Dining in Asia
Excuse me, sir, is this seat taken?
With a lap the base of japan, medium rare.
Also, just this:
So Australia only lasted as long as my money did, which wasn’t very long. Dani and I spent enough time there to make some good friends,
reunite with some old ones,
master pizza making and hospital-corner bed making (ha! just kidding. never quite got the hang of that…),
and drain our bank accounts by ridding Target Country of its sorely under-stocked shelves.
Being in western culture again was refreshing, albeit at times a bit annoying (I could understand everything everyone was saying…blech). There were lots of things about Australia that I wish Americans would adopt; the laid-back, CLEAN, and healthy lifestyle (workers play frisbee and ping-pong out in open courtyards during lunch hour, I could come home from the bar without smelling like a swamp monster steeped in carcinogens, and enough gyms on every corner to shame me in to taking the stairs instead of the escalator), the deadly combo of drinking and dog betting-Go Pedro!- and “ello birdy!”, “no worries, mate.” Unfortunately, I just really hated that a happy-hour meal cost $22.50 and supporting my mascara addiction set me back a steep $18. Although I’m sure my credit card company hated that a bit more.
After saying goodbye to our Ibis family, EARL, Dani Jo, and the ghost in the girl’s bathroom, I went on to spend some time in Malaysia and Cambodia.Going to Malaysia felt kind of scary, as it’s been a while since I’ve done any traveling without my curly-haired accomplice. But my fear was quickly quelled when I rediscovered after the first day just how much I love spending my days feeling half petrified, half liberated. I’m alone in a city where I don’t know anyone or anything and can’t speak the language and just in general I feel really young and stupid… but by the end of the day the smile that’s on my face is impossible to wipe off for those exact same reasons.
For the record, a good way to rid me of that smile is to shove an arm full of red bite marks in my face in the middle of the night with the reasonable request, “Hey, can I sleep with you? I have bed bugs.” Oh god please no no no.“Yeah, sure, here take my pillow.” Yup, that sure swapped my smile for a few dozen silent tears real fast.
All bed bugs aside, Malaysia was great. Being there reminded me that above anything, home is really just a feeling. As it just so happens, I feel quite at home in most shopping malls, and coincidentally, Kuala Lumpur ranks 4th best shopping city in the world. So, yeah, that was fun. A big city, lots of streets to explore and strangers to befriend (well….friends who’d later turn on me by using my bed as a refuge from mini-blood suckers. Rude.).
From Malaysia, I went on to Cambodia, where I fell in love with everyone and everything.(If it seems like I fall in love a lot, it’s because I do. Every single day, with a city or creepy cabbie or a street vendor, or a song or a food or a story, and I am still trying to figure out if that’s a good thing or a bad thing. My brother would call this “soft core,” but as EARL would politely say, “you’re not sensitive, just emotional.”) Either way, I loved it and never wanted to leave. The people were intimidatingly sweet, the cities tried so hard despite all the recent set backs, and there were so many places to visit and opportunities to get to know local people. I kept prolonging leaving because it just made me so happy to be there. That my guest house had a pool,a $2 breakfast buffet, and free shuttle service to Pub Street didn’t dull my impression much, either.
After Cambodia (where on my last day at the guest house, the waitress braided my hair as I ate breakfast and patted my shoulder with a smile, “Now you don’t have hair like crazy horse.”) , I returned home to the whiskey washed streets of Bangkok for a long over due reunion with the people and the city that I love most of all.
After leaving our mark one last time on that town (if you’re in the area, look for it! It’s in blue ink, on a table at Reggae Bar on Khao San), Dani Jo, Glenn and I made our first ever overnight train trip to Laos. We went primarily to prevent ourselves from becoming fugitives and illegal aliens, so aside from a gorgeous sunset out the train window, an evening drinking and debating with a million + weirdos in the tin-can of a dining hall, a stolen Iphone, and a reprimand from several Thai conductors, it was a quiet trip. And while the Laos people we met rivaled the Cambodians for being the “cutest, tiniest, sweetest people in the world,” my mathematically challenged brain just could not deal with having to calculate the cost of dinner in THOUSANDS of kips. Bring me a calculator and take me back to Bangkok, please!
Since Laos, I’ve just been biding my time at a friend’s apartment- devouring books, Revenge episodes, and som tum like crazy- until my next adventure on the 15th. In one week, I am going to Oslo to be a nanny (au pair if you’re feeling fancy, or babysitter if you’re feeling stingy) and am so so excited. After a year of constant sweat and smiles, I finally feel ready to let go of Asia. I put up a fight for a while there… I didn’t want to leave this place. I learned so much, loved so much and didn’t know it was possible to feel both full and light at the same time. It’ll be scary to leave, but just give me a whiskey bucket, I think I’ll be okay….
