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Monday, May 16, 2011

From Point A to Point B

May 8. Actually, I’ll need to begin this day on the night before. On the night of the 7th, I had left Mae Sariang for the last time. I was scheduled to fly home on the morning of the 8th. This was a bit sooner than I had originally planned, but in order to ensure that I had a summer job I needed to be home earlier. My goodbyes with the staff and children were short and sweet. However, if the other children had been there I’m sure it would have been a different farewell. With Bay, Goe, and Tim all in America, I didn’t feel as sad, but it was still depressing to leave the place you had called home for a month. Brian, Bowjoe, and Doe came with me into Chiang Mai for one last good time together, and we did have a great last night.

We didn’t even waste time hanging around the base house. As soon as we arrived, the Thailand Manager drove us to the mall for dinner where I experienced my last authentic Thai meal for a very long time. I ordered some delicious curry and some sticky rice and mango to finish. Afterwards, we wandered aimlessly through the mall trying to find the main exit (all the other ones had been locked). Upon finding the main exit, we spotted a movie theater inside the mall. I hadn’t seen an actual movie in a while and was eager to. Thankfully, Fast and Furious 5 was playing at midnight and it was the only movie in English.

I ended up not sleeping that night. The four of us went back to the base house talked until 5:00, at which time I needed to board my plane to Bangkok. I wanted to keep my goodbyes to everyone as brief as possible (it’s really not in me to have drawn out goodbyes).  It actually turned out to be more of a “see you later!” than a goodbye. From that point on, things starting going badly.

I needed to wait another hour for the check-out counter to open, which wouldn’t have been a problem if my flight didn’t leave in an hour and a half. After checking my baggage, I had to continue through customs. However, I was stopped halfway through the procedure and asked to step out of the line. It turns out that I had stayed 8 days over my 1 month visa. I had to pay 500 baht for every day I had stayed over, in cash. Now, I had spent all my cash beforehand and I lost my ATM card days ago, so consequentially I had no means of paying, and that was just the beginning.

I exhausted every guilt trip in my arsenal, but this customs officer was immune to my charms. The only option left to me was to find Wi-Fi, Skype my parents, have them give me the PIN to my backup credit card, and buy a new flight to Bangkok. It all went surprisingly smoothly and I was on my way to Bangkok within the hour.

I wanted nothing more than to doze off on my flight to Bangkok, but I couldn’t. I was too anxious about the next flight to even blink. The customs officer caused me to sacrifice crucial time for my transfer to the flight going from Bangkok to Hong Kong and now I only had 30 minutes to check my bag, check in, pay my way through customs, head through security and make my way through one of the world’s largest airports to my gate.

I tried preparing for the upcoming ordeal as well as I could. I nagged the flight attendant to make sure that my luggage was handed to me as soon as we landed, so I wouldn’t need to go through baggage claim, and I put all my metal into my backpack, leaving only the cash I needed, my boarding pass, and my passport in my pocket. All my daily runs also came in handy, because if I hadn’t have sprinted through the airport, I would have never made that flight.

I was too relieved and full of adrenaline to sleep on the flight from Bangkok to Hong Kong. I tried blogging about my flight, but I wasn’t in the mood to write. Even attempting a little self-reflection was too much for me to handle. In the end, I gave up trying to do anything productive and decided on watching a few movies before I landed in Hong Kong. Even during my 4 hour layover, I couldn’t let the creative juices flow.

For 4 hours, I walked around the airport, eating lunch, and peering at the quirky, duty-free items for sale. I began to feel guilty of how much time I was wasting, and the endless rows of perfume and rum wasn’t helping this feeling. Then I realized, I was feeling a sense of loss, one that I had felt only once before. That was when I was on my way home from my service trip in Tanzania so many years ago. But before I had time to let this feeling swell inside me, I was falling asleep on the plane to New York.

Thursday, May 12, 2011

From Tourists to Farmers

May 2-7. I never thought I would miss the sound of the roosters cooing above my head at 5am… and I thought correctly. Their piercing shrieks are almost as bad as listening to Chinese karaoke when you’re trying to sleep, but it’s a close call. The mornings were as glorious as ever at the orphanage and I relished in the rising sun that I had missed for 2 weeks straight. The rotis, apples, pineapple, and patka poa were as delicious as ever. Even Tavi, a rambunctious 12 year old who got on everyone’s nerves, couldn’t bother me when he tried to poke my eyes out with his fork.

The differences in this week of the orphanage were few, but profound. As I had explained in my last post, the second half of the kids were here at the orphanage, while the ones I had been with before were away with their families. I also did not do as much adventuring or new things as I normally had done before. Bowjoe and Goe seemed too busy to spare time to take us to any waterfalls or temples, and since every other staff member was either busy or had left for America (including Tim and Bay), Brian and I were left to our own devices. This wasn’t much of a setback, just more of an unexpected change. My schedule also became much fuller than it normally was. I was now teaching 3 English classes a day. The 2 girls who sold us rotis every morning were eager to learn English, so every evening at 7pm you could find me tutoring these 2 girls in the Big House.

Brian, on the other hand, was content with playing soccer in the evenings. I was never all that great at soccer and didn’t want to try my hand at becoming seriously embarrassed, so I let him do that on his own. During our down time, we would bike around Mae Sariang, get massages, or watch a soccer game. However, we didn’t get a bunch of down time because in addition to our jobs as English teachers, we also became farmers.

Every afternoon, before lunch and after English lessons, we would plow a field with the other staff members. When I used to think of plowing, I thought of oxen pulling the plow machine while the farmer steers it. The Thailand reality is much farther from that. There was a small motor equipped to the plow, but it did almost nothing to ease the process. It was mostly the strength of your body to propel the plow forward. As such, it took a long time. After one circle of the field, you would be too hot and your hands would be too blistered to carry on, so we switched after every round.

Talking with Brian about our adventures never became dull. It was amazing to realize how much we had experienced in such a short time, and it was great to share these experiences with someone who could understand what they meant to you. We never wasted time in pondering whether or not we wanted to do something new, because were both in a “let’s do it all” state of mind. It was even better to have a friend with you during those experiences at the orphanage because it made plowing fields, climbing trees, teaching English, and biking around the area 10 times more fun.

The nights were also fun with Brian. We stayed up, watching soccer games and talking about nothing, while the kids played games. They let us join in a few times on their ridiculous hand games, but Brian and I were so bad that we decided to no longer embarrass ourselves after the first few rounds. Before bed each night, we would take turns buying the kids ice cream, which probably gave us some bonus points in their eyes. Our logic behind it was that if we ever want to come back to Thailand to stay for free, we could always count on those kids to remember those chocolate nut bars.

Sunday, May 8, 2011

Old Friends

May 1. An hour after I had left Bangkok I was to be found picking up my luggage and in the company of one of the coolest Thai dudes ever, Bay. His original plan was to leave for America on the 18th, but he stayed just long enough to send me out to back to Mae Sariang. We spent the night in Chiang Mai and the next morning I was waving goodbye to the coolest Thai dude ever through the glass of a public van.

Another student of the orphanage, Chat Chai, came with me. I had met him on only one other occasion and that was precisely a month ago when I had first come to Thailand. The public van was uncomfortably cramped, long, and smelled of vomit, so I had a great welcome back to Mae Sariang.

When I finally arrived back at the orphanage, I was half expecting a few kids to run out and say hello, but I was greeted by a palpable silence. Nobody seemed to even be around. I found P.A., Nan, Goe, and Doe back in the kitchen and received a warm welcome from them, but no kids. Upon arriving at the big house, I figured out why. Every single kid I had known for the past month left to go for a home visit and second half of the orphanage group was here. This was quite alarming, because it meant that I was starting from scratch. I had to learn new, hard to pronounce names and had break through the awkward shy stage that came with a new foreign student. Yet, I was ready for the challenge.

I met Bowjoe upstairs on the computer and he was accompanied by none other than Brian, one of the kids I had spent my month of February with! I was half surprised by his presence, but I was glad to see him nonetheless. He had told me he was coming to visit the orphanage at some point, though he never gave a specific date. Katie is also supposed to be arriving soon, but I believe she doesn’t come until the 8th.

The last few hours of the day were spent catching up with Brian. We both excitedly threw detailed stories of our past travels at each other and reminisced about New Zealand and Fiji, which we both agreed was the most fun month of Rustic so far. Even when he had just come back from Tanzania with Andrew, Steren, and David (who were also on my New Zealand trip) he could say that it couldn’t top New Zealand. That evening, we played an intense game of soccer and ate our fill of the delicious curry Nan had prepared. It wasn’t soon after that I passed out on my bed from exhaustion, but it wasn’t an unpleasant exhaustion. As I went to bed, I felt truly peaceful for the first time in a few weeks.

