Humbled

Cute tucked in everywhere

Everyone is smiling at the experts.

So now that I’ve been here in Thailand for about 12 weeks,  I like to consider myself more than a tourist. More than a traveler, even.  A bit of an expert.   I’m an Expat.  I’ve made the commitment and I deserve the respect.  When Thai’s ask “Where are you from?”  I proudly respond, “I live in Min BUR ee.”  They smile and say, “Oh, you live in Min bur EE?”  I cringe and obediently repeat their quick language correction, and sheepishly say, “Yes, Min bur EE.”  

As a seasoned local, I know 15 Thai words all together and can confidently say hello, thank you, please, yes, no, left, right, here, chicken, pork  and can count 1-5.  And when ordering food I can look slyly at the pictures and quickly think, “that’s the green curry”, “that’s tom yum soup”, “that’s a fish thingy” and then point to the picture and nod “yes.”  The servers are almost always impressed.  In fact,  a few nights ago, Rick took me to a VERY hipster place in Chinatown called The Tep Bar.  Tucked away down a winding little alley, it’s darkly lit with a lotus bud on each table.  Traditional Thai music played by artistic college students to entertain us  and the wait staff is ultra cool with old school Chinese beards and man buns.  First plus, drinks are two for one.  Score.  The very modern server brings her iPad over to take our order. I tell her our choices and she dutifully pulls up the picture on her screen and I nod, “Yes.”  Deep fried chicken dumplings.  Spicy pork balls.  Bamboo Butterfly.

Music, wine and little tapas style plates.  Eating bits of everything, laughing and enjoying the music.  Dumplings are super crunchy; pork balls are super spicy and the bamboo butterfly…crunchy on the outside and creamy on the inside.  Wait a second.  I take a closer look.  Bamboo BUTTERFLY.  In the pupa stage.  Even with a picture.  Nice one Forang.  They were pretty good, actually.  And by the way, two for one in Bangkok means that you get two drinks for the price of two drinks.  And if you have three, instead of four (because while I am a silly Forang, I am not stupid) you still get charged for four because it’s two for one and three is not divisible by two.  It makes perfect sense.  You see, I’m practically native.

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Once we finally got to the Royal Palace, even the statue is laughing at us!

The next day, now that we’re fully integrated into Thai culture, we figure we can go for the big time.  Just take a taxi down to the Grand Palace for a little tour.  Now you need to know that this area  is tourist central.  Mad house. Think Roman Coliseum.  Think La Rambla in Barcelona.  Think pick-pockets and cons.  Think “RUN!!”  But we KNOW Thailand now.  We live here.  We’re ready.  Easy enough.  Grab a taxi and off we go.  As we get close to the Palace, I realize that we can save at least 5 baht (15 cents)  if the driver stops a little early.  I holler, “Tee NEE, ka!”  (Here, please.)  Such an expert.  We get out of the cab and start our leisurely walk to the Palace gates.  On the way, a nice man, wearing a police logo polo shirt stops us.  “Hello, the gate to the Palace is here.  I’m here on holiday from Phuket. I work for the government.  You live in Min bur EE?  Then, let me help you get a good deal on this Tuk Tuk down to the Thai long tail boat ride that I just took.  I loved it.  One hour.  No shopping.”

And, we did it.  

Oh, the boat ride was nice.  Thank God I saved that 15 cents because we were totally ripped off.  We even had to pay to get OFF the boat.  Yep.  Another nice one Forang.

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Smiling al the way to the bank.

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Sky train to Minbur EE….I think.

Needless to say, all we wanted to do was take our deflated selves back to Min bur EE.  So, we hop the subway to the skytrain.  Headed home.  Expertly done.  On the train platform, another Westerner approaches us and asks about directions to the airport.  “Oh, it’s the same train we’re taking.  Just come with us.” We board the train.  We chat.  He’s heading to Vietnam.  I ask if he knows about getting a” Visa on Arrival” (which I know about since I’m an expert) and his face falls in disbelief.  “No, I don’t know about that.”  So I quickly google it on my phone because as an Expat of 12 weeks, I have a local service.  Thankfully, we were there to save the day and he got the information he needed.  But, then I realize that I haven’t been paying attention to the train stops.  Where are we?  I listen carefully to the overhead loudspeaker.  “Blah, blah, KA”.  Is that our stop?   Yes.  Definitely.  “Blah, blah, KA” is where we need to get off.

Well, it wasn’t.  And, next to a freeway, finding a cab willing to drive to Min bur EE was close to impossible.  Time to Uber.  At first, no cabs took the call.  Then we got one!  We waited.  They cancelled.  Then, out of the blue, a Buddha taxi pulled up.  Over time, I’ve noticed that some cabbies have Buddha icons on the dashboard.  This driver patiently smiled and  listened and figured out where we needed to go.  Exhausted, humbled and very grateful, we finally made it home.   
Thank you Buddha guy.  

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Maybe he called our cabbie? “Hey Joe. Forang needs help. Right. Thanks man.”

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Butterflies and Bombs

“Hold up!”, Rick yells as we are coasting down a hill into an expanse of green, rimmed by jaw dropping Karst mountains.  I quickly brake and turn to see him stopped in the middle of the deserted road, helmet off and looking perplexed.  “What’s wrong?”,  I holler back.  He grins.  “Butterfly in my helmet.”  We both laugh.  Butterflies and grasshoppers the size of your hand, green landscape as far as the eye can see.  Mountains.  Rivers. This place is unbelievable.  Hiding amid Thailand, China, Cambodia and Vietnam is a real gem.  Laos.

