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Leaving on a jet plane . . .

And so it begins. Again.

THAILAND | Thursday, 25 September 2014 | Views [402]

September 24, 2014

Wild Orchid Villa, Bangkok, Thailand

As Randy (my partner and travel companion) embark on a nine-month journey to Southeast Asia to conduct research for my dissertation and to travel for the sake of it, I find myself struggling with a conundrum. Do I keep separate blogs for research ponderings and personal excursions/reflections? Or do I combine the two? Is it “professional” to include personal vignettes in a research blog, even when they’re not related to the research at all? And this is the conclusion I’ve reached:

I believe that the way we separate our personal lives from our “education” is absurd. We are expected (at least in American culture – and perhaps all “Western” cultures) to completely strip ourselves of everything that makes us human in order to engage in one of the most fundamental activities that forms the core of being human – learning. We completely ignore the fact that our way of knowing – our perspectives/world views – are constructed by a complex combination of biology and society and instead treat them as if they are innately “correct” or the only way of knowing and being in the world. Pretending that American/Western education is “objective” by stripping students of their humanity only serves to maintain the status quo of privileging Western forms of knowledge over all others because it allows us to trick ourselves into thinking it is “objective.” Because of this, I have decided NOT to keep separate blogs for research and personal experiences. In my opinion, my life has just as much of an influence on my education as my education has on my life. And so to pretend that it doesn’t feels disingenuous and utterly dishonest, even though I have been conditioned to believe that my personal life has no influence on my education – that it is a one-way process, rather than an intricate dialectic dance. Thus, while it makes me uncomfortable to display my humanity in a “professional” context (simply because of my conditioning and inexperience with doing so), I don’t see any other way to write this blog without compromising a huge part of the learning process that will inform my research and vice versa. Furthermore, when I really think about it, the space between our “professional” lives and our “personal” lives separate is where judgment breeds. And so I begin.

My journey from Eugene to Southeast Asia can best be described as “one of those days” (or, really “two-ish of those days”). You know. The kind where you wish you could go back to bed and push “restart.” Truthfully it wasn’t all that bad, especially when placed in an overall perspective. I had purposely booked a flight that left at a reasonable hour because I knew I would be up late in LMPM (last-minute panic mode). Randy had booked a flight nearly three hours earlier than mine, so we decided that I should sleep in, given the 30 hours of travel ahead and the fact that we would see each other at the end of that (we had booked separate itineraries because I used award miles, while Randy paid cash). But it turns out that LMPM comes with an absolute requirement that you get no more than 5 hours of sleep the night before a big trip such as this. So, although I got everything done and was ready to go out the door the second my ride arrived (Thanks Josh!!), I felt more than a bit zombified, having woken up two hours earlier than I had planned.

Getting to the airport in time was a cinch. The airport in Eugene is a tiny one and it’s usually a pretty smooth departure process. Usually. I knew something was up as soon as I got in line to check in and each of the 3-4 people in front of me were taking 10-15 min to check-in. It turns out the flight was delayed due to weather conditions in SFO. When I checked in they told me there was a small chance I could still make my connecting flight, but booked me for the next available option (24 hours later) just in case. So after that hiccup, I went to go through security, also usually a fairly smooth process despite the fact that I always opt-out (mainly in protest of erosion of civil liberties, plus I really enjoy the free “massage”). Today was different. I went through the usually pat down process where they are required to tell you the whole process by law – even if you’ve been through it tens of times (e.g. “When I pat down ‘sensitive areas’ [i.e. your crotch and breasts], I’ll use the back of my hands [as if that makes it any more comfortable to be touched by strangers in inappropriate places]). My favorite part is “I’ll then pat down each of your legs starting at your feet with one hand on the outside and the other on the inside, working my way up until I meet resistance . . .” Anyway, after they pat you down they wipe their gloves with a strip of paper and put it in a machine that tests for traces of explosives. This had never been an issue with pat downs for me . . . until today. The alarm on the machine went off and the screen blinked in bright red “Explosives Detected.” “What does that mean?” I asked. “That means you get ‘the special treatment,’” said the TSA Agent. “Well, I guess it’s a good thing my flight is delayed.”

