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.

 

Thai Massage: It’s Complicated

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Rick makes an audible sigh from the cushion next to me.  I barely open my eyes and glance over at him.  The woman is standing on my husband.  Feet nimbly embedded on his thighs, slowly shifting weight from side to side, she works her toes into his tired muscles.  I smile.  Thai Massage.

Typically weighing in at well under 100 lbs, the majority of Thai massage practitioners are incredibly strong and agile.  Take Pan.  The woman who walks on my husband.  Pan is about 4’10”, petite build, and is roughly 70 years old.  On first meeting, you are charmed.  A quiet smile and gracious bow.  “Saw Wa De Ka “she murmurs in quiet tones.  She leads you into a low lit room with lovely mats on the floor and gives you soft pajama-like garments to slip into.  She silently slips away while you change and just as silently returns when you are ready.  So lovely.  She starts with your feet and begins with gentle pressure using her hands.  But what begins as something akin to a Swedish massage, full of feather strokes and light kneading, quickly becomes a full-body encounter  with feet, knees, elbows, thumbs and forearms.

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Starts out real nice, and then…..

Rolling her forearms across my calves, I love/hate the experience.  I’m reminded of my older son’s description of what he called the “stick”.  As a competitive distance runner, he had a wooden bar that teammates would roll over his tight muscles – as hard as they could muster – to loosen and relax his legs.  Pan’s “forearm stick” technique accomplishes the same and it hurts about  as much as when she does a full plank on top of me as I face the floor.  Toes planted on the soles of my feet,  knees in my thighs and elbows and forearms working the muscles of my back.    I weirdly love it.  It’s almost as good as when I sit cross-legged and she is behind me and puts my arms straight up above my head and literally lifts me off the ground – by my arms  – so my spine can hang freely for a few moments.  I weight about 150.  Little Pan is not a force to be reckoned with.

Thai Massage can be quite social.  Joking and laughing.  Not necessarily silent.  Lots of comments.  “Oh Madam.  You need more massage.  One hour, no good.  Madam needs two hours.  Too tight!! What’s wrong with you?”  Yeah right.  Two hour workout with a hard-body gym rat.  Nice try!

And when it ends, I’m a little sad.  My body feels amazing.  Relaxed, more limber and definitely more “aligned”.   I feel both calm and energized.  Pan kneels in front of me and quietly bows.  “Kap Kuhn Maak Ka.”  She thanks me and slips out of the room.

As I get ready to leave, I ask to make another appointment.  “Next week?”   Pan gives me a toothy smile and nods, “Yes, Madam. Two hours?”  “Yes” I reply sheepishly,  “Two hours.”

God, I love/hate that woman. It’s complicated.

 

 

 

 

 

 

It was everything.

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2016 is put to bed. 2017 is ready to go!

2016.  So many have said it was a lamentable year.  No matter what side of the coin you are on, it seems that we have all grown tired of negative rhetoric and pessimism.   However, I can truthfully say that I have learned so much  from this “less than perfect; very UnHallmark, don’t post that on Facebook” year.

Life, it turns out, is pretty unpredictable and often uncomfortable and difficult.  When did we begin to believe that everything is perfect?  When did we begin to believe our problems could be solved in the matter of days – let alone at all?  

You might be thinking, “Jeez, you’ve been traveling the world – away from all this political hoopla.  What do you know about ‘less than perfect’”?  And, you are likely correct in your thinking.  My “less than perfect” has been very different from my U.S. friends and family.  And while I have been 7000 miles from the circus, this past year has given me the opportunity to become more reflective and, I hope, compassionate about “being human.”  

Lessons Learned in 2016:

Nothing lasts forever…and that’s o.k.  Rick spent the first several months of 2016 helping to sell his father’s home.  Nearly 40 years of life and memories.  Then, selling and moving out of our own family home of almost 20 years.  Difficult?  Yes. Regrets?  A few.  But, those chapters of our life built the foundation for the upcoming chapters. Our history can stifle or launch us.

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My family in front of our home of 20 years. So many important memories here.

Embrace fear.  Leaving was by far the most difficult and scary thing I have ever done.   Saying goodbye to our children.  Rick quitting his job to create his own business.  Buying a condo (how old am I?).  Walking away from all that was familiar to a land unknown. Unbelievable guilt and worry.  

And then I found that the fear turned to hard work.  Living in the Thai culture as a distinct minority; getting sicker than a dog after eating “something”;  total confusion in downtown Bangkok;  giving the taxi driver a 1000 baht bill instead of a 50; constantly thinking ahead. Exhausting.  

Finally, the hard work turned to excitement.  Traveling to 9 different countries in 6 months; eating bugs that taste pretty good; Rick jamming at the local hang-out and making music on a daily basis;  scuffling with aggressive monkeys; writing; exotic Wats; sublime beaches; Rick “forgetting” to get his hair cut.  

Exhilarating and incredibly eye-opening.  But, notice.  I didn’t say ,“great” or “awesome.”  

