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.

Stories at 10,000 Feet

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“Have you ever been to Tibet?” I asked our guide, Dzoji.  He was quiet for a minute, took a sip of grain whiskey from his plastic camp cup and smiled.  “Yes. I’ve snuck in twice.”  “Really?”  I hadn’t expected that.  “Tell us!”  Dzoji went on to explain that while Bhutan has always welcomed the Chinese people as individuals, the diplomatic relationship between the countries is strained.  He said, “Before I went to University a group of us decided to trek into Tibet.  We wanted to see if we could do it. It was a two day hike over that pass (as he pointed into the distance).”  “What would happen if you got caught?”, I asked.  He smiled again and laughed.  “Oh, a fine and probably write, ‘I will not go to Tibet’ one hundred times.  It would not be bad.  The problem is small.”  The talk moved to the Dalai Llama and his expulsion from Tibet and I lamented the Chinese occupation.  But Dzoji smiled and said, “India was occupied by Great Britain for 160 years and Gandi was able to return the land to its people using compassion.  So, why can’t this happen for Tibet?  But, we must be patient.  Maybe not in our lifetime.”  Then he frowned and said, “The Dalai Llama has never visited Bhutan.”  I looked at him and said, “Dzoji, I don’t think he needs to.”

I’m not sure when my fascination for the Himilayan mountains began.  It was never really about Mt. Everest, although that’s a pretty interesting history of mountains continuing to conquer man.  No, my attraction has always been Tibet.  The elusive country, once ruled by the Dalai Llama, now occupied by China.   A place where the governance was based in Buddhist philosophy:  harmony, compassion, non-attachment.  A place that had figured it out.  A place of happiness.  It filled my hippy heart!

Well we all know what happened.  The Dalai Llama was expelled and lives in India.  The Chinese now occupy Tibet and have outlawed many  Buddhist practices – even installing their own Dalai Llama –  and have continued to limit human rights.  

And through all this turmoil, right next door, quietly smiling, is Bhutan.

I’m embarrassed to say that until my Bhutanese friend, Sonam, suggested I go, I knew nothing about this small, land-locked oasis.  Rick was underwhelmed by the prospect of visiting.  In fact, it wasn’t until we were landing in Paro, on a medium size jet – literally weaving through mountain passes (only 20 pilots in the world are certified to land there), did he start to get excited.  And there is a lot to get excited about.   The stats are impressive:  700,000 total population.  Only 100,000 visitors allowed each year.  No stop lights in the country.  Television was introduced in 1999.  Mountains aren’t even named until they are over 14,000 feet.  It’s the world’s only carbon sink.  That means, it absorbs more CO2 than it gives out.  Citizens have a constitutional obligation to preserve and protect the environment.  It is a place where people happily live almost organically with nature.

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No need for stop lights when you have this fine fellow directing traffic.

But the facts don’t even begin to describe this Buddhist nation.   Bhutan is a place best explained through stories.

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The Tiger’s Nest.

We are hiking up a mountain to visit an historic monastery, built in the 1600’s.  Dzoji and our driver, Tzensin are with us, as they always are.  (You must use a government sanctioned tour agency to visit Bhutan.  This includes a guide and driver that accompany you during the day.)  Dzoji explains that all monasteries – and they dot every mountain – are filled with monks who are meditating for 300 days in complete silence.  They are fed and cared for by sponsors or family members.  But, this monastery was special.   One of the meditating monks is the reincarnation of the architect  that designed and built the world famous Tiger’s Nest Monastery.   “How did they know he was the reincarnation?”  I ask.  “Because he knew all the details of the building and told his parents about it when he was just 3 years old.  He is now 26 and about half way through his 3 year meditation.” Dzoji explains.  “What happens if you don’t want to continue your meditation?”, I ask.  Dzoji looks at me with surprise and said, “It is a promise.  Everyone finishes.   Unless you die.”

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Before things went side-ways. Looks real cute and all….

