A Travellerspoint blog

January 2008

"The Reason to Be at Sea"

South China Sea - January 30, 2008

sunny 84 °F

This afternoon, I was meditating outside on one of the upper decks. I’ve continued with the qigong style of meditation, which is very interesting. I’m going to try to do at least an hour a day, though that sounds daunting, even for me. I’ve also been reading The Alchemist, which Eric forced upon me against my will. The two are working in conjunction quite nicely. In addition, I’ve decided that to try to get outside for at least 15 minutes per day while we’re at sea.

It might seem surprising that I would have to mandate outdoor time for myself, but we’re so busy, all of the time, that it’s quite possible to do what you’re doing and fail to schedule time to go out. The cabins are pretty stuffy, and living inside of the ship is like being in a high rise whose windows don’t open or in an airplane. I thought I was the only one, so I was rather surprised when, immediately after meditating, the Captain approached me as I leaned against the rail.

He and I have never spoken to one another, so I was a little bit thrilled quite frankly. He asked if I’m enjoying the voyage, and I replied that I am, though I am surprised that it took me all this time to realize that I should come out on the deck daily. He smiled and answered in his Greek English, “This is very strange voyage. Nobody comes on the [side] deck to look at the water. This is the reason to be at sea.” He lit a cigarette and asked me where I’m from. I told him, and I told him that my parents are from Africa. He has been to both Tanzania and South Africa – Port Elizabeth, Cape Town, and another place, but never Jo’burg. I said, “You’re Greek, right?” He nodded. I told him that I have a very good Greek friend but that despite all her attempts to teach me some of the language, all I can remember is “Chronia polla,” which means something like “Live long” or “Have a long life” or something like that. He laughed a bit weakly – as if not to hurt my feelings too much – and said, “That is a wish.” I told him that I hope to go to Athens after the voyage, and I asked what he will do after the voyage. Does he go back to Greece. He explained that he lives in the U.S. now. Originally in Florida but now Georgia, adding, “I cannot stand the weather there. It is oppressive.” I wanted to ask if he doesn’t find the culture oppressive there, too, but I refrained. Instead, I asked him if he will move again, and he said that he goes back and forth. When he gets sick of Greece he goes to Georgia; when he gets sick of Georgia, he goes back to Greece. He said, “You know, it’s a little bit crazy. Back and forth, travelling around with no home.” I said, “But that’s your life right? The life of a sailing man.” At that, his face darkened a bit and crushed the remaining portion of his cigarette. “Yes, that is right,” then he turned and walked away.

I remembered a few things in that moment. One is that he had once said during an address to the community that the life of a sailor is very lonely, especially after you become Captain because you have no peers on board – only subordinates and passengers. Second, I remembered a passage from The Alchemist:

“Making a decision was only the beginning of things. When someone makes a decision, he is really diving into a strong current that will carry him to places he had never dreamed of when he made the first decision.”

Recalling those words, I wondered how and when the Captain decided to become a seafarer and how he ended up in Georgia. I wondered if he enjoys it or if it’s become routine. I wondered what would or will eventually make him stop. I wondered if he’s ever been to places that he never expected to see. I wondered if that will happen to me or even if it’s happening now.

Did I seek this opportunity? I applied for the job and I’ve always wanted to see the world – I’m a Sagittarius after all. Furthermore, I was born on a Thursday: “Thursday’s child has far to go.” I asked one of the professors today what that means? Does it mean I’m remedial? He said, it means Thursday’s children love to travel. Is it a coincidence or am I merely lucky, then?

According to a character in The Alchemist, “luck’ and ‘coincidence’ are “the words that the universal language is written in.” He explains further: “Everything in life is an omen. There is a universal language, understood by everybody, but already forgotten.”

When Eric and I met at Esalen two years ago, neither one of us would have known that he’d end up living in China and that I would sail on a vessel headed there. Even when those plans were made, neither of us envisioned he would travel on the ship for a short spell. Neither of us thought we’d travel through Thailand together. When I met Eric, I already knew Vicky, though I could never have imagined meeting a Vicky the Greek. It never occurred to me that I would speak the two words of Greek that I know to anybody but Vicky and certainly not while standing on the deck of an ocean liner – a deck where I’d just been reading a fable written by a Brazillian about a Spanish shepard who decides to follow his dream though it takes him far from home to Egypt. I never expected to open my eyes and talk to the Captain. I didn’t know that when I said the words “the life of a sailing man” to him, that he would walk away. Maybe he didn’t expect to hear those words from me or in that moment, just as others don't know that they will go off to war or that they will be born or that they will discover electricity or fly to the moon or change a diaper.

Which things are the omens, which ones are universally understood?

I wondered about all these things, and all the while, the water sparkled and glittered like gold. It felt like finding treasure.

Posted by mpho3 08:40 Comments (0)

Monkey Business

Krabi (Ao Nang) - Bangkok - Laem Chabang - Pattaya, Thailand

sunny 94 °F
View The Scholar Ship on mpho3's travel map.

Eric and I took an overnight bus to Krabi, which I regarded as a bit of a consolation prize. I had really, really wanted to go North, but we had waited too long and the prices were too expensive. Krabi turned out to be a-okay. We stayed just outside of town in Ao Nang Beach. We had a bungalow that ajoined another bungalow occupied by three ditzy girls from Canada and Australia or England…. Actually they were very nice, but they were 19 and totally unappealing to me companions. The funniest thing about them is that they, like me, have a massive bug phobia. So the first night, when Eric and I introduced ourselves, they warned us that we would wake “covered with lizards.” True - geckos are not bugs, but they’re close enough. The idea of being covered with lizards didn’t sit well w/ me at all.

