the football (they got any and every football match; for example, when I was waiting for my night ferry to Koh Phangang at a hawker center, they were showing the Everton/Scunthrope FA Cup match. I don’t even know if they were showing that in England), and of course the pure beauty (despite there being a ton of trash covering the beach that I stayed on in Koh Phangang, I was still in awe of some of the beaches and islands I got to experience [as I hope the pictures have conveyed to you]).

I should probably have split this post in half, and spent more time talking about the characteristics I mentioned in the paragraph above, but I need to get to my post on Vietnam before I completely forget the place (not to mention the backlog of thoughts I’m accumulating on Georgia since my return). So I think this is a good place to leave Thailand. On a high note. I miss you already.

Oh, Thailand, how I miss you...

Thursday, February 3, 2011

Return to Bandza, Student Confessions, & Ravenous Wolfs

A statue off the main highway in the middle of Georgia

So it’s been a busy few weeks since I got back to Bandza. I’ve been slowly adapting to the weather (quite different than tropical Southeast Asia; although not nearly as frigid as I expected), the living situation (everyone huddles into the small house [also known as the cooking house] from where the only heat on the property is emanating), and just getting back into the swing of things. I’ve also been spending most of my free time traveling and catching up with friends in other parts of Georgia. And finally, one of my Christmas gifts from my mother was her old Kindle, which (if you can recall) is something I sorely needed and, now that I have one, keeps me more than occupied.

One of the more problematic issues during my short return has been internet access. As the entire family migrated to the small house, so did the computer. Add to that the fact that it’s winter, there’s literally nothing to do around the property, and Lasha discovered the wonders of Tetris; my computer access is few and far between.

But this isn’t an excuse, because, as always, I’m typing these pointless thoughts on my laptop only to transfer them later. I’m only saying that the time between when I finish a post to actual publication may be even more prolonged than is custom (I had the second part of my Thailand thoughts waiting for almost a week). So if you don’t see a post in over a week, no need to worry, I’ve got plenty on the way.

Anyway, it’s been an interesting few weeks of re-acclimation to Georgian village life. When I first stumbled back onto the Gabunia farm, I walked into the small house only to find a basic makeshift infirmary for the family. Lasha and Luka were both infected with some sort of virus that resembled Chickenpox or the Measles, which was apparently sweeping the Martvili district (or so they told me; I have still yet to hear anyone else mention this).

Something I haven’t brought up before is Georgian’s affinity for iodine. Behind Nabeglavi and tchatcha on Georgians’ list of favorite medical remedies is iodine. They put it on anything and everything (see the Chris Rock joke about Robotussin [or as he calls it, ‘Tussin]). When my friend Ali fell in a manhole (so she says, I’m still convinced it was a pothole), she resembled Smurfette for a week since her host-family insisted on dousing her in iodine.

But back to the family mash unit; Babua Rezo was also laid up with some sort of bulging disk coming from his upper groin, which he—much to my delight—showed me. Reziko was still in Tbilisi waiting on Bebia Lela to return from her European travels, so the only healthy family member present was Ira. But more that the haggard physical appearance was the household mood—outward misery. After making my grand reentrance, no one could muster a slight smile or even fake enthusiasm. Not that I need some sort of glorious welcome upon return, but it was as if I were returning from just another day at school, and not a month of travel.

To make things worse, I made a frantic retreat to Bandza so that I’d be there for the first day of classes (before I left, I was told we restarted on Thursday, January 20th by all of my colleagues), but when I showed up to class the next morning (getting only a few intermittent hours of sleep in my near freezing room, which is unfortunately in the giant unheated house [I immediately went out and bought a space heater, only to find out that I couldn’t use it because it sucked up to much electricity; probably should have asked before I spent the 50 Lari on it. Who needs a space heater? Hardly been used]), there was no one there but the janitor, who told me that class started on Monday.

So it was definitely a bit of a sober homecoming. While sitting in Bandza over the next few days waiting for school to start or my friends to return, I was momentarily second-guessing why I returned in the first place, or at least why I didn’t ask to be moved to Tbilisi (as many of my fellow TLGers mandated in order to return for the second semester). But those thoughts were reactionary, fleeting, and above all foolish.

