Archive for February, 2008

February 15th 2008

Posted under Thailand

Emerging from the airport in Phuket, the hot balmy air surprised us. Noticeably hotter and wetter than Chiang Mai, we were happy to finally be in southern Thailand; the land of idyllic white sand beaches, warm crystal-clear water, and world-class scuba diving. We decided to head directly to Phuket Town, in the southeastern part of the island to get our bearings and hopefully meet up with the brother of a Fort Worth friend. Phuket Town is the provincial capital and while it has its share of tourist haunts, there are very few tourists here in comparison to the streets of Bangkok or Chiang Mai. It was a refreshing change to be surrounded by more Thais than farang (westerners). The streets were filled with tuk tuks, cars and of course, the ubiquitous motorbikes which weave haphazardly in and out of traffic. And as we would soon find out for ourselves, the motorbike drivers in Phuket are some of the craziest in the world.

Before we left on our trip an Alcon colleague introduced us, via email, to his brother who is living and teaching English in Phuket. After checking into our hotel, we connected with Jon and agreed to meet for dinner. While we’ve eaten out for almost every meal, including lots of street food, we have remained relatively unadventurous in our ordering (usually because the menus are either too ambiguous or poorly translated to English), sticking mostly to Pad Thai and vegetarian noodle dishes. With a local expert on hand, we asked Jon to order some of his favorites for dinner, no holds barred. We feasted on spicy chicken and prawn curries, a delectable grilled pork dish, and a fried catfish served with an assortment of vegetables. Dinner was wonderful! Having become fast friends with Jon, we finished the night with a couple of pints at a local pub and eagerly accepted his invitation to join him for a day of scuba diving on Saturday.

Friday was for the beach and our recommended stop was a lesser-known cove in the southwestern part of the island, Nai Han. Against our better judgment we rented a motorbike, and two helmets, and braved the Phuket Town traffic. Having ridden a motorcycle for a number of years in the U.S., I am confident in my own abilities but the rest of the town’s drivers concerned me. When you first learn to ride a motorcycle, you are taught to expect everyone else (drivers, pedestrians, other motorcyclists, etc) to do stupid, crazy things. Most of the time people in the U.S. behave somewhat logically and accidents are relatively uncommon. But in Phuket everyone actually does all of those unexpected, illogical things and guidebooks and locals alike warn of the dangers of riding a motorbike in Phuket. Thousands of people are injured or killed on Phuket highways every year in motorbike accidents. Jon told us about his numerous close calls and the relative frequency with which students at his school are involved in road accidents. The sheer number of motorbikes is staggering; by my rough approximation, outnumbering cars and trucks at least ten to one. To complicate matters, motorbike riders do not seem to follow the same traffic rules as automobiles. They weave through traffic with reckless abandon. The most disturbing sight, in our western minds however, is the prevalence of children on motorbikes. We realize that this is cultural thing. Motorbikes are an inexpensive mode of transport and often the only mode financially available to families. This was evidenced by a funeral procession that we saw on the street while riding one day; the coffin was carried in a truck bed and the entire motorcade consisted of motorbikes. Still, the sight of young children sandwiched between two adult passengers or sitting in front near the handle bars without helmets instinctively makes us cringe.

After a harrowing 45-minute ride, we arrived at Nai Han and enjoyed a day relaxing at the nicest beach we’ve seen since Zanzibar. The white sand beach, enclosed on either side by sheer granite cliffs jutting out into the sea, was filled with colorful umbrellas sheltering sunbathers from the afternoon sun. The water was warm, clear and calm with an occasional rolling wave to remind us that we were still swimming in the ocean. After allowing our skin its first kiss of sun since Mozambique, we returned to town via a scenic route through Phuket’s western hills and stopped for dinner at an ocean view restaurant high above the shoreline with a front row seat to a paradise sunset.

The next morning, eager to get our fins wet once again, we met Jon and two friends, Sarah and Maria, for a scuba diving excursion to one of the islands directly south of Phuket, Racha Yai. As a Dive Master with a local shop, Jon helped us procure our gear and agreed to be our guide for the day. The diving was nice and easy, warm calm water and better than average visibility, but we were still underwhelmed by the corals and aquatic life – our Red Sea standard still firmly entrenched in our minds. The reefs were in good condition, colorful and vibrant hard and soft corals, and huge schools of reef fish. We were both happy to have some easy diving after our experience in Mozambique and it convinced us that we had to dive Thailand’s greatest aquatic offering, a self-proclaimed Top 10 diving destination in the world, the Similan Islands.

