Duncan is the perfect travel partner. The sights, the people, the food, the entire culture are his within days. After three weeks in Thailand he was wearing a sarong and communicating with Thai people in their language.
His success with this kind of submersion is partly guts. One time when we sat down to eat a meal in Sukhothai, Thailand, I mentioned to him that one of the ladies at the other end of our table has nice style. “Tell her,” he suggested. When I laughed the idea off, he turned and interrupted their conversation with, “My friend likes how you look.” He added in some Thai too, saying what I bet was “You’re a pretty lady.” Then all the girls stared at me, waiting for me to confirm what he said. As you can see in the photos, Duncan took many interactions to the next level. If we ate somewhere along the side of the road, he ended up taking photos with the family and getting an address so he can mail them copies.
Even when Duncan lacks the vocabulary to communicate with someone, his conversations rarely stall or sputter out. However, when I’m determined not to let a language barrier keep me from conveying something, I often resort to a sad game of charades or Pictionary, such as “moo”ing to say I want beef, drawing pictures of chickens popping out eggs, and sketching a heating pad complete with wall socket and heat rays (it took a lot of humiliation and time before I got my heating pad by the way).
Duncan is also full of charm. I repeatedly saw him smiling, complimenting people, and taking a genuine interest in them. Moms in the Philippines were literally trying to marry off their daughters to him after one conversation. Maybe this speaks more to their desperation than to his charm,
but even my own mom is proof. She’s not trying to marry me off, and she’s not desperate, but she called me one evening when he was over here. Pretty soon they were on the phone together laughing. “Your mom is really cool,” he told me afterwards, about three times. And the other day when we were riding bikes, he wanted to swing by this Vietnamese sandwich stand that he had not been to in some months. He treated the lady like his long lost sister.
Since I don’t have as much guts or charm, I just copied Duncan’s. This is why the only Thai phrase I remember is “handsome man” which sounds like “low mock mock.” Just so you know, there is very little chance you will get the tones correct, so think twice before trying it out at your local Thai food restaurant. Anyway, Duncan said, “handsome man” to about every male we came in contact with regardless of whether or not it was true, so I started to do the same when I saw how many smiles we were getting.
Okay so he has guts and charm, but it’s more than that. Trust me. I came here with some of that, but it wore off when that cashier started to give me the evil eye for never knowing what she was talking about when she said, “Would you like a bag?” after each transaction. In Taiwan, they always ask because they usually make you pay extra for the bag, and they’re trying to save the Earth, unlike some countries I know that hand out bags like they’re cheap plastic bags. Anyway, after about the 15th time I shopped there, she was probably hoping I’d have learned those words, but no. And honestly, I still don’t know them, but I can recognize them if they are uttered after I purchased something and the cashier’s hand is beginning to reach under the counter. But Duncan is a completely different type of person. When he came here from America, he didn’t know Mandarin, only Cantonese. He dove right in, taking a class and practicing constantly. Now he’s so gung ho about Mandarin he’s always talking to me as if I know it too. I’ve become accustomed to tuning people out, though, so it’s not a problem.
He didn’t know a single word of Thai, but I bet before he left the Bangkok airport upon arrival, he knew at least five phrases. By the time I met up with him, he was able to have a conversation with every Thai person we happened to make eye contact with.
It helps that Thai people are really nice and relaxed, but I only learned three phrases due to this, and I forgot them all two days later. Thai is a tonal language, with more tones than Chinese, and judging from all the smiles he got, Duncan was right on with his tones.
By the end of the trip, I almost felt like I should pay him for being my tour guide. He said I was a good travel partner too, though and that I didn’t complain much. Then he changed it to, “Well, you didn’t complain at all.” Well, whatever, but setting the bar at not complaining is pretty weak; what I’m more concerned with is gusto. I know for certain that compared to him, I was a wallflower, yet thanks to him, this wall flower saw the real Thailand, not just the glorious beaches and Europeans on vacation. The type of vacation we had is my favorite kind. As many of you know, for this kind of vacation, your travel partner must be someone who is not content sitting right on the surface of a place, following the beaten path. There’s a reason the path is beaten though; leaving it requires guts, charm, and sometimes an affinity for languages. However, if you find yourself Duncanless, you can always drink. Let me know how that goes.