That day, Eric paid about 30 bucks to have a long tail boat take him to a few choice spots for snorkeling, which would have been a first for me, but I couldn't go because I didn't have a bathing suit and none of the stalls were open yet. Instead, I hired a long tail boat skipper to take me around to all the nearby beaches. The long tails are wooden boats powered by auto engines. I know I already said it, but I love being on the water. I can't get over how surprising that is. I just don't like being in it. In retrospect, besides snorkeling, I would have liked to have gone fishing. I didn't think of it until the day had ended. As it was, I enjoyed the turquoise green water, the ocean spray, watching the rock climbers scale the spectacular limestone (karst) pillars and cliffs. Meanwhile I could not shake the idea of lizards teeming all over my bed as I slept. The thought nearly ruined my day; I found it difficult to stay present in what I was doing.

When I got back to the “hut,” that evening, Eric and the girls decided to play cards w/ the girls. I was exhausted and therefore told myself it was time to be brave. I examined every square foot of our new home before laying atop my bed, and though it was still at least 80 degrees, I carefully wrapped myself in the blanket in such way that I could fling any trespassers across the room in an instant. I fell asleep and woke to yelps of anguish coming from the other side of the thin bamboo wall. The girls had discovered some kind of “giant beetle” in their room and were flailing about. They yelled for Eric and I yelled back that he wasn’t there. They screamed, “Where is he?” I screamed back, “I don’t know – I thought he was with you!” Then they thrashed around more and then I heard whimpering as one of them ran off to find Eric who it turned out was down by the water “thinking.” I heard him come in and then kind of laugh and say, “what do you want me to do about it” and then I heard a towel or what sounded like a towel being snapped in various directions. At long last, the intruder was smashed, but unfortunately on one of the girls’ beds, which brought a fresh round of squealing. Though I found this all to be quite comical, it worried me some. I thought about scoping out our room for vermin, but I decided I was better of staying put and going back to sleep, which I did albeit fitfully for the rest of the night.

The next day, I rose early and meditated for an hour down by beach. I explored our area little bit and then went back for breakfast. Wonder Bread Boy was up by that time, so we decided to head into town together and piece the day together bit by bit. We were supposed to spend two more nights there, but I knew after the preceding one that I wasn’t prepared for two more fright nights. Instead, we went to a travel agency and I booked a flight back to Bangkok, leaving the next day. I got a Thai massage and then we spent some time at an Internet café and then hired a long tail boat to take us around to some of the neighboring beaches. We found one that we liked and took refuge from the beating sun in a little cave in a little cove. We sat there for a few hours and had a really good conversation that erased all of Eric’s antics to that moment.

We talked about the difference between leading a horizontal life and a vertical one. We talked about the difficulty we’ve both had as sort of dreamers or seekers with an inability to properly settle into a “regular life.” We talked about the cost of being the way we are – financial and psychic debts that may never be paid, endless damage to our respective sense of self, self-confidence, even self-love. We traded life stories, etc. Eric really encouraged to look at this trip differently than I have been – to focus on what I want to feel when all is said and done instead of looking for a concrete outcome. I encouraged him to stay in China and keep learning Chinese and studying Qigong even if his family wants him to return to selling cars in Canada. And he told me to quit worrying about disappointing my friends – that they support me because they love me, not so that they can make a return on their investment. We mutually concluded that despite a succession of failures we will both ultimately succeed in finding some sort of sustainable happiness.

By this time, the sun had set but we were loathe to climb up the pier back to street-level. Instead we followed the beach for as long as we could and eventually came to a wooden ramp leading to stairs that cut a path through a mangrove forest. It seemed like a good idea to go with flow and stay on the path, so we began the ascent. It wasn’t long before I felt like we’d uncovered the secret passage behind the wardrobe as in The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe. It rapidly became clear that we’d gone too far to turn back and yet the staircase kept getting more and more rickety and more and more steep. Furthermore, it was now dark enough that it appeared non-ending. I kept giggling with nervous excitement and I counseled myself not to look to the right or the left lest I should see some strange animal. Immediately afterward, I ignored myself, as I am wont to do, and I in glancing to my left I did see a large round fur ball – think of a meatball that’s a foot and a half in circumference - moving towards me. It had no head that I could see. I don’t know what it was because that propelled me forward at breakneck speed despite the precariousness of the staircase. As I ran, the forest grew thicker and I wished I’d brought a machete. Where the hell were we? In the not so far off distance, I heard a large humming noise – like that of a diesel engine. I slowed and waited for Eric to catch up. “Do you hear that?” I asked him. He too thought it sounded like an engine or generator. At long last – and I’d say we’d been traveling for about half an hour – we emerged into light. I looked down and saw a military-looking security booth encasing a man in a uniform. He waved us down. When I reached the door of the booth, he smiled and asked in English, “Where you going?” I shrugged my shoulders and replied, “I don’t know.” He pushed a book toward me. Other people had recorded their names and the time of signing, so I did the same. Then he smiled at us. We stood and stared like two retards, and then began shuffling past the booth.

