Love and Travel – Express Yourself

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There is nothing quite akin to the sensation you get when, while traveling in a foreign country and you realize that you just got on the wrong train.

We weren’t on the wrong train. Just on the wrong version of the right train.

1385710_10153328273420593_107071201_nThere are a lot of transportation mistakes you will make when you go traveling, and all of them include risk and at least a little nervousness, but the sinking feeling in the pit of your stomach as you speed forward into the unknown is a special feeling for me. It’s funny to think of our hearts and stomachs “sinking,” since we know they don’t really move, but in that moment the expression makes perfect sense. I once had an acting partner who couldn’t comprehend that emotions could be felt in one’s stomach. Trying to explain it to her was like trying to make a blind person experience déjà vu.

Tokyo’s subway system is vast, complex and not the most English friendly place on Earth. It is also very efficient. If you need to get from one side of Tokyo to the other, very fast, there is  a train for that. It’s called a “Rapid.” A rapid line runs along the same line as the “local” but doesn’t make all the stops.

The up-side of working with this actress is how keenly aware I became of all the emotions I can feel in my stomach. If something’s wrong with your body or your mind, your stomach is almost guaranteed to let you know about it. If you are a disbeliever like my acting buddy, just spend a little time in a Thai tuk-tuk and you will understand.

I thought the tuk-tuks were a blast. Tuk-tuks are the only way to make traffic congestion interesting.

Tokyo's train system looks like this if you replaced all the people with trains...

Tokyo’s train system looks like this if you replaced all the people with trains…

Transportation is stressful, and often times the initial response is to over-react, expecting the worst. Don’t do this. You will really, really want to, it takes a lot of effort to remain stoic in the face of possible disaster, but if you want your partner to respect and continue to travel with you, this is the tao you must cultivate.

Which brings me to our first day in Tokyo and using the excellent subway system there. Andrew and I have used metros and subways all around Europe and the States. From Athens, to Vienna, to the Tube, and even the Venetian water-taxis, we thought we had mastered it all.

The Tokyo subway and train system has to be looked at in a non-linear way to really make sense of it. Getting from point A to point B might involve actually back tracking a few stops rather than going forward to the next connection because the transfer is closer to the final destination from there. Maybe the transfer subway station is exceptionally large making a transfer there unpalatable. When you are a tourist, most of this knowledge is unavailable to you.

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The equation required to navigate from Ikebukuro to Ebisu

As long as you find the right line going the right direction, all you have to do is listen for your stop, or count if you can’t understand the language. Easy peasy lemon squeezy. Or so we thought…dun dun dun. That ominous sound is to set the mood for the day we met our nemesis, the Tokyo express.

There are very few subway and train systems that are so easy as just knowing the direction and listening for your stop.

We’d been using the Tokyo subway all afternoon to visit different neighborhoods, no problems. So we hopped on the pink line to head north for a couple of stations where we could transfer to the green.IMG_0603

The Tokyo system map looks like someone drew it while looking at the paper through a prism.

I should probably mention that it was our first week in Japan and we had absolutely no language skills whatsoever. Even if you learn to speak Japanese, reading it is a whole other matter. Some Japanese trains have English read-outs and some don’t, it just depends on how new that particular train car is. We hopped on the next pink line train, intending to count two stops.

a metaphor: how we saw kanji characters for the first time....

a metaphor: how we saw kanji characters for the first time….

It requires constant vigilance when using a new subway or train system to not get thoroughly lost. You might call it OCD but I check the train maps in every car and platform against my map and my planned travel route. Still there are somethings that one cannot account for.

After a couple minutes of high-speed travel with no indication of slowing, my stomach began to alert me to the growing panic bubbling there. My acting lessons had also taught me the art of maintaining a straight face, but as I made eye contact with Andrew I knew he could see the fear in my eyes as they slowly widened in confusion.

Our eyes momentarily locked in an “Oh shit!” moment as we realized that we still weren’t stopping. We watched out the windows of the train as we passed at least five stations with no hint of slowing.

