A Travellerspoint blog

Eat, pray, poop

*Public health and personal hygiene in Thailand*

Air quality and traffic safety

Chiang Mai’s main streets surge with cars, trucks, motor bikes, tuk-tuks and song-thao’s (small open air buses belching particularly egregious black clouds). I have never been anywhere this polluted. I often breathe through a scarf; after doing a Masters in Public Health, I have some idea what all that particulate matter does to the lungs. Plus the air is so full of dust and exhaust that it actually FEELS dirty as you inhale. I don’t think Thailand has much in the way of emissions laws, and it shows.

They do have helmet laws for motorbikes, a good thing considering it is common to see up to five people (usually a couple of them small children) balanced on one bike. The enforcement, however, is spotty and predictable. Perhaps half the people on motorbikes actually wear helmets. Thais and Westerners alike often don them in cop-heavy areas to avoid tickets and remove them once the coast is clear. The benefit of this practice is unclear to me - who wins, really? In contrast to my helmet habits vis a vis rollerblading, I actually wear whenever I find myself on a motorbike, which seems to be almost daily. Maybe it is because as a passenger I am not in control, and there is surely some phenomenon whereby humans, at least the more foolhardy members of the species (among which I openly count myself) feel safer if we are in control. The classic example: Your odds of dying in a car versus a plane crash, juxtaposed with how many people feel safer driving than flying.

As for traffic patterns, and by way of further explanation for why I gladly wear a helmet: At stoplights or in slow traffic, when all the cars and trucks are stymied, the law of nature is evidently that motorbikes flow to the front. In moving traffic as well, they travel along the lane lines, weaving among larger vehicles like water running through pebbles. The chaotic order of it is actually quite elegant. This is emergence theory in action: With relatively little regulation, an efficient, self-organizing system arises from the many individual moving vehicles. Traffic comes to seem like an intelligent being, moving and flowing of its own volition, an endless stream of horns and exhaust and close calls.

Crossing streets as a pedestrian carries its own challenges. Stop lights and walk signals exist at the major intersections. However, at most places – and really, even where there are signal towers – you just wait for a gap in traffic that affords you three or four seconds to dash across. When you look right and left, be sure to account for the fact that cars drive on the ‘wrong’ side of the road, and remember, this is not California - cars definitely do not slow down or stop when you step out into the street. I’d like to think they would swerve to avoid you if it came to that, but I’m not planning to find out. I have many good reasons to live, including…

Street food

First, foremost, and above all: The street food is amazing. Definitely one of my favorite things about Thailand. Most items cost fifty cents to a dollar, at which rate you can afford to try a vast array of unknown substances and see what you like. I have found little I don’t like.

There are public health issues, of course. For one thing, the delightful, delicious food vendors often add the much-vilified MSG to their food. Depending how much you care, you can ask them not to put any “choo-rot” into your food. Then there is the problem of controlling intake with all this food around. I could paint this a public health problem: As the obesity epidemic balloons (yes pun intended), human eating habits have been extensively studied and it has been found time and again that, to put it simply, when there is food within easy reach, we eat it. I could also paint this as a personal problem: The abundance of street carts with all manner of food costing almost nothing surely counts as ‘easy reach’ for me.

On the up-side, the food must be pretty safe, because I have yet to get sick and I am not being at all careful. On the down-side, I am not doing much to off-set the caloric intake. On the up-side, I have purchased some comfy new pants with elastic waists, so it’s all good. Except that I do manage to eat a bit too much one day. The next morning I sit down to meditate as usual, and about two minutes into my reverie, something twitches in my gut. I run to the bathroom just in time to answer nature’s sudden and rather urgent call. Happily, I feel fine afterwards and complete my meditation feeling veritably enlightened. This little sequence of events rather reminds me of something catchy. It’s like… Eat, pray, poop. And hey, that conveniently brings me to…

Bathrooms and plumbing

I do not relish using the bathroom in my guesthouse. Baring my nether regions to mosquitoes is one reason. Another is that the floor is usually wet from the shower, which is in no way separate from the rest of the bathroom. Which is a common set-up here, but as Thais don’t wear shoes inside, I am constantly stepping barefoot onto a wet floor, which just feels a little gross. Moreover, there is no toilet paper. At first I spot a roll sitting randomly around the guesthouse and put it in the bathroom where it belongs. It lasts a couple days. Then I switch to the tissue I have left over from camping, figuring any day now Tam will notice we are out of toilet paper and replenish. Instead, I overhear her talking about a plumbing problem she just had to fix, complaining that someone must have put paper down the toilet. I inwardly scratch my head; clearly, toilet paper is not part of the set-up here.

Meanwhile there is this curious feature I am noticing in Thai bathrooms at Lita and elsewhere: In addition to the shower head, there is another little nozzle beside the toilet. The shower head already being ‘telephone’ style, this second sprayer is puzzlingly redundant to me. I wonder if it may be for cleaning the bathroom floor or something. Now, around the time of my toilet paper travails, I hear some people talking about the ‘spray method.’ I think back to that odd little nozzle, and suddenly all is clear: Instead of wiping, you spray. I see, I see. In the wake of my epiphany, I try things the Thai way. You end up clean, but wet. I’m not sure I quite like it. Nonetheless, from now on I respect that paper is generally unwelcome in Thai plumbing systems.