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February 14th 2008
Thailand Trekking

Posted under Thailand

One of Chiang Mai’s token tourist activities is a guided trek into the surrounding mountains. I had made almost a full recovery from my trifecta of ailments so we signed on for a three-day, two-night trek which included a tantalizing package of activities: a visit to the “Long-neck” Padaung Village, elephant rides, white water rafting and bamboo rafting.

We were picked up in the morning from our hotel and driven into the “Long-neck” village just above the base of the mountain. Due to our past experiences with the package village tours, we skeptically expected the usual beggars and clichéd awkwardness. Our initial impression aligned with that cynicism as we entered the village restroom at the entrance; it was spotless and perfumed with western toilets, paper, soap and a hand towel…in a tribal mountain village! We exchanged knowing exasperated looks as we exited the restrooms and entered the village. With our guide, a local university student with only basic command of the English language, we walked through a small cluster of bamboo huts on stilts. The huts were beautifully designed with large covered patios and each patio was transformed into an individual handicraft stall, attended by old men and women in beautifully embroidered tribal dress. These were not the “long-necks” but rather members of the Karen tribe, one of the oldest and most prevalent tribes in northern Thailand. As it turned out, this was a village collective of multiple tribes which, according to our unofficial guide, all share crops and income from tourism. We made our way through rice paddy fields, strawberry fields and cabbage fields to the Long-neck village in the back. We first encountered the little girls of the Padaung tribe. They sit on their patios and weave scarves using special looms that stretch from the ceiling to a wooden belt that closes around their small bodies. Since the number of rings around the neck is increased gradually with age, the young girls were still in the preliminary stages of neck stretching with coils of twelve to eighteen rings. The most rings that we saw on any woman’s neck were twenty-five. The rings are removed only once each year for cleaning. The women sleep, swim and perform all of their daily chores with the rings. We saw photos of two of the young women with the rings removed. Their freakishly stretched necks looked bruised but otherwise intact. When I picked up a set of rings that were on display, I immediately understood the bruising – the rings were solid metal and VERY heavy!

The village had a small wood and bamboo schoolhouse and teachers come from Chiang Mai, two days each week, to teach Thai and English as well as basic elementary skills. A large Christian church was also under construction, which was surprising. I wouldn’t have expected the long-necks to be Christians, especially with such a dominant Buddhist following in Thailand. I immediately recalled the Poisonwood Bible and imagined a wily, eccentric Christian evangelist climbing the mountains of north Thailand to convert the “long-necks”. Men were noticeably absent from the “long-neck” village. We were told that they work outside the village and return only one day each week to be with their families. Judging by the village entrance fee, the prices of the handicrafts and the number of woven scarves in every tourist’s clutches (including mine), I suspect that the women are the major breadwinners. The women were meek and sweet-natured, welcoming photographs and patiently answering questions. While the village tours add a commercialistic nature to their daily lives, they don’t seem to be bothered by it. The tourism dollars allow them to live a more comfortable, secure life than they otherwise would. With our small sack of woven scarves in hand, we bade farewell to the “long-necks” and moved on to the next phase of our adventure.

We met the rest of our trekking group in the parking lot of an orchid farm and climbed into the truck with our packs. There were eight of us in total, excluding our guide. In the covered bed of a truck with no shocks, we bumped up a winding road for about forty-five minutes through lush, tropical landscape – banana plants, palm trees, bamboo forest – and finally arrived at the elephant park. The elephants were already fitted with large metal baskets on their backs. Aaron and I climbed onto the pavilion and into the basket while our guide mounted the elephant and climbed onto the back of its neck. I must admit that, after seeing elephants in the wild during our safaris, I hated seeing them as working animals. I tried to convince myself that they had a good life there, in the control of rural Thais who jab them with sickles to make them carry loads of obnoxious tourists around for their own financial gain. Elephants are so much more beautiful in the wild than in captivity. The passive pachyderms clearly had their own agenda as they stopped every ten steps or so to rip an entire tree out of the ground for a snack. Our elephant seemed to be the hungriest and most incorrigible of the group and we gasped in horror on several occasions as we felt almost certain to fall out of the leaning basket and plunge to our deaths down an almost vertical mountainside as the elephant went for another tree. We rode for about an hour in one big circle. The ride was scenic but gut-wrenching and I was happy to dismount in the end. I felt sorry for the working elephants and I never want to ride one again!

