Return to roots

Yikes. I didn’t leave you on the most positive of notes, did I? Last you heard from me I was holed up in a friend’s apartment, unable to get to mine because bullets were flying blind in my darling little neighborhood. My, a lot has happened since then.

Let’s pick up where we left off, shall we? I did return to my apartment several days after writing that dismal last post. I got word that everything was a-okay, nothing to worry about, so I packed my bag, hailed a cab and was dropped off on the outskirts of my neighborhood, which was still blocked off to vehicles. Military officers patrolling the area pointed me in the best direction. I was awkwardly lifting my bag over a low chain barricade when I heard my name. Oh hi Mike, my fellow teacher, in this city of 10 million. What’s up? Well, says Mike, I was walking down the street, finally returning to my apartment, when I see a bunch of officers run for cover. I duck behind a trash bin and hear a loud boom. Now I’m just running in to grab a few more things and getting the hell outta here. Great. Precisely what I wanted to hear. But being stubborn, I continued on for a tense, surreal and luckily uneventful 15-minute walk. The main street, usually bustling and cacophonous, was nearly silent. The wheels of my bag clattered over the craggy sidewalk as I hustled down the street past closed storefronts. I saw seven people during the entire walk, five being security guards. Finally, I rounded the corner of my small lane and was soon inside the apartment gate, welcomed by the security guard’s wide grin. For some reason, we both started laughing – a natural response I suppose to such an unbelievable situation.

The next day saw more normalcy, with people spilling on the streets happy to be outside again. Boojie and I met up in the central shopping district to see for ourselves the charred remains of some of the buildings. Zen Department Store at Central World:

Siam Theatre (and apparently the oldest escalators in Thailand):

The numbers from that period of protests and riots go something like this: 40 buildings burned, 80 people killed and 2,000 injured. After two months as hostage, the city was a mess. Thousands of volunteers turned up to clean the streets, bodies and brooms working in tandem:

One of the most interesting things about living in Bangkok during that time was comparing my first-hand experience with the media’s portrayal of the events. The more widely known sources showed a definite bias toward one side, reporting things that just weren’t true. I don’t think there was a full understanding of the situation, though the coverage seemed to improve over time – and criticism.

I remained in Bangkok another month before leaving. My move back to the States had been planned for a while and had nothing to do with the riots. After three years of living 12 time zones away, missing weddings, births and birthdays, it was just time. As much as I love Thailand, and I do, I knew I couldn’t stay forever.

That last month was hectic, meeting up with friends, eating here or there for the last time, doing this or that for the last time. It was tough knowing I was leaving behind a way of life – not to mention sticky rice and rambutans. Tougher still was not knowing if and when I would see my friends again. Email and skype make keeping up easier, but of course it’s not the same. Moving was the epitome of bittersweet – I was as sad to leave one place as I was excited to return to another.

Readjusting to life in the States hasn’t been completely smooth. Even the trivial differences can lead to uncomfortable situations. At my parents’ house one rainy afternoon, I hopped on the treadmill for a little exercise. There’s me, watching the speed gauge, my finger hard and fast on the up arrow. The problem was two-fold: 1) I was still thinking in kilometers and 2) you’re able to get that number really high before the treadmill catches up to it – but that happens quickly. There’s me again, flying off the back and wedged beneath a china cabinet, legs scraped and bruised. Still don’t know how I fit under there.

Other aspects of everyday life that take some getting used to:
-Eating fork to mouth. It seems harsh now, unlike the gentle spoon.
-Putting TP in the toilet. Our pipes can handle it.
-Wearing shoes in the house. I think about the dirt I’m tracking in. But it’s funny – if I’m in a house of shoe-wearers and I don’t have shoes on, I feel somehow lazy or not as together.

Those are the small things. I think the biggest difference is that once you’ve lived abroad, you can’t look at your home country the same way again. It's as if you’re walking around viewing everything with a new pair of eyes. Some things appear negative, others positive, but mostly they’re just different, from the way we’re protected from ourselves, to all the choices we have, to what we’re willing to throw out. We’re all such products of our culture, it’s hard to imagine doing something a different way - and that the other way might be better. I won’t bore you with a new worldview – we all take what we can from our various experiences.

