Tuesday, November 29, 2005

Thailand v. Kenya

Ian and I have been discussing the similarities and differences between Thailand and the places we've traveled in Africa, and we've decided that, for both of us, travel in Africa did an excellent job of preparing us for travel in Thailand, because we know there's nothing to worry about here.

Certain things--cheap in-city public transportation; the ability to go to the bus station and get on a bus going where you want ten minutes from when you arrive, whenever that is; vibrant market places; raw sewage stenches in otherwise picturesque settings; people bathing, fishing, and washing clothes in a river clearly fed by surrounding sewers; mosquitos which may or may not be carrying dread diseases--these are all things we've encountered in other parts of the world. But Thailand is much more complex than just those surfaces. People are healthy here--they have good medical care, abundant food (we've seen lots of chubby children), housing, and a variety of luxury items like cars, computers, cell phones, etc. It's nice to travel in such a place. We've obviously not inconspicuous--far from it--but we're not perceived as so much luckier than the Thais. And, of course, there's the internet cafe culture, which may or may not have hit Nairobi.

And a quick rundown of what we've eaten today:
Pad Thai with pork, little shrimps, and tons of veggies from a huge wok at the edge of a clothes market
crystalized orange fruit (mango? galanga? We don't know)
dried, pickled mango (Ian can't eat it, but I think it's really good)
little stuffed sweet cookies
A Chinese bean-paste pie with onion (I didn't really like it, but Ian sucked it down)
Thai iced tea from a drink cooler at a Family Market


Tomorrow, on to Ayuthaya, where we're meeting Ian's friends R&K. Although, we realized yesterday, we're pretty sure we have the date wrong and they're planning to meet us on the 2nd. Ah well, we're ready to continue our adventure . . .

7-Eleven is My Friend

I decided not to bring my intrepid travel mug and hot water coil on this adventure. I decided I would, instead of making my own caffeinated beverage in my room every morning, I would do as the Thais do and get my buzz somewhere else. The first morning, no problem, our guest house included breakfast, which included Nescafe (a favorite in guest houses the world over), which I could make as strong as I wanted (which ended up being much stronger than I actually wanted, because it's been a while since I've had Nescafe and I've lost my touch with the dosing). If that hadn't worked out, just down the street was a cafe called "World Coffee Company" which wasn't (yet) Starbucks, but was certainly taking advantage of much of the Starbucks brand. Of course, as I already said, Hua Hin was overrun with European tourists, most of whom are as addicted to Starbucks as Americans are, and so they needed a coffee shop.

Petchaburi (which is where we are . . . I remembered . . . ) is decidedly not overrun with tourists. Hence, this morning when I awoke with a headache only partly related to the rock-hard mattress, and went out into the world to find some relief, I was assaulted with the sights and sounds of dense marketplaces selling everything from raw mussels to fingernail polish to bulk curry pastes to gift baskets filled with Nestle products . . . but for the life of me could not identify anyone selling caffeine. I'm sure they're out there--the Lonely Planet book says they're out there, and that coffee is even grown in the country, but I was in no position to search them out. Finally, out of desperation, we decided to try 7-Eleven.

We had seen 7-Elevens everywhere, and they all seem to be open 24 hours. We had not, however, been into one, as we didn't want to appear to be total chicken-shit tourists. But then we remembered that there were hardly any tourists around here--certainly not enough to support, literally, a 7-Eleven every two blocks, so we went in. And there, next to the Slurpees and the soda machine was a cooler tank full of Thai iced coffee!

I expect that, before we head back home, we'll figure out where the rest of the Thais get their coffee, but for now, 7-Eleven is where I'll get mine.
Notes from a Hot Country . . .