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Tired of planning vacations, we opted for a cycling tour of Laos.  It fit the criteria.  It required no planning and just an hour flight from Bangkok.  The “tour” turned out to be me, Rick, Tee (the driver) and Ked (the guide).  Bikes included, hotels booked, luggage shuttled in the van.  Cycle from Luang Probang to Vientiane in 5 days.  With an average of 60 kg per day, we felt confident that it would be fine.

Except that we hadn’t really ridden our bikes seriously in awhile.  Now, we ride everyday.  But, you have to remember, we live in Bangkok where the biggest hill is the roadway that goes up and over the many khlongs (canals) that spiderweb their way around the region.  This is not an exaggeration (I’ll do that later in this blog).  There are no hills.  Zero. So, 60 kg in much of Thailand is a 3 hour walk in the park.

So, when I start up the 5 percent – four mile long, climb on the first mountain pass, the internal monologue begins.  “Slow and steady wins the race”, I chant to myself.  “The mind gives up long before the body”, I think.  And as my good friend, Christie, used to say, “Hills are our friends.”  This positive self-talk works for awhile.  And then a stroke of luck.  A distraction!  As we pedal at a pace of about 5 miles per hour, a group of school children are walking home along the road.  One little guy, maybe 7 or 8 years old,  starts running along side me. “Sa ba di !  Hey! Where you from?”, he shouts and grins.  “Thailand!”, I pant.  “You know English?”, he asks.  And the English lesson begins.  Me riding – him running next to me.  “What’s this?”,  he shouts as he points to his arm.  “Arm”, I reply as I down-shift.  “What’s this?”, he yells as he gestures toward a tree.  “Tree”, I grimace as I remind myself of the great exercise I am getting.  Then, in mid-stride he takes off his flip flop and holds it in my face.  “What this?”, he demands.  “Shoe”, I gasp.  And without missing a beat, he quickly slides the shoe back onto his foot – all the while, keeping pace with me.  It goes on like this for about a mile.  Then, he smiles and points to a winding path and trots away waving and shouting “Bye bye!”.  He’s home.

We reach the top of the pass completely exhausted.   But, we are met with incredible views, a cool breeze and lunch.

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At 5000 feet I’m exhausted after teaching English all the way up!

Looking out over the vista, it’s hard to believe the history of this quiet nation.  From 1964 to 1973, as part of the now infamous Secret War, the U.S. (supporting the monarchy against the communist Pathet Lao) dropped more than two million tons of of bombs on Laos during 580,000 missions.  This is the equivalent of a planeload of bombs every 8 minutes, 24 hours a day, for 9 years – making Laos the most heavily bombed country per capita in history.   While this is a tragedy in itself – the secondary tragedy continues today.  Out in that beautiful expanse of green are an estimated 80 million live bombs.

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80,000,000 cluster bombs out there.

80 million undetonated cluster bombs.  Most the size of a tennis ball.  All deadly.

And we continue our spectacular ride. Our guide, Ked, shares that he is from the north.  His village, he explains, is not too different than the ones we are riding through.  Tranquil rice paddies.  Water buffalo grazing.  Little children running to the side of the road to see the foreigners.  Waving and and grinning. “Sa ba di!”, they yell.   “Sa ba di!”,  we wave back.  So many little children.  With 70 percent of the population under the age of 30, most people were not even born to witness the bombings.  Later, we found out that many don’t even know about the bombs or UXO (Unexploded Ordnance).

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Look closely! I’m waving and there is a little kid in the right hand corner of the picture waving back.

On our fourth day of riding we reach the Nam Ngum reservoir.  Created by the Nam Ngum Dam, this is a huge lake covering 250 square kilometers.  Controversially known as the “battery” of SE Asia, Laos has many hydroelectric dams along the Mekong and its tributaries that help power the region.   We haul our bikes onto a tiny boat and begin our relaxing and picturesque two hour crossing. On the way, out boatman points to an island. “Prison”, he states solemnly.  Ked proceeds to tell us that only “very bad” people go there.  And this must be true because according to the  1979 New York Times article I read on the internet, and I quote,  “The camps are called ‘reeducation centers for social evils.’ The inmates, according to official explanations, fall into three categories: drug addicts, prostitutes and hippies.” Then, our boatman points to another small boat overloaded with reeds – heading to the prison.  Ked explains that the inmates use these reeds to  make simple baskets that are used in daily life. Things like sticky rice steamers, chicken pens and sieves used to strain liquids.  Hard labor.  That’ll whip those hippies into shape!

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After five days of riding through some of the most beautiful landscapes I have ever witnessed, we arrive in Vientiane, the capital.  Located on the Mekong River, it’s a quiet city and easy to get around.  Saddle sore, we wander and eat and get massages.  

But we still have bombs on the brain, so we visit the COPE museum , whose mission it is to educate the public on UXOs from the Secret War.   We learn that children are often the ones to find the bomblets while they are playing.  And, because the small cluster bombs look like a toy – kids will throw them like a ball – with tragic consequences. In 2016, President Obama visited Laos and committed an annual 90 million dollars – for three years – toward the effort to clear these bombs in the next 10 years.  I haven’t heard that Trump is repealing this.  Let’s keep our fingers crossed and hope that it doesn’t cross his desk.

IMG_3440And as the sun sets on the mighty Mekong, I can’t help but think how the dark and the light meet.  How an incredibly beautiful and friendly country can still be plagued with the remnants of a war that ended 45 years ago.  How a nation of youth must deal with the the mistakes of the old.  And, how like everything in life, there is either no easy answer or no answer at all.

