Must Travel

Written: 9/10/2008

“Goodbye world!” is honestly what I could have said as I boarded my plane to Thailand.  I was leaving everything that I knew behind:  my family, work, culture, food and country to go teaching in a country I knew very little about.  Now I realise this may sound ignorant but it is the method of travel that I have stumbled upon and chose to adopt for future travel.  Although in this instance it happened quite by accident because a month prior to this I was planning to move to the UK….let me back up a bit…mum and I Landscape

When I was approaching my last few years of high school, my parents asked me what I wanted to study after school.  A few ‘new age’ type talks had suggested following your passion and that seemed good enough for me.  “I’m going to be an actress.” I announced.  My parents laughed endearingly at their idealistic daughter and said, “No, that’s not going to work in South Africa.  What else?”

“Ok,” I responded, “then I’m going to be an artist.”  They exchanged concerned glances with one another; their endearing understanding seemed to be waning.  “Being an artist in South Africa is also not a good idea.” they said.

“I don’t know then.” I replied “I think I’ll travel while I figure it out.”  In their infinite wisdom, they strongly encouraged me to study first, then I could travel and it’s just as well as I think they knew that once I started travelling, I’d never really stop.  We agreed that once my studies were done, I could travel if I still wanted to.

 

I eventually settled into Interior Design and after studying for four years and achieving my degree, I announced that I was now going travelling. “No, no, now you need a job…” my parents began and so the age-old but-you-said…. argument ensued.  I was not about to get lured into the work-for-just-enough-money-to-pay-off-a-house-that-will-make-you-a-slave-to-the-job trap just yet.  I was going travelling!  I had always wanted to be an au-pair and, in my experience, I have found that “I have always wanted to…” is a great place to start.  While I had the car paid off, a job to come back to, no mortgage, marriage or kids – what better time could I ask for?

 

I applied for an au-pair job in the UK but had my visa denied due to not having enough ties back home.  So I decided to try for the USA – I had worked there before and enjoyed it – I decided to go through an agency for this; however this too was declined for the same reason as the UK.  What had my passport done that I had been labelled as such a dangerous traveller?  But I was adamant.  I didn’t care which plane I was getting on at that point – I just needed something that would take me away!  When the agency called, I asked her what my options were: Teaching in Taiwan, South Korea and Thailand they said.  Now, at this point social media and the exposure of the internet was still very new, so perhaps that will make up for some of my ignorance….no it doesn’t!  I decided to do a quick ‘book cover judgement’ and go from there.  I literally did one Google Image search on each country and picked Thailand.  I called the agent back and by the time the end of the week was up, I had two job offers: one in Phuket and one in Chaing Mai and a plane ticket that left in three weeks.

 

So here I was, having arrived late in the evening – in a country I knew nothing about and my senses were accosted from the moment I stepped off the plane.  I spent my first night in Kho San Road – a centralised hub for backpackers.  I bought a sim card, texted my dad for his birthday, went to a restaurant where I pointed to the middle of the menu and hoped for the best.  The bowl came back with an odd, spicy scent that I didn’t recognise and had tentacles reaching out that seemed to crawl up my skin.  The food was too spicy for me to bear (I must confess – I was not a fan of any form of spicy food before I came to Thailand and yes – the irony was clear as soon as I discovered that Thailand was well-known for its spicy food!) I lay on my bed and cried.  “What a mistake!” I thought!  “I cannot live here!  I will die of either heat stroke or starvation!”

 

When I awoke in the morning, I was told the airport transfer would collect me.  I had bought a ticket the night before from one of the identical stalls that lined the hustling, bustling street part amidst drunken westerners losing their minds over this country – I didn’t seem to share their sentiments – and locals selling cocktails, fried cockroaches and T-shirts.  As I stood outside my hotel with my enormous bag, I wondered if I should actually be waiting there or if I was expected to find the shop that I’d bought this ticket at.  I watched a few locals in their pyjamas amidst the mess created the night before (It is quite normal to be in your pyjamas on the street in the morning, as long as they adhere to the usual modest tones of covering knees, shoulders and everything in between) and the chaos of thousands of street signs that jumbled the view of the street when a lady stopped her scooter in front of me and shouted “Air-porrr!  Air-porrr!”

