Sunday, September 16, 2007


I always knew I liked animals. I get excited at zoos. I can’t help pointing out birds to anyone near me when I see one. When I was little I fought hard for a hamster, and then another hamster, and then another hamster, and then a dog. But I’ve never really been an “animal person.” Practically speaking, I’d rather not have anything relying on me to care for it at this point. I am selectively fond of other people’s dogs and cats. I ate dog meat in China with only a few qualms. Okay, a lot of qualms, but I still ate it. That’s why I was surprised by the animal love evident in the pictures from my myriad travels. It seems I chased at least three puppies around, trying to capture the cuteness on film. Then there were the puppies in the box. I almost tried to smuggle a little white one home with me. Even cats, which I typically ignore, showed up with no small infrequency in my pictures. Oh look, a cat…and another cat…oh and there’s me holding a kitten. There were baby chicks, roosters, elephants, dogs, cats, fish even, but according to both photographic evidence and memory, nothing tops my excitement for monkeys.

I love monkeys so much. I think it’s those big eyes and the teeny tiny human hands covered in fur. I love the way they snatch things, and the way they pry open bananas with focused determination. They are mean little things, but also so cute I could hardly stand it. The first time I got to play with monkeys I could barely contain fits of joy. In my twenty minutes spent with monkeys in Cambodia I accumulated triple the number of pictures I have for my whole time in Vietnam. Plus video. Women were shoving monkey food into my hands and demanding pay. Normally I get frustrated with this kind of ruse—here hold this, oh, and pay me two dollars. But not when I played with the monkeys. I happily handed over dollar bills, overwhelmed by the impossible cuteness of a baby monkey clinging to his mother’s chest.

I have a video from a couple of years ago of one of the babies I watch meeting a Disneyland character for the first time. She keeps bursting into these little nervous giggles, as if the world is just to exciting in this moment and it’s all bubbling into laughter. I think it was the raccoon from Pocahontas. That’s not even an especially famous Disney character. But her reaction is hilariously adorable, as she babbles in incomprehensible enthusiasm. Silly Kate. And then I listened to the video of myself taping the monkeys. Oh…it seems I laugh like that too, and chatter on about “eeeeeeee, soooo cute” until I can’t stand holding the camera anymore and I have to run off and feed some more monkeys.

It’s good to be back. There are so many reasons I’m glad I’m here and not there at this point in time. Avocados are reason enough. But I have determined that California needs more monkeys. Too bad you can’t hand feed pelicans. I do love pelicans.

Friday, September 7, 2007


I’m still trying to remember. It seems that I have about ten pictures from my time in Vietnam. Partly due to lack of memory card space, but partly due to a serious case of traveler burnout. Vietnam was country number four. It fell at the end of month three. And after two solid weeks of plane flights and visas and finding places to sleep, I was Done.

There is the kind of traveling where everything is planned out and done in groups and organized for maximum efficiency. This kind of travel might involve matching hats. Then there are two nineteen-year-old girls with four sets of plane tickets and a lonely planet guide. This kind of travel is done in survival mode. I had done my research. I knew all the safety stuff, all the scams to look out for, all the emergency numbers. But getting on a plane, or a bus, or a train always felt a little bit like jumping off a cliff: trusting in the parachute of tenuous plans, and maybe an extra credit card.

I was tired. I had been tired for months. I didn’t even realize how tired I was all the time until I got home and rediscovered a life not burdened by constant exhaustion. And Vietnam sure knew how to kick me when I was down. Vietnam has energy. It never stops lighting up and making noise. Car horns were made to be pushed. So much loudness all the time.

You know what you shouldn’t do when you are already annoyed with a country? You should not visit the Museum of American War Crimes. Okay, I get it, we did a lot of awful crap. Agent Orange, well, yes, that was probably a bad idea. Destroying the forests for generations to come, brutally murdering women and children, that is some horrible stuff. But I have to say, Vietnam, I still think your slant on the war is a tiny bit biased. At first I balked at every display, shocked at the pictures of destruction. But soon enough I had to roll my eyes at the over-the-top nature of the photo captions. Let me sum it up: “Here are some more evil American soldiers doing more evil things to innocent Vietnam victims.” Followed by a day at the Cu Chi tunnels, my indignation only increased. Yes, let’s celebrate the slaughtering of “American devils.” Let’s glorify the horrible injuries inflicted on US soldiers by jungle traps involving large metal spikes.

I don’t believe these extremist views have any representative ties to the actual beliefs of actual Vietnamese people. It’s government propaganda, and I’m sure that Vietnamese citizens have a wide range of feelings surrounding a very painful war. Mostly I was tired and grumpy and in need of a snack. And then I fell down a war tunnel. The cave was dark. There was a hole in the floor. I fell hard, catching myself on my left ribcage. Then I was choking back tears, climbing out of a hole covered in dirt, breaking into painful little sobs as my face burned with embarrassment and fury. One of the Australians in the group handed me a wet wipe. The tour guide made a joke about catching an American in one of their traps. “It hurts…really…bad,” I whispered to Blaine. “I know,” she said, pushing me along with the group as she helped me wipe the dirt from my wet cheeks.

I know it's a little bit crazy, but I still want to go back. Even though the next day I walked for blocks and blocks with a broken-ish rib just to get to the most disappointing tourist attraction I have ever seen. (“This is the Jade Pagoda? Seriously?” “Ya, I was definitely expecting something more jade. Or pagoda-like.”) Even though I wanted to cut the wires to every horn in every Vietnamese car and bus. Even though it was scary, and overwhelming, and more of an “experience” than a vacation. Because I tasted pho from an open market in Ho Chi Mihn city. I listened to a Vietnamese taxi driver quietly sing to himself as if there weren’t two other people in the car. I watched dozens of teenagers play hacky sack for hours in a city park. I crawled through a war tunnel.

Killing Fields

If you ever get a chance to visit the killing fields of Cambodia, do. But know that the name is quite literal, and the experience is quite nauseating. I can’t write out the violence. I’m fairly certain that I couldn’t do justice to the graphic nature of the thousands of deaths, and it seems disrespectful somehow to try. Whole families were killed, mothers, babies, everyone. Few bullets were used. Gardening tools were less expensive.

