Sunday, October 27, 2013

Why “Negotiating” for Tourists = Getting Ripped Off

Taxi drivers in Malaysia are dishonest, if not in all individual cases, then as a group. To make matters worse, and I’m generalizing from my own experiences, the taxi drivers seem to be determined to rip off tourists. There. I said it. It felt good.

Every taxi ride I’ve taken in Malaysia I have felt ripped off to some degree, and in a couple of cases it was so blatant as to be outright insulting to my intelligence. Some examples: drivers who attempted to charge more than the posted amount for a given destination, even though the amount was on a price schedule poster right where we got picked up; being charged  for a five minute ride what it would cost to go all the way across town; being purposely taken to the wrong place, and then in order to be taken to the correct place having to pay extra. Finally, when it got to the point of being ridiculous  and a driver tried to charge us about ten times what we knew to be a fair price, we just walked away. He then shouted another price that was only about seven times what it should have been. We walked about a block and caught another taxi that charged us a third what the first guy asked, and even that was three times more than it should have been. Now we just don’t take taxis.



Most taxis in Malaysia have signs both inside and outside of the car that say, “This is metered taxi. Haggling is prohibited. Request for your receipt.” Poor grammar aside, there is another problem with this: it is a bald-faced lie. In all the taxi rides I’ve take in the couple of months I’ve been here, only once did the taxi have a working meter, or, I should say, did the driver use the meter. A couple of times I even asked the driver about it point blank, and the answer has always been evasive, something mumbled about how it is broken. I asked about the meter once when a small group of us were trying to get the driver to agree on a price. “You know,” I said, “if you used the meter we wouldn’t have to even talk about this.” The driver, acting as if he was responding to what I said, went off on some totally irrelevant tangent. I didn’t want to make scene, so I dropped it, but the point is that the drivers purposely don’t use the meters because they know they can get more out of their fares if they don’t. If they were charging a fair amount, then they would use the meter. The meter is never going to prove that they are not charging enough; its only purpose it to show if they are charging too much.

This problem obviously became serious enough at some point where meters became required and cabs were required to have the no haggling signs on them. Unfortunately, it apparently wasn’t serious enough for there to be any enforcement of the regulation. The meters are there, but turned off, and the signs are there, but they are ignored. So for some bureaucrat the problem is solved, but for tourists who take cabs nothing has changed.

The guide books recommend getting  a set price before you get in the cab, but this can be tricky if you are not sure how far you are going, or if you simply don’t know how much to expect to pay, or even what the money is worth relative to your home currency. So the negotiation between driver and rider is a pretty one-sided affair. In fact, it can't be properly called a negotiation at all.
Haggling over prices for a lot of Western tourists is surprising and uncomfortable in the first place. For people from developed countries that do most of their transactions in formal systems (like supermarkets and department stores) rather than informal ones (like street markets), the idea that prices are not fixed can be daunting. We’re used to thinking of prices as fixed and being based to some extent on the costs to the seller of production and distribution with, of course, a mark-up that gives and incentive for the seller to be in business in the first place. Anyone who has studied marketing, economics, or managerial accounting understands that pricing is an important part of business strategy, and it can be a very complex process to arrive at a price that covers costs and maximizes profits. Further, the price also has to be acceptable to the buyer or none of the rest matters. In places like the U.S., consumers tend to think that the marked price on a product must be fair and reasonable, so they pay it without questioning it. Or they think it is too high, and they pass the product by.

There may be some negative consequences of this “set price” system. For example, when consumers blindly accept the marked price without question, they may not be practicing a high level of critical thinking about how they are spending their money. Maybe it is also eroding our social connectedness in that buyers don’t spend much time talking to vendors. It is fairly passive.

On the other hand, there is a certain fairness to the whole thing. Everyone pays the same price for the same product or service. More aggressive or savvy buyers can’t badger sellers into giving them lower prices, and more aggressive or savvy sellers can’t extract higher prices from weak-willed buyers. The benefits to keeping accurate accounting records (and therefore accurate tax reporting, among other things) are obvious, and transaction costs are kept low, especially in terms of time and aggravation, particularly for the meek, who may eventually inherit the earth, but in the meantime usually do poorly when it comes to haggling.

From a purely economic standpoint the argument could be made that haggling represents the perfectly competitive market forces that bring supply and demand into balance. Theoretically that is true. Sellers ask the most they think they can get, and buyers offer the least they think they can pay. Negotiations start there and end when both sides are satisfied that they got the best deal they could. The problem with haggling for tourists (and, it could be argued, for haggling in general) is that there is an asymmetry of information. Specifically, the seller knows more than the buyer.

