Saturday, 11 October 2014

The Social Media experiment and Thailand.

       I did a little test on my private facebook page and I think sharing it will be culturally illuminating. I posted a message saying Happy Birthday to President Putin and added a funny picture depicting the two presidents in day-to-day activities that called President Obama’s manliness’ into question. I got the idea talking about cultural differences and ideologies. Freedom of speech is an idea but if it stops at just an idea it really isn’t worth the cost it took to entrench it in our culture. In the discussion around this, I was asked to put my money where my mouth was. The general feeling here is people in the West don’t like Russians because of the countries policies.  Sanctions and sound byte rhetoric hasn’t helped this feeling as Russian people have unfettered access to outside news and have a smattering of English language ability. Perhaps not enough to capture the entire message, but enough to get the gist. So in my test I posted this picture and wishes and added something that was both true and an achievement about President Putin. Being polite is a Canadian stereotype.
The feeling was that in 24 hours my Facebook page would be inundated with harsh or downright hateful statements. My feeling was one of uncertainty as I really didn’t know what the post response would be. I know I hoped it would be respectful and I wished the brainwashing attempt of the Western media had failed as I like to think my friends and family are intelligent and respect the idea of freedom.
So the 24 hours are up and I was right, no hateful messages. What  made this test even more special is the response I got. As it is a private page, I will not add a name, but the one response I did get was from someone who risked his life defending these very same ideologies. A personal hero of mine and a man I deeply respect. He said, “Wow."  So in explaining this to friends here deepened both respect and understanding. They know I have family in the USA and were significantly more than a little surprised they said nothing. To have a Canadian soldier who has had Russian-made hardware fired in anger at him comment so respectfully really raised the bar on respect and understanding. It was obvious on the faces of these very hard men, many soldiers themselves that they understood what freedom of speech meant to us and while they may not agree with the statement “they will die protecting your right to say it.”  

Another less serious part of the test is just the cultural idea of what a man is. In Russia, a man is a provider and protector. Please notice I used “a” and not “the” in that statement. For men, it is important to do things stereotypically seen as manly like hunting, fishing, and engaging in tough activities. Less importance is put on the emotional side of things like connecting with the hosts of The View and sharing. This is not to suggest men are not emotionally connected to their partner. They just have a better understanding of the relationship. Equality has been alive and well in Russia a lot longer than in other cultures around the world so there seems little need to bemoan glass ceilings or gender inequality. People and relationships have in many cases settled on roles based on mutual acceptance, without life coaches and support groups. When men bring flowers, the arrangements are huge, beautiful, and may cost a day or two's salary. They do this past the usual reasons for flowers, they do it as they feel romantic and want to express it.

That was my foray into live Social Media experiments. For the many of you that are both friends and fans on my private page this is what that post was about that you saw and thought your private thoughts. I guess in that is the truest of truths. Our ideas and opinions are exactly that; ours and ours alone.  When an ideology becomes polarized with the added emotional dogma of culture, religion, patriotism, and lacks understanding of a different perspective it becomes explosive. Many of you probably shared the “Wow” sentiment and perhaps wondered and additional “WTF?” as well. Thanks for being my test group, and proving to many here in Russia that our ideologies are not just propaganda and rhetoric. That we do hold these ideas sacred and we “talk the talk and walk the walk.”

      So Mike Tyson probably said it best when he said a plan is only good until the point you get punched in the face. Living full time in Russia would probably be ok if I weren't such a chatterbox and social butterfly. However like Popeye said, “I am what I am.” So while browsing cheap visa run possibilities I saw a hot fair to Thailand. Thailand! I thought, wow visa run and mileage run all in one. So I booked it and hopped on a plane from Anapa to Moscow, and then ten hours south to Asia.
I am getting quite used to traveling inside Russia and know the way things go and what to expect so I like playing a game. The game goes something like this. How far can I get speaking only Russian and making the people think I am Russian? All the way to Thailand! I made it from Anapa on the Black Sea to Moscow and to my overnight hotel without having to resort to English or comedic gestures. The trick is not so much understanding the language but the culture of Russia. You need to adopt the walk and the way of interacting with the staff in a bored and relaxed way. I figured the international flight out would be a little more difficult and it was, but the look on the Passport Control Officers face was priceless when I handed my Canadian passport over. Seems like I have relaxed quite well into this culture. I even asked a Police Officer where the lounge was in the departures area, as I couldn’t get a cell signal to search for it. This is not really something a Russian would do. But my poor accent must have been mistaken for extreme frustration as the cop actually gestured and said, “Relax, follow me.”