In America, the whole site would be excavated. The remains would be tagged and stored away except for the few used in a memorial display. But this is Cambodia. Clothes, bones, and teeth still surface in the mud every rainy season. “That is bone,” said our guide matter-of-factly. Oh, that white hard stuff I’m stepping on. Of course it is.

It was a simple display, thousands of skulls piled up in a glass case. Life goes on all around. The sickening fields of bone and rubble are just a big stretch of land in the middle of rice patties that feed the still struggling country. It’s the same with the high school that the Khmer Rouge converted into a sinister prison where everyone was guilty on arrival and the punishment was always death. Now there are shops and houses and life happening next to this place where visitors struggle to understand the darkness.

To me, Cambodia is the place where dads rock little babies in hammocks. Where bus drivers play WWF videos to entertain their passengers. Where tourists from five star hotels roam through shops that sell Kate Spade purses. Where monkeys swing from trees in city parks. Where people smile and help and behave with the kind of grace that hides deep scars.

Monday, June 25, 2007

What country am I in?

As we watched the sun begin to rise over one of the seven built wonders of the world, Angkor Wat, the serenity was broken by a group of college students. A professor enthusiastically gave instructions: “Okay, we’ll stay here until 6:30. Until then, feel free to wander. You can get some good shots over by that lake.” A girl turned to her friend, “So…which wat (temple) is this?” I rolled my eyes as if she had just asked, “So…which wall is this,” while standing before a certain Chinese wonder. And then Blaine told me to be nice. There are actually a lot of wats close to Angkor that are often called by the same name. Besides, I’ve been there: “So…which palace is this?” “So…that’s the king?” “So…when is lunch?”

Saturday, June 23, 2007

Play Dough Rings

We were walking up a hill. She was there on the path stretching out her hand. When we walked back down after the sun had set, she was still there, twirling her fingers in the dirt, staring up at the stream of tourists. She had a cup or a bowl, I can’t really remember, holding a few coins. I do remember that it was dark, and that I walked past her with a feeling of helplessness. It was a conscious decision, not giving money to any child. I’m still not sure it was the right one, but the books told me it made things worse not better, feeding an industry of child labor that should not exist. So I looked away and walked down the hill, sure that no child should be ignored that way.

Then it was an uneasy dance every time. How do I extract myself quickly from the young hawkers of postcards and trinkets? “You are seven,” I wanted to explain. “You are too young to be working, too young to be begging, too young to be talking to strangers alone.” I did try that once. “I can’t,” I said as she showed me a cold water bottle, and then a stack of postcards, and then a book on Angkor Wat, hoping something would catch my attention.” “I can’t,” I said, “You are too young to be selling things to me when you should be learning things in school.” “You can,” she argued, “If you want to you can.” I turned away from that crowd of little girls too, unable to offer anything but incomprehensible moral arguments.

Every meal was a new set of children circling close to our table, bobbing in and out as restaurant owners shooed them away. Blaine and I would stare at each other sadly, unable to focus on any conversation as we feebly tried to ignore the memorized sales pitch. This time it was two little boys who watched me buy a card from a woman in a wheelchair. Angry at my purchase from his competition, one little boy swatted at the woman. Clearly used to squirrelly little boys, she pulled out a sharp rock and batted towards his chest. The other little boy just pointed to the first boy, then to his head, as he whispered, “He’s cra-see.”

Really, he was just angry at a world that ignores him. That tells him he is not worth attention or time. That looks on him with pity and refuses to help him. Big eyes and a sad face sometimes win him a dollar or two, so the corners of his mouth turn down. His eyes plead. And he is angry.

That was it. I couldn’t ignore anymore. I was prepared with mini containers of play dough, but somehow these kids seemed too old for it. They looked young, but they talked like little used car salesmen. It was almost scary, thinking about engaging these kids instead of walking purposefully away. And then I kicked myself. Because scary is sitting on the side of the road in the dark as strangers hurry past acting like you don’t exist. Scary is not handing a child a toy and asking how old he is. No, you can’t eat it. Look, here’s how you make a snake. Wow, that looks great. You are ten? You cannot be ten, you look five. Is that Mickey Mouse on your shirt? Kids in California like Mickey Mouse, too. Suddenly these used car salesmen forgot what they were selling.

It always took less time to interact. Even when the play dough ran out, it took less time to ask kid questions, and get kid answers, than it did to ignore and try to walk away. I admit to being bothered by it. To feeling like these constant demands for money were cutting into my vacation. Then I remembered, or was reminded, that I was only being confronted with something that always exists. In my world, I don’t have to listen to children begging, because I’m too far away to hear them.

She picked out the pink play dough, prying off the lid with determination. She followed us around the temple ruins for a bit, ducking behind stones and popping out again, finally settling on a rock to examine her new treasure. As we walked away, I laughed at her handiwork, five tiny pink play dough rings with more in the works. And she laughed, too.

Friday, June 15, 2007


Before I try to write the million words it will take to unravel the last two weeks of traveling, I thought I’d give some of the musical highlights of our journey through Cambodia and Vietnam. Things started off well enough. The cab ride to the airport featured the international (translation: American) station. I’ve been away from the US long enough to appreciate any music with English lyrics. So Beyonce at 5 am? Sure, I’ll sing to that.

There was the taxi driver in Saigon who made us sing Hotel California. The Eagles had no idea what power their words would hold over South East Asians for decades to come. The first time a street vendor said, “Ohhh, where you from? Ohhh, California…Hotel California!” I thought it was hilarious. He knows the song, how random and fun! It turns out, everyone knows the song. But I don’t think we’ll ever top the rendition we offered in that cab, when the driver belted out the chorus with us as he swerved through the streets of Saigon.

And we won’t soon forget the mid-80’s soft rock tunes played for us on the two hour trip from Hanoi to Halong Bay. Apparently “Michael Learns to Rock” is experiencing a major comeback in Asia. Our bus driver put the album on repeat. There is just some music you should never be forced to learn by heart.