 

 

Mama Rides “Street”

Lazy Sunday morning.  I glance up from the couch to see Rick walking down our stairs.  He looks a little down.  “Hey, you o.k.?”  I ask.  “Naw.  I’m grumpy and I’m bored.” he says as he stares at his phone.  I ask the next question as I silently brace myself for the answer.  “So, what do you want to do?”

“Well, I figured out how we can ride our bikes to that park Jeff told us about last night. You know, the one with the beautiful bike path.”  O.K., I’m thinking.   That park is 10 kg from our house – which in most cases is no problem.  Except, here in Bangkok, there are serious obstacles for a bicycle.  Obstacles that require laser sharp concentration to avoid; obstacles that change from day-to-day; obstacles that move and shift in the moment; obstacles that require major upper body strength.  This is not a cute little pedal to the park.  Oh no.  In order to GET to the beautiful bike path – we have to ride “street”.

If you are unfamiliar with this term, riding “street”  basically means you use  “trail” bike techniques in a city.  For example, launching off or jumping curbs or “gaps”; navigating technical turns around obstacles; riding in places not meant for bikes like staircases, narrow ledges or rails. Pushing the physical limits of the bike and the human riding it.  Fifteen year olds do this – on their BMX bike.

“Alright.  Let me change into my bike shorts”, I sigh.   I grab my gloves, a water bottle, hat and sunglasses, wallet and phone.  We are out the door in 15 minutes.

We’ve got a series of navigational challenges today.  The street market, the sidewalk, the Khlong path and two 6 lane roadways. A few new features to consider as well: Sunday morning market traffic and unfamiliar soi dogs.  

The Street Market:  Unusually busy this morning.  So I throw it in a “hard” gear for super slow riding and increased control.  Hands on breaks.  Ready to step down.  This is stop and go.  Old lady on the left. Sharp turn through narrow opening between Durian cart and parked motorcycle.  Little kid straight ahead.  Brake hard – foot down.  Smile and say “ahhhhh” to the mother of the little rascal.  Motorcycle behind – go slowly straight ahead – do not swerve – or you will get hit.  

The Sidewalk:  There are three types of obstacles on every sidewalk in Bangkok.  “Lips”, “Left/Right” and “Crappy”. “Lips” are everywhere.  These are little steps up or down that have been created by the settling of the sidewalk.  Even walking, these “Lips” are a hazard – especially for toes.  “Left/Right” requires that you go left and right as if you are weaving through a series of cones.  This is pretty common.  Trees, benches, random poles, stairways, etc. create a gritty slalom course. Some of these objects are placed purposely to keep motorcycles off the sidewalks. Some of it is just bad planning.

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Example of “Left/Right obstacle. Rick is swerving left here.

“Crappy”, are areas of cement sidewalk, that through heavy use and natural settling, are simply put, in “crappy” condition. The jagged, jutting and missing cement pieces create the perfect opportunity for launching off or jumping “gaps”!  I’m always so happy to see this particular obstacle.  Navigation requires hyper concentration and control.  Hit it wrong – and you’ve got a flat.

 

The Khlong:   Rick yells, “Turn left” and I’m like, “Where?”  He’s standing next to a three-foot wide opening by an overpass that leads to a narrow bridge over a Khlong (canal).  There are so many little narrow paths that run along the Khlongs and down side streets.  Most don’t have guard rails.  Just a raised cement path, about 2 feet wide, on stilts, over water.  And not the nice blue waters of Pinterest Thailand.  No.  This water is filled with Monitor Lizards, garbage and weird stuff.  After hearing about another cycling friend that got run off  a Khlong path by a motorcycle, I often just walk my bike.  I do not want to go swimming with a Monitor.

The Scary Busy Road:  Some roads are best avoided altogether.  These are the scary busy roads with tons of traffic going 30-70 mph.  Therefore, we simply carry or “portage” our bikes over one of the numerous pedestrian overpasses.  Today, I did this 4 times up and 4 times down.  Good for upper body strength.  Yeah.

Siri Doesn’t Know Shit.  According to Siri, we should be able to cross a bridge that takes us directly to the park.  However, Siri doesn’t live in Thailand and hasn’t taken into account a large industrial complex that was quickly built-in the last two weeks.  Maps provide loose guidelines more than anything here and that  little blinking dot indicates that we are definitely HERE and at least getting close. So, we ride through a construction site (no hard hats needed in Thailand) and under an overpass only to meet up with an aggressive Soi (street) dog. Great.  So, using the same safety strategy as you would with say, a cougar, Rick jumps off his bike to get the bike between himself and the dog.  I do the same and we run/walk our bikes quickly past while not making dog eye contact.  Back on our bikes we pedal standing up, as fast as we can, like a couple of ten year olds.  

And like most everything here in Thailand we suddenly end up where we want to be-but, not quite sure how we got there.  The park is lovely.  Shade and benches.  Romantic couples lounging about and old men slowly walking as they  contemplate the trees.  We ride around a man-made lake on the perfectly groomed path.  Level, wide, no motorized traffic.  We sit and stare at the still water enjoying the silence that is interrupted only by birdsong.  An oasis.

After 10 minutes I turn to Rick.  “Ready?” I ask.  “Yep.” he nods.  Time to head back to through the urban jungle.   Settling back on our bikes, Rick turns to me and grins.  “Let’s go back a different way.”  I grin back.  “You know where you’re going?” I ask.  Rick just smiles.  Looks like another adventure.

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Badass.

Thailand Two point Oh!

