Right before I left Penang last week, a friend of mine came to town on business. Knowing that I had weathered my fair share of budget accommodation recently (despite being a very unbudget kind of girl), he offered to let me camp out in his five-star hotel room that was being paid for by his work while he went out and did, you know, actual work. Never having been one to pass up the opportunity to lounge around in a luxury hotel room all day while simultaneously sticking it to The Man (even if I’m no longer working for The Man), I jumped at the opportunity.
I spent my two days in borrowed luxury sprawled out on the crisp white sheets, soaking up air conditioning, flipping through cable TV channels and eating chocolate bars. At one point during my cable-television-and-chocolate-munching-marathon, I was tuned into the Travel Channel watching some show with Anthony Bourdain… or maybe it was that guy who eats bugs. As the camera panned crowded markets and jam-packed streets and the host shoved something made out of fermented fish heads and coconut into his mouth, I couldn’t help thinking, “Gee, this travel things looks really exciting. I should try it sometime!”.
It took me a few minutes to remember that I was, in fact, trying it.
So why did what I was doing suddenly feel so much less glamorous than what they were doing on TV? (I suspected this might be because I very rarely am accompanied by a camera crew so my travels have never once included a jumpy video montage accompanied by funky, ethnic, background music… and all the fermented fish heads I’ve been eating haven’t included so much as a speck of coconut to help with the seasoning!). Everyone on the Travel Channel looked excited and energetic and relatively well-groomed. I, on the other hand, looked exhausted… and my right forearm was covered in chocolate.
You see, after three weeks of galavanting through Malaysia, I was tired. I was tired of packing and repacking and wondering if my bag would actually close this time around. I was tired of figuring out where I should go, how I would get there and what I should do when I got there. I was tired of staying in budget guesthouses and dining out for every meal and having to get dressed in something besides my pajama pants just to do something relatively simple like eat breakfast… or buy more chocolate. I didn’t want any more adventure. I wanted my couch.
While traveling can be glamorous and exciting (especially if you have your own camera crew and a makeup artist armed with twenty gallons of cover-up ), it can also be draining. That get-up-and-go that I felt at the beginning of my three-week expedition through Malaysia had become something more like: just-let-me-sit-here-already. So with at least another six months ahead of me of globe-trotting (or at least Asia-trotting), I’ve come up with this simple, six-part action plan to get some of my travel mojo back.
On my first day in Penang, I visited a sidewalk fortune teller who informed me, upon one glance at my palm, that I think too much and this is bad. She went on to inform me that I will live a long life (as long as I take care of my health), I am bad with finances (so I should be more careful) and I would be in a good relationship by the time I was thirty-five (so I’d better get a move on).
Figuring that she may have a point with this whole thinking-too-much thing, I decided to stop thinking. (Okay, so maybe she also had a point with the whole take-care-of-my-health thing and bad-with-finances thing and hurry-up-and-find-someone-to-love-me thing… but it’s probably best if I don’t think about all of those things right now. After all, thinking too much is apparently bad for me).
In order to relieve my brain of all major travel decisions, I decided to just flip a coin instead. I asked the coin where I should stay: the coin told me to opt for a hotel room with air-conditioning. When faced with a free day, I asked the coin what I should do: the coin said I should have more breakfast and read my book all day instead of going on that walking tour. The coin told me to stay a few extra days in Penang even though I had already been there over a week. The coin informed me I should ditch my original plan to take the train from Penang to Bangkok and then on to Vientiane in Laos. Instead, the coin decided I should spend a few days relaxing in Langkawi, before grabbing a flight to Kuala Lumpur and then one to Vientiane. (Yes, it was a very bossy, little coin).
Free from any major decision-making, I started to feel a lot less exhausted by this whole travel-thing. (It also helped that the coin kept telling me to relax and eat a few more pancakes rather, than, say, go sight-seeing. But, hey, who am I to argue with the wisdom of the coin?).
Unleash Your Inner Toddler
Long-term travel can make even the best of us a bit cranky. (And, seeing as I am definitely not “the best of us,” long-term travel tends to turn me into a sniffling, chocolate-covered two-year-old). You’re tired. You’re sick of sharing stuff… like your bathroom and your bedroom and that Diet Coke you put in the community fridge. You miss your Mom… and your couch. You want to have a tantrum.