There were also the cell phone ring tones, which remain one of the great cultural mysteries in my mind. It seems that “Happy Birthday” is to Vietnam what “We Wish You a Merry Christmas” is to Thailand, which is to say, it is the ring tone of every third person in the country. Our boat tour guide broke apart from the crowd, choosing a tune that threw me back to eighth grade every time his phone rang: Vengaboy’s creatively titled hit “Boom Boom Boom Boom.” The Vietnamese man who sat next to us on the plane played us his full ring tone--a sappy song called “I’m Proud of You.” Not the ring I would have paired with a forty year old business man, but like I said, cultural mysteries.

The best had to be the trip from Phnom Penh to Siem Reap. We recognized the tune, but the words were in Khmer. “Is this…”Play That Funky Music (White Boy)”?” And it was. The music video karaoke version. A young Cambodian pop star danced on the screen as a psychedelic snail floated in the background. Blaine and I just stared. “But why a snail?” I asked. “But why this song?” She asked. And then we shook our heads and sang the chorus in English.

Thursday, June 14, 2007

This Way

My family often mocks a deep observation I made when I was eight or nine that "every road leads somewhere." Well, Cambodia lives by my philosophy, and offers helpful road markings to help you find your way...somewhere.

Sunday, May 27, 2007

There should be a name for that feeling you get when you know Lonely Planet has lied to you. "I do NOT see any brightly colored macaws swooping overhead." Then again, I suppose I can't complain.

Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Bad Cookies

“Mai, Mai!” said the lady at the bakery, shaking her head as she pulled at the bag of cookies Blaine had just picked out. Bewildered, Blaine set the bag back on the tray. Carefully, I picked up a bag containing a different type of cookie. “A roy,” she nodded approvingly. “Delicious.” Blaine tried again, convinced that she knew better than the shop owner what sort of cookies she wanted. “Mai!” said the lady, swatting at the bag. She wore an exasperated smile now, shaking her head and yammering on in Thai.

At this point we are all starting to giggle, including the shop owner. Now it was a game. Which ones were the safe cookies? “A roy?” I asked, holding up a bag. “A roy, a roy,” she laughed. “These,” Casey ventured. “A roy!” Those were a winner. We kept going, checking each time for the approval of our cookie provider. A couple of times we picked up the forbidden bag just to see her pull it away from us. The chosen cookies were purchased, and eaten on the spot.

Really, none of the dry, crumbly little cookies were very satisfying. One of mine had a single miniature chocolate chip and a single raisin in it. That is no way to make a cookie. So of course we had to speculate on the forbidden cookies. What was in those cookies? Was the shop owner really looking out for us, or just trying to save the best cookies for herself? Who was allowed to purchase those cookies? Wouldn’t they get stale if someone didn’t eventually eat them?

I love the thought of going into Starbucks, ordering a drink, and having the barista tell me that, no, I don’t want that latte. Or maybe Baskin Robbins: “Rocky road? I really think you’re going to be disappointed with that choice.” There will be plenty of time for cookies that taste like cookies when I get home. For now, I’m happy to have a very small, very old Thai woman speak a jumble of indecipherable words and knock cookies out of my hands.

Monday, May 14, 2007

Swimming with Monks

“If you close your eyes it feels like you’re on a roller coaster,” I said to Blaine as we wound our way through the mountains in Laos. “Kind of like Indiana Jones,” Lauren agreed as we were jolted by another gear shift. Somehow we always make it, and this time making it meant a trailhead speckled with vendors and an arrow pointing into the dense green wall of trees and vines. We passed the bear enclosure, where black bears orphaned by poachers tumbled and played. Then there was the tiger, which I could’ve reached out and touched through the flimsy fence. The sign reading “This tiger bites” deterred me, but I could have.

Then it’s just a few steps through the jungle. This is what Thailand is supposed to look like. Crystal clear water tumbling over rocks into a warm swimming hole. Everything blue and green. Even the rock formations that make you feel like the mermaids in Peter Pan perched on the Blue Lagoon. So we swam and swung out on the rope swing, splashing into the water. Timid European tourists watched us play, and I wondered how they could resist. There are times when it’s worth the risk to leave your camera under a tree so you can jump off a waterfall. There are times when it’s worth the risk to carefully carry your camera into the pool of water so you can pose on the mermaid rocks.

And then as we climbed out of the water, nearly ready to follow the streams uphill, a collection of monks in their saffron robes gathered at the edge of the pool. It’s an odd moment, trying to figure out the proper etiquette of hanging out by a swimming hole with a bunch of young monks. We were fairly certain it should involve more clothing than we were currently wearing. For the most part, they seemed unfazed by our immodesty and easily dove into the water, fully robed in bright orange cotton. They flipped from the rope swing, dove off the waterfall, and darted playfully through the water. I couldn’t help thinking they were showing off for our camera flashes, knowing that the idiosyncrasy would grab our attention.

I was sad to leave the little pool, pulled away only by the promise of a bigger waterfall up ahead. I laughed walking up the trail, each turn showing a new little pool, possibly more perfect than the one before it. And then I was standing before the most beautiful piece of nature I have ever seen. A mountain of water pouring down through the jungle, spilling over and over rocks and boulders. And that is always the best part. Getting to that place that you’ve never seen, looking at something new and thinking, “I didn’t know there were places like this.”

Tuesday, May 1, 2007

The Wrong Way

I have always been through international airports with an adult to herd me through hallways, onto jet walks, and past customs. I would watch the arrival and departure boards, awed by the fact that my parents could decipher these secret codes. They always knew where we should wait, what was going to happen next, and how to open the door to the plane bathroom. And while we were on trips, somehow they read maps, and found museums, and bought metro passes. I always wondered, how did they know? Who taught them the rules? The things to say, the places to go, the directions to follow to get us to where we needed to be. I was certain even up until I walked through security at the airport five weeks ago, that given the chance to do it on my own, I would mess it up. And of course, I did. I ended up at the wrong gate, I stood in the wrong line, I couldn’t find my ticket stub. But then I realized the part that I had been missing all those years: no one knows how to do it; everyone does it wrong.