All in all, moving back to the States has been a really positive experience - partly because I’ve kept myself so busy. I’m particularly excited about a new business I’m starting with my friend Jen. You may remember our rain-drenched afternoon when she visited Bangkok. It wasn’t long after I moved back that we got to talking about our entrepreneurial aspirations. We share an interest in a lot of the same things: traveling, different cultures, good design, beautiful colors and fabrics. All these things have come together in our new little baby, SOMA Goods. Check out our website if you get a chance. I’d love to hear what you think.

Now that I’m back - rooted for a while at least - this little blog should make its final curtsy and run along to live out retirement alongside all the other archived travel journals. I have a few other things I’d like to get around to posting, though, so I won’t release her just yet. She is, after all, a tie between me and Thailand, and I’d like to hold on to as many of those as I can.


Bangkok unrecognizable

It's the fifth day of a pretty full-on urban war in Bangkok. Even more shocking to me and my neighbors is that our sweet little street is one of the hottest zones. I got out Saturday and have been staying at Nabeel's. The picture above, taken from his rooftop, is of the smoke rising from my neighborhood. I'd love to go back to my apartment and pack more of my things (I'm afraid it will be ransacked) but it's too dangerous. Bullets are flying about and people are being shot on the streets and even on their high-rise balconies. I kept waking Friday night to sounds of gunfire, blasts and sirens. We can still hear the blasts over here and dogs howling through the night due to the noise. I've been so glued to various websites and twitter pages that it never occurred to me to update this blog. It was Sarah who suggested it and I laughed: I had completely forgotten I even have a blog. When all this blows over, and I hope it does soon, I'll post about my recent trip to visit her in Indonesia. It was incredible and seems ages away now.

Anyway, just wanted to let anyone checking this know that I'm safe. To be honest, I don't feel like writing much about it. It's about all I talk about and read about and at this point analysis has become mental paralysis. Maybe I'll write more when there's an update. Just please keep the Thai people in your thoughts or prayers. For most of them, watching their city turn into a virtual battlefield is devastating. And some people are still stuck in their homes with no electricity. This at the hottest time of year. No fans, no way to refrigerate or cook food, no way to boil the acrid water. I did read, though, that both the reds and the military are now bringing them food. I also saw that while people are losing their lives for him, Thaksin has more important things on his mind: http://tweetphoto.com/22802583. Shame, shame.


Back to Vietnam ... Central that is

Vietnam's torso is, appropriately enough, where I ate the best food. If I could only return to one region, I think it'd have to be Central for this very reason. (This said, why no food shots? Perhaps I was enjoying the meals too intensely to consider documenting them. You may also find it curious that my first food story is completely unappetizing. Good thing the meals got better.)

Heading south from Hanoi, I got off the train in Ninh Binh (not quite Central Vietnam yet, but nevermind, I haven't talked about it yet). I arrived in the evening and the next morning joined up with two German women to tour the area in a private car. Our driver spoke very little English so we were at his mercy, getting out of the car when he stopped and walking in the direction of his index finger. First up, a boat ride down the river:

We stopped off at a big Catholic church, which sported a kitschy little market out front with a wide assortment of plastic Mary and Jesus paraphernalia:

The folks here row their boats with their feet. Looks like it takes incredible control:

After the boat tour, our driver took us to a local restaurant for lunch. No one there spoke English so we managed enough Vietnamese and hand gestures to order any two dishes of their choosing. One was a mysterious meat, darkish in color and a little tough. The waitress demonstrated how to put the meat on a lettuce leaf, top it with some other herbs, roll it up and dunk it in a sauce. It didn't taste like any meat I'd eaten before, but as skeptical as I was, I was that much hungrier.

Back in the car, the three of us began pondering aloud the possibilities of the mystery meat. At the mention of dog, our driver hooted and managed through laughter: "Dog, dog, yes, dog. So sorry. So sorry." So, there you have it. I ate dog. Sorry Lucy. But it really is just point of view, right? Pigs make great pets as well.

An afternoon trip to Tam Coc for the paddle boat ride through caves and by stony outcrops was worthwhile even though the drizzle never let up. The next morning was just as soggy so I moved on to Hue. An overly talkative guy who had been pestering me at the guesthouse in Ninh Binh did me a favor in the end by introducing me to the two Kiwi gals below at the train station. We became fast friends and booked a place together in Hue.