With everyone safely back on the ground, we walked across the road for a simple but satisfying lunch of fried rice and fresh watermelon. Our guide encouraged us to have second and third helpings of the rice. “No food, no power!” he said and we all laughed but little did we know that he meant it in the most serious way. Our first day of trekking, while only a few hours long, was painfully intense! What we had envisioned as a leisurely afternoon hike materialized into my worst nightmare – a steep, grueling, unrelenting ascent for nearly three straight hours to the summit of the mountain. In hindsight, two clues should have alerted me to the advanced nature of the trek: first, the first night’s stay was advertised as being in a hill tribe village; second, we had taken a moped into the mountains and should have noticed how intensely steep they were. At the time, however, my mind was solidly focused on proving that I could handle with style not just one but two nights of camping in the woods! Still, even steep mountains usually have zigzagging paths to soften the steep ascent. Not this one. The path seemed to go almost straight up the entire way. It was brutal and I almost cried in response to the physical exertion. Once again, I felt every day of my age, every beer I’d indulged in for the past week, and every extra pound of fat on my body. My inner monologue was plagued with curses and negativity and I think some of that emotional bile even bubbled up and out of my mouth, though I don’t think anyone but Aaron witnessed it…thankfully. He’s been with me through enough rounds of PMS by now to have developed immunity to my snarling. After battling through an almost constant urge to sit down, refuse to continue, and let the wild animals have their way with my exhausted body, the village in the sky finally appeared – a cluster of bamboo huts on stilts at the TOP of the mountain. At first glance, I wondered why anyone would choose such a hard-to-reach location for a village but then I turned around and beheld the most picturesque vision of a lush, green, distant valley dividing stunning grey and green mountains against a perfect, soft blue sky.

We settled into a large bamboo hut with an elevated deck where we would spend the rest of the evening. When we spied the menu of ice cold beverages, we knew that we weren’t too far off the tourist trail. We were appreciative, though, because never does an ice cold beer taste as good as it does after a grueling three-hour hike in the mountains. We sat on the deck, drinking, laughing and taking turns in the cold shower. I was the only one who was too wimpy to brave a cold shower on a cold night and instead opted for the camper’s baby wipe shower. Some of the village women tried to sell us the usual bead crafts and, as usual, no one was interested but then they said the magic word: “Massage?” I didn’t hesitate to accept and, surprisingly, after the day we’d just had, I was the only taker. Their loss. After dinner, while the revelers continued their revelry, two village women took me into our hut and kneaded me like a ball of dough, double-team style, for one blissful hour. By now, I’ve indulged in five massages in Thailand so I can say, from experience, that the women employed no discernible technique but their hands were strong and sure and, at no time, did I have less than four hands on my body. The soothing background noise was a composite of my laughing comrades, the women speaking softly over me in their musical tribal language, and the village animals rustling around under the hut. I emerged in a semi-trance and remained that way until bedtime.

We began the next morning with large kettles of hot coffee and tea, boiled eggs and a mountain of toast. We packed up and started hiking – from the top of the mountain, we had nowhere to go but down – toward a waterfall where we would have our lunch. We all went for a swim in the frigid water pool, even if only for a few minutes. Once again, I was the wimpy one. I can’t help it – I detest being cold! After our dip, we ate huge bowls of Thai noodles around a large picnic table and then lazed in the sun for the next two hours. It was wonderfully relaxing.

Two more hours on the trail took us to our next campsite – a small secluded cluster of huts on the edge of a river. I hopped into the cold shower before I had time to lose my nerve. We laughed some more over a hot dinner and spent the evening playing games around a campfire, including one in which, whenever you lost a round, our guide would paint your face with ash from the bottom of the cooking pots. Having just finished my first real shower, I was against the whole ash-on-the-face idea but everyone else was into it so I went along. We had fun with it and didn’t stop playing until everyone had black faces.

Our final day began with a thirty-minute hike to the site of the white water rafting. After a cursory safety briefing, we were in the rafts, gliding through a series of tame rapids. We enjoyed the sun and lush, forest-covered riverbanks but the rapids were not intense enough to get our adrenaline pumping and certainly no comparison to the mighty Zambezi. We were only in the boats for about forty-five minutes before the guides were shuffling us onto the bamboo rafts. At first, they had our group divided onto two rafts but then, for reasons unknown, they consolidated us onto one raft. With the weight of all eight of us and one guide who maneuvered through the water with a long pole, the raft was barely buoyant and we glided along with water up to our waists. We had some good laughs about the situation but I wouldn’t do it again. Bamboo rafting is decidedly overrated, if it’s rated at all.

