Ah, Phuket. I miss you already…well, not all of you. Not your throngs of tourists (okay, so I contributed to that overwhelmingly high number of people in such a small space), or your pushy shop and restaurant owners, or your smelly streets that reminded me of Oakland. But, I miss some of you — like your clear blue waters, delicious fresh fruit shakes, and amazing aquatic creatures. I can’t believe I’m back in Haiyang already. I can’t believe I actually made it to you and back. As with all of our excursions out of our expat village, getting to and from you was a story in itself. One filled with comedy, tragedy, frustration, relief, and, oh, the list goes on…
The adventure started bright and early at 8am on a Saturday morning. We boarded the company provided bus to Qingdao, which is, um, free. Sure we could’ve taken a taxi or hired a driver, but if living in China is changing me in any way, it’s helping me to become cheap. Why spend 325RMB ($50ish) to easily get from point A to point B when you can spend 0RMB ($0) to go from point A to point B to point C to point D? By 10:30 we hopped off the bus with our backpacks, passports, and eagerness in tow, and made our way to Diner 22 for a semi-American brunch. Indulgent, yes, but we had four hours to kill. Doesn’t seem long, but it sure felt like it. We were stupidly dressed for Thailand and its promises of sunshine, 90 degree weather, and humidity. My thin little sweatshirt did nothing to shield me from the windy and unseasonably cold Qingdao day in which little drops of rain turned into pellets of sleet. But I grinned and bore it and thanked god we only had to wait ten minutes to get a cab after brunch.
Our forty-five minute cab drive began like many others: did the driver actually know where the airport was? It sure seemed like he was taking a roundabout way of getting there, even though his crisp white gloves hinted at semi-professionalism. Turns out he had a pit stop to make — a bathroom off one of the main drags in Qingdao. Too bad for him that the bathroom was closed, so we had to keep driving. After the bathroom letdown, the cabbie opened up a little and chatted with Iggy. Here’s an approximate recap of the conversation (translated into English, of course):
Cabbie: “Do you live in Qingdao?”
Cabbie: “Are you a student?”
Cabbie: “What nationality are you?”
Iggy: “I’m Russian.”
Iggy: “We live in Haiyang.”
Cabbie: “Do you work in Haiyang.”
Iggy: “Yeah, I work at the nuclear station.”
Cabbie: Laughed loudly and imitated the sound of an explosion and gestured with hands followed by him stating: “No! No! No!”
Iggy: “No, it’s safe.”
Cabbie: Disagreed by referring to Chernobyl and Fukushima.
(Guess he never heard of Three Mile Island).
Iggy: Tried to explain that because Haiyang’s plant was being built by Americans and because the plant is based on a new design, it was different.
Cabbie: Was entirely unconvinced and went silent.
That is until we drove through the toll gate to get onto the highway that led to the airport. He slowly cruised to the side of the road and apologized several times for stopping. Then he got out of the car, ran behind it, hopped the guard rail, and took semi-shelter under a few pine trees so he could pee. Classic. I mean how many times has that happened to you in New York or DC or Philly? Once back in the car, he was all talky talky again. He wanted to know if I too was Russian. Iggy said niet and that, actually, he was born in Russia, but was American for the most part and that I was an American. He liked that and stated that both countries were “good” in his opinion. He reiterated the old Mao-era ideology that Russia was China’s big brother and China was its little brother. Shortly after this exchange he pointed to a big, white American pick-up truck and asked Iggy how much it cost. Satisfied with the answer, he remained silent until he dropped us off a few minutes later at the airport.
For the most part, airports in China are a lot less hassle than those in America. Sure they might be slightly busier and you might have to push your way into “lines”* or throw some elbows to maintain your place in line, but things move more quickly. You can get through security with a lot less hassle and customs and immigration is less intimidating. It’s kind of an odd difference. Even though I’m American, every time I come back from being abroad I feel like I’ve automatically done something wrong and never feel welcomed back into my home country by the hard asses sitting behind the customs desk. In China, where I’m often reminded that I’m not welcome as a permanent visitor, I generally feel at ease walking up to the customs clerk. Maybe it’s because there is so little conversation to be had since I don’t speak much Mandarin and don’t understand much of the semi-English that the Chinese customs officers use to converse with me. All I really have to do is look to the camera atop the person’s computer and smile and go on my way.
There are many odd things to witness at Chinese airports, which makes up for the fact that they are typically full of stale smoke and spitting people. (For devoted readers of this blog, you know I am not exaggerating, even if I wish I were.) Here’s a great example. We walked through the doors of the airport and set our bags down near the bathrooms. As I wait for my turn, I watch a maintenance worker clad in a sea-green onesie empty the trash and recycle bins. I was dumbfounded to see how this worked. Was he really just shoveling all the recycled items into the trash bin? How could he? And to think I believed that my water bottles would actually go to the right place! Wait a minute…what else was he doing? He was strategically transporting the recycled items as evidenced by the half-smoked cigarette he saved from the recycling. He plucked it out of a pile of plastic and aluminum debris and examined it closely before obviously deciding it still had some life left in it. He brushed it off, placed it between his index and middle fingers, eyed it again, then smoothly took out his box of cigs from his pocket and slid the half-smoked one in. An attempt to redeem himself? Perhaps. At least I took it as a gesture to say that he didn’t totally disregard the principle of recycling.
I discovered a new kind of awe when we landed at our next airport on our way to Phuket: Seoul’s Incheon International Airport. And I’m not just talking about all the matchy-matchy Korean couples, which was an entirely new phenomenon for me. For those of you not in the know, it’s pretty standard to see young boyfriends and girlfriends dressed like twin siblings from their head to their toes, which may inspire me to buy matching polka dot shorts and t-shirts for Iggy and I to wear if we ever make our way to South Korea for vacation.