One of the requirements for a perfectly competitive market is that all parties have complete information. Obviously this is not the case in the market for taxi rides. Even in a person’s own city he might not know the exact distance to his destination, or how much the ride is per mile even if he did. He might not know the way there. In a new city in a foreign country add in factors like the different currency, total unfamiliarity with the surroundings, and lack of knowledge of what a typical cab ride should cost. In this case, true negotiation is not possible. Hence, metered taxis, and in the absence of meters, cab drivers systematically ripping off tourists.
There are a lot of idle police here in Malaysia. Every few blocks a group of cops sits around an umbrella-shaded table doing nothing. The taxi issue would be simple to remedy. All it would take would be for those idle cops to walk down the street and check each cab for a working meter. No meter, instant fine. Several infractions, no more hack license. To take it a step further, police could check with passengers getting out of taxis. If they don’t have a receipt, the driver could be cited. In addition to protecting tourists, the fines could be a source of income for the city. Getting drivers to have all their fares on the books would increase tax revenue as well. Clearly there is no political will to do anything about it--tourists don’t vote, except with their feet, and in the greater scheme of things the risk of getting overcharged for a cab ride probably isn’t going to be enough to get many people to change their travel plans.
Since I’ve been in Malaysia I’ve had a pretty good experience, but my encounters with dishonest cab drivers have colored my view of the place. It isn’t just the drivers (I am tempted to say that they are just trying to earn a living the best way they know how, but that is a slippery slope, as well as an argument used by criminals to rationalize their victimization of others). It is also that there is clearly a level of official corruption that allows this to happen.
Maybe I’m cheap, maybe I’m paranoid, but knowing for certain that there is an entire industry that actively seeks to take advantage of my relative lack of information makes me feel like a victim. Now every time I go to a shop or restaurant where there’s no menu, or prices are not posted--and there are many--I get suspicious.  Why did one guy at the mini mart charge me ten ringits for something, and the next day a different guy charged me nine for the same thing? Are there one set of prices for locals and another for tourists? Probably. Do they just make up prices off the tops of their heads? I wouldn’t be surprised. Am I actually being ripped off? Maybe and maybe not. Either way knowing for certain that I’ve been ripped off by cabbies makes me feel like a target, and that’s not a nice way to feel. If I was offered a decent job here would it stop me from taking it? No, but it would keep me out of taxis and away from places without set prices.
----

If you are interested in the information asymmetry concept, you might want to read “The Market for Lemons: Quality Uncertainty and the Market Mechanism,” by George A. Akerlof (he won a nobel prize in economics for it) http://www.iei.liu.se/nek/730g83/artiklar/1.328833/AkerlofMarketforLemons.pdf

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Re-Entry #5: Polite Drivers

[This is something I wrote in early July. It is one of a series about the reverse culture shock I experienced when I returned to the United States after living abroad in Taiwan for over a decade. I'm back in Southeast Asia now, and have been posting about that, so this may seem to be out of sync with the rest of the material on this blog. Chalk it up to procrastination].

The one thing that I never got used to about living in Taiwan was the traffic. Not that it was heavy or congested, although at times it certainly was, but that the drivers over there are, well, let's just say that those stereotypes about Asian drivers are not just ethnic slurs. They are solidly based in fact. My purpose isn't to go on about that, though (I probably already have somewhere in this blog). My purpose here is to complain about how annoyed I am at the drivers in Seattle.

I never thought I would be bothered by drivers due to their being too polite. I'm used to having my life threatened on a daily basis by drivers who are lazy, inconsiderate, or just oblivious to their surroundings (or some combination of the three), so I was excited about the prospect of being back in a place where people actually take being a good driver as a point of pride. However, I've noticed that people in Seattle have gone too far the other way. While waiting to cross the street at various intersections, people have stopped to allow me to cross even when they clearly have the legal right-of-way. This sounds nice, but really it is a misplaced gesture. There are rules of the road that govern right-of-way, and when you violate them, even to be nice, you are messing with the system. This introduces confusion. It keeps people from understanding what they are supposed to do. Driving a car is no time to be nice.

When I know I'm supposed to wait, and a car that has the right-of-way starts slowing down, I lose the ability to predict what is going to happen next. The predictability that the rules-of-the-road provide is essential to safe driving. If we can't make certain assumptions about how other drivers or pedestrians are going to behave, then we can't know how to behave ourselves. A very basic example is which side of the road to drive on. In the U.S. we drive one the right, so drivers can assume that if they drive on the right everything will be fine, and when cars enter the flow of traffic they will also drive on the right. The relative lack of this kind of predictability is one of the things that drove me nuts about traffic in Taiwan

So when cars slow or stop when they shouldn't, it makes me confused. Is the car going to let me go? Or is the driver just changing radio stations or looking for an address? Generally in these situations I just stand there. I'll only cross if the car comes to a complete stop and the driver gestures for me to go, and even then I'm wary. Also, by that time I'm annoyed because it would have been much better if the driver had just kept going. There would have been no uncertainty, and that awkward moment (like when you sidestep to let someone by on the sidewalk and they also sidestep in the same direction) would have been avoided. It would have been quicker if they had just continued on. Also, when people slow down or stop when they shouldn't, they become a traffic hazard. Other drivers don't expect them to do that, and it could cause an accident.

