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.

 

 

 

 

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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.

 

 

 

 

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.

 

It was everything.

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

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

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

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

Lessons Learned in 2016:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The “real” view from our window.

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

Weirder Than Bangkok

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Guns at the school Christmas party – my new normal

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Tending important relationships – friends for 45 years.

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