So twelve hours found me in Bangkok, two in the lounge drinking beer, and then ten hours on the plane sleeping like a baby thanks to the previous two hours of beer drinking. I snore loudly when I drink, I’ve known this for years and have used it quite effectively in the past to get a room all to myself, and the same was true on the flight.  I awoke with the six other passengers moved to new seats. I apologized, its Canadian, and was told it wasn’t a problem. So I arrived in Bangkok refreshed and rested and as it was only 9 had the entire day to visit the city. Before I did that I had to enter the Kingdom.

The Kingdom is currently under Martial Law. When you hear that the thoughts it brings to mind differ depending on where you’re from.  For me, I thought that they would be a little more diligent in the entrance process and hoped they would still give me a thirty-day exempt visa. The process was no different than many other countries and I soon found myself in a huge airport. Bangkok airport, or BKK, is wonderfully laid out and very easy to navigate. The people are friendly and helpful and the whole Martial Law thing quickly slipped from my mind. I called a Uber taxi after getting a mobile phone sim at the airport. The phone sim was cheap and easy and the girls working the kiosk helpful and fast. They set up the phone and made sure it worked and showed me how to refill the minutes. The entire process took perhaps ten minutes. I hit the bank machine on the way out and grabbed my Uber driver using the GPS location sent to my phone.

Uber is more expensive to take from the airport, but the car was better than the regular taxis and the driver's English was good.  He was the one that actually told me he was more expensive. I asked the question and he said if I wasn’t long lined and they went on the meter that the trip would have been about ten dollars cheaper. He went on to explain that was a lot of ifs and that they wouldn’t use the expressway, as its paid, like we were going to do to avoid traffic. I so love Uber!
The hotel was listed as a five star and it was cheap. It was cheap and perhaps a five star a few years ago, I’d give it four, but it was clean and the staff great. I checked in early and set off to see some cultural sites.

As an older western tourist traveling alone, you immediately get sold the “boom boom” options. It took quite a great deal to convince my Tuk Tuk driver that I really did just want to see the statues and cultural stuff. But with effort we finally had an understanding that the kickbacks he’d get taking me to one of these fishbowls or shows wasn’t worth the risk of me getting out of his tuk tuk and walking away. A tuk tuk is a three wheeled motorbike that many use as primary transportation. There are also scooter taxis but riding “bitch” on a scooter that weighed less than me, driver included,  in Bangkok traffic seemed overtly reckless.

We did a few local temples and at each one he waited patiently for me. Then we set off to find a place that sold e-cigarette devices, as I had to replace the tank on my Aspire system. This took a few hours as things are very hard to find in Bangkok even with addresses and pictures. So after about seven hours together we arrived back at the hotel and I asked how much I owed him. We had agreed on a fare to the temple, but I had forgot to get a price for the other. Breaking the rule always agree on a price before getting onto a Tuk Tuk. He did the usual thing and said “whatever you think is fair." So in these cases I default to what was his service worth to me in Canadian dollars.  I handed him 500 baht and he was happy confirming our trip tomorrow to the river trip and floating markets. I confirmed, saying I would see him at ten. I knew he was getting a kickback from this and was totally ok with it.

The next day found us heading to the boat trip. I had slept in and was only able to grab a coffee and a quick bite before rushing down for ten so I asked Ping if he had eaten yet.
He said he had breakfast with the kids when he had sent them off to school, but could eat. So I suggested he pick a place on the way that he had frequented in the past and liked. This brought a look in the mirror and then a full turn around assessment. I continued saying “You pick, I buy, good for me good for you. It’s cultural; Okay?”  For those readers that remember we invited the cab driver up for lunch when we arrived in Anapa Russia. So Ping gave me another look and shrugged his shoulders and continued slipping through the morning Bangkok traffic without killing me. He turned down an alley and I could smell the river, past the other exotic and not so exotic scents. Passing a little cart with three folding camp style chair and tables Ping gestured with his head while swerving to avoid a cat with another in hot pursuit. He gave me a look in the mirror again and I said smells good. A smile crossed his face and we continued toward the river. We parked near the river cruise place and Ping suggested we get tickets first and offered to come with me on the cruise, to translate. I knew this was another way to get a little more out of me, but I liked him and thought he might come in handy, so I agreed. Ping ran off to put the Tuk Tuk in a better place for long storage and use his phone and a Guy walked over to take care of me. Absently I responded to him in Russian and he quickly disappeared, leaving me standing there. A couple where getting tickets and I watched them pay for a private boat on the long trip. It came out to 1800 baht, and they had not been delivered by Tuk Tuk as the guy was pointing out to the lady, while he walked by me to the dock, how it would have been more if they had taken a taxi and paid the kick back. Ping arrived and asked me what length of trip I wanted to do. I said the long trip and together we went to the desk to pay. Ping talked to the lady selling the tickets and confirmed, with me,  I was going to pay for him too and the total was 1500baht. There was a little more conversation between Ping and the sales lady while I paid and by the tone I could tell Ping was being firm. The lady was shaking her head yes as Ping and I left and walked up the alley toward the food cart.  I asked what was up and Ping said that she was trying to book us too early and we would be rushed for the temple and market because of the other bigger tour boats.