Reality is better than Facebook.  The pictures and stories I post are just the shiny top  of a deep and interesting experience.  Like the view out of our Tacoma window,  I can show you Mt. Rainier in all it’s glory and crop out the noise and traffic of Highway 16 traffic just below.  Or, I can focus my lens on Highway 16 and crop out Mt. Rainier.  My choice of perspective. But, in reality, life is both.  It’s good, it’s beautiful, it’s bad, it’s ugly, it’s sad and disgusting. It’s everything.  That’s what makes it great.

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The “real” view from our window.

And, for me, that’s what made 2016 great.  It was everything.  

Weirder Than Bangkok

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Guns at the school Christmas party – my new normal

“This is weirder than Bangkok,”  Rick mumbled and looked at me in disbelief as we stood in the middle of  Fred Meyer wondering where our full-to-the-brim shopping cart had gone.    We had just finished a grueling, grocery marathon of Christmas dinner stuff – two days before Christmas.  Rib Roast, fancy IPA beer and local wines.  While all are available back in Thailand, these speciality items cost about a million Baht.  So, this was going to be an epic American meal.  

And then,  “Let’s just get a few pairs of socks”, I say.  “Let’s just leave the cart over here for a minute”, I say.  Gone.  Someone took our full cart.  The weirdest thing is, we hadn’t yet purchased anything. I hadn’t even left my purse in the basket.   Why in the world would someone take our cart?  Our first thought was someone accidentally took it  instead of their own.  Customer service helped us search the store for an abandoned buggy.  Nothing.  Finally, our frustration got the best of us and we just left.  But, as we walked out of the store, it occurred to me that it was entirely possible that someone just took our food and ran.  It would have been easy given the hordes of shoppers and nothing in the cart that would set off an alarm.  A person with a cart-load of food would have just blended into the maddening crowd.

My heart softened a bit.  My inconvenience, yes.  But someone else’s desperation to provide a lovely – and I mean lovely – holiday meal.  Just the day before, we had been watching the news.  There was a feature about  all kinds of alarms and cameras and gadgets that are available to ward off Christmas Gift  thieves.  The heightened and overwhelming expectations of the holidays.  Both material… and emotional.   My own included.

Coming home for the holidays.  I didn’t think I had “heightened” expectations, until I got here.  I read up on “reverse culture shock” and similar to when we arrived in Thailand, I thought I “knew.”  Well, not so much.

I have had a few dashed hopes and expectations.  For example, do you know how dark it is in the Pacific Northwest?  I’ve only lived here for well, my whole life, and had no idea just how dark it gets.  Even on a “sunny” day the sun never gets higher than about  a 45 degree angle from the earth.  Amazing.  And dark.

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Pacific Northwest at 4:00pm. Bring your flashlight!

Donald Trump won the election.  Wow.  And, while some people are happy about this, others’ want to have the PNW secede from the U.S. to become Cascadia.   I had no idea.  My question.  What will the flag look like?  

Everyone is super casual here.  A bank teller in jeans, flannel and fleece?  Really?  This isn’t necessarily bad  but, where’s the perfectly tailored uniform with snappy hat?  I kinda miss that.

Boy, it’s expensive!!  Are you kidding me?  $80.00 for a room at the  Motor Inn (Thai equivalent – $30.00) ; $10.00 for  lunch (Thai equivalent – $2.00);  $1.50 for bottled water (Thai equivalent – $.30); $60.00 for a one hour massage (Thai equivalent – $6.00).  Good thing for the boys that I did my Christmas shopping in Bangkok!

Traffic is crazy!!  It makes no sense!!  People drive on the other side of the road, stay in their lanes and wait for an opening of at least two car lengths before merging.  Then, they get mad and honk their horns at you when you simply pass on the right.  Plus, you are expected to look before you change lanes.  Whatever.

You can drink water straight out of the tap!   O.K., this is NOT a dashed hope.   Actually, I’ve been going hog-wild on this one. (See “cost of bottled water” above.)   

Seriously, who would have thought that Thailand would ever start to feel normal.  I have actually stopped doing “double-takes” when scooters with five passengers go by; I feel constrained when I wear my bike helmet; I arrive to work after my morning market ride and can’t remember the exotic details of my journey; I get cold in an air-conditioned room and turn the temperature up; I eat soup for breakfast and add more chili to my curry.

And, because it feels normal, I realize that the trajectory of my life has changed ever so slightly.  

Recently, a friend  told me she has decided to leave Thailand and go back to Canada at the end of this year.  We talked of our shared  fear of returning to our home countries.  Mundane fears about the cost of living, the weather and driving on the other side of the road.  And our deeply raw fears:  fear of the negative results of untended relationships and long forgotten family obligations; the fear that our most treasured friends and family will not understand our experience.  The fear of not belonging.

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Tending important relationships – friends for 45 years.

The fact is, this international life changes you.  And the change isn’t like this great epiphany or some sort of enlightenment.   It’s like gradually stepping outside of everything and not being able to – and perhaps not wanting to –  step back in. Yet it’s not a rejection.  It’s just a fact.  And when you think about it, not all that weird, really.