Now that my friends are back (sans my buddy Ian who is living it up in Krakow, Poland amidst tall blonds who don’t have the hereditary uni-brow curse), school starting up again (a busy man has less time to think about what to bitch about), Reziko and Lela returning (which, in addition to Luka and Lasha’s improved health, has brought more warmth and energy to the farm, if not a bit of chaos [what do you expect when you cram seven people into a 400 square-foot room]), and most importantly, I’ve had numerous encounters and experiences within the few days I’ve been back that has reminded me why I love this place. Here’s a small taste:

Erti – When I asked my students what they did for New Years, a vast majority of them (primarily boys from age twelve to eighteen) told me, “I drink much wine.” This confession basically told me three things: 1.) I’m one hell of a role model; 2). I need to work on the past simple use of irregular verbs; and 3). Georgia rocks.

Ori – But it gets better. In my once weekly English club (optional after school meeting, in which I try to prepare something a bit more interesting than grammar points and vocabulary), I planned a lesson around Auld Lang Syne (less formerly known as the song played right after the clock strikes midnight on New Years Eve), which included them singing the chorus and then creating their own New Years’ Resolution. Some of my more admirable students pleased me by pledging to “become fluent in English.” But I was knocked down a few pegs when one of my year XI students showed me his promise to “stop smoking hemp.” At least his grammar was correct.

Sami – And to top it off, while typing this, my family was watching the news and one of the lead stories was about a wolf in Zastephoni who has ravished a few farms and killed an unprecedented seven sheep. I have a feeling that as we sit, there’s a scene going on right now in Central Georgia that is similar to the men of Amity gearing up for the shark hunt in Jaws. On a related note, there was a two-headed cow born in an adjacent village.

I can’t make this stuff up.

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Thailand: The Bad (Part II: Everything Else Edition)

Little do you know that despite this beautiful and peaceful picture of a Thai beach, I'm about to spend 1300 words bitching about Thailand. Enjoy.

So this will probably be a short post, as I flushed out most of my negative vibes in the last entry. But I still have some complaints, mostly due to one incident in particular. I feel like Frank Costanza on Festivus, I got a lotta problems with you people… But I promise, after this I do have some good things to say about the beautiful country of Thailand.

Railei (one of many spellings) was the most scenic beach I visited, while also being the most expensive, which directly coincided with it being ripe for a rip-off

Erti - Thailand had some of the nicest buses I’ve ever been on (a topic I’ll visit in the next post), but the way the companies run the buses and their routes had scamola written all over it. If you’ve ever visited Thailand, you’re probably aware of the term Thai Time. Even if you’ve never been there, you can probably tell what it means. Nothing is on time in Thailand; something is always broke, or someone quit. So often times you’re stuck at a pit stop waiting for another bus/driver/spare part to arrive.

But the way tourist transit works in Thailand is you buy a package to get from one spot to the next, and that package may include a ferry, bus, long boat, and/or taxi ride. The catch is when they transfer you from one mode of transportation to the next. The transfer is always at some roadside shack in the middle of nowhere, with the only thing available being bland sandwiches, maybe some Thai noodles, water, and beer. And all of it is twice as expensive as it would be elsewhere. It’s a giant scam.

Red Ants; scavengers...

But what are you going to do? They probably won’t order you a taxi even if you asked for one (and if they did, it would probably be twice as expensive as a normal cab), sometimes you are stuck there for upwards of three hours, and when you’re staring at a thirteen hour bus ride to Bangkok, sometimes all you want to do is get drunk. It’s exploitation at it’s best, but they know they can get away with it, so what the hell?

Ori - Everybody told me that Thailand is much cheaper and less clinical that Malaysia, but I didn’t find it that way at all. To be fair, I was in Thailand during the absolute peak tourist season, and the only places I visited in Thailand were popular and crowded destinations. Either way, the only thing that was cheaper in Thailand was the alcohol, which is kind of important for a traveler like me, but I thought the food and stay would be a lot less, and they were not. Also, shopping was not more affordable either (Vietnam is where it’s at per Southeast Asia shopping).

Saw this bar at Tonsai Beach near Railei, and it's a subtle shout out to my Great Uncle Howdy's Bar in Old San Juan called the One World Bar (Maybe? I forgot the name of it, so family, please correct me in the comments). Funny thing about Howdy is he ran this bar in Puerto Rico for decades yet the only Spanish he ever learned was Hola.