The TSA agent and another woman then took me to an area with the same type of machine, only it was in an area off to the side with a curtain enclosing it. They then proceeded to tell me the process: that they would be doing another pat down, but they would now be using the front of their hands for the entire process and that that was the reason for the curtain (again, I’m not really sure who decided that the only inappropriate way of touching “sensitive areas” is with the front of one’s hand). They would also be going through my carry-ons – item by item. I asked what would happen if the machine still tested positive and they told me they weren’t really sure and that they needed to talk to their supervisor. Throughout the whole process, both women were extremely nice and personable, asking me about my trip and my research. They seemed genuinely interested and nonplussed. At one point, one of the women left the curtained area to talk to a man who I assume is the supervisor. I overheard him ask how I was acting and she said I seemed relaxed and not anxious at all. About 20-25 minutes later, and two more positive tests for explosives, they let me go on my way. We discussed whether I was using a new detergent or new shampoo that had a high level of glycerin and decided that it was probably the permethrin (insecticide) that I had impregnated my clothes with as my personal form of Malaria prophylaxis (I’ve had reactions to every single anti-malarial medication available) that had sounded the alarm.

In the end, my flight ended up being delayed just long enough for me to miss my connecting flight. I went to the customer service desk when I arrived in SFO to see if there was any other flight I could get on that day. It turns out there was, but it closed its doors two minutes before I got to the customer service desk. So they booked me on a flight the next day. A little while later, I luckily managed to find out that the second of two flights (on a different airline) they had rerouted me on wouldn’t confirm my reservation because they didn’t have the same fare class available. So it’s likely I would have been stuck in Tokyo. Thankfully two agents at the United Club desk (where I used a free pass to take advantage of the snacks and wifi to book a hotel for the night) were willing to spend about 30 min of their time calling around and helping get me on a rerouting that I could be confirmed on. So, after about three hours at the airport getting all this figured out, I finally went to a hotel – and slept for nearly 11.5 hours.

The next morning all was well and I felt rested (who wouldn’t?), but then a series of unfortunate events began again. It started with the discovery that one of the wheels had broken on the 48 lb suitcase that I – with the invaluable help of colleagues and friends – had filled with donations for Phaung Daw Oo, the Buddhist monastic school we’ll be volunteering at in Burma. As one might imagine, this would make it very difficult to drag the suitcase around multiple Thai city streets while looking for accommodation in the weeks before we arrive in Burma. The wheel was still on the suitcase, but sat in a cockeyed manner that caused it to bend inward every time it hit a bump. So, after some tea and a nice workout, I headed down to the lobby around 11:15 with a healthy appetite to grab some breakfast before the airport shuttle arrived. Unfortunately, it was so late they had put the breakfast away. So I resolved to sit and try to fix the wheel on the suitcase while I waited for the shuttle. I fought with it for quite a while with my mini leatherman tool to no avail. Eventually, my hunger was not easily ignored and I remembered that I had a granola bar, so I pulled it out. I took one bite and then realized that I really needed to pee. The shuttle was due to arrive in three minutes and I knew it could be up to an hour before I’d get the chance to use a bathroom since I had to check my luggage first. So I left my granola bar next to my bag (or so I thought) and went to use the bathroom in the lobby. . . and it was closed for cleaning. I was mildly panicking by this point as my bladder was getting increasingly insistent, so I asked hotel staff if there was another bathroom around. They said no, but that I could go in the one that was being cleaned. So I guiltily went in. And then the TP was one of those new, annoying rolls that, no matter how you try to grab it, you come up with an annoyingly tiny piece of paper. But I was in a hurry. So I shoved my fingers into the roll near the outside and tore a chunk off. When I returned to the lobby, the shuttle was loading up, so I quickly grabbed my bags and hopped on, forgetting about the granola bar. I had sparse other snacks and I was about to get on a 13 hr flight where the only food available was the meals they served and, since I had been rerouted, I couldn’t be sure they’d have vegetarian food for me (which is how I’ve eaten since I was 10 years old). So I knew I needed to ration. At least until I could get more supplies at the airport.

