Tavel Stories You Don’t Tell Your Mom

I don’t know what challenges lie ahead for Connor, but I hope that he will get to travel. This is a long post, but I think I almost died a couple times, which my friends will enjoy, even if they don’t care for my wordiness.

My obsession since college has been travel. I credit a few things for leading to this. One is that I’m an Air Force brat and we moved all over until I turned 12, including California and Japan. Another is my college friend Cecile who had dual citizenship because her mother is French. She was always traveling back and forth, and when we’d all converge back on the dorm, she’d dump out a suitcase of French gummy bears and chocolates, and share adventures from the Paris Metro. Meanwhile I tried to tell impressive stories of all the movies I’d seen at my local Regal cinema and frappucinos I’d downed at Starbucks. Most of my early overseas trips involved her. We went to Spain and Costa Rica, and I would later visit her in France, then Germany as she moved about abroad. (Warning: never move somewhere interesting and make one of those empty “come and visit anytime!” offers to me). I haven’t yet made it to Switzerland, where she currently lives.

In Rennes, France with Cecile in November 2002.
In Rennes, France with Cecile in November 2002. I finally got my own Paris metro adventure. Flashed by a man in a trenchcoat!
Spring Break Madrid March 2001 with Sara, Cecile, me and Asma. Home of the famous quote, "SHUT UP! SHUT UP! NOBODY TALK!"
Spring Break Madrid March 2001 with Sara, Cecile, me and Asma. Home of the famous quote, “SHUT UP! SHUT UP! NOBODY TALK!”
At Hofbrauhaus in Munich in May 2005. Cecile is farthest right, next to me.
At Hofbrauhaus in Munich in May 2005. Cecile is farthest right, next to me.

The third was my anxiety, which would landslide into depression at times, and left me with a feeling of being constantly restless. I always felt like I was looking for something, and I figured the best way to find whatever it was, was to hop on a plane. If that thing I was looking for was a fairy tattoo from Thailand, selected solely because I thought the silhouetted wings looked cool, I found it. On a side note, a few years after the dust settled on people thinking I was mental for getting stuck with a needle in Thailand, Hangover 2 got released and when it comes up, people look at me like I’m crazy again.Gathering the courage to get tatted.

tattooThis story I actually did tell my mom. Just not for a couple of months. You see, I’d threatened to get a tattoo all through college, but never followed through. So by the time I graduated, she thought she was safe. Whenever I’d bring it up, she’d mock me and say, “Oh are you? Well if you do, I’ll go get one, too. We can match.” I basically started this same conversation again, as if I didn’t already have one. When she pulled out her usual mocking threat, I said, “Really? You mean it? You’re gonna go get one?”

“Suuuure!” she replied.

I yanked up the shirt to reveal my lower stomach, and silence. Jaw drops. Finally, “Robert! Get in here! Your daughter got a tattoo!”

It was hilarious. It was also nine years ago. She has yet to follow through.

With Mieka at Phuket, Thailand drag show in February 2004.
With Mieka at Phuket, Thailand drag show in Tebruary 2004. Mieka was a teaching friend from Daegu. The first time we went to the tattoo parlor, she went through with it. I chickened out. We went back the next day.

