June 22, 2016

“An adventure is only an inconvenience rightly considered,
An inconvenience is only an adventure wrongly considered.”
– G.K. Chesterton

When I was twelve, my mom brought home the book “Around the World in 80 Days” by Jules Verne from her college library during my summer holidays. Summer in Nagpur is scorching hot, rendering all outdoor activities practically impossible. The indoor activities at that time consisted of reading and occasionally playing Business (Monopoly) or cards with friends. Those simple summer days of my childhood are vividly etched in my memory. The loud hum of the “cooler” (wet air cooler), the distinct aroma of water running down the wood wool, the cool air sprinkled with water. And the books! Yes, the books, mostly classics, with their vivid descriptions of fantastic worlds that were magical and far away from my own, far away in time and space, accessible only through words. My English was not very good at the time and I had to refer to a dictionary just as much as the books themselves. This book, ’Around the World in 80 Days’, left a lasting impression on me, especially the ingenious and surprise ending.

There’s a good reason why traveling around the world, in 80 days or more, is romanticized in books and popular culture. Traveling evokes a sense of adventure, images of stunning landscapes, wildly different cultures, bizarre foods, sounds and smells, train stations and airports, major life decisions, teary goodbyes and joyful reunions. Of these, ‘adventure’ is an interesting one. It is so much a matter of perspective as the quote from G.K. Chesterton goes. You could get in a taxi at 11 pm, reach the bottom of Mt Agung, the tallest mountain in Bali at 12:30 am at night, climb it all night for a sunrise view at 6 am and call it an adventure. Or you could spend a night in a hotel room that looked good online, but has no a/c or even ventilation and the dogs and roosters outside are in mid season form all night and call it an inconvenience. In both cases, you’ve spent the night in a lot of discomfort and won’t be forgetting the experience anytime soon. You might say that you got a beautiful view in the end of the first, but was it really just about the view?

The story below fits the second type of adventure, the one life chooses for you.

In December of 2014, my longtime friend Yogesh and I were traveling across Asia – the type of travel where you visit well-known cities and sites in a country for a few days before moving on to the next one. We had just spent 4 days in Siam Reap, Cambodia exploring the stunning temples of Angkor Wat. Our next destination was Bangkok and despite all the stories on Trip Advisor about crossing the Cambodia-Thailand border by land, which is notorious for being a bureaucratic abyss, we decided to give it a try, partly for the “convenience” and partly so that we could get a glimpse of the countryside in both Cambodia and Thailand.

To add to the adventure, we both had Indian passports. An Indian passport usually adds an extra layer of adventure to any border crossing, whether by land or by air. It is usually treated like a fly in the soup (or a piece of stone in rice, if you prefer), a pair of tongs are used to hold it, ancient visa rule books are dusted and brought out from the back rooms and the bureaucratic machinery gets cranked up to high. In case you are not aware, the general rule is – as your skin color gets darker, the bureaucratic machinery level increases. If you never had to show salary slips, bank statements or tax returns to get a (tourist) visa, congratulations on your white skin. *

We started at around 7 am for the bus which was to take us to the Cambodia-Thailand border. It was a hot, dusty day in Siam Reap as is usual in SE Asia most of the year. After the usual chaos of getting on a bus (more tickets sold than the seats, wait for the next bus and so on), we were on our way at around 8:30 am.

I always enjoy bus and train rides in foreign countries as they are a window (literally) into both nature and how the majority of the local people live. Although cities seem to make up the impression of a country for the rest of the world (France -> Paris, Japan -> Tokyo), probably because most of the media comes from them, small towns and villages are really where the real pulse of a country exists. And almost always, you will find that no matter if the people are poor or well off, there is much more heart, warmth and smiling faces there than the cities and the lives of people do not revolve around money. Cambodia’s rural life, while being very poor due to its bleak history and current political condition, was no different.

After about four hours on the bus, we reached the setting of this story, the Thailand-Cambodia border. The weather was hot and the streets were busy with lots of vehicles – buses, tuk-tuks, bicycles, scooters – all competing for space with pedestrians, stray dogs and tiny shops. We spotted a small, ramshackle building overflowing with tourists and deduced that it was the Cambodian immigration office. As we approached it, it became clear that the mass of tourists were waiting for the Cambodian exit stamp and so we joined in. Presently, a guy in uniform approached us and offered to get us in front of the “line” for a small amount but we politely declined. After about 40 minutes in the moving mass of people, we reached one of the immigration windows and I handed in my passport. I could hear the clank of the bureaucratic machinery as it was being wound into action. After looking at my passport from all angles like it was a caterpillar in a salad, he said “Do you have a ticket out of Thailand?” I said yes and showed it to him on my phone.