Well, everyone, we've arrived! We've actually been in Thailand since yesterday (Monday, 28 November), and we're definitely feeling a bit lagged. It took us about 28 hours, all told, in travel time until we were in a hotel last night where we expected to spend three nights. However, our first impressions (albeit in the drugged-like haze of sleep-deprivedness) of Hua Hin were that it was a lot like New Rhodes . . . without the benefit of 1. being in Greece and 2. having the largest continually inhabited medieval fortress in the world. There were, however, lots of 1. beach supply stores and 2. northern European tourists. Also, there was a frog or something weird outside our room all night not quite periodically croaking. So, all things considered, we got up early and got on a bus to here . . . which starts with a PH but I'm way too tired to remember what comes next. I will say, too, that Hua Hin was more interesting from the back of a tuk-tuk, which is what tourists call the little moped-trailer taxis putzing around the streets.
Here are a brief list of my impressions, so far.
There is a healthy number of healthy-looking dogs, most of which appear to be pets.
Many, many people wear helmets on their mopeds.
In general, turn signals are used (which is helpful for those of us getting re-used to everyone driving on the left)
The food is fantastic, without exception, from the rice and toppings purchased with scrip at the Bangkok train station, to the vegetarian meal served to us on the train (soup, stirfry, rice, pineapple), to the amazing soups and salads and spicy things we've had today, to the fried bananas on skewers with caramel sauce and the toasted peas bought on the street.
Some things are really cheap. Train from airport to train station: $0.25 Hotel room last night: $20. Hotel room tonight, and, yes, tomorrow: $3 per night. Not a typo.
People are very nice. Our friends in the Peace Corps really can't believe their luck, being stationed here, and we can see why.
There's just enough adventure, too, from being dropped off on the far side of a highway from town and having to make our way, Frogger-like, across the road, to being picked up by a "taxi" (this one had a truck engine rather than just a moped) at exactly the right moment (he swerved across three lanes of traffic to get us), to ordering a salad described as "Mung Bean Noodle" and receiving something with squid, tuna, tomato, peanut, and some sort of spicy leaf. Oh, yeah, and the bean noodles.
And now, I think, we'll head back to our $3 room, where we have a fan, and a shower and toilet, in our room. Heaven!

Friday, November 25, 2005


Tomorrow we leave for Thailand for two weeks. Technically, we leave on Sunday, but our flight takes off at 2:55am. Yeah, I’m not going to bed before that. In fact, I’m going to an engagement party for my youngest cousin . . . so I’ll probably be drunk when I get to the airport. No, no I won’t. Three years ago Ian and I went to Europe for five weeks, and we attended a tequila-tasting party with this same family the night before. Yeah, the overseas flight wasn’t all that much fun. So I’ll be on my best behavior. I can, ultimately, learn from past mistakes (another cousin promised there wouldn’t be any tequila at this party, anyway).

It’s been a bit strange planning for a big trip right at the time the holiday season is ramping up. I mean, I get into Christmas. One of my friends describes my house from Thanksgiving to New Year’s as looking like “Christmas barfed” in it. Don’t get me wrong—it’s no Christmas Vacation house. But I will admit that not all our decorations are what you might call “tasteful” or “subdued”. But the fiber optic angel was less than ten dollars! And she changes color, and there’s a point where she’s all red for three beats—Devil Angel! And the Christmas Village is so cute with its little lights and its diner and shop and Grandma’s Cottage and the Skaters and the wildlife—lots of wildlife (cloned evidently because there’s not a lot of variation)—because my mother, who buys me pieces for the Christmas Village each year, occasionally forgets what she’s bought me before.

I bake, and host parties, and drink eggnog (or rather, Silk nog) lattes, and make presents and shop for presents (almost exclusively for others) and wear Christmas socks and red and green—together—and listen to the Messiah for days on end. I pull out all the Christmas books Mom’s given me through the years, from The Pokey Little Puppy’s First Christmas (which I once won an award reading at an interp festival for competitive speaking in high school) to The Polar Express—and I read them, out loud to friends and family if I can get them to sit still.

But this year, I’m taking two weeks—two weeks—of this most important time of year, and traveling to a foreign country, one I’ve never visited before, on a continent that I’ve never been to before (we were briefly in Turkey last year, on the Asia side of the Bosporus, but really. What kind of a traveler am I if I count that.). Granted, considering how inexpensive—no, downright cheap (lodging for two for less than $10 per night???)—Thailand seems to be for us North Americans, I am likely to save some money, as these are probably two of the most expensive weeks of the year for me, generally. And, we’re going to visit two friends of Ian’s who’ve been in the Peace Corps for the last 11 months, and they’re ready for visitors, so that’ll be great. And we’ll get to see my aunt who used to live in Bangkok but now lives in Singapore but still has an apartment in Bangkok—she’s generously putting up the four of us in her downtown flat, and coming for the weekend, too.

And then we’ll be home, having finished our Christmas shopping, and had a welcome infusion of warmth and sunshine, and I’ll be able to dive right back into Christmas insanity where I left off (I couldn’t resist—I pulled out the Christmas Village and the CDs tonight—I mean, packing’s basically done . . . ).

But for now—Thailand! I’m suddenly very excited to go!

Stay tuned for our adventures . . .

Wednesday, November 23, 2005

Happy Ski Day! Ian's long arm took the portrait.

Down Time? Who needs it!