We found ourselves at another beach, but it was beach that was part of an immense resort. On one side were immense resort edifices and on the other was the water. In between was a walkway. And on the walkway was another security guard! She got on her radio and then pointed to the beach. We were not allowed to walk on the sidewalk, but we could walk on the beach. Interesting! We strolled along the beach and watched all the rich people being served at little tables and being shown a movie on the beach – Ratatouille of all things – family night – and strode on. As before, we kept walking until we ran out of beach. At that point another security guard corralled us towards him. Unlike his peers, he was very unhappy to see us. Meanwhile I was unhappy to have run out of beach because we now appeared to be cut off. He pointed for us to go back from whence we came, but there was no way in hell I was gonna do that staircase again. I pulled out a map of where we were staying and tried to get him to call us a taxi. He kept shaking his head but it was unclear as to whether he understood what I wanted or if he was simply nixing my request. Eric pointed to the end of the pier, where a motor boat was moored. The security guard shook his head no, but then another motor boat pulled in and passengers for the resort disembarked. The security guard called out to the driver, who came over and then a pow wow took place – the boatman, a couple passengers, more security guards all conferring about our situation. Finally, I couldn’t take it anymore. I grabbed the card from them, and Eric and I headed back from whence we’d come, much though I dreaded the staircase-to-and-from-nowhere, as I had dubbed it.

Now this is where magic comes into play. Shannon knows this well because she and I experienced it in Chicago last year. We were looking for her sister-in-law Sara’s address and it was nowhere to be found. We drove down the right street a few times and it wasn’t there. We even stopped and called Sara to make sure we had the right address. Then giving it another shot, the building magically appeared as if it’d been there all along. Nobody believes us, but it was true. Luisa know it as well. She told me about a trip to New Mexico last year in which she was looking for some stones with which to build an altar. She and a friend looked and looked and looked in the vicinity that had been described to them but naught were to be found. Then after giving up the search and reseting their intention, they arose to see the stones all around them.

In our case, the magic was that the same trip that had taken us half an hour, with all the bushwacking and the headless creature and that had left me pouring with sweat – took less than five minutes and was totally and completely painless. The facility of the reverse travel was actually disappointing. Strange. Back on our beach, everything as it had been before. I fantasized that the stairwell and other beach might not even exist, but they do. Somewhere near Ao Naang. If you ever find yourself there, look for my name in the security guard’s book.

After that, the rest of the night was pretty mundane. I did get accosted by a couple of fellows with a baby monkey. They steal them from the jungle and then train them to be photographed with tourists. I got yelled at by another tourist for paying for the photo, but the monkey was already in my arms before I could say or do anything about it. It was cute but unlike Zachery, it had teeth. I paid for the picture before it had a chance to bite my face off. Actually, I felt sorry for it, but what could I do? Call the tourist police?

Later that night we went to a tourist bar called Luna Beach Bar Disco. It was kind of gross – lots of young folk with their heads screwed on backwards. The music was horrific. The booze was overpriced. We stayed only long enough for Eric to get approached by a very short Thai woman who said she loved him and refused to leave his side, even when I stood next to him. We also struck up a conversation with a British expat whom we’d seen in a retail stall earlier in the day hawking waterproof covers for cellphones and cameras. He was the epitome of what I would fear about staying too long in Thailand. He’s been in the country for eight years, has learned enough Thai to get along but doesn’t feel he’ll ever be part of the culture but he feels too estranged from his homeland now. He claimed to have girlfriends in different parts of Asia, but I suspect he’s gay. He also claimed to be 30, but I think he was closer to 50. He seemed very unhappy. I asked him what he was thinking about and he said that he never meets anybody interesting anymore and when he does, they leave. I didn’t ask which category I belonged to as I politely said goodbye and walked out the door.

We took a tuk-tuk to McDonalds for a wee hours snack. It was a bit surreal – the Thai manager and counterpeople were very very smilely and eager to please but the clientele was all drunk foreigners with surly bad energy. There was one group of guys who I was convinced were neo-Nazis. I tried to stay out of their line of vision and urged Eric to hurry up and finish eating.

At long last, we were out on the street and unlike the "backpackers' ghetto," Kao San Rd. in Bangkok, Krabi does die down. I worried that we’d find a ride back to the bungalow, but we managed to talk a tuk-tuk driver into taking us. It was only a 10-minute ride, but the last portion is down an unpaved road without lights. Eric lamented that for all things I could have wished for while in Thailand, I had kept talking about how fun(ny) it would be to ride a tuk-tuk on this road in the middle of the night. Well, I enjoyed it. It was like off-roading in four-wheel vehicle without a helmet. If we’d taken a tumble, we’d all have been done for. For five dollars, it was the cheapest thrill of a lifetime.

Back at the homestead, I packed up and got ready to head out the next day. In the morning we went back to town, ate, did some Internet and then I arranged for a taxi to drive me to the airport. Krabi International Airport is very small – smaller than Grand Rapids Airport but bigger than the airport I flew into on the Big Island in Hawaii. I had no trouble checking in. At the gate, they were showing an American film, Ray Liotta's Comeback Season, on tv monitors spaced around the area for waiting passengers and there was a free coffee stand. I watched the last half hour of the mildly entertaining movie - emphasis on mild - and then boarded my plane. The flight was only an hour, but we were served a full meal, something that you don’t get in the U.S. anymore.