My reaction was more of a, “Stupid. Stupid. Stupid. The letters are red… red is different. Why didn’t I notice that at first?”

I was suddenly living out the boat scene from “Willy Wonka,” waiting for the walls to become a light show of crawling insects. It was the uncertainty that was truly terrifying. It became clear we were on an express train of some sort, but how long was it going to last? Had we unknowingly stepped on a train bound for the suburbs, an hour outside of Tokyo city? How much would it cost to get back?

We could have ended up some where out there...

We could have ended up some where out there…

While neither of us is prone to over reaction, a Charles Marlow vis a vis Heart of Darkness comparison isn’t far off if you end up in the wrong manga shop… We obviously had to get off at the next station and then take the next train the other direction.

The human brain is wonderful, a million negative thoughts can occur in a matter of seconds. The important thing to do when this happens is first to ask, what can I do about it? If the answer is nothing, short of pulling the train’s emergency levers (which I wouldn’t recommend) then all those thoughts can wait. They are irrelevant. As the adage goes, you have to cross the bridge when you get there, or get off the train when you get there…

I hate metaphorical bridges. Jeff Bridges though… He’s awesome. Same with suspension bridges. I like those.

Luckily, the train stopped after another couple stations, forcing us to backtrack only about five stops. Also lucky, it wasn’t anyone’s fault, so finger pointing wasn’t even an option. Just another lesson learned the harder way, but you can bet we haven’t ended up on an express train since then!

It was definitely Shana’s fault.

Love and Travel – One night in Bangkok

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If you are in Bangkok reading this go over to your back pack and take out all the tourist maps and light them on fire.

I was convinced I could find my way around Bangkok with the rudimentary tourist map I had and the guidebook that we received as a gift. Our goal; go to the Siam Center early in the day, walk around and enjoy the air conditioning. After that we had the rest of the afternoon the check out somewhere else before heading to the boxing stadium to watch muay thai fighting.

In my few travels prior to adventuring with Andrew in Thailand, I had never experienced being lost. Uncertain of one’s exact surroundings, of course, but never that hopelessness that lost implies. While I don’t have a natural sense of direction, I do know how to read a map. My mother made sure of this by forcing me to read the Thomas Bros. guide out to her while she drove, probably because she has an even worse sense of direction than I do. Sorry Mom. I can usually orient myself; plus it’s impossible to be truly lost in a place where you speak the language. Directions are only one stranger away.

I was really excited about the muay thai fighting. One of the primary components of a successful Thailand trip was to see muay thai fighting. We had purchased tickets to see muay thai fighting through the hotel concierge that morning. I’m sure by this point in the trip I might have mentioned muay thai fighting a few times and how excited I was about muay thai fighting. Muay thai fighting.

When I met Andrew, he traveled for work and knew the California freeway map like the back of his hand. Everywhere we went, his sixth sense of direction never failed, so I stopped carrying maps around.

Muay thai fighting.

typical street in Bangkok...

typical street in Bangkok… ok not really but it was one of the few decent pictures I found on our extended march.

I could always count on Andrew to know where he was going. His duties naturally fell to “navigator” as we planned our trip to Asia. My duties were to read guide books and find interesting things to do. It’s good to have a division of labor in a travel team. More can get accomplished with less stepping on each other’s proverbial toes.

We took the free boat across the Chao Praya river and caught a taxi to the Siam Center. We didn’t really feel like negotiating any prices and taxis have meters. It was looking like an awesome day was ahead of us.

The driver of the taxi we got in after about maybe 5 minutes of driving still had not turned the meter on. So I asked in broken Thai for him to do so. Repeatedly. He was very adamant that it would be, “Ok,” and “Meter no use.” Maybe his meter was broken. Arguing with him was also making him very upset because I was equally adamant that I would like to use the meter and that I wouldn’t pay unless he used the meter. Eventually he got so mad, he kicked us out of the taxi. We were pretty close to our destination but this soured us on taxis for the day. But, hey, Free Cab Ride!

a picture from the Siam Center, well that is an apt description of my mood!

