Thailand

I came to Thailand a few days ago, mostly to get away from Japan for a while and to relax. As my previous post suggests, I was a little tired after walking the amount I did and as the Japanese would say “using my care” (気を使う) with customers for so long. I thought I would get away, do yoga, dine like a king on my favorite food and get my scuba license. Here are some thoughts and observations of my time so far.

The largest pile of Pad Thai I have ever seen at the Chiang Mai night market

The largest pile of Pad Thai I have ever seen at the Chiang Mai night market

I’m not sure exactly what I expected, but there are way more tourists here than I ever imagined. There seem to be two primary types: the long-term residents/retirees who soak up the sun, get daily massages and find Thai girlfriends (lots of old white dudes with Thai girls) and the young migrants who travel Southeast Asia for 3-6 months, party and stay at backpackers. There are a remarkable number of Americans, at least half of the people I meet. I’m not blaming them. Compared to Africa this is a ridiculously accessible place. It’s actually cheaper than Africa, it doesn’t have the stigma of disease and poverty, the food is better, the roads aren’t littered with potholes, it’s safe and it’s easy to meet people because there are so many backpackers doing exactly the same thing. I’m not surprised that people choose Southeast Asia.

Africa (at least the part I visited) does have English going for it though. For a country that relies so heavily on tourism, I am surprised at the lack of English ability. Everyone speaks a few preset phrases, but beyond that it tapers off to zero rather quickly. When I mentioned this to some German teenagers, they ridiculed me as a typical American tourist who expects the rest of the world to be like them. Now this bothered me because I think I have some credentials that distinguish me from that stereotype. I don’t expect the world to look or talk like me, I just mentioned that learning more English would only help Thailand. Even places like Japan and China with far more advanced economies understand the value of learning English.

For some reason this led me to looking up dominant world languages. English currently has 400 million native speakers vs. Mandarin’s 850 million, but English has over 2 billion non-native speakers and students, whereas Mandarin only has 1 billion. Mandarin is just too mono-cultural and hard for non-native speakers (tones and Chinese characters), which is why English, not Mandarin will continue to be the world language. This is only my opinion of course but because it’s my blog I can state it confidently as fact 🙂

Last thought, I never thought I would say this, but the young backpacker crowd is actually restoring my faith in travelers and to an extent in humanity. The ones I have hung out with completely reject and are repulsed by the sex tourism industry. They want to learn about the culture. They care about the humane treatment of elephants they ride on. Sex tourism especially is a huge issue in Thailand, but it is encouraging to know there is a strong movement against it.

But I digress. I’m enjoying Thailand but for some crazy reason Africa still holds a place in my heart. It’s now my measuring stick for comparing all other places. I’ve been in Bangkok and Chiang Mai so far, and tomorrow I fly/bus/ferry to Ko Samui where I am going to get my scuba license and check off an item from my bucket list. So excited. More stories to come from there I am sure.

Apparently I have only taken pictures of food so far! This amazing meal cost $1.20!

Apparently I have only taken pictures of food so far! This amazing meal cost $1.20!

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Rooted and Unsettled

Over the last two weeks I’ve been traveling around the Midwest and Texas, playing pickleball exhibition matches, giving lessons and selling paddles. I’ve driven over 2,000 miles and worked 7 days a week. It’s been a fruitful, tiring and long trip.

As I’ve traveled, I’ve gotten to reconnect with my extended family across the region. I’ve stayed with aunts & uncles, second cousins, first cousins once removed – you name it. I love getting to meet these people as an adult, learning about how I’m connected to them and the interesting tidbits about our family tree.

It’s fascinating to me how rooted my family is in the United States. For at least 5 or 6 generations on each side, my entire family was born here. That goes back into at least the 1800s. Many have been here much longer than that. I have slave-owning ancestors in Georgia. There are abolitionists Arkansas. As legend has it, I have native American blood from Oklahoma. I get the sense of being rooted here, like I should belong because my family has so much history.

