Helllllo, Thailand!

22 06 2013

Now that our Thai exchange student has safely returned to his homeland, it seems like a perfect time to share my first account of Asia. I’ve been thinking about what it was like to first land in Thailand, with all the built up ideas and expectations. We couldn’t have started with a better time of year to experience cultural shock: good ole’ American Christmas!

While most people were still thinking about last minute holiday gifts, I was on a very big plane to fly 23 hours around the world. We were headed far from the twinkling lights, the squeaky white snow, and the carols amplified inside my mom’s vaulted living room ceiling. After the two legs of our journey, the time change, and our first taxi ride in Asia, we stepped out into the warm night air, bleary eyed and exhausted.

537407_408090062606957_1716688836_nIt was 1am on Christmas Day, and we were in Bangkok. We had missed Christmas Eve completely, though it was still 1pm the day before back home. I felt a pang of sadness to know that we were here, in the land of Buddha, on the most special day of the year, and there would be no family to celebrate with. Bethany and I paid our cab driver for the 40 minute ride, stepped into the modern lobby of the western hotel that the airline had directed us to, and approached the counter. Despite my lack of brain functionality, we managed to check in, and a man in uniform showed us the way to our room. We insisted on keeping our packs on our backs as he led the way, too sleepy to think about another option. It’s a good thing they didn’t just hand us a key and send us off, or I’m sure we would have ended up lost in the hotel, passing out in a hallway somewhere after giving up hope.

When we finally arrived at our room, I looked down at the handle, and there, hanging from the clean lines of the modern silver handle, was a 10 inch long red stocking, stuffed with treats, on Christmas Day. I nearly cried. Or maybe my eyes were just stinging from being so bloodshot. Either way, Bethany and I were shocked to see this gesture from the hotel, and happily accepted the stocking as our welcome gift to Bangkok. We stumbled inside, threw down our packs, blissfully brushed our teeth as we looked through the contents of our stocking, and passed out.

When our flight got changed, we had to rebook our hotel, and had brilliantly booked a room right across the street from the airport. We agreed to pay a little more for something with western amenities, since we knew we would be weary travelers by that point. In our brilliance, however, we booked it at the airport from which we were to depart the next afternoon- Don Muaeng- not the airport where we arrived that night. You can imagine our confusion when we were trying to figure out whether or not we could walk to our hotel upon arrival in Bangkok, only to have people tell us it would be a $14 cab ride. We originally had thought we might be able to simply walk to our hotel, but were willing to pay a couple bucks for a ride, just to make sure we didn’t get lost. I’m glad we decided to just pay it instead of searching further, given that the actual distance was worth the 430 Baht fare. The hotel we ended up in was an Amari hotel, very high class, western style, with 5 floors of private rooms and insulated walls that allowed us to sleep like babies.

When I awoke in the morning it was 10am, which meant I had slept more than 8 hours, but not slept the day away. I pulled back the dark curtains to see our view, and was shocked to see that our neighboring buildings were not other high rises, or office buildings, but single story shanties lining a small river to our backside. The corrugated tin roofs were pitched in every direction, with hardly a 90 degree angle in sight. My eyes were immediately drawn to a large, 6 foot long Coca-Cola sign that had been incorporated into the siding of one of the homes. You could see light passing through the gaps in the walls. There were no windows, only openings. They all stood on wooden piers overhanging the river, which also served as a sewer system. The water was littered with plastic bottles and debris, clearly not revered as a natural feature or source of life. The stark contrast with our western decadence, just on the other side of the river, was eye-opening. In the light of day, I could see just how much more indulgent our first night was.1501_408084625940834_1304085743_n

We had just a few hours before we had to walk across the street to catch our next plane to Chiang Mai, so we decided to eat breakfast at our hotel. They had a large spread, with western style eggs, German style muesli, and Asian style fried rice and veggies. There was a fruit smoothie station, where I asked the attendant to make me something that she enjoyed, and attempted to ask questions about what fruits she was putting in. Her English was limited, and she seemed embarrassed to speak, quickly calling on the help of other workers to try to explain. I had a little booklet that showed pictures of Thai fruits, and I pointed to one, asking if it was the same. She thought I wanted to know the English word for it, but what I was really trying to ask was the Thai name. Eventually, we all smiled and laughed when we realized that we were talking about the same fruit, and she beamed brightly when I said the name correctly.394882_408090419273588_1665982724_n

Outside of our hotel, it was hotter than we expected. The night air had been comfortably cool, but in the sun it was already time to remove my long sleeve layer. Bethany and I ventured off of the Amari grounds to explore the surroundings for an hour or so. We had a basic map and an idea of which direction was north, so I felt comfortable just wandering. ‘Flaneuring,’ if you will. We didn’t know where we were heading, but decided to follow our hearts instead of our maps. As we turned down the street, however, it wasn’t quite as friendly as I thought.

