Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Seoul Relief

I left Hell--and I mean that in the best possible way--early Wednesday morning. Six hours later I was back on Planet Earth, getting some Seoul, and I was freezing. Hell may be Hell, but at least it's warm. Seoul was relieving in every possible way--it was a first world country, it was calm, and it was so cold it was like plunging into an ice water bath--which, after Hell, was necessary in many respects.

C was filling out her her health card in Seoul this morning and she turned to me. "Is it the 25th?" she asked.

"All day," I replied, and sure enough, 24 hours later it was STILL the 25th.

And now I'm back in God's country. The Cascades rise up like a knife of judgment. "I lift my eyes up to the hills; from where does my help come?"

I don't believe in heaven and hell as externalities to our own reality, but Bangkok turned out to be exactly what I think of as Hell, and again I mean that in the best possible way. There is serious beauty in Thailand, and even right in Bangkok, and there are also more soul-twisting opportunities than I've ever seen. Filthy street dogs laid out, begging, as farangs negotiated with prostitutes. Taxi drivers never turn their meters on, instead attempting to get you to pay three times the price a ride is worth--or take you on a "tour" of restaurant, jewelery shops, and whore-houses. The farang streets are lined with pirated electronics, and the streets themselves are teeming with voracious bugs and bacteria. Every transaction is a negotiation, you can't drink the water, and you have to bargain just for the air you breathe. The culture clash hovers over the city like a black cloud. Almost everything you hear is a lie, even from guides who seem to be on your side--they'll just tell you whatever they think you want to hear. The Western idea of Truth is non-existent. You're struggling between constant frustration and constant amazement, which leads to constant Singha. The native Thais hate you and desperately need you simultaneously, and they know it.

It's a weird town.

And now you're saying, "Sounds like you hated it." Well, it's not that simple. Bangkok is a 24-hour party. (And I dearly love to party.) You can walk around a grocery store with an open beer in your hand at 9 am, and many people do--and not just farangs. Everything is made easy for you, provided you do exactly what the Thais want you to do--there's no cover for any of the hottest clubs and you can feed yourself on street food for three dollars a day. A pedicure and manicure costs ten dollars together. You can outfit yourself in the latest fashions for four dollars, buying yourself a new outfit, WITH SHOES, daily. Hotel rooms right on the river, with decks, are 10 bucks a night. Some of the most beautiful and famous Buddhist temples in the world are within a 10-cent, five-minute boat ride. The food is fantastic and there's a lot of really pretty people. You CAN party all the time because you can pay someone barely a dollar a day to do all your chores and clean your house. The temperature never drops below 80. And the Thais themselves don't hate you as a person, and in fact, are super-friendly. Although that can be problematic--see above--it's a real pleasure to smile at someone with whom you share nothing in common and getting a big smile in return.

So: it's too simple to just assign qualities of good or bad. It's another world, on another planet, and they do things very differently. Fascinating.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Moment of Truth

I'm in Khuraburi. It's 6 pm. I'm late for dinner. C and I are on our way to a remote jungle for two days in the morning.

And what happens?

It's moon time.

There's no TRASH in this village we're about to go to. I'll have to pack everything out.


And there's no soap.

C has some pills that her doctor gave her, just for this eventuality. They may make me crazy. They may not work at all. They may EXACERBATE the problem. C and I confer. It's the moment of truth. I roll the dice and start the pill again.

And there I am in the bathroom, hunting down a bottle of water that I can take pills with, pills I swore I'd never take again, on my way to a wooden hut in the jungle.

Me: "Dear Lord, what have I done to deserve this?"

C stands there for a moment, shocked. "Really? What HAVEN'T you done??"

Forget Everything I Said About Not Yet Being Sick

It's 11:37 pm, Monday night, here in Bangkok. Twenty-four hours from now, C and I will be catching a plane home.

I have spent so much time on boats today that the floor of the hotel here at the computer is swaying, and I haven't been drinking--much.

At least, not tonight. But a few nights ago...

5 AM, Sunday morning. I'm at an after-hours club on Khaosan Road with C and two other girls, drinking bottle service whiskey for something like 30 bucks, with a guy from Portland who loves the Huskies, who's hanging with a bunch of messed up Brits, and I decide to visit the club bathroom. (Western style toilets! Hooray!) And then, all of a sudden at the club, I'm sick, and it's not from the alcohol. I'm kneeling, miserable, wishing I hadn't gotten a drink with ice, in a foreign country where I can't drink the water with a bunch of Brits who are basically only here teaching English because they're too messed up to return to their own country, and there's tiny Thai working girls--and half of them aren't girls--throwing up in the club sinks and I am thinking, "What the hell am I doing here?"

And then this afternoon I climbed Wat Arun at sunset and almost cried, it was so beautiful.