The Thailand trip came on the heels of a six-month stint teaching English in Daegu, South Korea. South Korea is a very dangerous place to live, in that it feels so safe that your guard will be significantly lowered when you leave. As far as safety is concerned, I have never felt so free as I did there. Perhaps my inability to read and follow the news exaggerated that feeling, but a random murder in Seoul made such a splash that it actually seemed like murder was a big deal there, as if it didn’t happen every day. And so I felt free to wander down dark alleys I wouldn’t have otherwise. The biggest danger I faced there was an angry Ajumma (older, married woman) openly disapproving of my wardrobe. Man, they hated that red, strapless dress of mine. I couldn’t understand what they were shrieking, but nothing got the octaves up like that dress.I only remember being scared there once. Most of the time I was there I live in a dorm near downtown, but for a brief period I stayed in an apartment about 15 minutes out, near Kyungpook University, with a Canadian roommate. This was the setting of Travel Story You Don’t Tell Your Mom #1. In the middle of the night came a wild  knocking on the door. I came out of my bedroom just in time to see my roommate wrestling a Korean man back out of the door and slamming it shut. He continued to bang and yell while we looked at each other confused. At this point we realized we had no idea what the Korean 911 was. Instead we attempted to start calling the school headquarters, as it was approaching 6 am. One of the managers answered. But since he spoke no English, he just kept hanging up on us. Finally we were able to get one of the owner’s sons on the phone. He contacted the police for us. The banging had gone on for over an hour, but in the meantime, he had taken a fall back down the stairs and was passed out on the landing. The only way for us to get out was to step over him, which wasn’t going to happen. Eventually he awoke and was back to trying to gain entry. During this whole time, not one neighbor did anything. Finally the cops arrived and we opened the door, a thick Canadian girl armed with a bat (where the hell did that come from?) and me with a heavy, metal statue of the Hindu god Shiva. It turned out the man was so incredibly intoxicated, that even having two white girls open the door was not sufficient to convince him that he had the wrong apartment. He lived in the next building. I will say, on his behalf, that those apartment buildings do look like they rolled off a conveyor belt built by Paul Bunyan. The cops thought the whole thing was hilarious, and laughed as they dragged him away, still screaming, I presume, that it was his apartment.Beyond the insult of the cops finding our fear hilarious, the boss’s son never did check on us to see if we were okay. One of many reasons I had no guilt about breaking my contract halfway through. But my ridiculous job there is another entry to come.

Cambodia Angkor WatThe unsettled feeling had arisen once again, so I booked two months in Sevilla, Spain of language courses, but decided to go through Thailand (where I would obtain my tattoo) and Cambodia on my way out of Korea. Why Cambodia? Cambodia had garnered some recent attention due to Angelina Jolie’s adoption of baby Maddox. While in Korea, I took to reading about the atrocities of the Khmer Rouge when they took over from 1975-79 and destroyed the country, coating it in landmines and murdering much of the population. I selected it because in my mind, I would be wandering through jungles, maneuvering around land-mined areas to explore the ruins of Angkor. It turned out that the only thing I had to maneuver around were Australian backpackers. It was an early lesson in that if Lonely Planet has been there, so has everyone else. Land mines were well cleared and danger areas off limits. Bummer. But as I mentioned, Korea destroyed my sense of danger which is how Travel Story You Don’t Tell Your Mom #2 happened. I went alone, but had met another American on the flight into Cambodia and we were traveling together now. On our way into one of the temples, we encountered a couple of young local boys who wanted to give us a tour so they could practice their skills and eventually get jobs. Tourism is a lifeblood industry in this poverty stricken country, so we said no problem. Of course, we knew they would want a couple bucks at the end. Not an issue. So the four of us wandered around the temple and they described the temple friezes and what they meant. The area was drowning in tourists, so we had no reason to be concerned. But there was one part that was set apart from the rest, and before we realized it, we were headed for it via a woody path. Other tourists were fewer and farther between. I hadn’t realized that Cyrina and her tour guide had dropped back a bit, and suddenly my guide stopped. He informed me that he had to go to class and wanted money. His demeanor went from friendly and jovial to aggressive. I said, sure, no problem and started to reach for my Thai baht (even the Cambodians don’t want their own currency). Then he demanded 2,000 baht specifically. I just looked at him dumbfounded. That was over 50 bucks. Was he on crack? “You mean 50 baht? Right?”

“No! I have pay for school! Give me 2,000!”

I glanced back at Cyrina and could see she was having a similar conversation with her guide. I wasn’t scared of him. I couldn’t process more than that he had suddenly lost his

With Cyrina in Cambodia.
With Cyrina in Cambodia.

mind thinking I was going to give him that much money just because he demanded it. He was definitely getting creepier by the moment. And then I heard a magical Australian, “Hello, there!” It was an older gentleman we met in our hotel. “Oh, hello!” I exaggerated and ran to his side and we walked back to the main temple, grabbing Cyrina on the way. The guys just glared after us. Back at the main temple, another backpacker we had met previously expressed concern because she had seen us with the guys and she had heard it was a ploy to get tourists away from the crowd and rob them. I never even felt fear during this entire encounter as Korea had slowed my danger processing so much that I didn’t register what truly could have happened until it was over. I’m not normally this stupid…I even keep my keys between my fingers when I’m alone in dark parking lots, ready to gouge out the eyes of an attacker. Damn Korea’s low crime rate. It almost got me killed.