My mom used to be militant about having us make our own phone calls. Doctors appointments, dentist appointments, babysitting jobs. Once we were old enough to have our own social agenda, we were old enough to organize it. I think that was the idea anyway. I remember sitting with the phone, yellow pages open in front of me, whining to my mother that I wouldn’t know what to say when someone picked up. I can’t remember what I was even calling about, but I was quite certain that I would sound like an idiot to whatever service person answered the phone. That is when my mother offered this advice, “You are a smart person, if you can’t figure it out, probably other people couldn’t either.” That was only the start of breaking down my assumption that everyone else has it figured out. Everyone else knows how to fill out tax forms, and fix their computer, and make doctors appointments, and navigate airports. It’s a hard assumption to let go of. Even walking into the job fair last quarter I marveled at how people knew the right words to say, and the right resume holder to carry, and the right moment to hand someone a business card.

Here’s the key to getting over the fear of messing everything up, of doing the wrong thing in a situation where everyone else is doing it right: travel to a country where you don’t speak the language. I have done everything wrong. I have wandered into places where I’m not supposed to be. I have tried to pay with the wrong bill. I have mangled so many phrases and missed so many cultural cues. It didn’t take long before I reached the sad realization that I didn’t know how to do any of it. But quite soon after that I had another realization: no one expects me to. Tourists are by their very nature kind of clueless, and the best part is, the more clueless you are, the more people will help you. I was worried about figuring out the airport on my own, but really, airports are designed to shepherd all manner of confused, fatigued, language-handicapped people. There are arrows, and pictures, and maps. In Hong Kong there are even uniformed workers with white gloves who will take your ticket, consult the board of confusion, and direct you to your gate. And when that gate happens to change at the last moment, the flight attendant will come gather you and your fellow travelers up like a class of four-year-olds and make you walk, holding a rope, to the new gate. Okay, so not the rope part.

I was standing in line in the Thai airport waiting to cross the final hurdle. The customs official would take the little card I had filled out on the plane, ask me if I was smuggling anything into the country, and wave me through so I could collect my luggage. At least that’s what I hoped would happen. As I practiced this scenario in my head, focused on the slow moving line ahead of me, a German woman grabbed at my little card. I whipped around, confused by words that I was fairly certain were not spoken in English. She pointed to her blank card, and then to the carefully penned markings on my card. Hmm, I noticed, the instructions are in English and Thai. That must be really helpful if you are German. I pointed to the “departure country” line and asked, “Deutschland?” She smiled and nodded. Unaware that I had just exhausted my knowledge of her native tongue, she began to rattle off sentences that meant nothing to me. When my face fell, she tried again more slowly. Eventually, and with much laughter, the card was filled out. There may have been a few errors, let’s call them educated guesses, but she did make it through customs in the end. And so did I. If she was okay, I thought, I’ll probably be okay too.

I must say, life gets a lot easier when you give yourself permission to do everything wrong.

Monday, April 30, 2007

Great Advertising

What's bad:

What's worse:

Most of the clothes still looked too small for me.

Running Water

I know that I may have made it seem like I’m roughing it here. The train bathroom really was a hole onto the tracks. I really have used my share of squat toilets. I also hosed myself down with cold water in a rather dusty bathroom when we visited the hill tribes. I’ll be honest though; I haven’t gone a single day without running water, electricity, or a western toilet. I’ve barely gone a day without air conditioning and hot water. Our room at the “hostel” in Chiang Mai was bigger than my dorm room last year, and it had its own bathroom, and wireless internet. The hotel before that in Bangkok was nicer than most of the hotels I’ve stayed at with my family (not that we’re exactly five star travelers). The point is, if you were picturing me sleeping under a mosquito net in a hut with dirt floors, that would be a misconception.

But now we’re in Nong Khai. And my bathroom has no sink. Technically there is running water, from the shower that hangs on the wall, but the squat toilet is flushed with a bucket. There is a mosquito net that serves a very important purpose. For the first time, I’m using my 98% DEET bug repellent. I chose this. I could’ve had air conditioning, and a sink, and internet access. But that would mean I wouldn’t be right on the Maekong River. I wouldn’t get to lounge under tiki-like huts in the tropical courtyard. I wouldn’t get to feel so impressed with myself for brushing my teeth using the shower head and spitting in the “toilet.”

I’m still not sleeping on the floor. I’m still able to shower every day. There is still internet access just down the road. It’s harder than you’d think to get to the middle of nowhere. A big part of me is glad I haven’t found it.

Update: I wrote this last night, and today we were upgraded to the second nicest room in the guest house. Oh well, I guess I’m just meant to live comfortably a bit longer.

Thursday, April 26, 2007


My favorite quote from the guest speaker in my business lecture:

"Ya, being a crocodile farmer is an amazing experience, but ultimately it's all about greed."

Point taken, I promise never to become a crocodile farmer.

Monday, April 23, 2007

A Lovely Tree

The chanting was just eerie. These little girls, just babies really, dressed up in ornate costumes in 104 degree heat, sitting on the steps of the temple, chanting. “Take picture, give money. I have no money. One baht, two baht. I have no money. Take picture, give money.” All this in a sing-song voice, the phrasing perfectly spaced. The words meant nothing, it’s just a script they’ve been taught, memorized sounds. I know that tourists don’t mean any harm by it, but don’t they catch what they are doing when they take pictures of these little girls? They are allowing children to sell their own image. These girls are made objects, a part of the scenery.

You are sitting in a park. Someone walks up, snaps your picture, and walks away. As if you are a lovely tree, a flower maybe. Is that okay? Okay, what if they drop a five dollar bill after they take the picture? Is that okay? What if it happened again while you were drinking your Americano at Starbucks? This time a woman gives you a ten. At the grocery store a guy with a Nikon D70 gets a great shot of you buying Lucky Charms. He drops a twenty in the aisle. At this point you are a little conflicted. At first you were surprised, and pretty angry. What is wrong with people? You are not a monkey at the zoo. That’s how you felt at first. But that twenty came in handy as you checked out with your groceries. And the more it happens, the more it seems okay. Then you have a baby, and that’s where the real money comes in. People will pay bank to snap pictures of your kid. Even more so when you dress her up in a cute outfit and teach her to recite cute phrases.

Okay, I’m done. This analogy is more than falling apart. Here’s the summary: stop taking pictures of children have not interacted with, of people you do not know. They are humans, not objects. I can think of some other industries where teaching people to sell their own image has led to some pretty gross things, has turned people into objects. If you teach people that they are objects, they will find a way to sell themselves. So stop buying.