Thankfully, a huge pot of Pad Thai and plates of sliced watermelon were awaiting us as we climbed off the bamboo rafts and up a small hill to a little Thai rest stop. Our camping trek was swiftly coming to an end. Despite the grueling inclines on the first day, the cold showers and squat toilets, we really had an amazing time and I attribute it completely to our group dynamic. We laughed – big, rolling belly laughs – for three straight days. The eight of us had so much fun together that we decided to meet for a drink that night at the Chiang Mai Night Bazaar. One drink turned into three gigantic towers of beer and, as we said our goodbyes, we were sufficiently drunk and happy. When we sign up for these group excursions, we realize the risk of getting stuck with a group of people who don’t speak English or simply aren’t fun. While we’ve had a handful of the aforementioned sort, we really have been lucky for the most part. We’ll probably never again run into Tom, Jamie, Ann-Marie, Vicki, Marie-Pierre and Jean but the eight of us will always have the memories of that brutal first day’s hike, ash-painted faces, a freezing waterfall swim and laughing uncontrollably for four days about Tom’s pant-ripping fall that only a few of us saw. We’ve met so many interesting people with the common love of traveling and a refreshing number of people who are in the midst of trips similar to ours. Someday we’ll have to rejoin the real world but, for now, we are enthralled with this free-spirited backpacker world where everyone is happy and the only real worries are deciding where to eat dinner, which beach to go to, and how many pairs of clean underwear we have left. Life is good.

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February 10th 2008
Adventures in Chiang Mai

Posted under Thailand

We arrived via overnight train from Bangkok and took a taxi to the Chiang Mai White House, our budget hotel of choice, inside the Old City. The Chiang Mai province is surrounded by forest-covered mountains and edged by a river. The Old City is a large square-shaped area enclosed by a moat and the ruined remnants of a thick stone wall. It is clean and beautiful with a vibrant café culture, Thai massage parlors on almost every block, over three hundred temples, street vendors and a broad selection of restaurants and a host of western amenities. The population seems young and energetic; the streets are crowded with teens and twentysomethings weaving through traffic on mopeds. Young girls in smart school uniforms of white blouses and black pleated skirts with white ankle socks and heeled shoes ride two or three to a bike. The boys are all sporting blue jeans and trendy layered haircuts, which undoubtedly require more hairspray than their girlfriends’ dos. There is an endearing wholesomeness about Chiang Mai and everyone is smiling.

After settling into our room, we rented a moped for the day and headed northwest through town and up a winding mountain road to Doi Suthep, a peak named after an old hermit who lived there for many years. Near the top is a Buddhist temple compound called Wat Phra That Soi Duthep. We parked the moped and wandered through the vendor stalls at the temple entrance, indulging in fresh pineapple and strawberries to energize ourselves for the 306 stairs leading up to the temple. The compound boasted flowery courtyards, ornate temples with large gold Buddha statues, the International Buddhism Center with throngs of crew-cut Buddhist monks in their traditional orange robes, and picturesque views of Chiang Mai in a pastel haze.

Back down the mountain, we spent the afternoon touring a host of other Buddhist temples until we were effectively “Buddhaed out”. The temples were all gorgeous, designed with exquisite curves and inordinate amounts of gold, and smelling pleasantly of incense and fresh flowers. There are always as many tourists as worshippers yet the Buddhists still manage to avoid (or mute) the annoying commercialism that one encounters at the Hindu temples in India. As a visitor, you can quietly, respectfully view the Buddhist temples without being hit up for official and unofficial donations, although there is always a contribution box in sight. Among the temples that we visited were Wat Phra Singh, which houses the city’s most revered Buddha image – the Lion Buddha; and Wat Chedi Luang, an impressive elevated temple complex, now in partial ruins, which formerly housed the “Emerald” Buddha (now in Wat Phra Kaew in Bangkok).

That evening, we ventured out to the Chiang Mai Night Bazaar – a buzzing outdoor market with hundreds of merchant stalls selling Thai handicrafts, designer knockoffs, colorful Thai silks, jewelry and antiques. The stalls are alight from sunset until midnight, every night of the year. There are indoor and outdoor food stalls and restaurants with open patio seating offering every cuisine from Thai, Chinese and Vietnamese to German, American and Mediterranean. We perused the merchant wares and sampled our first local beers – Chang and Singha – which both taste similar to Bud Light and go down just as easily. Our favorite food stall was the rotee cart. Rotee is very similar to the dessert version of the Zanzibar pizza – a pocket of fresh fried dough, stuffed with banana and egg or banana and chocolate, drizzled generously with thick, sweet milk and sprinkled with sugar. I can feel my derriere expanding with each sugary bite of the sweet fried dough but decide that it is worth it! Mentally, I plan to do a lot of walking in Chiang Mai to counteract the Pad Thai and rotee.