As we are climbing down, a mountain goat gets a little feisty with Rick and starts charging him.  Dzoji gets between them and tries to distract the goat  but the goat turns and  head-butts Dzoji  and he nearly falls off the ledge.  Tzensin bravely takes the goat by the horns and holds him still while everyone gets past.  Then, he gently releases the goat.  Dzoji turns to the goat and smiles.  “I was just trying to be compassionate”, he tells the goat.

Eating lunch with a woman named Yangchen.  She is my friend’s cousin and owns the tour agency we used.  We are engaged in a conversation about my job as a counselor.  I share with her that one of the most common issues I see in my student population is anxiety.  She is quiet for a moment and then says, “Here in Bhutan, we have our problems, our worries.  I am sure that there are some big worries that I don’t know about.  But I wonder.  Is it so bad to have a problem?  Maybe we shouldn’t push our difficulties away.  Maybe we should hold them and learn from them and become stronger and more compassionate because of them.”  

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Standing at the top of a mountain pass, we are hoping desperately for the clouds to part so we can catch a glimpse of the tallest Himalayan peaks.  No luck.  Oh well.  We chat, laugh and begin our short descent down to the parking lot.  Suddenly, a dark cloud rolls over Dzoji’s face.  He quickly walks away from us onto a grassy field stewn with the garbage of lazy tourists.  He picks up every piece of garbage and disposes of it.

We are sitting on mats on the floor of a farm house drinking butter tea and talking about all things Bhutanese.  This is the home of the town’s elected “mediator.”  The husband is called upon to settle all types of problems from land disputes to marital issues. If people can’t settle the problem, he will.   We have been told that at no time should our feet point toward another person.  Extremely rude.  Not a problem if you are sitting cross legged.  But, Rick is struggling.  He’s not a yoga guy and this sitting position is clearly taking a toll on his knees.  The wife’s eye’s soften and she motions for Rick to stretch out on the mat.  All’s well and we finish with a Bhutanese version of Saki, more talk and Rick lounging on pillows.

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Stoically poising for a picture.

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Off to do who knows what.

We are visiting Punakha  the historical capitol of Bhutan.  As we cross an incredibly beautiful river toward the Dzong, two very young boy monks walk up from the river.  They are maybe 9 years old and obviously best buddies.  They are talking and laughing.  I smile and motion that I’d like to take their picture.  They are clearly not excited about this and start to walk away. Dzoji comes over and speaks to them in Bhutanese.  I’m sure the translation went something like this, “Look, you two need to shape up right now and let this nice lady take your picture.  Be kind.   Don’t give me that attitude.  30 seconds of your time won’t kill you.”   I quickly snapped the picture and just as quickly, they shoot off like lightening running at high speed to do whatever 9 year old boys would rather be doing. We all laugh out loud.  Boys.

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Hiking with a machete. This is not for wimps

Hiking along a ledge, our trail suddenly narrows to about 18 inches wide due to a wash-out.  On our right, a rock face going straight  up and on our left, a cliff covered with dense follage.  “O.K.”, I think.   “If I fall, I’ll probably just get caught up in all that brush.  No problem.”  The trail continues to narrows a bit more and now we need to climb over a boulder that is wedged into the spot where the trail is completely washed out.  Alright then.  Heart-beating, I clambor over this and the trail thankfully widens and we reach a small monestary where we stop for a quick break.  Rick asks, “Hey Dzoji, are there any more treacherous spots on this trail?”  Dzoji looks confused.  “Treacherous?”  New vocabulary word.  Rick says, “Yeah, you know, dangerous”.  Dzoji nods with understanding and matter-of-factly says  “Dangerous?  Yes.” and continues down the path.

