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The Guilty Traveler’s Sister

I walk way too fast.

Case in point: This morning en route to breakfast with my sister Stephanie, who’s been visiting me here in Bangkok the past two weeks. It’s our last breakfast together — in Thailand, anyway — and I’m rushing, as much because the crowded sidewalks along Asoke Road stress me out as because, you know, I walk way too fast.

Anyway, I’m practically sprinting toward the restaurant when I turn around and realize I can’t see my sister. I’m on the cusp of being annoyed for a split second, but then I remember she’s a suburban girl. She never walks! Does her neighborhood even have sidewalks?

I scold myself as I come to a halt. And shouldn’t you, like, be walking with your sister? You know, since it’s her last day here and all.

Eventually she catches up, and I do everything in my power not to get ahead of her again. But Asoke Road’s sidewalks are as inhibitively loud as they are crowded, so without conversation to keep me near Stephanie, I’m way ahead within seconds, my hummingbird pace hastened by the fact that the restaurant is not where it’s supposed to be.

This would be fine, except for the fact that Stephanie’s an extremely picky eater, and I’ve chosen the restaurant specifically to meet her stringent dietary requirements.

She reacts to the bad news (after she has once again caught up to me, naturally) surprisingly well. “Eat where you want,” she concedes, without any hint of disappointment or sarcasm in her voice. “I’ll find something I like.”

On the way back down Asoke Road, I’m even more aware of how ridiculously fast I move — I’m passing late-to-work locals like they’re crawling! But it isn’t until Stephanie and I are tearing open a box of Dunkin’ Donuts in the poorly lit basement of the Citibank building that I call into question another of my less-desierable qualities: I always want things to be perfect.

In my mind, as the prospects of finding the Australian-owned breakfast joint with “normal” food dimmed, having to settle for a similar, Thai-owned establishment would be outright disaster; fast food and she might as well get in a taxi to the airport now.

But just 15 minutes of too-fast walking later, we’re stuffing our faces with “Homer Simpson” donuts and commentating on how bulky and obviously un-green our iced coffee cups are as we toss them into what appears to be the only trash can in the makeshift food court, which may or may not be intended for our use.

We’re so giddy, you’d think we were having mimosas down the road at the Westin Grande Sukhumvit! Easily-amused suburban people in the big city.

We grew up about 17 miles southwest of downtown St. Louis, in an exceedingly boring expanse of unincorporated county, whose exceeding boringness served as motivation for me to live out my childhood dream of seeing the world as fast I could possibly walk.

The other side of living out my childhood dream of seeing the world quickly, particularly since I do things as quickly as I do, is that the years pass quickly, and returning to exceedingly boring expanses of unincorporated county I left as fast as I could seems increasingly chore-like.

The years pass quickly, and all of a sudden I’m 27 and my baby sister is 26, and the first chance I get to see her in four months is because I had 60-something thousand frequent flyer miles lying around, and I flew her to my favorite city so that she could catch a glimpse of my life.

And that’s why I wanted it to be perfect: I wanted to re-assure Stephanie that I didn’t abandon her (and the rest of my family) without reason.

That’s right — I have traveler’s guilt.

Back in June, just a week or so after last saying goodbye to Stephanie, I was confessing my traveler’s guilt over salmon dinner in Oslo, to a man I desperately wanted to sleep with. A fan of my blog who’d invited me to stay with him, the burly Norwegian had a similar life story to mine.

Only he wasn’t guilty. “I mean, if you saw them walking down the street — your mother, your sister, your cousin — would you really look twice?”

“Of course not,” I shook my head. (I desperately wanted to sleep with the man, you remember.) But I wasn’t actually sure if I agreed, and in the weeks and months that have since passed, the question has weighed heavy on my mind.

It popped up again today, as we were walking back to my apartment after our doughnut breakfast, and I about-faced on a particularly narrow stretch of sidewalk — you can literally feel the motorcycle handlebars scraping against your left elbow — to see just how far in the dust I’d left my poor sister.

