Chapter 10: On Being Sherman

Uncle Jimmy!

Do you ever get restless leg syndrome? How, in that little container, do you get shifted around and comfortable? I couldn’t do it. Guess that’s why I’m going up in flames when it’s my time.

Here’s a fun fact about me … as much as I love being the center of attention, I always prefer it to be tinged with self-deprecating humor. Which is why I tend to jokingly place an asterisk or three next to any claims of me being an “Adventurer”. I kid around about never thinking that it would happen to yours truly. But in all honesty, I knew from as far back as my early teenage years that I would indeed one day grow up to be a world traveler.

And all because I was a juvenile delinquent.

Back in my freshman year of high school, I rather spectacularly failed English. (Much to Mom and Dad’s chagrin). And if I wanted to move on to the 10th grade, I needed summer school. So I, and several of my JD-like friends, awoke every summer weekday at the ungodly hour of 6am and traveled over to Hayfield High School.

I really don’t remember the name of my summer school English teacher, although I really wish I did. For he changed my life. The man had a rather unusual philosophy. He had decided that as a group, we would not be heading down the path towards becoming English Majors. So even though he did try to get us to pass the subject (I did, for the record), he just as often turned off the lights and fired up his slide projector.

Now, I suppose this could have just been a case of a nerdy guy and his slides, but I choose to believe that he was actually trying to teach us … something. And while most of the class took the opportunity to get in a little more sleep, I was actually transfixed.

The day I remember most was what I call All Things Egypt. Seeing his photographs up on that screen and hearing his tales of the Pyramids and the Sphinx … well I had somehow made it to the ripe old age of 14-and-a-half without ever giving them a real thought. They were just some pictures in an encyclopedia. But now, there they were with this guy standing in front of them. I didn’t know this was even really possible.

As interesting as it was, and as much as I despised summer school just a wee bit less, I didn’t fully realize at the time what had happened. That a little tiny flame was being lit.

OK … my becoming a traveler is the topic for today, I suppose. And that must continue with Thailand, and the confusing ordeal that was my first ever international outing.

Do you remember me endlessly peppering you with questions about my first overseas trip to Bangkok? Back in my mid-twenties, when I was recently married and working for the State Department?

No? Then let me remind you. 🙂

We had been scheduled to stay in Bangkok for four weeks. It turned out to be five, because Diane (the foreign service officer I worked for) had found a way to extend. Our mission, on paper at least, was to “Investigate reporting requirements for a new computer system by interacting directly with users”. Flimsy, I know. But it was enough to get her, a guy named Jack, and me on a jet plane and headed towards Asia. 🙂

I had never traveled outside the US before, and couldn’t ask you enough questions to satisfy all of my unknowns. I was seriously unseasoned to say the least. And truthfully, a real stick in the mud when it came to change. I suppose underneath it all, I really wasn’t even completely sold on going.

Funny story number one from that trip, and it involves machine guns. It’s also technically a story about the return, but let’s put the calendar aside for a moment, shall we?

We had to change planes in Hong Kong. No big deal, you would think. But, sometimes one gets pulled aside for a tad more inspection. And it was my turn. They led me to a room with a raised box in the middle, maybe a foot higher than the floor, which was this puke shade of green linoleum. My bags went to a table along the side and folks in uniform were riffling through the contents. I was standing on the box. Others, with the aforementioned machine guns, were along the walls looking vaguely bored. And a very pretty Chinese girl was before me, asking questions.

One of those had to do with my camera, an old Instamatic 110. Remember those things? Looked like a sideways deck of cards, only longer and not as wide? Well, she handed it to me and told me to prove it was a camera. So naturally I think that (a) she’s really very pretty, and (b) why not take a picture to show her how it works?

Bad choice.

As I raised the camera to my eye and pointed it towards her, she barked something in Chinese that un-bored the machine gun guys. They naturally raised their barrels along with their eyes, and the pretty girl stopped being so pretty. It took a lifetime for my brain to understand, but then I realized that her question was because she thought I was carrying a concealed weapon, and I was now pointing it at a uniformed officer. (Why she handed it to me, I’ll never know). So thinking quickly, I dropped the lens towards the ground and clicked the shutter.