Now that I’m finished teaching, I’m looking forward to going somewhere completely new and having a purpose again, even if that purpose is just to clean a house and change a few diapers. Oddly, I’m hoping Norway will be icier in more than one way and can toughen me up a bit before I go home with my mushy heart all gooey and ‘soft-core’ mak mak. Either way, it will be nice to have responsibilities, a wardrobe, and a cool breeze again. It has been far too long. To bring along the rice cooker, or not to bring along the rice cooker?… that is the question.
So this is going to be another lengthy emo post, not simply because its title comes from
my favorite song in 6th grade that one Marilyn Manson song, but because of what I learned during a recent trip to Cambodia.
Before visiting Cambodia, all I knew was what friends had told me about the people, the food, the weather, and some basics about the genocide that followed in the wake of the Vietnam War. Honestly, this genocide was news to me (there was a reason I didn’t choose to teach history), so if you are like me and don’t know much about these shockingly recent events, here is a basic summary: During the 70’s, Cambodia suffered under the Khmer Rouge, where a leader named Pol Pet killed off 1/3 of the entire population, mostly elite and educated people. In the span of 10 years, almost 3 million men, women and children were brutally killed by fellow Cambodians, who had been recruited by Pol Pet to get rid of anyone smart or strong enough to overthrow his revolution in to turning the country in to a self-sustained, purely agricultural society.
At first, making the trip down to Phnom Phen to see these sites didn’t interest me much. I thought that I had learned, saw, and felt enough this past year. And, honestly, I was quite content with my cheap little hotel with a pool and a nearby PUB STREET and didn’t want to face the six hour bus ride down to the capital city. Eventually, out of guilt or boredom, I decided I would stop
working on my tan being lazy, follow orders from my friend Katie to ‘keep my eyes wide,’ and go make the trip. And while the bus ride was indeed one (very long, very hot) journey, hearing the stories of these people and learning about their lives under Pol Pet’s regime was a completely different one.
At the largest killing field in Cambodia, I walked through mass graves and learned about the people who had died there. Children who stood in line to be swung headfirst in to “The Killing Tree”, children from farming villages who were recruited to execute other children their age, and men and women who were forced in to labor, in to killing each other, and in to praising a leader who never received punishment for killing 3 million of his own people.
The next day I visited a high school that Pol Pet used as a prison and torture camp throughout the 70’s. Classrooms became holding cells, and the blood stained beds, torturing tools, and clothing scraps still remain in place. Most disturbing were the thousands of black and white photos of all the people who were killed at this one particular jail. Rows upon rows of faces that look like ones I’m surrounded by every day just stared back, so incomprehensibly sad and scared. It was such a contrast from the spirits of the Cambodian people nowadays (seriously, Cambodian people might be magic) that those images hit my heart the hardest.
The trip was overwhelming, to put it simply. I contemplated and questioned nonstop, and Im trying hard not to be cheesy and dramatic but I want to say that my heart felt gutted and pulverized. Afterwards, sitting there at a restaurant along the river, eating my Western food and telling the waitress about my visit, I honestly just grossed myself out. I felt so frustrated knowing that before my meal was even finished, I’d have spent way too much time creating baby names for Kim and Kanye, wondering if others at the hostel would judge me for painting my nails (they did), and planning summer-time outfits in my head. Suddenly thinking of all the small things I’ve complained about lately made my face burn and my gut turn. I just kept thinking over and over I don’t deserve any of this. The freedom to decide how and where I spend my days, the luxury of an air-conditioned room for three extra dollars, my dinner with a river view, time on my hands to just sit and read…I don’t deserve any of it. To accept these things felt like accepting what I just saw, and honestly I hated myself a little bit for that.
These were only the beginnings of the thoughts and questions inside my head. Touring the fields and looking at all those beautiful, innocent faces, I kept wondering, “How does this happen? Why does this have to happen? How can this be?” I just felt disgust and sadness for humanity in general. The whole time I was sitting there, so wrapped up in the melodrama going on inside, I didn’t see (or chose to ignore?) this man sitting on the sidewalk with his amputated limbs on full display next to a cup of change. When walking around a city where it’s completely normal to see naked babies strolling leisurely alongside traffic, barefoot children begging at restaurants, and women with their 5 children sleeping on the sidewalk, I guess it’s easy to ignore these injustices, no matter how blatant they may be.
I felt bitter all over again, for having another reason to loath myself for enjoying my time. And then, just as I started to retreat inside my head, a girl about my age approached the man confidently, sat down next to him on his tarp, and grabbed hold of his amputated arm. She put her forehead to his and just sat there with him, holding his arm and whispering prayers.
Here I was, consumed with images of past horrors, thinking of how unjust they were, and then when this suffering of a different form was literally right in front of my eyes, I danced around it, and let my own problems prevent me from fully recognizing and connecting with this man. At that moment, it occurred to me that this is how injustice goes ignored, how pain is perpetuated in people and by people themselves. By focusing solely on our own problems and viewing them as so looming and pervasive, we forget to ‘keep our eyes wide’ to the injustices and suffering going on around us. When pain is so commonplace, it’s easy to turn a blind eye to it altogether and look inside at our own suffering, instead of reaching outward for the opportunity to help another. Even when it all looks a little exhausting, we can always help lift another person up… even in the smallest of ways.