Personal hygiene

About a week into Thailand, my deodorant runs out. No big deal, I go to Seven Eleven for a replacement. Alas, as Thais consider fair skin desirable, all the deodorants are labeled ‘whitening,’ apparently enhanced with some substance to lighten your armpits for all to admire. First of all I am white enough thankyouverymuch, and secondly, whatever chemicals they use to make your armpits change color, I am not interested. So I start going au naturel. At first I wash all the time, yet still stink to myself. Then a funny thing happens: Either I start stinking less, or I simply get used to it. I have not taken a poll of others’ opinions in the matter, so I have no idea if I am being grossly antisocial. Not that I care terribly much. I am much more taken with how modern life can lead us to become so cut off from our own bodies: How odd that I don’t know what I smell like in the absence of powders and potions. And all those chemicals can’t be good for you. Meanwhile, I haven’t shaved my legs in a month and am wondering why I ever bothered… Bringing me full circle, I feel this might make a good basis for some sort of public health campaign. Only I don’t have time to draft the pamphlets right now because I am well and truly occupied with planning for my mother’s visit December 6-19 and finishing up grad school applications.

I do, however, take a couple days out for an almost obligatory ‘trekking” trip booked through Lita Guesthouse. It is touristy but enjoyable. It includes:

A nice walk through the jungle with a group of people
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An overnight stay in an elephant camp, including a ride on the animals. I manage to almost fall off the elephant (I’m pretty close in this picture).
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Time to swim in a waterfall. There is a natural waterslide into a deep pool, and it is all delightful.
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Delightful, that is, until I manage to actually fall down the wrong part of waterfall: In the course of my usual climbing around I slip on a rock, go down a little chute, and slide until when my knee finds a nice rock to stop on. Most people in the group are on their feet, staring down anxiously, wondering whether I am (1) okay and (2) crazy. As a bruise blooms on my knee with a ruby red bleeding center, I assure them of the former, and there’s not much I can do about the latter.
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The last thing we do is white water and bamboo rafting (good fun but not documented because there was no way to keep the camera dry), followed a little time to buy souvenirs. I do not make any purchases, figuring this will serve as my souvenir. I do make sure to apply some Neosporin and a band-aid, said items being an often-used staple component of my day pack – I know myself. Come to think of it, if I had to choose between these and deoderant, no doubt which is more essential.

Posted by sbw2109 22:35 Archived in Thailand Comments (2)

Thai Massage with Pichest Boonthumme

* Plus, renting a room in ten easy steps*

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At the beginning of each week you bring an offering for the Buddha consisting of fruit, candles, incense and flowers. Lotus flowers, symbolizing the soul achieving enlightenment, are preferred. Before class, you put the offering in a bowl and place it near the alter. This is all explained to me by my friend Matt, who also studies with Pichest, and I am grateful for the introduction, but am nevertheless acutely conscious of being an outsider and first-timer. I feel clumsy and uncertain arranging my items in the bowl – how should it look, does it matter which way the lotus flowers point, do you unwrap the candles and incense from their plastic? I shyly ask Pichest, who happens to be nearby, and he replies: “Why you make headache!” I.e., quit futzing around, this is not a Buddha offering photo shoot, it’s about the underlying intention. Smiling at the rightness of his response, I start to relax.

The classroom, located inside a set of sliding glass doors, has a large temple/altar area and Thai Massage mats arranged around the rest of the space. People drift in and take seats facing the altar, and Pichest sits down in front. An old Caucasian man dressed as a monk, one shoulder bared by his saffron robe, explains that there are only two rules here: First, don’t point your feet towards the altar, and second, the head pillow is for the head, not the bum. Then a student hands around a sheet with the morning prayers written on, Pichest turns to face the temple, it and the class begins chanting in Thai and Sanskrit.

Morning prayers lasts half an hour or so. At one point Pichest gets up, dips a bundle of incense sticks in holy water, and walks around shaking sprays of fragrant droplets onto each student while chanting rhythmic Thai syllables. He gives an extra generous shower to a couple guys in the class, a mischievous glint in his eye. I like this guy’s sense of humor.

After all this is done, he turns from the altar to face the class, wipes his hair back from his forehead, and addresses us in Pichest-English. He does not mention Thai Massage whatsoever. Rather, the message is something like: People make their own problems. Problems in the head become problems in the body. Pain and suffering come from attachment and desire. The five senses and our ideas of “like” and “dislike” constantly mislead us. Likewise technology and social pressures. We are constantly wanting things, but you cannot take things with you when you die. “You look in magazine, think ‘I want this’ and ‘I need that,’ think you need perfect body. Important or not important, eh?!”

After about an hour he says, “Any questions, you have any questions for me?” One girl raises a hand and asks, “Pichest, today is my last day here, and I would like to make an altar when I go home… I was wondering what to put on it?” He cocks his head in consideration for a moment before replying: “Important or not important?!”

Around this time, a woman with very bad rheumatoid arthritis enters. She walks with a laboring, stilted gait, and the disease is gnarling her fingers and toes. He asks her what seems to be the problem. Scoliosis and arthritis, she says. He raises an eyebrow and asks, “Why, why you have?” “I don’t know,” she says.

“I don’t know, I don’t know,” he mocks almost kindly. “Why? Emotion!”

I wonder if she is angry at being told that this debilitating affliction is a result of problems in her mind. I can’t tell; she just sits there quietly while he delivers more of his usual sermon. I’m not sure how much she even understands, as his English takes a little getting used to. Pichest then invites her to come lie down. I cringe watching her walk over and make her way down to the mat through an awkward kneeling transition. He begins to feel around her body and invites the students to do likewise. Suddenly everyone has hands on her knees, hips, IT band, spine, stomach, neck, armpits, wrists, everywhere. It reminds me of a game we used to play in gym class called “Snakes in the grass,” which begins with everyone putting one finger on the person playing the snake, then you bolt away at the sound of the whistle.

One of her knees is swollen and locked. She cringes when he moves it more than a few degrees. He leaves the leg and begins with her neck and shoulders (unusual for Thai massage), then continues back down to her legs, the muscles of which are simultaneously clenched and atrophied. The class mostly hangs around watching him work, and some people occasionally break away to practice on each other. I watch him the whole time, impressed with the intuitive way he handles her body. An hour later he has unlocked the knee and is getting a healthy range of motion from her hips. She is smiling.