We finished meandering through the Siam Center and based on the map I was using we would walk maybe 1km North and then maybe 2.5km West towards the river to get to the stadium. This is essentially accurate but that is not what happened.

Near the Siam Center

Near the Siam Center

When we arrived in Thailand, I was taken aback at how drastically different the East felt from the West. Streets seemed to be organized by what they sold; flowers on one avenue, car parts on another. Every temple you thought you’d use as a landmark looked remarkably similar to a different temple down the street. Street signs, if you could find them, were translated into a Romanized version of Thai. I stared at impossible combinations of vowels and consonants two feet long, convinced that the letters had been chosen at random by local shop owners who amused them selves by watching  “farang” try to sound them out.

Hours later, we arrived close to our destination only to be greeted by rows of red shirt protestors. They quietly congregated along each side of the street, and the crowd seemed to grow thicker and more unsettling in the exact direction where we felt we needed to go. While the protestors hadn’t caused any trouble for tourists up to that point, I was a little unnerved and urged Andrew to drop our tuk-tuk moratorium.

We walked roughly 7km before we gave up, got in a tuk-tuk, and paid about 200 baht to approximately go around the corner. To add insult to injury we asked several people how much further the Ratchadamnoen stadium was and they each told us, “Very close,” and pointed in the direction we had been walking fruitlessly for quite a while. We passed on a group of kids using mopeds to convey paying customers via handle bars or on the back fender. I refer you to this video of Thai traffic as evidence of why I was opposed to that method of peregrination. The map we were using was devoid of things like accurate street names and entire freeways. The hardest part was the self-imposed guilt of a navigating mishap. How is my girlfriend ever supposed to trust me when I say I know where I’m going if I clearly have no idea where I’m going? Oh. And I got a blister from all the extra walking, Thanks Obama. I was very frustrated, tired, and filled with apprehension that the boxing would be really awful and not worth the long ass walk.

Our accidental walking tour of Bangkok

Our accidental walking tour of Bangkok

This cartographic misfortune could have befallen anyone, and a combination of factors aligned against us, few of which were in anyone’s control. The first factor was the awful state of public transportation in Bangkok, which prompted our decision to walk. The second being the lack of any scale distance labeled on our “map.” Andrew had the right general direction, we just didn’t anticipate how far our destination really was. The intense humidity shortening our already shortened breath made a difficult situation, worse.

Ringside!

Ringside!

We made it just in time for the first match and found out in the process that I had bought ringside seats. After a couple beers the frustration wore off and I enjoyed the hell out of those boxing matches.

At ringside, I fell asleep halfway through from exhaustion. I felt silly for having to take a tuk-tuk for a total of thirty seconds, but over the course of the following week red-shirt protestors and the Thai military clashed resulting in 86 deaths as well as burning large portions of the Siam Center and its environs. I stopped giving my instincts a hard time and reassured Andrew that what seemed like a wasted day was in fact a sort of trial by fire to find our strengths and weaknesses as co-travelers.

This extended promenade was also inevitable. 

Given the nature of our predicament at the time and the theme of the evening’s festivities, thankfully, neither of us resorted to pugilism.

Also, don’t really light anything on fire. Unless its coals or firewood. Those are OK.

 Here are some eyewitness accounts of the protests from BBC news.

Love and Travel – How to travel with your lover…

…and not look for places to bury a body.

Ok. So that is a little gruesome.

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Travel is stressful, but its not that stressful. Travel is at its worst, lost in Bangkok on an excruciatingly long walk from Siam Center to Rajadamnern stadium with a map that was utterly useless in probably the least scenic area of Bangkok. Just sick to death of shady taxi and tuk tuk drivers. Oh, and its miserably hot. Hotter than the inside of an oven…inside another oven. This situation and other situations like it are a natural breeding ground for violent disagreements between couples. Everyone who has traveled with a significant other dreads these moments and many of those moments do not end well.