Hue is renowned for its cuisine. There's a story about a picky emperor who demanded that 50 new dishes be created for the royal menu, leaving a legacy of rich creations. Or something to that effect. I can only vouch for the present-day culinary situation and I say it's worth going to this city if only to dine. As I don't have any food shots, I'll insert Vietnamese coffee here. This stuff is addictive and found up and down the country:

Hue is painted in bold, vivid colors. Bicycles are a popular mode of transport in the mid-sized town:

After Hue, it was on to Hoi An, where you can't spit without hitting a tailor shop. This is the town in Vietnam for having clothes tailor-made. If you allot two days for this town, better make it five. You'll get sucked in by the savvy seamstresses, river-side restaurants and photographic street scenes.

Lantern shops like this one give the town a romantic feel:

The Japanese covered bridge is a beauty:

Only 3 kilometers outside town lies the Thanh Ha Pottery Village. These women were so warm and welcoming and let me take photos of them in action. Talk about fancy footwork.

Bowls drying in the sun:

One day, Andrea, Cat, Pam and I took a bus to My Son, once a holy city for the Cham people. It was fun to wonder through the ruins but I've heard there's much better Cham architecture elsewhere. Considering the time and cost and what's to see while there, I wouldn't do it a second time. But okay, it was a decent enough experience to have once. A horrifying experience actually happened on the way there. The bus in front of us struck and killed a motorcyclist. Andrea is a doctor so she got off the bus to assist but it was too late. After some time, several shaken tourists from that bus joined us and we moved on, though in somber moods.

After another day or so in Hoi An, the other girls headed south - where I would meet up with them again - and I moved to nearby China Beach (yes, the China Beach). I only stayed a few days, but could have easily stretched it to a week or longer. I stayed at Hua's Place, which must be the chillest place on earth. There's Hua with his wife in the picture below along with me and a couple of English travelers. You get to know the others staying there pretty well - if you want it that way - because dinner is served family-style. Dishes vary from night to night and you eat what is served, which is generally very good. Everything is on the honor system so when you grab a beer from the fridge or order up a banana pancake, you write it on your page in the guest book.

And then there's this little treasure:

I had the long stretch of beach nearly to myself during morning and early evening walks. One evening as I sat down there reading, three giggling women dropped their belongings on the sand and ran for the water fully clothed. They dunked themselves once and then splashed back to the shore, picked up their things and left the beach still giggling. I guess joy doesn't have to last long to be real.

I reluctantly bade farewell to China Beach and headed for a beach further south. More later...as in after my trip to Trang...less than three days til I'm on the train!

Wardrobe malfunction

When teaching conversation strategies, I often give students hypothetical situations in which to use the new language. For example, after learning "That's too bad" and "I'm sorry to hear that," they may pretend they've broken up with their sweetheart or dropped their cellphone in the toilet. But sometimes life provides real situations to truly demonstrate the usefulness of the language. The other day I was teaching phrases used to express disbelief or surprise, such as "You're not going to believe this...", "Oh my god", "You're joking!", "Are you serious?" and so on. At that point the wrap dress I was wearing - usually very secure - came undone to a roomful of bulging eyes and open mouths. After a few seconds of recovery time, they responded with impeccable English and I could only applaud their proficiency with a beet-red face.


Bangkok's in the Christmas spirit

Thailand may be 95% Buddhist, but that doesn't stop Bangkok from giving an excessively illuminated nod to Christmas every year, starting as early as October. Especially puzzling this year are the other familiar characters and symbols joining Santa in the Yuletide spotlight. Snow White and her dwarfs, Cinderella's carriage and shoe, and certain Disney stars commingle with St. Nick and his reindeer outside some of the larger shopping malls. (The reindeer are actually pulling the slipper in the picture below.)

While walking around in today's 90-degree temp to the tunes of Jingle Bells, Hark the Herald Angels Sing and Frosty the Snowman, I had the out-of-the-blue and irritating realization that winter is here and I still haven't finished writing about my trip to Vietnam in April (which probably bothers no one but me as I doubt anyone's still reading this blog, but I'd like to record the entire trip so I have some reference for future reminiscing). Then I found comfort in other thoughts: although I've been a slacker at blogging, I've had some other meaningful accomplishments lately. For one, I discovered pistachio macaroons, these little mounds of heaven I could eat by the bucketful. I met some friends for lunch today at French cafe Lenotre, scene of the initial discovery. For dessert, we split the icecream sandwiches. Five macaroons - pistachio, raspberry, vanilla, butterscotch and chocolate - are halved and stuffed with same-flavored icecream. I think I must go back tomorrow for another one - only because I didn't photograph it and that's not fair to you. Okay, accomplishment #2. I've been reading even more than usual lately and finally started Fountainhead, which has been on my list for years. I have two close friends in my building and the three of us rotate books like there's no reading in 2010. I've also made a career decision for what's next after Thailand, but I can't share it because these decisions tend to change and I need to make sure this one sits prominently for a while longer. And I just planned my winter-break vacation, which starts this Saturday. Nabeel and I are going to some islands down south that look incredible. We'll be there for two weeks and then I'll spend the third week of vaca in Bangkok with a surprise visitor. I'm afraid if I disclose the name of the visitor, I'll jinx it and she won't be able to come. Of course you'll get more on that later...like next March perhaps.