The next day was the first of three days of the annual Chiang Mai Flower Festival and it rained almost all day. We had begun to walk to the festival at Buak Hat Park, near the southwestern corner of the city, but when the light drizzle increased to a steady downpour, we ducked into a nearby hotel restaurant and took advantage of their free Wi-Fi for the next four hours. Just outside the window of the restaurant was a small multi-colored house on a stand, resembling a bird house or a decorative mailbox. It was adorned with fresh flowers and offerings of fresh fruit. We have begun to see these everywhere – in storefronts and front yards. I think that they are little Buddhist shrines and have seen them with offerings as elaborate as a full Christmas dinner.

Finally, the rain subsided and we continued on to the festival. It had a small town feel, encompassing the two outer streets bordering the park and a good half of the park’s interior. The streets were lined on one side with elaborate displays of beautiful bright tropical flowers, including an impressive variety of orchids. Many of the displays were constructed as arbors with small benches, inviting passersby to snap photos of themselves in a garden paradise. We were among those who couldn’t resist; everyone seemed to be having fun with the exhibits, posing and laughing in spite of themselves. The opposite side of the street was the real highlight of the festival, however – the food vendors! Grilled squid skewers, sushi, every imaginable variety of skewered and deep fried meats and seafood, fresh fruit, roasted nuts, Pad Thai, and rotee, donuts, and other sugary Thai sweets called to us from street carts as we tried, unsuccessfully, to resist.

Inside the park, I sat down for the most disappointing foot massage of my life while Aaron perused more vendor stalls. He returned with a smile to the massage tent and ushered me to a booth that was taking donations to help the stray dog population in Chiang Mai. Like India, the city has no animal control and mangy muts roam the streets in search of food, water and love. Aaron made a donation with the money he would have otherwise spent on a massage and I got the t-shirt.

Overall the Flower Festival was a great time. It is always nice when the timing of our stay in a place coincides with one of its special events. The tropical flowers were spectacular and the event itself was beautiful and wholesome. Chiang Mai seems like the kind of place that you would want to raise a family.

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February 5th 2008
The Land of Smiles

Posted under Thailand

After an uneventful three-and-a-half hour flight from Delhi, we landed in Bangkok a little stunned. The flight was so short that we didn’t adequately prepare our minds for the cultural transition from wild, crazy, colorful India to meek, mild yet mischievous Thailand. As we collected our bags and headed for the airport exit, we saw a huge sign which read, “Welcome to Thailand: The Land of Smiles”. We decided to be adventurous (and thrifty) and take the public bus from the airport rather than a taxi. We managed to catch the bus and get off at Victory Monument – the closest stop to the Banglamphu area, where we wanted to stay. We still needed to take a taxi from there but it was a much shorter distance. After several taxi drivers quoted exorbitant fares to Banglamphu, we sat down in a slump on the curb, tired and frustrated. When all seemed lost, I decided to keep asking taxi drivers while Aaron brainstormed for another solution. Miraculously, the first driver quoted a slightly less exorbitant fare that I decided we could live with and we were both relieved to be off the curb.

The taxi dropped us off in the middle of backpackers’ Mecca. We walked google-eyed down Th Rambutri – an L-shaped road lined with budget accommodation, trendy clothing, jewelry and music shops; street side food carts with vendors frying up pad Thai, spring rolls and spicy curries; and restaurants and bars literally overflowing with artful-looking backpacker types drinking beer on outdoor patios with soft, funky music playing in the background. At ten p.m., the street was alight and magically alive! I loved it immediately. Most of the hostels in Bangkok do not accept reservations – they get so many tourists that they don’t have to be bothered with reservations and no shows – so we needed to find a bed. We stopped in one hostel after another on Th Rambutri and the first ten that we tried were full. We finally found the Place Inn near the end of the road which had a room available. Aaron waited outside while I gave the room a cursory glance and then subsequently booked it for three nights. It was definitely on the lower end of the comfort spectrum but it had air conditioning, television, a western toilet and hot water and was reasonably cheap considering its prime location. It was only after we had paid in advance and carried our bags up that we noticed the swarms of mosquitoes and lack of flush mechanism on the toilet; it had a bucket and water faucet and you had to pour buckets of water into the bowl to push your business down the hole. Also, it had that old-style plumbing that can’t handle toilet paper so you had to put it in a trash bin beside the toilet, which is disgusting to begin with and downright rancid after three days. Honestly, though, I was starry-eyed over the location and would have taken the room even if I had noticed these “quirks” in advance. Luckily, Aaron managed to secure a very effective mosquito killing device in India that plugs into the wall and works like one of those plug-in room fresheners, effervescing mosquito repellent throughout the room.