Old Friends

May 1. An hour after I had left Bangkok I was to be found picking up my luggage and in the company of one of the coolest Thai dudes ever, Bay. His original plan was to leave for America on the 18th, but he stayed just long enough to send me out to back to Mae Sariang. We spent the night in Chiang Mai and the next morning I was waving goodbye to the coolest Thai dude ever through the glass of a public van.

Another student of the orphanage, Chat Chai, came with me. I had met him on only one other occasion and that was precisely a month ago when I had first come to Thailand. The public van was uncomfortably cramped, long, and smelled of vomit, so I had a great welcome back to Mae Sariang.

When I finally arrived back at the orphanage, I was half expecting a few kids to run out and say hello, but I was greeted by a palpable silence. Nobody seemed to even be around. I found P.A., Nan, Goe, and Doe back in the kitchen and received a warm welcome from them, but no kids. Upon arriving at the big house, I figured out why. Every single kid I had known for the past month left to go for a home visit and second half of the orphanage group was here. This was quite alarming, because it meant that I was starting from scratch. I had to learn new, hard to pronounce names and had break through the awkward shy stage that came with a new foreign student. Yet, I was ready for the challenge.

I met Bowjoe upstairs on the computer and he was accompanied by none other than Brian, one of the kids I had spent my month of February with! I was half surprised by his presence, but I was glad to see him nonetheless. He had told me he was coming to visit the orphanage at some point, though he never gave a specific date. Katie is also supposed to be arriving soon, but I believe she doesn’t come until the 8th.

The last few hours of the day were spent catching up with Brian. We both excitedly threw detailed stories of our past travels at each other and reminisced about New Zealand and Fiji, which we both agreed was the most fun month of Rustic so far. Even when he had just come back from Tanzania with Andrew, Steren, and David (who were also on my New Zealand trip) he could say that it couldn’t top New Zealand. That evening, we played an intense game of soccer and ate our fill of the delicious curry Nan had prepared. It wasn’t soon after that I passed out on my bed from exhaustion, but it wasn’t an unpleasant exhaustion. As I went to bed, I felt truly peaceful for the first time in a few weeks.

Saturday, May 7, 2011

Realities of Bangkok

April 18-30. Bangkok. Our last stop was in Bangkok, where we spent 3 nights and 4 days. It was quite an environment and culture shock to go from the sunny beaches and blissfully peaceful atmosphere of Krabi to one of the world’s largest bustling cities. We stayed at the Lebua hotel in the State Tower, which failed to break the continuous luxury vacation I found myself in.

I have no doubt had my fill of Buddhist temples by now. Our tour guide, Sunny, brought us to the most famous temples of Bangkok, but there seems to be an endless number of these famous temples. Sunny, who is one of the nicest people and tour guides I have had the pleasure of meeting, insisted on describing and giving the history every aspect of each temple. I was only too happy to listen to her, but it did become a little tedious when you’re trudging around Bangkok during the hottest time of the day.

The temples we visited that, I believe, are worthy of highlight are as follows: the Emerald Buddha in the Grand Palace and the temple of the Reclining Buddha. Each was amazing, but each had their own peculiar features. The Reclining Buddha, for example, was a massive 25 meters and painted in gold leaf. The Grand Palace had decorations of monkey demons slaughtering humans, which I thought were incredibly interesting.

Yet, the Emerald Buddha stumped me the most. When I heard that this Buddha was made of nothing but Jade, I thought it would be amazing to see. Don’t get me wrong, it was amazing, but it was a bit misleading. I expected a massive jade Buddha, but when I stepped inside the temple, I had to look hard to find where the Buddha was. There were so many decorative gold pieces that it took a full minute for me to spot the jade Buddha. It stood no taller than a foot at the top of the golden hill. Everyone around me stood in awe, staring up at the Buddha. I didn’t find a foot tall, jade Buddha that impressive, but maybe that’s just my opinion, because it does seem to attract plenty of viewers.

I can describe Bangkok as a mix between New York City, Chiang Mai, and Venice. The aspect that it holds of New York is that it is just as crowded and just as cluttered. The aspect of Chiang Mai that it holds is that it’s genuinely Thai, which I found surprising because it attracts so many foreigners. The canals of Bangkok are where Venice comes in.

Sunny rented us a longboat one day, and we spent that afternoon zipping through the canals. I’ve been to Venice and I felt as if there was a distinct similarity. The hoses were located directly on the water and instead of cars; the people had boats parked right outside their doors. Vendors floated around on their rowboats trying to sell souvenirs or food to us foreigners, while 4 foot lizards swam past us. Poverty was abundant in this area as well, but it brought out the true nature and beauty of Bangkok. That journey was unforgettable.

Our nights were spent in the hotel, swimming in the pool, and sitting atop the State Tower at the Skybar. The Skybar provided a breathtaking sight of Bangkok, but also brought the reality out of the city. The effect of sitting atop one of the highest points of Bangkok, sipping on your 25 dollar drink, and being surrounded by a bunch of rich westerners brings a smug feeling of overwhelming self-importance. I didn’t really need that.

Before I knew it, it was time to part ways from my brother and parents. They were going back home, while I was going back to the orphanage. I was half glad to say goodbye to my parents because it seemed that I had lost some of what I had gained. I noticed that I was no longer making decisions for myself as often as I had done in the past 3 months. I had lost some of the independence that made me who I was now and I needed to gain that back. I had also noticed that I had become accustomed to having everything handed to me on a silver platter, and I needed to get back to reality. The other half of me was slightly down. Only after 3 months did I notice how much I missed my brother and I didn’t want to say goodbye to the kid who is my best friend. Yet, while I sat on the plane to Chiang Mai, I noticed something peculiar. While my parents were heading home, so was I.

Thursday, May 5, 2011

Riding Giants

April 18-30. Krabi. The island of Krabi is a neighbor of Phi Phi, which conveniently meant that we didn’t need to take another plane, just an hour ferry ride. If my arrival at the island was any indication of the time we had spent there, I would have been miserable. My dad and I were so eager to get off the ferry that we didn’t even realize that we had jumped aboard the wrong longboat, causing us to be separated from my mother and brother. Not until we arrived on the island and walked about a kilometer along the beach to the hotel, with backpacks and the 2 heaviest bags of our family, did we notice our mistake. Will and my mom were sipping tropical smoothies by the pool in their bathing suits when we arrived covered in sweat and with our arms aching. To make matters worse they both informed us that they arrived on an air-conditioned boat on the right side of the island. Now I wasn’t only tired, sweaty, and irritated, but I was also envious.

The hotel we stayed at for the 4 nights we were in Krabi is called The Rayavadee. There is nothing negative I can say about this stunning area and hotel. The people were uncharacteristically and almost unnaturally nice, for southern Thais that is. The beaches were all stunning, the water was green and warm, the surrounding cliffs were breathtaking and the area flourished with the unexpected. Sometimes a monkey would jump down right in front of you to scurry up another tree and other times a bat would swoop overhead and into one its larger dens. The rooms were 2 story villas made and stocked to perfection and the food was beyond delicious. Honestly, I would have stayed there for another week, even with the prospect of going back to the orphanage.

We embarked on several new adventures during our stay. We did more snorkeling, more rock climbing, and plenty more relaxing on the beach. However, my brother, my father, and I went for a few dives one day. I have to say, there is no other beautiful place to dive, in my opinion, than off the coast of Krabi, Thailand. I didn’t see anything I hadn’t seen before, but the mix of rock, coral, fish, and water was unbelievable.
We also went on plenty of hikes around the area, but the most amazing of them was the Big Bat Cave I journeyed into with my dad. True to its name, it was massive. It held plenty of bats, which you could hear fluttering above you as you stepped cautiously through the cave and once at an opening point we were able to cliff jump into the water, which was pretty exhilarating (although it could never compete with The Nevis Bungee).

One of my favorite parts of Krabi, and Thailand itself, was when we rode elephants through the jungle. This was particularly what I had been looking forward to since I came to Thailand, but I never imagined that I’d actually be able to DRIVE an elephant as well. Thai elephants are massive compared to the ones I had seen in Africa, especially the males. When we reached the jungle, our driver turned to me and asked if I wanted to drive the elephant, and who am I to pass up such an occasion? I slid onto its head and uncomfortably sat there for the rest of the journey. The reason why it was uncomfortable is because it was extremely unsteady while the was lifting its head to eat some greens and the elephants head is also one large, rough caliste, and I happened to be wearing shorts on the occasion.

I was also able to feed my elephant pineapple. This was pretty amusing considering that I had never fed anything larger than a dog. The elephant snatched the pineapple from my hand as soon as I picked it from the pile. I developed a close relationship with my elephant during this adventure, and I was heartbroken when I was forced to leave and I’m almost sure I saw a small tear trickle down my elephants face when I left as well.