Next we break for lunch. I ask one of the veteran students how long the lunch break is. He shrugs, “No set time, just come back whenever.” I am not very hungry, so I just wander down the road a ways and come back. When I return, the woman with arthritis is gone, and Pichest is sprawled out on his back on a Thai Massage mat, sleeping like a baby. Most students are out at lunch, a few are here either napping or practicing on each other. Someone asks to practice some massage on me, to which I of course say yes. I’m just selfless like that.

At some point Pichest wakes up and begins going around helping/correcting people, and the class shifts nebulously back into gear. He drifts our way while my partner is working on my left IT band, and begins to demonstrate a different technique on me. After a few quick palpations of my left hip, he declares: “Very bad, big problem. No on skin, hurt deep inside.” I am struck dumb. I recently found out I have a labral tear in that hip. This was diagnosed via a contrast MRI for which I spent a couple hours in the hospital so they could first numb my hip with an injection, then stick a needle all the way into to the joint space under X-ray (to verify positioning of the needle) and inject a contrast dye, then stick me inside the clicking and whirring MRI machine for an hour or so, all of which carried a hefty tab (thank you Blue Cross Blue Shield)… And Pichest, after feeling around for thirty seconds, knows essentially the same thing. He then digs deep into some very tense muscles around the hip, nearing my pain threshold but never crossing it. When he is done, I feel ready to do a full-length ballet.

Around 4pm, we all sit up and face the front of the room. Pichest asks if there are any questions. One girl asks, “The woman with arthritis, why did you start with the neck and shoulders instead of the feet?” “Her body tell me,” he answers. “Need to listening to the body. If hurt here” (pointing to his shoulder), “cannot relax.” The class nods, the answer perfectly obvious in retrospect, but how many of us would have thought to deviate from the usual legs-first script in Thai Massage? Pichest then recaps his message from this morning, warning about the perils of “I think I think I think, I want I want I want.” Class ends with an abbreviated version of the morning prayers and an abbreviated reiteration of his morning message, and he tells us to go home and relax.

Thus goes a typical day.

Plus, renting a room in ten easy steps...
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Pichest’s school is located about a 20 minute motorbike ride from downtown Chiang Mai in a suburb called Hang Dong. Towards the end of the first week, tiring of the commute and ready for a break from city life, I decide to find a place in Hang Dong for following week. This being a purely Thai neighborhood, you cannot just hop online and book a guesthouse, so I use my lunch break to see what I can find the old fashioned way. It goes like this:

1. I ask some people with a little lunch shack down the street if they know of any rooms or guesthouses. I’m not sure they cannot understand me, or perhaps they do but I am a foreigner so they are not sure about the whole thing. In any case, smiles and shakes of the head and thank you’s are exchanged, and I move on.

2. I wander further on and end up following a dirt road which according to a faded sign leads to a ceramic factory. As I approach the factory I am invited to sit by a woman who speaks just enough English to communicate that she will call her boss. Meanwhile she is working on little dolls, putting eyes in heads and heads on bodies. She shows me how she puts the eyes in: She takes the eye on the end of a sharp stick, sticks it up through the neck into the doll’s head, and suddenly where there was an empty socket, an eye pops out. There is something simultaneously so freakish and humorous about it that I laugh, hard. She joins in and it becomes one of those giddy, self-perpetuating fits of laughter. We eventually simmer down, exchanging smiles and occasional giggles as we wait for the boss…

3. About ten minutes later, a trim, middle-aged Thai woman, arrives and asks me in impressively fluent English how she can help. I explain that I would like a to rent a room for the coming week. She says she thinks she heard one of her workers mention something, she’s not sure, but wait a moment…

4. She goes to ask the worker, who does indeed know of a room, but neither of them can take me at the moment, but wait a moment…

5. The boss then calls up her partner, explains to him where I should go. By this time it has been half an hour since I first arrived. I feel bad taking up their time and not at all certain this is leading anywhere. I try to say thank you, it’s alright, I’ll find my way, no need to take me…

6. I am presently sitting on the back of the partner’s bike as we make our way back up the dirt road, back past Pichest’s school, and on to a house which turns out to belong to Pichest’s cousin. This is slightly embarrassing for me because Pichest actually rents rooms at the massage school. No doubt this will get back around to him and he will wonder why I ignored his rooms and went poking around the neighborhood. If I could call the whole thing off I would, but that is no longer possible.

7. The partner from the ceramic factory explains to Pichest’s cousin in Thai that I wish to rent a room, so he takes us to see it The building is a long single storey structure containing several studio style apartments. The room is simple and clean with a large bed, smooth cool tiles on the floor, a cold water shower and a Thai toilet. I like the look and feel of it, and it is a few minutes’ walk from the massage school - perfect. I say I’ll take it.

8. Mission accomplished, the man from the ceramic factory now goes back to work. I am left to negotiate with Pichest’s cousin, who speaks as much English as I do Thai. I refer to the “Language” section of my Lonely Planet book, but my Thai pronunciation is apparently so poor as to render my attempts incomprehensible. I try pointing to the words I want to use, but he cannot read the tiny writing without his glasses. This is starting to feel like a comedy of errors. Happily, we eventually arrive at an understanding, I think, that I will pay 80 baht per night and start on Monday.

9. When my friend Matt learns I have rented a room five minutes’ walk away, he is interested. We go back to Pichest’s cousin, arrange for Matt to rent a second room, and everything seems set. Except that Pichest’s cousin kept saying something about fishing which neither Matt nor I can figure out. We shrug, nod and smile.