Ian and I spent Saturday night in a cabin up by Mt Baker Ski area, with basically the same group of people (minus some peripherals we didn’t like much and one central we like a lot) from the Dave Matthews camping trip last summer. It was ideal. The house had five bedrooms, a large hot tub (or, rather, pretty warm tub) outside on the back deck above the Nooksack River, an airy living room with a couch, a window seat, two IKEA rockers (the kind that don’t actually have runners but that kind of bounce, almost without you being aware of it, except way down deep where you’re wondering just how hard you’d have to pump to snap the thing in two and land on the floor), huge pillows and a wood-burning stove; and a large kitchen and dining area. Oh, and also a small sauna. I say small because, try as we might, we could only ever get five people in. Actually, I’m okay with that—the hot, steamy closeness would’ve pushed me over the edge into horror movie-esque claustrophobia if it had gotten any harder to get to the door.

Our original intention had been to ski a half-day Saturday and a whole day Sunday with the gang; the Northwest has had some very early snow this year, to make up for (fingers crossed, everyone!) last year’s rather lame showing. We did (ahem) however, not make it in time. I was knitting and only occasionally glancing up to admire the passing countryside of our short cut, Ian was driving, we were both heartily enjoying The Penultimate Peril as read by Tim Curry, when Ian sucked in his breath and pulled off the road.

“What’s wrong?” I gasped, worried for the sake of my car (not my husband, as I’ve learned that Ian’s rather alarming breath-sucking almost invariably sounds worse than the situation warrants, but it’s funny).

“We’re in Concrete!” he cried. About an hour past where we were supposed to turn onto another small highway that would actually take us where we wanted to go. There’s nothing like opportunity, though, so instead of immediately retracing our steps—careful figgering made it clear we’d ski for about an hour if we stayed with our original plan—we drove into town to look around.

I assume that Concrete High School draws a student body from a wide radius—perhaps everywhere west of the mountains—because the school was giant, and seems to be all there is in town aside from a small airport and a gas station/diner down by the highway (Route 20, before Loup Loup Pass). The notable thing is that the high school is built on an overpass over the main road to the airport . . . It’s weird. Actually, even with the crazy architecture, probably the more notable thing about the school is that Tobias Wolff went there, and the movie of his memoir This Boy’s Life was filmed partially in Concrete (excellent movie if you can take shows about child abuse. Remember, the victim survived and has turned his life into a lucrative writing career . . .) Anyway, after our 1.03 minute tour, back we sped to the correct route.

Since we were no longer in any hurry, we stopped to have a leisurely lunch at the North Fork Beer Shrine, Pizzeria, and Wedding Chapel. Being already married, we stuck with beer and pizza, both of which were shockingly excellent. The pizza in particular was stellar—the Greek, with kalamata olives, peppers, marinara, feta, parmesan, and a drizzle of balsamic reduction (hello? Aren’t we in North Fork???), and—this was a stroke of genius—we added anchovies. Yeah, I agree—didn’t see that coming. And I really don’t know why we did it—I just looked at the ingredients, saw that anchovies were an option, and suggested to Ian that we get some. Ian is a big fan of the small fishes, and continually hopes that he can bring me over to his side so I’ll allow him to eat his smelly sardines in the house (I still won’t), so no objections from him. And the server was overjoyed. She raved about how much she loves anchovies herself, and always wants them added to everything—pizza, lasagna, you name it. She declared, however, that anchovies and jalapenos just weren’t quite the thing. But then, then, I think she was so inspired by our pizza that she convinced the kitchen to sabotage our order so she could have some, too! Yes, it’s true—after about 15 minutes, she came out and told us that there had been a slight accident with our original pizza—a little bit of burning on one side—and so they, oops, had to eat it, and oops, had to make us a new one. Hmmm . . . but she also really liked the fleece pants I made for myself (and, clearly, my taste in pizza), so any subterfuge was forgiven.

By dark everyone had arrived at the cabin with beer and wine and chocolate and pizza fixin’s (power of suggestion. We had had a brief cellphone conversation with Car 3, at the grocery store while we [Car 1] were at the pizza place; Car 3 realized—literally—when we were eating pizza that evening, that Car 1 had, in fact, had pizza at the pizza place earlier.)

Skiing the next day was fun—bright and sunny, warm, very much like spring. Three of us, including me, carried flasks (it’s the thrill of drinking in public, like it seems like you get to do at baseball games, which gets me every time), but didn’t get into them that much, as we were all recovering from a night of beer, wine, and intense sweating. Two things I noted as different though were that the crowds were primarily young punk snowboarders (I’m not against snow boarders in general or in particular, which is good as everyone else in our group boards) who were really good and desperate for some mountain action rather than the snow bunnies who plan a day and go because it’s convenient not because they just can’t help it. One particular young punk kid leaped over two of our friends when they were sitting on the slope, well in view from above—perhaps his behavior made all the rest of the kid-boarders look like punks.