So what the heck happened to me? I barely qualify as American and although I have history, when asked where I’m from I don’t always answer America. It’s more complicated than that. I often wish for the simplicity of being from a single place. I wish I could be content never leaving, able to invest my life somewhere. I would know people, have unquestioning resolve in what I believe and listen to the global news with a concerned but uninvolved interest. I wouldn’t have any skin in the game. I wouldn’t have to answer the question, “Where should I live?” because it would be answered for me and other questions like “what should I do” and “who should I marry” would follow easily. When eating a banana in America I wouldn’t have to think about how much better it was in Africa. Life would certainly be simpler being from one place; not necessarily better, just simpler. Yet for one reason or another, that is not my story.

It makes me think of this quote:

“You will never be completely at home again, because part of your heart will always be elsewhere. That is the price you pay for the richness of loving and knowing people in more than one place.”

It is hard knowing people around the world. Yet I wouldn’t trade it for anything – It’s now on my bucket list to know someone from every single country. People are the same everywhere, but the hardships and struggles that they have overcome in some places are baffling. After hearing those stories, you can’t ever go back to not caring about what happens in other places.

One last comment. I recently listened to a book called Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adiche from Nigeria. What a cool name. Anyway, it made me laugh thinking about the funny quirks of Africa and how similar African cultures are. It also made me think about what it means to be an immigrant and the value of knowing more than one place. I would definitely recommend it, as in many ways it mirrored my own experiences.

That’s all for now. Thanks for reading

The Merits of Being a Tourist

I usually hate the idea of being a tourist. The standard I try to avoid is the stereotypical Asian tourist: whirlwind travel of as many places as they can cram into an itinerary, awkward bulges created by fanny packs in bad places, cameras slung around their necks incessantly snapping every angle while forgetting to really take anything in. You’ve seen them. Ironically, I now herd these people around, although I try to have a positive influence by helping them see much more than big mountains or famous sites. Travel should change you. Helping people be affected by the places they experience is my mission as a tour guide.

That’s why my last day in Kenya was a strange experience. Over the last two months, I felt I had become a local, even on “the other side of town” where I lived and worked on our project. Although I rarely saw another white person and am under no illusion that I would ever fit in, I knew the routines and was comfortable enough following them. I had an informed opinion on Kenyan politics. I could speak enough Swahili to differentiate myself from the common muzungu. I knew the matatu routes. Besides the color of my skin, I was on my way to becoming a local.

Then a big group of muzungus came from the US and disrupted my world. We overlapped for only one day before I left Kenya, but in that day I experienced many things I hadn’t since I first arrived, almost 3 years ago. All of the sudden, I was no different from any of them, a tourist. During our overlapping day, each class at the school where I worked recited a poem or sang a song in honor of the visitors in a huge gathering. Afterwards, we stood in a line and hi-fived kids for a good 30 minutes before dishing up rice and beans for lunch. Later, we visited an orphanage where kids sang more songs and performed dances. In letting life become normal in Kenya, I had not made time for simple things like hanging out with these kids. It took the mission trip mentality to get me to do that.

Presenting Poems and Songs to the Muzungus

Presenting Poems and Songs to the Muzungus

The wonder and curiosity of being a tourist is something I want to capture and incorporate into my every day life. Why is it that wherever we live, we often stop experiencing new things? Life becomes routine and monotonous, when every place has so many things to keep us growing and learning for a lifetime.

That’s why when I had a 20-hour layover in Montreal, I decided to go experience something. After watching The Netherlands’ 5-1 spanking of Spain, all I really wanted to do was sleep but I rallied, walking somewhere – anywhere. I started out from my hotel until a bus pulled up next to me. Naturally, I entered, having no idea where it was going. Not knowing how to pay for the ticket either, the bus driver and I stared at each other for a good 5 seconds before I just sat down without saying anything. When the bus reached its final destination, I asked the driver how I should pay and he responded by giving me a free ticket – just for being a visitor. Since the bus ended at a metro station, I obviously had to see where it would take me. I picked a station that sounded nice (everything was in French) and got off, walking around for a while before eating fried rice at a cheap Chinese restaurant. As I looked out the window of the restaurant, I listened to Montrealers talk about playing bridge with their friends and different tax laws in Canada and the US.

Discovering a Secret Garden in Montreal

Discovering a Secret Garden in Montreal

I did make it back to the hotel, and although I was tired I’m glad I became a tourist in Montreal. It won’t be a major event in my life: it’s the attitude that’s important. Wherever we go and whatever we do, sometimes it’s important to be a tourist. You might feel out of place and it requires some effort, but it’s usually worth it.