Spots of Time

September 16, 2003

The Ice Factory

"Are you ok?" the man said. I turned my head away from the airplane window and looked up at him with scared eyes about to say, "actually no, I'm not ok," when I realized he was talking to his three year old son, who was coughing and saying he was feeling sick. I turned back to the window as the dad handed him an airsickness bag. "I know the feeling kid," I wanted to say, staring helplessly at my own airsickness bag. Outside my rain streaked window I saw my first glimpse of "The Kingdom of Thailand" and I was scared.

This was unlike me. I should have been excited. I should have been jumping up and down in my seat, regardless of the stormy weather. The Kingdom of Thailand was opening its doors to me and all I wanted to do was turn around and go back.

I know it sounds insane, but my single biggest fear of traveling is not losing my passport, a break out of civil war, weird food, strange customs, acts of terrorism, or road accidents - it is not being understood. It is not being able to ask directions, order food, or get myself out of a mess. It is opening my mouth and speaking to someone who comprehends my words as little more than gibberish - grown-up baby talk - that might sound cute but has no real meaning to them and no real communication value.

Though my past travels have taken me to four separate continents, I always knew the language of the country in which I was traveling. Spanish took care of me in Spain, Mexico and South America, English took care of me in the UK, Canada and Australia, and Serbo-Croatian took care of me in the former Yugoslavia. Singapore, being a former British colony, still had English as one of the four official languages. Suddenly I was in Thailand, a place that has never been colonized for any length of time, a place where people spoke Thai - a language I wasn't sure I'd ever heard before, much less had any chance of speaking or communicating with to anyone.

I knew I was being irrational. I'd met numerous travelers in South American who spoke little or no Spanish when they arrived, and had traveled successfully for months. I'd met travelers in Australia who could hardly speak English and still they managed to obtain rooms, order food, book tours, and generally have a good time. I was one of the lucky ones - I already spoke English, the unofficial language of the international traveler. Logically, I realized I would be fine. Yet none of that helped to quiet my mind from the plethora of "what if" situations that I could get into because I didn't speak the native language.

My salvation came in the form of a young Italian man named Giacomo. Sitting a few tables away from me at my guesthouse, the Wild Orchid Inn, he was reading a book when I practically accosted him by sitting down and announcing that-it-was-my-first-time-in-Asia-and-that-I-was-freaked-out-and-driving-myself-mad-writing-in-my-journal-and-I-didn't-speak-Thai-and-wasn't-sure-if-I-was-going-to-be-ok-and-would-he-mind-if-I-joined-him-for-a-while-because-I-really-needed-to-talk-to-another-human-being? He was laughing as I sat down, but I didn't care, as he was smiling while he laughed and had clearly understood everything I'd just said.

Giacomo and I talked for hours - about Thailand and travel, about his work as a freelance photographer, his travels to Asia (one or two trips every year for the past seven years), and my insecurities about not being able to communicate with people because of language. When he told me about his first experience traveling in hill tribe villages without a guide, I asked him how he communicated his needs. He mimed putting something into his mouth - "food" - and then mimed falling asleep - "bed." Right. It was that simple - yet I was trying to make it into something complicated.

His easy going attitude, his kind smile and his confirmed experience comforted me, but the single best thing he did for me that night - what I will always remember - is our visit to the ice factory.

Just a few blocks from the techno beat and neon lights of backpacker activity on Ko San Road, in a place where the river and the canal meet in the old part of the city, stands a building dedicated to making ice. Here tubes of ice and blocks of ice are made for the city, and groups of mainly teenage boys work in the cooler evening hours loading the ice into bags, sliding coffee table-sized blocks of ice into a cold room, and making deliveries on their motorbikes.

Giacomo and I walked to the ice factory and I watched as he walked right up to the boys and wandered around their workspace, checking out what they were doing, joking with them about the bags of ice and their weight, and walking straight into the cold room to have a look around. Before I knew what was happening, I was helping to unload bags of ice and posing for pictures, commenting how strong the boys were and how heavy the bags of ice were, standing inside the enormous cold room while slabs of ice came sliding down a ramp from the truck that had just delivered them, slamming into the back wall and then being perfectly stacked with the others. The boys did not speak English and I did not speak Thai. But we understood each other perfectly, and they laughed as I showed them the pictures and we all smiled and waved as we walked back to the guesthouse.

Giacomo calmed the panic inside of me and opened a door into the ease of communication - from that one conversation and that one trip to the ice factory. He made me realize there was nothing to fear from Asia, language barrier or not. He made me remember something I had been taught years earlier - that non-verbal communication was 90% of all communication - and now I had the chance to not only test the theory, but to put it into practice. Because not only did I not speak Thai, but I didn't speak Lao or Vietnamese or Burmese or Khmer - the official languages of the other countries I planned to visit while in South-East Asia.

Giacomo's last night in Bangkok was my first, and our meeting completed a traveler's circle - a circle of beginnings and endings, of starts and finishes - a revolving door of comings and goings. Two paths colliding - one leaving, full of bittersweet memories and confident experience, the other arriving, an empty slate ready to be bombarded with a new world of adventures and unknowns.

It is too soon for me to think about the end of my circle of Asia, but when it comes, I am sure that there will be someone ready to take my place - naive and eager, excited and scared, and ready to pass through the revolving door, with little more than a guidebook and some advice from a veteran on their way to somewhere new.

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Next week: The Kingdom of Thailand