There was a narrow strip of sidewalk, but the concrete panels were often broken, or jutting up in a manner that would scream ‘lawsuit’ in America, or missing completely. They covered up what I think may have been a sewer channel, and the missing panels exposed a deep and dangerous pit to be avoided at all costs. Traffic zoomed by us on the busy one way street, with little on either side to force the drivers to stop. We were walking along a service drive for the businesses that lined the expressway, and there were few other people walking around. There were no intersecting roads, and no way to get onto a friendlier street, so we began to question our path, when we saw barbed wired atop the fence to our right. “Are we in the Bangkok ghetto?” I wondered. We were determined to see some of the city before getting on another plane, so we agreed to keep going, at least to the next major intersection.

As we approached the junction, I was relieved to see that there was a street heading off to the right, lined with the colorful bounty of an ordinary street market. Never mind the fact that I had no interest in the t-shirts, soaps, and sundries for sale at each of the 6×6 pop up tents. The point was that they were lining a path to something other than the gray, noisy street that we had been stumbling along for 15 minutes. We turned, and shortly saw a large Buddha awaiting us at the end of the lane. With many locals hanging around, we did not dawdle at the shrine, but quickly bowed to pay our respects, before slipping to the right. Just past the shrine, was a narrow bridge, bowing up from the shadows of the dingy buildings.We did not stop to ask where this bridge went, we simply ventured forth with confidence, so as not to be questioned.

Atop the pedestrian footbridge, we paused to glance up and down the small, dirty river. On one side was commerce. On the other, were innumerous tiny residences, stacked along the river bank like tin cans waiting to be collected from the curb. One of the many, 10×10 structures was actually sided partially with an old Coca-Cola billboard. I wondered how the multinational corporations would feel about this form of advertisement. It appeared that the residents lived in poverty, and densely packed for the convenience of the waterway. This sad little river served as both supply and waste streams for its denizens.885_408084859274144_1786350399_n

Bethany and I looked at each other simultaneously. Do we continue? we asked silently. Yes. Why not. As we turned towards the unknown, a man slowly sauntered past us on this little bridge. His eyes were glazed over with a lost look of opium, and he stared at us as if we were angels incarnate. We shook off his weight, and walked confidently into the alleyway before us. On either side stood the one story shacks, with some two stories on our right, away from the river. We walked past open doorways and screen-less windows, able to peer into the single room dwellings on either side. It made me feel like a voyeur. Like we were spying into their living rooms, walking through their backyards, but the path we were taking was nothing more than the main road to their homes, despite being a mere 4 feet wide. Families sat outside eating lunch together, as we walked past and politely nodded. We were too nervous to attempt to engage them in our limited Thai speech. What if they asked us a question and we couldn’t understand? Or grew angry that two Falongs were walking past where only locals belonged? We didn’t take the chance, though we weren’t fooling anybody about being falongs. Maybe we were fine because we were two women, innocent enough. Or maybe this was a common occurrence? Either way, we explored without incident, and turned back after 20 minutes, so as not to get TOO lost.

On our way back to the hotel, we wandered through a few interior corridors of a market. We laughed as we saw an employee drawing a snowman onto the glass entry doors. Her snowman only had two circles making up its body and head, but we immediately recognized that it needed a third circle. Bethany, unable to censor herself, spoke out in English, trying to explain the missing part, but instead we drew attention to ourselves, as the local crowd stared at us to try to decipher what we were saying. I attempted to shush her under my breath, and we scurried past the confused crowd of shoppers and workers. We weren’t in Kansas anymore.

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Farewell

13 06 2013

Our house sighs a heavy sigh,

Rain tapping on the skylights,

Whispering softly, “Is he here?”

I look up at the charcoal clouds,

Heaving with uncertainty,

“No,” I reply, “He is gone.”

Nine months, innumerable memories,

And an empty room left behind.

He’s somewhere over the Pacific,

Watching DVDs or sleeping,

And surely making others smile

With his friendly warmth and charm

Which we already miss.

bank

6.12.13

KRW





American Value Meal

4 06 2013

ice cream kidsToday, as I was leaving a coffee shop meeting with a contractor, I walked past an ice cream place. It was a sunny, warm June day, and the decadent scent of fresh waffle cone was being piped out to the sidewalk to tempt passers-by. I smiled at the woman with her two small children sitting out front, cones dripping with red dye no. 30. Had it not been so close to dinner time I could have been swayed.

