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.

 

 

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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.

 

 

 

 

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.  

Sunset off boat

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.

skull on beach

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.

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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Sour Spicy Yummy

“What are ya eating, John?” I called down the hall at school.  John, 11, turns around and smiles. He’s holding a snack package with a kid friendly design and Thai writing. “It’s my favorite Miss Melissa!  Do you want some?” I walk closer.  It looks interesting. Long brownish strips on sticks.  They look a little like beef jerky. “What is it?” I ask as I reach out my hand to accept his invitation to share.  He says something in Thai and I smile innocently.  Then I take a bite.  Fish.  Dried fish.  Salty, crunchy and VERY fishy.

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Salty Fish Snack. Thanks John!

One of the things that you will notice when you come to Thailand is that while people are generally smaller than Westerners in overall stature, they also tend to be much more trim.  Both Rick and I lost weight almost immediately after we arrived. Literally.  Within about a month, I lost almost 10 lbs and Rick lost 20.  And, it’s not like we were dieting or doing anything with an intention of weight loss. After years at a certain size, it was weird to move down a notch and stay there.  Because of this, I’ve actually done some unscientific research on the subject.  And after 7 months here, I’ve got a few ideas.  

More appears to be better. You can get food EVERYWHERE. Food stalls cover almost every square inch of unclaimed space on the streets.  Grilled pork, chicken and shrimp.  Whole grilled and salted fish “pops”.  Fruit cups with watermelon, mango and papaya. Fresh coconut hacked open for a creamy drink.  Little sit-downs with spicy salad or hot noodle soup.  Scooters with grills attached like a side car that drive down the street.  Stuck in traffic?  No problem.  A vendor will sell you little snack bags while you wait in grid-lock.  Kind of like a drive-in on the freeway.  A while back when we went to the beach on a long weekend, I met a mom of three young children.  I said something about bringing snacks to the beach since kids are hungry all the time.  She gave me a puzzled look and said, “why do I need to bring snacks?  There is food everywhere!” And, so her kids snacked on grilled meat, fruit and little cups of soup.

Eating all the time seems to help.  I get to school every morning around 6:30am and the eating has begun.  We have about 15 food vendors in our school canteen.  The variety is awesome:  Korean, Thai, Western, Noodle Shop, fruit smoothies and little pancake treats.  My friend, John, is there every morning and always has rice (molded in the shape of a teddy bear) with a piece of grilled salmon and a seaweed strip.  I grab a smoothie and a banana even though I had a yogurt with granola at home. We have a milk break at 9:15am and lunch at 12:10pm. Both offer food first and when you are finished, recess.  For students in grade 2 through grade 12, children select and monitor their own food.  The preschoolers and kindergarteners  get morning snack, lunch and a snack right after nap time.  These are prepared and delivered to the classrooms.  They get super cute kitty jello mold treats or little moon cakes or something else in a “just right” size for snack.  Lunch for the “littles” is traditional Thai. Grilled chicken and rice is the Thai version of “nuggets and fries.” And then there is sticky rice.  Ah, sticky rice.  Available everywhere in little Nona leaf packets or steamed right inside a bamboo shoot.  Flavored with sweet fruit bits, mango, or of course, fish. Eaten with your hands.  Very good and very sticky!  Perfect kid food.

Fresh and fast.  People are constantly shopping for food.  Whether you are at a street market, or at Tesco Lotus (a super market chain) people shop for fresh food often.  Buying fresh vegetables, fruit and meats occur several times per week. Very few homes have an oven-just a cooktop.  So food is prepared quickly and in small, one meal batches.  Soup just takes about 15 minutes as well as about every stir fry.  Making a chili paste does takes longer but this is made ahead to be used in several meals.  Or, you can buy homemade paste at the market for less than a dollar.  Compared to the shoulder to shoulder crowd in the produce and meat sections at the supermarket, the aisles with canned and processed foods feel like a ghost town.  Quality and freshness matter.

Flavors.  Salty, spicy, savory, sweet. I’ve actually come to except a surprise when I bite into something.  And when I’m not surprised, I get a little annoyed.  “This has no flavor!  Did I get the ‘farang’ version because I’m an obvious Westerner? Don’t they know I have a finely tuned palate after half a year in Thailand?  Where are the super hot bird’s eye peppers?  Where are those bitter green things that look like giant peas but are definitely NOT peas?  I want my SALTY fish!” Food becomes a bit of an adventure – an experience.  My 4th grade friend,Patti, said it best in a poem she wrote for school.  

Som Tum

Sour, Spicy, Yummy

Noodles put in the mortal and with the pestle chop chop chop!

Sour, Spicy, Yummy

Then the Papaya, mmm!  Now is put.

Now the lemon, delicious it will be!

It will be the best Som Tum ever.

Sour, Spicy, Yummy

After that, the chili.

I hope it tastes fabulous for me and my family to eat.

Sour ,Spicy, Yummy

Bam.