So I was incredibly hungry by the time I went to check in. Although I arrived 2 hrs before my flight and the check-in line was relatively short, it took a while to get to the counter. I finally got there, but when I went through the self check-in system, it wanted to charge me $200 for each of the two bags I needed to check, despite the fact that I had already checked them in in Eugene and paid $100 to check the donation suitcase (my first bag was free). So another chunk of time went by as the agent at the counter helped me sort it out and I was finally on my way to security. After the experience in security the day before, I had begrudgingly resolved to go through the creepy body scanner to avoid any more delays. So I was all ready to go through and had put my carry-ons on the belt and was waiting in line for the scan. There was a woman in front of me and the man she was with was still busy getting his things on the carry-on belt, so when he finished, I gestured for him to go ahead. He entered the scanner and it did its thing and he was done. I took a deep breath and stepped up into the scanner. I was promptly told to step back out as the TSA agent was flagging down another TSA agent, saying simply “Overload.” All I could think was, “here we go again,” but instead of being pulled aside for “special treatment,” I was ushered to the old school metal detector near the scanner along with all of the other passengers behind me. That was the first sign that the day may be taking a better turn. But then by the time I cleared security, my flight was already boarding. And it was full, so I wanted to board ASAP so I would be able to put my backpack in the overhead bin and have leg room for the 13 hr flight. I rushed to grab a quick meal for the flight, but there were long lines at every fresh food stand. So I went to an airport convenience store and grabbed a box of wheat thins and a twix bar (I was so hungry, I was struggling to think straight by this point) and then rushed to the gate and boarded the plane. As I boarded, I explained my meal situation to the flight attendant and, thankfully, she wrote my info down immediately and I ended up getting a spectacular Indian-influenced meal soon after take-off. The rest of the flight was pretty uneventful, albeit a tad bit long.

My layover was 4 hrs in Taipei, so I tried to get on an earlier flight, but that didn’t work out. By this time, it was something like 5 or 6AM at home (and about 5 or 6PM in Taipei) and I had slept for about two hours on the plane, so I laid across three seats and tried to shut out the alarmingly bright fluorescent and neon lights and the sounds of a booming microcosmic consumer culture.

Over 52 hours after leaving my home in Eugene, I finally touched down in Bangkok. The experience of getting out of the airport stood in stark contrast to the one I had had ten years earlier and again six years earlier, when protesters had taken over the airport in the middle of a coup, leaving hundreds of thousands of tourists stranded in Bangkok for several days. Both times, arriving in Bangkok was chaotic to say the least, with long lines for immigration. And as soon as you left customs, you were immediately bombarded by taxi drivers vying for your fare. This time there were no lines and no taxi drivers. Instead I went right through immigration, picked up my bags and walked straight out of customs (which required no forms and no bag scanning) and followed the signs to the taxi stand where there was no line and got a metered taxi to our hotel near Khao San Rd. The taxi driver was very nice and as talkative as his knowledge of English allowed (which was far better than my complete lack of knowledge of Thai). But I was still waiting for the other foot to drop, especially given the weird luck I’d had over the last 52 hours.

We finally arrived at the hotel around 3A Thai time (about 1P Eugene time the day before) and Randy was waiting by the street to greet me. Although the meter read 237 Baht (about $7), the taxi driver wanted to charge me 450. Although this is cheap by American standards (for a 30 min taxi ride), I’m now living on budget of about $25/day. So we argued briefly and I got him to go down to 360 Baht. I would have been more insistent about figuring out the exact amount (there was a 50B airport surcharge and a 25B toll that needed to be considered), but I was just happy to be in Thailand finally and to see Randy.