So to say I have mixed feelings about leaving would be an understatement, but there's no better words. (And I generally know A LOT of words.) A lot of really amazing, once-in-a-lifetime experiences have happened--you tell me the last time YOU sang Amazing Grace to a village of former sea gypsies in a town so remote that you have to take a boat and then ride a tractor to get there--and nothing bad has happened at all, but Bangkok is...a beautiful mess. And did I mention it was dirty?

It's dirty and smelly and people are CONSTANTLY trying to sell you something, and they will not take no for an answer. And then there are ALSO places like Wat Arun, (Temple of the Dawn) which is one of the most...visually arresting...things I have ever seen. So it's a mixed bag of incredible beauty and incredible eyesores. And I would really like some cheese. I would like to take a BATH in melted cheese. And I want potatoes--and bread--more than I ever thought possible.

Yesterday, C and I browsed the weekend market at the far north end of Bangkok's skytrain, in which we could buy everything from pets (the animals here are worth a whole separate post) to paintings. Two days ago, I was on the remotest possible village in the middle of the night singing to gypsies. Uh huh. I sang. A lot. And then our hostess sang. I got about four seconds into the gypsy song, taping it with my camera, and I started to cry and couldn't focus the camera anymore. Two days from now I'll be holding my eyes open with toothpicks in Seoul as C and I try to navigate our twelve-hour layover, and three days from now I'll be eating turkey.

I plan to recover my sanity some time in February. Everyone should travel this way.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

IN WHICH: My Skin Freaks Out and I Mention the Word Nipple.

It's now Wednesday evening here in Kuraburi (we can't decide quite how to spell it) and between bug bites, heat and humidity, and general bacteria level (although most things are quite clean, and we certainly don't have digestion problems) my skin is rashing out like crazy. My allergic reaction to my bug bites has abated, thanks to DEET, which by the way I plan to build a shrine to when I get home, but my face, legs, and arms are taking the brunt of the new air. There were some great skin creams available over the counter in Bangkok, including excellent drugs like Differin and Retin-A that a girl would need a prescription for back at home, but I'm flying several more times before returning to Bangkok and I didn't want to check a bag yet.

Finally, in rural Thailand, here in a coastal fishing village, I realized I needed to address this growing problem and went to the local pharmacy. Here, of course, none of the labels are written in English like they are in the big Boots in Bangkok--say that three times fast--and C and I spent several amusing minutes trying to figure out which cream is good for what. We decided that most of the anti-fungal creams were actually meant for athlete's foot--in fact it was C who figured that out--and we ALSO discovered that a pharmacy in a small fishing village in rural Thailand doesn't have the best product turnover; namely, most of their stock expired in 2002. I finally bought a new-looking cream, even though the expiration date read '53--C and I hope that means 2053, or some random Thai date--that contained salicyclic acid and benzoic acid. Who knew a chemical engineering degree and a lifetime of reading skin cream labels would come in so handy? And then our world view was shaken to the core. The old man watching me buy it proceeded to make the most obscene gesture to me and C that I've ever seen. He pointed to me and rubbed his nipples.

Yes, he did.

But he didn't seem to be really leering about it--he kept gesturing to the cream. C and I finally decided that the cream was meant for nipple chafing or sore nipples, maybe for running or breastfeeding, but the ingredient list seemed so appropriate that I bought it anyway.

If I decide to use it somewhere besides my face, I will report back.

HI, MOM AND DAD! I mean, on my arms or legs or something. OBVIOUSLY.

In Which: Rural Thailand Treats Us Well

A lady on the trip with us, N, has written a really great email, so I am going to copy and paste hers below because everyone is waiting for the computer, with some edits by me. (Note: as I'm editing this, it is in fact 8:00 am, Wednesday morning.)

N SAYS: It's 4:30 on Tuesday afternoon as I'm beginning this story and we just finished our second exhausting but rewarding day of work.

We are staying in a small fishing village called Khuraburi. It is 3 hours north of Phuket and it was a very, very, long bus ride from the airport in Phuket to this place, Sunday afternoon.We began today, Tuesday, by walking around the weekly market. The 10 of us negotiated over gifts to give the children at the Burmese school we have been working at, sometimes haggling as much as 25 baht. (Less than a whole dollar.)

We moved on to a delicious breakfast in the local market--we eat there every morning--with hot thai tea and coffee, savory rice porridge with pork or shrimp, and what you might call patties of sticky rice made with coconut milk, wrapped in palm or banana leaves. AARWENN SAYS: This is real Thai cooking, and I am GAINING WEIGHT. It's all delicious, and dinner meals are spicy as heck. Our guide, and a few of us in the party, (including me) consider ourselves to be real spicy food connoisseurs, and our mouths are on fire. And it's absolutely wonderful. I wish I knew the names of the dishes so I knew what to ask for in the states at Thai restaurants, although I don't think most of them are even available. (Hi, parents and grandparents! C and I are not starving!)