This kind of thing--the overly polite gesture--is bound to happen once in a while, especially in a polite society in which people are considerate of others. During my short time back in Seattle, however, it has become a daily occurrence. In fact, it happens a few times every time I leave the house. I'm starting to get a bit paranoid about it. Is there something weird about me that makes drivers afraid to cross my path? Is there a "yeild" sign on me? Are my pants unzipped?

As with the subjects of all my "Re-Entry" posts, this is just something I need to get used to. And really, I can't complain too much. The people are just trying to be nice. And at least these drivers aren't directly threatening my safety. Then again, considering that I will be returning to Asia in just a few weeks, if I do get used to it I could become lulled into a sense of safety. That could wind up getting me killed when I hit the streets of a country where "polite" and "driving" are words that don't occur in the same context.

Monday, September 09, 2013

Anti-Travel Post #3: So Many Photos, So Little Time

It is just as I figured. In the rush to finish things up, I left a mess behind. Those last few items of clothes in the dryer, the cover for my laptop, my hair clippers (not sure if that was a Freudian slip), some of Lucy’s hair clips I meant to pack, and the charger cord for my digital camera. The only thing that I’ve missed (so far) is the camera cord.

I didn’t even notice the charger until my camera battery died. When I went to get the charger out of my pack, it wasn’t there. It didn’t take long to search through everything I have (one of the benefits of living out of a bag), and only a little bit longer to search my memory of the places I might have left it along the way. There is only one place it could be, and I just got confirmation by email: it is back in Seattle sitting right where I left it, all ready to be packed away in my traveling electronics bag.

It is too bad about the camera. I guess I have mixed feelings about it because I generally don't like looking blatantly like a tourist, stopping every two feet to take pictures of stuff. I'd blend right in here in Georgetown though, because there are so many tourists. Many of the tourists are Asian, and, not to perpetuate a stereotype, but it is true that many Asian people are obsessed with taking pictures.

All tourists from every ethnicity take pictures; that's part of being a tourist. Asians, however, elevate it to a form of mania. I saw a guy last night taking a picture of the shadow of a door. He was crouched down in the middle of a hallway in front of the restrooms trying to compose his shot, while at the same time blocking anyone from entering or leaving the building. Today I saw a woman standing in the middle of the street (not a wise move considering the drivers are Asian as well—oh no I didn’t!) so that she could get just the right perspective of her friend posing in front of something along the side of the road. I guess inconveniencing others or risking one's own life are secondary considerations to capturing that all-important moment in time.

Many Asian people take pictures of everything, including all of their meals. Asian women in particular like to take food pictures. Once I saw six women sitting around a table in a restaurant and each of them was snapping away at the food in front of them. Who they think will ever want to see these pictures is a mystery to me--especially since millions of others are simultaneously taking and posting food pictures (including their own dining companions). Will they look at each others’ pictures of the same plates of food and compare them (“I like your angle on that won ton!” “Oh, but you really captured the light on those fries.”)? Lucy is a victim of this obsession as well, and I keep slipping up and digging into my meals before she gets a chance to record them for posterity. It makes me feel so guilty. Then I have to do some food plastic surgery to make it look like it did when it first came out of the kitchen. Sometimes I have to place a fork or spoon strategically so that it looks like a bite has been intentionally taken. You know, to make it more dramatic. It makes me wonder if someday the gastronomic photography obsession might extend to including photographing what happens at the other end of the digestive system. I hope not!

I've never made a secret of my antipathy towards travel and tourism, and part of that is that tourists and travelers often seem more concerned with checking things off lists (for example, countries: "I've been to fifty-seven countries" followed by a carefully memorized list) and with creating tangible records of their experiences. In terms of picture taking, a lot of times this means that people spend more time taking pictures than they do actually experiencing where they are. A couple of examples come immediately to mind:

Once I went to a place called Ali Shan (Ali Mountain) in Taiwan. It is very famous for its beautiful sunrises. However, to see it you have to get there at dawn (obviously), which means getting up well before dawn so that you can get to the special train that takes you up to the viewing area. Besides having the experience ruined by a hawker with a megaphone, I notice that as the sun rose, no one was looking at it except through a camera lens. Then, only moments after the sun came up over the mountain ridge, everyone turned around and headed back to the train platform. I couldn't believe it. The best part about seeing a sunrise or sunset is watching the sky gradually change as the sun's position relative to the horizon changes, but when you are just checking things off a list, you end up missing the beauty of the experience; you end up missing the point. This is not to mention that you can't see a sunrise or sunset in its glory when you are looking through a viewfinder.