I'm not talking about snapping photos of little kids in Mexico who are clamoring to have their picture taken so they can look at the screen. Or taking a picture of the friendly street vendor in France who you've been practicing your language skills with. I'm talking about strangers, selling a little tiny piece of their dignity a thousand times a day.

Sunday, April 22, 2007


I never understood my sister’s fascination with languages. Of course it would be nice to wake up fluent in another language, but the amount of work required to remember all those sounds and rules, I guess it just never seemed worth the effort. I could bash my way around in Spanish. I could always point, or substitute a word, or turn to a family member for help. Really, I knew how to order a burrito and that was enough. Words had never rendered me helpless.

Here’s what I didn’t know: language is magic. It is tiring, casting about in frustration, searching for words that never were in your head. Like trying to order tomato on my salad. To-ma-to. See my hand motions. Tomato. Then I remembered the word for red. I love that moment when someone’s eyes light up. You can see the light bulb. And I got my tomato. Magic. Or at the cafeteria when that girl who I will love forever walked up and asked what I was trying to order. Mung sa vee rat. That’s what I wanted, she said. I rolled it through my head over and over. I have no idea what it means. I know I say it in a crooked way, based on the smile of the cafeteria lady. Still, she gives me the noodle soup that I want, and it feels like magic.

It makes all the difference having to depend on a language. Over and over I’ve wanted to stamp my foot. Why don’t these people get it? I am speaking slowly and loudly. Ice. I want ice for my water. Or I want to go to Chiang Mai University. Or I need directions to the emergency room. I can’t stand the moment when we are both trying so hard. Trying to make sense out of these sounds. Me and the waiter, or me and the taxi driver, or me and the nurse. We stare at each other as if we can get past the words if we look hard enough. Sometimes, we just laugh. Mai pen rai. No worries. Sometimes it turns out like the Mitch Hedburg joke where you turn to your friend and say something frivolous, but they didn’t quite hear you so you have to repeat it until you’re shouting a pointless phrase. “I’d like some salt,” I say to the waiter. He shakes his head slowly, “I…don’t…know.” “Saalllttt.” Still no understanding. “It’s okay, it’s okay,” I say. But it’s not okay to him, and three waitresses later I feel like a bratty princess demanding that my food be cut up into bite size pieces.

Then there are the times when you both know you will never figure it out. It’s little things, but sometimes they feel important. That’s when we shake our heads and turn away. In all of this, I know it’s my job to learn. I am understood so much of the time as it is. I am hugely grateful for that, as it’s a courtesy that I’ve seldom returned. But I know that here, if I’m not understood, it is no one’s fault but my own. Well, and maybe those linguists who promised that we’d all be speaking Esperanto by now.

So, there is magic, and frustration, but also progress. I can order pineapple. I can count to 999. I can bargain with a taxi driver. I can say that something is yellow, red, blue, pink, or purple. I can get won ton crunchy things in my soup (although only because I’ve developed complex sign language with the cafeteria lady, still, language). I can ask for water, or milk, or Thai iced tea, or guava juice. Of course I can say hello and goodbye and thank you. These politeness words are of little practical help, but they make people smile at the small effort I’m making.

I hate to brag, but when I said the Thai word for “sit” yesterday, the teacher said, “Perfect.”

Saturday, April 21, 2007

I still love Hill Tribe coffee.

I never wrote about my weekend with the hill tribe. There should be a vague discomfort that comes with walking through a stranger’s home snapping pictures. And at some moments, that’s what it felt like. The hike back from the waterfall spit us out into one of the mountain villages. This was the kind of village life that you stare at in National Geographic. Little pigs ran through weed patches and underneath stilted houses. Sun darkened women scrubbed naked babies in metal tubs. As the water buffalo were herded across the path, my apartment with the running water and the electricity felt very far away.

In villages like this one, life is lived out in the open. Heat tends to unify people in unexpected ways. Doors, windows, porches, roofs all kept open with hope of a breeze. My developed world leaves me sealed off in my air-conditioned chamber, but here, there are no boundaries, and still I felt like I was crossing every one. The urge to capture the utterly beautiful faces of the chubby-cheeked children was almost irresistible, but I mostly resisted. Mostly. I thought about how I would feel as a mother, having strangers take my child’s picture without asking. Then it’s hard to justify.

There were parts that I loved. Balloons cross cultures quite well, as do bubbles. If you bring enough candy, no child is a stranger for long. I’m pretty good at being silly and playing in the dirt. More than that, it was fun to watch the moms in the outdoor kitchen gaze at their kids as we all spun in circles and attempted to play jump rope. They smiled at me, and laughed with their babies, and made me feel a little less guilty, a tiny bit less like I was treading heavily on what little unique culture these people had left.

Too much of it felt like a show. Like they see our vans coming and Joe whips out his cell phone. “Bob, quick, get the tribal gear on, the tourists are coming.” The hill tribes are in the tourism business now. It is the kind of capitalizing on culture that one of our first guest lecturers decried. The same focus leads some vendors to chop the heads off ancient Buddha statues and sell them to tourists. It leads the “long-necked” Padaung women to weight their shoulders with coils until their collarbones have dropped ten inches. What is true culture, and what is culture that only exists for show?

Thankfully, our own rustic bungalows with the highly functional mosquito nets were far separated from the true village huts. My feeling of intrusion lasted only as long as the brief tours of the villages. It’s a twisting paradox. They want us there. Rather, they want our money there. And it really is beneficial. Which is the lesser evil: opium or tourists? Well, I like to think I do less damage than an addictive, mind-altering chemical, but are those the two choices? Tourism and limited farming have replaced the lucrative opium production that once characterized the mountain regions of Thailand. It’s complicated, and I mostly chose to play ring-around-the-rosy with three-year-olds rather than worry about the long-term implications of my visit. But if I go back, there needs to be something more. I owe more than money.