 

War & Peace

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Saigon

My earliest memory of the Vietnam war remains starkly vivid. I was at my best friend Murphy’s house eating luke warm Campbell’s Tomato Soup for lunch.  We spent the morning playing Mystery Date and arguing whether the Prom date or the Beach date was better.  Typical day in the late 60’s for a couple of young kids. As we sat eating, Murphy’s mom looked out the window and suddenly starting screaming. She slumped onto the floor shaking and crying.  I was completely confused and ran to Murphy’s older sister who was now also crying.  “Why are you crying?  What’s wrong?”  She silently pointed out the window.  Two young Marine officers in formal uniform were walking up the driveway.  Bill, Murphy’s older brother, was dead.

Almost 50 years later, I’m thinking of Bill as I step off the plane in Ho Chi Minh City – Saigon.

donut-headEleven million people.  Seven million scooters. Skyscrapers mixed with traditional vendors selling bahn mi sandwiches wearing iconic Vietnamese nón lá or leaf hats.  Rich and poor.  New and old. A city that is prospering from an evolving form of Communism which allows for some private business along side government operated entities. While only an hour flight from Bangkok, it feels quite different.  More English.  Less hierarchy.  More assertive and straight forward.  More serious.   Scratch just a little and you will find a complex people who have lived a history of sacrifice and resiliency.  

Take Tiger.  A tour operator for the last 16 years, he is our guide as we cycle 25 miles on rural roads outside of Saigon to the Cu Chi Tunnels (tunnels used and expanded by the  Northern-allied Viet Cong) toward the Cambodian border. He explains to us that while the Americans called it the Vietnam War, the North Vietnamese called it the American Invasion, and the South Vietnamese called it the Civil War.  His family was a “black” family – sympathetic to the South. His mother had been a Catholic nun, but left the nunnery to become a lawyer. When Saigon fell in 1975, theIr family home had been raided and they were forced to flee into central Vietnam.  All of his extended family decided to leave Vietnam and became “boat people”. The lucky ones ended up in the US and Canada – the rest died en route.  For a fleeting moment, his eyes harden as he tells the story.

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Tim with Vietnamese family

We park our bikes in front of a random war memorial – pad locked shut and overgrown with weeds.  We cross the street for a sugarcane drink called nước mía.   Sitting down to rest and visit,  a bunch of kids crowd around to stare and smile at us.  Our friend Tim who is especially out-going, starts “talking” with the kids and taking goofy pictures. Tiger talks and laughs and points out the family members running the business.  Mom and Dad  are cooking.  Children are playing while Grandma is casually keeping an eye on things.  We are the event on this lazy, sunny Sunday afternoon. Returning to our bikes, Tiger points to the memorial and says “Many Viet Cong were killed in this spot. The families that still live here, they lost their fathers and mothers.”  I glance back at the family we just met.  

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Michelin Forest

We cycle into a huge Rubber Tree  forest.  Tiger motions for us to park and shows us how rubber is drained from the trees much like Maple syrup.  We learn that the rubber trade with China has tailed off because of the recent land dispute over islands in the Vietnam Sea – or South China Sea depending on who you talk to.  As he peddles ahead, he calls back, “Ask your American soldier friends if they remember the Michelin Forest”.  In the quiet darkness of the forest, it’s hard to imagine a battle here.  

We stop at the Viet Cong War cemetery.  Like all war cemeteries it’s laid out with perfect symmetry and identical headstones.  Unlike others I have been to,  it not only includes men, but woman and children.  Tiger talks about other groups he has led.  American Veterans that come back to Vietnam with a personal history.  Before each tour, he finds out the story of each man.  He says, “sometimes you must be quiet and let them remember.  I always tell them that the woman and children were part of the Viet Cong Army.  That in the game of war that the leaders created, they were the pawns that had to choose to kill or be killed.  They need to know this.”

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Cu Chi Tunnel entry.

We arrive at the tunnels.  Tiger reminds us that this is a memorial for the Viet Cong.  We are going to see history from the perspective of the North. Our tunnel guide’s grandfather had been a VC soldier.  He and his family had lived in these tunnels. It was the only safe place to be in the midst of a war, where agent orange had defoliated the landscape in an attempt to uncover the hideouts. But these were scrappy people.  Men, women and children participated in the war.  The tunnels, no wider than 2 feet in some spots, are a network that spans for miles.  Offices, hospitals and living quarters were hidden under the earth and protected by bombs and boobie traps on the surface. Our guide maneuvered through the network of tunnels  like an agile cat.  Our Western bodies struggled to simply fit.  But down we went.  Hands and knees.   Cleaned up for tourists, we didn’t have to endure mud, snakes, rats, human waste or tear gas.  The story here of survival is raw and real.  Old tires made into shoes.  Traps made from bamboo.  Landmines made from undetonated US bombshells. These people were survivors.  They were able to endure the impossible.  

We crawl out of the tunnels – three points of a triangle.  The North, the South, the West.  We laugh and talk, enjoying the walk back to our bikes along a lush and green jungle path.  The moment is lovely and pure.  The memory of war woven into the history of each of our lives.  Forgiveness and healing.  The moment is peace.