Runner Up To Bangkok
Airport lines do two things. Organize people and confine their emotions: happiness, anxiety, fear, freedom, it’s all there, at the back of the check-in line, at the front of the security line, somewhere hidden. They hide in check out lines, at customs control, waiting to be outpoured, waiting to escape the strict grips of the airport. People are doing two things in airports. Running from something or chasing. Me, I was chasing someone. But first I had to endure the security line and then finding my terminal. I placed my items in a bin, carefully unloaded my pockets, and walked through the security scanner with confidence. I collected my items and walked forward, gripping my passport tightly with sweaty palms. I followed the arrows, making one right, and stepping carefully on to a moving platform that moved much slower than the people walking past me. Terminal D. I stepped off and found my seat. Relieved. I sat quietly, counting down the seconds until I would board the plane and leave this country behind for a few days. I didn’t dare go to the bathroom or step outside of my comfort zone in Terminal D in fear of being left behind. I watched parents ignore their children, the elderly doze off, a group of graduate students prepare for their research abroad, and a tour group of about five couples, complete with matching T-shirts and all of the necessary travel essentials.
I was 21 years old. I had never traveled by myself before. But here I was, alone. I thought I might be the girl at the airport with the anxiety, the nervous look on her face that had no clue where to go, running to Terminal D. But I wasn’t, I was quite calm and quite successful in finding that terminal. I wasn’t nervous. My face was reserved as I held back feelings of excitement. I wanted to explode in a fury of emotions: I wanted to revel in my glorious expectations, I wanted to dismiss my doubts, but instead I sat there emotionless. I desperately wanted to be that tourist group, laughing, taking stupid pictures, being normal, talking about what they would do on Ko Phi Phi island. I wanted to flush my anxiousness away.
But let me tell you, it’s hard to unleash everything when you’re completely alone. So I left my camera in my bag and flipped through magazines.
That’s all I needed to hear. I stood up, passport still clutched between claw-like fingers and I crossed onto the plane with all those other chasers and runners. I was flying to Bangkok to meet my best friend who had decided to live in Asia for four months.
The second my plane landed everything was a blur. I was no longer observing the people walking through security scanners or sitting in their appropriate terminals. Intercom speakers and advertisements in a language that I had never seen before overwhelmed me. I lost sight of everyone and most of the signs. Instead I focused intently on the directions I had been given through an email.
“Walk through customs until you find the escalator and take it to the basement. Find the Dunkin’ Donuts.”
I met him in the basement in front of a train station. For 18 hours I could hardly contain my excitement, yet the second I saw him I couldn’t help but stare. No words came to me. I barely moved my arms upward to embrace the hug that was being thrown upon me. I hadn’t seen him in 2.5 months and all I could think to say was “How are you?” In retrospect that was a dumb question. I had certainly used forms of technology to stay in touch with him during the past few weeks. And I can say quite confidently that I knew exactly how he was doing.
Following the hug came silence and then another hug. To be honest the entire train ride maintained this similar pattern. Staring out the window, staring at each other, an occasional hug, and an exchange of some meaningless words. Scott looked like a different person. Much skinnier since the last time I had seen him. These moments in the train seemed surreal and, as we watched fields of grass mixed with patches of dirt take shape out of the window, I forgot that we were best friends in love.
I’d like to call it jetlag. But I think it would be more accurately described as self-pity. I bottled up all that excitement, for some reason unwilling to share my explosive feelings with my best friend. This was the person that I had wanted to share these feelings with more than anything. But this was also the person who decided to leave me behind for a few months to trek through mountains, ride elephants, hang out on gorgeous beaches, and (what I would soon find out) eat some of the best food in the world. In that first hour that I stepped into his new world, I couldn’t quite find my place.