Thursday, April 19, 2007


I spent the weekend in an airy bungalow on a river in Northern Thailand. It sort of felt like taking a vacation from a vacation. My normal life here is like a vacation in the sense that I’m living in a hotel and eating every meal in restaurants of all kinds. Not in the sense that I spent my time lounging around. This trip involves far too little lounging. I corrected that to some degree this weekend during my visit to a tiny village where foreigners come to drop of the face of the earth. There are still a few hippies camped out in Golden Gate Park, San Francisco. The rest of them live in Pai, Thailand.

Here’s the beauty of a high concentration of foreigners: foreign food. I have eaten some form of vegetables and rice/ vegetables and noodles for every lunch and dinner since I arrived in Thailand. Not this weekend. This weekend I had pancakes. Well, sort of, they don’t have syrup, and they are quite biscuit-like in consistency. Still, pancakes. And french toast (again, sort of). And pizza. And pita with hummus. And bread. And coffee, really good coffee. Even the local grocery store filled me with joy. I know this is shocking, but they had boxes of cereal. Not just the miniature ones that make me laugh. A four dollar baby box of cornflakes? I wonder how long that’s been sitting on the shelf. But this grocery store’s cereal aisle could almost pass for a few shelves at Trader Joe’s. I mean, Gorilla Munch and Nature’s Path. Ten different kinds of granola (I told you, hippie town). If I had any sort of reliable access to normal milk, I would have bought in bulk. Instead I settled on instant oatmeal, peanut butter and jelly, and bread with seeds in it (Thais usually eat Wonder bread when they venture into baked goods).

Pai did not treat everyone in our group so kindly. Any trip where local hospital workers recognize you by sight cannot be counted a 100% success. Have you ever been to a hospital in a small village? They are kind of fun, quaint almost, if you’re not the one using their services that is. I won’t go into the details since I’m not the star of those events. On an unrelated note, please be sure to wear long pants and close-toed shoes if you are ever on a motorcycle. Also, don’t drink the moat water. Back to the story, hospitals can be kind of fun. I accidentally wandered through the maternity ward, which was tastefully decorated with the kind of cardboard cutouts you might find in the baby shower section of a 99 cent only store. It was less of a ward, and more of a large, open collection of randomly shaped rooms. A woman lay on a “bed” looking less than excited about giving birth in 90 degree weather. Perhaps I’m in the wrong room, I thought. Outside, two men sat smoking cigars waiting to hear if it was a boy or a girl. Just kidding. One was entertaining a small boy. The other was stony faced, looking like he might need some Hong Tong (Thai Whisky).

Once I found the patients I was looking for, I settled right in, messing with the IV bag and mocking the hospital “food.” If I am ever in the hospital, I will never complain about the food. This stuff had fur. Don’t you want me to visit when you are sick? I will fiddle with the fluids that are nursing you back to health and ask why the food you’re supposed to be eating looks like dried out cat vomit. Hey, at least I brought flowers.

Beyond the hospital, there were massive caves to be explored, and a canyon laced with narrow paths that seem to hang in mid-air. There was also a bus ride that solidified my belief in miracles. I know that there didn’t end up being a car on the other side of the road when we made that sharp turn, but if there had been, they might not have appreciated a bus driving in their lane. The road felt like a series of jerky u-turns up a steep hill. It’s a wonder that there was only one motion sickness related “incident.”

Those were the exciting things, but I liked the not-exciting things better. Restaurants that serve cheese. Books that deserve to be read in one sitting. And hospitals were the nurses and patients in the waiting area laugh at you. “Why are they laughing at me?” you think, a little bewildered. But when you can’t figure it out, you just laugh too.

Tuesday, April 17, 2007

For the Babies

I told some of my favorite small children that I was going to Thailand to ride an elephant.

Kate just laughed, because the whole world is funny when you're Kate. Also, I don't think she really believed me. Here's proof Kate.

Sam was unimpressed. Probably because Woody rides a horse, not an elephant. Maybe if his parents showed him Dumbo he'd be more impressed.

Quinn told me I should ride a giraffe. To that I say, I'm working on it. We should go on safari together when you're older.


Thursday, April 12, 2007


What does a two-year-old girl living in a remote village in the mountain regions of Thailand do with the small box of crayons that has just been handed to her? The same thing any two-year-old in the US would do: she holds it up to her ear and says, “Sawadee khaa!” Translation: “Hello!” I guess that’s some sort of cultural universal, the developmental stage when everything can be turned into a cell phone.


I’m pretty sure that all the childhood years I spent boogie boarding ruined me for waves. I remember the sand in my mouth, being driven under the pounding water. And somehow I would recover every time, tumbling through the surf, landing hard on the shore, then running back into the water for more. I think I saved up all the fear I should have spent then. I do not like waves. Here’s something I didn’t know, waterfalls are like a massive waves that do not stop. The water, it just keeps…falling. And water is heavy. And the fear came back.

I can rarely capture the sights I want with my camera. Thailand has left me utterly defeated as a photographer. When I remember to take pictures, they hardly do justice to whatever I was trying to cement in memory. In fact, they hardly do justice to other people’s pictures of the same sights. Maybe I’ll leave the pictures to people who actually know how to wield a camera. Still, I wanted this waterfall. I loved this waterfall. The hike there was less difficult than it was straight up dangerous. I know that bamboo is stronger than it looks, but the railings on the side of this steep, downhill trail, well, it’s a whole new level of trust. And then we got to the bamboo bridge over the river, the one where the Thais felt only one railing was necessary. That one nearly had me scrambling back up the ninety degree trail I had just slithered my way down. But I made it across.

It’s always worth it, at least it has been so far, to push down the fear and keep going. It started as I walked through security at the airport. I had never had to struggle alone with my bags before. I must have checked my passport a hundred times. It was just me, and I wasn’t sure I could hold it together if I got herded to the wrong gate and missed my flight. There was no shortage of things to fear. It was like hopping across rocks. If I made it to the next safe place then I would be okay for a few hours. As I settled into the final mode of transportation, the taxi to the hotel, I could feel the flutters in my stomach begin. I wasn’t sure what time it was, or how many hours I had been awake. I wasn’t even sure that this cab would take me to the right hotel. I had held it together this long, and I was unraveling just a little bit. Then I was in the hotel. Then I was inside my room. And I was not leaving for anything. Not even to tell my parents that I had made it. Which apparently was a bad choice, considering they did everything but alert the embassy that I hadn’t been heard from. Though let’s be fair, I had talked to them from Hong Kong, and Hong Kong is pretty close to Thailand. I knew I was safe, so I just shut down. Until Blaine arrived at 2:00 am, at which point I suffocated her with the tightest hug I’ve ever given. I guess the point of all that is that sometimes if you get over the fear, you get to wake up on the other side of the world, and that’s pretty cool.

