Cold Showers

May 14, 2017

Chiang Mai, Thailand

(Some of this post was already written to my Facebook page.  I had to cut some parts for length, and for information that I didn’t want to post to the general public. I’ve thought long and hard about whether to post this type of content about myself. I hope it’s the right decision.  I’ll try to write more about my Laos trip later. And finish my social media story)

Finally on my way back home. And by “home”, I mean Chiang Mai, Thailand. It’s funny how I now think of it that way. It’s not the new apartment into where I moved my belongings on May 1, right before I started this 11-day trip to Laos. I haven’t even slept there yet. But I can’t wait to get back and throw myself across the bed and just bask in the beauty of contentment of not living out of a backpack.

Don’t get me wrong, I thoroughly enjoy living out of my backpack when I’m traveling. It’s a good backpack. A great one. The best backpack. Right now, it’s a wet backpack. I left my hostel this morning in the middle of a thunderstorm. Very heavy rain coming down from the sky that was just turning to a lighter shade of grey due to the sunrise. The type of rain that we in the southeastern US used to call a “gullywasher”. I really regret accidentally leaving my rain jacket in Luang Prabang. I was lucky enough to catch a tuktuk to the airport while standing under an awning near the hostel. I was unlucky enough to get hit by a rogue wave created by a pickup truck passing through a monster puddle in the other direction. The tuktuk driver was drenched, and I believe that his cigarette was extinguished by the splash. I felt bad for him, and I paid him extra when we reached the airport. He gave me a grateful smile as I turned to walk into the terminal. I hope that when I land in Chiang Mai, it’s dry. Otherwise that is going to be a long motorcycle ride.

My last day in Laos was a mixture of relaxation and anticipation. Part of the reason I extended my trip was to meet up with a dear friend and former couchsurfing guest from Indonesia. Marsella and I have kept in touch since meeting two years ago in Chicago. So it was really nice to see her again and catch up, even though it was only briefly. She and two friends were catching the sleeping bus to Luang Prabang that evening. Later, I enjoyed a nice dinner with a couple of locals and a French guy. Something called lam bo, which contained beef, onions, and peppers, and was definitely up there on the spicy level.

Back in Udon Thani last evening, I was greeted by a stray cat. I was enjoying a 10baht ice cream cone from McDonald’s and I shared the last bit with her. She seemed to be really hungry, so I went back inside and ordered her a Happy Meal ™ with chicken nuggets. She devoured the meat after I pulled off the breading and broke it up so it would cool more quickly. I ate the apple slices. I ordered the meal with milk, but kitty wasn’t interested. She didn’t seem to be impressed with the Super Mario toy either.

On the walk back to the hostel, I stopped at a bar called “Rock House”, which promised live music every night. I stepped inside and saw no band and zero customers. Disappointed, I was about to walk away, but the small outdoor bar in front seemed inviting and there was good music playing from the stereo. The beer special was for three large bottles of Chang, and on a hot, muggy evening, cold beer was just too tempting. I wasn’t really about to walk away. I had arrangements to meet someone here at the bar, and I was waiting for her.

When she arrived, I was two beers in, and I shared the last one with her. She was very pretty, and her English was good. We talked and laughed and flirted, as two people might do at a bar. We ended up ordering two more beers before we decided to leave. I was staying just around the corner at a hostel. Now, normally, a hostel is not a good place to bring a romantic interest, because of the whole dormitory setting. But I was certain that I was the only person checked in to the room where I was staying, so I decided to risk it. The night custodian unlocked the gate for us, and didn’t even blink an eye at the fact that I was no longer just one person. We walked up the narrow stairway to the third floor, and I opened the door that bore a picture of Paul McCartney. To the left was a drawing of John Lennon. I’m not sure where George and Ringo were.

Her reaction to seeing three sets of bunkbeds was the expected one. I had explained to her that I travel using hostels and don’t normally stay in a hotel, but she was still a bit shocked. However, it only took a few seconds to see that there were no other beds occupied at 12am, and that we were the only ones there. What happened next was both surprising and disappointing, though really, it should have been neither. She made it clear to me that she wanted to be paid.

When you find out that someone really is not interested in you as a person, maybe not even attracted to you, and that the reason that they have been pretending that they are in order to get something from you, it really kind of hits you. I felt stupid. I felt embarrassed. And I felt a little bit angry. Angry at myself for getting caught in this situation. And angry at her for not being upfront about it when we first talked. Of course I wasn’t about to pay her. She complained about having paid cab fare to come see me, and that she would have to pay for it to go back. I gladly would have paid her cab fare, as I had for the drinks, had the context been different. But now things were changed. I told her no. And she got up and walked downstairs and out the gate. I just shook my head and went to bed, because I had to be up in less than five hours to go to the airport.