So, have one already.
Sure, it’s not very mature of you to start whining and crying and throwing your socks at your fellow travelers. But, sometimes, it’s the only thing that will make you feel better. (Heck, it could be worse. You could start throwing your shoes at people… or your luggage. And you just try getting your suitcase back from that burly man in the hunting vest after you just threw it at his head!). Besides, sometimes, a teensy little tantrum is justified… like when you’re dealing with budget airlines (who will remain nameless… but their name rhymes with “Stair Asia” and you can find their website here) and their customer service representatives (who will also remain nameless… but that’s only because they refused to tell me their names).
When I showed up at the Langkawi airport on Tuesday, I discovered my early flight to Kuala Lumpur had been cancelled. The man behind the check-in counter informed me blithely that I had been put on a later flight, a flight which would land a mere forty minutes before my flight to Laos was scheduled to depart. When I tried to calmly explain the situation to him, he smiled and informed me there was nothing I could do.
Knowing that if I missed that flight to Laos, I’d have to wait two more days to leave Malaysia as the next flight to Vientiane wasn’t until Thursday, I decided there most definitely was something I could do. I could pout. I could stomp my foot. I could talk in a high, squeaky, I’m-going-to-cry-at-any-moment voice. So that is what I did.
After listening to me squeak for a couple minutes, the man at the check-in counter gave in, agreed to let me bring all my luggage on board and assigned me a seat in the front row of the plane so that I could get off as quickly as possible and attempt to catch my flight to Laos. He should have also given me a jet propellor and maybe some poison darts to take down my fellow passengers, as I soon learned I wasn’t the only one intent on getting off that plane as quickly as humanly possible.
I ended up using my bag as a battling ram and almost giving a little old lady a concussion, but it still took me fifteen minutes to get off that plane. Frazzled and frantic (and lugging a suitcase now speckled with my fellow passenger’s blood), I found myself in what is delicately referred to as the “Low Cost Carrier Terminal” of the Kuala Lumpur Airport. Should you ever have had the pleasure of flying into the Low Cost Carrier Terminal (or “Hell” as I like to call it), you will know that it is huge… and every inch of it is packed with cranky passengers, screaming children and runaway luggage carts.
It took me another fifteen minutes to make my way through the crowds of people and stray suitcases in order to reach the check-in counter for my flight to Laos. It’s possible I may have taken down a few of those passengers and a number of their children with my wheeling suitcase while I was at it…. but there was really no time for me to look back and check to see if I was leaving a path of destruction in my wake. I had a flight to catch. If someone lost a foot under the crushing wheels of my luggage, then I was sorry… but not about to stop.
Upon arrival, I was informed that I was too late. The gate had already closed. There was nothing I could do.
I called upon my powers of persuasion (read: squeaky voice and stomping foot), but nothing worked. The man at the service counter couldn’t be swayed even when my voice reached a pitch high enough to break glass. There was no way he was letting me on that flight. After tapping away at his computer (and rigidly ignoring my squeaks of desperation), he finally informed me I could get a seat on Thursday’s flight for “no extra charge” (Gee, thanks).
He spent another ten minutes tapping and then informed me I was “in the system.” When I asked for some kind of physical confirmation that I would have a seat reserved for me on Thursday’s flight, like a print-out of my flight change, a copy of my ticket or maybe a note from his mom, he simply smiled and informed me I was “in the system.” Apparently, this “system” doesn’t use written language of any kind.
Having reached full-blown tantrum mode at this point, I turned on my heel, stormed off (barreling over the person who had stupidly made the mistake to stand directly behind me… after not noting the steam pouring forth from my ears) and made my way to the bathroom. I locked myself in a stall and cried (and threatened to throw socks at anyone who so much as knocked on my stall door).
Don’t Be a Pollyanna
It’s at moments like these (while you’re locked in an airport bathroom stall using your balled up socks to wipe the tears from your eyes), when you might be tempted to look on the bright side. You may even try to convince yourself that “it could be worse.” Don’t do this.