If you know your immigration officers and have dealt with them a lot, you will know that the following are part of their job requirements – never acknowledge anything being handed over or said by the person at the counter (even a “Thank You”), always have the exact same facial expression, no matter if you are approving the requested document or deciding to call the police to arrest the person, never smile and basically try to be as far away from anything resembling a human way of communication as possible. With the exception of Bali, I have rarely met an immigration officer who showed signs of being human. The worst are, of course, in the US. The starting premise of the interaction at a US immigration counter is that the person in front is a criminal and his or her job is to now prove otherwise. I’m talking about the “non-US citizen or Green Card holder” line, of course.

Fortunately, this time, he handed me my phone back (without acknowledging if he was satisfied with what he saw), stamped the passport and handed it back. Success. Onwards to the Thai side.

It was about 5 minute walk across the border area which was lined with small shops in the front and large casinos in the back, no doubt trying to dodge some laws of one country or another. Little did we know that they would become central to the events that were to transpire.

As we reached the Thai immigration office, we could see a queue bursting out of the door of what looked like a fairly large room, completely filled with tourists. We joined in at the end of it and judging by the speed with which the line was moving, estimated that it would take about two hours to reach the counter. So we settled in for the long haul, striking conversations with fellow travelers. It was the usual assortment of travelers – short term travelers who are excited about their first trip to Asia for a month or two. They are visiting a few countries rapidly and checking off “things to do”. The conversation tends to be small talk – which countries and sites they’ve visited, which ones are next and how sad they are to go back to their “normal” lives soon and maybe, they’ll extend their tickets. Few families with children. Other long term travelers who seem much more relaxed and have an air of all this being normal and integral part of travel. If you happen to talk to one of them, the conversation tends to be much more interesting and in story form rather than small talk. One of my good friends, Tim, who has traveled for two decades on and off has two questions he asks people he meets – “Have you ever seen a dead body (or bodies)?” and “Have you ever pooped in your pants?” These questions may seem shocking at first but upon closer inspection, you’ll perceive that anyone who answers yes to either of these has really traveled deep into unknown lands. And you know that the stories that follow a yes are guaranteed to be interesting. As an aside, my answer to both of these is a yes but that is a story for another post.

After two hours or so, we reached the end of the line and I handed in my passport. Moment of truth. Clank, clank, clank. After some tense silence, the guy at the counter says “India passport, Visa on arrival, next counter.” His tone made it clear that there was no point arguing. Also when I looked over to the other counter, the line wasn’t too long, about 30 minutes at the most. So without much fuss, we walked over to the next line.

Fifteen minutes later, I was at the counter of this line and handed over the passport. After looking at the passport, the Thai woman at the counter says: “Do you have a ticket out of Thailand?”
I tried to show her my phone, but she refused.
“Print out.”
“But the ticket is right here. The print out will be the same.”
“Need print out for records.”

Again, I knew there was no point in continuing this line of conversation, so I asked where I could get the print outs. She pointed behind me to the small shops between the two borders which made it seem like there was a usual shop where people went to get print outs. She added, helpfully “You can leave your luggage here if you want.” This seemed like a good idea at the time as the luggage would just weigh us down on our quest to find the printer.

So, leaving the luggage behind the counter, we headed back to the border area and started asking, in monosyllables and sign language, for a shop with printer. After quite a few unsuccessful attempts, the notion that there was one specific shop just for these type of “printer” requests was dispelled. At this point, the casinos seemed like our only hope. So we went into the largest one and started asking for a printer. After enquiring for a while and getting rejected, we approached a manager looking lady and begged her to help us. The plan was to keep repeating the request and not leave until there was some positive response. Finally, she saw the desperate situation and called a guy over who called someone on the phone. They motioned us to go to the back door of the casino where we saw another guy pulling up on a scooter. It seemed that the plan was to get on the scooter and look for a printer, which meant that there was no printer at the casino. Since there was only one seat, we decided that I would go with this guy and Yogesh would wait for me at the casino.