30 minutes later we are on yet another ledge – also narrow.  We round a bit of a bend and the follage disappears to our left.  It is a 400 foot shear face, to a teeny, tiny river below.  We come to a place where we need to step over a gap while hugging our body against the rock wall.  Then, step down about 2 feet onto a very small ledge and manuever onto a steel ladder that has been drilled into the granite.  Remember, we are 400 feet up a shear rock cliff.  The ladder steps are about 3 inches deep and the ladder handles maybe 6 inches off the rock. It is as if we are repeling without that little thing on your butt and the person at the bottom controlling the ropes.  We climb carefully down about 50 feet before we get onto another small ledge and then back on the trail once again.   (My hands are sweating as I type this.)  What does Dzoji say?  “Ah Melissa.  You are what we call a tomboy.  You are strong!  You can sit up proud after that!”  Thanks.

It’s 6:30am at 13,000 feet.  Probably 20 degrees and we are above the clouds.  The sunrise is indescribable.  Our newest dog friend, Mamasita is hanging out with us.  We think she’s pregnant, hence the name.  We have an 8 mile trek ahead of us down to the Tiger’s Nest.  But before we go, we hike up to the top of a ridge that faces Tibet.  I hang a 100 foot string of prayer flags among the stunted trees.   I know my sister Karen would have liked that.  I cry and remember.

Compassion. Happiness. Sadness. Life affirming. Athentic living. This is the direction of my life. I look out toward Tibet and know that this is my heart, my “Tibet.” Bhutan.

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Karen’s Prayer Flags – looking out toward Tibet.

 

 

 

 

Simple

Yesterday, I bought a “Hello Kitty” toaster.  It wasn’t an easy decision. Not because it was inanely silly but, because up until now, all of our purchases have been made with the intent of bringing said item home to the states.  But  I can’t use this toaster in the U.S – wrong voltage, it won’t work.   Until yesterday, I have psychologically been a visitor to Thailand.  Well, I am not visiting.  I live in Thailand.  And frankly, all the craziness and loneliness, excitement and exhaustion is growing on me.  I love being in the moment of our simple life.

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Hello Kitty Toaster. Every homes needs ones.

For me, entering into another culture has been nothing short of mind-blowing.  And while my first blogs have humerously expressed my shock and humiliation, there is so much that is amazing and wonderful about this  experience.  Here’s what makes me happy in Thailand.

I am becoming a fan of Heineken.  I know, I know.  This is blasphemy from a NW girl where beers like Wicked Cousin or Bodice Ripper are the norm.  But, it’s nice to go simple.  And, in comparison to our local selection of Leo, Chang and Singha – Heineken is truly the king of beers.

No car.  Need I say more?  O.K., I will.  No driving, no gas, no parking, no repairs. Sigh.

No scooter.  We had one and took it back.  Thank GOD!  We had to end the madness.  It’s not just going fast on scary crazy busy streets, it’s also going SUPER slow through a market and trying to keep the scooter from tipping over.  Enough.

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Going to work at 6am. Simple.

If not a car or scooter, then what?  I ride my bike to work everyday.  Rick rides his bike for errands around our neighborhood.  Longer distances?  Took a 4 hour train to Hua Hin for about  $6 each.  One hour cab ride into downtown Bangkok for about $9.  Same distance on the water taxi is 50 cents and it’s about a dollar on the Sky Train.  Plus, you can take a scooter taxi or a tuk tuk or bus thingy.  Just walk along and stick out your hand (palm down of course – otherwise it’s somehow offensive) and you will eventually get a ride.  Bonus:  someone else is driving.

No T.V.  Don’t misunderstand.  We can GET T.V. – we choose not to.  We get our news when we want it.  LOVE THIS.  And, we access a variety of internet news services from the US, Thailand, UK, Hong Kong – interesting to see the world from different perspectives.   Yes, we watched the debates… on Youtube.  Sick of hearing about the emails?  Fast forward.  Sick of the converation about groping?  Fast forward.  Simple.

