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.