Will try to finish up Vietnam bit before Saturday...But must also work and do washing and paint toenails and shop for a new camera lens (I may treat myself with end-of-year bonus!), and meet some fellow ladies out for free margaritas Thursday night...


I made the Thai news

Not for protesting in red or yellow or anything else the least bit provocative ... just simply for attending the opera. No, wait, it was the flamenco performance. Both recent shows at the Thai Cultural Center attracted royalty. I didn't see anyone newsworthy at the opera; we just knew someone significant was there because of the 30-minute delay on both sides of the performance as the audience waited for the entourage to enter and exit. For the flamenco dancing, though, our foursome sat directly behind everyone's favorite princess. Princess Maha Chakri Sirindhorn is known for her photography (I once went to an exhibition of the photos she's taken during her many travels), community involvement and love of the arts (the annual music and dance festival is under her direction in some fashion). Witnessing the Princess and the stir surrounding her at such an intimate proximity was almost as entertaining as the flamenco itself. She enters through a side door, followed by others carrying various comforts for her, including a cart with tea. She walks casually to a plush seat that's isolated from others and, after a brief, curious look over her shoulder at her reverent onlookers, sits without ceremony. Members of her consort bring their offerings and, as protocol dictates, walk backwards on departure. Others kneel by her chair during the entire show as she follows the movement through opera glasses. All of this was recorded by a resolute cluster of video journalists, at least one of which capturing us in the process. Alas, though, I found no clip on youtube.


Travel highlights: Northern Vietnam

It's been almost four months since Vietnam and I still salivate when I think of the food. Vietnamese knocks the socks off Thai, but you didn't hear me say that. A woman I met there and traveled with some came through Bangkok recently and we couldn't resist going to a Vietnamese restaurant...thought it would help with the reminiscing. Speaking of reminiscing...

The flight from Luang Prabang to Hanoi was certainly interesting. I flew Laos Airways, which is often the target of chuckles when travelers toss tales of sketchy flights. A rattling noise commenced during takeoff and persisted for the first half of the flight (strike one). When the flight attendant came around with drinks, I lowered my tray table and it fell off in my lap (strike two). At that point, the man across the aisle said, "Uh oh, what's strike three?" and those of us in the row held our collective breaths until we landed. That was one big sigh of relief. By the time I checked into the hotel - family-run Tung Trang, by the way, if you're looking for good location and hospitality at a reasonable price - it was nightfall. Sweet-tempered Snow, the receptionist, steered me toward the closest streetside pho restaurant, where I sat down for my first big bowl of the quintessential Hanoi dish - noodles, sliced meat, herbs and broth.

Pho restaurant during daylight hours:

Properly fueled, I set off on my first stroll around the Old Quarter:

If you only do one thing in Hanoi, meander the streets of this vibrant, chaotic area with its myriad shops, cafes and art galleries. I could have spent my entire time in Hanoi getting lost in the maze that's the Old Quarter - and nearly did. It was completely overwhelming at first - seemingly impenetrable motorbike traffic that makes crossing the street an extreme sport, a constant stream of solicitations by cyclo drivers and street vendors, obstructed sidewalks that force you out into the street - but you gradually get used to it. In fact, when I got back to Bangkok, I was bewildered by what I perceived to be an eerie quietness. Where's all the noise I once thought defined this city? For about a week, I would question friends: does it seem especially quiet here? Now, I'm happy to say, I've adjusted and live life appropriately annoyed by my surroundings.

In the Old Quarter, shops selling the same type of goods are generally grouped together on the same street. The street names reflect what's sold there now or what was historically sold there, as far back as the 13th century, when artisan guilds began sprouting all over the area. Street names begin with "Hang", which means shop, and end with the specific merchandise, so you can get your silver on Hang Bac, baskets on Hang Bo and silk on Hang Dao.