We arrived at the food stall and while I wouldn’t call it clean looking it was good smelling. Ping asked what I liked and I smiled and responded with “what do Russians eat for breakfast?” He got it immediately and laughed saying, “Yes yes you have no idea what this stuff is.”  I responded telling Ping I would have what he is having with a beer.  He told me to go sit.

After ordering for the two of us, he returned with a beer and two glasses, one full of ice. He took the ice glass and gave me the other and poured the beer commenting that the ice was tap water so no good for me. We made small talk till the lady delivered our food. It was rice with egg mixed in and then another cooked on top, with onion and other, spices beside chicken in a spicy sauce. When I say, spicy think of peanut sauce added to conceal liquid demon tears.

In Russia, they feed you Vodka to test you fortitude. This was a similar test with spice and I mixed it with my rice and added copious amounts of sugar to my beer when Ping was distracted to help quell the nuclear fission that was occurring behind by third bicuspid! I think I commented twice how spicy it was and Ping simply nodded his response as we both started sweating.

I seemed to pass the test and while I paid 190 baht for our meal Ping grabbed two water and another beer from the fridge and stuffed them into his backpack. “For the boat trip,” He said heading off down the alley gesturing in a Thai, palm down, for me to follow.  I did thinking to myself that a Tuk Tuk driver just bought me a beer.

The river trip was very interesting and after seeing the regular boats crammed with passengers I was happy I got a private boat. I’ve spent a great deal of time on boats so the rolling muddy river didn’t bother me, but I saw people in other boats feeding the fish with the expensive hotel breakfast they had eaten that morning. We saw the market, and the riverfront, temples near and far and Ping did his best to be tour guide in simple English and I could tell by how he said things he was very proud of the city.  It was a great day and I think Ping enjoyed himself as well. We ended the day back at the hotel and Ping said; “Thanks for the boat trip and seeing Bangkok Mr. Scott.”

The next hop was to Chiang Mai in the north of Thailand. I had made the decision that Bangkok was a little too much like Moscow but with Asian drivers and far too busy. I had made a connection with a guy in Chiang Mai on the internet and had decided to stay there for a week. So with money transferred via Paypal I boarded a Thai Airlines flight for the one-hour hop to the second largest city in Thailand.

Richard Katze was waiting for me when I got off the plane putting and end to my thoughts of being stranded in Chiang Mai without a place to stay. He took me to the studio apartment he owns and showed me around and made sure I was settled in. If you are looking for a guy in Chiang Mai, he is a good one to know and one you can trust.   The place was as advertised and perfect for a base to see if Chiang Mai was a city Inga and I could spend part of the year in.

The following day I grabbed a Tuk Tuk and agreed on a price to do a two hour just drive around tour of the city to get my bearings and a general feel for the place. During the trip, the sky opened up and a warm rain drenched everything and when it stopped the sweet florid smell of the jungle brought back memories of Africa and I knew I could make a home here.

The people are very friendly, Thai and Expat alike. English is widely spoken and if not the person is used to visitors and makes it work. I enjoyed the western style mall just up the street from the condo and the relaxed happy attitude of the entire city. I spent seven days walking various neighborhoods and looking at condos for rent and for sale. I ate in little roadside stands full of locals and in one or two fancier western focused places. It was all good to great food and very fresh and organic.

I knew Inga and I would be returning so I didn’t want to do any real touristy things without her, but I had heard of a place called Tiger Kingdom. Tiger Kingdom is a refuge and tourist attraction in one. It is set up to take care of, and allow tourists to closely interact with, tigers.  By close, I mean get inside the cage and pet these amazing creatures. The cats are not drugged or altered in any way.

They have all their teeth and claws and other than getting bathed a little more than tigers enjoy, are regular happy cats. Since the Nanny Nation of North America has made everything far too sterile and safe few people will ever get a chance to touch and feel these magnificent creatures. There is a real danger in doing this and one I thought about and weighed against the incredible opportunity. There are no handlers armed with guns or stun sticks. No easy way out of the cage once you are inside and other than being hand raised by humans these are wild animals.  So into the cages I went.

I reach for words a great deal in my struggles as a writer to tell you a good story. This time I will not try other than to say if you love wildlife and cats this is as close to a spiritual experience as you will ever have. The intelligence and understanding were evident in the eyes of these creatures and anyone who has lived with a housecat knows exactly what I mean.

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