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