Cash-based society.  Day to day stuff is found in street markets that spring up everywhere.  You can buy ANYTHING at a market.  Food, clothes, household goods, extension cords, fans, potted plants, pets, car parts, computer gear, toys.   We pay our bills at 7-11 in cash.  The only time we use our debit card is to take cash out of the ATM machine.  I can’t tell you how much simplier our financial life has become.  We just subtract our ATM cash withdrawals from our balance and Voila!  We know how much money we have.  Simple.

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Yes. That’s all going on the back of the scooter. How else do you get merchandise into the narrow lanes of Chinatown?

Letting go.  For those of you who know me, this is kinda big.  Thailand is a place where our lack of control is starkly evident.  For me, I know this intellectually.  I know I can’t really control everything in my environment or the outcome of events.  But, being the human I am, I valiantly continue to try.  Here, laws that have offered a sense of control are non-existent.  You spill hot coffee on yourself and get a burn?  Bad luck.  Can I help you get to the doctor?   Taxi driver take you to the wrong place?  So sorry.  Big smile.    But, what do you do?  Mai Pen Rai.  No need to blame.  Let it go.

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Get hit by a train? Bummer. No law. You probably should have moved.

Boredom.  The simple nature of our Thai life has offered a chance to do nothing.   Many of the distractions of our US life have been slowly peeled away.  My sister Karen once said that being bored is a good thing because it allows us a chance to find and do what we really want to do.  I would add that it also offers a chance for self-reflection.  If you’re open and allow the reflection to occur, this can be powerful and sometimes painful.  The good, the bad, the ugly.  So far, I’ve seen a little of each.   And, it’s all o.k.   

Thank you Thailand.  It’s as simple as that.

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Not Doing.

Humbled — Going Global

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 […]

via Humbled — Going Global

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.”

So, what are ya gonna do?

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Islamic Architecture in Kuala Lumpur

“Ladies and Gentlemen, we are making our final descent.  As per Malaysian government regulation, your flight attendants will be fumigating the cabin with a non-toxic insecticide.  Please cover your nose and mouth.  Thank you.”

I look up in disbelief from the Duty Free catalog.  Rick and I make “significant” eye contact and look around.  No one seems alarmed as the flight attendants walk through the cabin spraying the “non-toxic” insecticide.  How the hell is it non-toxic if it’s meant to kill?  Damn Zika.   So, what do you do?  You cover your nose and mouth and hope to hell that you don’t grow an extra ear any time soon.  Where in the world are we heading?

Kuala Lumpur.  Or as the locals call it, KL.  It’s kind of a California thing, I guess.  Ultra modern city with skyscrapers and lots of shiny stuff.  Drivers stay in their lanes. People wear helmets.  There are rules here.  Plus, as a former British colony, English is spoken. Jackpot.  So, we got fumigated?  No problem.  This is going to be a great long weekend.  And it is.  Just not as predictable as one might imagine.

Malaysia is a cultural melting pot of sorts.  The state religion is Islam but there is a huge Indian and Chinese population as well.  So, throw in a little Hinduism and a little Buddhism and a history of British colonialism and, well, that’s interesting.

When our driver pulled up to our hotel, The Majestic, my jaw hit the floor.  This is one of the original colonial hotels of the region from the 1930’s.  Our valet was wearing one of those old jungle safari get-ups with the hat, short pants and side arm.  All in white.  The lounge (where we spent a million ringgits on drinks) included a quartet in white tuxedos playing old standards from the era.  Who knew that Hotels.com could pull that out of a hat?  Fabulous.

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British Colonialism alive and well.

Even the thunderstorm that night was amazing.  I had chatted with a guy on the plane about Southeast  Asian thunderstorms and compared the sound of thunder in Bangkok to  a “bomb.”  He told me not to say “bomb” on a plane and buried his head in his book.   But right when we landed (after the fumigation), in the pouring rain, he turned to me, smiled and said, “you think thunder in Bangkok is like a bomb?  Well, thunder in KL is like a nuclear explosion!”  He was right.  Now what?  We hunkered down in our hotel and enjoyed watching mother nature in a full-on rage.

