Thursday, January 6, 2011

Chaotic Bangkok



I look around and contemplate this new hurdle: the Bangkok train station bathroom. Women clog the one alley way that runs in between the stalls. I am the only white person around. This is an automatic problem. Thai people are extremely gracious hosts except for when it comes time to queue for anything. They move to ticket booths in a stampede and the same rule applies for waiting in line for the bathroom.

One must engage in a contact sport to secure a stall. I am next in line. In fact, I have been next in line for the past minute. That doesn’t stop women from shoving me aside and barging into the next available stall. Finally, I make a choice. I must be just as aggressive. So I am. I hear the creak of a lock and know that a door is about to open. I step forward at the same time an elderly Thai woman does; she’s cut her way from the toilet paper vendor all the way to the front of the stampede. I refuse to let her win this game. I’ve been on a bus for 13 hours, all the way from Krabi to Bangkok. I have earned the right to use this hole in the ground. As the door swings open and its occupant steps out, I shoulder the old woman aside and wedge my foot in the door.

My bladder sighs in relief.

I have won.

I feel a twinge of guilt as I look back while locking the door; the old woman wears a long green dress, flip flops, and has a handful of tissue paper. Her gray hair is balding and fluffy. Her face is wrinkled. For a moment, when I look at her I see my grandma. Guilt eats away at me; I should have let her use the stall. At the very least, I shouldn’t have elbowed her out of my way. In an instant, however, my guilt vanishes because when my eyes reach her face I see a hint of pride. Her kind smile says it all: the white girl has finally figured it out.

Oh Bangkok, how you confound me.

You’re loud. You’re crowded. You’re smelly. You’re a comparison of wealth and poverty lined up side by side. You’re…

Different.

I look down and see the ever familiar hole on the ground. I will never be used to this procedure. Being in Asia forces me to value things I never did in America. I never was grateful for clean drinking water running from my kitchen sink, the plethora of toilet paper stocked up in my closet, or the bountiful selection of cheese at my local grocery store. I had never been without these items so I never realized how much I appreciated them.

Asia is my teacher and the lesson is the difference between want and need, charity and greed, and above all awareness. I knew when I returned home, I would throw away my Anthropologie catalog, cancel Netflix, and use my car less often. I would instead seek out experiences with Sean, my unwavering partner in crime, and live a life not focused on things. Asia was proof people could live happier lives with fewer things cluttering their hearts with desire and greed and want and dissatisfaction.

Stepping out of the stall, I weave my way through the congregation of Thai women and see a long legged, blond haired girl hesitantly trying to navigate her way through this cultural experience. She’s a novice. She waits, perched on the side of the crowd hoping to secure herself a stall.

“You’re gonna have to jump in there,” I say as I walk past her, and she just nods her head.

It’s funny how going to the bathroom can become a marathon effort. Before I got on the plane, I tried to imagine the things that would be difficult for me to deal with in Asia. I thought the food would be too spicy, the language too complex, and the touting too forceful. None of those things turned out to be true. Sure, a green pepper seared the top of my mouth once but those could be easily avoided. And yes, Thai people look at me funny when I tried to say hello and goodbye in their native tongue. And don’t even get me started on the tuk tuk drivers. But, when all is said and done, things like going to the bathroom cause me much more grief than any of those other experiences combined.

It was due to this expectation that certain things should be easy. In America, all one has to do in order to take care of business is walk into a McDonalds. In Bangkok, first you have to locate a public restroom. They are few and far between. Then, you have to pay. But don't forget some toilet paper. The unsuspecting traveler thinks there will be some in the bathroom. What a fool. Then, one has to bully his or her way into a stall fighting with the other people who also need to go. Then, well, one has to readjust everything one knows about how to go potty. It’s exhausting because one expects it to be so simple.

And regardless of any future hurdles I face while moving through these confounding countries, from something as simple as going to the bathroom to something as painful as addressing the horrors of the Killing Fields, they will be worth it because I will leave with a better understanding of how to be a global citizen.

So as I slide into the chair next to Sean and take a sip of his Thai ice coffee, I watch the chaos around me and feel immensely grateful to be a part of it even just for a few hours.



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