As I bravely passed without stopping, I turned towards the rows of parked cars, and saw an American tragedy. There, sitting in a shiny new car, a dad was buckling his seatbelt with one hand while gripping a large cup of ice cream in the other. His daughter was safely in the backseat, ready to hit the road.

ice cream dad“Really?” I thought to myself, “can’t this poor family afford just 10 minutes to actually sit here, on this gloriously sunny afternoon, to enjoy their ice cream and each others company?” No, cus they’re American. In America, we do not pause. We do not relish. We do not appreciate the simple things in life. No, here we are always rushing, and on to the next thing. Even when we take the time to treat ourselves to something as delicious as this, we must counter that indulgence by multi-tasking and finding ways to be simultaneously productive.

It gives new meaning to the phrase, “You can’t have your cake and eat it too.” Sure, that little girl in the backseat got to stop for her ice cream, but she paid for it by giving up a few minutes to BE with her dad. They couldn’t trade bites from the backseat, nor could her dad help her to catch the melting ice cream before it dripped. Instead, he got to clean up the mess that was left in the car.

~

A few weeks ago, we were driving to a neighboring state for a weekend trip. Baeating in car baboonsnk was in the car, and we had a long way to go, so Bethany and I packed snacks for the road. Instead of stopping, we ate small bites of sustenance from our seats. Bank looked at us and laughed. Confused, I asked him what he was laughing at. He smiled and said, “That SO COOL! We eat in the car. Very American! We no do that back home.” I paused, bite in hand, and looked at Bethany. We both felt a pang of guilt.Yep. We WERE being very American, and we didn’t even realize it.

~

Since our Thai son arrived, I have had to adjust to having a son. As a family, we are his structure, and as a non-traditional family, I feel even more obligated to uphold some of those traditional American values (and withhold others, like, eating in the car). I don’t care how crazy work is, and even if I have to go upstairs and work another 2 hours from home in the evening, I will be home for dinner every night to sit at the table as a family. This is a big deal, and a big transition.

american 50s dinnerAlthough I thought that Bethany and I were actually pretty good at eating meals together, what I quickly realized is how often we scrounged together for meals when we were too tired to cook. Now, however, this is not an option. When we are feeding three people instead of two, and responsible for sending a school lunch packed for ‘the boy,’ it suddenly makes sense to prepare something specifically for dinner every night to be enjoyed in unison.

Having a family dinner together every night has been a very pleasurable experience, despite the added work. We are blessed to have one parent home to take on such tasks, with her flexible schedule as a full time student. In fact, Bethany has embraced her role as the mother wholeheartedly. She packs his lunch every night with care, often including sweet gestures like his favorite sweet treat.

It’s almost comical how much our life feels like a 50s sitcom these days. When I arrive home from work, exhausted from a long commute, she greets me at the door with a smile and a kiss, and dinner ready to serve. It’s like I married a tattooed, five-foot-tall June Cleaver, if Ward was a lesbian with with a Thai son.june-cleaver

Despite our non-traditional household, I believe that some American traditions truly hold their value, and are worth aspiring to. I know that our days of being a single-income household are short-lived, but while it’s here, I am enjoying the pleasures that come with it. Despite our family structure, we will ALWAYS take time to appreciate the little things every day. And if I’m going to splurge for an ice cream, I’m gonna get a double scoop in a waffle cone… and I’m gonna enjoy every last bite of it with my loved one.





Commute Like You Give a Damn

1 06 2013

A lot of people talk about transportation, and how different it is in, say, Europe compared to the U.S. They have punctual trains that can take you anywhere and everywhere. We have miles of 6 lane concrete ‘free’ways that become a personal prison during rush hour. Your symbol of American freedom- THE CAR- is your cell.rush hour traffic

Commute time is a source of stress, and something we all want to minimize. There is no opportunity for chatting with a stranger, accidental networking, or even a pleasant smile from someone who lives in your community. Instead, I find myself bracing every time I step into my hybrid. When I get home from my hour long commute, I am drained.

I’m the mouse on the road, and hyper-sensitive to the potentially dangerous maneuvers of my fellow drivers. When the semi-truck in front of me starts drifting into another lane, my brain immediately starts calculating alternate escape routes. When traffic gets backed up, I’m glued to my rear-view mirror to anticipate whether or not the idiot speeding towards me has noticed yet that we are all stopping. I leave twice as much following distance to allow for the errors of others, and gracefully accept those who want to take advantage of my cushion of safety to dart across all three lanes of traffic to make a last second exit ramp departure in thirty feet.

INTERSTATE PILEUPSometimes I feel like I am the only person who appreciates how inherently dangerous and serious to concept of driving is in America. Don’t get me wrong, I actually LOVE to drive! It’s the high ratio of idiots to drivers during peak travel times that causes me anxiety. My sensitivity is not based on the size of my vehicle, rather, personal experiences.

When you’ve been in a rollover accident where the truck you’re in twists and crunches the cab, pivoting upside down around the place where your head should be, you appreciate the inherent risks of driving a wee bit more. And that was only going 25 mph. But this is not where I learned my lesson.