Moving around the city, the Muslim influence was everywhere.  Pink “ladies only” cars on the subway trains; little prayer rooms right next to the washrooms.  More than half the woman wore a Hijab (head covering) and a good percentage wore a full Burka.  I had never seen uniforms (e.g. airport security) designed for Muslim woman.  We were able to visit the National Islamic Art Center which housed some incredible artifacts and artwork.  And, the call to prayer each morning and night.   My normal attire, beer logo t-shirt and shorts, was not going to work.  But everything I brought was somehow offensive.  I felt like a total hussy.  Running around with my sleeveless dress, bare feet in sandals and knees out for the world to see.  Solution?  I wrapped my beach sari around my waist and hoped for the best.  What’a ya do?

flag-klThe Hindu temple site, Batu Caves was a different experience entirely.   Hindu temples have been built into ancient caves located about 5kms out of the city.  Standing guard outside the caves is  Lord  Moruga.  At 140 feet high, his golden self is pretty impressive.  And everything is bright.  Blue, red, yellow, gold. Not just the temples and the gods and the art  – but the people!  Amazing colorful sari’s on Indian woman.  Beautiful bright tunics on the men.  Henna designs on faces and arms and legs.   As I stood and observed – what first appeared to be almost a carnival atmosphere – began to shape-shift right in front of my eyes.  Look a little closer.  A young child with shaved head and some sort of paint on her skull.  An old woman in worn sari shuffling barefoot up 272 steps toward a temple.  Smiling family portrait in front of a god that is tearing open his chest. And finally, two adults dressed in yellow, carrying a small body, wrapped in a yellow shroud, up those 272 steps.  A death rite.  This was a sacred place.   So what did I do?  I put my camera away and quietly observed.  Beautifully disquieting.marunga-kl

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272 steps…

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Family Portrait

That night, the best curry ever followed by beers at a bar that played “authentic” Western Rock music (Bon Jovi?  Are you kidding?).  Prada store two blocks from a seedy hookah bar and a walk through the best Chinese antique junk store ever.  “My husband he no like my junk.  I buy and then I sell it and then I buy some more.”  I liked that woman.  So, I spent way too much on my 1970’s Chairman Mao alarm clock.  Oh well.  Best money spent in a junk shop yet.

Too quickly, we are driving back to the airport and Rick mentions how great the traffic is in KL and how nice it is to not feel worried about getting somewhere late.  As soon as those words left his mouth – blowout.  Left rear tire.  We swerve and pull over to the very narrow shoulder.  The driver apologizes and goes to get the jack.  Broken.  Rick and I actually started laughing.  What do you do?  So we laughed and chatted with the driver and his son until another car got there. We made it. Barely.

So what are ya gonna do?  Mai Pen Rai.  I think I’m starting to get it.

Same Same….Different

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Chairman Mao says “Good Morning!”

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With 5 floors, it’s important to make sure the kids stay to the…..left!! Remember, we drive like the Brits here.

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Just kids…. mingling outside before school starts.

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From my blog posts so far, you may not realize that I have actually been working for the last 6 weeks.  My culture shock outside of school has been pretty dramatic.  Blog worthy stuff, I’d say.  My transition to my new school?  As the Thai say, Same Same….Different.

I start my morning with my vintage Chairman Mao wind-up alarm clock (a real find at a Chinese flea market in Malaysia 🙂 going off at 5:00am.  The little mechanical worker children on the face of the clock smile and wave madly at me as if to say, “Get up, it’s time to work!  Working is good!  Working helps your society!  Chairman Mao is smiling!”  Time to get rolling.