The numbers you see in the picture below are spray-painted all over the facades of Hanoi and were a mystery to me for a while. I asked the woman below and was given the hand gesture for opening a lock with a key. Several other inquiries didn't lead to further enlightenment, but I finally got my answer. They're phone numbers for people in the repair/service industry. Seems if you need any kind of maintenance work, you just pick a number off the wall and dial.

One day I wondered over to Ba Dinh Square for the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum and One Pillar Pagoda. The mausoleum's forbidding form and a daunting line under the hot sun initially quelled my excitement for visiting dear Uncle Ho, but the succession of ants moved steadily and soon enough we were inside the cool, dimly lit building. There, the adored former leader looks as if he's just down for a nap, save the glass case enclosing him - a pretty cool sight. Okay, don't leave Hanoi without seeing the Old Quarter and Ho Chi Minh.

The streets of Hanoi teem with motorbikes, many carrying three or four people plus a huge box, or maybe even a TV. Trying to cross the street is like being in your own Frogger video game, but walk confidently, steadily, with no sudden stops, and the system works.

I discovered that Britney Spears' meltdown saga hasn't affected her popularity in one country. She's huge in Vietnam and these tables covered in her mug aren't that uncommon:

My first mini-excursion outside Hanoi was the famously stunning and ethereal Halong Bay:

I booked a two-day tour with a travel agent and ended up on a boat with this fine crew:

While there, I went kayaking for the first time. It's either harder than it looks or my arms are wimpier than I thought, but it made for an incredible experience. Eight of us went, our destination this lake surrounded by limestone karsts like the ones shown two pics above. For a while, we were the only ones there, treated to an amazing stillness. I didn't take my camera for fear of drowning it, but hope the image of that lake is sufficiently burned into memory. I remember lying back in the kayak for a breathtaking view of only karsts and sky.

The next day, the entire group went on a walk through the "Surprise" Cave, named so because of its surprise ending. Spoiler alert! Spoiler alert!

I also ventured up north to mountainous Sapa from my base in Hanoi. The overnight train spit me out at the northern most stop and from there I took an hour-long van ride to the former French resort town. In the van, I conversed with an older gentleman who's originally from Vietnam, now living in Canada. Born in South Vietnam, he was touring the north for the first time like me. He noticed the thin jacket I was wearing and asked if I had brought something warmer. I had not. As it's quite cold in Sapa, he insisted that I take one of his sweaters. I tried to decline the kind gesture, luckily unsuccessfully because I would have frozen without it. As he suggested, I returned the sweater to the front desk of his hotel before leaving town. Some people are just so nice, they really make up for the jerks.

Picturesque Sapa is hot on the tourist trail. It's undeniably beautiful, but seems a little contrived with all the Westerners and people selling goods to the Westerners and not many beyond that. I'd recommend just a night or two here and then more exploration of the Lao Cai province. While in Sapa, I did go on one of the easier treks for this incredible late afternoon view:

Sapa is home to many ethnic minority groups such as H'mong and Dao. They pour in every day, dressed in their colorful traditional garb, to peddle goods such as textiles and silver. This woman from the Black H'mong group took a liking to me, which translates to saw me as an easy target. She's intuitive because I did way overpay for a pillowcase. Nevermind, though. It was a good price for interesting conversation.

From Sapa, I ventured to Bac Ha, much quieter than the former except on Sundays when tourists and hill-tribes living in outlying areas swarm the town for the hugely popular market. Most of the market vendors are Flower H'mong and don the most vibrantly hued clothing.

The action starts around six or seven in the morning when locals arrive with livestock, textiles, silver, food, you name it, to sell. They're there to work but you also get the feeling it's the big social event of the week as groups gather to chat and possibly make fun of the poorly dressed tourists. I don't know, I'm just guessing.

I tasted some of the rice wine this woman is selling. Holy stomach burn, this stuff is strong.

The next day, it was back to Hanoi for one more night and some cha ca, another dish that's full-on Hanoi. White fish and greens are cooked in a hot pot and then mixed with cold rice noodles and shrimp paste. Delicious and a nice farewell to a city I missed the minute I left. So many big cities these days are generic enough to place them in just about any country. But, Hanoi - absolutely oozing with personality - is unmistakably Vietnamese.

That's my love letter to Hanoi and surrounds...next time we'll see how many memories I can recall from Central Vietnam...