But this time, when I stepped carefully across the bridge, and then doggie paddled in a hyperventilated way under pounding water, I got to see the back of a waterfall. Shout out to Kelly, “Now here’s something you don’t see every day, it’s the back side of water!” But when it’s the back side of a real waterfall, and not just a fountain on a Disneyland ride, it is worth overcoming the fear. It’s in these moments that I have to remind myself: I’m behind a wall of water, in the middle of a jungle. Or, I’m in alone in the middle of an airport in Hong Kong. Or, I’m riding on an elephants head, feeding him bananas whenever he sticks his slimy trunk in my face. That’s when fear seems small.

Tuesday, April 10, 2007

Thursday, April 5, 2007


The exhaustion is sudden and all consuming. I live in two modes, sensory overload, and dead sleep. This introvert can barely cope with the constant stimulation. And there is no routine. At home I ate the same granola and frozen blueberries covered in 1% milk for breakfast every morning. Here, my afternoon consists of figuring out how to get myself fed. It’s not as if I have to scavenge for food. There are restaurants on every corner. But still, it’s the choices. So many choices all the time.

I could write out my Trader Joe's grocery list right now. Any of my roommates could probably do the same. It is short and utterly unwavering. I promised myself I would branch out during my travels. Eat something new every day. Tonight, I nearly found myself at McDonald's. Now, it’s not all that shocking I guess, the overwhelming desire to eat something familiar eight days into the most life changing relocation I’ve ever put myself through. Still, I haven’t eaten McDonald's since I read Fast Food Nation the summer before my junior year of high school. I am morally opposed to McDonald's. Happy meal toys are replacing village crafts and I was ready to eat a Big Mac.

I blame the hunger. It wasn’t the normal kind of hunger. It was the traveling in a foreign country kind of hunger. The kind that says that we have been walking and walking and Jim, can we please just eat here because the kids are starving and my blood sugar is low and we’re never going to find our way back to the hotel before dark anyways so let’s just stop trying. It’s the kind of hunger that passed up a perfectly good restaurant ten minutes back in hopes of something “more quaint.” Ten minutes later this hunger is ready to eat “more quaint.” And a Big Mac. Still, I couldn’t bring myself to write a blog entry on the end of Thai culture and then eat at McDonald's. Hypocrite much? Although, I suppose I would have been embracing my own culture had I done so. Oh well, our little dinner group split. Half were taken over by the hunger. They got their Big Macs, which I hear involved some sort of rice bun. The other half of us landed in a dirt lot.

Calling it a restaurant would be a stretch of every sense of the word. I mean, yes, it had a menu. And food. No floor, no roof, no walls. The kitchen was next to the street, consisting of some random pots and pans, some jars of I don’t want to know what, and a large flame. Then there were the dogs. They were curled up in the most random places. One of them tucked away under the cooking area, inside a dusty cupboard. Another sprawled out next to an empty bunny hutch type structure. I don’t know what animal this hutch was supposed to hold, chickens maybe? There was a “house” behind the patch of dirt where we gingerly placed ourselves upon bright red plastic chairs. A house in the sense that it had four walls, and probably even a roof. It looked like a large version of those shacks people patch together out of boxes and tin in Tijuana. It should surprise no one that this meal was the best I have eaten so far in Thailand. Stir fried morning glory over rice. As a large rat scuttled across the tilting fence fifteen feet from my plate, I barely paused to voice concern. “Oh, a rat,” I thought. “Oh well.” I have had some, um, bad experiences, with rodents. But you know, I was busy eating, and at least I could be certain that I wasn’t chewing on that specific furry creature.

I like this way better. I like the dirt floor and open flame. Last night I ate at the oldest all-teak restaurant in Chiang Mai. Right on the Ping River. Beautiful. It was filled with a bunch of people like me. White, carrying cameras, you know the kind. I didn’t come halfway around the world to eat in a fancy US restaurant. I don’t want to be able to order a baked potato. Rice. That is what you eat in Thailand. Rice and noodles. And dirt adds character, right? Or was my dad always lying to me?

Now I must sleep since I’ll be hiking through the forest tomorrow. Then camping out with the Hmong hill tribe. Dirt floors it is.

Wednesday, April 4, 2007

Bhudda Heads

“Culture you can go and buy.” That was the phrase that stuck with me from our guest speaker’s lecture on Thai culture. She spoke of the mass produced Bhudda figurines, the sexualized “traditional” dances, khantoke dinners eaten on the floor.

And Thai students are forgetting. They are watching American movies, and eating KFC, and listening to Jo Jo on the radio. Our speaker was not bitter. She wasn’t condemning our commercialism, our corporations that line the sidewalks, speckling Chiang Mai with Starbucks, McDonalds, Pizza Hut. No, she was sad. Sad that the art museums are empty. Sad that it’s the tourists that visit the Bhuddist temples. Sad that the traditional crafts are only as valued as the American dollars that are now funding them.

Culture you can go and buy. And we do

Monday, April 2, 2007

The Heat

I thought the plane ride was long, but the first three days were the longest ever. They’ve been amazing, realizing I’m in a different country and just experiencing Bangkok (and Thailand!), but seriously long. Hmm, why might that be… it’s possible that it has to do with the weather we were ‘graced’ with: 100°F+ and 90% humidity. Combined with the fact that I sweat a lot (it runs in the family or something), it all makes for a ‘nice’ day out in the sun. In Thailand, there’s just never a time when I’m outside and not sweating. The three days we were in Bangkok all we did was go outside and walk around to Wats (temples), downtown, and to a government building. The only relief comes from the water taxis- because of the wind that flows through-, most indoor places (especially our hotel room)- thanks to the air conditioning- and the occasional breeze that grants us a few moments of contentment.