One Saturday morning in mid-July, I was awoken early by my mom. She told me there had been an accident.

My two brothers had been driving separately home from a late night at a friend’s. No drinking was involved. They were simply having fun on a long stretch of empty, rural road. Kurtis went to pass Brian’s truck on the left. He swerved out into the oncoming lane, his tire bit the gravel shoulder, and his Camaro immediately spun out and flung into a tree at 60mph.

For seventeen years I have watched as my mother takes care of Kurtis in her home, with the help of 24 hour care. He will never again use his 6’-4” height to run in the Junior Olympics. He cannot walk. He cannot move his limbs, except for his left foot and his thumb. We worked for years in physical therapy and hyperbaric oxygen chambers to get him to this point. Kurt can’t talk, but communicates (irregularly) through eye blinks. One is yes, two is no, three is I don’t know, or his eyes are just tired and dry. I never really know if he’s answering my question or not.kurt mom kurt dr

I miss my brother terribly. I know that he is gone, to some degree, but his body remains. I was only 16 when I lost him. Even after this much time has gone by, as I type this, I am mourning the loss, tears streaming down my cheeks. That’s the really tough thing about this car accident- the wound can never truly heal.

As you can imagine, that simple miscalculation on the road changed my life forever. My family fractured. I clung tightly to a young but solid relationship for solace. And you’d better believe that not a day goes by when I get behind the wheel that don’t think about Kurtis and the risks that I am taking when I drive. If everyone drove like me, I’d be perfectly happy and comfortable. But, they don’t. So I am left to make up for their carelessness by being overly cautious and anticipating the next dumb thing to happen around me.

I meant to write this blog post about transportation and sustainability. About how people in other countries actually get to enrich their lives through social interactions while riding the bus, or bicycling past street vendors, or walking through a crowded piazza. I meant to talk about how isolating and terrible our system of single person auto commuting is by comparison, and how 90% of the auto trips in the U.S. involve only one passenger.

I really miss working close enough that I could ride the bus, or spend a relaxing 38 minutes on my bicycle to commute to the neighboring downtown. Even biking can be dangerous when on the road with absent minded drivers, so I have a little mirror that sticks to my helmet so that I can anticipate those moves as well.

One of the most striking things about transportation in our recent trip to Asia was how different the interactions are between cars and… everyone else.

tuktuk bethany tuktuk kelly tuktuk cambodia moped dogs  There, the ratio of cars to bikes or mopeds or tuk-tuks is far different than in the U.S. Therefore, cars do not rule the road, and their drivers are cognizant of this fact. They always look before changing lanes, fully aware that there could be a family of 4 on a moped just beside them. It looks like utter chaos- a cacophony of traffic endlessly weaving in and out and around one another- but when you stop to really observe, you see that it is like a sort of ballet. They move seamlessly, in a balanced, well-planned orchestration. Nobody gets mad! Honking is just a polite courtesy to let someone know you are going by, and everyone understands what it’s like to be that person biking or trying to cross the street with no traffic signals.

When we were in Veng Vieng, Laos, a small town of 30,000, we had free cruisers available to borrow from our guest house. We took those bicycles farther than any basket-toting, single speed bike has ever gone! We cruised up the main road, where cars actually slow down and swing wide to pass you. There are no bike lanes, no shoulders, just an unmarked swath of asphalt, replete with crumbling potholes and an occasional herd of cattle in the middle of the street. We had no helmets, which normally would terrify me, but I had zero fear of being run off the road by traffic here.bike laos bike luang prabang

We biked 50 km that day. We stopped to ask for directions in our broken Lao language, using maps and apps to try to translate. The roadside stand was staffed by a couple, who spoke no English, but they smiled big and tried their best to help us find the cave we were looking to go hike. We veered off down back roads, totally off the map, but we didn’t care. There was a mountain in front of us, and that would always be west, so we couldn’t really get lost. We biked down cow paths between rice paddies and the irrigation river, and waved back at excited children. We had an amazing time on those bikes, and all of that would have been missed had we simply hired a driver or rented a car.

I know that I cannot recreate the charm of a rural Laotian town, but I can still seek out those kind of local, quality interactions. We are social beings, and the automobile separates us from one another. I want nothing more on my commute than to have a chance to say hello to you. To ask how you are enjoying the beautiful spring weather. To buy a piece of fruit or admire your loyal dog who rests by your side. Is that too much to ask?

Though there is little that I can do about my current one hour commute, I can prioritize this. I can change jobs. I can demand that I be able to get to work by more than one mode of transportation. I can go out of my way, once I do park a car, to walk past places where random social encounters are more likely to occur.

bike kids in streetI will live my life like it could end tomorrow. Kurtis taught me that. Life is too short to not go out of my way to find simple joys in daily living. Sometimes I just need to give myself a little pep talk to remind me of these important lessons.








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