Unfortunately, that first night in Bangkok began what would be the climax of my “Ganges blessing”, a torturous head cold that kept me holed up in our grungy hostel room, unable to consciously subject that beautiful world to my hideous symptoms. Even the constant intake of cold medicines did little to quell my itchy sinuses, sneezing and nasal faucet; the meds simply left me drowsy, dazed, and mentally impaired. I sent Aaron out to explore the streets while I wallowed in a river of snot and a mountain of tissues.

Finally, on the third day, I reluctantly emerged and we set out to tour the Grand Palace and Royal Monastery of the Emerald Buddha. Ninety-five percent of Thailand’s population is of the Buddhist faith and Bangkok has several hundred Buddhist temples. The temples are visitor-friendly and welcome photography but most require conservative dress and all require the removal of shoes. Inside the temple, your head should never be higher than the Buddha statue and your feet should never point toward the Buddha. The faithful venerate the Buddha statues with burning incense and lotus flowers.

The Emerald Buddha is one of the most revered Buddha statues in Thailand. The statue sits high atop a grandiose jeweled throne inside a beautifully ornate gold-pillared temple. Inside, the four walls are completely covered with gorgeous murals against a black background, giving the interior of the temple a dim ambience and highlighting the golden traditional Thai-style throne in the center. The Emerald Buddha is actually carved from a block of green jade. When it was re-discovered in 1434, it was covered in plaster, which eventually chipped away to reveal the green stone; it was initially thought to be emerald and the name Emerald Buddha remained even after it was determined to be jade. The statue is always dressed in one of three seasonal costumes, which are changed by the King. We saw the statue in its winter costume – a luminescent and sparkling gold robe.

After taking in the majestic buildings of Grand Palace, we moved on to Wat Pho, another temple which features the enormous reclining Buddha. The colossal statue is 46 meters long and 15 meters high as it lies on its side. It is made of plaster and brick and covered in gold leaf. The sight of it is shocking! You simply cannot fathom how big it is until you get your first glimpse of its gargantuan head! The Buddhists seem to have a respectful sense of humor when it comes to their idols.

After a full day of sightseeing, we wandered down one of the main boulevards near our hotel that caters almost exclusively to foreigners, Th Khao San. It is like a magnified version of our Th Rambutri with even more bars, restaurants, food carts, and clothing vendors as well as Thai massage parlors and little hair stalls whose stylists can weave multi-colored braids or dreadlocks into your hair. The street was filled with hundreds of wide-eyed farangs (foreigners, usually white people); the only Thai people here are working. The flash and flair of the raucous rue were mesmerizing but I was still feeling mildly wretched so we opted for some street food and foot massages and vowed to return to the Th Khao San the next day. The massages were so relaxing and wonderfully inexpensive and I was tickled by the realization that this was only the beginning. Aaron is lukewarm about massages, in general, but I adore them and have given myself carte blanche to indulge in Thailand’s rubdown repertoire.

The next day, we went for full body massages – an oil massage for me and a Thai massage for Aaron. We were both led into a quiet room with individual mattresses and pillows on the floor. We had our massages side by side but I was so engrossed in my own pleasure that I didn’t even see the acrobatics that were being performed on Aaron. He reported later that he was kneaded, bent and stretched by powerful hands and then walked on, just like in the movies. I wish I would have seen it! The massage parlor was located on Th Khao San so we wandered around the clothing stalls, stopped for cold drinks and great people-watching, and then headed back to our hostel to check out and catch a taxi to the train station. We were off on the overnight train to Chiang Mai in the north.

Our first taste of Bangkok was wild, edgy, erotic and exotic. It seems to have a wonderfully mischievous mix of characteristics in common with both Amsterdam and Las Vegas. We seem to be leaving a whole mysterious world unexplored as we head north. We’ll be back for a few days at the end of our three-week stay in Thailand but we already know that it won’t be enough. The Thai people live up to their reputation of living in the land of smiles. We find them to be mild-mannered, happy and lovely people. They are always smiling and it is refreshing and contagious! We love it here!