I didn’t need to give him money. I didn’t need to listen to his sad story. I didn’t need to get down on my knees and say a prayer for him. All I needed to do, and should’ve done, was smile and wish him a better day. Connect with him, acknowledge his suffering, and acknowledge him as a person. Because while everyone can’t always have fancy meal, an air-conditioned room, a cab ride on a hot day… the one thing we all deserve as people is human, and humane, connection.
You see, I love people. Preferably from a distance because often times they annoy me, but more than ever before, people simply fascinate me. Especially lately, I’ve had a lot of time (probably too much) to just sit and watch and listen. And in my pursuit of getting to know them, I forget how much I let my curiosity cross the line with judgment. I used to think I spent a lot of time observing and trying to understand people, the situations they were born in to, the skill sets and support systems from which they have to build a life. Now I think maybe I had a bad habit of viewing others solely as the sum of their problems, their deeds, and their faults, as opposed to their whole selves. So lately, I guess I’ve just been more aware of what I am actually thinking and learning while I am doing all this watching, and I’m putting more thought in to what other people can actually teach us simply from the lives they lead every day.
I’ve learned that people are people. They can be lazy, ignorant, selfish, impulsive, impatient and misguided. And yet, they are mostly good. Live with them, drive with them, dine with them, dance with them, work with them, learn with them, follow whatever direction they tell you to go, and TRUST THEM. Either do these things out of curiosity, certainty of their goodness, or simply because you are alone, confused, and have no other choice but to just trust them. I have had to depend on complete strangers while I’ve been away, and in doing so, have felt my capacity to trust and believe in goodness grow, both in myself and in others. Believe in the good people, people.
Then get your backpack searched through and your Iod stolen, or have your US sim-card somehow seized from 6 bags of trash and $900 worth of international phone calls made on your line (yup) to remember that people aren’t always as good as they should be. Or more importantly, as good as they can be.
Then meet someone, introduce yourself and answer their question “I am American.” Have spit land at your feet to realize that at times, you haven’t been all that great either, and try as you might, you just wont be viewed ‘good enough’ for certain people. And that’s alright.
Remember all of these people. The Pol Pets, the land mine victims, the prayer reciting girl. The good people, the bad things they do, the ones who spit on you. Even the parts of your own self that need a good spit-shine every once in a while. But mostly, just remember the good. Because if you don’t, everything gets really scary, and sad, and suddenly it’s not so easy to go out and wander the world and you’ll miss out on all those important stories, quiet voices, homey places, and beautiful people.
“And you know what I learned from watching all those people? Some like to eat noodles, and some like to eat sandwiches.”- Pornchai Sereemongkonpol
Ps. There truly is a meme for everything.
Its weird to write this for many reasons. One being that I am in Australia, not Thailand, which I’m not really too pleased about (but trying hard to uphold both the Aussies and Thais mentality of no problems, no worries….mate). The other is that I am cold…. sort of love it, sort of hate it. And lastly, my mom has already come and gone. She was here for 2 weeks and has never been fiercer.
In the too-short 2 weeks little Les was here, she charmed my friends, made new ones of her own, danced her pants off, blazed her way through a jungle, washed an elephant like she does it on the reg, ate Thai food as if it normally doesn’t make her squeamish back home, and hailed tuk-tuks like a born and bred Bangkokian. Most notably, she conquered these challenges with miniscule dosages of coffee, energy drinks, and caffeine, which reinforces my belief that she is superwoman… or perhaps just my grandma’s daughter.
Having learned a few traveling tricks when my brother came, I decided with my mom to be as planned as possible (if there is really such a thing in Thailand), and we managed to fit in both central, north, and south Thailand in the 2 week time period. We started off her trip with a few days in Ayutthaya so she could meet my friends and my coworkers, and get introduced to why I love it so much. I think this wedding reception/dance party/whatever the hell it was, really explained it all.
As did the the temples, the locals, and the warm weather.
From Ayutthaya, we traveled up to Chiang Mai, where we did the same jungle trek I did with Noah and Paige. Although this trek lacked the Ariel-esque characters that kept Friender/Pepper and I so entertained, there were still plenty of adventures to be had:
After getting off to a shitty start (literally, because our guide must’ve eaten some bad Thai food and I don’t look where I’m walking), the trek picked up when we started walking through the jungle on a more treacherous and slippery route than last time. Probably because there were no trekkers among us with “broken hips,” our guide took us on this steep and slippery trail and thought it would be a fun idea to drink along the way. This was a good idea-as most things involving whiskey usually are- until a girl in our group actually broke her ankle swinging from a vine and had to be piggybacked 45 minutes to the next village.It was really scary and our guide was of no help, drunk off the whiskey he brought and smaller than any of us in the group, even my wee little mom.