So there I was, on the back of this guy’s scooter, looking for an internet cafe with a printer on the border road with Cambodia on the right and Thailand on the left. The road was almost entirely lined with some type of betting shops and after enquiring at a lot of them, I figured that none of them had printers connected to the internet. After I came out of one of these shops empty handed, the scooter guy says to me:
“Excuse me.”
He clearly wanted to see my passport.

The conversation seemed like it had reached an impasse. I had no idea why he wanted my passport. I was thinking that if he decided to take it for some nefarious reason, the situation could get a lot worse instantaneously. However, my instincts, which have hopefully become sharper with all the travel, were telling me that this guy did not have any nefarious intentions. So I got my passport out and handed it to him. He looked at something in it (what, we will never find out) and satisfied, handed it back to me.

After that, we got on his scooter and he turned into a small alley into Cambodia (with no immigration checks, of course). We resumed our exercise of stopping and me going into various shops to ask for a printer. Picture the scene: I’m on the back of a guy’s scooter who does not speak a word of English, about 3-4 kilometers inside Cambodia, illegally, since my passport had an exit stamp of Cambodia, with Yogesh waiting at a casino at the border and our luggage at the Thai immigration office. Surprisingly, I was feeling pretty calm except for the luggage part – if the immigration lady’s shift changed, what would the new person do with the luggage? However, there was no point in thinking about that as I had the matter of looking for a printer in monosyllables and sign language to attend to, which I had gotten pretty good at by this time. After about 30 minutes of driving, we came to a shop which definitely looked like an internet cafe. I did my usual monosyllable/sign language routine and the lady pointed to the back of the store. I went there and to my delight, saw a few computers and a printer! I don’t think I’ve ever been happier to see these electronic items as I was then. I got on the computer to get to my gmail account. However, gmail’s security kicked in to high gear – “We do not recognize the computer that you are logged in. Send code to phone or answer security questions”.I obviously did not have access to my US SIM so it all hinged on answering the security questions, which by the way, have gotten more and more whacky lately (“What is your least favorite fruit or vegetable?!”). However, I was able to complete the quest and was able to get the print outs. I took them to the counter to pay. However, there was a slight problem of money. I had done some precise planning and finished all my Riels (Cambodian currency) before leaving Cambodia. Now here I was, inside Cambodia without Riels. Thankfully, most of Cambodia accepts US dollars but gives you back Riels as change and I only had $20 bills. At that point, however, I was ready to give the entire $20 bill for the 2 pages of print outs. I gave the $20 bill and received the equivalent of $19 and some cents back in Riels which I still carry to this day – partly as a reminder of this day and partly because no one exchanges Cambodian Riels outside of Cambodia (Ok, maybe it’s the second reason entirely). I came out of the shop with a triumphant gesture with my hands up in the air and the scooter guy was also visibly happy for me.

We started our drive back to the border and I was trying to figure out if we were going back from the main road with the immigration office or the small alley with no immigration office. I was all for the alley as it would be an awkward conversation at the immigration office with an exit stamp already in my passport from a few hours back. However, the scooter guy clearly knew the situation – maybe that’s what he checked in my passport – and got me back to the casino without a hitch. Yogesh was still waiting patiently at the casino. We thanked the scooter guy and handed him some of the Riels I got back as change from the printer shop. We walked back to the Thai immigration office and saw that it was a new lady at the counter. However, we could still see our luggage behind the counter. It was around 4:30 pm and there was almost no line. The lady asked us for the printed tickets which we handed her as though nothing had happened. She stamped our passports without a word. We took our luggage and were finally in Thailand. Both of us simultaneously realized that we had not eaten since morning and it was nearly 5 pm. We ate some of the spiciest Thai food and got on a bus to Bangkok. After about four hours of bus ride, we reached Bangkok. There was some small confusion about the directions to the hotel with the taxi driver but we finally reached our hotel room at around 10:30 pm, thus ending one of the longest and eventful days.

Call it a day of inconvenience or a day of adventure, but one thing is for sure – had it gone completely smoothly, it would not have become an unforgettable memory for me – something that makes traveling, traveling.

* I’m aware that there are people in countries like Bosnia, Serbia etc – I know a few personally – that suffer from the same strict visa rules as Indians and also that there are black and brown people in USA and other caucasian majority countries. However, for the main part, the way people from US, Canada, Western Europe, Australia and New Zealand can travel to most countries without prior visas, people from India, Indonesia or most of Africa cannot. Just as an example, I cannot go to Singapore, Malaysia, Australia or New Zealand without a complicated visa approval process which involves bank statements and such prior to flying even for a tourist visa.


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