10. We show up on Monday to pick up the keys. Pichest’s cousin again says something about fishing. All we can understand is that he wants us follow him, so we do. He leads us down a dirt path, through a gate with an unlocked padlock, and around a small lake to a little wood shack with a large open air porch. Apparently this is his fishing spot. And apparently he is offering it up as a place to hang out. This place is my new definition of tranquility. Lush green foliage, blue sky reflected in the pond, and only the sounds of dogs, roosters and the occasional distant motorbike. Moreover, in a most welcome contrast to Chiang Mai, the air smells fresh. Pichest’s cousin turns the radio on to some melodic Thai music, opens the fridge and holds up a bottle of some sort of moonshine. He seems pleased when we join him in a drink. Having little common lexicon with which to converse, the three of us just sit looking out appreciatively at the scenery. The rest of the week, this shack by the fishing pond, an utterly unexpected amenity of renting these rooms, is where we come to practice Thai Massage and relax in the evenings. “Nice job talking to Thai people,” Matt says as we watch the sky change colors.

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Posted by sbw2109 22:00 Archived in Thailand Comments (7)

Chillin' in Chiang Mai

*Randomly ending up at the perfect guesthouse*

27 °C

After postponing my departure from Sydney multiple times, I am actually, finally, this-time-I-mean-it, going to Thailand. The day before I leave, Aron and Jo order me to find a place to stay on my first night; they fear they will be held accountable for my safety, and probably rightly so. I oblige by randomly picking one of Chiang Mai’s cheapest guest houses from hostels.com or some such.

The cab driver at Chiang Mai airport has never heard of Lita Guesthouse, but obligingly drives slowly down the specified soi (lane) looking for it. Somewhat to my relief, it does in fact exist. It is a wooden house on stilts with an open air sitting/eating area on the ground floor. As I walk up to the gate, Tam, the manager, calls out a hearty ‘sawatdee kaa!’ and asks if I need a bed. I don’t bother mentioning my online reservation – this doesn’t seem like that sort of establishment – and simply say yes. She shows me up to the main room, which has mattresses and belongings loosely arrayed on the floor, mosquito nets approximately over each bed. There are several guys lounging around and smoking to the right, and two people doing Thai massage off to the left. It is a pleasant sort of chaos. I drop my pack and sit down to hang out.

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At 10pm it looks like the group is going out to a jazz club which supposedly has awesome Tuesday night jam sessions. I am really tired, acutely aware it is 2am in Sydney, and am inclined to pass, rationalizing that I’ll have other Tuesday nights in Chiang Mai. Then again. I know myself to have a bad habit of passing on things out of sheer laziness and apathy. Not my best quality, and one which in my better moments I try to counter. The jazz club is about a five minute ride on motorbikes. A guy named Matt who is here studying Thai massage has room for me on his bike, so on I hop and off we zoom into the busy night streets of Chiang Mai.

North Gate Jazz Club has a small stage area, a bar of course, some indoor and outdoor seating, and a little loft-type upstairs with a couple more tables and chairs. The crowd of mostly expats and some Thais is bulging out onto the street, and with good reason: The musicians are really talented. New groups keep taking the stage, and the audience is giving off the friendliest vibe I’ve ever experienced. People are not there to ‘see and be seen,’ they are just there because it’s a good place to be. I split my time between my new friends from the guesthouse and the small open area up front where there is aaalmost about enough room to dance. I finally crawl into bed around 12:30am (4:30am Sydney time, but who’s counting) and I pass out with a smile on my face, thinking, Welcome to Chiang Mai.

I wake up to dogs barking and motorbikes zooming by at unbelievable decibel levels. I have never stayed anywhere so loud. Nor so full of smoke for that matter. I am also getting what feels like an average of one mosquito bite every five minutes. The worst is in the bathroom, where they seem to lurk about waiting for vulnerable bared flesh. Then there is the cat who frequents the joint; he seems to know I am allergic, so I am his favorite person to brush up against and even take naps with (that blue in the upper left is my shirt, he curled up right by my stomach)…

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But there is something special about this guesthouse. Namely, the people staying here and Tam herself, who is known to longer-term residents as “Mama Tam.” I already feel so at home that am not shy to kick up into a handstand when I feel like it or change clothes in the corner of the room when no one is looking. Feels kind of like a college dorm to me. Plus it’s about $3/night. I’m not going anywhere else. As if to seal the deal, Mama Tam has taken my Five Finger shoes hostage.

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My first full day in Chiang Mai, Matt introduces me to one of the many nearby places with great Thai food, then we get 2-hour Thai massages at a place where everyone doing the massages is blind. It is amazing how, since they cannot see, they really feel everything. Also, this being a proper Thai massage, they include the stomach. I must say, having fists and elbows manipulating my viscera is not exactly comfortable and relaxing, but it feels good afterwards.

The rhythm of life here is über laidback. In the afternoon and evening there is general sitting around, smoking and listening to music. We have one guy from New York with probably one of the most diverse music collections in the world, another guy from Switzerland who plays guitar, and sometimes Matt joins in on the harmonica.

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We also have a really nice guy from Israel who Tam calls “Mister Shalom,” and it cracks me up every time. My own name when she pronounces it winds sounding like Charlotte. Which in turn sounds quite the Thai word for MSG, “choo-rot.” But I digress. Back to our daily ‘schedule’: Around 10 or 11pm, folks often go out dancing at a place nearby known simply as The Reggae Bar. This is usually followed by further sitting around, smoking and listening to music until perhaps 3 or 4am, though I tend to pass out earlier - with the indispensable aid of earplugs and an eye mask. Mornings are quiet (aside from motorbikes roaring by) as most people sleep until early afternoon. No one seems preoccupied with ‘doing’ much; plans just kind of nebulously form and shift in an organic flow.