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February 1st 2008
India Concluded

Posted under India

As I close my eyes and try to summarize my thoughts, a tidal wave of vibrant, fiery images floods my mind. Indian culture is so intense that I think the constant sensory overload makes Westerners – unaccustomed to such constant stimulation, lack of privacy and lack of personal space – physically ill after a while. It happened to me. After a solid month of rat-and-cockroach-infested overnight trains, squat toilets, fifth floor hostel rooms and restaurants without elevators, astonishing poverty, dizzying markets and endless haggling, my immune system simply shut down, leaving me with a self-diagnosed kidney infection (I’ve had at least six of these so I know the symptoms well), a torturous head cold, and some kind of reddening irritation in my right eye which prevented me from wearing my contact lens for a week. Our furious pace kept my adrenaline surging hard enough to delay the symptoms from emerging until we finally came to relax in Rishikesh, where I began to feel like I’d been hit by a bus. In keeping my hypothesis objective, I must confess that, out of sheer laziness, I brushed my teeth using tap water rather than bottled water for about a week, which likely contributed to my smorgasbord of ailments in addition to a host of others whose symptoms have yet to manifest. If the tap water, which likely pumped straight from the Ganges to my toothbrush didn’t kill the germophobe in me, then the squat toilets surely did because I’m feeling rather granola these days. Going number two on a sand dune tends to do that to a person; while I didn’t enjoy that experience, I also cannot deny that it was liberating. Much like Africa, India is devoid of toilet paper except in high-end hotels. Merchants sell it street side to tourists because budget hotels and most restaurant restrooms only provide that handy little water spout (and no soap!) next to the toilet instead of paper. It seems that paper products in general, including paper towels and napkins, are a luxury of the First World, one which we no longer take for granted.

The most shocking sights and my most enduring memories of India are of the stark poverty, the unashamed beggars, the physical deformities, the indescribable filth and public urination that permeate every street. There are so many people sleeping on the streets. Our hearts break for them, especially the children who are sent by their parents to beg on the streets – childhood stolen before it begins. Poverty in India is widespread but Indians (except for the beggars) seem determined to work. Industry and commerce bring the streets to life and they are full of activity, lined with colorful shops and congested with incessantly honking traffic. The smells are of street food, incense, exhaust fumes and stale urine.

It took us about a month but we finally got used to living in such close proximity to animals. Mischievous monkeys are a nuisance – I was always a little afraid of them, especially when a trio of them cornered us at the breakfast table in Varanasi. They would have attacked were it not for the hotel proprietor and his slingshot coming to our rescue. Also, they eat kittens. I’ve decided that I really don’t like monkeys at all. But my heart breaks for the canines. Dogs roam freely and breed freely; every adult female dog appears to be either pregnant or nursing. There are adorable, mangy puppies everywhere and you want to cuddle them all but they’re too filthy to touch. The dogs have their own hierarchy and keep each other in line. Sadly, you also see dogs with horrible afflictions and skin diseases; some look only a day away from death by starvation. India is in desperate need of animal control. I dream of starting an organization that scoops up all of the sweet little pups and places them in loving homes where they will get plenty of food, vaccines and belly scratches, play fetch in parks and wear sweaters.

Revered by Hindus, cows rule the streets. The beloved bovines roam freely on roads, alleyways, bridges, ghats and even wander into buildings when no one is watching. They graze on trash piles and lie down for a nap in the middle of the road if the mood strikes them. Only in India can a cow live a peaceful life with no worry of becoming a steak. In India, the cows don’t moo. They say, “Life is gooooooooood.” There also seems to be a market for cow shit because women collect the patties with their bare hands and heap them onto large trays, which they carry on their heads. Many buildings are plastered with the patties like wall paper. We never did figure that one out.

The Hindu religion is vividly displayed and ingrained in Indian culture. Small, colorful shrines with statues or paintings of cartoon-like idols, burning incense sticks and fresh flowers can be spotted in every direction. The Hindus seem peaceful and accepting of other religions. They are open about their beliefs and are eager to speak about them with pride.

On one of our overnight train rides, we shared a cabin with some very nice Indian people – a man and a woman. Indians are inquisitive by nature and despite my desire to anti-socially bury my head in my book, I found myself engaged in conversation and answering the usual barrage of questions: “Where from? America? Nice country. How long in India? You like? Where have you been? How many days more in India? Only one month in India? Not enough! What you do in America?” It is common for Indians to ask how much money you make and tell you how much they make. This makes Americans uncomfortable but sometimes we say that we’re employed and divulge our former salaries because it’s easier than explaining to Indians that we quit our jobs and sold our house to travel around the world. They simply cannot fathom such a thing.

