On November 24th, two days before Thanksgiving, I received a security message from the U.S. Embassy in Bangkok. It was a travel alert, urging American citizens to exercise extra caution while traveling during the holiday season.
It relayed, “These [terrorist] attacks may employ a wide variety of tactics, using conventional and non-conventional weapons and targeting both official and private interests.”
I wondered – Is there any kind of weapon that is neither conventional nor non-conventional? Is there any interest that is neither official nor private? The embassy’s message was, in my point of view, a more refined way of saying that extremists are everywhere and they’re using any method deemed “effective” in carrying out a sick mission.
Was the message supposed to make me feel frightened? Angry? Should I have wanted to pack up my belongings and head home to New Jersey, to retreat in fear with the rest of America?
I wanted to learn more, so I sat behind my laptop and googled “ISIS,” “possibility of threat” and “religious extremism” until I no longer felt completely ignorant. I absorbed the basic facts of an incredibly complex issue and formed my own opinion.
I won’t deny it – the more “facts” I learned, the deeper my heart sank in its own pool of tears that it cried for the world. What could I do? How could I help? These questions only led to the same conclusion, one that left me feeling more useless than ever. One that left me fearing that I actually couldn’t do anything at all.
A few months ago I spent a weekend visiting Hua Hin, a beach city about five hours north of Sawi. Traveling alone, I knew my tour options were limited and set out on the city streets with no agenda. On my Saturday morning walk towards the sea I spotted a middle-aged, handicapped Thai man waving me down with an enthusiastic grin on his face.
Shoved into my hands against my will was a Hua Hin tourism book filled with images and descriptions of popular destinations. Page after page the man marveled about the touristic gems of the province. I must’ve had “hesitant” written on my forehead because he then continued in broken English, “It’s off season, many days I have no business. Please, I take you to any of these beautiful places!”
I don’t know if it was his accommodating smile, his knowledge of the area, the way he quickly limped across the road with absolutely no regard for oncoming traffic, sympathy, or his kind lazy eyes, but I decided to pay Koko the driver the near equivalent of $30 for his driving services that day.
About halfway through the 45-minute drive towards Khao Sam Roi Yot National Park, we were slowed to a stop by a few police officers doing random checks. I flashed a wide grin and “Sawadee” to the officer peering through the driver’s seat window, but his cheekbones didn’t flinch. We were instructed to pull to the side of the road, and Koko was summoned to step out of the car. I watched the two men – one clearly helpless and the other clearly on a power trip – have a short conversation, which ended in Koko whipping out his wallet and handing over some hard-earned Thai Baht.
I was confused and concerned. Why would Koko need to bribe the man? Am I sitting in the car with a criminal? I blatantly asked him,
“Koko, why were we pulled over? Why did you give the officer money?”
He said casually, “We were pulled over because I look strange, and I have a nice friendly foreign lady in my back seat. The officers were thirsty, so they picked me to buy some drinks.”
In other words, Koko’s “passage fee” was a couple of sodas, quite possibly a headache, and definitely a blow to his self-esteem.
The rest of the car ride was filled with mutual respect, laughter, and great conversation. Koko was eager to tell me about his life, his country, and his king. And if it weren’t for that kind, persistent driver, I wouldn’t have had one of the best travel days of my life, having the great opportunity to see some of Thailand’s most magnificent beauty.
I’m sure I can speak for all travelers when I say there’s a very fine line between fear and faith in humanity. It is a moment of hope that is all too often halted by the possibility of danger and defeat. It is an inner battle, lasting anywhere from a few seconds to a number of days, that tears apart the cohesiveness of mind and heart when forced to operate in an unfamiliar environment. Any seasoned traveler should have the smarts to question the validity of another’s claims. But as soon as we let fear get in the way of our travel goals, we are destined for failure.
I never would have taken Koko for a religious extremist or psycho-terrorist, but I did have my doubts about him. On the other hand, I expected the officer to be a respectful, law-abiding citizen who would never pick on a poor cab driver.
Fear leads to skepticism, which leads to hate, which then leads to more fear. Trust may leave you at the mercy of another, but it’s that surrender, that slight risk that can bring forth unimaginable happiness.
Balancing on that fine line between fear and faith is like walking on a tight rope of trust, as we are destined to fall one way or another.
I lied – I can do something about the increase in terroristic threat. Actually, we all can.
We can do what we can with the trust that lives in our hearts. We can surrender to the care of others – with reasonable caution, of course – and have faith in the human race. We can choose to show compassion and open our minds to different cultural practices, however bizarre they may seem to be. We can choose to show courage, to counteract the inherent fear that lodges itself deep in the back of our minds. We can realize that we are no safer in America, where Donald Trump (enough said) is an actual candidate for the 2016 presidential election. We can step with jai. We can choose love over hate any day by simply having faith, and by letting fate do its natural work.
We can walk the tight rope between fear and faith and fall towards the latter.
Faith will be our greatest asset against terrorism. And for this reason, I will never stop traveling.