I was very impressed by Suvarnabhumi, Bangkok's new international airport – it’s one of the most beautiful [check out photo gallery at http://www.bangkokairportonline.com/node/23] I’ve seen, and it was very easy for me to maneuver from my gate to baggage claim to tourist aid to a cab. Now, I could have spent the night in Bangkok and then caught the free shuttle the next afternoon the ship, but I had had enough of Thailand, believe it or not. I hate to call the ship home but for now it is, and that’s where I wanted to be. Home. So I paid to have someone drive me the hour and a half to the Laem Chabang, one of Thailand's two ports (the other is in Bangkok proper on the Chao Praya river). Here’s the deal: I could have stayed at another hostel, but after five days of essentially being on the road, I wanted a little comfort. I thought about checking into a nicer hotel, but it didn’t make a whole lot of sense. I just wanted to be able to change out of the same pants I’d been wearing for a week and lay down and not have to hear other people or worry about what might be crawling beside me. So I decided if I could talk a driver into an acceptable rate, I’d go back to ship. In the end, I paid 1,000 baht which is twice what I paid for the six-hour ride to Krabi and half what I paid for the plane ticket back, but I didn’t care. $30. Big whoop. I mention this because most people where shocked that I would pay so much. You see how we get warped? $US30 for an hour and a half ride is not a lot of cash, but relative to the cheapness of everything else, it sounds exorbitant.

The cab ride was largely uneventful until we arrived in the port. (On the drive to the port we passed the Hemeraj Industrial Estate, which bills itself as “The Detroit of the East.”) Remember what I said about maps? I had showed the address to the woman who arranged the ride. She had shown the address to her boss. Her boss had shown the address to the driver who drove me in a minivan to a location about 10 minutes from the airport where I was shuttled into another taxi. That driver saw the address and that location on a port map. They all said no problem. When we got to the port, there was a problem. We drove around for an hour just inside the port, unable to find the International Ro-Ro Terminal, one of 11 different terminals. At various times, I could see the ship, but even when I’d point it out, the guy would nod and then go in a different direction. He pulled over and asked for directions at least five times, but that was only after he became exceedingly frustrated. All the port people looked at the map, but they all scratched their heads – and it’s their port! It was maddening. We called the emergency number on my card and reached the TSS officer on duty. She gave the phone to a Thai speaking person who gave the driver directions and even then, we zipped past the ship. I was highly amused in the beginning but it began to get dark and I realized that we had to use the daylight to our advantage, plus I began worrying about missing dinner. I really, truly wanted to have the guy pull over and let me drive. Finally, as he muttered at me in Thai, I yelled for him to stop. I could see the ship. I walked around to his side of the cab and made him get out. I pointed at the ship and then at my eyes and then at the ship and then at the card, all the while saying “There! There! That’s the ship!” Then we got back in and he slowly maneuvered to the ship. I couldn’t understand everything but he wanted more money – 100 baht - that much I understood. There was a Thai person outside of the ship, and I asked him if he spoke English. He said he did, and I said, “Tell him ‘no way.’ It’s his fault that we were lost. I pointed the ship to him and didn’t drive there.” The man smiled at me and said that the driver hadn’t understood. I said, “I don’t care. Tell him it’s his fault.” I was very angry by then and it felt imperative that this man know that I was angrier with him than he was with me. But the other fellow would not translate for me, and I started to feel like a heel, so I gave the driver 40 baht and he instantly cheered up and tried to hug me, but I felt like slapping him. I am an ugly American, and sometimes I don’t care.

Now remember what I said about how depending on one’s perspective, $US30 was not a big deal? I later thought about the driver asking for 100 baht. That’s like $3.30. If I had given him $3.30, he would have felt compensated for what seemed to him like my fault or at least more than he bargained for. Meanwhile, I condescendingly gave him $1.10. I felt big casting 40 baht in his direction and refusing to be friendly afterward. Yet, that 40 baht made everything alright for him, and I still feel like an ass, albeit a self-righteous one. And the dinner I’d been so worried about? It sucked. : )

This last day in Thailand, I went to Pattaya. By all accounts it’s an ugly, seedy place. The sex trade is huge there and particularly known for it's plethora of "ladyboys," although the tourist board has been trying to turn it into a family-friendly destination, kind of like Las Vegas's image change. But it was much closer than Bangkok, and I wanted to go grocery shopping. The shuttle took about half an hour. I went straight to the grocery store and but 18 1L bottles of water for 83 baht or less than $3. I would have bought more but I couldn’t carry any more. I also bought some dried seaweed, honey roasted peanuts, roasted pumpkin seeds, a package of almond crackers, a package of yogurt covered wafers with grape crème inside, a six-pack of soy milk with black sesame seed, a package of corn/cheese crackers, a package of seaweed crackers, some sesame peanut candies, two bottles of chrysanthemum tea, a bottle of tamarind drink, some hard candies for the library, a glade air freshener for my room, a bag of caramel popcorn, a six-pack of pepsi for one of the crew members and some headphones for my ipod for a whopping total of 300 baht. It is unbelievable how cheap things are here.

I’ve got three mosquito bites total - not bad for the number of mosquitos I saw, especially in Pattya. My foot swelled up during the bus ride to Krabi but returned to normal after a few days. My pants are so filthy the can stand on their own. My shoes are on their last legs. My hair is more unkempt than it ever has been. Eric is gone – a bit of a relief truth be told. And the journey continues.

Next stop: Chennai (Madras), India.

Posted by mpho3 06:33 Archived in Thailand Comments (0)

The Theory of Relativity

Bangkok - Ayutthaya, Thailand

View The Scholar Ship on mpho3's travel map.