Because we had the cabin for two nights, we all had a quick steam and soak before hitting the road back to Seattle (three folks stayed the second night), and because it had been so good, we convinced everyone to stop for pizza—yes, again—at the Beer Shrine on the way home. I felt a little guilty as we drove and drove and drove to get there, farther and farther than I remembered it being, because the ones who were staying were driving back to Glacier. But then I remembered that this was the group that had willingly—no, exuberantly—taken an approximately 100-mile detour from Dave Matthews last summer so that we could go to the Brick in Roslyn and not sit in I-90 construction traffic.

The point here is that I have learned to live in the moment well. Ian and I leave for two weeks in Thailand Sunday morning at 2:55am (not, alas, a typo), and our last weekend before the trip was spent not packing, but hanging out with friends. I haven’t always lived in the moment (different than living for the moment); a few years ago I remember constantly wanting to get on to the next thing. I realize now that I wasn’t happy then, and even things I enjoyed carried a taint of my depression. Now, though, the moments are all good.

Wednesday, November 16, 2005

Refrigerator-sized boulders? That’s nothing . . .

It seems that one must be cautious driving in a variety of areas of Washington State this winter, at least according to this statement released by the Washington Department of Transportation. It seems that a dump truck-sized boulder is ready to creak away from the cliff above Chuckanut Drive outside Bellingham and obliterate everything in its path. How many refrigerators does it take to make a dump truck? Way too many.

Monday, November 14, 2005

Happy (belated) Birthday to Me!

Yours truly, the Dilettante Traveler, turned 33 Wednesday November 9th. There was actually much more ceremony than I expected; several friends and relatives braved the rains and traffics of mid-fall Seattle to fete me with stories, a monkey sticker, and excellent vegetarian South Indian food at the local Udupi Palace. After dinner, I went off to a jazz singing class I’m taking with my childhood friend Sonja and several other women ages 17 to, oh, around 50 . . . or 40 (I don’t want to be ungenerous about ages—I’ll be there soon enough). We had a raucous round of Happy Birthday, several in fact, with stamping and harmony and general craziness, then a homemade (by Sonja) chocolate cake with a frosting of raspberries mixed with cream cheese, mascarpone cheese and a little bit of sugar. This doesn’t sound much like travel, however, and I admit that it isn’t (although the psychological, musical and emotional journeys I’ve taken in jazz class have been significant and probably worth a blog in their own right).

I did travel on my birthday, though. As regular readers know, I have an obsession with this one farm along Jerome Creek outside of Harvard, Idaho. More to the point, I have an obsession, which I will openly admit, with the three horses that live there. This is why I don’t visit the farm in the winter. My excuse is that it’s a long way to drive on icy roads . . . but that wouldn’t stop me if I would be able to ride. But even I admit that riding up and down steep, wooded slopes on narrow trails in 2 feet of snow and 0 degrees is more hardship than pleasure. So fall is my last season for visiting, and what a great way to spend one’s birthday, I thought.

Nature, not (evidently) knowing me very well, tried to thwart me. I was planning to go for only two nights, leaving early on the 7th and returning on the 9th. A lesser (or more practical) person might have been deterred when, overnight on November 6th, several large rocks—some the size of refrigerators—fell on westbound I-90 just east of Snoqualmie Pass and the road was closed. I was immediately obsessed with the image of refrigerator-sized boulders falling onto the freeway (no one was injured). When I see those “watch for falling rocks” signs I assume they’re referring to pebbles that may scratch the paint on the roof—irritating—stones that may crack the windshield—annoying—or perhaps fist-sized rocks that could cause a blowout if you drive over them—really seriously irritatingly annoying. I am certainly never . . . correction, I was certainly never expecting to be crushed by something the size of a refrigerator. Now I’m not so sure . . .

Fortunately, Washington State has multiple choices for cross-mountain travel. In the winter, those choices amount to 3 in total: closed Snoqualmie Pass on I-90 with a minimum of two lanes in each direction and virtually right on the straight line from Seattle to Jerome Creek; Stevens Pass to the north; and White Pass to the south. Seattle drivers know that the Ship Canal divides the city into essentially two cities—North Seattle and South Seattle—which, depending on the time of day, can be 45 minutes apart from each other. I, living in North Seattle, chose the Northern route.