One afternoon, the group decides to go a nearby lake. This sounds great to me; I’ve been interested to see it. After about a twenty minute ride on motorbikes, we arrive to a row of bamboo huts where you can sit in the shade and eat while dangling your feet in the water. The lake is a tranquil contrast to Chiang Mai’s urban bustle, and feels much needed. Tam orders food for all of us in Thai, and I wait to see what will emerge. Presently, the waiter strides over vigorously shaking a small bowl with a lid and plunks it down on the little table in our bamboo hut. Pai, Tam’s seventeen year old daughter, removes the lid to reveal “dancing shrimp” – lots of live little critters squirming frantically in what has to be a stinging mixture of lime and chili. Some manage to jump out of the bowl; perhaps they know what’s next for them. Pai grabs one by the tentacles and pops it into her mouth – crunch! – and urges us all to do likewise. It doesn’t really appeal to me, yet in some odd way it kind of does… I go for it. Utterly weird, but not half bad. Specifically, and sorry to be graphic here, I can feel my teeth puncture and penetrate the exoskeleton, crushing the shrimp and causing the animal to kind of, well, squirt out. I eat a few more just because it feels so interesting. This is followed by more ‘normal’ food, a steamed fish in aromatic broth and a fried fish crisped to perfection. Everyone is dunking sticky rice into the broth with their fingers and eating from the serving dishes with their own utensils when they actually bother with utensils. This feel right at home.

I don’t know how large the lake is… several hundred meters across? Well, whatever, it is good and big. After we digest, a couple of us go for a long but leisurely swim all the way out and back. This would be pleasure enough for me, loving swimming as I do, but the setting is above and beyond. In the middle there is a 'sacred tree' rising improbably out of the water, and on the other side a gold Buddha statue winking out from among trees. The backdrop is lush green mountains, a slowly sinking sun, and rays of light shimmering down through large, graceful clouds. It is take-your-breath-away beautiful. (This photo is not mine as I didn’t have a camera with me – nor did I mind, because nothing could really capture the moment – but just to give an idea.)

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Dramatic lake scenery aside, life around Lita Guesthouse is the sum of many little things. There is a core cast of characters who are in Chiang Mai for several months, and others who come and go. Everyone is really cool, probably due to a self-selection effect; some people walk into the haphazard living area and leave just as quickly, while others like the vibe and stay. Some days, Tam, who used to have a restaurant, decides to cook. She randomly calls up from the cooking area through the not-at-all soundproof floorboards, “Gin kow!” Which literally translates to “eat rice,” but just means ‘come eat.’ Then we all amble downstairs for amazing Thai food. Other days, the guy from NYC with the incredible music collection will find various art supplies at the Chinese market (where you can get just about anything for near about nothing) and involve everyone in making little clay sculptures or drawing on the walls with chalk. It’s really cool; I never would have taken the initiative to get the clay or chalk, but I start sculpting or drawing, eventually stop thinking, and am surprised when I like what comes out.

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It’s quite lovely, how everyone comes together to cover an entire room in chalk drawings… Is this starting to sound like a hippie commune, complete with community art flow sessions? What can I say. It works.

But let’s shake things up a little. Shattering this tranquil existence, one of the more fraught moments is when our sometimes-resident cat gets hold of a mouse and is doing what cats do with mice: Playing with it while slowly killing it. He is alternately shaking it in his mouth, careful that the teeth do not go deep enough to kill it too soon, then setting it down and batting it around with his paws, eliciting sharp squeaks. While everyone stands around in consternation over whether to save the mouse, I go for my camera, feeling slightly wrong but finding it oddly riveting.

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The game/murder continues, everyone wincing each time the poor mouse squeaks. Now, I am not the biggest fan of the cat, whose favorite activity after catching mice must be to make me sneeze, but in this case I am his biggest defender: This is nature. Lions dismember graceful gazelles, leopard seals devour lovable penguins, and cats torture and kill cute little mice. No need to interfere, I say. In the end, though, the consensus goes the other way, and Pai lifts the flailing would-be hunter while someone else scoops up his terrified prey and sets it free. Afterwards, the cat runs back to the corner looking for his prized catch, and not finding it, prowls around meowing furiously. If he were a lion it would be a full-blown roar. I shrug and return to my laptop, where I was tapping away at some travel blog on which I seem to be permanently running a few weeks behind.

Posted by sbw2109 06:43 Archived in Thailand Comments (2)

Around Sydney

*A gleeful visit with my fabulous cousins*

sunny 15 °C

On my last night in Tonga, everyone staying at my guesthouse went to a traditional Tongan feast. It was put on for tourists, of course, but was good fun and darn good food. There was also traditional Tongan dancing. The women’s’ arms, covered in oil, glistened as they waved like sea anemones. The men were strong, exciting dancers, very well put together I might add, and at the end they did a fire dance, whirling sticks with flames on both ends. From two rows back I could feel the heat. This was all in a cave on the beach, large enough to fit an audience of maybe 50. A nice finale to Tonga.
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We got back to the guesthouse at 11pm. I slept a couple hours, then left for the airport at 2am to take a 5am flight. Checking in, I managed – yet again – to forget my pocket knife in my carry-on. Hey, I was tired. I went through the metal detector to see if they would notice it, figuring it was worth a try… they noticed. Happily, they did not kick me off the flight, and an agent was even kind enough to retrieve my pack so I could put the knife where it belonged.

Some hours later I arrived in Sydney, properly bleary-eyed from my night flight, to the home of my cousins Aron and Jo, who have decided to make their home in the land of kangaroos and didgeridoos. They put me up on their living sofa for what turned out to be over two weeks, showing me such a good time that I wound up extending my stay twice. Accordingly, this entry will be dedicated to Sydney highlights…