One reason I love travelling is because of the unavoidable tendency to compare and contrast. I wasn’t in Hong Kong or Shanghai long enough to indulge in any dramatic observations, and it’s now clear that our short time in all of these ports won’t amount to much more than a wham, bam, thank you, Ma’am.

Still, I think I got more of a flavor for Thailand than I did for China. I definitely want to revisit both these countries, but Thailand is easily more accessible – no contest. And that’s a nice contrast right there – China, is a rigid, Communist, world power with an incredible population and a voracious ambition to be the great world power. During Mao’s Cultural Revolution, China destroyed a lot of her own past. Thailand is a laid back, Buddhist, second world country whose citizens genuinely revere their King and Queen, whom they refer to reverently as Papa and Mama. Pictures of the two can be seen every few blocks, usually enclosed in golden arches (not the McDonalds kind) or some other gold framework – billboards, banners, etc. China uses the same amount of real estate to exhort its citizenry to be harmonious, strive for the glory and the good, and generally to rally to greatness. China depends on its manufacturing base; Thailand depends on tourism. In China, all the dogs – even those clearly with owners – looked haunted. Generally speaking, animals aren’t treated too well in there. In Thailand there were a fair amount of cats and dogs on the streets, but they seemed content. I’m not a pet person, but it was an interesting contrast as were the many. These two Asian countries are about as similar as Michigan and California, yet like both states, they each have their charms and faults.

I already mentioned that Bangkok – a city of 10 million – felt like an over-ripe fruit to me. Well, after a couple days in Krabi, I felt the need to flee back to Bangkok and once I got out of the airport, I fled back to the ship. I don’t really know how to explain the cloying feeling that has seemed to creep up on me in both cities. It kind of reminds me of a time when Shez picked up a butterfly with a broken wing. She put it on her shirt and it clung there as we walked down the street, then suddenly, though she hadn’t been afraid of it before, she frantically tried to shake it off her shirt. It was hilarious for me, but she said that out of nowhere she began to feel like she was being choked by this little creature. Thailand is the butterfly.

I think part of it, as SF Mary suggested, is that Westerners can easily become spoiled here. Things are so cheap for us and the Thais are so mild-mannered and eager to please and many Westerners come equipped with a more than healthy sense of entitlement, that it’s ultimately a bad combination. I think when I left Bangkok for Krabi and unwittingly left Krabi for the ship – an odd haven – it was because I felt the need to resist being seduced by Thailand and becoming like the hideous tourists whom abound.

I do think that in my twenties I probably would have totally given in to the whole thing, but it’s just too much. For sure, I would like to come back and visit some of the Northern areas I mentioned in a previous post – Sukothai, Mae Hong Son, Chiang Mae – but I don’t think I could ever become one of those people that Eric fantasized about becoming – the farang (Thai for “foreigner”) who never goes back home. Thai people apparently love farang, by the way. I don’t know if that’s literally true, but bumper stickers and posters that state “I ‘heart’ farangs” can readily be found. I think from a business standpoint, it’s a way of indicating that the owner of the paraphernalia speaks English, but I can’t speak to its meaning from a cultural standpoint in any informed way. I can only say that it seems genuine.

  • **

One thing that truly puzzles me about the Thais whom I’ve encountered is that they seem completely unable to comprehend the logic of maps. They don’t seem to understand addresses either, which makes the task of asking how to get from point A to point B a real challenge. You can show a Thai a specific address – written in Thai – and you’ll get blank smiles or entirely wrong directions. Part of it is that like the Chinese, Thais never want to lose face by admitting that they can’t help you or that they don’t know an answer. So, if you get in a cab and the driver goes round in circles for half an hour, it could be an effort to add to the meter, but more than likely, it’s just that he or she doesn’t know how to get to where you said you wanted to go. They’re not going to pull over and ask for directions, they won’t consult that map you pull out… they just smile and mutter something in Thai that you can’t understand but the tone is soothing nonetheless. And the thing is you can’t really get angry about it. It’s very uncouth in Thai culture to become excited in any kind of angry, annoyed, or irritated way.

I had an incident yesterday where I walked into an Internet café that was charging 1 baht per minute. The café also served as a travel agency – and let me just interject here that travel agencies, spas, bars, restaurants, convenience stores, and Internet cafes abound, at least in the places where I was. Anyway, I asked the guy about flight options for getting from Krabi to Bangkok the next day. We talked for five minutes. Then I got on a computer. I couldn’t have been on the computer for more than 20 minutes, max. When I went to pay he quoted me 75 baht. I was taken aback. “It’s 1 baht for 1 minute, right?” I asked. He nodded. I said, “There’s no way I was on the computer for 75 minutes.” He smiled. A smile at that point might escalate things in the West, but he was either smiling because he didn’t understand a word I’d said or because he’s subconsciously been trained that a smile will smooth things over, but there was no way I was paying for 75 minutes. It wasn’t the money – less than $3 – just the principle. I couldn’t understand how he could possibly think I’d been there for more than an hour when we’d talked about my flight ticket. I’m farang but black farang - I can't possible look like all the other German and English and White American and Aussie farang! The place was tiny. There were two other customers. How could he not remember me? But he didn’t and he told me as much – his timer showed 75 minutes. I told him it must have been from the previous user but not me. “Remember?” I asked. I talked to you about the ticket. He just smiled and “I don’t know. But okay. Okay. I don’t care.” And then he started giving me money! I believe to save face because I was starting to get angry. In the end, I ended up paying him what I honestly believed I owed him, but it was maddening.