I’m exhausted.  Seattle to Bangkok.  7000 miles.  About 24 hours of travel.  I’ve done this seven times in the last 12 months. Even so,  when I hail a taxi home, I’m startled when I open the door and the cabby says, “Madam Teacher?”  I look up from my fog of fatigue and see the driver smiling at me.  In all of Bangkok, the driver recognizes me.  Unbelievable, but such a welcome surprise.  “Chai, ka!  Ramkhamhaeng Roy Goi Sip, ka?” (Yes, Thank you.  Ramkhamhaeng 190, please?), I say in my terrible “taxi Thai”.  He smiles and nods.  And rather than taking the longer, more expensive way – he opts for the short-cut.   I slip into the backseat and close my eyes.  The bliss of familiarity.

Year two in Thailand.  It’s  the “same same” that makes it different.

It’s not all about the heat. This time last year, I wore just my underwear around the house in an attempt to stay cool.  To Rick’s disappointment, I can now prance about fully clothed!  I don’t have to stash a shirt and shorts near the door in case someone drops by.  We manage the sun as a “severe weather condition”.  Hat, umbrella, sun screen, water bottle – check.  Seek AC as needed.  Strenuous activities in the morning and evening – or just not at all.  My friend, Christine, runs every day.  However, she calls it “the Thai shuffle”.  Super sloooooow and steady. 

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Sun Protection 101: Find shade – or carry it with you.

Fluency in English as spoken in Thailand.  While I’ve worked to increase the number of Thai words I know – my real language success has been in mastering my speaking and listening skills in English as  Spoken in Thailand (EST).  When US friends recently visited, I was astounded what they didn’t understand!  My God, it’s English!  “Gerween CooEE Madaaaaaam?”  (Green Curry Madam?)  “Whe meester toodAY? ( Where is mister today?)  And  speaking.  When I say,  “Okay, okay!”  it means,” yes” or it means, “I understand”, or it means, “do you understand”, or it means, “let’s just stop talking now because we don’t understand each other.”  Easy.

Thai massage is no longer torture.  Kuhn Bon smiles when I walk through the door of the spa. It’s all  “Sawadee Ka!” and wai-ing (bowing) and smiles.  “You go AaamareCA?  Whe meester Reeeeechard, toodAY?  Tooo ow-er  for you?”  So comfortable.  My weekly two hour massages have paid off.  My body is “in shape” for our full contact workout.  Rick too has commented that between walking barefoot and consistent massage, his formerly aching feet are much improved.  The therapy of this ancient art is not to be disputed.  Plus, I really like these women. They are funny and kind.  Always a smile just when you need it most.

I don’t carry my camera everywhere.   Hailing a taxi, paying the bills, grocery shopping.  These are no longer exotic adventures.  “But, people ride motorized scooters with their kids on the handlebars!”  Yeah, yeah.  I know.  And, nobody wears a helmet and people carry enormous dead pigs on the back of their scooters too.  And some scooters are rigged with a BBQ on the back for duel riding/food stall functions.   I’ll take a picture when I see 5 people AND a pig with a LIT BBQ  on a scooter.   Now that will be something.

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Photo green light: A Golden Lexus.

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Photo green light: The snake my friend found in her kitchen.

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Photo green light: Excellent Cosplay costume.

We drink beer with ice.  You read that correctly.  It’s true and I know it’s fundamentally wrong. And, I’m not sorry.  Thai beer is bad no matter what. People argue, “Oh Leo is the best.”  Or, “I’ll only drink Chang”, like we’re talking about some handcrafted microbrew or something.  No.  It is all bad.  Think Brew 66 or Schlitz.   So, do you want warm bad beer or do you want cold bad beer?  See?   

Rick & I are same same – but, different.  After one year, my Facebook profile reminded me of the day we moved to Thailand.  I look at the picture of Rick and I.  Six checked bags held everything we felt important enough to bring.  Rick’s hair was short.  My skin was 10 shades lighter.  We look like we are heading to Disneyland with innocent grins of complete ignorance.  Yet, if we’d known what was in store for us, would we have waltzed onto that airplane with such confidence?  However, one thing remains exactly the same.  Rick’s shirt.  

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It’s safe to say, that this past year has included some of the highest and lowest points of my life.  You’ve likely seen my highlights on Facebook:  Standing at the top of world in the Himalayas; swimming with Manta Rays; sipping a Martini in a world class sky bar; front row seats at a concert; visiting ancient ruins.

But just under the social media radar is the good stuff. The real stuff.  The life stuff.  Missing my family and friends more than I could ever have imagined while meeting more friends and building lasting relationships.  Wishing I could get back to a school system that I fully understand and believe in while having new and amazing opportunities for professional growth here in Asia.  Being completely perplexed by Thai culture and then beginning to understand – a little at a time.  

So.  Year two. I feel like I just got back in line to ride the roller coaster at the Fair.  I hated it and I loved it.   And for some reason, I want to do it again.  

 

The Great Leap

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Puerta Vallarta,  Mexico, 1989.  “Hey mister! You wanna Scuba?” Almost asleep on the beach, I look up to see our friend Mitch, negotiating a Scuba adventure.  “What’s your name, mister?”  asks the deeply tanned dive guy.  “Mitch”, replies Mitch.  “Feeeesh?”, the diver repeats with a half smile.  We all burst out laughing and sign on for the next day.  For our friends Barb and Mitch, this is no big deal. Mitch was a master diver and Barb was married to a master diver.  Both experienced.  Me?  I knew how to swim. So the next day, I don a mask, fins and tank and jump into the Pacific Ocean with the knowledge that only a 27 year old has – the unwavering knowledge of immortality.  And, apparently I was right because I lived to eat the scallops we gathered and sit on some beach where we drank buckets of Corona with the diver and two boat guys and sang “Gloria”  accompanied by Rick on a beat up, out of tune guitar.  Perfect.

