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Day 8 – Next Time, Explain to the Health Inspector, “It’s Life Affirming!” (Some Thoughts on The Purpose of Peril)

March 11, 2010

Dateline: Bangkok, Thursday, March 11, 2010

“I’m pretty sure I’m not going to die,” I thought, as Anne and I rose into the Bangkok sky on the swinging arm of a fun fair ride. “Pretty sure.”

Southeast Asia is a vibrant, lively place, partially because it forces you to confront life’s extremes. The U.S. does all it can to shelter its citizens from danger. It does things like put safety caps on aspirin or forbid more than four people from riding on a motor scooter. That’s not true in Asia, where consumer protection means the consumer is going to have to decide how she’s going to protect herself. In Asia, you confront your mortality way more often than you do in the U.S. Here, swallowing water in the shower can be a dicey affair. There’s nothing like a little peril to make you feel more alive.

The U.S. also protects its citizens’ psyches from the perils of inequality, espousing the aphorism “we’re all equal” and holding in reverence the values of the “middle class.” In contrast, places like Bangkok remind you that some people are more privileged than others. Just take a trip down the canals and see the shanty huts sitting next to the mansions with air conditioners hanging out of every window. In Asia you’re either poor, rich, or really really really rich. Being aware of the extremes gives you a better sense of your privileged life. For example, the fact that I’m in Asia makes me much more aware of how privileged I am to be writing this on a computer to people half a world away. At home, this might feel less of a privilege than a right.

The fun fair ride that Ann and I were on is a prototypical example of Asia accentuating the highs and lows. The “G Force” was basically a giant metal arm that rotated around its center. Four people boarded one end of the arm and sat two by two, back-to-back. Those people were hoisted into the air as the other end of the arm came down. While the first four people dangled above, another four people boarded the other end of the arm. Then the ride started, swinging the riders round and round, like a two armed ferris wheel on cocaine. The carriages in which each of the four people were strapped rotated front to back so that, depending on the momentum, you switched between being upside down or upright.

To load and unload passengers, the operators rolled a raised metal platform under the arm. When the ride started, the operators pulled the metal platform out from under the riders so the riders didn’t break their legs as they swung around.

I noticed, however, that when the operators pulled the platform back, they had to physically prevent the platform from rolling back underneath the arm. Nothing locked the platform into place. If an operator got bored or sleepy or felt particularly malicious, he could have let the platform roll back underneath the arm and sheared off any parts of the machine or passengers that might be dangling too low.

If “guy with his arm wrapped around a railing on the platform” passed the safety check, I didn’t want to think too hard on how the thing might be put together.

Our cart paused at the top, and all was peaceful for the moment.

“Look down,” said Anne.

My feet dangled beneath me. I took my eyes off the steady horizon and looked down. The crowd below shook with the vertigo. Waiting the hour and a half in line on the ground, I’d been full of bravado. Hanging in the air, I can’t say I was scared. I also can’t say I was “happy.”

I took a deep breath and let me moment pass. I didn’t get on this ride in spite of the danger, I got on it because of the danger. I wanted the extra thrill only lax safety standards supplied. This ride might have been fun in America, but here the thrill was amplified because the fear of dying might be justified.

Anne and I hung there, waiting for the inevitable drop. The carriage rocked back and forth in the breeze.

Earlier that afternoon, we’d had a much different kind of high. High society, actually. Anne is a member of the Royal Bank Polo Club and the sister Sports Club, two of the most exclusive country clubs in Thailand. The waiting list is long and initial membership fees nowadays reportedly are 1 million baht (-$32,000). That’s probably not much by U.S. standards (I have no idea), but it’s a fortune for a normal Thai person. Anne and Becca are members from way back in the day, via their fathers.

When Anne and I drove onto the grounds, she noted that hers was the only pickup truck in the parking lot. We’d had lunch at the Polo Club at a restaurant sitting between the Olympic size pool and the polo field. Light skinned people (both Asian and not) dominated the clientele. Adults and children alike carried that air of confidence that often surrounds those that either have money or want people to think they have money. It’s the kind of place that has a squash court not far from the stables.

Anne took me to the even larger Royal Sports Club. “I should take you. It is something not many tourists get to see,” she said. We had dessert and coffee overlooking an 18-hole golf course that sits in the middle of downtown Bangkok. The course is surrounded by a horse racetrack. After dessert, we walked around to the stands, the grass tennis courts, and the two pools.

There’s a stark difference between this life and the lives of long tail boat drivers or the people living in the shacks along the canals. It’s Asia, man. The highs are higher and the lows are lower. Those peaks and valleys are what make for a more dramatic ride.

I gripped the shoulder harness a bit tighter. My stomach dropped as Ann and I hurtled towards the ground and back up into the sky. We flipped, we screamed, we laughed. The ride finally slowed to a stop and the operators slid the raised metal platform under us so we could disembark.

I stepped onto solid ground and felt alive.


Stupid Travel Tip of the Day: When you try to visit the Royal Bank Polo Club, be sure to bring your friend who’s a member, otherwise they won’t let you in.

Not So Stupid Tip: If you’re using a guide book while on vacation, instead of always carrying the whole book, just razor out the pages you’re going to use for the day. This has a couple of advantages. First, that’ll be one less heavy, bulky item in your backpack. Second, when you actually need to look something up (a map, for example), you won’t have to pull out something that down the spine in big letters says “THAILAND– THIS BOOK MEANS I AM A TOURIST, PLEASE OVERCHARGE ME.”

To keep the razored pages with the rest of the book while traveling, bring along binder clips to clip the loose pages back into the book.

If you’re like me, you’ll be reluctant to pull pages out of a perfectly good book. To overcome this, join me in the following mental gymnastics: a few years from now, if your travel budget is so tight that you can’t afford to buy a new, updated guide book when you take a trip back to the same place, then you probably shouldn’t be traveling.

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