Sure, it could be worse. I knew it could be worse. I could have been told there were no more flights to Vientiane ever. I could have been told that all airports in Laos had been closed down, and that I’d be forced to swim there… or ride a donkey there… or ride on a swimming donkey to get there.
But telling myself “it could be worse” only made me feel worse. It made me feel like a jerk for having a tantrum over something so simple as a flight change. (Okay, so I was being a jerk… especially when I almost gave that old woman a concussion with my suitcase.. But still feeling like a jerk wasn’t helping matters… it just made me cry more and the socks I was using to dab frantically at my face were already drenched).
Rely on Friends
After exiting the bathroom stall, rumpled and red-eyed, I realized I’d have to decide what to do for the two days that I was stuck in Kuala Lumpur waiting for my flight to Vientiane. But I’d already made the decision to stop making decisions. Flipping a coin is really only good for yes or no questions and a Ouiji board had proven way too cumbersome to pack.
Instead, I’d have to rely on someone else to make the decisions for me. Luckily, I had two friends who also happened to be in Kuala Lumpur the two days I was going to be forced to stay there. When I called them to tell them of my flight change (all reported in a squeaky, I’m-going-to-cry-again-if-you-don’t-help-me voice), they promptly told me what to do. They gave me the name and number of the guesthouse where they were staying and told me exactly how to get there. When I arrived and checked in, they escorted me out to dinner and joined me for a few much needed drinks.
Coins are great… but they very rarely can keep up with you when drinking.
Buy Yourself Something Pretty
The next day when my friends went off with their Lonely Planet and a plan to complete a twelve-hour walking tour of the city, I opted out and headed directly to the nearby mall. I was going to use my unexpected layover as a chance to buy a few things that I needed: some toiletries, a couple t-shirts to replace the battered and stained ones I’d been wearing for the past six months and maybe a half-dozen donuts.
A couple hours later I emerged from the mall with a new bottle of conditioner, two shirts, a couple Krispy Kremes under my belt…. and a brand new sassy skirt. I didn’t need a new sassy skirt. I didn’t have room in my luggage for a new sassy skirt. I didn’t have a social life that warranted a new sassy skirt. I seriously doubted the new sassy skirt matched a single thing I owned… seeing as sassy never seems to go with paint-splattered and gross.
While I didn’t physically need that sassy skirt, I psychologically needed it. I was tired of looking like a dirty hobo. I wanted my real-live travels to feel and look as glamorous and well-groomed as the ones that happen on the Travel Channel… or at least part of me would look glamorous and well-groomed. (Meanwhile the other part of me, my entire upper half, still looks like it’s hanging out in an abandoned boxcar).
Remember: It Could Be Worse
After another night of drinks with my friends in Kuala Lumpur, I boarded the bus on Thursday morning and headed back to Hell… err, the Low Cost Carrier Terminal. Upon arriving at the check-in counter, I discovered that I was not, in fact, “in the system” (or at least not in a system recognized by anyone else working for that airline).
The woman at the check-in counter directed me and my luggage back to the service counter. Surprisingly, I was able to calmly explain the situation to the person at the service counter without once stomping my foot or slipping into my squeaky voice. After all, I reasoned, it could be worse… they could have refused to help me all together.
Eventually, I was put in the system and allowed on the plane. A few hours later, I arrived at the Vientiane airport and was greeted at the arrivals gate by my friends who live here and had invited me to stay with them before I move on to my volunteering position in Luang Prabang. They escorted me back to their home, where they informed me I would have my own bedroom, bathroom, air conditioning unit and maid. (Okay, so I have to share the maid with the rest of the household, but, hey, it could be worse!).
I’ve spent the past couple days enjoying hanging out with my friends and their family and soaking up as much air conditioning and cable television as I can before heading out on my next adventure.
Feeling rested and revived, this whole travel thing is starting to feel exciting once again. Today, I finally felt capable of making my own travel decisions, so I began researching my options for getting to Luang Prabang from Vientiane. I discovered the trip would either require a ten-hour bumpy bus ride, a two-day trip by slow boat or a six-hour, “bone-rattling” speed-boat journey (for which a crash helmet and lifejacket are helpfully provided).
Hey, it could be worse… the trip could involve a swimming donkey!