After the longest flight of my life, the best peanut butter toast I am likely to ever eat, and a very confused internal clock, the only thing on my mind was getting making it to the hotel.
As I navigated the mass exodus of overtired travelers trying to push their way out of the plane, I was suddenly overwhelmed with feelings of both exhaustion, excitement, and heat. The hot air smacked me in the face the moment I stepped on the aircraft. Damp and dense humidity sept into my sweatshirt, knit fabric clinging to my skin as sweat started pooling underneath the straps of my backpack.
Documents in hand, I tried my best to ignore the heat and focus on my next task, surviving customs. I had absolutely no idea which way to go, but gratefully I was able to follow the crowd until I heard a voice coming from behind me.
“Excuse me, where did you buy that dress?”
In my focused/dazed mental state I thought that surely this person wasn’t talking to me, and yet as I lifted my eyes from the moving sidewalk beneath my feet I was met with a gleeful smile. A tall, older, British gentleman was indeed gesturing to my dress. With a tired smile I replied, “the exotic state of New Jersey”, which earned me a chuckle. He thought for sure it was from Thailand or somewhere in the area, which I took as an unexpected compliment!
As we followed the hoard down the long corridor he proceeded to tell me how he retired in Thailand and had been living here for the past 6 years. He gave me all kinds of advice, places to go (and avoid), things to do, regions to visit, and while I have tried to remember exactly what he said, I am pretty sure I was just nodding along and smiling at the time. My brain wasn’t quite running on all cylinders, but considering how long the journey was and how the only food I had in my stomach in the past 23 hours was weird spaghetti, peanut butter toast, and pretzels…can you blame me?
Anyways, he definitely was a frequent traveler because we ended up parting ways as he walked into this designated area for VIP fliers, but following his lead at least got me to the right area and I passed through customs surprisingly easily. And hey, I made an unexpected friend along the way, an added bonus.
Next order of business was taking off the already damp hoodie and figuring out how to get to my hotel.
Language Barriers and Improvising
Gratefully, my agency had arranged for me to be picked up by a driver, so all I had to do was make it to the exit next to the Mr. Donut (yes…Mr. Donut) and there should be a driver with a sign that says “Xplore Asia” on it.
Sounds easy enough right…right?
I was able to easily track down the Mr. Donut and Exit 3 where I was supposed to meet my driver. There were dozens of drivers holding up signs with different names, but so far none of them were mine.
“No big deal” I thought, remembering that my agency told me there was a chance that traffic would be bad due to the late king’s burial ceremony being that weekend. So I dropped my bags at my feet and took a deep breath, rolling my shoulders and leaning up against a nearby wall. I took a moment to collect myself before pulling out my phone to message Chris and my parents that I made it safe and sound.
Before long 5 minutes passed, then 10, then 15. Have you ever been in a situation where you are waiting in one place for so long that you start to feel awkward? That was me, shifting uncomfortably, checking my watch, pretending to check my phone for messages, pacing to look busy or purposeful as I watched as all the people who were originally waiting with me gradually found their correct driver, family member, or friend.
During this time I kept making accidental eye contact with an elderly gentleman and his wife who had appeared beside me. We kept exchanging awkward smiles each time it happened, until finally he tried talking to me in Swedish and I could only laugh and smile back as we tried to communicate. We were both gesturing at our watches, shrugging our shoulders, expressing our feelings about the lateness of our drivers without actually speaking a word. It was my first experience with a complete and total language barrier, and even though no words were actually communicated, we still connected from the shared experience, and somehow I felt a lot better.
Looking for a Friend
At this point 20 minutes had passed and I decided to try and call the driver, but either he wasn’t picking up or my phone wasn’t really working properly yet, as the phone just kept ringing and ringing and ringing…
Now I have made myself noticed as an awkward foreigner stumbling with her phone, and soon I was approached by a Thai gentleman. He smiled a big warm smile and tried his best to speak a few sentences in English, “Waiting long? Friend coming? Did you call?” I tried my best to explain how I was waiting for a driver to come and get me, but my calls weren’t going through. I am not entirely sure he understood, but he nodded along and smiled anyways. “Help?” he asked, but I shook my head and thanked him, knowing that at this point a half hour had passed and it was time for plan B.
Gathering up all my luggage, I waved goodbye to the kind man and made my way downstairs to try my hand at hailing a cab.
Catching a Cab and a Prayer
Now, my agency prepared me by saying that cabs would likely try to rip off foreigners by not using their meters (which is illegal in Thailand), and in my information packet they said if a driver refused to use their meter you should exit the cab.