Another example, and this was the one that made me realize how the photography obsession really detracts from actual experience, was in Hong Kong. I went with a friend up to the Peak, which is a mountainside right next to the city from which you can look directly down on the high rise buildings. It is a really stunning sight. I was up there snapping away with my camera, jostling to get the good spot along the rail of the observation deck. Then the battery on my camera died, so I put it away and just started looking. The longer I looked the more amazing the scene was. I could suddenly see things without a border and in their full three dimensional perspective. After a while I realized that people were eyeing my railside "real estate" with envy, so I stepped back to let others get a better view. Then I started looking at people, and there were a lot of them to look at. As my gaze moved along from person to person, I noticed that nobody was looking at the view other than through a camera. Most of the cameras were digital, of course, so this meant that everyone was looking at one of the most awesome views I've ever seen on little tiny TV screens. It seemed so sad to me that I actually stopped taking pictures for a long time.

Photography is a wonderful thing, and it has been extremely important in preserving historical images (personal and social) as well as being an art form in itself. As an element of journalism it has revolutionized the way that we record and disseminate information (one picture > 1,000 words). With the advent of digital photography and online photo sharing, however, I feel like we've reached some kind of saturation point. For one thing, people take so many pictures now that they can never have the time to actually look at all of them, other than maybe to flip quickly through them. And if everyone is doing this, how are they going to ever have time to look at anyone else's pictures? I mean REALLY look at them. Before digital photos, photographers had to really think about what they were shooting (much like writers, before word processing, or even typewriters, had to really think about what they were writing). Photos were limited, and therefore more valuable. The moments in time they captured were special, or even if they weren't, they became special in time because they were recorded. Now every meal is recorded. Hotel rooms are recorded. People's outfits and shoes are recorded. People take pictures of other pictures. People take pictures of other people taking pictures. Everything and anything has become worthy of being a photographic subject. This in itself, I think, has diminished the value of photography.

Just imagine an archaeologist a thousand years from now having to sort through trillions of digital photos and trying to piece together what the societies of our time considered important. Well, there'll be a lot of porn, so they'll probably think we were perverts. And there'll be a lot of self-portraits (some bordering on porn), so they'd probably think we were narcissists. Then, of course, there will be billions and billions of photos of food, so they'll probably think we were either really hungry or had some kind of bizarre eating disorder (which will be reinforced by the fact that a lot of the people in the photos will be overweight).

My main point (I'm getting to it!) is that people seem to spend more time and effort on recording experiences than they do on actually having experiences, to the extent that they don't actually have the experiences at all, but instead watch them on a tiny TV screen. This seems to be a theme that runs through the world of travel and tourism in general, and is really more of a symptom or indication of something deeper--that much travel today, as well as the social cache that goes with it, is the product of a slick marketing campaign (waged by airlines, travel agencies, hotels, tourism bureaus, publishers of travel guides and maps, and so on). There's nothing wrong with travel in itself, nor certainly with photography, but people should be mindful of what is really happening when they book a trip or take a picture. Are they being sold what the Spanish call "gato por liebre" (cat in place of rabbit)? Is is a pig in a poke? Do they believe they are spreading fresh creamery butter on the toast of their life when they are really using margarine? Are my metaphors getting annoying?

My camera battery died, and I left the charger about eight thousand miles away. For a few moments I was frustrated, then sad, but now I'm kind of glad. I don't take many photos anyway (and they usually aren't very good by artistic measures), but now I'm going to be forced to only look at things with my own eyes (at least until I break down and buy a new camera). I hope other people, travelers or not, will consider doing the same, at least part of the time. Sure, take a few photos to preserve those memories, but put the camera away for awhile, too, so you can actually have the experience you think you are having in the first place. While you are at it, use your other senses as well. Be present. That way you might have an experience real enough to be worth remembering.

Oh! One more thing. A friend of mine who must have gone around the world a dozen times, including back in the days before jet travel, once told me not to bother taking pictures. He said to just look at things with your own eyes, and then buy a pack of post cards of the place. That way you don't have to waste your time getting that perfect shot, and the people who take the postcard pictures are probably better photographers than you are anyway.

Friday, September 06, 2013

Letters Home #2: Goodbye Langkawi, Hello Georgetown

Thursday, September 05, 2013
W & O Hostel, Georgetown, Penang, Malaysia

Dear _,
  
To catch you up on things, Lucy and I have finished the “honeymoon” phase of our trip. That was spent on an island called Langkawi. It is a little resort island that has a lot of natural beauty, but not much else. Unfortunately it has been swallowed up by tourism, which I think is like the cancer of such places. It was a weird place. It’s clearly a destination for a lot of people from the region, as well as the Mid-east and Europe. Because Malaysia is a Muslim country, there are a lot of Muslim tourists there. Those folks have a lot of kids, and they don’t seem to mind taking them on vacation with them. This was a bit of a nuisance, because there were kids running all over the place making a lot of noise. Parents seem to be pretty indulgent compare to the way I was raised. It’s not that I have anything against kids, but when you’re trying to have a relaxing vacation the last thing you want to hear is some kid screaming.

