I’ve always assumed having spent so much time in Thailand that some of the local mind-set would have rubbed off on me by now. And after this last weekend decided it must be the Thai fascination with anything that is free. Free is a magical word to Thais. Anything free is considered a large dollop of good fortune. No matter how much it costs to qualify for that abundance. I tend to be more enamored with irony myself, so a free massage that cost 600 baht for two bottles of water hits my mark as well as it does my friend Noom’s delight in getting something for free. It’s a win-win for everyone involved. Except for my wallet.
Not that all free things in Thailand involve an outlay of cash. Or a further outlay of cash. Noom, not being much of a drinker in the first place, was a bit dubious about my suggestion that the fancy cocktail stirrers served with our tropical concoctions at a beach resort in Phuket would make for a nice souvenir. Even though he loves souvenirs almost as much as he loves free stuff. But when I carefully cleaned the one in my drink off with a napkin, handed it to him while mentioning it was free, his entire attitude changed. And he pocketed the one that had been served in his drink too. Knowing him the way that I do, I immediately let him know we were not ordering another round. And that glimmer in his eye that had been envisioning an entire set of free cocktail stirrers dimmed a bit. That’s the thing about free stuff. You have to know when to stop. Which is before free becomes and empty wallet.
But there are a lot of free things in Thailand. Many of which you are not even aware of. The locals are in line for a lot of largesse thanks to their government. In Bangkok, one of the buses is free. I can’t remember its color, but do remember it does not have air-conditioning. Noom has pointed it out to me but knows me as well as I know him and – free or not – knows there is no way I’m getting on a bus. Much less a non-air-conditioned one. Around the New Year (ours, not theirs or the lunar one) train travel for Thais is free too. I’m not sure if that covers all routes and all trains but Noom thought it worthy enough of an event to take me to Hualamphong Station once to see the huge crowd of locals camped out on the station’s floor patiently waiting for their free ride. I’m pretty sure touri don’t qualify for free train travel. Too bad. I’m anti-bus but pro-train.
This morning I read an article on-line that said the toilets at bus and train stations in Thailand will now be free to use. I made a mental note to avoid both in the future when Noom is with me. He enjoys marking his spot wherever we go almost as much as he does my wallet paying for free stuff for him. Of course, this being Thailand, the free wee offer is not yet a reality. The Governor of the State Railway of Thailand (SRT) says their toilet operation works by allowing a fee to be collected in exchange for the maintenance and cleaning of the loos by a ‘contractor.’ Which undoubtedly is some member of said Governor’s family. For me that’s a good thing. The lure of both a free train or bus ride and a free place to pee might otherwise be too much for Noom and I may yet find myself on one of those damn dilapidated non-air-conditioned free buses.
Last weekend Phil and I headed down to the Monterey Peninsula for a long weekend of sun and fun. It was a re-do of a trip we’d made two weeks earlier that we had to cut short due to an unexpected illness in his family. This time we decided to cut over to the coast early and take Highway 1 south. It is a beautiful if slow drive that winds along the coast and several northern California style beaches. When you say ‘California’ most people immediately picture a beach. With miles of white sand and palms tress blowing gently in the balmy breeze. That’s Southern California. Up north the sand is finer, not so white, and blows into and onto everything within a mile of it. And the water is gray instead of blue. It’s also near frigid in temperature. At best, beach goers might wade out into the surf for a minute or two. But no one goes swimming. Northern California beaches are best experienced by driving past them.
Phil knows this. But our plan was for a romantic weekend away and he let the romance take over from reality, suggesting we stop at a beach along the way for a picnic lunch. I’m not as much of a romantic. But have learned when your guy starts acting like a girl, your best bet is to just shut up and go with the flow. So, in prep, we stopped at a grocery store to pick up supplies for a picnic lunch. At a Safeway. Not a mom and pop joint.
It didn’t take long to fill our basket once I’d moved him past buying individual ingredients to just ordering pre-made stuff from the deli department. Even when your guy is acting like a girl there is a limit to how far you should allow that to go. So everything was fine. Until we got to the checkout. A new law had recently gone into effect that required the store charge customers ten cents for a bag. Huh. Tree huggers, like your guy who is acting like a girl, should be limited in their indulgences. But no one had told this community that. So to combat destroying Mother Earth by needlessly issuing paper bags to shoppers, a fine had been imposed. A dime is nothing. A dime is not even worth bending over to pick up when dropped. But bags at stores are supposed to be free. I don’t think even Noom would be excited to hear the bag he got was free. No matter how much the stuff I’d just paid for him to fill it with actually cost.
No problemo. I ponied up the dime, got a quarter’s worth of bitching in for that pleasure, and we headed off for Highway 1. Since it was Phil’s romantic vision that required we stop to dine seaside, I let him choose which beach we’d pull in to. Which means when I started doing so at the first we came upon he said, “No, not this one.” Ditto for the next beach. I quit slowing down as each beach came up until he finally gave me the word. San Gregario was the winner. I don’t know why. It looks just like every other beach along that stretch of the coast. Maybe Saint Gregory is the patron saint of romantics.