Get dressed, eat breakfast, hop on my bike and pedal to work.  Sunny mornings include a lovely sunrise over the Khlong (canal) and long-legged waterfowl stepping lightly through the rice paddies.  Rainy or post rain mornings are different.  Poncho, wind, dodging enormous puddles and hoping the passing cars are thoughtful enough to drive around these temporary lakes as they go by.  Geckos making one hell of a ruckus – took me a few weeks to figure out what the sound was!

Arrive.  First things first.  Turn on the AC.  The hallways are outdoor breezeways and the canteen (cafeteria) is a covered outside area.  So, 95 degrees going from place to place and refrigerator cold in classrooms and offices.  I’ve actually acclimated enough that I set my AC at about 80-82 degrees.  Yes.  A northwest girl just said that.  The change between the extremes is awful otherwise.

We speak English at Ruamrudee (RIS.)   While we are a K-12 Catholic International school, our student population is mostly Thai nationals seeking to attend American, Australian or British Universities.  So, the only Thai you hear is in Thai class, in the preschool, and by the Thai non-teaching staff.   More than half of our students are English Language Learners.  I am learning to change my communication and teaching style to accommodate this.   Plus, not all parents speak English so about half of my meetings include an interpreter.  I’m learning to “wei” (bow with hands as if in prayer)  more appropriately and have been told by veteran staff that a parent meeting that starts with a “wei” but ends with a handshake is considered successful.  I’m batting about 500.

My counseling day.  Hold onto your hat.  I haven’t had to de-escalate a single child yet!!  Overt anger and explosive behaviors are replaced by anxiety and covert anger responses.  But, this makes perfect sense.  The Thai culture is one in which feelings are withheld in an attempt to reduce conflict.   Laughter and smiling are the path of least resistance.  

Since  we are one of a handful of international schools  in Thailand with a full special services program, I am working with a good number of students on the Autism spectrum.  It’s incredibly gratifying to be able to work with these students knowing that the resources we are providing are so welcome. Parents are so grateful to have a place where their children are accepted and educated with knowledge and confidence.  

As a Catholic school run by the Redemptorist Order, we sponsor a number of social programs including a few orphanages and a prison education program among others so our elementary leadership program (we call it Phoenix Pals)  has plenty to do!!   I’m busy.  Just differently. Thank God  I have an excellent intern.  She has been in Thailand for 5 years as a teacher and knows her way around.  Plus, she is really good.  Actually really, really good.

Food.  Hell yeah.  The canteen has about 15 food providers.  Folks contract with the school and each run a little restaurant here.  We have Thai, Indian, Chinese, “Western” (mashed potatoes in a little cup), a Smoothie stand, a Coffee stand, a Noodle place, Greek and Italian.  The cost?  Anywhere from 30 baht to 60 baht ($1-2) for a large full-plate serving.

Just like the states, we have “guaranteed and viable” curriculum in reading and math.  Different?  We also have science, social studies, music, PE, Thai, and, are you sitting down?  Art.  Yes.  We have a full-time elementary art teacher. Mr. Josh has a FULL TIME POSITION as a Preschool – grade 5 art teacher.  By 5th grade, students create an on-line portfolio.   Plus, and this is about the cutest thing ever, Preschool, Pre-Kindergarten and Kindergarten have nap time!!  Each kid brings a comfy mat and blanket and they sleep or at least “rest” for about 90 minutes at the end of the day.  When parents come to get them they are fresh as daisies (complete with hilarious bedheads) and ready to take on the rest of their day!

Names.  In Thailand, everyone, and I mean EVERYONE goes by a nickname.  Given names  (both first and last) are extremely long.  So, nicknames are the norm.  And these nicknames range from the traditional to the unique.  Prim, Pan, First, Party, Ivy, Boss, Miaow, Boeing.  I haven’t quite figured out if these names are chosen with an intent or if they just sound nice.  One day, I told a girl the English meaning of her name, Bouquet.    I said it was beautiful and defined it as  a “bunch or collection” as in a “bouquet of flowers.”  The smile she gave me was unforgettable.