Although the place was beautiful, pretty much all of the tourist attractions were disappointing—or they would have been if I’d expected much in the first place. Most of the place seemed to have been abandoned and/or falling into disrepair. One fellow we talked to said it was because each time there is an election old initiatives are dropped and new ones started (probably to enrich the new incumbents and their cronies). Also, I kind of felt like I was just a walking dollar sign with the local taxi drivers and restaurateurs lining up to fleece me. You can’t really blame them, as that’s how they make their living, but it is pretty annoying when you hire a driver for the day and he tries to make you go to attractions where he clearly gets a kickback for steering you that way.

Still, we managed to have a pretty good time. Probably the best part was either going to the beach—a mere few steps from our motel door—or when we went to a waterfall. The waterfall was great because when we first got there we were the only ones there. It was a 200 meter fall with a big pool where you could dive in from the rocks and swim around. The water was cool (much cooler than the ocean), but not so cold that you couldn’t stay in for a while (it’s rain water, not ice melt). Unfortunately after about half an hour a bus full of people showed up and pretty soon it was super crowded. It was really nice for a while, though. The beaches were great, too. Sand, warm green water, and the sun was not too hot.

One thing that I didn’t really realize that was so great about the place is that, since the government made the whole island a duty-free zone, beer was really cheap there. In the convenience stores it was about 75 cents to a dollar per can, but in the duty free I could get Chang (a Thai beer) for about 50 cents. In the restaurants it was two or three bucks per beer, and I thought that was exorbitant. Then we left for another place, and it turns out that even at the convenience store beer is about three bucks a can. That’s because it is a Muslim country and alcohol is generally a no-no. In fact, at 7-11 there is a sign by the beer cooler that says something like “Alcoholic beverages are for sale to our non-Muslim customers only.” I don’t know how they can tell if someone is Muslim, but I suppose there is some system in place (or maybe it is the honor system, which calls into question the need for a sign).

Anyway, now I’ve noticed that in restaurants beers can cost ten or fifteen US dollars. I know that the prices in the US aren’t that far different, but damn it, when I go to a developing nation I expect to pay developing nation prices for the one luxury I enjoy!

Well, at least I’ll probably lose some weight.

We left Langkawi (by the way, it’s in the Malaysian state of Kedah, which borders Thailand) a few days ago and took a ferry to another island further south in the state of Penang. I think the island is called Penang Island, but I’m not sure. We’re staying in a place called Georgetown, which is a UNESCO world heritage site. It goes back to the old days of the East India Company and beyond. So far I really like the feel of this place as opposed to Langkawi. That place was full of vacationers, whereas here there are a lot more of what I would consider travelers. The difference is basically that people here seem to be here for the experience, not just to take their families somewhere (theme park v museum?). Also, it is a lot more Chinese. It might seem weird that the Chinese influence makes me more comfortable, but after living in Taiwan for ten years, it seems more like home here.

The first night we stayed in a historic building that is run by some Chinese people and is all done up to look historic. I assume Lucy took some photos, but I don’t have any to send to you at the moment. It was pretty nice, but none of the hostels here have rooms with bathrooms, so you have to share with other guests. Unfortunately all the other guests seemed to be Chinese ladies who decided to use the only sinks to wash out their laundry. Also, the walls were paper thin (all the walls were obviously just slapped up to divide up the space into little rooms). Beers there were 9.80 Ringits, or about US$3. That’s when I first suffered sticker shock, but I thought it was just the hostel was overpriced. It wasn’t until later that I found almost the same price at 7-11.

They were booked after that so we crossed the street and got a room at a place called the Western & Oriental. That’s where we’re staying now. Beers are as low as 6 Ringits, or about a buck eighty. The guy told me that they are smuggled in from the duty free zone (at a healthy markup). This place is dumpier, and there’s no air conditioning. That’s okay, but the bigger problem is it is really noisy at night. Last night there were a few guys reveling in the lobby until after 3 a.m. It’s not that they were so loud, but our room overhangs the lobby and the walls are very permeable. Luckily I was tired enough that it didn’t make a big difference.

We spent the first day walking around the historical district, but I can’t tell you much about it. It pretty much looks like any other place I’ve seen in Asia. It’s really busy, has lots of crazy traffic, and is generally rundown looking. Walking along the street you pass all kinds of restaurants that seem to exude food poisoning. We also went to a museum, but I won’t bore you with the details. It was kind of a museum of history and industry, and I’ll leave it at that.

Currently I’m sitting in the hostel lobby sipping an expensive can of beer and uploading wedding photos to my Flickr account (take a look if you want: http://www.flickr.com/photos/shortymethod/). I’ll be posting more and more photos there as time goes on, so that would be a good place to get a glimpse of what we are seeing over here. I also posted some stuff to our blog: http://slowtravelinsoutheastasia.wordpress.com.