Randy and I spent the next couple of days settling in, attempting to fix the suitcase wheel with the help of a local (see pic), discovering that I had – in fact – put my granola bar in my backpack, getting over our jetlag, organizing our 3-month “meditation visa” for Burma, and getting vaccinated at the Bangkok Hospital travel clinic. We decided to get vaccines here since it is far cheaper than in the US. I got 5 shots and Randy got 6, so we were feeling a bit like pin cushions as we sat for the mandatory 30 min wait to monitor us for any adverse reactions. We both had sore arms for a day or two where they’d poked us with the Typhoid vaccine, but other than that we were fine. I was able to get vaccinated for Typhoid, Yellow Fever, Japanese Encephalitis, Meningitis, and Rabies, as well as get medications and advice for treating Malaria and traveler’s diarrhea, all for less than $200 (for comparison, a single Japanese Encephalitis shot costs $300 in the US).

Today, we’ll be picking up our meditation visas from the Myanmar Embassy and tomorrow we finally leave Bangkok for the temples of Cambodia before heading to Kratie, where we’ll set up accommodation and translator help for when we return in March to begin research in Cambodia.

The last two times I was in SE Asia (for 7 weeks in 2004 and 6 months in 2008-09), I had a very different perspective on the region, having strictly been a natural scientist and an environmentalist. So I’m very fascinated to see how that perspective has changed as I’ve become an interdisciplinary scholar with a strong focus on sociology and social justice. One of the first implications of that change in perspective was when I was reading through the Lonely Planet guide and it informed women visiting the region that they should avoid sitting near monks or brushing against them. This is certainly one of the things that I will struggle with throughout my stay. I understand that when one is visiting another’s home that they be respectful of that person’s beliefs, but at what cost? Is it fair to ask me, as a woman, to openly accept my oppression because I am a visitor? And, if so, is it only fair because I am privileged enough to be able to afford to leave my home for 9 months to travel abroad? Would it be different if it was all foreigners, instead of only women (in my opinion, it definitely would be)?

Another thing I’m struggling with, and will continue to struggle with, is the disparity of wealth between here and the US. I would be considered (financially) poor in the US, but here I am relatively rich. However, I’m still on a budget that more closely reflects the costs of living in Southeast Asia than in the US. I also struggle with the frustration of my concept of fairness. Is it really fair to jack up the cost of a ride or a thing or a meal up to six times the normal price because of the way I look? Six and ten years ago I would have said “no way.” But now that I understand that the poverty of the people here is a direct result of the exploitation of people and resources by the corporations that provide the people of my country with goods, I’m not so sure . . . It’s something I will certainly be contemplating as we continue our journey.

Finally, I’ll end this long-winded blog with one more thought (assuming anyone is still reading). Randy and I have also been struggling with dealing with “harassment” by tuk-tuk drivers, suit makers, and others hawking their wares. We are conditioned not to be rude by ignoring people, but as soon as we begin to speak to or acknowledge them, many of them follow us and continue to try to sell their goods and services, regardless of whether we’re even remotely interested (we’ve joked about getting Randy a T-shirt that says “No, I don’t want a suit!” in Thai (even though we both feel that should be obvious). Even if we don’t look at some of the hawkers or acknowledge them, many of them continue to hover and speak to us. It’s incredibly uncomfortable because, not only are we not interested, but I find myself imagining what it would be like to eke out a living by trying to sell goods and services to people who ignore you and pretend you don’t exist as you continue to speak to them. It’s a horrible feeling to be constantly harassed by people vying for your money, but I feel I have no concept of how it would feel to be on the other end – to hope that people will simply acknowledge you so that you may be able to sell them this or that trinket or service so that you may survive. And so it then feels very selfish to feel uncomfortable.

Tags: bangkok, flights, research

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