This kind of almost lackadaisicalness is also apparent in the way people drive. First of all, you almost never hear a horn. Again, I think it’s because it would seem uncouth. But that’s not to say that drivers don’t become impatient. It’s just that their sense of urgency just kind of oozes instead of popping into action. For instance, if there’s a slow vehicle ahead – be it motorcycle, tuk-tuk, truck etc. – the rear driver will pass. But he or she will pass even if there’s oncoming traffic. If the oncoming traffic is a motorbike, the biker will wait to the last moment before veering out of the way but with no malice aforethought. In the U.S. you would hear and explicative or two along with the horn. If the oncoming traffic is a larger vehicle, say a car or a pickup truck, then both or all vehicles will travel towards one another as if involved in a slow motion game of chicken. At the last moment, the passing vehicle will complete the pass and continue driving on as if one’s life hadn’t just been in the balance.

Another traffic observation: way more motorcycles, mopeds, etc on the road than in the U.S. I’ve seen this in other parts of the world, but unless my memory is faulty, I don’t think I’ve routinely seen as many as three people on a motorcycle. Sometimes the third person is a child – sometimes even toddlers or infants - sometimes another adult. Inevitably, if anyone of the three is wearing a helmet, it is the driver.

Veering away from traffic, I’ve been very intrigued by the fashion sense. Flip flops are a must to the degree that everyone stared at my close-toed shoes, tourists as well as Thais. Moving up the body – long shorts, skirts, short-sleeve or sleeveless shirts, or dresses. Better dressed men – usually businessmen of the retail, restaurant, or taxi ilk – wear dress pants and button down dress shirts. This is all to be expected in a hot clime. However, when I tried to shop for a women’s dress shirt or a pair of slacks to go with the dress shirt I have, I couldn’t find a thing. “Business casual” is non-existent here, the pity for me because I’m still struggling with poor choice of wardrobe I brought with me. The other thing is that Thais are tiny – not short so much as thin. I’ve seen men taller than me with waistlines half of mine. I’m not talking starvation thin, just slim boned. I think this works to the advantage of many of the “shemales” around.

To be honest, this part of Thailand confuses me. On the one hand, it seems like any public displays of affection are frowned upon; therefore, I don’t think a gay couple drawing attention to itself would necessarily warrant more negative attention than a straight couple behaving similarly. On the other hand, I wouldn’t consider the places I’ve been to be particularly “gay-friendly.” In fact, I distinctly recall seeing a few “God made Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve” shirts in some of the stalls. I didn’t see anybody wearing one, but they were selling them, and I wouldn’t think you would sell that particular shirt if it offended you, but who knows. That said, there is an abundance of men very obviously living as women and many, many, many women who you don’t even realize are men until they speak and their voices are too deep. The culture seems very open to that. During the entire trip, I saw only one masculine looking, or butch woman. I also saw a fair amount of older Caucasian men with young Thais of either sex, where it was clear to me that the relationship was more than platonic though this was indicated simply by the fact that they were together – not because they were doing anything outright to call attention to the nature of their relationship.

The sex trade in Thailand is definitely booming. I already mentioned Eric’s misadventure. From what I heard from him and others as well, if you’re a single, foreign guy, i.e. a guy who appears to be alone, you will be hit and hit hard by a barrage of woman interested in giving you whatever they’ve got for some cash. They are quite bold and totally unabashed by it. In some bars, half the clientele are Thai prostitutes looking for a trick. It’s very intense and a little unsettling. I know there’s also a strong trade in child sexual slavery, but fortunately I was spared that vision.

  • **

So let me relate some of how I spent time in Thailand. I think I mentioned that Boy Genius (Eric), J., and I spent the first couple nights in Bangkok together. We ate A LOT of street food – all of it yummy and astoundingly cheap. We went to the Grand Palace, which is like Willy Wonka on LSD. [For some great photos, check out http://www.thailandguidebook.com/palace1.html]. Dating back to 1782, it used to house the entire royal family, but I find it hard to comprehend how anybody could live in such a kaleidoscopic environment. We went to Wat Po, the Temple of the Reclining Buddha. Built in the 16th century, it’s the oldest and largest temple in the city as well as being the country’s first public university. The monuments and other artifacts delve into science and literature as well as religion. The golden Buddha, 150 feet long, is ridiculously huge with 45 foot tall mother-of-pearl inlaid feet. I did not get to see the sitting or standing Buddhas, but after a few temples, I’d had my fill. We also saw some great live music at a couple venues we entered simply because of the sounds coming out them. Thailand seems to have a wealth of talented musicians, many of whom have a predilection for 60s and 70s rock. But in addition to Neil Young and Otis Redding covers, we heard great renditions of more contemporary artists such as Nirvana and Radiohead.

After two days in Bangkok, J. flew to Chiang Mai and Eric and I took sidetrips to Ayutthaya. From 1350 until the Burmese destroyed it in 1767, Ayutthaya was Thailand's capital. 33 kings reigned from there, and until the Burmese came along the city boasted three palaces and 400 temples. What remains is an archeological bounty, including rows and rows of headless Buddhas - the work of the Burmese. The architecture is an interesting mix of what I learned is Khmer, or ancient Cambodian style as evidenced by rounded obelisks called prangs that are akin to the famous towers of Angkor Wat, and pointy stupas, which are Sukhothai-style, Sukhothai being a Central Thai city. Indeed, we saw lots and lots of temples and lots and lots of Buddhas, including the Reclining Buddha at Wat Phananchoeng, until I O’D on Buddha. Sucker that I am, I did cough up 200 baht to ride an elephant for approximately the length of a small city block. It was very tall and very rickety and I’ve done it, and that’s all there is to say about that! Next we went to Krabi, where strange things happened..........