So my Krabi experience was definitely one of the better ones of Thailand and as I left I wished I could split myself into 4 parts. Part of me wanted to stay, another part of me wanted to continue the journey to Bangkok, the third part of me wanted to go back to the orphanage. The last part of me was a desire that I had not felt since I had started traveling. I wanted to go home. I thought this was strange, because I had just had the best time of my life. Now, I didn’t want to go home because I was tired of traveling or missing the Hamptons. I just wanted to experience what it would be like to go home after all I have done. Well, I guess that time will come very soon, but I hope I experience plenty more of Thailand before it does.

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

A Paradise Unfit

April 18-30. Phi Phi. From the cities of Chiang Mai came the beaches of Phi Phi in southern Thailand. I had never known there was a distinctive tropical paradise in any part of Thailand, but I experienced such a place. After a 1 hour on a plane and a bumpy boat ride, we arrived on the white beaches of Phi Phi, where the emerald water kisses the fine sand every so often. It was exactly like an ad for Budweiser or one of those cheesy tropical postcards people send each other and that aspect was a little unappealing to me. The only things disrupting this tourist paradise were the dozens of longboats motoring around the island.

The longboats were the taxis of the islands of Phi Phi. They have been used for several decades and used to be similar to rowboats. Now they are equipped with long propellers connected to a car engine. It was a wild sight that I hadn’t become accustomed to even after spending a week around them. We were picked up by one of these contraptions on our way to the hotel. Once we got on the boat we immediately noticed that if the weight of both sides wasn’t precise it would tip to one side and be in danger of capsizing. This was a slight inconvenience, given that we consisted of a 12 year old, two adults, 4 bags of luggage, and me.

Our hotel was situated right on the beach, so we never took the time to doddle in our rooms. The next few days were spent snorkeling right off the beach, rock climbing the stunning mountain faces, and relaxing on the beach. The snorkeling, in particular, was unique. We were able to see black tipped sharks, sea turtles, moray eels, seahorses, and several varieties of fish just off the beach. On one day we hired a longboater to give us a snorkeling tour of the surrounding islands, but after a while it seemed slightly repetitive. He took us to several tourist locations, each cheesier than the last. The most touristy of them all was Miami Beach, which is improperly and properly named. It is improperly named because it possesses a natural beauty of green waters, perfect sand, and stunning cliffs that a Miami beach cannot compete with. It is, however, properly named because it is filled with so many people that it’s hard to walk peacefully.

The nights in Phi Phi were fun, but also repetitive. The hotel we stayed at put on a fire dancing show every night. It was great to see, but then again if I had stayed for more than 3 nights at the hotel I would have been fed up with it. The food was great, just as Thai food usually is and I finally convinced my father to eat his first piece of fish in the 49 years he has been alive. I was pretty proud of myself after that.

I became more comfortable with my family during these 3 days, to the point where it seemed that the stage of getting to know each other had finally seemed to have dwindled away. I had a blast with them during this time, but time and time again I found myself longing for the experiences I had become accustomed to. Meeting new people, spending time with the friends I had made, sleeping on the floor, and experiencing vast cultures were the things I was used to. Then whenever I thought of this I would tell myself that I’m just on a vacation. Yet, I couldn’t help thinking that this was a sign that, eventually, my adventures will have to come to an end.

Sunday, May 1, 2011

The Unexperienced Chiang Mai

April 18-30, Chiang Mai. First off, I want to apologize for the largest gap so far between posts. I had no intentions to leave it hanging like that, but it couldn’t be helped. Between traveling around Thailand with my family by day, I only had enough time for college research by night. Since my college decision deadline was closing in on me, I dedicated a lot of my energy in choosing the right place for my home of the next 4-5 years, but that’s neither here nor there. Don’t worry, however. I’m going to be telling you all about these last 2 weeks of April, location by location. So I’ll just start at where I left off, the Tamarind Village hotel in Chiang Mai.

We spent 2 more days in Chiang Mai and even though I thought I had experienced Chiang Mai to the fullest extent already, I was wrong. The next day we went mountain biking with a company called Mountain Biking Chiang Mai (pretty creative name huh?) I would definitely recommend this company if you were ever to desire an adventure like this. They have 4 different levels, from beginner to expert, great equipment, and friendly staff. I had never mountain biked before, but my dad, my brother, and I chose level 3, while my mom took level 1. We really had no idea what we were getting into, and we were all in for some serious biking.

The trails were exceptionally tough for someone who had never done it before and you could make it even tougher by taking the single track routes instead of the regular route. So I tried the single track. It turned out to be a lot like skiing, only with more rocks, dirt, sweat, and wheels. None of these helped the landing during my wipeouts; although it was still plenty fun. Trying the single track had a few benefits, but the greatest was that it focused my mind more on this new experience rather than rethinking of everything I had thought of last night.

We came down to a lake in the end to find a delicious meal and a gorgeous area to swim in. It was exactly what I needed to soothe my sore muscles. The massage that we received when we came home helped a bit as well. We couldn’t book it through the hotel, so we scouted out our own cheap location. However, just because it was cheap doesn’t mean it wasn’t amazingly soothing. If there is one piece of advice I can give you concerning Thai massages it’s to never pay more than 600 baht (20 dollars) for 60 minute massage. No matter how much they spruce up the description, it all turns out to be just as good. Most places will sell you a massage for 150 baht (5 dollars) so I wouldn’t recommend spending an extra 50 dollars just to get some oil or a few hot rocks on your back.

The days with my family became easier as time went on. I felt more at home with them and we opened up to each other more. It still wasn’t perfect, and it sure wasn’t the same as before, but it was definitely getting better. The next day we walked around Chiang Mai city and I showed them a few temples and exactly what to do at the temples. I actually saw something I had never seen before when I went to visit a temple I had been to before. After I said my prayers, I saw a monk whip out his iPhone and start taking pictures of the altar. I got a great laugh out of that when I remembered the monks I had lived with in China and compared them to this monk.

We had an early dinner before we set out to the Chiang Mai Night Safari. If you ever head out to Chiang Mai, this is another attraction I would recommend. They have everything there. Hyenas, white tigers, alligators, black bears, cheetahs, leopards, panthers, and plenty other crazy cool animals. My brother and I fed the largest freshwater fish in the world, we held baby tigers, and they even put on a light show for us to watch before we left. It was all amazing and when I left, I felt that these next 2 weeks would be better than I had expected.

Friday, April 22, 2011

The Most Difficult Experience... So Far

April 17. So I haven’t blogged for about 5 days now, which I apologize for. Although I’m only writing about one day, there are plenty more to come in the very near future. The reason that I haven’t posted anything for so long is because I have been trying to enjoy the past few days, which are more or less a “vacation”. It hasn’t been as easy to enjoy this “vacation” as I would have thought, and here’s why.
Today, my parents arrived to visit me. I hadn’t mentioned it in any of my past posts because I was too caught up in writing what had happened to focus on the future. I was excited throughout the day and during the car ride into Chiang Mai, where I was meeting them. We had booked to stay at a hotel for 3 nights, a hotel called the Tamarind Village. It’s a beautiful property, with luxurious rooms and complimentary breakfast, but I was too preoccupied to even notice. I checked into our room, though I didn’t stay long. I lingered in the lobby for an hour before they arrived.
They arrived from the back entrance, and it caught me completely by surprise. My mother was the first to seize me in a bone crushing hug and then my father and brother were upon me. Seeing them all standing there brought a flood of mixed emotions. I was happy to see them, of course, but their presence was far from comforting. I still stay another week at the orphanage after they leave, but I felt as if my trip was coming to an end. I also didn’t know how to act around them. They didn’t seem to have changed at all, but I felt as if I no longer knew my own family. A few people who have been on similar trips might not have had a similar experience as I did when I saw my family. This trip, however, has flipped my perspective and world upside down, so it was for that reason that I found myself lost for words at their encounter.
We brought the luggage into the rooms and then went back to the hotel pool, talking all the while. They, my mom especially, bombarded me with questions about my travels and it was easy to talk about those experiences for a while. Then when it came time to ask them questions and relate to them, it became harder. I had known these 3 people all my life, yet with my new outlook, I felt as if I was meeting new people. It was an awkward experience, followed by an awkward conversation. I didn’t know what to ask or even say, and it’s very hard to explain why. I loved seeing my family, but it was as if I was back in the home where I had left a part of myself I never wanted to see again.
My parents left me with my 12 year old brother later on in the pool. This was a bit easier, because he, like me, seems to have changed. He told me that he has now joined a crew team, shaves, and has had his first girlfriend. All this took me completely by surprise, even more so than his deeper voice and developed chin. I was seriously impressed by all this, and we swapped stories through most of the night while we all walked through the night market of Chiang Mai.
I went to bed feeling out of place and in an uncomfortable position. I don’t mean physically, but mentally. I was again being thrown into a situation that I had not dealt with before, but like the ones before this, I wasn’t going to keep myself from making the best of it. I also was unnerved by the luxurious hotel we were staying at. The area around me felt tainted, as if I had left the best part of Thailand behind on the floor I had been sleeping on and I was now one of the worst parts of Thailand, surrounded by falsely comforting sheets and pillows. Going from living in hostels, temples, huts, and orphanages to living in a 5 star hotel is quite a shock and my mind was rebelling against this experience with more ferocity than it had ever done before.

