On the road in Asia: Author shares fun, foibles in the land of ‘gate checkers’
August 10, 2003
Anyone who’s traveled in Asia knows what Ted Lerner is talking about when he describes “gate checkers,” the legion of petty officials whose chief chore in life, it seems, is to make getting from here to there as difficult as possible.
Give them stamps, badges and titles that confer upon them the authority to control access to everything from clubs to countries, and one wrong step can cause them to send you on a trek through some sort of Kafkaesque hell.
In “The Traveler and the Gate Checkers,” Lerner, a Yank expat living in Manila and writing for the Asia Times Online, takes a hilarious look at traveling throughout Asia, checking out the side trips — from sacred cow rest homes in India to bloody professional wrestling matches in Tokyo — the tourists never experience from their air-conditioned bus seats.
And yet, in the background always is the fear that all good things must end. Seemingly everywhere, from the immigration counters at the international airports to the lowly ticket taker at the crowded New Delhi train station, the gate checkers stand alert, ready to throw a monkey wrench into the most perfectly arranged travel plans.
In a chapter on his fascinatingly warped trip through India, after stopping to study the sexually explicit carvings on Hindu temples, Lerner describes how every so often an encounter with a gate checker is just a no-win situation.
While waiting for a train in the Jhansi railway station, Lerner and his wife learn that their train has left on a different track and the next one’s not due until the next day:
“I just missed the train,” I yelled as we storm into the trainmaster’s office, “because your employees told me the wrong track!”
“Oh, I am very sorry, sir,” he says, sounding deeply concerned. He goes to talk to some men in the other office. Suddenly my anger leaves me and I feel relaxed. He doesn’t seem like a typical rubber stamp-wielding Indian gate checker, and I feel he is going to help me. Then he returns and tells me that they had indeed changed the track, but they forgot to announce the change in English.
Lerner is livid. He demands the railroad pay for his hotel room.
“I am sorry. We are not authorized to do that,” he is told.
“But it is your fault!” Lerner says.
“How can it be our fault?” he says, maintaining his cool. “We are here to promote Hindi. Hindi is our national language, not English.”
The Lerners were given tickets for the next day’s train.
But sometimes you win: Lerner’s tales remind me of a trip Stars and Stripes sent me on in 1994 to cover the 50th anniversary of the Battle of Leyte. I flew into Manila at about 8 p.m. from Guam and met my photographer, who’d flown in earlier from Tokyo, at the five-star Westin Philippine Plaza Hotel.
That’s where a pretty, petite and extremely polite young gate checker at the front desk informed me that my reserved room had been sold to someone else, and would I mind staying the night at the Holiday Inn?
Tired, and sweating profusely in the tropical heat, I looked on dully as she explained that the hotel had expected me to arrive at the same time as my photographer, who’d checked in hours earlier. When I didn’t show as expected, they gave my room to someone else.
Now, to me, there are only two ways of dealing with gate checkers. You have to size them up, figure out their position on the management tree and decide whether it’s best to shrug and shuffle away or confront them. Lerner recommends the former strategy.
“How you deal with gate checkers can be the difference between smooth and hassle-free passage and a nightmare- filled quagmire,” he writes. “One of my mottoes has always been to use the Dobbsian approach: ‘Act like a dumbbell and they’ll treat you as an equal.’
“Since most gate checkers consider themselves authority figures, it is not wise to get mad and challenge them. This can result in them coming down harder on you,” Lerner advises.
At the Westin, however, I stumbled onto a weakness after a whiny, 15-minute discussion on why I did not want to go to another hotel.
“Uh, what’s your name and title?” I meekly asked the gate checker.
She was an assistant night manager.
“Well, I guess I don’t have a choice but to take you up on your offer for a reservation at another hotel,” I said. “But this is really inconvenient and, while I understand it may not be your fault, I think the hotel made a mistake in judgment in selling my room. So, I would like to file a formal complaint.
“I can take that for you, sir,” she said, smiling smugly in victory.
“Well, I think I’d rather come back in the morning and speak to your manager. What is his name, please?” I asked, adding as a quick afterthought, “You know, I am a journalist, and I think my readers would like to know what they must do in similar situations.”
Unexpectedly, her demeanor immediately changed. She excused herself and went into an inner office. Five minutes later she returned, the smile unchanged, but the tone in her voice suddenly deferential.
“I just spoke to my superior, sir, and, since it is getting late, I asked him if it wouldn’t be all right to put you up in one of our open suites for the night,” she said. “Tomorrow we can arrange for a regular room.”
“Uh, sure,” I answered. “Where?”
“The Presidential Suite,” she said. “And it is our pleasure to give it to you — and your friend — free of charge for the night.”
It’s rare to defeat a gate checker, and I reveled in the satisfaction that night, wearing the white terry cloth presidential bathrobe while my photographer took pictures of me waving to my minions from the balcony and addressing my subordinates from the head of the mile-long boardroom table.
“My travels have led me to the conclusion that life is nothing more than dealing with gate checkers,” Lerner writes.
“No doubt each and every one of you has to deal with your own set of gate checkers every day. Well, face it. We’re stuck with them. From the time we’re born until the time we die. And in these days of ever-increasing paranoia and security, it looks like their type are multiplying like a bad virus.”