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“Oh well,” I thought, “Clearly lost-white-girl-with-giant-bag is going to the ‘Air-porr’ but whether this is the lift I arranged or not, it’s the only one I’ve got!”  “Yes!” I reluctantly replied.  She promptly grabbed my bag and took me down a side road.  “One min-eet” she said as she disappeared down what looked like a man-hold but I’m guessing was an underground club.  One ‘min-eet’ became five, then ten… “Oh genius!” I thought, “I’ve followed this random stranger to…I don’t know where and now my REAL transfer has probably been and gone to collect me!”  I cursed myself for ‘just winging’ this trip while trying to decide whether to attempt navigating back to my original spot – she re-appeared and we wound our way through several more streets and, seemingly simultaneously, a minibus pulled up.  My luggage was effortlessly transferred and gestures were made for me to find a seat inside.  I wanted to hug the girl that miraculously got me there but she was already on her way.  Whether or not the minibus was going to the airport, I had no clue but I certainly couldn’t find my way back to the hotel, so I climbed in.  I was beginning to feel more adventurous and, as if by magic, I did get to Bangkok airport.

 

“It’s all downhill from here.”  I thought as I settled into my flight.  The flight was a little bumpy due to turbulence but when the clouds began to clear I was graced with a view of Mushrooms.  Giant mushrooms floating on white clouds.  It was a sight more spectacular than I could have dreamt up, for who could have expected little mushroom islands floating on a white sea of stillness.  I had no idea the degree of mystical beauty that awaited me and it made all the previous complexities melt away.  Maybe I would die of starvation and heat stroke but in this landscape, I would die with a smile on my face and I congratulated myself for not planning any of this!

 

The job had been arranged through the OVC agent in South Africa because they “had a guy, Kevin, who lived in Thailand”.  I was sent a contract by Kevin to teach in Phuket before I got there and had a number to call in case my lift was late but I was assured that a lift was in place for me from the airport.  I waited about four hours before I called and announced, “Hello!  I’m the new English teacher!” feeling alarmingly like Julie Andrews in The Sound of Music.  “Who??” came the voice on the other end…This was one response I hadn’t anticipated.  She couldn’t collect me.  She had two children at home and had no idea who I was but she kindly helped me find a place to sleep once I’d caught a (costly) taxi from the airport.  I met her at school early the next morning, jetlagged and exhausted and showed her the contract I had signed for her school, through Kevin.  She didn’t know Kevin and had never sent a contract to him.  It was a fraud.  My heart sank, I had spent all of my savings paying Kevin (via the agency) and my flight.  I had no money to pay for another plane ticket and now I discovered I had no job.  I was incredibly lucky that she said she would “try me out” and see how I do.  “No promises” which I understood, looking at the situation through their eyes and I was extremely grateful for the second chance.

 

Note: All aspects of the perks promised by Kevin via OVC were never fulfilled and I have heard of a number of other people who have fallen prey to him through similar promises.  I never saw a cent of the money I gave to him despite several emails and promises that he would.  OVC ignored the majority of my contact once I was in Thailand and took little to no responsibilty for dealing with a character like Kevin.  He continues to operate teaching and travel programs across Asia today, so anyone considering teaching in Thailand or Korea or anywhere else in Asia please be very very weary of Kevin Meldau.  I went through OVC in South Africa who worked with Kevin at the time, then under Teach Travel Asia, interestingly this website is no longer in use and I believe he now calls his company Global Teaching Adventures.  I have seen some success stories but I have seen far more complaints of similar stories to this, both first hand and on the web.  So while I highly recommend the experience of teaching in Thailand, I suggest going through the school directly or finding a genuine and reputable company that does it.

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