Once we made it to our village for the night, I think the girl with the broken ankle was comforted by these sweet faces: The next morning, after a breakfast so politely described as carbs and protein by my mom,
we broke off from the group to walk on our own trail with a new guide. We met up with two French backpackers for the still-scary raft ride down the river and the still-freezing waterfall swim, which my mom fearlessly plunged into with minimal resistance.
It was a long drive back down to Chiang Mai ( and a loonng 28 hours for the poor girl with the broken ankle) but mom and I finally arrived back in our hotel for some well-deserved room service and massages. The pampering continued Thai-sty the next day, when we headed down to Phuket for the beginning of our week on the beach, in the sun, and among the Thrussians.Phuket was beautiful. We had heard from numerous people before going that it was really dirty and “commercialized,” but we loved the view, the people, and the ocean-side service, not to mention the coconuts, the mountains, and the plentiful amount of people watching. Krabi was even more beautiful, although our initial impression was a little rocky, simply because in order to reach our island we had to jump ship from a speed boat to a long tail boat with our luggage out at sea, then wade in across coral to even make it to reception. Complaining didn’t last long, because this is what we were surrounded with for the next 4 days: Mom’s birthday was a beautiful one, not only because we were together in Thailand, but also because we were surrounded by people who sing, dance, and smile with out needing any special reason or occasion. We spent the day taking a tour of the local islands on a longtail boat, watching the sunset from a bar on the water, and then lingering at the bar for so long that the only way we remembered the waiters sent over an ice cream cake were the dribbles of chocolate on our suits the next day.
Saying goodbye to my twin soul really sucked, to put it simply. Her time here went by too fast, and I don’t know when I’ll see her again. This sadness and uncertainty was compounded with the ending of my time in Thailand, which also really sucked. So, after five short days in Bangkok and Ayutthaya, saying good bye to all the places and people who have made this foreign land such a happy home for me the past 9 months,
Dani and I set off to OZtralia.
At the moment, I am writing from the the guesthouse/hotel where we are working and living. It took 20 minutes in to the plane ride to realize I wasn’t ready to leave Thailand, 1 hour in Sydney to realize I didn’t save as much money as necessary (and that I still have a shopping problem), and, luckily, only 3 days to find a job.
Life is on the quiet side of perfect down here in Australia. I work at a small hotel with my friend Dani, and a small collection of co-workers who have quickly become our good friends. Our boss is the best kind of person in this world, an older handyman who likes beer, road trips, ‘roo hunting, and slipping us the casual $50 when we start showing signs of crabbiness. We sleep, eat, and drink where we work, so after closing up the restaurant we usually hang out with our new friend Earl in the lounge and feast on whatever experiment the chef is working on. Apparently this old hotel is haunted, so lately I’ve been getting my kicks by ‘summoning the spirits’…. this basically entails shouting, “come on ghosts, show your face!” in to the air and then following it up with some sort of prank to scare Earl. We also find some fun at the local pub, picnic park, and Target.
Its been a weird week, to say the least. I miss my mom, my Thailyfe, and the certainty that comes with having an address, a cell phone number, and a bi-weekly paycheck.
I don’t really have a plan for life-after-Australia, or much money to my name, which makes my future pretty scary but also pretty exciting. All I have at the moment is a backpack full of dirty clothes, a new apron, and the gaping hole in my heart that is screaming at me to go back to Thailand. I’m also starting to think more and more about home-home, but have the glaring suspicion I wont even be halfway through my first drink at Cowboy Jacks before I feel the craving for a whiskey bucket and the urge to return to the place where people are always smiling, the streets are always stinky, and I am always sweaty and so stupidly happy.
*I wrote this about a month ago, but was too busy to post it because my mom came to Thailand and she’s only mildly more important *
It’s funny how love hits you. One day, you’re sitting at a restaurant eating some spicy papaya salad all by your lonesome, and then a special little fellow decides to join you and *BAM* you’re in love. My “special joiner,” as they say (mostly in brothels) in Thailand, had 4 paws, a long tail, and the cutest bulging eyes with pupils that rival Lindsey Pearson’s. My sequence of thought when I saw him creeping around next to me? “Oh my gosh a rat!” “Oh my gosh… he is so cute!” “Oh my gosh…I love this place.”
Yup, moments like this have won over my heart. I love Thailand. As disgusting as the rats-on-the-table-as-I-am trying-to-eat moments are, they are just a demonstration of how lenient, laid back and random everything is. While it seems like every city you travel to in Thailand has the same hazardous sidewalks, strange smells, and creatures that know no boundaries, it is the history, the religion, the humor, and most especially, the kindness of the people, that make this country so beautiful to me.
This month I was even more so feeling the love. Not only did we celebrate Valentine’s Day, which brought a lot of smiles, hugs, sticker assaults, and some horribly entertaining singing performances, but the holiday came in combination with the end of my time here.