Welcome to Sydney
When I arrived on Saturday afternoon, the three of us went for brunch and started catching up on, well, life. It felt great to be with family, and their apartment felt like a home – something I have not had in a while. In the evening Aron whipped up a delicious dinner of grilled chicken and vegetables which, along with a clean and inviting bathroom and the immediate offer to run a load of laundry, made me feel properly pampered. On Sunday, Joanna and I went for a meandering coastline hike along Sydney Harbor and rewarded ourselves with a ‘boozy brunch’ overlooking the picturesque Manly Beach. Quite the introduction to Sydney!
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Surfing
I ventured back to Manly Beach on my own a few days later; Jo had several surfing lessons she hadn’t had time to use, so I showed up to Manly Surf School pretending my name was Joanna. The lesson began on the sand: Here’s how you paddle out on the surf board, here’s how you get up to catch a wave, here’s how you pick off jellyfish tentacles if they get on you… Yeah, I was wondering about that. I’d noticed them as we walked along the beach, hundreds of Bluebottle/Portuguese Man o’ War washed up on the sand, their iridescent blue bubble bodies with a long sapphire tentacle. The instructor clarified that the current was carrying them our way today, but the stings only hurt badly for about half an hour, plus we had wetsuits so the only open areas were hands and feet. Satisfied with this proposition, I presently found myself splashing around in the waves and doing a passable job for a first-timer. The jellyfish found me, of course, mostly around the ankles. Happily, but dancers are long trained to ignore pain in their feet, so I did just that and had a great time. And I have to say: I totally get the surfing thing now. There wasn’t room in my head for anything other than navigating the waves and trying to jump up at the right time (I most often did not). It was exhausting and happy-making.

Sydney Aquarium
Speaking of marine life. Again benefiting from Joanna’s demanding work schedule, I set out one sunny afternoon with an expired coupon for the Sydney Aquarium that Jo hadn’t had time to use. The woman at the ticket counter didn’t check the date, just waved me on ahead to where people were scanning their tickets and entering through a turnstile. I suspected that where the agent had not posed a problem, the bar code reader might. Watching the group in front of me enter, I noticed that the turnstile was generous enough to allow an extra person to slip in. I debated my options: Take a chance on the bar code, or just slip in? I opted for the latter. Once through, just out of curiosity and since no one was really watching, I reached back to let the machine read my ticket: “Code not recognized.” Satisfied at having made the right decision, I proceeded into the aquarium to enjoy my prize. The very first exhibit held…
A platypus! The coolest animal ever! I couldn’t have been more pleased.
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I also enjoyed the penguins (such personable-seeming animals), eels (fascinatingly ugly) , dugongs (which I had never heard of before but they are basically the southern hemisphere version of manatees), sea turtles (but of course), humongous lobsters (which made me hungry), cuttlefish (which were quite cute but also made me hungry) sharks (just so cool), and jellyfish (much better behind glass than swimming with me).
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Just hanging out

During the week, Aron and Jo were generally busy. Other ways I amused myself included struggling through several dance classes at Sydney Dance Company, a world-famous contemporary company offering open classes. I was actually not as bad as I’d expected after two months off, but the walk back home afterwards sure felt a lot longer. Aron and Jo also happen to live in close proximity to Kings Cross, which doubles as the backpacker area and the legal red light district, making it a fun place to wander around. So I hung out there a bit, though sadly did nothing more racy than get ice cream. The main other way I occupied myself (note the word choice, ‘occupied’ versus ‘amused’) was to spend hours on end on my laptop working on grad school applications. Not the most glamorous of activities, but what’reyougonnado.

Far and away the best part of Sydney was being with my cousins. On my second Saturday in town, we began our evening with drinks at the Sydney Opera House. Prior to seeing it in person, I found the very idea of it, annoying. I tend to assume that anything that famous is bound to be over-hyped. Not so. It is a truly impressive structure, and has a great bar right on the harbor. We felt good and swank sipping wine there as the sun set, sporting our yoga pants and five finger shoes.
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Then we went for dinner at Golden Century, a Chinatown restaurant that is popular with the executive crowd. Like the aquarium, Golden Century has some impressive fish tanks, only not quite for the same purpose. When you order a fish, let’s say a barramundi, they scoop it out of the tank, weigh it, and bring it to you flapping in a plastic bag for your inspection, just in case you don’t like the price or the look of the fish. Assuming it is all acceptable, next time you see the barramundi it is on a platter, aromatic steam rising from the surrounding vegetables and broth. Did I mention that Aron and Jo made me feel pampered?!

To cap off our Saturday night, party animals that we are, we… went home and watched Glee. Before arriving in Sydney I had never seen the show and had barely heard of it. But it is a major activity in my cousins’ household, so there was no avoiding it. At first I thought it was unbelievably corny and would just keep one eye on the show while reading or doing email. Then it grew on me. I realized the kids sing about real issues (friendships, relationships, identity, confidence, etc.), the characters are actually fun to follow, and the music is catchy. I secretly began to look forward to the next episode. I was genuinely worried when I learned that the last disc of the season might not arrive in the mail before I left for Thailand. Happilyeverafter, it did.

On Sunday we all took a tour of the Sydney Opera House. It was interesting to hear the history of the building from the design competition through the off-schedule, over-budget construction, including drama with the architect. At the end of the tour, we got tickets for a Pinter play called “No Man’s Land,” for which Aron and I ventured back the following week. The actors were great, and on the walk home we managed to have what I thought was a rather sophisticated discussion considering the oeuvre was largely over my head. After the opera house tour, Jo took me to High Tea with a girlfriend. Aron decided to pass, I don’t know why, not like it’s girly or anything. No matter. Hooray for multi-tiered profferings of desserts.
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Other highlights: Aron taught me how to use the grill – it’s fun and yummy! I took advantage of his excellent coaching to make Thai lettuce wraps later in the week:
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Aron also resuscitated my computer after it caught a virus. With grad school applications in progress, it was not the most opportune time for my computer to quit. Then again, it could hardly have been any more opportune: Aron used to do virus removal tech support at Harvard. Suffice it to say, I owe him one. Meanwhile, as November rolled on, I realized that if I didn’t watch it, I’d get so comfortable in Sydney I’d never leave. Of course every time Aron talked with family back home, he was admonished to keep me out of Thailand’s floods - as if it were his job, poor guy. I finally kicked myself out of Australia on the 15th. Joanna had offered me to be her Executive Sherpa, but I felt I should first improve my qualifications for the position by learning some Thai massage…