Saturday, April 16, 2011


April 12-16. I’m just going to keep listing my activities for the past few days because they’ve not only been numerous, but they’ve combined into a 4 day long party and political lunch to top it all off. Probably the most prominent reason why these last few days were so fun was because of Songkran, the Thai New Year celebration. Songkran is a 3 day water festival where you get to waste as much water as you can by dumping it on people. It first started many centuries ago, where elders would sprinkle the heads of family members with water as a sign of good luck. Somewhere in between now and then someone had the brilliant idea to throw the biggest water party ever and continuously splash people for 3 days. This festival is where my story begins.
Many towns and cities celebrate Songkran early, and Maesariang is no exception. During the twelfth, most of the staff, their friends, and I went to a waterfall 30 kilometers away from the orphanage. The waterfall was tucked away within the depths of a forest and it took at least a walk of 2 kilometers before we came to the falls. There were two areas in which the whole area would party. One was an actual waterfall with a large face consisting of smooth rock. The other was a 50 foot face consisting of large boulders that seemed to have rolled down the side of the mountain. This area was where we chose to stay.
I did check out the actual waterfall and swam in that area for a bit, but the boulders were much more fun because of the simple fact that you could climb them. Bay and I climbed all the way to the top of the falls, but I can tell you that it was no easy ascent. If I hadn’t just spent a week rock climbing, I doubt I would be here to write this post. The only thing I would have changed about the area was the water level at the bottom. I really would have like to jump down from that height. Sadly, there was only 6 inches of water to break my fall.
The next three days were spent throwing water at passing pedestrians, motorcyclists, and cars. During the first day, I joined a couple kids from the orphanage in the back of Yutana’s truck. We loaded it up with huge buckets of water and small pales for throwing the water at passing people. This was the first day of Songkran, so even the streets of Maesariang were wild and crowded. There were water fights between car loads of people, kids on the street, people riding motorbikes, and everything/everyone in between.
That evening I left for Chiang Mai with 4 other staff members. I wasn’t going to give up the chance to experience a massive, city-wide water fight, even if it did cost me three and a half hours to drive there. The next day was chaotic, cold, infectious, exhilarating, and one of the best days of my life. The day was cloudy and one of the coldest I have experienced in Thailand. But carpe diem! We equipped our truck just as we had equipped it yesterday and set out for the city. Even the outskirts were hectic. When we finally came to the river where everyone was celebrating, we started circling the area for prey. The problem was that I turned out to be the prey. A white male standing on a truck bed with chalk war-paint who is yelling at the top of his voice stands out much more than thousands of Thai citizens. Everyone seemed to target me. The worst part of it all was that they all threw ice water, and I was soon shivering from head to foot. As the day picked up, the streets became more and more crowded. It took nearly 4 hours to circle the river area 3 times! Music seemed to be blasting from every corner. Multiple foreigners joined the fray as well and we had 2 Swedish girls on our truck as well. The only reason for me to end this mania was that my legs were in agony from shaking because I had been drenched in ice water so many times. When you experience that realization, you know it’s been a good day.
I was in such ecstasy as I came back to Maesariang that even the agony couldn’t worry me. The only thing that could dampen my spirits during a Chiang Mai Water Festival was that I forgot to put the memory card in my camera. It depresses me to admit it, but I have no pictures of that day...
The entirety of the next day was spent on the street just outside the orphanage. A few students and I made the most of our last day and threw water at passing motorcyclists and pedestrians. It was fun until a couple people started to retaliate by tossing more ice water, die, and baby powder… that’s when it became awesome. We started blasting our own music, technically my music, and everyone started dancing to hard rock, heavy rap, and some adrenaline pumping techno. Only when the sun dipped below the horizon did we come back inside to escape from our unceasingly wet bodies.
Today, I tried to rest as much as possible. That’s, however, impossible to do at this orphanage. One of P.A.’s friends, Took, picked me up for lunch that afternoon. Took is the one who has been driving me around everywhere and she seems to have taken a great liking to me. She constantly invites me to parties and meals at her restaurant, where I have met her entire extended and immediate family. This appointment was one I couldn’t pass up either. I was going to dine with the governor of Chiang Mai province, who is apparently the Thailand equivalent to the governor of California. He is also the son in law of the woman I have been driving around with.
We met Mom Luang Panutda Ditssakul at his favorite restaurant in Maesariang. He introduced himself in broken English, but tried his best throughout the entire meal to engage me in conversation, no matter how difficult it was to understand each other. 5 of his business and political associates joined the meal as well, but none tried to speak to me as much as the governor did. He seemed sincerely interested in my travels and my life in America, so, in the simplest English I could speak, I told him of my travels. It was interesting to meet a man of political stature in Thailand and it was nice for him to take such an interest in what I was doing. Soon, however, he turned to his associates and began to converse with them in a serious manner. I didn’t sit in silence for too long, because the meal then ended shortly after.
Thanks again for reading everyone! This has been a hectic 2 weeks, but it’s been as fun as it’s been crazy. Between writing, sleeping, eating, and experiencing life in Thailand, I haven’t had much time to reflect on how much I’ve actually done in this country. When I do, however, you’ll be the first to know. By the way, I’ve also uploaded dozens of pictures from the past 2 weeks and have everything from the temple in Chiang Mai, my second day, to the Songkran Water Festival. Check them out!

Thursday, April 14, 2011

The Best of Thailand: Part 3

April 2-9 part 3. Here is the last addition to the list of experiences that I have had during my first week of the orphanage in Thailand. I will start off with a less recent discovery of mine, how I can phenomenally budget my money, but only in Thailand. The other day I rode my bike to 7-11 and purchased body wash, 3 packs of gum, candy, water, chocolate milk, shampoo, toothpaste, and a new razor. It wasn’t the items that made this purchase so astonishing. It was the price. That list of items cost me 200 baht (6 American dollars). I couldn’t believe it when the cashier rung my price up and I checked the receipt to make sure, but he was right.
My next experience with budgeting was when I was able to buy the entire orphanage, 25 people, ice cream for 250 baht (8 dollars). I was astonished, but it wasn’t over yet. That night, I took the entire staff (10 people) out to an all-you-can-eat barbeque, but it wasn’t a barbeque that you or I would think of. It was more along the lines of fondue. Each table was equipped with a large metal bowl. The center of the bowl was comprised of a single hill of metal, which you could cook meat on. Surrounding the hill was boiling water where you dipped vegetables and certain meats into. There were also several other dishes to choose from, including noodles, ice-cream, fried rice, salad, and Thai desserts. When the bill came, I was again astonished. It cost 750 baht (25 dollars) to feed 11 people.
That night, Doe, Goe, Bowjoe, Samat, and I went out to see a local concert. It was made up of mostly a bunch of guys sitting around and watching young Thai girls’ belly dance and sing. Doe, Goe, and I, however, took up the mantle to start dancing. It wasn’t long before one the girl who was singing spotted me and pulled me up on stage, where I started dancing with six Thai girls in front of a few hundred people. I’d say that’s a pretty great end to a great night.
I forget what day it was, but I recently went to a Thai funeral. I didn’t know the person who had passed away, but P.A. did so she decided to bring me along just for the experience. Thai funerals are the complete opposite of American funerals, or at least this one was. The family celebrated the death of their grandmother by giving away tons of food, dancing everywhere, and praising her name as they toasted to her long and fruitful life. When I arrived, I was welcomed as if I was a family member as well. One of the members led me over to her coffin, where I bowed in respect and lit an incense candle. Then they hugged me and lathered me with food and attention. I’ve never heard of a funeral party, but I suspect that’s the closest I will get to experiencing one.
My weekend was packed with animal brutality. I witnessed a chicken fight one day with Bowjoe. I spent 4 hours there, most of which were spent waiting for chicken owners to compare chickens and agree to a match. Then I saw the chickens fight nearly to the death. Everyone was screaming at each other to change their bets or up them, and it was a scene of such infectious chaos that I was soon screaming for no reason at all. After the first round, which lasted 20 minutes, the chickens were picked up and mopped up. There was plenty of blood around their heads, and after witnessing one round I didn’t need to stick around for 7 more.
The next day the orphanage celebrated the New Year with slaughtering their pig. This was a depressing experience, but one I witnessed all the less, so I will state this shortly and to the point. While the pig was drinking, one of the orphans brutally swung an enormous club at its head. The helpless pig let out one shrill squeal and the fell the ground. It wasn’t yet dead, so another kid stuck a knife in its heart. It’s an extremely difficult thing to watch a helpless pig thrash on the ground while a knife has impaled it, but soon the pig was dead. Bowjoe washed it down and, with three others, dragged the pig onto a metal grate. They then poured boiling water over its hide and skinned it with nothing more than ordinary kitchen spoons. When the animal was finally nothing but bare flesh, I had to turn away. I left for 2 reasons: 1) I needed to teach an English class that morning 2) I couldn’t stand to keep staring at that skinless pig.
So that’s my first 9 days at the orphanage. I hope you enjoyed them, because I sure did. I’m just about to fall asleep, because my body, my emotions, my adrenaline, and my stamina are at the breaking point (just as they are everyday). I just pulled a foot long lizard out from under my covers, but that surprisingly didn’t faze me as much as it should have. Bugs and lizards have just become part of my normal life, in normal Thailand, on my normal trip.