At the cab pickup area and you had to go and enter your information into a kiosk to receive a piece of paper with a number on it, and once you received that, you waited in line by the parking space that had your number. After a few minutes, which felt like a few hours, I found myself next in line and a cab rolled into the space before me.
With considerable effort, the driver and I managed to load my heavy bags into the trunk and when I finally plopped down into the air conditioned seat I showed him the address and map to get to the hotel. It took a bit of work to try and communicate with him since he spoke little English, but finally it seemed like he understood so I sat back with a sigh of relief and allowed myself the small luxury of closing my eyes for a few minutes.
As the taxi swerved onto the highway and my hazy brain had a chance to get back up to speed, I realized that I never checked to see if the meter was running. I quickly opened my eyes and tried to inconspicuously glance around the cab to see if I could spot a meter. Easier said than done, considering that the cab’s dashboard was adorned with an array of trinkets, flowers, statues, and pictures of the late king. I didn’t even know where the meter was supposed to be located, and I thought that maybe Thai cabs were laid out differently since the steering wheel was on the other side. But then I started peering into the windows of passing cabs and seeing the meters all running perched right in the center of the dashboard.
And it was at that moment when I recognized the small rectangular box on the dashboard that was covered by a bright orange rag…darn.
Back Streets and Useless Maps
We were already about 10 minutes into the trip by now, and on the main highway, and the driver already paid one of the tolls so I knew that I was too far in to try and get out of the cab now. For a brief moment I panicked, but, truthfully, it was pretty short lived. I think that at that point my energy was already so spent that I simply didn’t have it in me to get too worked up. There wasn’t anything I could do, I was likely going to get ripped off, but all that I wanted was to just finally be at my hotel room, and whatever I had to pay I would pay.
Following along with the GPS on my phone, I watched as we got closer and closer to the hotel. I could feel the weight in my chest lifting gradually, all I had to do was find the place, check in, and I could finally lay down after the long journey. But soon we started going in what seemed to be circles…my agency did warn us that the place was pretty tucked away, which was why they provided us a map that we could show a cab driver if necessary. So I carefully unfurled the map and showed it to my driver, who nodded enthusiastically and began going up and down the side streets. I was scanning each neaon building sign we passed, hoping, praying, that we would find it soon.
I tried pulling up the address on my phone next and showed my driver, who proceeded to stop the cab with my phone in his hand and get out to ask some locals on the side of the road. Needless to say, I was pretty flustered at this point. A few more minutes of driving and he stopped AGAIN this time beside a few police officers standing beside their bikes. With a smile they pointed us in the right direction and finally we pulled up to the hotel.
It put me out about 500 Baht (roughly $15 USD), which doesn’t seem like much but the ride really should have only cost about 200 Baht. But, like I said, at this point I didn’t much care about the money, and I thanked the driver for going through the trouble of tracking down the place for me.
Once I checked in and made it into my room I unceremoniously dropped all of my bags on to the floor…and then my body alongside them.
Sitting up against the wooden door, sweaty, hungry, exhausted, and alone, I began to cry.
Everything simply caught up with me in that moment, washed over me like a wave. The exhaustion and the reality of being so far from home, both having been fended off my adrenaline up until this point, now hit me with full force. And with that, came all the doubts.
What am I doing here?
Am I stupid?
I have no idea what I’m doing.
I’m not ready for this.
I can’t do this.
What do I do now?
How do I find food?
I want to go home.
The emotions demanded to be felt, and I did, I felt every last one. I tried my best to embrace them, and to be understanding and forgiving of myself. For anyone thinking of going abroad, know that this is inevitably part of the experience. Traveling far from home is a big change for anyone to undertake, and it is completely natural to be afraid, to face culture shock, to feel like you aren’t strong enough to do it on your own.
But let me tell you something, you are strong enough, you can do it.
As I finish writing this post I have now been living in Thailand for about 1 month.
Sure, I have still felt homesickness from time to time, I have had doubts, fears, uncertainties, but with each passing day I become stronger, more confident, and more at home.
My best advice to anyone thinking about or preparing on embark on a journey like this, or any decision that requires you to put yourself out of your comfort zone, is to remember that these feelings are important, powerful, profound, real, and necessary for true growth.
Embrace them, learn and grow from them, and do not be ashamed of them.
“The only way that we can live, is if we grow. The only way that we can grow is if we change. The only way that we can change is if we learn. The only way we can learn is if we are exposed. And the only way that we can become exposed is if we throw ourselves out into the open. Do it. Throw yourself.” C. Joybell C.
Check back soon to learn more about my first night Bangkok including making my first friend, trying Thai beer, visiting a night market, and meeting my orientation group.
Until then, stay well and I am sending all my love from Thailand.