Posted by sbw2109 02:47 Archived in Australia Comments (2)

Visit to ‘Eua

*Hiking, snorkeling, assorted faux pas and a marriage proposal*

sunny 25 °C

Tonga is made up of several island groups. The Ha’apai and Vava’u groups are rather far north, and given that I only have about a week in Tonga, I figure I'll stick close to Tongatapu. There are various islands just a short boat ride away with beaches, resorts and snorkeling, but I feel like I’ve seen enough gorgeous beaches for now. Call me crazy, but it’s true. Plus I burn faster than you would think humanly possible, so I can only take but so much sun. The most enticing option by far is ‘Eua (pronounced like “eiwah”), the oldest island in all of Tonga. It has unique ecology, higher elevations, rainforest, and some good tramping. You can reach it by a 2-hour ferry ride or a seven minute flight (reputedly the shortest commercial flight in the world). I opt for the ferry; my time’s not so valuable that I need to fly. Plus boats are fun.

Before going to the ferry terminal, I stop through the Nuku’alofa market to buy bananas. They are about a third the size of the bananas in the US, come in big bunches you can get for a dollar or two, and are a yummy snack, especially with peanut butter. As I wander through the market, I pass a man selling classing Tongan food: Lamb cooked in coconut milk the traditional oven in the ground and wrapped in a taro leaf, along with cassava. Perfect – I’ve been wanting to try this stuff. So I am now the proud owner of a plastic bag containing several large pieces of cassava and the taro-wrapped meat wrapped in foil. The thing probably weighs two pounds, and the food is so hot I’m surprised it doesn’t melt the plastic bag. At the wharf I find a bench in the shade to have lunch while I wait. The lamb is not the usual cut I’m used to; there is a lot more of, well, the animal. I find myself eating around bones, tendons and whatnot. But the flavor is GOOD. You cannot go wrong with coconut milk, or at least I have yet to see it done. Plus the taro leaf itself, soft and soaked in coconut milk, is edible, and the cassava is supremely starchy as ever.

I’ve put away as much Tongan lunch as I can handle when everyone around me suddenly gets up and walks over to a boat, and I scramble up to follow. As we wait to board, a young Tongan man turns from his group of friends to chat with me. The first few questions in any conversation with a Tongan seem to be, in this order: Your name, age, where you are from, whether you are traveling alone, and whether you are married. So we cover the essentials, then keep chatting. He offers to carry my pack onto the ferry for me, and I accept. I am normally an I’ll-carry-it-myself kind of gal, but with my backpack on my back, my day pack on my front, a big water bottle in one hand and a liquidy bag of cassava threatening to ooze coconut milk in the other, I feel like the Cat in the Hat and am grateful for the help. Once on the ferry, we make our way through the stuffy interior out to the bow where Joseph says it is best to sit. Better yet, once the boat leaves, he gives me a hand to scramble up to the most prime real estate, on top of the bridge, out in the fresh air and mostly out of reach of the waves. This feels like it shouldn’t be allowed – there are no seats or railings, we’re really just sitting on the roof of the bridge – but clearly no one cares. I love how unregulated Tonga is. By the end of the ride, Joseph, who is from ‘Eua, has invited me to visit him in his town. Have I mentioned how amazingly nice and friendly Tongans are?!

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I spend my first night on ‘Eua at a lodge called Hideaway, which offers cabins and a camping option. Since I of course love my tent, I go for the camping. They have a lovely little grove of trees to set up tents, right near a walkway down to a picture-perfect platform overlooking the ocean.

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Then I make my first faux pas. My Lonely Planet book mentions that Hideaway charges T$12/night for a tent. When I go to confirm this, I am told it is actually T$20, plus an extra T$5/day if I want to use the kitchen (just for campers, kitchen use being free for room patrons). That seems like a lot just for the privilege of pitching my tent on their property, and I think my face shows my displeasure, which probably seems impolite. But whatever. There are not a lot of lodging options on ‘Eua, and this place is lovely. I pitch my tent, spend some time admiring the ocean sunset, then go for a stroll to see the neighborhood. I walk by houses, some cobbled together and some quite nice, pigs, chickens and goats wandering about. At one point there is a loud noise and suddenly all the pigs go running down the hill for their dinner. I also pass a house with several people sitting on the front porch singing and playing guitars. It is lovely.

Then I make my second faux pas. As I pass back by the house with the music, I ask if I might stay and listen. They of course say yes and are very nice, and a cute little girl takes my empty water bottle and plays with it while they play a couple songs. But I get the feeling I have imposed on them, and have unintentionally had an inhibiting effect on their evening of music. Before too long, I thank them for letting me listen and take my leave. As I stand to go I am unsure whether to take my empty water bottle – it feels like I am leaving trash on their porch – or leave it with the little girl, who seems to be playing with it and has lost the cap anyway. In the end I leave it, feeling extra awkward. As I walk down the road, one of the guys who was playing the guitar runs after me. He doesn’t know much English, but knows enough to ask the usual (my name, age, if I am married), and it is clear he likes me. He walks me all the way back to Hideaway, struggling to communicate, and I don’t help much because I don’t really know what to do with the sentiments being expressed - he wants me to be his girlfriend. I end up promising to come back and visit tomorrow evening.

Back at Hideaway, I log yet another faux pas. I go up to the reception/restaurant/bar area to buy another bottle of water. When the owner (who I probably already offended when he told me the price to stay) says it is T$4, twice what I paid for the last bottle I bought, I involuntarily sigh in displeasure. Not my best day, huh.