We stepped off the train into the middle of Bangkok. Immediately, the tips of my hair began to take shape, curling right and left, the word ‘frizzy’ had reached its full potential. Scott causally ignored this oppressive heat and humidity. It absolutely throttled me. Suddenly I was being pushed and nudged back into reality. There were people everywhere; jumping on and off the train, catching the BTS a few steps away, scanning their tickets, and ordering freshly squeezed orange juice on the side of the road “to go”. In Bangkok, “to go” does not mean a recyclable paper cup, instead it means a plastic bag looking somewhat dusty, tightly knotted at the top, with a large straw sticking out.
And this was my first impression of the city that Scott had fallen unquestionably in love with. I stood helplessly outside of the train trying to balance a back pack, two rollers, my new metro ticket, and of course my passport (once again covered in sweat). For a few seconds I had lost my personal tour guide amongst the crowd of bystanders circling me on the platform. I found him a few steps ahead of me fearlessly fighting through the crowd and relentlessly haggling a taxi driver to lower their fare. I watched him negotiating as if he was a local, as if he had lived here his whole life. I hardly recognized this new confidence and suddenly I was inferior to Bangkok.
I knew exactly what it meant to be a foreigner and Scott no longer did. He had moved on and left me behind to try and catch up. Bangkok had stolen his heart. He had every inch of her memorized, from every street food vendor to every BTS stop. He was mesmerized by her energy, her willingness to never sleep, and her vibrant colors that leapt off a backdrop of silver high-rise buildings and cement streets. I followed behind him, exhausted, beaten down by the heat, trying to keep up with his newfound energy, as he dragged me around the city to his favorite sit down lunch stop.
Our first lunch together in Asia felt like a first date all over again. I was nervous and giddy and often times calculating my next question. And nothing about Bangkok or Scott felt real until he made me eat fluffy catfish.
I scoured the menu for several minutes. The last meal I ate was confined to four little paper walls and handed out on the plane as our “complimentary” meal. At this point, I was starved and making a decision was not an option. I looked up desperately. My eyes were begging for help. I hardly understood half of the words that sat in front of me.
“Try the fluffy catfish. It’s a sort of salad. I know you’ll love it”.
And there he was with that reassured confidence once again, as if he had lived here his whole life. I sat there defensively. Fluffy catfish? First of all, I have never willfully ordered a salad at a restaurant in my life. All of those shriveled up green leaves bore me. Second, I haven’t shared a meal with you in weeks, how could you possibly know what I like. And the word “fluffy” and “catfish” combined certainly did not convince me.
With little hesitation, the waitress had come and gone and my order had been placed. A fluffy catfish salad and a side of fried rice. My first thought was that I’m going to starve. I’ve been flying across the world and my welcome meal is lettuce and rice.
The salad sat in front of me. To my surprise, I could only find about four pieces of lettuce in a shade of pale green. Instead thin shaved slices of unripe mango filled my bowl to the brim, along with the occasional purple onion and bits of red chili to add some color. Sitting on top, staring me straight in the eye was fluffy catfish. It looked crunchy, a faded out brown, speckled with black dots, it laid lifelessly on top resembling nothing of a fish. I expected some sort of marshmallow fluff that showed the possibility of melting in your mouth. With this array of pale greens topped with a light brown substance and sprinkled with the smallest bits of color, I couldn’t quite find the excitement in this dish, or that fluffy attraction. But the second these flavors mix together, the salad is brought to life; a tart green mango, a spicy red chili sauce, a crunch of cashew, and of course a fluffy catfish. I am preoccupied as I chew, tasting every flavor, thinking of nothing else. The term “fluffy” is clearly defined because it does exactly what you had hoped it to do. The crunchy exterior was just a façade to play with your mind because it doesn’t crunch at all; it melts… like a marshmallow.
He was right. I loved it. And almost simultaneously I exploded with all of those emotions that I had been unwilling to share. I soaked in all the glory of that single bite. And maybe I was runner up to this vibrant city, unable to compete with the complexity of its flavor. But I wasn’t alone and it was as simple as that. I spoke endlessly, rambling on about airports, catfish, Asia, every detail of my last 24 hours… as if we were best friends, in love.