The timing of everything got me thinking of all the things I love about Thailand, and how the beaches, the food, and the cheap prices are lowest on the list. When I think about what has made me so happy here, I think of all the people and the random, every day little stuff. For example, my friend was teaching her class and giving presentations. One boy stood up to introduce his play and in an effort to appeal to everyone in the crowd, panned his hands and proudly announced, “Welcome all ladies, gentlemen, aaaannd gays!”
Because I’m feeling nostalgic and emo, I will try to explain more of these random things, but they probably won’t be translated very well or make much sense…they dont even to me after 9 months living here. They just make me laugh, and wonder, and really , really happy. So here is my list:
I love the bow, or the “wai”. Not only is it it much more sanitary than swapping hand sweat, but its just very, very cute.
I love seeing English on the menu.
Actually, I love seeing English on anything, especially mass produced products like these:
I love seeing at least 3 WTF moments during my walk to school each morning. Examples include:
I love that while doing laundry, I catch my landlady watching daytime wrestling.
I love that there is a national religion and how their beliefs infiltrate everyday life; in school, in work,at the movie theater, and in the middle of stop and go traffic. It’s the first time I’ve seen mass amounts of people putting their beliefs in to practice, which is beautiful no matter what/who the religion is. Dani and I went to Buddha’s Footprint Pilgrimage, where we walked up a mountain with tens of thousands at midnight to bless and honor Buddha. The walk was filled with ceremonies, rituals, lots of incense waving, and finally at the peak we wrote a wish or prayer on one of the big strands of red ribbon circling trees and dangling from bells.
And I love the congested, crazy city that consolidates these quirks in one stinky place.
Starting with them:
And then every one in between, like 2000 kids. I couldn’t find a way to rephrase that, so I just have to state it in the most creepy way possible. I love that they will sing and dance on a whim, hold hands, compliment every one they meet, and try so hard to be polite when I do something wrong.
And they do something like this every day:
I love their quirks. They pick their noses, sit on each others laps, groom their eyebrows in public, and pose for selfies in bathrooms, the classroom, and, in general, places with filthy backgrounds. And they don’t even have Myspace!! Shameless in the most endearing way.
I love they are so curious about anything that they’ll ask a million and one questions, truly because they just want to get to know people. “Where you come from? How much money you make? Where you live? You have boyfriend? You have baby? No, baby? Why you so fat? Want rice? You eat rice!”
And then I love eating the said rice, and having it be the most delicious thing ever.
I love that there is no competition between them (except when it comes to Hangman and English exams). Every one shares, and compliments, and supports and gives. I’m not too sure if enjoying these qualities makes me more of a socialist or a Buddhist. And I don’t know which one would disappoint my grandma more. But I guess all that matters is that it makes me a really happy person ^___ ^
This is much belated news, but…my brother came to Thailand. Don’t know why it’s taken me so long to write about it, but I guess the idea of detailing our 7 days together seems a little daunting. That, and the fact that while he was here, we met some truly special people who put my story-telling capabilities to shame. More specifically, this woman:
Possibly the most interesting and mysterious woman to walk this Earth, but more about this creature later, because the first person I “met” during Thailand 2013 was Pepper.
Noah’s girlfriend lived up to her nickname (the Pepper one, not the Babe one) over the course of the week , being a fiery little thing that had us laughing at her jokes, stumbles, stories and impressions every day. If you cant make it to Thailand and want to see a lethargic elephant dance Gangnam Style, just ask her. And my brother, aside from 15 pounds of Thai muscle packed on, has remained perfectly unchanged.
One night in Bangkok was enough to show them the city, and at my brother’s
resistance insistence, we even managed to fit in a stroll through the “special” district. We got massages, Thai food, fancy drinks, and a much needed night of sleep.
Our adventure continued the next day in Chiang Mai, after making the hour flight from Bangkok. I’ve never been to Chiang Mai, so it was fun to experience everything new with my brother, just as fun as it was to re-see everything that has become familiar to me the past 9 months through his newbie eyes. Pepper, Friender, and I (the officially ‘lady joiner” of the trip) spent the first night wandering a local bazaar, drinking doubles, and eating dinner with a perfect proportion of chillies to fish eyeballs. Thailand 2013.
Our second day in Chiang Mai was entertaining in the most pathetic of ways,mostly because we were fools and relied on the first man who picked us up from the airport to arrange for us an elephant excursion. BOBBY’S (said in a sarcastic tone) elephant
exploitation excursion featured elephants dancing Gangnam Style, painting, tugging around logs and doing headstands, all while being jabbed ruthlessly with those bullhooks.There was also an event hostess who shared interesting elephants facts of varying degrees of credibility when his mouth wasn’t full of lines like, “Elephants so cute, yeah? You want to buy food for them, yeah? You donate money to the cute elephants, ok? So cute, how much you donate, huh?”
When it came time to riding the elephants, our guides were drunk and grumbly. Because they reminded me of most of my friends back home, it was fun for a while until I was abandoned alone on top of my elephant, who was particularly hungry and kept searching back with his trunk to find food, but really just breathing and spraying stinky goop on me in the process. We eventually made it to safety, and topped off our tour with a 10 minute trot through the parking lot on an ox-cart ride where the drunk driver handed the reigns over to his 3 year old son. What the 3 year old lacked in oxen-steering he made up for in whipping, and spent the 10 minute ride whipping them gleefully with long switches.