The sun has set and I settle into my tent for the night. The floor of the camping area, in this picturesque grove of trees, is a fine mixture of rock and coral. It’s flat enough to camp on, and holds the stakes with a little engineering. But when I lie down on the very thin travel yoga mat I used for camping all around New Zealand, it is, well, rock hard. I am amazed at the difference between sleeping on dirt versus rock. And I have many hours to feel amazed at this difference, as I am up half the night. I wake up at dawn absolutely on the wrong side of the yoga mat, and decide I'd better hike it off. One can arrange for guided or unguided hikes. Not wanting to inflict my mood on anyone else (and/or wanting to indulge my inner misanthrope some more) I opt for the latter. A tour guide sits down with me, marks the trail map, and gives me some pointers like watch for the green house by the turn-off for the big banyan tree and watch for the blue markers to get to the lookout points.

I quickly discover why guided hikes are a popular option. Especially coming from New Zealand, where trails are clearly marked and regularly signed, hiking on Tonga is, well, much like sitting on top of the bridge on the ferry: No one telling you where to go or what to do. I pass a green house and see a path that looks like it might well lead to nowhere. The New Zealand DOC would have hammered in a stake saying exactly how many kilometers to the banyan tree, if it does indeed lead to one, but here I am left to guess. I decide to just take the trail and see where it goes. After 20 minutes so of heading towards possibly nowhere, carefully keep track of my orientation to the sun and any bifurcations in the path (trying not to get lost in the rainforest here!), I suddenly walk up to enormous banyan tree, complete with a cave down below. Marvelous.

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I make my way back to the main path and head on towards the lookout points. Again, there are several possible turn offs and it is not at all clear one to take. I make a guess, and after maybe five minutes am rewarded by the sight of a blue ribbon tied to a tree. Pretty subtle. But it makes you feel all the more pleased when you do end up on the right path. Meanwhile, I am still trying to shake this bad mood. I finally release it when I get to Lukopo Lookout. Here’s why:

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I stop for lunch at Lauua Lookout, another high cliff overlooking the coastline (peanut butter and bananas, anyone?). I stay there journaling for a good hour or so, during which time not one other person appears. I cannot believe I get to set foot in this place, let alone have it to myself.

On the way back, even as I retrace covered territory, I am at times unsure if I’m on the right trail, but manage to make it out of the park by early afternoon. Instead of heading back to Hideaway, I walk/hitch my way back to the wharf to look into one other lodging option. A girl back on Tongatapu had mentioned she stayed at a place on ‘Eua called Ovava Tree Lodge and loved it, so I knock on the gate to inquire about a bed. The place is super cute, with cabins up some steep wooden stairs that feel like ascending to a tree house. Each hut has two beds with mosquito nets draped over them, and the mattresses on the beds look mighty appealing after my bed of rocks last night. The cost is T$40/night, and that includes three meals a day. Done. When I go back to Hideaway to get my stuff and inform them I will not be staying the expected two more nights, they are outwardly polite but seem offended. When I ask about getting a ride into town (which they are generally happy to provide), they say it is included for room guests but not campers and I can get a taxi or hitchhike. Their faces at this point are blank and closed off. I feel bad about our interactions, no doubt the sum of all my faux pas, and feel sorry to depart on this note but not sorry to leave.

I decide to walk to town as it is only a half hour or so. I am enjoying a beautiful sunset hike along the coast when I see a bull on the side of the road. How do I know how I know he is a bull, you may ask? Well, he is huge, in every way. It looks like he might be tied to a tree, but then again he might not. I don’t fancy running from an angry bull while carrying my full pack, so I leave the road and cut down to the beach, walking along rocky tide pools until it seems safe to regain the road. Definitely the scenic route.

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Ovava Tree Lodge is run by a German expat. As luck would have it, the other two people there that night are German as well, so over dinner we talk mostly in German. I light up; I just enjoy conversing in any language not my own. At which point I realize something interesting. I am very used to traveling to places where I know the language. Tonga is hugely different for me in this regard, I get stuck a lot when I cannot use my words or understand the other person’s words. I think I normally seek out travel to places where I know the language because the opposite definitely nudges me out of my comfort zone.

Meanwhile, with all the excitement of moving lodges, I did not make it back to visit my new friend as I had promised, and he shows up at Ovava just as we are finishing dinner. Apparently he went to Hideaway, asked about me, and found out I was here. It is awkward on two counts. Firstly, I have to leave the table to go talk with him, leaving the Germans wondering what this is all about. Secondly, we cannot actually talk! I again end up saying I will come to visit the next day. As if that will help any. But I show up at his house late the next morning, he picks up his guitar, and we walk down to the beach and sit under a tree. The only song we both know is Hotel California, and I have fun singing to it. Then he plays Tongan music for a while, and it feels quite pleasant and peaceful just sitting there. I eventually say it is time for me to go, and he walks with me all the way back to Ovava Tree Lodge. During which time he asks if I will marry him. He is not swayed by the age difference (I am eight years older) – “age means nothing, is just a number!” I eventually persuade him that the fact that I do not live in Tonga, and do not know when, if ever, I will be back, is at least one good reason why I cannot marry him. Still, it is difficult. I make a note to myself not to be so friendly with members of the opposite sex in places where I am not fluent in the language and, more importantly, the culture.

I had planned to hike again today, but it is now 1pm and HOT, and hiking sounds just terrible. I decide to hide from the midday heat and suss out a better option. The Ovava Tree Lodge actually grew out of a dive shop (the only one on ‘Eua), the owner is taking a couple of Swiss Germans out diving later, and he offers me to tag along in the boat and snorkel along the reef. That sounds perfect.

I could describe the snorkeling, but I’m getting tired of using words like ‘lovely’ and ‘beautiful,’ and you’re probably getting tired of reading them if you are even still reading. Instead, I will note that because there is almost no one around, and because those who are there are European, I do something I’ve been wanting to do for a while (unfortunately it is not allowed back home): Enjoy my swim without the encumbrance of a bikini top.

Posted by sbw2109 04:47 Archived in Tonga Comments (2)

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