And the kids?  Same, Same.  Curious, funny, naughty, imaginative, impulsive, motivated, lazy.  Give ‘em an inch and they’ll take a mile.  Looking for attention and belonging.  Trying  to understand their place on this incredibly complicated, yet simple, planet.   Just like the states, THIS is the reason educators become educators.  The smiles, the tears, the moment when they “get” the concept you are teaching.  Smiling and waving  like the children on my alarm clock –  it’s the kids that bring us back to the school house each and every year.  Nothing different here.

 

Beauty in the Unexpected

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Selfie on CROWDED Ferry Taxi. Photo bombs are not optional!!
A Relative asked Rick if we were having fun, here in Thailand.  His response to this friendly inquiry was, “Well, I’m not sure “fun” is the word I would choose.”
This experience may be the most challenging thing I have ever done in my life.  Someone said, “it will be more and less of what you expect.”  Bingo.
I could say everything is amazing and that would be true.  In both the positive and negative sense.  When you come, be prepared to be unprepared.  It’s hotter than I’ve ever experienced and so humid.  I am drenched by the time I get to work.  I can’t put my sports bra on by myself because it’s the “over the head” style and sticks to my body and won’t move.  My feet are slightly swollen so certain shoes will never be worn here.  You need number 50 sunscreen for WATER SPORTS, or you will sweat it off in 30 seconds.
The beach is NOT close by.  The beach is a weekend endeavor.  Downtown Bangkok is not close by.  Basically, our philosophy is work during the week and take mini vacations on the weekend  And that is because whatever you do takes a lot of time and rarely goes according to plan.  The Thai phrase, Mai Pen Rai, roughly translates to “no worries” or “what will happen will happen.”  This Karmic attitude is spot on.  Best laid plans are almost laughable.  Who knows what will happen.  Really. 
Monsoon rain?  Check.  
Fender Bender?  Check.
No credits cards taken here.  Run around until you find an ATM.  Check.  
Taxi takes you to the wrong place?  Check.  
Nobody available to weight your fruit?  No fruit today.  Check.
If you are a germ phone, let that go now!  No dishwashers so even at restaurants everything is hand-washed in a huge, murky vat.  Barefoot inside the Wats, no exceptions.  Mystery street food wrapped in waxed bags passed out by venders that wander among the stopped cars in a traffic jam.  Food handling without gloves.  Community combs at the gym; shared flip flops for the steam room and a little basket next to the squat toilet for your used t.p.
Safety is your own responsibility.  We wear seat belts in the cabs….when they are available…and put life jackets in a boat…when available.  No helmet?  No problem.  Baby on the handlebars of your scooter?  No problem.  Cram 15 people in the back of a pickup?  I think we can fit one more, don’t you?  Wanna be a fire dancer?  OK, you’re 10 and look to be able to use a lighter.  Hired.  Either that or you can be a “tour guide” on a rickety long boat.
That said, I really like it here.  So much beauty tucked inside daily encounters.  Scary soi (street) dogs lounging in the sun;  an incredible Buddhist temple next to a Soviet block style skyscraper; perfectly arranged fruit on a dilapidated card table; chanting monks in tattered saffron robes;  Muslim call to prayer over a crackling loud-speaker; the old man in a worn uniform that salutes me each morning on my ride to work.  
Everything is raw and real.  No boneless, skinless chicken breasts here!  Just whole chickens with head, feet and innards, hanging at the market in a surprisingly appealing way.
Please visit.  If you come with an open mind, and more importantly an open heart, you will have the experience of a life-time.
Plus, we’ll take you to the beach.
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We’ve still got room on this thing…

Silly Farang!

So, I’m done crying and am now just trying to figure things out. It’s really pretty funny. At least for the Thais. Basically, I’m living an extended episode of Idiot Abroad. They say you learn the most from your mistakes, so maybe I’m actually a genius!