Posted by mpho3 05:10 Archived in Thailand Comments (0)

One Night in Bangkok

Laem Chabang and Bangkok, Thailand - January 23-25, 2008

sunny 95 °F

As with Shanghai, we arrived in port during the night. I awoke to see that we were in a pretty desolate, industrial area. Turns out that Laem Chabang is kind of in the middle of nowhere. Actually, it's about an hour and a half west of Bangkok and about half an hour east of Pattaya. The options are to take a TSS sponsored shuttle directly to Bangkok or to take one part way and then jump off in order to catch a bus going the other way to Pattya. I would say most people headed toward Bangkok. Some returned nightly to the ship though the options are limited - only two shuttles in each direction per day. I opted to stay in the city. The most students had plans to go here, there and everywhere.

The mad scientist encourage me to play it by ear. I will not listen to him in future. Of course, he won't be around, but I won't listen to him anyway. Actually, we had a good time in Bangkok, easily finding accomodations on Ko San Rd, which is a backpacker's haven. The best description I can come up with is a street fair. Ko San Rd is like a never-ending street fair with food vendors, merchandise stalls, and glassy-eyed tourists wandering back and forth incessantly. It's to the west of the city, not very close to public transportation but in walking distance - or should I say "wandering distance" to The Grand Palace and Wat Po, which are two of the city's must-sees. Bangkok is full of must sees, so that part of it worked well. Our room was cheap - a triple w/ air conditioning for 580 baht per night, which is less than 20 dollars per person. J., with whom I bopped around in Shanghai, was our third.

We quickly discovered that what they say is true - the street food is cheap and amazing. Just for comparison sake, a decent size plate of pad thai on the street is about 10 baht or $3. Can't beat it. We've eaten at three restaurants, including one high-end one, and none of them compared to the street vendors' fare. Taxis are also incredibly cheap. A fare that might be $15 in San Francisco is about $3 in Bangkok. One can easily see why so many Westerners come here and why so many can easily get into bad situations here. It's steamy and hot and although the population is 95 percent Buddhist, hedonism seems to be part of the social fabric for those who want it.

The first night, Eric went off on his own. I was supposed to join him but was too tired. He wound up dragging himself home at 4 am, but he turned down the wrong alley and wound up being accosted by 4 tranny's who bruised his balls and ego and probably stole his camera. Personally, I found his story to be hilarious. Hours before, he had gone on and on about how amazing Thailand was (and it is!) and how he might consider chukking everything in China to drop out in Thailand. Then he gets groped by a man in a skirt and he wants to go home. It was very very funny. He actually had a good sense of humor about it the next morning, but I could tell it messed with his head a little.

After a couple days, Bangkok began to feel like a too-sweet dessert or an over-ripe (though not rotten) fruit. I felt a desperate need to leave. Unlike my cohorts, we hadn't planned anything specific and it is high tourist season so instead of heading north, we found it would be cheaper to go south - south to a pretty touristy spot. I was little bummed that our choices were so limited, BUT the great thing about Thailand so far is that it's amazing anywhere and everywhere you go. We've got a little hut in the Krabi province for a few bucks a night. The area as a whole is crowded but our little hut is off the beaten path. Eric has spent the day snorkeling and I got myself a two-hr. massage for $15 and am now awaiting a boat to bring me back to "my" island. I am also trying to decide whether to stay here until the 29th or return a day earlier for one more day of Bangkok, but on my own. J., is in Chiang Mai and Eric is going to bop around the country for a few more days before going to Hong Kong. I am ready to be rid of group think so I think I'll head back to the city.

I have a bus ticket, but I think I'd rather fly. The bus ride was actually a bit hellish. I felt like it would never end, and I was very uncomfortable though I'd say the bus was much better than a typical US Greyhound bus. An over-night ride is about $20; a one-hour flight is about $50. If I leave early, I will need to find a place to stay again, which isn't a big deal. Then I need to make sure I get to the shuttle drop off by 1:30pm on Tues., the 29th. Otherwise, I will be trapped in Thailand, which wouldn't necessarily be a horrible thing, but why go there, right?

One point of interest: I feel like more people understood English in China - not many, but more than here - and yet, China is not super-tourist friendly. Here it is the opposite - the tourism industry is in full effect here but there aren't many English speakers. The bottom line is that I feel like I can get around better in Thailand on my own - at least in the cities - than I could in Shanghai. I'm very curious as to how India will be.