Back to N: Next was our long bumpy ride on benches in the back of a "bus"--read: glorified truck--for 45 minutes. When we arrived at the school it wasn't long before the first of the children rushed out to join us in our painting, cleaning, and before long - picture taking. Three little girls took off with our camera and fashion-victim-style sunglasses and took photos of us, themselves, and their friends for the next hour or so. Those photos are priceless and I can't wait to share them.

The work is hard. It's hot. We sweat out the water faster than we can drink it. AARWENN SAYS: Which is good, because the latrines are...latrines. Holes in the ground, although they DO have ceramic or plastic "standing spots". There are about 6 of them at the school, and they vary widely in cleanliness--some are cleaner than most bar/club bathrooms back home, and some left avoided. Thailand in general has a waste management problem, and the Burmese school is in the slums, so there is trash everywhere, huge piles of it out back of all the huts. It's depressing. HOWEVER. In ONE of the latrines, one of the feral dogs has had a litter of puppies! They were born just a day or two before we arrived, if not ON our first day--they don't even have their eyes open yet. It's the little things that make the slums bearable.

Back to N: The children are overwhelming in their enthusiasm. I showed them on a map today where Seattle is, and where Thailand is. Their eyes lit up as they drew their finger across the map and saw how far we had come before showing up to help at their school and entertain them.

We have another day and a half at their school. The last day we will do a skit to teach them about recycling, and oral hygene, and then we give them their gifts of tooth brushes and toothpaste. AARWENN SAYS: Thai food is very sweet, surprisingly so, and the children do not know how to brush, so their baby teeth are rotting out faster than their permanent teeth are coming in. THAT is depressing. However, the older kids, with their permanent teeth, seem to be fine. C and I aren't sure if that's because permanent teeth have better enamel or what. In general, actually, it's obvious throughout the entire area, with both the Burmese and the Thai, that the influence of Western culture has generally had a tremendous positive influence on the health of the citizens in the area. There's a huge difference between Thais our own age, who look exactly like us, and their parents or grandparents, who look much more...rural. Like they just left their hill tribes. On the negative side, the Western culture of consummation of pre-packaged things--sodas and pre-wrapped sweets and things--has TRASHED the area, see the Waste Management problem, above. That's a much longer conversation that I won't subject all of you to right this second--this note is long enough as it is.

Back to N: Then we move on to our home stay in Tung Dap where we will be staying with former people who come from a history of Sea Gypsys who lived aboard their boats. They will be much more modest, but it will be our first time to spend at the beach. They will do a traditional dance for us on the first night we are there--we are all looking forward to this.

AARWENN SAYS: It is hot, for sure, but surprisingly bearable, or maybe we're just getting used to it. And we are fairly covered up--capri pants and short-sleeved shirts--for modesty and to not stand out too much, but again, it is bearable. There is exotic wildlife everywhere, including geckos and the loudest cicadas I have ever met, but nothing invasive. None of us are sick, we are all working very hard, and in general, stepping outside of our comfort zones. I had no idea I would be working with kids this much, but I'm rolling with it, and our accommodations are WONDERFUL! Luxurious little huts with granite floors and gorgeous dark wood fixtures. C and I love and miss all of you. Stay tuned for the next update.

Friday, November 13, 2009

Made it!

We made it! We caught a taxi from the airport and arrived at our hotel with zero wrong turns or communication difficulties, in spite of it being only the second DAY of our taxi driver's career. (That was a fun exercise in translation, trying to figure that out. C rose well to the challenge, while I stared blankly.) It is very hot, no exaggeration; it was 2:40 am here when we arrived and it was at least 80 degrees, with 100% humidity. Customs at the airport took us very little time, in spite of my passport being four months from expired, and we are meeting our tour group tomorrow at breakfast at 8:00 am. There are little buglets everywhere, but they are shy--so far only C, who will attract the only mosquito in hundreds of miles, has a bite. Our hotel is very modern and the room is very large, with all the amenities, right on the river. Things are very, very cheap; a 25 minute taxi ride from the airport to our hotel was 15 dollars for both of us together (and we got RIPPED OFF) and bottles of beer are 1 dollar. (Roughly.) (I feel like we got our money's worth, though, since our cab had a bumper sticker of the Playboy bunny.)

We have not drunk the water--hence the beer--and we are looking forward to our day of rest tomorrow before starting our volunteer work on Sunday. Hello, from Thailand, to everyone.

Monday, November 09, 2009

Thailand in 2.5 Days!

My trip to Thailand is so close that I can start counting, accurately, in HALF days. Life is good.

There's just a few things I have to do before I leave, like, decide my entire academic future.

Saturday, November 07, 2009

Dating Post! (Short and Non-Scandalous)

That's right. It's happening. And it's BORING, sorry.