Monday, April 11, 2011

The Best of Thailand: Part 2

April 2-9. So without any ado whatsoever, I will begin where I left off from my last post. On my fifth day here, the whole lot of the kids and I went down to the river, which is about a kilometer from the orphanage. The water was only deep enough for our knees to be submerged, but we lay on our backs and drifted lazily down the river, splashing each other and wrestling as we went. The water was warm and pleasant and provided us with a sanctuary from the sun’s blistering heat. I forgot to mention that it gets to upwards of 100 degrees when the sun reaches its zenith and lingers around 90 degrees all day.
I have also learned a few new skills while I’ve been here. Not only do I teach the children English, but they teach me several things as well. A muay thai teacher comes on Fridays and Saturdays in order to teach the children self-defense. I jumped in on those lessons immediately. Since I had just come from Kong Fu lessons in China, it only took me an afternoon to catch up with the rest of the class. Muay thai, however, is much different than Kong Fu. Kong Fu is meant to maintain balance and can be used for competitive fighting. Muay Thai focuses on actually being able to “kick someone’s ass” and one of its main uses is for UFC fights.
Wiwat teaches me guitar almost every day. I had a basis in it already and could strum a few tunes out, but he has taught me a couple finer points and focuses more on switching from different cords rather than teaching me to play songs. A few of the girls also agreed to teach me some Thai, although the process is fairly slow. Not surprisingly, it’s hard to switch from learning Chinese to Thai in such a short span of time. Another useful trick, which Sawan taught me, is husking a coconut using a machete. It took a couple coconuts and almost cost me a couple fingers, but now I can do it swiftly and accurately.
With teaching lessons regularly and being taught new things regularly, it’s hard to find time to get out and explore the surrounding area. I have, however, seized every available opportunity to do just that. Bay and I rented bikes out in town one day and have since been using them avidly. He brought me to the market one day, where you could buy anything from car supplies to lingerie for all under 200 bat (6 American dollars). It’s was so incredibly inexpensive that I felt like getting anything I had the slightest inclination to buy, but then I reasoned that it would be hard to send 3 super soakers, 20 t-shirts, a few shoes, and a new T.V. back to the States.
Bay also took me to see a museum in town, where I learned about the history of the Karen tribe and their Buddhist traditions. From there we traveled to a temple, atop the highest point overlooking the town of Maesareang. An enormous golden Buddha stood atop the hill, which could be seen from almost anywhere in town.
Before the day was over, Bay took me to a forest not too far from the orphanage. There were a few things about these particular woods that I hated. Firstly, the way the branches overhung and overlapped blocked out the sun, plunging the forest into a permanent darkness. Secondly, the ground was nothing but mud, even in the hot season, which made walking with flip-flops pretty frustrating. And lastly, millions of cicadas were chirping on their trees. The overhanging branches seemed to isolate the sound, making it so loud that I could barely hear the squelching of my flip-flops as they were dragged out of the mud.
Bay brought with him a net, which I thought was odd, until he started to snatch up the cicadas, one by one. He tossed me the net and I had a go at it as well, but just like everything else he had done, he made it look easier than it actually was. When we finally had around 200 cicadas in a large plastic bag, we rode back to the orphanage, now accompanied by the chirping sound I had begun to despise. I didn’t think much of it when he gave the bag to Tim and he took it away towards the boy’s dormitory. I knew Thai people ate cicadas, but I never knew I would be trying one as well.
When everyone sat down for dinner that night, they brought the large bowl of cicadas, along with the dinner I had made earlier for myself. Bay popped a couple of cicadas into his mouth immediately, which didn’t repulse me until he offered one for me to eat. Yet, like all the other times I was faced with a difficult challenge, I said to myself “I didn’t travel all this way for nothing.” I pulled off the wings and legs, just as Bay had, and munched down on a cicada. It was like nothing I had tasted before. It was crunchy and bitter, and I’m positive I will never eat one again, willingly that is.
So that’s the end of part 2, and just as I said there might be, I am going to be posting a part 3 by tomorrow. 2 things have happened recently that need to be added to the list, and I assure you that they are pretty entertaining, as well as disturbing for some people. Again, thanks for reading everyone!

Sunday, April 10, 2011

The Best of Thailand: Part 1

April 2-9. A week has passed since I arrived at the orphanage. I have done more during this week than I have since New Zealand. So, in that case, I’m not going write a detailed account of each day. Instead, I’m going to list the events that I have done, in detail, as well as describe the people of the orphanage. I hope this is sufficient for everyone because it is becoming increasingly difficult to find the time or energy to devote to write a day’s worth of events. There are also so many things I have done that I will need to split this post into 2 parts.
So firstly, I must describe the staff and children who have made my time here as exciting as it could be. They are all incredibly accommodating, providing me with whatever I need or they think I need. I barely sit down and start to enter a state of relaxation before they find me and suggest embarking on another exciting adventure. The only time when I am not constantly trying new things or having fun is when I sleep, but even there my roommate, Clash, wants to play games and talk late into the night.
The boys spend the most time with me, mainly 3 of them: Ekkphan, Wiwat, and Sawan, all of whom speak relatively good English. Many of them are eager to spend time with me and practice their English. Even during my daily runs, at least one kid accompanies me. The girls, on the other hand, are much shyer, although they become more accustomed to my presence with each passing day. The other day, when I played a game with the girls, they were shy in the beginning, but towards the end of the game they were perfectly fine with shouting orders at me when I broke a rule or played the game wrong. The girls also call me Miji, just as the monk children had done in China. Apparently my Thai name is also two syllables which can easily be confused. When I tried to correct them they just laughed at me and carried on with my new name, though, honestly, I find it pretty funny.
There are several Rustic staff members here, but the ones I have become closest with are Bay, Goe, and Bowjoe. Goe is Karen, while Bowjoe is Burmese. They both love taking me out to experience the surrounding town and relish introducing me to local girls from the town. I help teach the children English every day with Tim, who is valuable if I ever want to speak in a regular fashion with someone. The rest of the staff are great to hang around with, although some don’t speak too much English or are just as shy as the girls.
The community service aspect of my trip is being fulfilled every day, except Sundays which are off days for everyone. I teach the kids English with Tim at 9am every morning, educating them in everything from the word smile to rhyming words to knowing that ph makes the same sound as f. Before noon I help lug away branches that are cut from a forest near the orphanage. Bay and Bowjoe free climb 40 foot trees, with machetes in their mouths, in order to cut the branches from the top. This wouldn’t be difficult if the trees had decent footholds, but the trees they climb are as smooth as palm trees and as straight as pine trees. They both make it seem extremely easy, but it isn’t. On my second day here, I free climbed to the top of one of the trees and hacked down a branch. The climbing and the cutting left me exhausted and I barely had enough energy to slide down the trunk. I also help out with several other odd jobs, such as planting flowers, weeding the mud garden, and picking fruit, which the orphanage grows, although I sometimes take a break and eat a jackfruit or a few local berries.
Another daily routine I have fallen into is playing soccer every evening with the kids and staff. They destroy me in skill and it’s hard to say if I even make a difference to any team I am assigned to, but it’s still plenty of fun. Soccer seems to be their favorite sport here and every local is skilled at it, although they do love another sport just as much it seems. Kaneball (the American name for it) is a sport they play avidly at the orphanage. It’s similar to volleyball, but you can only use your feet and head. I’m hopeless at the sport, yet I watch and learn all the same.
The food here is amazing, but can sometimes be unbearably spicy. I need to pay for 1 meal a day, but I am provided with delicious cuisine for every meal. At first, it was uncomfortable to eat specially made food (everyone else eats different food which is cooked in bulk), but since I started to learn to make my own meals and cook them myself, I feel much better about eating the food. The Rustic cook has taught me to make several Thai meals and I usually help her cook them when I’m not busy. I’ve learned to make paka poa, sweet sticky rice with mango, yellow curry, green curry, bla lap pri, and several other dishes.
And so, this ends the first part of the list of activities I’ve done during my first week at the orphanage. Tomorrow I’ll post part two, but don’t be surprised if there is a part 3. I will probably be reminded of more things I have done since I’ve been here. The days have become so entwined, and everything I’ve done has happened so quickly, that it’s hard to distinguish one event from another. Thanks for reading everyone! Hope you enjoy this post.