Posted by mpho3 00:55 Archived in Thailand Comments (1)

The Sherm's Spanish Guitar

from Ao-Nang Beach, Thailand - January 26, 2008

Greetings from Southern Thailand. I arrived here this morning via an overnight bus from Bangkok. Krabi Province is a very pretty little playground punctuated by hot sand, long tail boats, and the karst mountains rising directly out of the sea. Like much of Thailand, it is very tourist driven. I had really really hoped to "get away" to a more "remote" location such as Ko Chang, which is fairly new to tourists or maybe north such as Sukhothai, Chiang Mai, or Mae Hong Son, but it wasn't meant to happen. Here's what has:

The evening that we left Shanghai, Eric arrived with a gigantic suitcase full of medical supplies, including syringes. He'd had this crazy idea to accompany us to India while working on his thesis. He is researching the potential of finding recordable physiological and biological changes in persons who engage in qigong meditation on a regular basis. The difficulty is that he needs saliva and blood samples from said persons as well as from a control group. No surprise, therefore, that the TSS powers that be said no! This comes into play because even I didn't know that that was his goal for the trip. Meanwhile, I introduced him to all the right people, including the academic dean (a former Buddhist Nun), and she helped him set up a class. He gave a lecture on night on the interstices of Western physics and biology and Chinese Traditional Medicine, focusing on qigong. (I encourage you to google it if you have a moment as I don't have the words to explain it beyond the fact that it's the foundation of many Asian arts, including Tai Chi and Kung Fu and that it has to do with "qi" aka "chi" aka "life force" aka "energy.") The lecture, though a bit disjointed, was well received, and prompted Eric and his eager followers to set up a class. So the next day several of us met at 7 a.m., while Eric led us through a half hour meditation, that he hoped to eventually make an hour-long class. Great.

Meanwhile, two other guests had arrived in Shanghai. Some guy named BJ, who is the editor of the Bangkok Post, which is an English language paper and His Excellency Jan something or other who is the Swiss Ambassador to somewhere. You can see that my mind was fairly detached from all these visitors, including my own. My days were consumed with the process of wading through the 41 student applicants for the five open positions. I don't have the energy at this moment to explain what's going on with my job other than which to say it's just weird. We'll be open from 8 am to 11pm after Thailand and yet we have a dearth of resources and seem to function mostly as a travel agency despite having only one travel guide for each port. Sure we have other things and there are several serious students aboard, but I don't know how to help them with requests for - as an example - writing a paper on the effects of illiteracy amongst Hindu women in India - without access to real resources. I'm not grousing - I'm just saying it's kinda weird. Plus G. decided we should only hire students with former library or bookstore experience, and truthfully, I felt that was a little bogus bcause the tasks we do could truly be done by monkeys.

The other major distraction for me was the arrival of the new doctor. Dr. Maria had been aboard the first voyage and had only agreed to stay on the second voyage until they hired a replacement. She was very homesick and eager to return to Ecuador or wherever she is from. So they hired this guy. To avoid any problems, let me refer to him by my nickname for him: The Sherm. From the second The Sherm set foot on the ship, I got a bad vibe - the kind that makes me question whether his degree is even real. Also The Sherm struck me as being a pervert. Call me crazy - and I'm sure most of you do - but it was something about the way he approached M., and upon finding out that she's from Mexico, he responded, "Oh reallllly?! I play the SPANISH GUITAR!!" The next day while I was working out, he kept admiring himself by the pool and lurking around like a spider waiting for a fly to get caught in its web.

I do believe I was one of the first, if not the first person, to register these suspicions. However, I kept them to myself because I had no concrete evidence, plus I felt that I had suffered a slip in "professional respect" after an ill-fated performance during a staff meeting. I'm not sure why, but I became very very nervous during said meeting and I stuttered and stammered my way through a discourse that should have been a no-brainer. Afterward, I felt that everyone was treating me like the retarded step-child, though it's possible this was my own imagination. Imagination is potent, though. For at least two days afterward, I felt like hiding, but of course there's no hiding onboard the TSS, especially when you've invited a mad scientist aboard.

The next turn of events was rapid: Eric's research got nixed so he decided to disembark in Thailand, meaning that he held exactly two classes, which was ... weird. People were just starting to get into it and then he announced he was done. Okay, whatever. Meanwhile, people start talking about The Sherm who has a propensity for staring at women's breasts and generally making them uncomfortable. Some are also questioning is medical skills. By this point I had confided in N., asking her to be the one to say something to the administration. At first she refuses but then two incidents change her mind. One is that a student combined prescription drugs and copious amounts of vodka and was found unconscious in her room. The Sherm was angered at being disturbed from his beauty rest and then leared at the limp body to the extent that it was decided that she should not be left alone with him in her unconscious state. A staff member was recruited to keep an eye on her during the course of her hospitalization. A day or two later, there was a serious accident during a staff-student basketball game. A staff member tripped over his own foot and landed in such a way as to snap his arm in two just beneath the deltoid. Apparently it took 20 minutes for Sherm to arrive and then when he did, he was freaked out by the sight of the arm. Two students who are trained EMT workers filed separate reports about the way Sherm handled the incident. Meanwhile, during our pre-port security briefing, Sherm decided to counsel in the entire community on the workings of syphillis. During his very strange lecture, G.,'s blood pressure was skyrocketing because Sherm hadn't given him enough morphine. G. has had four bypass surgeries and knew he couldn't withstand any issues w/ his heart. So he sent his wife to come rescue us from Sherm's grotesque lecture. All very odd - apparently he can't even give an injection properly. Fortunately G. was rushed to a real hospital the next morning when we docked.

This was interesting news to me, given that I had gone to see him the day after my public speaking humiliation. I'd had a horrific headache and simply wanted something stronger than extra-strength Tylenol. Sherm immediately went for the needle, offering to give me an injection of Torpidol (?). When I told him that was a bit much, he suggested an IV of fluids. He scared me. As of this writing, everyone has figured out what I figured out days ago. I am hoping that when we get back to the ship, he'll be gone. Myself - I feel vindicated.

Posted by mpho3 00:11 Archived in China Comments (0)

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