Saying hello. Sounds simple, right? Well let’s think about how a toddler learns to say hello. First, someone shows them how to wave. Then, the kid realizes, “hey, this is so cool! When I wave to someone they wave back! I’m going to try it out with….. Everyone! And hold on, words go with the hand motion!! Let me try that out too…with Everyone!” It’s super cute and everyone loves waving at the toddler!

Now, replace the toddler with a middle aged woman. Replace the wave with the “Wei” (hands together as in prayer with a bow) and replace the “hello” with “Sawadi ka” and rather than cute it’s just plain silly! So, I am still in the toddler stage frantically bowing to everyone, trying to figure out a simple greeting. So far, I get a big grin and a returned “Wei.”  Maybe I AM super cute.

Never, and I mean NEVER go anywhere without your umbrella. So, being from the Pacific Northwest, I scoff at umbrellas. What? It’s my Northface jacket or nothing. Here, you need to bring your umbrella everywhere. I learned this after a lovely afternoon at the open market. Boat ride. Shopping. Street food. Strolling. And what happened? I got the worst sunburn of my life! Umbrella? Yes. For the sun. You sweat off every drop of sunscreen in about 3 minutes. I got this special umbrella with a silver lining just to deflect heat. I think I’ll get a real parasol when I go to Chiang Mai in November.

 

Never, and I mean NEVER go anywhere without a rain poncho. I learned this on Monday.   We joined a gym that is about ⅛ of a mile from our house. It usually rains in the late afternoon here and the warning is a very sudden and heavy wind. The rain is often short lived. Maybe an hour. So, I think, “ I’ll ride my bike to the gym right before it rains and then work out during the rain, and then ride home after the rain.” Good plan. So, I’m on the treadmill and it starts raining. Right on schedule. But this is different. Think 2-3 inches of rain in an hour. This is serious stuff. Thunder and lightening and sooooooo much water. I’m stuck. Plus, it doesn’t stop after an hour. Damn Mother Nature! I extend my workout. I eat a salad at the little restaurant. I wait in the lobby. Two hours go by and I have to get home. So, I walk out the front door and the nice valet says, “car?” I smile and say, “no, bicycle” and make a pedaling motion with my hands. He just busts out laughing as I head into the downpour and ride home through that 3 inches of standing water…..without a poncho. Didn’t need a shower after that workout!

Take your picture??  Doesn’t mean, “Will you please take a picture of my family so we can all be in it.” It means, “Will you pose with me, a perfect stranger, so I can have a photo of a farang?” (Farang means foreigner.) Talk about feeling like a rock star! (Or maybe the bearded lady.). Interesting. I did it a couple of times. What the hell.

One of the real joys I have here is riding my bicycle to and from work. Some of you know that cycling has become a big part of my life. Rick and I have done some extended trips and are very comfortable “in the saddle.” So, I got myself an inexpensive geared bike to ride to work. My route goes through our gated Western-style neighborhood, through a traditional Thai market row, and then down a long, country road to school. We drive/ride on the left side of the road here. (Like the UK.)

So, my first morning riding to work, I am in heaven! I’m finally comfortable. So familiar! I jet past the guard at the gate of our neighborhood as he salutes me and yells “Ka!” in traditional Thai form. I nod with confidence. All is good. I turn into the market area. I’m weaving between pedestrians, food carts, motorcycles, street dogs. The farang is amazing! So talented on her bike! And then, a very old woman, also on a bike, is heading toward me. She’s going 2 miles an hour on her ancient bike fitted with grocery baskets on both front and back. We make eye contact. It’s clear we are on a collision course….,so my instincts kick in and I move……Right. Yep. Exactly opposite of what I needed to do. Haven’t crashed a bike since I was about 10. Got a nice road rash. Thank God she didn’t hit the ground too. All she did was cover her mouth and laugh hysterically.  (Thai body language for extreme embarrassment.)  Nice work.

Now, I walk my bike through the market. And, the market folks seem to know me. I wonder why. Silly farang.