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

An Unexpected Meal and a Chaotic Introduction

April 2. I ended yesterday’s post earlier than I would normally have done, but it was because I ended the night with anther cab ride and falling asleep at the base. This morning, however, was much more eventful. Bay and Yutanna, the orphanage manager, drove me to Lotus this morning. Lotus is similar to a Wall-Mart, except it has an aisle dedicated to street food. Although the cooks aren’t cooking the food on the street, I still consider it street food because they are cooking their produce exactly how street vendors normally do. I picked up some Thai noodles, but I am disappointed to say that they cannot compare to Chinese noodles, in my opinion. Their thin, tasteless noodles, spicy broth, and large meatballs didn’t really do it for me, but that could just be the result of some peculiar taste buds. I also picked up a soccer ball when Bay told me that the orphanage didn’t own a regular sized one and I was able to buy it for less than 70 bat (roughly 2 American dollars). Then we were finally able to hit the road for a three hour drive to the orphanage.
We stopped twice along the way there and both breaks took at least an hour. Our first stop was to buy flowers to plant at the orphanage. Who knew bargaining the price of a lotus flower would take 45 minutes? Our second stop was for lunch, which turned out to be pretty interesting. We again bought street food, but I chose my own meal this time (I have since let Bay recommend meals for me to try). I bought sticky rice and pork sausage. Yutanna wanted to eat at a restaurant, where Bay and I happily joined him.
 Before I started to eat my own lunch, Yutanna offered me a barbequed egg. It was delicious and I ate at least three of them before I ate my food. The rice was particularly delicious and the sausage was flavorsome, yet there was a strange taste to each one. When I mentioned this to Bay he let out a poorly stifled snigger. “What’s so funny?” I asked. When he didn’t say anything I asked again, a bit more suspiciously. He burst of laughing and said “How did you like your brain sausage?” I laughed along with him, thinking he was just pulling my leg. “Brain? You’re hilarious… but seriously, what’s with the taste?” I asked. He laughed again and said “Main ingredient is brain, I’m serious.” It was hard to believe, but I knew he wasn’t lying. At that moment, I realized I had eaten brain for the first time in my life.
Feeling slightly repulsed, I spent the next 2 hours trying to doze off. We finally arrived at the orphanage, and contrary to my original belief, it is not in the middle of nowhere. It’s located near the town of Maesariang, yet the vast, open rice fields surrounding the orphanage create a feeling of total isolation. I arrived at 7pm and since it was dark, I wasn’t able to make out anything other than the fields and the 3 large buildings I was first introduced to.
The largest and main building is the Big House, which holds the class areas and the girls’ dormitory on the second floor. Directly south of that are 2 buildings, one is the boys’ dormitory and the second is the kitchen/dining hall. They had already eaten dinner by the time I arrived, and I didn’t possess much of an appetite after lunch anyway.
The Rustic staff came out immediately to introduce themselves. I met the cook, a Burmese staff member, another local Thai member, and a western staff member. It was hard to pronounce everyone’s name at the time and the only one I can manage to remember was Tim, the westerner.
In order to introduce me to the orphans, and to break the ice, Tim organized a game. All 25 of us gathered in a circle in the Big House. We went around the circle, introducing ourselves and repeating each other’s names in return. It was impossible for me to remember the names of Ekkphan, Mayuree, Sawang, Witwat, and Jaruwan, but I tried my best. Everyone introduced themselves in impressively good English and even stated where they were from and what their favorite food was.
Afterwards, Tim provided us with another game. He handed us all balloons and rubber bands and instructed us to fill the balloons with air and strap them to our feet. Then, when everyone had finished and looked quite ridiculous, Tim told us to try to pop on everyone’s balloon and the last three would receive ice cream. Pandemonium occurred as everyone rushed around the enclosure, pinning each other in place, teaming up on helpless youngsters and trying their best to destroy their opponent’s balloon. My feet throbbed after 10 minutes of countless kids stamping on my feet and I soon lost in the competition. I sat on the sidelines with the other people who had gotten out and laughed out loud with everyone else. It was hysterical to see so many adults and kids running around and stamping on each other’s feet, with all dignity forgotten.
When a few kids had finally been named champions and received their ice cream, it was time for bed. I was then led to my room in the boys’ dormitory building. I will be rooming with another orphan, who calls himself Clash. He’s a small, rambunctious boy of about 12, but he was helpful in showing me the bathroom and providing me with a fan for these hot and humid nights. When he showed me our room, I wasn’t surprised to see a small room with two thin cots on the floor. By now I am used to sleeping on hard surfaces, the cot did almost nothing to alleviate the stiffness of the floor, and I graciously lay down on the bed where I will sleep for the next 2 weeks. Clash went to sleep almost immediately after giving me the grand tour, but I stayed awake, reading late into the night. I couldn’t fall asleep because every so often, when I tried to lay down my book, I would realize where I was and how fortunate I am to be in this situation. That thought kept me up late, but sooner or later, I dozed off, still clutching my book in my hands.

Tuesday, April 5, 2011


April 1. When I awoke this morning, I was surprised to see Chatchai and Bay sleeping on the floor in the one roomed base house. They had nothing but pillows for comfort and I felt guilty for having taken the only bed. After I had changed into shorts and a t-shirt, they both woke up. Bay asked if I wanted to experience my first Thai meal and I responded with a curt nod, still too groggy to speak aloud. Bay and Chatchai had slept in their clothes so they walked outside at once.
Around the corner was a small market, where we ate, with half of its shelves empty or scarcely containing anything. We sat down near the kitchen stove and Bay called out for 3 orders of paka poa. I had never had paka poa so I was slightly nervous to see what I would find on my plate. In the meantime, I talked with Bay about his past and how he came to be with Rustic. He explained that he was of the Aka tribe, but most of the orphans were of Karen decent. He told me of how he had never finished 9th grade and worked as a bus boy before he was picked up by Rustic Pathways at the age of 19. They put him through English classes and gave him a job as a trip manager. When he had finished his story, our food had arrived.
Paka poa is made up of spicy basil, chilies, pork, an egg, and rice. It is also one of the most delicious dishes I have had in a while. Although it felt as if my mouth were on fire, I still ate every last scrap of the 2t orders I requested. I had never been so thirsty in my life afterwards and must have drunk at least 4 liters of water before we set out from the restaurant. Then Bay asked me if I wanted to into town and tour a traditional Buddhist temple. When I asked him about going to the orphanage, he told me that since the Rustic driver won’t be here until tomorrow, we need to stay in Chiang Mai for another day. I was all for going to the temple, so Bay called the driver from the day before and we were there in 30 minutes.
The temple was situated on the top of a mountain that overlooked the entirety of Chiang Mai and is one of the last temples in this area. We walked up several steps until we came to the statue of a renowned monk. Chatchai and Bay bowed in prayer to the statue and I followed suit. 400 stairs later, we had arrived at the top. My jaw dropped when I saw the beautiful mountain of the gold plated temple that was set at the mountain’s peak. Surrounding it, were several tourists and worshipping areas. Taking off our shoes, we strode into the area, but Chatchai told me I needed to walk around the temple 3 times before I could walk around freely.
After the walk, Bay led me to the area of luck. We bowed 3 times to a large Buddha and then took a container full of sticks from the floor. Bay instructed me to shake the container hard until a few sticks fell out, then I was to pick a stick from the floor and take a piece of paper that matched the number on the stick. I received the number 26 and took the piece of paper that would describe my luck. Apparently I’m very lucky and good things will come my way. Bay, on the other hand, had dreadful luck, according to his paper, and Chatchai had neutral luck, with everything staying as it was. Bay moaned as he read his aloud and Chatchai when read his aloud, he just walked away looking supremely unconcerned.
Afterwards, we walked to the largest of the Buddhas and bowed 3 times. Then we crawled over to a monk surrounded by several hundred, white bands of yarn. When I looked closer, I realized they were simple bracelets. We bowed 3 times to him as well and bowed our heads in prayer as he sprinkled water on us. Bay held out his right arm, which I did as well, and the monk placed a bracelet on each of our wrists. We crawled back, bowed 3 times to the statue, and exited the area. “Don’t take it off for 3 days or you will have bad luck.” Bay said. I grinned at him and said “Doesn’t matter for you. You’re already doomed.” He punched me playfully on the arm and we walked back down to the van.
Before we piled into the van, I grabbed a quick bite to eat from the street vendors. Eating street food has become part of my daily life and it didn’t faze me as it would have during my first week in China. I picked up some pineapple and green mango, but what surprised me was that the vendors handed me small packets of red and white powder as well. “It’s sugar and chili.” Bay explained. When I tried some with the pineapple I was hit by a sensation of overly sweet and overly spicy fruity flavor. Never before had I tasted anything this pungent and I stopped eating it after that one try, content with regular, plain fruit.
We came back to the base house and relaxed for a while until nightfall, during which Bay napped and Chatchai showed me his Dreamweaver software while he played some Thai rap. At around 5pm, Bay awoke and asked if I wanted to go to the night market. Again, I was all for it. This time, however, we couldn’t take the van because the driver was out to dinner. So we walked out of our safe district and onto the highway trying to flag down a taxi.
The taxies in Chiang Mai are inconvenient for several reasons. For one, there are too few of them to go around. For another, they are red trucks with closed backs containing very uncomfortable seats for you to sit on. But the most inconvenient aspect of them is the drivers, who insist on taking the bumpiest and windiest roads possible in order take the speediest route. We walked down the high way for an hour until we finally caught sight of, and then waved down one of the few taxies. Then we sat on their metal barred seats for 45 minutes, frequently swerving and bumping into one another.
Walking around Chiang Mai is a lot like walking around any American city. There are plenty of people, it’s loud and can sometimes be unpleasant, and there are plenty of designer stores waiting to sell you pointless merchandise. The only difference is that the sidewalks are filled with shops. They are mainly there for tourists, of course, but there are plenty of cheap clothing stores and food vendors for locals to enjoy.
We stopped at one such vendor who tried her best to make it feel like a restaurant, taking a table and chairs and parking them literally on the sidewalk. We ate some real, unforgettable Thai curry that night. It was better than anything I had ever had while back in the U.S. I ate until I started to hate myself for eating so much, but it was too good to pass up. Afterwards, we roamed the streets, stopping here and there to look at an item or buy a t-shirt or cologne for Bay and Chatchai. I didn’t buy anything that night. There will be plenty of time later on to worry about souvenirs. For now, I’m just trying to soak up as much of Thailand as I can.