Partially because I was excited, partially because I wanted to beat what traffic I could on Highway 2, I left town at 6:45 in the morning, coffee in hand. I had packed the car for any eventuality: snow boots, blanket, extra water, snacks, in addition to the jumper cables and flares that I carry all the time. I drive a 4-Runner with 4-wheel-drive and new tires, so I felt confident of making it through any road conditions. What I failed to remember is my morning ritual of coffee—then piddling. I work from home, so can get up and use the bathroom whenever I want, which is apparently frequently. Somewhere around Monroe, I started to have to go. Concurrently, the highway started to narrow and climb. No, I won’t stop at this gas station; I have plenty of gas and I’d like to get to Wenatchee. I drove on, climbing into the snow line (there’s a ski resort at Stevens Pass which was scheduled to open two days later), keeping both hands on the wheel, listening to Lloyd Alexander stories, and passing people moving more slowly than me. My need to pee grew with the altitude. Finally I hit the pass and started down the other side. By this point, I had to piddle so badly I was distracted from my story (which was written for kids . . . not too terribly complex a plot but still more than I could follow), and I started to think perhaps that level of distraction was not so good for driving down a steep, narrow, winding, snowy mountain pass in the presence of way more traffic than usual. I also worried that I would pee my pants at the slightest provocation—you know, a minor slip of the tires, break lights ahead of me, an unexpected event in The High King, which I hadn’t turned off. Then, a sign seemingly from the gods appeared: REST AREA 10 MILES. Such a relief! I knew I could make it ten miles—I stopped worrying about poisoning myself with piddle that was supposed to be released (can you do that?) and starting counting down the miles. Around the next bend, I hit the traffic. Cars and trucks, now heading downhill and having only one lane (the extra passing lane is for uphill traffic in our passes), had slowed to a crawl. We would, literally, make the 10 miles in about 45 minutes. There was absolutely no way. I started to seriously panic, and made a mental list of the pants I had with me, and the dog towel, and whether or not it would be safe to dig out the towel and somehow sit on it while driving in winter conditions down a mountainside. After four increasingly fraught miles, a semi up ahead pulled off into a wide spot on the side of the road and a yellow-tinged light bulb went off in my head. I could just pull over! So I did, in the same turn out as the trucker. I skidded to a stop next to some scant underbrush and a creek, dribbled, bent over, out of the car, ran haltingly into the trees, dropped my pants, and piddled one of the best piddles of my life, while I watched the long line of cars slowing easing past down the hill. Yes, that’s right—I was in view of the road.

From experience on that road, I will say that probably none of the drivers—the careful ones, at any rate—saw me; they were too busy watching for black ice. But I also have to say that intense need acts as a screen for one’s modesty (at least from one’s own perspective), and that the relief of peeing not in my car, and not in my pants, but in a snowy wilderness, was so great as to transport me to another plane of reality where I no longer believed I was visible to the other drivers on the road.

After that, I made it to Othello with no more problems, and was in Jerome Creek by 2:15 pm, only driving 2 hours longer than usual. I had time to muck out stalls, feed horses and let them in, and decide on dinner before K&A, who had been in Seattle over the weekend for family birthdays and had thus encountered the same travel conundrum I had, arrived (having taken the southern route).

As for the rest of the stay, K, A and I went for a 2 or so hour ride on Tuesday, up into a part of the area they hadn’t been in awhile and up a trail they hadn’t taken at all. We climbed into the snow line, and I was very glad to be bareback on Shadow, where I could take advantage of a heated seat, particularly when wet snow flipped off branches and into my lap. Still, we were all very cold by the time we returned home.

The next day, my birthday, K and I rode alone (I rode Sikem with a saddle . . . and long underwear, and a hat . . . ), for about 1.5 hours, then I hit the road back.

By this time, I-90 was opened, one lane in each direction, so I decided on the direct route home, and sped along faster than usual to make sure I had an extra buffer for crossing the pass (there was a brief incident west of Othello where I was passing a car—with plenty of space, I’ll point out, but toward a line of traffic coming the other direction . . . and the car at the head of the east-bound line was a cop . . . who flashed his lights at me . . . which freaked me out and made me pull back in a little faster than I otherwise would have . . . but honestly, he was far enough away when I started to pass that I couldn’t tell he was a cop, which is pretty far . . . anyway, no harm done and I drove the speed limit for the next 30 miles until I hit the Columbia River and I-90 . . .), and I made it home in 5 hours. Which is less time than usual. And then to dinner and singing and cake, oh my.

In all, a good birthday.