Now, it’s my first morning in Thailand. This is nothing new (not the morning part, those come approximately once a day – but the first morning part.) I’ve had more first mornings than I can remember in countries I’ve traveled to and lived, all over the world. At this point, you could airdrop me anywhere in the world with just a loincloth, an iPhone 4, $260 in small local currency, and a strong course of penicillin and I’ll find a way to adapt.
But here’s something you don’t know – the fear of the unknown never goes away. It certainly gets easier, or different, but it’s just human nature, and today, I suddenly, find myself in a country where I don’t know a soul yet alone the customs, the money, where to go, what to do, or the language (I know a chopped ‘please’ and ‘thank you’). However, I’ve found the Process gets easier. When faced with the perpetual loss of familiar conditions, your routine becomes even more comforting, especially for me, being just a few ticks on the spectrum away from Rain Man.
On my first day, the Process always starts with getting out to explore the town. When traveling, you always seem to start out in the most touristy places, which are the most expensive, offer the least authentic culture or charm, and have the most ways to entrap a tourist. But these are the places most visited so they’re also the most documented, and easiest to start from. The Process, then, always entails separating myself from the tourist traps and hot spots. This could take a couple days or 3 years, depending. For instance, I’m staying near and walking around the trashy Patong area – which is nothing but bars and cheap shopping – because that’s where all the hotels were online. But my mission is I’ll explore the rest of the island and start looking around for more chill (and cheaper) places to stay near nicer and less touristy beaches. Further and further and further out until, eventually, I find myself on a small island in a beach hut with WIFI. Think of starting in Patong like beginning your first stay in America on the old, seedy part of the strip in Las Vegas - it can only go up from here.
The French proprietor of my hotel, a nice fella with a purple Polo shirt who’s been up working for 36 hours straight because his taskmaster wife just got back in town, gave me a map of the town and circled a few spots. Still, I’m clueless, and find myself walking around aimlessly, asking “Excuse me, which way is the ocean?” – the EXACT phrase I mercilessly mocked tourists in Costa Rica for uttering to me.
That’s ok, getting hopelessly lost is part of the Process. In fact, I prefer to just wander around with only instinct as my guide, (now that I think of it, in life as well as when I travel.) I walk on a few blocks past posters for Muay Thai fights and stores with their metal grates still down, as this party town sleeps late.
First impression: this place is a shit hole. It seems every block is lined up like this: Tourist information kiosk, Indian restaurant, shop with t-shirts and fake Beats by Dre headphones, massage parlor, pharmacy right next door, GoGo bar, 7-11, money exchange counter, and another pharmacy. Why do they need all of these pharmacies, anyway? “Massage, sir?” they call to me, but I keep walking.
I already feel a longing for the perfect beaches and chill island life of Boracay in the Philippines where I just came from. This, too, is part of the Process. You always look fondly on the place you just left because it’s familiar and comfortable. Of course when you were there you thought fondly of the previous place you’d been, and longed for a change and that’s why you relocated, and so it goes on and on. But each place has redeeming qualities so it’s best just to focus on those.
A quick scan around me in Patong doesn’t reveal any of those redeeming qualities. Oh, there is one – there’s a terrific breeze. And better Internet connection – that’s two! But the beach is crappy and crowded and instead of a lot of smiling Thai people with the island spirit, I see a lot of Russian or Australian tourists walking around half drunk. I know this like I know my own name – the Aussies wear short shorts and are watching rugby and football (soccer) and drinking beers in the bars already at 9 am, and the Russian women all look like curvy supermodels. I swear to God, they are the hottest women on the planet – the ‘Latinas of Europe’ they’ve been called – but cold as ice and won’t even acknowledge your existence other than to give you an Ivan Drago scowl.
I’m standing on a street corner trying not to look like a tourist when a beautiful woman walks up to me and says hi. “Where are you from?” is the instant conversation-maker among travelers and backpackers in any foreign country, followed by “How long are you here,” and maybe “Have you gone to the Full Moon party on ecstasy?” – the coded lexicon of globe trekkers. But this girl, who reveals she is from Latvia, throws me a curveball, asking me how long it’s been since I’ve lived in the U.S. I do the math, “Almost three years now,” I tell her.
She keeps asking me questions but I just stare at her face and upper pectoral region as my mouth moves, answering on its own in a language that sounds only vaguely familiar. I’m pretty sure I’d marry her on the spot so we’d have a full family by this time next Christmas and can have a cute photo to send out on our holiday card. When she asks what I do for work and finds out I’m a writer, she seems impressed. “Don’t be,” I assure her, with all honesty. Before I even have a chance to propose to her or at least offer to take her out for a beer, she asks where I’m staying. I point to the cheaper outskirts of town. She asking, I realize, not because she’s on my same married and family by next Christmas plan, but she’s a street recruiter for the 5-star hotel next door. “Probably not for a backpacker’s budget, huh?” I ask. Her aviator sunglasses wilt and her smile curdles when she realize I’m of humble means. She starts to back away slowly, with no sudden movements. Goodbye, Latvia.
This will happen 467 times a day in some shape or form – hustlers, vendors, touts, scammers, middlemen, beggars, fortune tellers, charlatans, bait-and-switch men, honest salespeople and hawks trying to pitch you everything from taxi rides to massages to jet ski rentals. I’ve become so adept at fending them; I just try to act like a Russian woman would if I asked her out.
I keep walking, hoping I’m going in the right direction, saying “No, thank you,” to all the taxi drivers. I really need to rent scooter, but I don’t fathom how that could end well for me. #1, I don’t know how to ride a motorcycle, #2 I’m clumsy, #3, they drive on the wrong side of the road here and #4, I’ve been warned about the Jet Ski Mafia.
Apparently, a favorite scam by the mafia influences that run this town, who can be from Korea, the Middle East, Thailand, or Russia, is to rent a motor scooter or jet ski to a tourist – totally legit so far. But when the tourist come back to return it, the rental place reports a bunch of damage that wasn’t there before. If there’s nothing visible then they say they’re big problems with the motor so the tourist now owes them a ridiculous sum, like $1,000 USD. If they protest, the mafia gets the Thai police involved, who are in on the scam. If the tourist doesn’t pay, they’ll detain them and confiscate their passport or at least lock them in an interrogation room for 24 hours until they freak out and agree to pay.
I find my feet moving toward a shining U.S.-style shopping mall with a Starbucks and Burger King. Instead, I halt dead in my tracks and force my feet to walk in a different direction, and letting intuition take back over. I chose a few random streets and alleyways to saunter down, a reminder that the Process is to get lost, be open to fate, stumble forward, fail while smiling, to purposely become a tiny fish in the biggest pond there is – the world.
In the secluded alley I find a great little place that serves coffee and Pad Thai. Over breakfast I draft my First Day To Do List, the true purpose of why I started writing this.
This is what I want to get done today:
1. Find the beach and go for a swim and a run
2. Get a local SIM card
3. Find a long term stay apartment
4. Go join the gym
5. Start teaching myself Thai
6. Do two days worth of writing in one day
7. Seek out salty dogs local expats for more valuable information
However, this is probably what my first day will look like:
1. Eat Pad Thai and drink coffee
2. Lounge by the hotel pool and watch Billy the Exterminator
3. Take two siestas
Oh well, there’s always tomorrow, and that, my friends, is the true beauty of the Process.