Flash!

And thus I captured a wonderful picture of some green linoleum, replete with beads of my own fear sweat.

OK, back to the chronology.

I’m not sure about your experiences, but landing in Bangkok, thirty-six hours after walking out of my own front door, was tiring. It was just Jack and I, Diane having taken an earlier flight. We hailed a cab and showed them a card with the name of our hotel. They had other ideas. Out came this three ring binder, filled with pages and more pages of … mostly-naked women. Our driver was intent on taking us to Patpong Road, home of Go-Go bars and people of ill repute. Now, even if I wasn’t recently married, I had not slept in two days, was on emotional overload from even undertaking the trip, and I wanted no part of their three-ring binder. It took forever for us to convince the driver that we didn’t care about the cleanliness or affordability of his offerings. We wanted our beds. By ourselves.

That actually became a theme. Every single time we walked out of our hotel, those taxi dudes were waiting with their menus-de-flesh. It got to the point where we would sneak out the side doors of the hotel, just to avoid them.

Oh, another funny story.

One day as Jack and I were walking to the embassy, we took a different street. I saw this funky building, which was either under construction or in the process of falling down. Could have gone either way. It was not safe-looking. But it had a sign out front, in English no less.

Thailand Department of Nuclear Energy.

Wow, thought I. What a dichotomy. The oversight of man’s highest physics achievements in this piece of shit building.

I raised my camera to take a photo. Jack freaked. “What if someone is watching? We are going to get in trouble! They’re going to think we’re spies!”. And on and on. I didn’t take the snap. At that moment, I remember feeling like I had become such the new risk taker, and was now being cruelly limited. Jack was probably right, especially in our “official capacity”, but somehow I really wanted to be wilder and more daring.

OK, back to current times.

I brought up those two subjects of how it all started because I really wanted to write to you today about the random things I’ve learned since. To compare notes with you. But before I can delve into these little tidbits of experience, I had to first remind you of how I started down this path, so long ago.

One of those “never ever do this” bits of advice the travel blogs scream at you is … never compare where you are with where you came from. At least not in the form of … “Muricans have great french-fries, the ones in France suck”. But comparisons are normal and desirable, I’ve found, as long as they only illustrate and don’t demean.

For instance, if I were sitting in Dayton, Ohio and you asked me to pass the salt, I would simply hand it to you. In Spain, that would be upsetting. Here, I would pick up the salt and place it on the table in front of you, so you could then pick it up.

In Thailand, I was taught to never cross my legs, because I might show the bottom of my foot to someone, which is a dire insult. In fact, I think it was you that told me that before I left.

There are so many “I didn’t know that” moments that we encounter, seemingly every day. For instance, the simple act of greeting people. Apparently, we didn’t know how to do that when we first arrived in Spain two years ago. At least not properly.

In the States, if you sit down at a bar and nod to the bartender, you have greeted them. Here? Not so much. Everyone says “Hi, how are you, good day, how is the family, ain’t it wonderful weather”, and they mean every word of it. Everyone you encounter, stranger or friend, you greet warmly, closely, and fully. Same with departures. You don’t wave and walk off. You tell the person to have a wonderful evening. And once you start doing it this way, you find that interactions with your fellow humans are so much more than just a bank transaction.

Oh, here’s a good one. Hula hoops. That personal space we Americans defend so strongly around ourselves? It doesn’t exist everywhere. For instance, in Iceland people might as well be sharing your clothing, they’re so in your hoop. Here in Spain, brush-bys are pretty normal and always tolerated. Unless it’s a pickpocket, of course. Bottom line is, if a person values empty space around themselves, Europe is going to be a shock.

Wow, I have no idea how I got to this point in the letter. Shiny squirrels seem to have taken over and side-lined my thoughts. I really did mean to offer something more substantial than just brain spooge. Sorry about that.

OK, next letter, more current experiences for you to shake your head at in wonder. I swear! 🙂

Love, Rick

LETTERS TO A DEAD UNCLE

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