Pulling into the not very filled parking lot, the first thing we came to was a small hut with a park ranger in it. Who promptly demanded an $8 ‘use’ fee. For the fucking beach! He was clear, during the ensuing conversation, that the fee was for using the ‘State Park’ not for parking. ‘Cuz $8 for parking would just be silly. And he also touted the fact that that $8 fee was good for all state parks for that day. So after paying our initial $8 at San Gregario we could stop at the rest of the dozen beaches – that all look exactly like San Gregario – for free! I suspect that attempt at making lemonade would only appeal to a Thai.
He was less forthcoming in answering my question that if it was a use fee and not a parking fee, why then were those (smarter) folk who parked back up on the highway not charged $8. You could even say that by then he was getting a bit surly about the whole thing. So, begrudgingly, I paid him his $8, figuring it wasn’t really fair to take it out on him; it’s not like he was the one getting the eight bucks. Unless California’s Governor cut a deal much like the State Railway of Thailand’s governor to allow the fees collected to be pocketed in lieu of paying its employees wages. Which, if you know Jerry Brown, is not out of the question.
Being a native Californian the idea of having to pay to use a beach goes against my grain. I’m sure unsuspecting touri from foreign countries are quite shocked at the idea too. Especially at a Northern Californian beach which is good for about 15 minutes of your attention. The amenities at San Gregario – which I closely scoped out since it was now about value as much as it was about cost – included the aforementioned parking lot. And a singular uni-sex toilet. I didn’t check to see if its use was included in the $8 State Park use fee we’d just paid. When there is an ocean a few feet away, paying for a place to piss just seems to ne a needless expense. I don’t know what it costs to maintain a small parking lot and an outhouse, but at $8 a head, someone is making a tidy profit off of Mother Nature.
Since this article isn’t about beachside picnics, I won’t go into that joy other than to note eating lunch on a fine-sand beach presents the same problems as having sex on a beach does. Sand gets everywhere. And neither a picnic nor sex when combined with the grit of tiny granules of sand makes for a romantic interlude. Having your guy bitch about the $8 use fee he just had to pay to visit a fucking beach probably doesn’t either. I did, however, make a mental note that if Noom ever changes his mind about coming to the U.S., all I’ll have to do is tell him it costs $8 to go the beach and that’ll nip that idea right in the bud. Free may be magical, paying for something that is supposed to be free is just stupid.
No problemo. We had our sandy lunch and took off back down the coast. Until the next beach five minutes away. Which I pulled into, thereby cutting our $8 use fee in half. Ha! Sometimes you have to be smarter than the average bear. This one, by the way, didn’t have a toilet. But did have picnic tables set up along the parking lot. ‘Cuz collecting $8 use fees only goes so far. I should also point out that if you visit one of these beaches and think a nice piece of driftwood would make for a good – and free – souvenir, there are signs posted telling you that removing anything from the beach is verboten. Noom would not be amused.
Though Phil was with having to stop at the next four beaches (technically five because South Pescadero Beach is use-fee free, so it didn’t count) which brought our cost down to just over a buck and a quarter per beach. $1.25 is a reasonable fee for using a beach’s parking lot. Value-wise it got even better since Phil used the outhouse at one of them. And, although I have no idea what he plans on doing with them, we used our ten cent shopping bag from Safeway to collect a bunch of driftwood pieces too.
By the time we hit Monterey, the beaches were no longer considered State parks and were free as Mother Nature intended. They are nicer beaches too. It’s still not water you’d want to get in, but there are otters to watch and sea lions to ignore. There are also tons of seaside restaurants which make for a much more romantic dinner than the beach does for a romantic lunch. And none of them charge you to use the restroom either. At least not if you shell out $80 for dinner. I didn’t check to see if they’d charge for a doggie bag for your left overs since there were none.
We spent a day touring the local wineries, some of which charge, some of which don’t; checked out the local mission, which charged but then religion always costs you one way or the other; and drove along 17 Mile Drive, which not only charges you to use the non-existent beach but for driving past it too – but then it always has so that was worth the cost of watching Phil try to figure out why I had no problem paying that fee. Big Sur is free too, as is nearby Jade Beach where, thanks to past visits and the inbred knowledge all rock hounds possess we used our ten cent Safeway bag to carry the free pieces of jade we collected. Figures. The one place the State could legitimately charge you for beach use, they don’t.
In Hawaii, by law, free access to the beach must always be given. In Thailand, the locals wouldn’t put up with the government fleecing touri for use of the beach – fleecing beach goers in Thailand is a right of the people. I don’t know which penny-pinching undoubtedly Republican politician came up with the idea of charging a use fee for California beaches, but I’m sure he’s since moved to Washington where as a member of the House he can screw with people nation wide. I’d be more pissed off about the whole thing than I am, but have to admit watching the sun set with your arms wrapped around a guy you like is worth whatever the cost.
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