On return to the great Pacific Northwest, we officially certified.  But, the Pacific Ocean in Washington state is VERY different from the Pacific Ocean of Mexico.  That, and a couple adorable children that required all of our attention and every penny we earned.  Clearly, our Scuba careers were doomed.

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Sorry. Gotta put a cute picture of us when we were busy with these two!

Fast forward – Thailand, 2017.  Sitting in the school canteen, I casually ask my friend Richard, “What did you do over the weekend?”  His reply changed the course of the next several months.  “Oh, I went to Pattaya and did my Scuba certification” he said, referring to a city about 2 hours from Bangkok. I perked  up.  “Really?”  I quickly gathered the necessary information from him, emailed Rick, and we were signed up for the class that night – for the following weekend.

Pattaya is – well – different.  We arrived on a Friday evening to an area called Jomtien.  It’s mostly populated by Expats here on the generous Thai retirement Visa.  (Must be at least 50 and show evidence of a substantial savings account.  Renewable yearly for a fee.)  Apparently, this was a popular R&R location during the Vietnam War.  What has lasted from that era is the innumerable number of “comfort” men and women available for hire. So we gawked and wondered about the individual stories that brought all of these people together.  Without exaggeration, it is mostly older Western men with young Thai men or women.  I hoped that everyone involved in these arrangements had clear and open expectations.  

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Pattaya. After 33 years, we each fully understand our “arrangement.”

The next morning we met our instructor, Noc.  Small and sturdy, she walked us through our written exams (during which I panicked on the math and she patiently calmed me down); our pool work (where she admitted she wasn’t sure I’d make it at first – after the math ordeal – but, was pleased I could swim); and our open water checkout dives (where I became dehydrated and learned that if you throw up under water, it’s no problem).  We were certified!

If you’ve never had to breath underwater, it’s important to know a lot of stuff about – well – diving.  Our first few dives were basically all about staying alive.  My heart would race with anxiety each time I made that giant step off the boat and into the blue unknown.  Constantly checking my air supply, hand on my regulator to make certain it didn’t slip out of my mouth and simply trying to control my buoyancy occupied every brain cell.  Lucky if I noticed a tiny fish, I was jubilant upon completion of each dive.  I had again survived!  I still wasn’t sure I liked this Scuba thing.  It took the first 10 dives to begin to feel even remotely comfortable.

Recently, Rick and I did our 15th dive, and our 5th with Yann, our French divemaster, while on Palawan –  an incredibly beautiful island in the Philippines.   It’s the low season, so it’s  just the three of us.  After two dives in spectacular coral and spotting 5 reef sharks, and a meter long turtle – he says we are ready for a drift dive.  We set in and off we go – floating in suspended animation and allowing the current to scoop us along.  Amazing. Plus, more sharks, and an eagle ray.  I almost forget about breathing.

Back on our small Banca (a Philippine boat that has outriggers on both sides that give it a decidedly “spider” look), we eat our sandwiches and talk.  Yann tells us that he just “discovered” our last dive site a few weeks before.  Unfortunately, another site that he used to go to has been recently decimated by dynamite fishing. If you are unfamiliar with this illegal practice, fishermen detonate explosives underwater as a means to catch fish.  Killed or stunned by the shockwaves, the fish float to the top where they are gathered up in nets.  Unfortunately, everything in the radius of the explosion is killed.  Including the coral.  We have seen these large areas of dead coral – grey as ash with no noticeable marine life.   I ask Yann if he’s ever heard the explosions.  He nods gravely, “many times”, he says. “But it is worst when you feel the shock waves while diving.”  He taps his chest.  “You can feel it here.”   We silently take in his double meaning.

So far, we have seen sea turtles, stingrays, eagle rays, reef sharks, moray eels, lionfish and the incredible manta ray.   I saw a dugong (very shy creature – much like a manatee)  off the bow of a boat in Indonesia.  We swam with Dory and Nemo and all their little friends. We have seen indescribable coral reefs in Thailand, Indonesia and the Philippines.  Every dive is a new adventure into an untamed wilderness of incredible beauty.  And maybe because of the knowledge that only a 54 year old can have – that I am, indeed, mortal – it’s all the more wonderful and sweet.

And for this, I have two old friends to thank.   Barb and Mitch.  I never would have made that first great  leap in Mexico without them.  Thanks for high adventure, stupid choices, crazy laughter and unforgettable memories.  And, thank you for reminding me to say “yes” as often as possible.  I have never regretted it.

 

 

 

 

Hail Plastic!

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Shoes are always removed before entering a Buddhist Wat. Here is a great sample of some typical plastic shoes.

Before I came to Thailand, I had tremendous disdain for plastic.  Anything made of plastic was “cheap”, shoddy and downright tacky.  And, the tackiest of all plastic items?  The plastic shoe. Are you kidding? From up on my high horse, I could clearly see the faults of these synthetic fakes:  they don’t shape to your feet, they don’t breathe, they cause blisters, but worst, they look like, well – plastic. “Give me leather or give me death!”, I would holler from my saddle.

Then, it rained.  

I’m not sure I have adequately described the rain here yet. As a Pacific Northwest girl, I am pretty much a rain expert.  That is, the Chinese Water Torture style rain –  a slow, continual  stream of water dripping, dripping, dripping.  Endlessly.  