Coimbra, Portugal was location of my scariest encounter, Story #3, which was ironic because I had initially planned to travel to Honduras that summer. But my mother had to go and read the state department’s travel advisories, and man, you never saw someone so nervous about a few machete murders. Look, it’s a small country. You do what you gotta do to get a good spot on the beach. Since my mother took it so well the previous summer when I told her I would be traveling alone for five weeks through Thailand (again), Laos and Vietnam, I thought I’d cut her a break and alter my plans.I’m not sure when the Portugese encounter started. I do know when I first saw him. I had crossed a bridge over the river to see a monastery (I think…that’s kind of cloudy now). There was this dirty looking guy carrying only a camera bag. I’d been out of Korea for a few years now, so suspicious mode was back. He seemed weird and I caught him looking at me, but he could have just been some dirty backpacker. The camera bag mellowed me a bit, but it wouldn’t be long before I started to think there were scalpels rather than cameras inside. I started to walk back across the bridge, and knew he was behind me. He came closer and closer, so I stopped next to some tourists and let him pass. He breathed heavily behind me as he did so. I gave him a reasonable head start and continued. Then he stopped, as if looking at the water, but I could see he was checking my progress. So I hurried past him and made a right through a crowded park at the end of the bridge. I found a place to sit and relax and let Mr. Weirdo go about his day. Within a few minutes, he took a seat just a few yards from me. At this point, the prickles of annoyance turned to fear. There was no doubt about what he was doing now. I made my way through people to a riverside pizza place. My brilliant plan was to have dinner as he would surely lose interest in that amount time. My mistake was that the restaurant was almost entirely windows. I could see him pacing from one side to the other, watching me eat. Now I was entering panic mode. It was Sunday. Most things were closed. I was currently in the busy tourist area, but I would have to pass through some quiet streets to get back to my hotel. I desperately tried to communicate my problem to the waiter in my crappy Spanish, hoping it would be similar enough to the Portugese I needed. He seemed to get the basic idea of what I was telling him and pointed out a nearby police substation. I waited until Captain Creeper circled around the other side and made a run for the busy street. Somehow, magically the traffic cleared for me and I made it, the hole filling in quickly behind me. He spotted me too late. I continued to run and he couldn’t get across. I made the split second decision to head for my hotel because at this point there was no way he could catch up. Even for the few months I did 5ks I could never run like that again. I reached the hotel and locked myself into my room, and left town the next day. I will always wonder what his intentions were, especially considering he did this with so many people present. I also wonder if I should have gone to the police anyway. He probably would have melted into the crowd, but maybe, just maybe, they would have picked him up and discovered he was wanted for rape or murder or something.

In spite of these stories, I generally feel very safe when I travel. I generally try to follow the rule of not looking too much like a tourist. No fanny packs…both for safety and the massive offense to fashion. I quit the whole travel wallet strapped to the body thing years ago. I hate those and prefer to carry no more than I can afford to lose, but if you’re going to use them, carry just enough for basic purchases in a regular purse or wallet. It kind of defeats the purpose when you have to make a big show of practically undressing yourself at the cash register. Be cautious at ATMS, but it is not necessary to have your wife hold a jacket over you to shield the screen from prying eyes. That makes ME want to rob you out of spite, and probably signals thieves that you have a good amount of money in there to be that cautious. You also shouldn’t walk around with guide books and maps in your hand, but I freely admit to breaking that rule as my directional dyslexia won’t allow me to process and retain directions beyond a block.

Oh, and upon further review of these stories, Connor is not allowed to travel. He’s not even allowed to leave the house. Ever.

Sorry, Mom.

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