Ringside

Ringside

As I stated on the main page for Love and Travel, I’d like to provide a different perspective, two perspectives really, on that element of travel. I’m not going to pretend that I have got it all figured out and I know what’s best or that if you get into a fight with your lover during a trip that it will be alright. It probably wont. High stress situations bring out the very best or the very worst in people. If you blow up in front of anyone it may change their opinion of you for good.

Our stories are here only to give you a way to reflect on your own experience and make up your own mind when you get into that situation if its worth being legitimately mad about. Sometimes it is and sometimes it isn’t. I hope these stories can provide insight for other couples out there and help them work through difficult problems that come up while traveling. At the very least, I hope you’ll find them entertaining.

Love and Travel is a set of journal and travel entries that my wife and I will write in two parts. Same story, two viewpoints.

However, I do want to start with a story that doesn’t include my wife but one that I think that deserves telling.

There was a girl who I thought had ruined travel. She was a Bulgarian citizen. She lived in Germany but was planning on coming to the states to earn the rest of her B.A.(she was halfway finished at a German university). I had scheduled a trip to visit Europe and then she would come back to the states with me after our trip was over.

I found out, after a few days of touring Germany with her, that she did not have her passport. This was a bit of a problem as I had non-refundable tickets for both of us to go to fly Greece, Italy and France. She had requested a German passport to replace her Bulgarian one (the legal ramifications of which were important to her coming the US to finish college). She had just happened to have picked the least opportune time to get it done.

Furious does not even begin to describe how I felt. I went through feelings of betrayal, seething rage and despondence over what looked like at least $1000 in airfare that was going to go to waste. Of course, I didn’t say any thing at first. Her passport was supposed to arrive the day before our flight left but we wouldn’t be able to get it at her apartment until the day of the flight. I thought to myself, its not really worth being this angry about if the passport shows up on time. Even if the passport didn’t show up I would just go enjoy Rome, Florence and all the other destinations on my own (which is sort of what happened anyway).

Trying really, really, really hard not to say anything about 4 hours before the flight

Trying really, really, really hard not to say anything about 4 hours before the flight

3 hours before our flight and the mail arrives. Her passport is in there. Blind luck would conspire to keep us together for the better part of 4 weeks.

She was the absolute worst travel partner. She refused to get up early, had a giant suitcase on wheels instead of a backpack, was more interested in broodily smoking at all night Italian clubs than seeing the Fora Romana or famous works of art, possessed a generally sour disposition if we weren’t laying out in the sun not doing anything and held some severely misguided opinions about American culture.

The question I have asked my self after many other successful trips both foreign and domestic is would my luck have been better if her passport had just not shown up. Was it her who was just unbelievably difficult to deal with? Was it me and my never having officially voiced my disappointment in her timing with the passport switch, her contempt for common sense and her insulting America? Maybe. I’ll never know. The last time we spoke was the train station in Paris where she was on her way back to Germany to pack her things up and move to the US.

This story is most certainly not the inspiration for this collection of journal entries and stories. My previously mentioned, miserably long walk through Bangkok is. I tell this story about the passport and bad travel partner because it almost kept me from wanting to travel ever again. Then I went to Thailand with my girlfriend, now wife. Which by many, including myself, would be considered a risky proposition.

Shana and I in Ashland, OR

Shana and I in Ashland, OR

And it was a risky proposition but it worked. I found my love for travel again and a great travel partner. After Thailand I always wanted to have two perspectives. Even if I’m right and they are most certainly wrong. I’m not going to offer any advice on what to do or what to say. These stories are just what happened and how we felt, so that you may compare and contrast them to your own situation whether its a weekend getaway or a year abroad. Love and Travel is here to give two perspectives of the good and the bad, the fun and the stressful and the ride from beginning to end.