More seriously, it’s probably the nicest airport I have been to. It is all things that a Chinese airport is not — clean and brightly lit, with actual sunlight that pours in through its many windows. It’s also many things that American airports are not because it offers not only shopping but cultural activities for all those travelers with long layovers. The airport housed not one but two cultural centers where travelers could partake in traditional Korean crafts. They also treated weary travelers to a lovely string quartet. How nice. Best of all, we were able to find a bottle of Hendricks which we couldn’t find in China…ah, just in time for summer. Here we come G & Ts. And if you’ve never flown on a Korean Airlines flight, you have been missing out. I met the nicest flight attendants and had some of the best airplane food on our flight to Phuket, which landed just after midnight Thai time. A great time to enter a country you’ve never been to before.
Getting off the plane and through Thai customs and immigration was a breeze in comparison to our task of finding a taxi. Unlike in Haiyang, there was no shortage of them. The problem was there were no legit taxis to be seen. Instead we fell victim to the infamous Phuket (or larger Thai?) taxi mafia that Iggy had warned me about and warned me not to get suckered into. Too bad that we had no other choice, which made for a semi-scary welcome to Thailand for me. Upon walking out of baggage claim, all travelers to Phuket are greeted by fresh-faced young guys, eager to secure a cab for you. While the naive traveler would think “My, how nice,” Iggy and I knew better. We knew the first guy who approached us was marking his territory and letting all the other hustlers know that we were his. He stuck with us like white on rice as we navigated the airport and the outside waiting area for the legit taxi stand that we knew existed because we had prepared and read up on it online. But of course, at 1am, the stand was closed, so we (ahem, Iggy) were left to bargain hard for a good deal. We were semi-satisfied with the price we got — especially after talking to two French girls who were paying an extra 1,000 baht than us for their mafia taxi — and followed our handler to the surprisingly nice silver sedan. All seemed okay. We paid our handler and got in, but the little hairs on my neck pricked up when not only our driver got in (a guy who was not our handler) but his buddy too. Shit, it was two on two, which made me think I was going to potentially end up on Dateline in one of their classic episodes about stupid American tourists doing stupid American things in a foreign country. To be sure, I was quickly reminded that I was a stupid American tourist. I had no cell phone coverage and even though I could still use my phone to potentially call an emergency number, it didn’t matter because I didn’t actually know one. No police number. No ambulance number. No fire department number. Awesome. So, I was resigned to tensely sitting in the back seat, squeezing the life out of Iggy’s hand on our high-speed drive through the dark and empty roads of Phuket.
Much to my amazement (though less to Iggy’s), we eventually arrived at our hotel, with all our money still in our possession, as well as all our limbs. My nightmare scenario of being taken to a remote part of the Thai jungle and being robbed or mutilated if we refused to transport illicit drugs for the Thai mafia was unfounded, not to mention, overly dramatic. But hey, my only knowledge of Thailand prior to this trip was what I’d seen in Brokedown Palace, so forgive me for making assumptions and forgive my sense of the word mafia, which involves drugs and brutal beatings. My fears were totally unfounded, as proven by the remainder of our one week vacation in Thailand, which I will write more about in the next couple of posts. I quickly forgot about my initial apprehension to Thailand until our final taxi ride to the airport. We decided that we were not going to get sucked back into the Thai taxi mafia again, so we made friends with a group of young guys who looked slightly more credible than our friends back at the airport and who had a taxi stand across the street from our hotel. Everyday they offered us rides and asked where we were going. On our second day, we used them and their nice Toyota to get to Karon Beach, where we had our scuba diving lessons. They gave us a reasonable deal (300 baht) and played decent music on the drive and were fairly personable. This gave us enough comfort to book our ride back to the airport with them for 800 baht (much cheaper than the 1500 baht we originally paid).
And all seemed well. The driver showed up fifteen minutes earlier and asked how we liked Phuket and what we did and where we were from. It didn’t matter to us that he wasn’t the guy we made our booking with, who by the way, had chosen the English name Punk to go by. We felt safe in his car until just outside of the touristy area where he pulled into a gas station. “Oh, he must need gas,” I thought. But that wasn’t the case. He just pulled into a parking spot and stated “Now we wait.” Um, wait for what was what I wanted to know. Iggy and I exchanged glances as the driver showed off his stereo system by blasting a Flo Rida song. Hm…another ominous taxi ride in Phuket. About five minutes later he said, “Okay. He is here.” We were ushered out of the car and sure enough there was Punk in another spotless Toyota. He explained that he would take us the rest of the way and told us that he had just taken some other tourists to a market near the airport. All’s well that ends well, and our trip to Thailand did end well. We made it safely to the airport and safely back to Korea where we purchased our Hendricks and ate a Quizno’s sub before making it safely back to Qingdao where we waited for two hours for another free ride back to Haiyang.
I guess it’s like my mom (courtesy of Mr. Emerson) always stressed that “it’s the journey not the destination.” And next time I’ll remind myself to think like Hemingway: “The best way to find out if you can trust somebody is to trust them.” So, sorry taxi drivers of Phuket for thinking the worst.
*I am not sure if there is an equivalent in Mandarin for the word line, though even if there is, it is not something that is in vogue in China. At airports, in the grocery store, getting onto and off buses, it is every (wo)man for themselves here, so I’ve learned to be like the Chinese while in China. But at home, I will willingly and wholeheartedly revert to my old and — dare I say — more civilized way of waiting patiently in line for my turn.