Hi! I'm single. You may have noticed. Or maybe you haven't? I was dating AZ for a short time there, but I didn't really make a formal announcement, which saved me the trouble of making a formal announcement when we broke up. He's a great guy. (Hi, AZ!) But not for me.

Anyway. For those of you who read this blog mainly to catch up with my life and not for my witty commentary on Current Events, now you know what's up in my dating life. No, I'm not sitting at home alone o'nights. Yes, there's men in my life. Yes, I AM currently late for my next appointment, what makes you ask? Oh, you expected as much? Hmm. Eff you too then.

Friday, November 06, 2009

It Was a Dark and Stormy Night

It was daylight when Titan and I went into the Rite-Aid. Ten minutes later we stepped out into the pitch black of a murder mystery.

I ducked under the Chase awning to pull up my hood and arrange my coffee and plastic Rite Aid bag; Titan shook his head in a futile attempt to keep water from running into his eyes. The rain was going sideways, hard enough to drown out almost everything but the collective reaction of the hundreds of people on the street, all struck dumb by the sudden downpour. It was almost too late before I could aurally distinguish the thumpa-thumpa-thumpa of the Ferrari motor, the navy blue supercar just idling down the street, from the shouts and distinctive tap-tap-tap sound of the heavy rain, and just as I turned to look at the gorgeous rear end as it passed, a giant glass splinter of lightning stabbed down from the heavens.

It was like a strobe light times a thousand and it seemed to go on forever--everyone on the street frozen, cars in the middle of parallel parking, passers-by in the middle of shouting, mouths open, and then the night darkened again and the Ferrari engine growls were forcefully woven into the cracka-BOOM of the instantaneous thunder. Apparently the storm was right on top of us, as if that wasn't already apparent with the sideways rain. Titan and I braved it home, snot running down my face from my stuffy nose and me babying my cut finger and trying to ward off hacking coughing fits and Titan taking his sweet time sniffing things, me pulling at his leash, trying to get him to just HURRY IT UP ALREADY. All around us, lightning flashed and thunder boomed and car alarms went off. By comparison, contracting swine flu eight days before I have to leave for Southeast Asia seems kind of tame.

On Writing

I've been accused, often--maybe not so much "accused" as I have been "laughably charged", as no one's really mad--that I distort the truth in these blog posts of mine. Friends who are present for an episode and then read about the episode later are always bemused. "That's not exactly what happened," they sometimes say, or else they say, "That's not ONLY what happened."

Hey: I haven't taken any oaths to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing BUT the truth (although I swear I don't make things up) and if I did, I wouldn't be writing.

Because writing by its very nature is a lie.

Or at least, it has only a passing resemblance to the truth. To what actually happened.

It's impossible, at least by amateurs like me, to really capture the wholeness of any scene taking place in Real Life. For one thing, Real Life doesn't stop or start--it's always going, always, and hundreds of back stories, side stories, and hell, cover stories are bubbling away at all times, informing every participant in the scene but totally impossible to capture in the written word. Blog posts, or novels, or newspaper columns, or whatever, have to start somewhere and end somewhere, and they have to make some kind of point. They have to illuminate a lesson or sharpen a moral truth, take 1000 words and create an etching in your mind of Real Life. A good column or blog post is 3-D; if you turn the page sideways you can almost see the image that the writer is trying to convey crystallizing over the page. A good writer sees a scene and cuts away everything that is not, in fact, the point, allowing the dimly lit kernel, the basis of human interaction, glimmer darkly from the page of newsprint.

And that is impossible to do while trying to capture every angle of every conversation said during the half an hour conversation that the writer caught and wrote down.

The best way to capture Real Life is not, in fact, to record every second of it, but instead to pull at a glowing thread, tracing it backwards, following its twists and turns and recording every second of that journey. If Life is a tapestry, good writing is about three inches of embroidery thread. Trying to describe the whole tapestry in words does not invoke images of Real Life in your audience; instead, it makes them think you can't write. Character development in novels is the same: a real 3-D character is almost too much, seems too unrealistic. It's better instead to shine a spotlight on certain characteristics at certain times and leave out most characteristics altogether.

And keeping this in mind is helpful as I try to paint a picture of Capitol Hill on this very stormy night.

Tuesday, November 03, 2009


Hello. My muscles ache. Like, a lot, a lot. I have a fever. I am fatigued as hell. It tires me to go up and down the stairs. I voted anyway, even though it took a lot of damn energy to walk to the mailbox. Fortunately my friends are effing AMAZING and have already brought me care packages! Seriously, you guys. My friends ROCK.

Now I just need to: a) kick the virus before I leave for Thailand, as they might not let me into the country with an elevated temperature, and b) not develop pneumonia afterwards, as I hear from anecdotal evidence is common. Popping more vitamins now.