Thankfully, the next morning we set off on ‘ Mr. Whiskey’s non touristic jungle trek’ which more than made up for us falling victim to Bobby’s elephant
torture tour. The trek lived up to it’s name, and for the next 2 days we foraged a path through a Thai forest with a small group of travelers and a native guide named Jungle Jim. Our trek group was the perfect mixture of normal people and crazies; 2 fearless and funny girls from Holland, a former Boy Scout and current bat-mating enthusiast named Joe, aaaaand Ariel, an inheritance receiving 60 year old with professional experience in ballet, Broadway, secret service operations, Capitol Hill rivalries, poetry and Pilates…and anything else you could ever have accomplished in a lifetime. Leading this perfect assemblage of trekkers was Jungle Jim, our guide who was hilarious, smart, and permanently emitting the stench of whiskey. Thailand 2013.
The trek started off with a bloody bang when Ariel took a barrel roll down a hill, narrowly avoiding re- injuring her hip which was replaced 2, 10, 8, or 6 months ago depending on whom she told. We continued the walk for about 6 hours through the jungle that first day, sampling things like natural cinnamon, aspirin, lemon grass, ginger, and seeing animals, a ‘bleeding tree’ and a few dozen more spills down the treacherous jungle side.
Our first stop was at some clearing in the woods where elephants were waiting for us to ride them down to river for bath time. These elephants were right at home in the thick of the jungle and knew nothing of painting, playing soccer, dancing Gangnam Style, nor anything about proper safety precautions for their passengers. The path down to the river was foraged fiercely, but we thankfully made it aboard our elephants unharmed. Bathing and swimming with the elephants was guided under Jungle Jim, and Ariel, who was an elephant washing expert thanks to her volunteer experience at an elephant camp for a few weeks.
Along the trek it seemed perfectly timed to whenever we’d start to get tired, the trees would clear out and give way to a tiered farm and we’d find ourselves in the middle of a random village. The first village was a Hmong refugee camp, where we were swarmed by kids when we peeked in to their one level school house and woke them from their naps. They raced outside to greet us with their grubby little hands, squealing and reaching in to our pockets for the candy they knew we’d brought along with us.
The windburned, dirty faces of these kids clamoring for our candy and cameras that they knew all too well how to use was by far the cutest thing I’ve seen in Thailand yet.
And that’s saying a lot, considering I have this woman as my landlady:
From this village was some more walking, trekking and tumbling through the jungle, stopping at random villages and farming towns along the way. The people at these places were so sweet and dutifully posed for pictures, held our hands, and offered us moonshine, which they always had in abundance despite having so little of everything else.
Our last stop was at the Karen village, where we ate dinner and slept for the night. Our company was a big group of ‘village people’, and our hotel was an open, wood floored room that thankfully came equipped with blankets and mosquito nets to narrowly keep us safe from pests and bat-mating enthusiasts alike. A group of villagers gathered around us as we set about making dinner in the dark, setting rat traps in the jungle for breakfast and singing songs and drinking whiskey.
No ghost stories were shared, but we heard stories a plenty thanks to Ariel being in our group, and aided by the whiskey and offerings of the Karen people, things got a little weird.
The night was so fun and hilarious, and much needed after all the walking we did during the day. Never thought it would be possible to go to sleep on a wooden floor wrapped in a used village blanket in a freezing hut with a smile on my face, but after the exciting day and hilarious evening…it really did happen.
Sleep, despite the cold and creepy company, was easy to do after walking so much that day. Before we set off for the last day in the jungle, some village woman cooked us eggs and toast over the fire and we ate in their company, as well as these two kids who stalked the table for leftover jelly and ate it straight out of the bowl with their fingers..
On our way out of the village, we wandered along through the small huts to see their morning routines of rice shucking (?) , animal feeding and house cleaning.
And had more moonshine for breakfast….The trek that second day was much easier on our sore legs and Ariel’s
fake hip. We conquered a big hill and then walked through a more modern village where we picked up two men of accident-prone age who’d be guiding our bamboo rafts for the afternoon. Thank goodness for the ageless agility of these two guides, because despite being in the company of an experienced white water rafter (Ariel), all-said skills went out the window when a Thai woman innocently splashed us with water and Ariel let it be known that she DID NOT APPRECIATE GETTING WET, OKAY?! and Joe, despite being an Eagle Scout with the “balance of a cat” and “years of experience with these sorts of crafts” was knocked promptly on his butt because, well, they trusted me with a bamboo stick and as I’ve said before, I don’t do sports or or navigational tasks.