The Beginning of the End

March 31. An air of excitement surrounded me as I awoke this morning to pack. Leung was already up, watching TV. He gave me a bright and cheery “Good morning!” as soon as I stumbled out of bed, but I wasn’t fooled. As soon as he turned his head away I saw his shoulders lower in sadness and he let out an audible sigh. After I was packed and ready for my flight, we had breakfast at the hotel. I loaded my plate with sweet dumplings and noodles, intent on eating as much Chinese food as I could before arriving in Thailand. Before I knew it, it was 11am and Leung was waving down a taxi to take me to the airport.
Leung dragged my suitcase (now packed to its capacity) towards the check-in line when we arrived at the airport. I tried to carry the bag myself, but he snatched it away from me, not unkindly, saying “You need to be comfortable before you arrive in Thailand.” So we came to the check-out counter and realized that I couldn’t receive my boarding pass for another hour. I sat down near the counter, completely prepared to spend an hour alone, but Leung refused to leave before he had seen me through security. I was touched by his kindness and spent the next hour reminiscing the past month and talking about his future in China and Cambodia. Leung’s presence made the time fly by and all too soon I had my boarding pass in hand and I was waving him goodbye. Now that I think back on it, he looked utterly miserable when I left, but I was too excited to realize at the time.
As I flew to Bangkok, I wanted nothing more than to share my experiences with someone else. I wanted to voice everything that had occurred in the past 2 months, the changes I have noticed within myself, and my expectations of the next month. I turned to the person next to me, who was a westerner, and asked the usual conversational questions. After a while, we began to discuss what brought us to Thailand. I gave a brief overview of my travels, hoping to expel some of my experiences, and she seemed politely interested at first. She asked a few questions and I eagerly gave details, but after about 5-10 minutes on the subject, she switched the conversation abruptly. She didn’t contribute to what I was saying and she didn’t seem as interested in my travels as I had expected. I pondered this while she rambled on about her studies in business in Alabama and her mother’s treatment for a staph infection, which is what brought her to Thailand (I say ‘rambled’ because business doesn’t particularly interest me and a staph infection is not typically serious). Then I remembered something that Erik had once said to me on one of the first days I was in New Zealand. “When you go home, don’t expect your friends to hang on your every word as describe your travels. They probably have nothing to compare it to, so they won’t understand what this has meant to you.”
At first, that meant nothing to me, because I had barely begun my experiences. But now I fully appreciate his words. I could have sat with that woman and given her every detail over the past 2 months and explained every emotion that I had felt. Yet, she wouldn’t have been able to imagine everything I have gained. Even now, when I write at least a page a day, I can’t explain to you the difference between how I was 2 months ago and how I am now.
This wonderful realization, it was wonderful because I knew this trip was beyond anything I could have hoped for, kept me thinking until I had landed, and the happiness did not die within me when I stopped pondering it. I continued to my connecting flight to Chiang Mai, though I couldn’t resist stopping at a Burger King on the way there. Then, an hour later, I was whisked away to Chiang Mai, though I had barely time to finish a chapter in my Lord of the Rings book before I landed, yet again, 1 hour later.
I picked up my baggage went out to meet the Rustic Pathways staff who would take me to the orphanage. When I didn’t see them, I planted myself down on the ground and waited, blissfully content as I read my book. 30 minutes passed before two small, muscular Thai men approached me and asked if I was Jimmy Mack. When I said “Yes.” they immediately began apologizing profusely that traffic had held them up, which caused them to be late. This reminded me of when I had met Leung and I immediately knew I would be friends with both these guys. They introduced themselves as Bay and Chaichai and hauled my luggage towards their van, just as Leung had this morning, and just like Leung, they refused to let me carry my bags.
Both of these guys spoke reasonably good English and it wasn’t hard to have a conversation with either of them, though it took longer than normal because I needed to pronounce my words with care. I soon learned that Chaichai is an orphan of 19 years old who is staying in Chiang Mai for the week to study website developing. Bay is 24 and has worked with Rustic for 5 years now. Bay constantly asked me if I was hungry, but since I had already eaten, I politely refused his offer each and every time. Bay also told me that we would be staying at the Rustic base in Chiang Mai because the orphanage is over a 3 hour drive. I was fine with this and we soon arrived at the one room building that was the base house. Bay and Chaichai could probably tell that I was exhausted because they said goodnight after showing me inside and went to grab some dinner. Without bothering to undress, I lay on the one bed and, I’m guessing, fell asleep instantly.

Sunday, April 3, 2011

Too Eager for the Future to Enjoy the Present

March 30. Today felt as if I hadn’t lost a single person in my group. We started out with 5 members, and we were ending with 5 members (Dane, Adam, and Dane’s girlfriend who joined us this morning). There were still plenty of people to talk to and plenty of experiences to be shared. The prospect of only having to stay in China for another day was probably a factor that kept my spirits high as well. Don’t get me wrong, I have enjoyed every moment in China, from my tedious classes to my Kong Fu lessons at the Buddhist temple. The one drawback is that I have been stuck in the city for the past month. The occasional scenes of wilderness and mountain ranges don’t quell my longing to see and enjoy vast, open country sides and lush forests that are so abundant in China.
So my eagerness to set out for the wilderness of Thailand consumed most of my thoughts today. Even when I climbed a 5-10B route, for the first time, I could not keep my mind off what lay ahead of me in the coming month. I spent most of the day talking to Leung who, with each passing moment, became sulkier. I suspected that he was starting to get lonely and was dreading the goodbye and my suspicions were confirmed when I asked him why he was standoffish today. He said “You and me are best pals man! Saying goodbye will suck… How about I visit you in America?” I grinned at him and said “That would be A.O.K. Leung.”
The rest of the day was spent out in Kunming. I used most of this time to buy various items that I will need for Thailand. It was with ill-disguised cheeriness that Leung agreed to help me with this venture. Then I came back to the hotel and began to type up a post (I’m sure you’ve noticed that I am behind a few days). Leung decided to go out with his friends in Kunming and I was left with my thoughts about Thailand, my reflections on the past month, and my computer.