As we were more or less trapped together for what seemed like an eternity, the conversation blossomed into a discussion of diet and health, religion, marriage and family. I learned that most marriages in India are arranged by the parents. The woman spoke proudly of her three sons, for one of whom she had already secured a wife and another for whom she was in pursuit. When I asked how parents go about finding suitable wives for their sons, she said she puts the word out in the community that she has a son who is eligible for marriage. She then conducts interviews of the potential candidates. She scrutinizes the level of education, familial caste, countenance, skin tone (Indians are obsessed with this – skin whitening cream is sold in EVERY pharmacy and herbal medicine shop), facial bone structure and astrological sign of each candidate to determine if she would make a good match. She then introduces the lucky winner to her son for final approval. Not surprisingly, the woman has a wonderful relationship with her first daughter-in-law.

Interestingly, we had seen classified ads in an Indian newspaper – want ads for eligible spouses. The details given included caste, education, skin tone and age, among other features. When we later reached Varanasi, we saw a sign advertising a marriage arranger among the many vendor stalls. In India, a wedding is a marriage of families. While the age-old custom of dowry is technically outlawed, it is still widely practiced. One of the most intense curses to inflict upon an Indian man is, “May you have ten daughters and may they all marry well!”

Divorce is almost non-existent in India and is socially condemned. Both the Indian man and woman were appalled to the point of speechlessness when I told them that the American divorce rate is somewhere around fifty percent. When they finally spoke again, after about five minutes of uncomfortable silence, it was to ask whether I approved of this divorce phenomenon in America. They could not fathom that fact that almost no marriages are arranged in America. I had mentioned earlier in the conversation that I have two younger unmarried sisters. I had explained that, in my country, people meet, fall in love, and decide to marry of their own free will. Twenty minutes after the topic had expired, the woman asked again for clarification, “So if your sisters don’t find a husband, still your parents would not arrange marriage for them?” She simply could not get her mind around the concept that two mature adults could meet and make such a decision without the help of their parents. “No”, I replied, “they would NEVER arrange a marriage, not under any circumstances.” By the time we reached Varanasi, we had established that divorce is very bad and arranged marriages are fine as long as no one is forced into a bad situation against his or her will. They weren’t very convincing on that last part, however. I’m sure that the divorce discussion reaffirmed in their minds the superiority of their custom. Less than two generations ago, marriages were arranged for girls of disturbingly innocent ages. Thankfully, current law establishes the minimum age for marriage as 18 years.

With my Western mind that unapologetically cherishes and defends my Western liberties, I cannot make an argument against the Hindu custom of arranged marriages. I have too much admiration for the strong family ties, devout spirituality, and overall contentedness of the Indian people. While I believe that most adults are capable of choosing a proper partner for themselves, I can’t deny that love is blind, as the saying goes. There’s nothing like a few years of marriage to expose all of the warts and blemishes. If we marry for love, perhaps we find it easier to justify divorce if and when we decide that we no longer feel that love. At the same time, there is no love as pure, selfless, and enduring as a parent’s love for a child. This realization becomes increasingly clear with age. I would trust my parents to find me a husband just as surely as I know that I could never marry someone they disapproved of. My mother has an eerie sixth sense about people, accuracy in her initial perceptions of people, and a lack of inhibition in expressing those perceptions that drove my sisters and me crazy for years. I know that she would have conducted the search for the fathers of her grandchildren with a very critical eye. That said, I think she would agree that she could not have found a better husband for me than the one I found for myself. With each passing day, I believe more fervently that God created Aaron to be my husband. It took me a long time to find him but then, one day, there he was, doing that half stand-up thing as I approached the dinner table at the J-Bar in Tucson…my Bear. I’ve been flying ever since.

India is a treasure trove of vibrant, mysterious, colorful culture. We had prepared ourselves mentally for intense Third World discomforts and, while the cow shit, air pollution, public urination and squat toilets made those expectations a reality; we were pleasantly surprised by how much we loved it – warts, blemishes and all! We fell in love with the kind, humble, inquisitive, pleasing nature of the Indian people. They shared their food, their music and their religion with heartwarming openness. People on the street bent over backwards to help us without expecting anything in return. The cuisine was richly and deliciously inspired. It is probably best that we are no longer within easy reach of paneer butter masala and makhania lassi. Rajasthan was a jewel – we cannot recommend it highly enough as a travel destination! India is a spectacle not to be missed. We feel wiser somehow for having experienced it. India penetrates you, wraps its arms around you, and draws you into its heart. It becomes a part of you and vice versa. India is like a hideous relative with abhorrent personal hygiene who always greets you with a childish grin and a big hug and who you can’t help but love. There is no place like it in the world.


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