Thursday, February 27, 2020 Edition: U.S. & World | Regional

What I Learned By Adventuring With a Travel Rookie

Resting bitch face.

That’s what I’ve always called it. It’s that face that says, Don’t mess with me, I know exactly what I’m doing and where I’m going. Even though that’s not true at least half the time while traveling–especially in a foreign country.

I’m not the most experienced traveler in the world, but I’ve done my fair share of globetrotting. Four continents and 20 countries visited, with a million more on my to-do list.

Most of my trips have been taken with female travel companions, but my dip into South America a few summers ago was with my 6-foot, 8-inch brother.

While on that adventure with John, I noticed a difference in my traveling temperament, and upon further reflection, I decided it was because I was walking around Argentina with a giant by my side. And when I say giant, I mean, literally, a giant.

Who’s gonna mess with that? Not too many pickpockets or troublemakers will choose the 6-foot, 8-inch bearded man as their next prey, which meant I, his travel buddy, basically got a free pass.

As long as I stuck next to John, I could smile without worrying that my smile would be misinterpreted, look at a map without wondering who was figuring out I was a clueless tourist, and generally just relax and enjoy my surroundings.

Compare that to almost all of my other ventures abroad, which have been taken with young women my own age, and it was calculated as a giant plus. Pun intended.

Perhaps my “everybody’s out to get you” mindset started on my first trip overseas.

I was with a large group of high school students, and after listening to our chaperones’ warnings about the dangerous streets of Paris, I vividly remember disembarking the tour bus with my backpack firmly planted on my stomach, arms hugging it tightly in effort to prevent anybody and everybody from unzipping and emptying it without my knowledge.
What I Learned From A Travel Rookie
Every other trip I’ve taken has been with just two or three others, but they’ve always been other females. And, after realizing I felt so different when traveling with my brother, I decided that traveling with young females is stressful. Not so stressful that you can’t enjoy yourself, but stressful in that you can never let your guard down.

Rules to live by include: avoid eye contact with passersby, don’t make much small talk with locals, and for heaven’s sake don’t even think about looking at a map in public.

Fake it ‘til you make it, right?

And yes, I did go into bathroom stalls to check maps and determine my next move.

But last summer, things changed.

I set off for a jaunt through Thailand and Cambodia with a travel rookie. She was a pale-skinned redhead who hadn’t even traveled much within the US and definitely hadn’t come close to crossing the border, but she was thrilled about our pending adventure.

Emily knew I was the more experienced traveler of our duo, and she was happy to ask questions and trust my knowledge and advice. She was perfectly satisfied following my lead as we booked flights, scouted hostels and sketched loose plans, allowing room for the spirit to move us along the way.

It was on our first flight that I started to worry.

We were seated a few rows apart from each other, but even with headphones already in my ears so I didn’t have to talk to the person next to me, I could hear her happily telling her new plane friend that this was her first time ever leaving the country.

I thought to myself, Oh boy. Well, at least nobody knows she’s with me.

I’m pretty sure she proudly made her announcement of travel abroad virginity to at least five more people by the time we collapsed on the satisfactory but less than luxurious beds in our Bangkok hostel 25 hours later, but no harm done.

She’d learn.
 What I Learned From A Travel Rookie
However, no sooner had we woken up the next day, than I somehow found myself standing next to this pale ginger, who stuck out like a sore thumb, fumbling around trying to open up a huge map of Bangkok on the middle of a crowded sidewalk near city center.

Of course this went squarely against all of my traveling rules, but nevertheless, that was the situation at hand.

And oddly enough, a local stopped, asked how he could help us, and proceeded to tell us that the place we were going was closed that day. He then suggested a few other places we could visit before closing time, informed us about the preferred government tuk tuks with the yellow flags, waved one down, told the driver exactly where we wanted to go, and wished us well with a smile and a wave as he sent us on our way adventuring.

Wow, that had been lucky.

I should’ve known better than to think that that encounter with a local was a one-hit-wonder, though. Before our first day of touring Bangkok was complete, we had also made friends with our tuk tuk driver. And when I say we, I mean Emily.