Friday, April 1, 2011

A Few Unfortunate Events

March 28 & 29. The schedule for the next 3 days consisted of nothing but climbing the sides of enormous mountains until our fingers were blistered and our feet were raw from our cramped shoes. We met Adam and Dane on the morning of the 28th outside Sunny Lodge. Adam pulled up in his small Nissan and the idea that he would fit 5 people and our luggage into the car. None of us were looking forward to the 4 hour drive to Kunming. As we shoved our bodies, bags, and sulky attitudes into the car, we noticed a slight dip in the level of the car. When I turned to look out the window I noticed the back right tire was completely flat. That was the first sign that this would be a good day.
We spent nearly an hour trying to change the tire, but it turned out to be the most inconvenient tire in existence, because we couldn’t pull it off the car after we had unscrewed it. In the end, Adam took it to a shop, leaving us on the curb for the next hour and a half. Some of the things a bunch of guys talk about while sitting on a curb are absurd and hilarious. I’m not saying it was profane, but it was entertaining.
We ended up walking to the shop anyway and, with a new tire, drove for the next few hours to Kunming, a journey that surpassed my uncomfortable expectations. I tried to doze off during the day, but was constantly awoken by a jerk of the car as Adam weaved through traffic, which how most Chinese citizens drive. 4 hours later we arrived in Kunming, but our day of misfortune was not yet over. As Adam pulled into a parking spot he slammed right into a car approaching from his rear. The other driver stormed out of his car, livid, and started shouting at Adam. Adam shouted back in a similar manner and they both began to compare the damage of their cars, which turned out to be nonexistent. Both cars were unscratched, but that did not deter the other driver from yelling at Adam and forcing him to stay put while he called the police. Not wanting to get involved, Erik, David, and I went into the restaurant where we planned to meet Leung.
An hour later, Adam arrived in the restaurant explaining that all the other driver wanted was money from a foreigner. The police saw how ludicrous the situation was at once, and sped on their way, but not before the other driver became desperate enough to yank off part of his own front bumper in an attempt to display any sign of damage to the car. Yet another fine example of local Chinese citizens trying to take advantage of tourists.
The next day proved to be a slightly better day, but not by much. We planned to rock climb one last time before David and Erik left for Tanzania (they are leaving earlier than expected and I will be left with Leung until the 31st). We traveled to a ravine with great climbing routes, and I tried my hand at climbing a 5-10A, which supposedly was long thought to the extent of the human limit of rock climbing before someone proved that humans could climb more challenging routes. I didn’t break once. However, my hands were utterly useless afterwards and I didn’t dare climb again because I still had one more day to enjoy.
We ate dinner in Kunming again, but this time we ate locally, for it was David and Erik’s last Chinese meal before Tanzania. We ate greasy potato pancakes, smelly tofu (which is its real name), and soggy vegetables with rice. Afterwards, Erik had time to hang out in our hotel before setting out to the airport. During this time we reminisced about our last 2 months together. We had not done this in a long time and it brought back wondrous memories, as well as a lump as sadness. I said goodbye to David and Erik after an hour of chatting, but I was too exhausted to feel that this was really goodbye. I had become close to Erik, but I doubt I will miss him too much in my next month. We didn’t have too much in common, although he was a great friend and an impeccable story teller. David, I will see again, because he lives an hour away from my home town. Quite convenient, don’t you think? So, without the heavy weight of loss in my heart, which had haunted me almost exactly 1 month ago, I fell into a peaceful sleep that night.
Thanks so much to everybody who has been posting comments on my blog. I have heard from a few followers that it is difficult to post comments due to Blogger’s settings and I apologize for this inconvenience. I hope you are still enjoying keeping up to date with my travels as much as I enjoy experiencing them. I also posted new pictures to my Picasa album. Hope you enjoy them as well!

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Climb Dali

March 26 & 27. Now I’m starting to enjoy the continuous activities being planned for these last 2 weeks, which was what I had become accustomed to last month. We met with Adam and Dane, our rock climbing guides, at Adam’s house in Dali. It was only a 10 minute walk from Sunny Lodge, but after dragging a luggage bag packed with 4 months of clothing and materials through cramped, windy streets, I would consider it more of a hike. 
Adam, who lives in Dali with his wife and son, owns a rock climbing company called “Climb Dali”. Dane agreed to accompany him on this trip, although he doesn’t usually work for Adam. Both being expert and enthusiastic climbers, they wasted no time in fitting us with climbing shoes as soon as we arrived. Then we picked up some provisions for lunch (mostly peanut butter and bread) and packed into a taxi van.
The ride was only an hour long to Saoang and we were soon setting down our things in the hostel that we would be staying in tonight. Adam led the away from the hostel, trekking from the streets of Saoang to the trails on the surrounding mountain. As the bright, blood colored dirt was kicked up into my face, I turned my head and studied the surroundings. The trees had been replaced by rough, desert bush and cacti and instead of locals staring curiously at my pale figure, cows were munching on grass as their bells rattled against their hides. This mountain was significantly different from the mountain I had climbed in Dali, almost an exact opposite.
When we finally reached the ridge we would be climbing, Adam and Dane laid down the supplies and handed us harnesses. As we slid them and our climbing shoes on, Adam and Dane climbed the first ride to set up the anchors for the climb. The first one was extremely easy for Adam, who had not only climbed it almost 150 times, but had discovered and cleaned the route as well. He stated it was a good warm-up run, which was lucky for me because I hadn’t done any serious climbing since I was around 12 or 13. In fact, Adam told me, with an air of modesty and pride, that he had discovered and cleaned the entire ridge, totaling in about 50 routes.
So I was the first to climb the beginner route, but I found that it wasn’t difficult at all. It was more or less like climbing an indoor rock climbing wall and the climbing shoes made it that much easier. Their rubber traction allowed me to place my foot on the tiniest holds and stand their comfortably. While Erik belayed me, Dane and Adam set up a couple more routes for us. They all turned out to be relatively easy, but they were progressively more difficult. Some had a few difficult holds and others had ridges that you needed to climb up at a 150 degree angle, but there were several rest spots. When I repelled down on my last climb, I noticed that my knees were cut in several places and my fingers were numb with pain. I hadn’t even noticed my discomfort during the concentration of my 5 climbs.
We took a break after that, intent on eating our fill of peanut butter, bread, and apples. During this lazy period, I watched Adam climb a 5-11a route with awe (Dane described the grading system to me during our hike up the mountain). He placed his hands such unlikely holds and continuously lodged his feet in the smallest of cracks and juts. At one point he was almost directly upside down, climbing with all his strength and skill. As I watched him put one leg over another, I spotted a hold that looked dangerously crumbly. I was just about to warn him not to grab onto it when he lunged out and grasped the hold. It immediately shattered in an explosion of red rock and Adam fell towards the earth. Dane’s reflexes and superior experience was the only thing that saved Adam from death. He bounced literally 6 inches from the ground, but, thankfully, never made contact. Adam tried this route again, and when he finally reached the top, he came up with an appropriate name for the route: 6 inches from 6 feet under. That, I thought, clearly stated just how dangerous climbing can be. After all our fingers were nearly bleeding with the pain of climbing, we headed back down to the village for a dinner readily prepared at the hostel, a warm, welcoming shower, a wooden bed, and a roommate who snored relentlessly through the night.
The next day was one that I was not looking forward to. Although we did enjoy a kayaking adventure that occupied most of the morning, Christen left in the afternoon and the only other enjoyable part of the day was when I made the most of my last night in Dali. We went kayaking in groups of 3s and didn’t finish until noon. By far, the funniest part of the day was Leung teetering into his kayak (which he had never done before) until he sat, became situated by shifting his forcibly weight, and made the kayak flip completely upside down, which left him struggling under water. Thankfully, he was a capable swimmer and came up sputtering and shivering. He refused to continue after that.
Our car ride back to Dali wasn’t fun. We crammed into the largest van ­­­­­­­Saoang could provide, and even that was too small to occupy 7 people, 5 bags of luggage, and 7 backpacks. My afternoon in Dali was spent walking around with David and Christen, just making the most of the time left before we all parted our separate ways. All too soon, Christen was saying her goodbyes and I was telling her that I would see her back home. Leung took her to Kunming, which left Erik, David, and I to fend for ourselves for the next 24 hours.
We ate beef steaks at Café De Jack, ordering our favorite meal at our favorite western restaurant. Then we came back to Sunny Lodge, where Erik was forced to organize our receipts for the last month. Wanting to spend my time doing something, and because the prospect of doing nothing was unbearable, I suggested to David that we meet up with a few of the people we had met earlier at the Café. Probably because he was too exhausted, or because he was pondering his next month in Tanzania, David refused to accompany me. That didn’t deter me from going out however. I took a taxi to the café, which took longer than I thought because it is extremely difficult to use proper mandarin (all provinces have their own versions of mandarin) to explain where you are trying to go.
I arrived and hung out with everybody until most were forced to say goodnight due to their studies tomorrow morning. All except Amanda and me were left. She is 18 and doesn’t have a curfew, so we went out to Dali and spent the most of the night talking and playing pool at the Sunny Lodge. When Amanda finally said she had to leave, I walked back to the room, but found that it was empty. I peered through the window of my room and saw David and Erik dancing in the bar of the Sunny Lodge. Smiling to myself, and half wishing I was 18 so I could join them, I slipped into bed and fell asleep, probably with that same silly grin spread on my face.