I was talking to a friend about my trip, and she said she met a German woman in Costa Rica a few years back, and all she talked about was how she hated traveling Americans (obviously, this woman lacked a modicum of tact as she was knowingly telling this to an American traveler) because Europeans had been backpacking through Thailand for years, negotiating every price, and enjoying the low rates they could negotiate down. Then the Americans showed up and ruined everything. Instead of playing the game and haggling, they took the first price given. Eventually, this ruined the economy for all the Europeans looking for a cheap vacation.

You would think it would be love at first sight.

I’m sure there is some truth to this theory. I hate haggling (as you could have noticed from my last post), but at the same time, I ran into exactly zero Americans while I was in Thailand, yet was surrounded by Europeans. So maybe we ran up the prices and bolted, while Europeans are still nostalgic enough to continue traveling to Thailand despite their bitching. I’m also not really sure that a majority of American travelers share my distaste for haggling, but I do know the Europeans I saw at shops and markets loved the whole give and take. Actually, it was kind of disgusting to see European after European taking pleasure in talking a night market vendor down an extra fifty cents on a Chang Beer singlet (the most popular tourist souvenir for Australian, U.K., and Irish visitors).

This was Walking Street on Railei, not nearly as exciting as the whore-lined Walking Street in Patong (or so I heard), but pleasant nonetheless.

Sami - You’re not a tourist in Thailand until you’ve crashed a motorbike, which I did in Koh Pangang. I wanted to explore the island from where I was (a beach on the North shore of the island). Unfortunately the island is extremely hilly, and the roads that cut through the mainland are terrible: narrow, muddy, and filled with potholes. But I made it the entire day criss-crossing the island without so much as a slight slip. Unfortunately, when I set out that evening to do a favor for a friend (long story short, I had to find a Sea Gypsy selling awesome jewelry at Hadd Rin, home to the famous Full Moon Parties and on the complete opposite side of the island. The biggest catch: the guy only came out at night), I made it almost the whole way to where the road gets better, hit a foot-deep pothole going about 30 km/hr, and ate shit.

This is not the motor bike I crashed

I only had a few scratches on my palms, knee, and elbow, but there were a few nicks on the right side of the bike. Nothing monumental, easily fixable, but I knew I would have to pay some sort of restitution. So when I returned the bike the next morning, I didn’t even try to hide the fact that I’d crashed (the bandage wrapped around my right elbow would have given me away anyway). Immediately (without even asking about what happened or if I was okay) they pulled out a sheet with a list or replacement parts and costs. As two guys were going over the entire bike and punching numbers into a calculator, I started to get a little apprehensive. Then when they showed me the calculator reading 8300 Baht (Approx. $275), I immediately said, ‘No way.’

This was a French guy me and my buddy Armin met on the night-ferry to Koh Pangang. Despite the fact that we banded together to split a cab fare (yes, that truck is an island cab), it didn't matter because it was still per person.

There were maybe ten scratches on the entire bike, which all could have been buffed out and fixed for a matter of dollars, but they insisted that they had to order brand new body parts. I eventually talked them down to 6100 Baht, still an outrageous sum in my eyes, but I had a ferry to catch and they had my passport, so I was past the point of caring. Now I understand that I signed a contract and I have to honor my signature, but I knew this company would not buy any new parts, and that they are relying on tourists like myself trying to navigate these terrible roads and in doing so, scratch up the bike after which they can charge a ridiculous amount of money. It had scam written all over it.

Tonsai beach was much cheaper than neighboring Railei, but also much crunchier. My hair started dreading itself as I was walking over there.

Did they make me crash the bike? Of course not, but the completely impersonal transaction that ensued when I returned the bike and the matter in which they came up with the price (like it was all part of the whole deal; a closing cost per se)… the whole thing rubbed me as dishonest and wrong. There’s no doubt about it, I’m the dumb tourist for falling off the bike, but the entire ordeal reminded me of the completely cold and impersonal way in which I found myself continually treated in any sort of business transaction.

Again, I don't have many shots of being ripped off in Thailand, so here's a nice shot of a few Thai flags ripping in the wind off the back end of one of my many ferry rides.

Okay, hopefully these past two posts will act as some sort of catharsis and provide closure for my Thai angst. I’m actually looking forward to typing up my positive thoughts on the country, including some good words on the many Europeans I met. Despite my scathing words above, I don’t hate Europeans. I just don’t like Europeans who have a natural distaste towards Americans based on half-baked theories (we have it tough enough when we travel). Anyway, there are some aspects I really cherished about Thailand, and I’m looking forward to airing them. End on a good note, yeah?