I wasn’t prepared for the sudden torrential rain with thunder and lightning that could dump a month’s worth of water in one hour – and then, just as suddenly stop, leaving up to 12 inches of standing water on roads and sidewalks.

And while you can sometimes get away with “waiting it out” in a convenient location, that’s not always possible.  When it rains like that here –  you’ve still gotta go to work. Or ride another quarter-mile to get home, or get your grocery bags to the taxi.    Hail the plastic shoe.

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The REI Leather Collection. The pampered Birkenstocks haven’t even left the house.

First time it happened, my $100 all-leather Keen walking sandals (Jeez, I am SO from the PNW) got so stretched out I could barely keep them on my feet. Take off your shoes, you say?  YOU take your shoes off in dirty, critter invested flood water!

Well, at least I could use my Chacos, right?  Admittedly, these are my best REI shoe purchase for Thailand.  They are rubber soled (e.g.plastic) but the straps are a woven fabrics that gives them that natural, hippy flair that from my high horse, look just right. And they are pretty good for light hiking.  But, get them wet and with the high humidity, they still quickly grow mold and mildew. Nice.  

So I’m down to another pair of leather Keens.  I’m hiking in high humidity.  No rain but very hot.  Feet feel great until the end of the day.  Itchy feet.  Dang.  Swollen?  What? Worst heat rash of my life.

I have sequestered my beloved Birkenstocks to indoor duty.  They will never go outside here.  Too risky for these iconic shoes.

And there is another issue I hadn’t anticipated.  Style.  Thai style is not Pacific Northwest, natural fiber, flannel and beanie style. Nope.  It’s more Southern Belle meets Hello Kitty.  From super cool to super cute.  I was starting to look weird.

So, REI, I am sorry to say, I’m moving on. Everyday footwear like jewel bedecked flip-flops  or flowered wedgie sandals are found at Big C for a few dollars.  For my better quality footwear, I shop at the Croc store.  Every style and color  imaginable in plastic from the classic Croc to a simple black plastic pump.  Get dirty? Hose’em off.  A little mold?  Hose’em off.   Because whether you are out to dinner or grocery shopping, a sensible woman is always ready to walk through a foot of flood water.

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A sensible woman.

 

 

 

 

A Beer & Oreo kind of day

Five am feels dang early, especially after three days on an epic boat adventure visiting Komodo Dragons and swimming with giant Manta Rays.  I’m exhausted but excited for our next adventure – the Gili Islands.  VWish mini-mini van arrives right at 6:45am to take us to the airport in Labuanbajo on Flores Island.

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Minature VW-like vans are a common vehicle on Flores.

Getting around Indonesia is a bit of a challenge, but Rick has booked everything perfectly – even having paid for our inter-Island flights on Nam and Wing Air at our neighborhood 7-11 in Bangkok.  (Yes, you read that correctly.  No on-line payment available with these tiny airlines so 7-11 handles the payment process.)

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We can pay our bills, buy airline tickets, top up our phone – all at 7-11!

And, because of our early flight we miss our complimentary breakfast, but no problem, we can eat at the airport.

We arrive at Komodo International and get checked through security.  Now breakfast.

 Nothing.  

At all.

In the entire airport. Are you kidding?  An airport without overpriced food?  

But wait.  There’s a coffee shop!  And a nice one at that.  Looks like a Starbuck’s knockoff, all shiny and new.  We’ve got this!  Except that it is their “soft opening”.  Available food consists of one item –  plain white sesame seed buns.  Perhaps this is a McDonald’s knock off because the buns are much like an undressed hamburger bun.

Alright.  I will eat a plain white bun and we will dine on the plane!

And then we wait for our plane.  And wait.  The lady at the counter keeps telling us, “just 15 minutes.” We confer with a group of dreadlocked backpackers and they share horror stories of Indonesian airlines that were as much as 10 hours late.  No reason.  Just because.  So we feel lucky when we board our 8:30am plane at 10:30am.  We feel even luckier when they hand us what appears to be a box lunch!!  And inside?

Water…..and Oreos.

So, I will eat Oreos and we will have a meal once we land in Bali.

Our 30 person prop plane lands in Depensar, Bali  at 11:30am.  Luggage is on the slow boat and by noon Rick is trying to contact the car we hired to take us to our boat.  

No luck, but no problem!  We can be “chill”, right?  We will take a taxi and hope we arrive by 1pm for our scheduled departure to the island of Gili Air.   Since the taxi driver isn’t sure where we need to go, he calls the boat company to get directions and we are on our way.   Luck!  We arrive right at 1pm.  On a pier.  In Bali somewhere.  He points us to the boat company’s shed.  Thanks taxi guy!  So glad he called and confirmed things.

Except we are at the wrong place.  And the driver is gone.  Now what?  Lucky again because a nice guy, Mr. Key, knows a tiny bit of English (that he started learning when he was 7 – from tourists like us) and tells us that yes, this is the right boat company, just the wrong location.  He, with the help of three of his friends, call the boat company and after what sounds like a very complicated phone conversation, and animated discussion with his friends, tells us that another driver is on the way to take us to the correct pier.  It’s now well after 1pm – the time we are scheduled to catch our boat.  So we buy Mr. Key and his three friends a Bintang (local beer) and join them on folding chairs for our liquid lunch and talk about how things have changed in Bali.

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Thank you Mr. Key.  May Karma smile on you!

And, the driver arrives and says, please bring the beers in the car.  Of course.