Actually, I pretended to answer the man who never did sleep with me, in spite of my pandering, I would look twice. I would look three times, then stop dead in my tracks!

As the hours wore on and Stephanie’s midnight flight loomed, the order of business became slowing down the passage of time as much as I could, using whatever options I had at my disposal. Unfortunately, most things to do in Bangkok require either a substantial amount of time, noise or too-fast walking, so we were left with little other option than to pass our afternoon and evening in a mall.

But since we are, I remind you, easily-amused suburban people, that didn’t end up being a bad option.

“Just imagine,” I tell Stephanie as we make our way up into the crown of Bangkok’s gargantuan Terminal 21 mega-mall, “if Mom had dropped us off at a place like this during middle school.”

But her easily-lost suburban attention is already fixated on something else. “Are those Megatouches?”

Indeed, the circular viewing deck of the eight floor of Terminal 21 is lined with everyone’s favorite bar game machines. Before I know it, we’ve changed 200 Thai baht for 20 10-baht coins, and are taking turns playing a trivia game at which someone else has managed to score 64,000,000 — and failing miserably.

“I don’t think that’s gonna happen,” Stephanie jokes as a message, informing us it will take 450,000 points to get to the bonus round, flashes across the screen.

“Well, why can’t we try?” I removed another hundred baht from my pocket. “We’re rich, compared to the last time we spent this long playing video games at a mall.”

Our evening playing games inside a gargantuan mega-mall hearkened back to our childhood days of Yahtzee, Monopoly and, later, Super Mario Brothers, to a simpler time when, quite simply, we were more a part of one another’s life.

The bright wave of excitement that came over Stephanie’s face when, on our second to last coin, her score reached 90,000,000, was perhaps the highlight of the whole trip. (Yes, even more so than our marathon day touring Bangkok, or traveling out west to the Tiger Temple, or even spending six days on a nearly-deserted island.)

All of a sudden we’re eight again and on the living room floor and time is passing at a semi-normal rate, until the game ends and then, without warning, it’s time for bed (or, worse, homework).

Only this time, when the game ends, it’s time to return home, fetch Stephanie’s things, and make a beeline for the airport, so Stephanie can fly back to the other side of the planet.

I grasp at all the straws I can as the taxi speeds along the expressway toward Suvarnabhumi and Stephanie’s waiting plane, but my childlike wishing is no match: My sister is leaving.

There’s no traffic; and the line at check-in moves so quickly that we arrive at the immigration checkpoint a full hour and 20 minutes before boarding.

“Actually,” I look at my phone again. “It’s an hour and 22 minutes.”

Stephanie and I know the routine of saying goodbye — and, more importantly, what usually happens at this point — so we’re both in defense mechanism mode, avoiding eye contact and any semblance of pertinent discussion.

“You know,” I change the subject, knowing that she’s gonna have to go sooner rather than later. “As much as I detest St. Louis, I want to come back more often. I’m going to come back more often!” I look at my calendar. “Thanksgiving and Christmas this year.”

“Which day?”

“November 19.” I look at the calendar again. “A Tuesday.”

She nods, and I embrace her tightly. “Thank you for coming.”

“I had a lot of fun,” she answers. “I wish I didn’t have to go but, you know, work and all.”

I laugh and nod (I don’t particularly know about “work and all” these days) and do my best not to think about what’s happening. But we’ve parted ways and she’s flashing her boarding pass to the waiting security agent, and she’s on her way up the escalator.

She smiles and waves. “I’ll send you a message when I get to Tokyo.”

“There’s WiFi in the lounge,” I shout back, referring to the United Club pass I’ve given her for her nine-hour layover at Nartia. But before I can finish, she’s gone.

I succumb to tears and sniffling, and I’m walking way too fast again, so I slow my roll. Even though Stephanie’s not going to catch up to me right this moment, I feel my sweet, suburban sister with me as I plant my feet more firmly into the ground.


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