After bamboo rafting and a seeing a 3rd nipple (truly was a non-touristic trek) we took a long and scary uphill journey to the top of a mountain to see Thailand’s tallest waterfall. In between clinging to our lives as shakily as the songtau clung to the edge of the mountain side, we got to see some beautiful views and overhear several enlightening stories about top secret government missions, ballet school scandals of the past, and plots to novels that are yet to be penned but will be coming soon to stores near you.
When our songtau finally reached the top of the mountain, we battled a rocky “path” and a hide-and-go seek game with a snake before reaching the waterfall. We heard it before we saw it, roaring over the mountains, Ariel’s tales of mountain diving, and Joe’s description of squirrel consumption. Noah and the badass from Holland led the plunge in to the icy river first, which was as disorientingly freezing as it was beautiful.
After our cold bath was the long journey back down the mountain, followed by “The Last Supper” in Chiang Mai. The next day it was time to say good bye to Pepper and Friender who went on to spend a week down south in Krabi while I went back to work….so totally not bitter about it.. Transitioning from jungle trekking to teaching was more difficult than I anticipated, as was saying goodbye to someone who used to dangle loogies over my face growing up. Luckily, there was a margarita bar conveniently located next to the airport and their departure just so happened to coincide with happy hour. And even more lucky was that I got to see them again one last time for a very short night in Bangkok during a layover before their return to the homeland.
Babe and Babe, I miss you!
As warned, this description doesn’t accurately document all the funny, random things we experienced. But in case any of you are seeking more details of the jungle trek (or want political insight, Pilates instruction, career guidance, a homestay in Paris or on Capitol Hill, or just in general want to know everything there is about anything in the world, ever) Ariel’s book is due out next month.
A wise monk once told me that a soul is a crystal ball (or a sun, or a moon, or a star) that sits right behind the belly button. No disrespect to this noble man, but BULLOCKS. My soul is, in fact, a balloon. A balloon that has swelled so much this month that I actually had a very serious conversation with a friend about the possibility of me being on the upswing of some manic episode. Dani’s diagnosis? Just happiness.
Remember the term “Thai time’ referencing how time has no meaning or sequence in this place? Well, we created a new term this month used to describe all the beautiful things we were seeing and fun things we were doing; balloon heart. A taxi man helping a little old lady cross the street? Balloon heart. Getting stuck in traffic behind a herd of elephants? Balloon heart. A refreshingly chilly 80 degrees on Christmas Day? Balloon heart. The phrase hasn’t yet made it’s way to urbandictionary.com, but it so far has been the only way to come close to describing these moments and the feelings that come along with them.And thanks to the seemingly endless stream of festivities, friends, food, and new ‘families’ this month, I have uttered these two words a countless number of times. December made the November-me feel like a Grinch-sized version of myself, and with the beautiful beginning to January, I predict my balloon heart is only going to keep on growing.
The month started off with Loy Krathong festival, a lantern ceremony where people honor the river while simultaneously washing away their sins (and polluting said river even further) by floating candles and lotus flowers downstream. We had envisioned this to be a quite clean and holy festival, so when we followed the blaring techno music and sky high lanterns to the river, we were surprised- but only mildly so-to see swarms of people swimming in suspicious water, some festively dressed holiday dancers, and children I wouldn’t even trust around a matchstick setting off fireworks and launching m80’s off bridges. It wasn’t the holy and heralded holiday were were envisioning, but the whole Rockin Rogers/Crystal Frolicks vibe did not leave me feeling disappointed.
Later in the month was the King’s Birthday, so we gave alms to the monks, danced in the classrooms, sang some songs, and got a day off work in his honor. All week long there was a big festival going on around town with Muay Thai fights, dance performances, karaoke, and clothing and food vendors. Our day off allowed all the teachers to get together for drinking and dancing and general revelry, with the added bonus of not having classrooms of 50 to care for the next day. Happy birthday to all!
Then, Christmas came 12 days early this year because my mom is cute and clever and perfect. Balloon heart every morning,12 days in a row. ❤ Thanks, ma.
Bangkok, as usual, provided balloon hearts by the
whiskey bucketful. Dani had her first few stumbles up the streets of Khao San, and we spent the weekend making random friends, frienemies, and general chaos amongst the streets. Another weekend, Meg and I went to Bangkok for the day with no set plan and ended up discovering a grocery store that sold CHIPS AND SALSA, HUMMUS, PICKLES and SOURDOUGH BREAD. There were tears. There were goosebumps. There were squeals. And there were extremely annoyed fellow shoppers. I left that grocery store with a bag of loot as heavy as my heart was light, and a soul and a belly of poppable proportions. My wallet, however, suffered some sad deflation that day.
Our first of many Christmases was spent at the Whitsett’s home with the Arora’s, some of their “children,” and other teachers. Their house is beautiful, so is their family, as was the night in general. They had a tree, a feast, and presents all set up for us, and even assigned their youngest son the duty of “room spritzer” to keep the Christmas scent in the air. There was room to roam, food to eat, and games to be played, so we had a gluttonous good time before dinner even started just soaking in the family-ness of it all. Awkward requests were not laid to rest this holiday season, as again we went around the circle to share a favorite Christmas memory or tradition. Comparing Jemma to baby Jesus on her birthday last year probably crossed the line from cute to blasphemous, but she was so celebrated and loved it was a point too special not to make, right?