We drive an hour up the coast and catch the 3pm boat to our final destination, and a much-anticipated meal.  First stop is Gili Trawangan, the noted party island, where 1,000,000 people get off the boat leaving just 4 tourists on board for Gili Air.  Perfect. This is going to be perfect.

Eleven hours after our journey began,  we are here!  The final destination of Gili Air! Funky little island with quirky shops and cafes.  No cars so we flag a horse-drawn cart to take us to our hotel.  What?  You’ve never heard of our hotel?  Closer look at our reservation reveals….we are on the WRONG island.  We are booked for Gili Meno, the smallest and least touristy of the three Gili’s.  People have told us it’s boring and too quiet. This wasn’t our plan.   Now what?

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No cars.  Just these horse and cart rigs to haul you around the islands.

What else?  Sit down at a cute cafe and order another Bintang and some real food and figure out the plan.  What?  We have to get to Gili Meno now?  Last boat leaving at 4:30pm – which is now??  Ok.  Pay, bag the food for take-away, and run to the tiny boat we have chartered because the regular shuttle boat has stopped running for the day.  As the sun is going down our  speedboat races across the choppy channel before the light is completely gone.  

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Top speed to beat the sun.

The boatman lands the boat on the beach with a crash and yells “hurry, hurry” as he literally throws our wheely suitcase onto the sand.  He shoves off and is gone before we have waded out of the water.

And here we are on Gili Meno.  We are alone on the Mangrove lined beach.  We see a guy with a horse and cart and flag him for a ride.  Our bungalow is on the other side of the island.  We pass ladies with goods balanced on their heads and children yelling “hallo” to practice their English.  The Call to Prayer as we trot by the dilapidated Mosque is the only sound beyond the hooves of our pony.  We see an occasional baked brown backpacker, walking to their home stay.

Ten minutes later,  we arrive at our beach bungalow, unload our things and look around.  Jungle meets the beach.  Paradise.  We unpack our “take-away” meal and have another Bintang as we watch the sun set on this unforgettable day.

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Not such a bad view for dinner.

Pirate Gratitude

“I guess I’m done being afraid.” This thought struck me as I boarded a tiny boat with 8 guests, two guides and two boatmen.  We had arrived in Labuan Bajo the day before.  This small town on Flores Island in Indonesia, has seen the fast influx of backpackers heading either to sea or to the jungle.  It reminds me of the “ports of call” depicted in pirate movies.  Booze, women, fishnets.  Smell of garbage and gasoline.  Unpaved roads with deep ruts cut by monsoon rains.  A rugged frontier town ready to make a buck.  Remote.  Rough.  

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Selamat Datang or Welcome  to Labuan Bajo.

But today, as we head out to sea toward a group of isolated islands between Flores and Salawesi, “remote” takes on a whole new meaning.  There is nothing but sky, water and hundreds of unpopulated islands.

Time for our safety briefing.  Simple.  “Life jackets in the back.  Follow the captain’s orders,” explains our guide, Mikel.    The captain grins, takes a drag on his Lucky Strike, and salutes us.  And we’re off.  Adventure on the high seas!bow of boat

Today we are snorkeling our way toward our campsite.  We see a Dugong off the bow.  These giant sea cows are much like a Manatee.  Paul, our “guide in training”  says we are very lucky.  He is disappointed that he missed it.  And then the turtles!  The joke is that every time I use the head, a turtle will be spotted. I missed seeing three of them this way.  But there were plenty more of them.  Along with the dolphins, porpoise and sailfish. And then the giant turtle we spotted while snorkeling.  Easily a meter long.   One friend saw a shark.  Me? Not so lucky.  

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Bungalow #1.  On my way to the outdoor shower.

Arrive at our campsite as the sun is setting.  Little open air bungalows with mosquito netting.  Solar powered lights.  Dinner at the canteen and planning for day two.

Komodo Island for the infamous Dragons.  Apparently, these creatures were hunted almost to extinction.  Then, the government banned all people from the island for four years and now it is a national park.  You can only visit with a park pass and must have a guide with you.  

Our guide is bravely armed with a big stick.  Oh good.  That will do it.  Our first encounter is with some VERY old Dragons that have the pensioner responsibility of entertaining the tourists.  A stick was more than enough protection from these old geezers!  Still, they are amazing creatures.  

We head  back to the boat for more snorkeling and this time diving.  

I’ve seen pictures of Manta Rays, and have never really thought much about them. So when I jumped into the water and found myself next to a five meter wide gentle giant, my mind was blown!  Indescribable.  We did a short “drift” dive and found ourselves underneath the Mantas.  Then we snorkeled and watched them from above.  Swimming in schools of 3 to 10, we saw them in their feeding “station” and their “cleaning” station.   Everyone on board, including the captain, jumped in to experience this incredible moment.  

And then suddenly it was our last day.  A lovely hike on Rinca Island produced a wild Komodo. OK, I was worried that the stick wouldn’t cut it.   We also saw a baby – just a little guy at 4 feet long.   More snorkeling.  And a long, leisurely sunset cruise back to Labuan Bajo. Not a single light on the dozens of islands we pass.  

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No filter.  Really.

The solitude is broken when we head into the crowded port well after dark.  We “raft” up and haul our bags across three boats just to reach the dock.  We say our goodbyes and move on.

I feel incredibly grateful to have these adventures.  Maybe I could become a pirate? I’m not afraid.

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Happy Birthday, Son

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Who’s the wise one here?

