Travel Misadventure: Mandlovu and the Thai law authoritiesReading Time: 4 minutes
I quietly lay on the lounger in the patio of the hotel I was staying, soaking in the words of Richard Branson in my own little corner and minding Branson’s business. As mine was unattended, about five members of the Thai police decided to mind my business and came to the patio demanding something. Despite my excellent ability to pick up new languages, their aggressively expressed words were still beyond my vocabulary. They repeated themselves with the same vigour and my initial blank faced response transformed into confusion. I could see they were talking to me, looking somewhat displeased but I had no idea what they wanted. They tried to use sign language gesturing the opening of a book-at this point I was both confused and worried so I did what anyone in my situation would do, and tried to hand over my book to them with a smile on my face-wondering what on earth was going on (my previous experience had taught me that a smile could diffuse most situations, but clearly this does not work in a semi-aggressive police situation)
One of the police officers eventually found the hotel owner who explained that they wanted to see my passport. I went to my room to get it, all the time, tracing my actions back to see if there is anything that I could have done which could warrant some personal time with these diligent officers of the law. On my return, they each scanned multiple pages in my passport as if looking for a clue, they shook their heads and perused the last page intently before passing it on to the next officer.
When the last officer received it, he made a call and looked very animated on the phone. That’s when real worry accosted me. My friend came down, held my shoulder, sat next to me and asked if everything was ok. Suddenly the aggression lines on these officers faded and smiles seemed to magically form. The officer who had my passport got off the phone, smiled at my friend, smiled at me and handed back my passport.
The hotel owner translated some well wishes and a message to enjoy the rest of our trip. This was definitely an unsettling experience.
Later that day we asked the hotel owner why the police had just investigated my passport and not anyone else’s at the hotel. He was embarrassed as he explained. It turns out, in order to enhance diversity for the sex tourists that flood Thailand every year looking to get their highs, there had been reported cases of trafficking of black girls from Africa. The police were therefore on high alert and encouraging hotel owners to work diligently with the police to report any potential misdemeanours. Admittedly, I was not sure how to feel when I heard that.
Initially I thought it must have been the fact that I was reading a book entitled ‘Losing my Virginity’ by Richard Branson which is unlikely as the officers seemed to neither read nor speak English. This meant they must have thought I was a working girl which again, I am not sure how to take-was I oozing so much sex appeal I just had to be a working girl? I highly doubt that. The mere fact that they could mistake me for being a working girl, not because of what I did or said but merely because of the colour of my skin, and that all potential guilt was erased at the sight of my male white friend made me feel extremely uncomfortable to reckon with. What if the friend had in actuality been a pimp??? No checks were done on him. What would have happened if I was alone? What was the person on the other side of the phone saying?
Aside from the police officers unwarranted attention I loved walking around the streets of Thailand, particularly in Chiang Mai. The few times that I walked around alone at night, I loved that the men did not cat-call, or follow me. However, during the day when I strolled around what I did not enjoy was the number of people who took pictures of me without permission-out of politeness I would probably have reluctantly said yes but it would still have been nice to be asked. There were some moments when people came and asked me to take a picture. As a solo traveller who understands the struggle of not being able to take my own pictures I naturally said yes and just as I was about to take their camera they vigorously shook their head and gestured at someone else to take the picture while they held on to me like a long lost friend. I’m sure when they later reviewed those pictures they saw the look of utter confusion on my face as I did not know how to ‘pose’ for an unexpected picture with a stranger.
I can and have speculated as to why some of these things happened to me. But each of those experiences served to show me that life in travel requires an open mind, patience and a desire to try and understand your experiences. It is not always perfect but it can be the learnings we can take from our experiences that can lead to a deeper understanding.
What has been your biggest travel misadventure?