She happily struck up conversation with him immediately, again announcing that this was her first time out of the country, while I silently cringed and smiled a tight, tense grin. None of my Google searches had led to travel blogs that advised making friends with the tuk tuk drivers.

Of course, amongst other places, he took us to his business partner’s tailor shop hoping we’d spend money there, but we politely turned down the tailor-made suits that could be ready before we left town, and nobody was harmed in the process. And to my utter surprise, my photos from Day One of exploring Bangkok included a happy picture of two American girls with their tuk tuk driver.

Day Two’s picture harvest included a picture of Emily and I in a tuk tuk, taken by a different driver, who I nervously handed my camera to–upon his urging–so he could step out onto the street and get a better angle.

Another day, another new friend. And so the trend continued, each time initiated by “oblivious” Emily, who struck up conversations with public transit drivers, tour guides, restaurant servers, local citizens, travel agents and whoever seemed to cross our path.

You know, all of those dangerous sorts.
What I Learned From A Travel Rookie
It probably wasn’t until halfway through our two-week trip that I didn’t tense up every time she started telling somebody else that this was her first time traveling overseas and then ask, So what’s your name?

We made friends everywhere we went. And by we, I mean Emily–but I got the benefit of being along for the ride.

There was Tic, our tour guide through Doi Inthanon National Park in Chiang Mai, and Mr. Hacid, who we called to come pick us up at least five times during our 24 hours on the island of Koh Samui.

And of course, Sopium, affectionately known to us as Soap Soap, who waited on us at a Cambodian BBQ restaurant and ended up staying at our table for the duration of our meal, chitchatting and cooking for us all of the raw meat we were supposed to cook on our own.

I’d be remiss not to point out the Slovenian restaurant owner who had moved to a Thai island to open his restaurant bar that we enjoyed, and I’ll never forget the blushing army man in uniform who was more than delighted to squeeze two white girls onto his motorcycle for a ride across the highway to the closest bus stop.

Without that new friend, who knows, we might still be at that elephant sanctuary in the middle of nowhere in northern Thailand.

Each encounter resulted in another happy picture on the roll, another delightful memory, and, of course, the exchange of Facebook friendship to make things official.
What I Learned From A Travel Rookie   Angkor Siem Reap
But it was our new friend David, another tuk tuk driver, who really made me stop and think.

David chauffeured us around Siem Reap, Cambodia for our entire three-day stay there. We later found out it’s custom for drivers to try and stick with their customers there longer than a taxi driver in New York City would stick with a fleeting passenger; still, we felt like we’d just built a friendship for the ages.

David took us to all of the hotspots, told us everything we needed to know, and was always waiting for us whenever and wherever we asked him to be.

On our last day there, he let us meet his daughter, showed us his neighborhood, and actually lent us money for a boat ride we didn’t know would cost. The boat ride, which he and his precious daughter joined us on, included a pit stop hour of drinks and conversation at a restaurant with, of course, our new friend, the boat driver.

And by the time David dropped us at the airport the next morning, we were all three in tears saying goodbye, and five minutes later began the Facebook message exchanges that continue regularly still today.

On the long flights back home, I had plenty of time to reflect on what had happened during my short-ish but stellar adventure through Southeast Asia.

Not only had I seen the sights, but I’d also seen the people. Seen them, met them, smiled with them, laughed with them, ate with them, drank with them, and enjoyed life with them if even for just an hour here and there.

It was something I’d never done before, in my preoccupation with checking popular tourist sites off the list without getting mugged, but it’s something I’ll definitely do again.

For the first time, my travels had included oodles of meaningful encounters with people who were so different, but who were really just like me. And believe it or not, not one of them tried to snatch my purse.

As for my resting bitch face, I have a feeling that my taste of Asia with a naive, oblivious travel rookie may have buried that hatchet for good.

Am I advocating that young female travelers throw all caution to the wind and prance around foreign countries passing out extra copies of their passports?

Of course not.

But am I suggesting that you travel for more than just the scenery? That you dare to believe that most people are good people? That you even consider asking your next tuk tuk driver what his name is?

You bet I am.

And if you’re in Siem Reap, and he says his name is David, please tell him Emily and Audrey say hello.

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