My younger son turned 23 yesterday and I am 7000 miles away.  In many ways, I have Phillip to thank for this.  He has taught me so much about living life courageously.  I suspect he has no idea of his influence.  So, this blog is a gift to my son, Phillip.  Happy Birthday, man!

When you first meet Phillip, you quickly notice he is a man of few words.  But when he does speak – listen!  It’s usually funny and dry or carefully considered.  And, it won’t be said twice.

Choose words carefully.  They are powerful.

The boy is comfortable in his own skin.  Phillip does what he wants and is friends with people who value that.  His confidence is subtle.  No puffing up or strutting about.  Just Phil.  Take it or leave it.

Be your authentic self.

One of the most powerful lessons I have learned from this guy is that being alone is not a problem.  Phillip was one of the first people I knew to fully embrace a level of introversion without apology.   Growing up, my generation was not tolerant of this.  We were social at all cost.

Being alone does not mean you are lonely.

Over the years, Phillip has had some uncomfortable challenge.  A series of surgeries that have interrupted his life at various times.  I have been amazed at his patience and resilience during these periods.

You can endure more than you thought possible.

And here I am, at age 54, getting my life lessons from my 20 something son.  Thank you!  I’m honored to be your mom.

The Dogs

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Sleeping wherever.

My day starts at 5:00am and I’m riding my bike to work by 6:15am.  This time of year, it’s still pretty dark at that hour.  But, it has been getting lighter each day and I decided to forgo turning on my hi-tech lights that my safety-conscious husband installed for me.  Not this morning.  Lovely dusky light.  Street lights dimming, sun-rising – the market lights are more than enough to guide my way.

Until I round the corner onto an unlit street.  My quiet mood spikes to high alert when I find myself heading straight toward a large sleeping dog.  I swerve at the very last moment and thankfully miss him.  Damn dog!  Sound asleep in the middle of road. Doesn’t move a muscle.   We know the ol’ adage. “Let sleeping dogs lie.”  Emergency averted.

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This is the guy. Right in the middle of the road.

Soi dogs.  Street dogs.  Here in Thailand they are everywhere.  I’ve spent some time watching them since we moved here 8 months ago.  I have a low grade fear of dogs based on my encounter  at age 7 with Sweet Pea, the German Shepard owned by Mrs. Spudoni, my piano teacher.   Needless to say, my love for strange dogs and piano for that matter, never really developed.

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Same spot, same dog. Right by the market.

Congregating around sources of food, (the markets, near scooter taxi shacks, around gates with guards, outside the 7-11) Soi dogs’ personalities run the gamut:  depressed, angry, impulsive, apathetic, bold, passive.  They are more often than not, mangy and flee-bitten and very skinny.  I’ve noticed that some are loners while some run in packs. The loners are very different from the dogs that have companions.   The loner dogs rarely bark.  Often, you can walk within inches of these dogs and they don’t move or even appear to notice you.  They will sometimes look up – but, with the tired, worn face of resignation.  These are the ones lying in the middle of the road, or trotting in front of cars.   I’ve actually only felt threatened by Soi dogs twice since I’ve been here.  Both times, the dogs appeared to be “guarding” a territory.   Perhaps it was because these dogs had some sort of connection with another dog or a human.  I am struck with the commonality between people and dogs.  Disconnected: homeless, alone, sick, apathetic.  Connected: energetic, assertive, loyal, purposeful.

It’s not pretty and it’s not what I think is right.   But, I admire these dogs.  Resilient. Scrappy as hell.   They have figured out a way.   They know who is a friend and who is a foe in the first seconds of an encounter.   They are cautious:  watching and waiting patiently.  And, when you are deemed a friend – a connection – they may offer a quirky dog “smile” accompanied by soft eyes.  These dogs know.

So tomorrow, I’m slowing down and turning on my headlight.  It’s the least I can do.

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Scrappy as hell.  Offering a dog “smile”.

 

 

Alone

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Me and Hickory

About 30 years ago, I was on the city bus in Seattle.  Coming or going to work, I don’t remember.  I do remember the woman who sat next to me that day.  I remember when she got on the bus and she was looking for a seat – our eyes met, and I must have smiled or something because she walked past several empty seats to sit next to me.  And, as she got closer, it was clear that something was wrong.  

Within a matter of minutes she had introduced herself and explained that she liked to ride the bus, to nowhere in particular really.  She said she often rode the bus for hours each day and said it was the only real relief she had found since her husband had died almost a year before.  She talked about his clothes, his habits, their routines as a couple.  Her eyes would quickly well up with tears, and just as quickly sparkle with pleasant emotions from remembering.  And then, she was gone.  Hurriedly getting up and getting off the bus with purpose-driven energy.

After 33 years of marriage, Rick and I have never spent more than a few weeks apart from one another.  And, today he flew back to the U.S. for a month.  As I write this, it seems so silly for me to be feeling the strong emotions I have.  Embarrassed that at age 54 I have never really been on my own.  Embarrassed to be overwhelmed by the prospect of 30 days without him.  Like the woman on the bus, I think about our habits and routines that are as comfortable as an old shoe.  Our unspoken language and experiences known only by the two of us.  Our natural ebb and flow; give and take. Our shared silence and quiet smiles.  Living life with my best friend and lover.  I am haunted by the prospect that if this is what it feels like for him to simply leave for a month, what will it be like for the one who remains when the first one dies?  Because it will happen.  

Today I am alone.  I have decided to sit with my emotions and feel them.  To allow myself to dive into the ocean by myself.  To sit in the bathroom stall at work and cry; to sleep at 4pm; to ache; to smile.

Today, I am alone. 

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Dinner for one.