Lucy and I are trying to chronicle our trip here, but so far I’ve been pretty negative about it—not so much our trip in particular, but about travel in general. It’s been a long standing opinion of mine that travel is a marketing gimmick and that people should just stay close to home to get more value from their leisure time. Of course utility cannot be measured from one person to the other—what is valuable to one person can be worthless or even of negative value to another. But I think if people looked critically at their own travel experiences, as well as their motivations to travel, they would come to similar conclusions. In a lot of ways I think travel is just a fashion, a way of trying to establish an identity and of separating oneself from everyone else.

I suppose that brings up the question as to why I’m traveling at all. I don’t have a good answer for that. After being in Asia for about twenty percent of my life, I suppose I just wanted to take a look around before settling down. After all, for the most part I’ve hardly left that one town in Taiwan the whole time I’ve been overseas. I’ll tell you one thing for sure, if nothing else, travel—and especially travel on the cheap—really makes you appreciate the standard of living we enjoy in the states, at least for those who can afford it.

Well, I’d better sign off here. Drop me a line and let me know what’s going on with you.


-M

Thursday, September 05, 2013

Anti-Travel Post #2: Heisenberg In Langkawi

Thursday, September 05, 2013
W & O Hostel, Georgetown, Penang, Malaysia

Although Langkawi had some charms, I wasn’t sad to leave it and head for our next stop, the historic city of Georgetown in Penang.

To be fair to Langkawi, it was the first stop on our trip and we arrived there after a grueling 30-plus hours of travel, most of which was in the air (which I hate—more on that later). We were tired and jet-lagged, not to mention that we had yet to adapt to the nomadic way of life (for example, our packs were, and still are, woefully over packed). The whole process of planning (thanks Lucy), packing, tying up loose ends in the U.S. (many still dangling loosely in the breeze), saying goodbyes (“but you just got home!”), and actually doing the traveling was very stressful, which probably clouded my view of the first place we ended up somewhat.

In fact, at least for me, the stress of travel was piled on top of the stress I’d gone through in preparing to leave Taiwan, where I’d been living for over a decade (talk about loose ends!), and the stress of getting married (I’m ecstatic to be married, but the actual process of a wedding is a logistic nightmare. I was lucky in that Lucy handled almost all of the planning and organization. Even so, it was no walk in the park for me). So when I finally crashed into my bed at the Bon Ton Temple Tree Resort in Langkawi, Malaysia, I was on the verge of mental collapse. In fact, it has taken me a couple of weeks to start winding down and to realize that, at least for the next few months, I don’t have to live by a clock—or even by a calendar.

So, I’m sorry Langkawi. As Tyler Durden said to Marla Singer at the end of Fight Club, “You met me at a very strange time in my life.” Still, I have to be honest that as a place you are your own worst enemy, or at least the people that live on you are. I guess the same could be said about the whole planet, for that matter.

I could probably fit this in to my general “anti-travel” theme, but instead of laying it at the feet of the travelers, I’m going to take aim more at the locals. Langkawi is a jewel. If one could visit there before the government turned it into a duty-free zone and began to develop it as a tourist destination, it would be a paradise (aside from the insects, crocodiles, snakes, impossibility of getting from one place to another, and likelihood of contracting water, food, or insect borne disease). It has beautiful beaches with warm, green water from the Andaman Sea. The lush flora covers all but the steepest cliffs of its stunning mountain formations. There are a number of breathtaking waterfalls to see, as well as to swim in. The sunsets are awesome. The fauna is exotic and varied, from birds to fish, reptiles to mammals (who doesn’t love monkeys—I mean, other than people who actually live in proximity to them?). Sure it is a little bit on the warm side, but that is what the beaches and waterfalls are for, right?

All of this natural beauty is still there, but the problem is that no-one can make money from it, or at least not enough people can make enough, and not directly from nature. So what do the local people do? Well, the first thing they do is drop the plow and get behind the wheel of a taxi, or, if they’ve got more capital, open a hotel, restaurant, or mini-mart. Or more likely, they stand there with their mouths open in shock and wonder while other Malaysians flock to their island and start those businesses (then they probably go to work for those off-islanders). Either way, one can’t blame a farmer for preferring driving a cab (or doing whatever other service-based job) to staring at the backside of a water buffalo all day while slogging through the muck. They probably make a lot more money with what is certainly a lot less physical effort. This is all good, and part of the economic development of the place. But the problem is that the pie is only so large, and the slices start to get pretty thin as more and more people try to get their piece.

There is only so much room for drivers to take arriving tourists to their hotels (just as one example, another might be that there are only so many meals that tourists can consume), so locals have to come up with new ways to compete for the tourist dollars. So you end up with those banana boats, jet skis, parachute sailing (or whatever it is called) and various other activities that people will shell out for because sitting on a gorgeous tropical beach thousands of miles from the normal stresses of life is just not enough. There probably isn’t a tourist-destination beach in the world that doesn’t have all of that stuff. I don’t deny that it might be fun, but is it really necessary?