For the first three days sweating was the story of my life. The minute I walked outside the hotel my hair went up and the sweat came like I was never not sweating. I was trying to think of something comparable back home. If you’ve ever been to the Grad on Thursday nights for line dancing, it’s kind of like that, non-stop dancing on that horribly crowded dance floor, except for here, I’m trying to be as still as possible while sweat drips down the back of my legs (and everywhere else for that matter) and my hand moves vigorously with the makeshift fan that’s really just a fourth a sheet of cardstock that I grabbed from an architecture exhibit at Silpakorn University. Now, usually I’m embarrassed by my sweating habits but here everyone is just as sweaty and hot as me so it’s not as bad. We’re all in the same boat (or sauna) and the sympathy for a sweaty back goes a long way. The only people not sweating are the Thai people. Their sweating genes must have been bred out over the years. I don’t need to be Thai and not sweat; I just need a breeze, some shade, and something cool to drink and I’ll be more than content. I’m very thankful that Chiang Mai, where I am right now, is a bit milder in temperature and humidity, although I haven’t spent much time outside. I’m going right now to brave the mid afternoon sun, so we’ll see…


Sunday, April 1, 2007

Saturday, March 31, 2007

Sleeper Cars

In America, I admit to being a somewhat squeamish traveler. It’s been many years since the prospect of playing in the hotel elevator was enough to distract my mind from the germs on the TV remote. I think I even balked at the two, maybe three, star hotel in Paris. And here I am on a sleeper car of a train that could maybe use a deep cleaning. The toilet is, quite literally, a hole over the train track. A single sheet separates me from a mattress that contains who knows what kind of grime. And it doesn’t bother me at all.

Low expectations are key, I think. I expected the dirt and smoke and heat. I prepped myself for toilets that would challenge both my gag reflex and my balance. I was ready to eat food from street vendors cooking unidentifiable items in large vats of oil. To forget that I ever used to smell good. And I sort of love the letting go. “Mai pen rai.” “No worries.” I haven’t showered in two days. “Getting ready” in the morning means little more than a smear of sunscreen. Sleep is easy, brought on by pure exhaustion.

I may be forever cured of my jumpiness as a passenger during car rides. I tend to always offer to drive because of my inability to trust that other people will drive with the same cautious perfection that I would. Stop laughing Onge. A few taxi rides in Bangkok left me with two choices, chill out, or die of a heart attack. Lanes do not exist. Other cars do not exist. Speed limits do not exist. Traffic lights are more like traffic suggestions. No wonder most Thai people practice meditation, it’s crucial to survival.

It’s light out now, 7 a.m. I went to sleep in the light and sharp lines of the city. Now I’m rolling through the middle of a tropical forest. The dirt is brighter here, more orange-y. I imagine my grandma here, pointing out every variety of plant as we pass it. “That is a banana grove,” she would say. “In the reign of King Rama IV, he ordered that every peasant would plant a single fruit tree in this area of the jungle.” She always has stories like that, always a tour guide. Sometimes my friends make fun of my random knowledge. To that I say, sorry, it’s genetic.

The two train seats fold into little bunks, caves almost. I’m tucked away in my little cave, separated from the hallway by a thin blue curtain. The train will stop after a bit. I will struggle with my luggage, pulling it recklessly down the steep steps. I will climb into a tuk tuk, or maybe a bus. I will take a shower in a bathroom that may or may not sport an impressive collection of mold. I will collapse into bed. And I won’t worry about whether or not the sheets are sterile.

Friday, March 30, 2007

A Word of Advice Relating to Dolls


There are few experiences more humbling than travel in a foreign country. They call us “farangs,” foreigners, but they could just call us dumb. If you try to buy a 39 baht water bottle with a 1000 baht bill, the lady at 7-11 will just laugh at you. But those are the only bills that come out of the ATM, making anything smaller a prized possession. Blaine and I have always had a nebulous financial relationship. At home, we buy things together and then work it out later. Here, there is no hope of ever figuring out who owes what. It’s more like, “Blaine, I need 20 baht right now.”

I’m learning to surrender to the feeling of being constantly lost. I’m pretty good at that already, since I still manage to get lost in San Luis Obispo on a regular basis. My only hope is the small yellow business card for the hotel we’re staying at. I cling to the knowledge that I could always just hand that to any cab driver and get back to where I’m supposed to be.

No, my worry isn’t really getting permanently lost. It’s more just the annoyance of never being able to find what I want. I was told there was an internet café close to where we were staying, so a group of us set out to find it. Please remember that the air outside is thick. It’s sort of like a humidifier has been running at full blast in an enclosed space. And a heater. And someone has been smoking. So, we walk to the end of the street, and back. No internet café. We pull out our Lonely Planet Thai Phrase Book, the pink one that we almost all have copies of. Someone commented that those little pink books make us look like such tourists. I was like, “Yes, because otherwise we’d fit right in.” Rhan indu-net. Internet café. We asked the lady at 7-11. “Rhan indunet?” A puzzled look. We hand over the little book, pointing to the phrase. “Ahh, internet.” Right, lesson learned, when in doubt, speak English. She waved us down the street and to the left. Here’s the second lesson. Thai people will never tell you they don’t know where something is. That would be unkind. No, they will direct you…somewhere. Three times we asked directions; three times we were waved onward. Each time we asked directions, the shop owner would look hopefully at my friend Alex, who is Vietnamese, but apparently looks Thai. He’d shake his head, no, he doesn’t speak Thai. Defeated, they’d turn back to me, try to give directions. Somehow everyone knows the word “left.” This would be helpful, if the internet café actually was to the left. After three blocks in staggering heat we returned home without an email fix. We later found that the internet café does exist, two doors down from the 7-11, but it doesn’t open until ten a.m.

It’s all disorienting. The heat, the smells, the noise of the streets. Just the stench of dried fish lying out in hundred degree heat would have had my lunch on the ground, if I had been brave enough to eat anything for lunch. But then there are the saffron robed monks, the bare-bottomed babies jumping into the dirty Klong River, the 20 cent iced pineapple chunks. It’s worth being a farang. It’s worth being lost and misunderstood. I don’t want to be at home, I want everyone to be here with me.

Tuesday, March 27, 2007