Ah the beauty of jet lag, up at 3AM, asleep at 5pm in the chair, hoping to make it at least until 9PM to get on track again. We are very fortunate to be able to travel, and seeing other countries, far from making us experts on anything, merely reinforces the reality that everyone on this planet is concerned first with family, friends, making a living, and only secondly with more ethereal matters like impressions of other countries they have never visited.
Thailand and Laos, for instance, are in a state of tension right now over a temple site that was awarded to Laos by the Hague. Nepal is coming up on an election that has deeply affected tourism, its life blood, due to threat of violence. People we were able to breach the language barrier with were far better informed than the typical American of their country’s political situation. But that is by definition a skewed sample.
Others we met – Siberians, Aussies, Norwegian, Danes, Canadians, Germans and Belgians – were, like us, better off than most and able to travel. There’s nothing representative of such encounters. The Norwegian was traveling with his son, and presented something interesting: The Dad could pass for a Brit, so pronounced was his King’s English. The son was easily seen to be speaking a foreign language, but was studying American English. The Norwegian education system deliberately emphasized British over American English but that has changed in recent decades.
Thailand appears to be doing quite well from the glimpses we caught of Chaing Mai and Bangkok. We had a disastrous trip up north, a fourteen hour tour of markets and jewelry shops. There were no beggars as are so prevalent in India and Nepal. The place is clean, unlike India and Nepal, which were filthy. There are long freeways filled with newer cars. Downtown Bangkok has mass transit, American-style overpriced shopping centers filled with Chinese goods. But somehow the country is making the most of it. Per capita income is $8700 or so and unemployment 1.5%, according to the guide book. That’s very good by Asian standards – there exists a middle class, but still quite a lot of poverty.
The sex trade is very big in Thailand, as young Thai girls tend to be very beautiful by American corporate standards. It was not unusual to see an older white douche bag with a beautiful young Thai on his arm. Posters everywhere emphasize that “Boys cannot be baht*.” Every country has its problems, and that is one of human dignity. The Thai approach is to work for safety and openness for “sex trade” workers, as for so many young people it’s seen as a way out of poverty.
Nepal – third world by anyone’s standards, small huts, open toilets, garbage, smells, bad roads and beggars everywhere. We were advised on entry not to give any money to beggars, as most are in the employ of pimp-like gangsters as seen in Slum Dog Millionaire. Our longest day was a trip from Kathmandu to Pokhara, an eight-hour bus trip on bad roads, complete with two flat tires. Rich Americans that we are, that night I bought plane tickets for the return trip, $200 for a 35-minute flight. Say what you will.
What’s the point of travel? I don’t know. I know it is a good thing, and I know those of us who travel presume to have better insight than those who don’t. I know what Mark Twain said about prejudice. But in my jet-lagged state all I can say is that I want to be an American right now, and to have this weighty cloud in the back of my head go away, replace by my usual cloud of confusion on all matters.
*The Thai unit of currency is the baht
PS: How bad is my jet lag? I wrote this piece at 3AM on Friday morning.