Our potluck was homey and heavenly in all of its vegan goodness, and thankfully the pasta salad Meg and I concocted in her “kitchen” turned out great. We were shooting for only sympathetically edible, so seeing it be savored was a true Christmas miracle. After dinner, we decorated Christmas cookies,
lipsynced sang some songs, and played a present trading game that landed this coveted basket of prune juice and rice crackers precisely in my paws.
I wasn’t expecting a Thai Christmas to taste, smell, and feel so much like the actual holiday, but thanks to our fabricated family and the fun evening, it truly did. Balloon heart, swoon heart.
On Christmas Eve, Serge created a special holiday menu at his restaurant and it was just perfect. Mashed potatoes, glazed carrots, stuffed zucchini and creamed cauliflower are made even more delicious after six months of rice and noodles by the mound, and 3 courses of these delicacies were enough to make our eyes well up.Appreciate your potatoes, people.
On Christmas day, Colleen and Aaron were awesome and arranged a scavenger hunt for us throughout town, where for a good hour we ran around in our hats demanding things from people and collecting ridiculous random items off the streets. Normally I don’t ‘do’ running, public groveling, or competitive games (Cassie Webb) but with the grand prize being a basket full of beer and peanut butter, the stakes were high. It was so much fun and we were quite the spectacle, stampeding through the city in our red and green and light up hats. No victory for Dani and me, but whatevs…trying not to be a Scrooge about it. And while I never thought I’d spend Christmas bartering with a Thai man for a Michelin man off of his tourbus over a basket of beer, I recommend this sort of celebration to anyone.
Even the students at school got in on the spirit of Christmas by wearing Santa hats and passing out candy. And, interestingly, there was an assembly at school where an English teacher explained the history of Christmas and led the students in a song, which I though was really cool considering how actively Buddhist the schools are. Guess which student is getting diamonds in her stocking for spooking tardy students?
My birthday did not get mixed up with all this Christmastime chaos, and I was utterly spoiled with my own special birthday menu at Serge’s Place (thanks, Dani!), mangosteen wine, peanut butter, and a surprise ice cream cake at school. Thanks to my friends, my heart ballooned bite by bite and
glug by glug sip by sip.
To top off a great month, 4 friends and I spent the new year in Koh Samui. There was a lot of coconut consumption, napping, swimming, seaside gallivanting, and merry shenanigan making.
‘Thai time’ holding true, through, the logistics of our vacation were pretty rough. Included in our vacation was a very sick roommate, a trip to the doctors office, a thunderstorm on my birthday (yeah, so what, I cried…there’s a song totally justifying it), a tuk tuk mafia, 27 hours of travel…one way…, a broken down bus, and a caravan of policemen to our rescue. The ferry ride to the island may have been the smoothest sailing we saw all weekend, but seeing a beautiful beach on Samui more than made up for it.
And a big thanks to Andoo for bestowing me with the cutest birthday crown of all time… extra points because it matched my ‘fit.
The happiest of birthdays, indeed.
When we returned from the island it was midterm at school, so I had few days off that I decided to spend up in Phrae visiting my friend Mimi. Boarding a train with an anticipated 10 hour travel time was difficult after our 27 hours of transportation turmoil, but I am so happy that I went because I was basically balloon hearting all weekend. Mimi and I spent our reunion biking around town, reading, swimming, shopping, and doing everything but creating IEP goals or quarterly curriculum. Even more beautiful than the scenic, sleepy down where she lives was getting to spend a weekend away with a familiar face from home.Thank you, Mimi, for showing me your stomping grounds, singing Let It Be (3 times) on stage at Sunday market, and for getting me off the pegs and on to the courts. I really really missed you. (And thank you to Meg who filled in for me at work while I was busy recuperating from basically doing nothing… I O U from the bottom of my blessed, bloated heart ^___^ )
In between these events have been the crazy, busy, loud, chaotic days at school. I absolutely love it. Even on Wednesdays when this exceptionally special student comes to class…
Morning time has been refreshingly chilly this past week. I am going to eat homemade Indian food tonight. After 2 months in my new apartment, I finally figured out how to turn on the hot water for my shower. My brother is coming to visit me in one week. Balloon heart, balloon heart, balloon heart, balloooooon heart mak mak.
I really miss my family. And snow. And Winnie Sue. But my heart has been so full these past few weeks with all the love that I feel every day, from right here and from miles away that I’m already feeling nostalgia for a country I haven’t even left yet. Is your own balloon heart feeling less than full these days? Let me recommend a visit to Thailand:
Hope you all had a wonderful New Years and are savoring the snow and short distance to a Target every single day! Do what you need to do to keep your soul stuffed and your balloon heart bursting,and if you need a quick fix, try mixing 2 parts whiskey with 3 parts soda. Works every time.