Then there are all the tours and attractions that spring up. A good example in Langkawi are the crocodile “farms.” Crocodiles used to live naturally in the mangroves, but the government put a bounty on them and now they only live in captivity, mostly at places that show them off to tourists, and then slaughter them for their hides and meat. Naturally tourists want to see crocodiles. Who doesn’t? But the problem is that it is difficult to observe them in nature, as well as time-consuming and costly. Solution? Round ‘em up and put on a show!

You can still go on a boat tour of the island and the mangroves. It is pretty interesting by itself, but just to make sure the tourists get what they paid for, the boat operators toss food into the water to get the birds to swoop down for dramatic effect. They also toss food to the monkeys to attract them to the shoreline so people can take their pictures. The result is that the monkeys lose their ability (or will) to forage for natural food and instead become pests that are dependent on scraps from humans. Probably the worst thing I saw was a “fish farm” where local fishermen bring not only typical food fish, but more exotic varieties that they catch (barracudas, rays, giant angelfish, sharks, and so on). These fish are kept in tiny underwater pens and are pulled up repeatedly all day to show the tourists. They can’t survive long like that. Finally there was the zoo, or “Wildlife Park” as it is billed. It’s not the worst zoo I’ve seen (that distinction belongs to the Hsinchu Zoo in Taiwan), but it was pretty bad. A lot of the animals there aren’t even native to Langkawi, so it isn’t even really an informative experience to go there, and the conditions are pretty bad for the animals. Still, it is one of the major attractions.

The list could go on, but I think I’ve given enough examples to make my point. Looking at something, particularly a fragile natural system, changes it. This is true even in the least intrusive cases where people actually trek far into the wilderness to observe nature. In the case of tourist destinations, it is really devastating to the natural systems. On one hand you can’t really blame the locals; they are just trying to make a living. Tourists should know better (if you can afford to got to a tourist destination, you should be able to afford an education), but I think what happens is that many people arrive at a place like Langkawi, have a swim, look at a sunset, and then wake up the next morning and say, “What do you want to do today?”

Given a more eco-friendly option, a lot of people would probably take it. Without such options, people will do whatever is available. I don’t know why people feel driven to do anything while on vacation, after all doing nothing is what vacations are for. What seems to happen, though, is that locals see tourists as a source of cash, and so they invent things for them to do, and human nature seems to impel people to do whatever activity there is available to do, even if they never would have thought of doing it on their own.

So what ends up happening is that the very thing that makes a place like Langkawi attractive in the first place, its natural beauty, becomes degraded to the point where it eventually ceases to be a feature of the place and is soon replaced by luxury hotels, theme parks (a major one is under construction in Langkawi at the moment), and banana boats. The locals, in the natural desire to make a good living, try to make nature unnaturally accessible, and try to come up with all kinds of other activities and enticements that have nothing to do with the original character of the place (duty-free shops and theme parks, for example). All of this, coupled with the generally dilapidated condition of much of the Langkawi infrastructure (there are many partially constructed buildings, things that are falling apart, and places in serious need of maintenance) lead to lot of disappointing experiences for anyone who is looking for more than rest and relaxation on a beautiful beach.


Lucky for me, that’s all I really want from a gorgeous tropical island.

Tuesday, September 03, 2013

Anti-Travel Post #1: Communication Breakdown

This is only the first of my “anti-travel” posts in which I will attempt to explain what I consider to be one of the biggest marketing schemes to have been foisted on the developed world since the automobile and commercial television. I realize that many people, and especially young people, think of world travel as almost a religion, and no one likes for his or her religious beliefs to be called into question. I expect some negative responses (if indeed anyone ever actually reads these posts). However, I hope that anyone who does read them will stop for a moment before condemning me and ask themselves why they really “like” to travel, or feel that “travel is SO broadening.”

After living in Taiwan for a decade (as well as after suffering some hearing loss from playing in a band for ten years), I’m used to not catching what people say, but I also developed a sort-of Taiwan-specific sense of peoples’ meanings even when I don’t actually understand the words they used. This does not carry over well to other places, particularly ones where the speech patterns are completely different from Mandarin Chinese. I also developed the habit of avoiding the necessity of communicating with people as much as possible. This works okay when you live in a place for an extended period of time. Just think about your daily life and how you can get through most things with simple pointing and grunts—for example going to the grocery store: you put your stuff on the little conveyor belt, the cashier rings you up, tells you the total, you pay, say thank you, and that’s it. On a weekend day that might be the extent of your interaction with other people if you live alone (as I have done for much of my adult life). This habit doesn’t work well while traveling, however, as you are continuously having to make reservations, arrange transportation, check in and out of lodgings, order meals, and so on.

While staying in Langkawi, communication has been a problem in general, which is to be expected when visiting a foreign country. Some examples: we were eating at a nice and fairly expensive restaurant (Sunset Boulevard) the other night. After ordering, I realized that I was short on cash, so I went up to the counter and asked the fellow if they accepted Visa. He said yes, and then gestured toward our table and said something I didn’t quite catch.

