Sunday, February 27, 2011

Communication Without Connection

Grilled squid at a night market

I’m a sucker for almost anything grilled, so walking down the street in Thailand can be a pleasantly laborious process. In certain areas it’s impossible to move more than a few feet without encountering a vendor grilling some type of delicacy. And if it’s not being grilled, it’s being fried, and I have no problems with that.

Identifying the object of the grilling or frying can, however, be problematic. The first pork wonton I blithely bit into turned out to be, well, not pork. It might have been a batter-coated egg of some sort. At least that’s what it felt like. Sort of. I’m still not sure what it was and I’m not sure I really want to know.

That was on my first trip to Thailand. Now, having made the effort to master the language, I can confidently point to an enticing item, ask, “Ni arai?” (what’s this?), and then try to maintain my air of nonchalant self-assurance as the answer inevitably eludes my rather limited Thai vocabulary. But it’s still enjoyable to pass an extra few minutes trying to communicate with a patiently smiling vendor. Occasionally my transactions turn into spectator sport, as happened when I was “rescued” by an English-speaking Thai passerby in a small town where I was one of only four foreigners (I counted). Seeing my attempts to purchase a snack, he crossed the street to helpfully identify the vendor’s offering as grilled bananas and translate the transaction.  

Wyatt surrounded by Angkor Wat vendors
Lest you think I’m a complete idiot, I was perfectly capable of making that last diagnosis, especially having already reconnoitered the food stand to confirm that it featured my favorite snack. I didn’t need the intervention of the gustatory good Samaritan. However, his participation helped transform a simple purchase into an entertaining event shared by the small crowd of appreciative fans of foreign diplomacy who observed our conversation. I left with a bag of delicious bananas and that ineffable high that comes from a normally mundane experience unexpectedly transforming into something memorable.  

And now Google and other nefarious purveyors of communication technology want to take that away.

The other day I caught the tail end of a radio news story about a phone application that translates a user’s spoken words in one language into another language that is then “spoken” aloud by the phone. The radio commentator enthused about the communication possibilities of this Google app for Android phones and the author of the linked article calls it “crucial” for travelers, but that seems a tad extreme.

Even monkeys prefer smart phones
Ok, I’ll admit it’s a cool, useful application that will probably be invaluable in some venues and situations. I just don’t think regular travel (as opposed to, say, doing medical work in a remote area) is one of them. The device reminds me of the babel fish, the ultimate translating device for intergalactic travelers featured in the late Douglas Adams’s satirical and whimsical Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy series. Simply place this (thankfully) small fish in your ear and you’re able to understand whatever language is being spoken to you. Sounds great (aside from the ear invasion aspect), but I think that sometimes I’m better off not being able to communicate clearly with others. I’m not even referring to all the banality we avoid when we don’t share a common language with those around us. I’m thinking about all the experiences I’d miss out on if I used the translation device.

I’m sure even Adams, a devout technophile, wouldn’t have opted for one of his fictitious fish when he

Saturday, January 8, 2011

Cost-cutting Tips from the Gray Lady

Commentators have been breathlessly covering America's "new thriftiness," so what better way to start the year off than with some money saving travel tips from the NY Times? (You can also access the article on the NY Times site at or via the "zum artikel" button on the site I linked above.)

My favorite is probably the recommendation to buy tickets on Tuesdays and to start looking for deals three to four months in advance. One of my travel concerns has always been that by buying my tickets on the "wrong" day I'm needlessly wasting money that could have been wasted on other things, so now at least I can act on the right day. But it will probably be the wrong week. Cue Dr. John. But according to tip #4 in the article, will help me get a refund if my ticket price drops after I buy it. I'm definitely going to look into it, and if it works, the drinks are on me!

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

A Tourist By Any Other Name…

The slow boat down the Mekong certainly lived up to its name. The two-day journey through Laos from Huay Xai to Luang Prabang seemed even longer, the creeping of time accentuated by less than comfortable conditions. Our narrow wooden craft was crammed with people who, like my buddy Wyatt and me, were making the Thailand-Laos loop, armed with dog-eared Lonely Planet guidebooks. In addition to the thirty or forty foreigners, the boat housed an increasing number of locals who literally jumped on board after being ferried to our floating canopied prison.

Wyatt enjoying the ride.

Slow Boats Awaiting Prisoners

Our discomfort and growing safety concerns were quickly thrust out of mind when the woman from New Jersey loudly declared to her unfortunate seatmate, “I’m not a tourist; I’m a traveler.” There was no avoiding her monologue, “I’m here to experience life. When my second husband left me…” We looked longingly out at the “fast boats” speeding past us. Sure, those helmet-wearing passengers were clearly risking life and limb, but at that point we just wanted out. It didn’t matter whether Ms. New Jersey was a traveler or a tourist; she was inescapably annoying.
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Gotta Gettaway by Josh Lewis is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.