After we had a nice meal, I went to pay, but when I took out my credit card the same fellow I’d asked about the Visa earlier apologetically said that they only took cash. It turns out that he thought I had said something about a pizza, rather than Visa. He was very embarrassed, and I was rather annoyed but remained gracious and told him that it was at least as much my fault as his, and I suppose it was since I didn’t ask for clarification. I then had to scurry out and down to the nearest bank (luckily not too far away) and withdraw money, then scurry back to the restaurant.

Another example was when Lucy and I stopped at the place next to the defunct internet cafĂ© (with all of its “open” signs still in place) and asked if they had WiFi. The young man who greeted us said yes, so we decided to eat there. No sooner had we sat down and Lucy opened her iPad than we found out that, no, they didn’t have WiFi. We were tired and hot, so we decided to stay anyway. We ordered some beverages and I ordered fried noodles, but the noodles never came, so apparently the young man didn’t understand when I pointed to the noodles in the menu and said I wanted them, even though he repeated my order and nodded his head in understanding.

Some misunderstandings seem more intentional, such as when we hired a taxi to take us to the Langkawi Wildlife Park (actually just a sad zoo—sadder than most zoos I’ve been to, but not the saddest). The posted price was thirty Ringits (all destinations have posted prices to prevent drivers from gouging tourists). However, it is always a good idea to confirm with the driver before you leave. Our driver said “Thirty-five,” to which we replied in unison, “Thirty.” He repeated thirty-five, and I told him that we checked the posted price and it was supposed to be thirty. He said, “Okay,” but didn’t actually confirm that he agreed to that price. I wanted to hear him say “thirty,” but he wouldn’t do it. Then he offered to take us there and back for seventy, which (if I’m doing the math correctly) is twice thirty-five. He said that there were no taxis there to take us back, but there were actually a half dozen cabs sitting right there in the driveway of the zoo. We said that wouldn’t be necessary and as we bailed out of the cab I jabbed thirty Ringits at him and quickly scampered into the zoo. When we came out, there he was waiting for us and all the other drivers gave him first shot at us as we were clearly “his” passengers. He then proceeded to overcharge us to take us to the main town, Kuah. Unfortunately there were no taxi prices posted at the zoo, so we couldn’t check. In the end, he got his extra and I felt cheap and foolish for troubling over about four U.S. dollars.

I hate to complain about people not understanding me when I’m the one that is the foreigner (except when the misunderstanding is intentional, in which case I feel fully justified), but this is a one hundred percent tourist location, so I don’t think it is too much to expect the people in restaurants and shops to understand very basic questions and requests. Or if they’re not sure they understand, to follow up and confirm meaning. On the other hand, this is just one more inconvenience that goes along with travel. It could just as easily happen if I was visiting some place in Mississippi or Maine instead of Malaysia, as the accents of people in those places, as well as the subtleties of their cultures, are different enough from mine to obscure meaning.

In my way of thinking, this is just one more of the unnecessary inconveniences that people put themselves through in the pursuit of what is really just a marketing scheme called “world travel.”


The moral of the story? Stay home and misunderstand the people in your own hometown.

Monday, September 02, 2013

Re-Entry #4: Portions

Yet another belatedly-posted mini commentary on my reverse culture shock upon returning briefly to the United States after a decade in Taiwan.

It is no wonder that so many Americans are overweight (and the rest of the world is merrily following the example). I know that we can blame all kinds of things like high-fructose corn syrup and lack of exercise, but the giant portions served in restaurants has to be a big part of it.

The best example in my opinion is Mexican food. I love Mexican food, and one of the great things about eating it in the U.S. is that with your main dish (already huge), you usually also get a giant platter of rice and beans, often topped with cheese and sour cream (I miss it already!). Don't forget that you also get free tortilla chips from the moment you sit down. And it is CHEAP!

In Taiwan, the so-called Mexican restaurants have totally missed the point. No tortilla chips, no rice and beans, tiny portions (the main dishes look like little appetizers), and it is really expensive.

That's just one example, but there are many more. Basically if you want to eat "Western" food in Taiwan (or at least food that sort of looks like Western food, even if the taste is totally off), you have to be satisfied with tiny portions and huge price.

So when Lucy (my lovely wife) and I returned to the U.S. and started hitting the restaurants in Seattle (a foodie's paradise), we kept biting off more than we could chew, literally. Soon my parents' refrigerator was overflowing with to-go boxes containing the remnants of our dining adventures. In fact, it really drove my folks nuts, as they pretty much refused to eat most of it (Oh! How interesting. Oh no... we don't eat that!).

Long story short, only about a month before leaving Taiwan I had surgery on my throat and didn't eat at all for about a week, and then only tiny bits at a time for the next few weeks. I lost about twenty pounds. After a week back in the U.S. I gained it all back and then some, despite walking several miles each day, as well as doing yoga and swimming a couple times a week.

It's true that you are what you eat, and if you eat a lot... well, you will be a lot.