I don’t hold any moral judgements about women (or men) who provide for themselves and their families by selling their affections. Sometimes that is really the only real opportunity that they might have. I have had good, meaningful conversations with “bar girls”, and I could even maintain a friendship with them. But I don’t really want to support the institution. For much the same reason, I will not go to an elephant camp where they offer rides, because the very cruel way that the elephants are broken to be trained. I refuse to have my picture taken with or to pet a tiger at the places that offer the chance, because the tigers are heavily drugged in order for them to be safe enough to be around tourists. I may not share the same morality about sexual relations that you have for yourself, but I certainly don’t want mine to be monetarily transactional. In retrospect, I had a better time with the cat at McDonald’s.

There may be some who will point out that maybe I am being transactional about it, because I pay for the drinks, or dinner, or movie, or whatever other expenditures that a date entails. If you feel that way, then you do not know me like you think you do. I pay for those things (when I can) because I still believe in chivalry. I never once have expected anything in return as far as bedroom favors. If both parties are desiring that, then okay, that’s great. But that is the exception to the rule. Usually, the evening ends when both of us say we had a nice time, maybe a kiss goodbye and then we part ways. I don’t believe that my dates owe me anything except for kindness and conversation.

The single life that I have chosen for now is not always easy. I have many female friends, and I find myself attracted to several of them. However, I must be careful of romantic entanglements with them, because I have decided that I will be better off not being in a relationship for the time being, and I do not want to risk a good friendship for the pleasure (and possible ensuing drama) that a sexual encounter may bring. Sometimes I find myself lonely. I question my choice from time to time. But knowing that I’m not in a position or willing to give the type of effort and attention that a successful relationship requires, I think that it’s the right choice. It’s difficult navigating these waters, and I’ve made mistakes that I regret. Hurting someone else because of my selfishness is something that I dwell on for a long time.

I had a nice flight home to Chiang Mai, where the sun was shining. The motorcycle ride back home was refreshing. I took a nice shower to wash away the sweat from my traveling and then I enjoyed just chilling out in front of the new fan that I purchased. I dozed off listening to my Spotify account and some kids splashing happily in the pool outside my window.

Two Weeks

March 16, 2017

Chiang Mai, Thailand

Juggling has never been one of my talents. I’m good with one ball in the air. Not three, not five. One. So if I try to put more balls in the air than I can deal with, inevitably, some get dropped. Hence my 15-day hiatus from posting here in my blog.

(Narrator’s voice): “When we last left Bob, he was still looking for work, bribing traffic cops, and about to go out on a date. How did he do? Let’s peek in and find out.”

My job search has borne some fruit. In a rather indirect way, I might add. A few weeks ago, I walked to a government school on the west edge of the old part of the city in Chiang Mai. The woman whom I met at the first building seemed interested in talking to me about my plans, and made a couple of calls to the English Department and made them come down and bring me up to talk with them. I was surprised that she would bother to put forth that kind of effort, but I didn’t complain. Everything seemed to be going well, until I was asked, “Where is your degree?’

The short answer is, “I don’t have one/” I wasn’t afforded the opportunity to go to college or university when I was younger. I do have lots and lots of life experience, and I have been trained quite extensively on how to teach English, but that wasn’t what they needed. In order for me to work for that school, I would have to produce a bachelor’s degree in something. Didn’t matter what it was- I could have majored in tying neckties- they required it to hire me as a teacher. I was given the apologetic smile and shrug, and I understood, but it didn’t stop the wind from being taken out of my sails. I thanked them for their time and said goodbye. But on my way out, one of the students told me that I needed to stop back down at the office where I previously had been waiting, because I had left some materials there. When I returned to pick up the extra copies of my certificate and CV, the lady who had tried to help me inquired about my plans. I thanked her for her assistance, but told her that I probably wouldn’t be considered due to my lack of degree. She opined that it was a stupid rule, and asked me if she could help somehow. I told her that if she had contacts with other educators or managers at different schools, that I would appreciate her pointing me in the right direction.

Two days later, this woman, who has a PhD in education, called me and put me on the phone with a guy from Slovenia, who is the head of the foreign teachers at a local school outside of Chiang Mai city. He told me to come and talk with him, and that my lack of a degree would not keep me from getting hired at his school. So at this point, I have visited the school twice, been introduced to the students and also the upper echelons of the staff, including the director of the school. I have a mini-demonstration and interview scheduled for tomorrow at 8:30am!

The reason for my interview being scheduled so early is because last week, I was called by the local YMCA to come in for an interview right away. So desperate were they for someone to teach their summer English camp this week, that I was basically sat down and told, “You start Monday, please let us know what you intend to teach and what activities you wish to do with the children.” So, this week, I began working as a teacher and I’m getting paid for it. My class starts at 10am and I teach for two hours in the morning, and two more after a lunch break, ending my day at 3pm.

To top that off, the lady with the doctorate called me again last week to ask me if I would be willing to do a weekend training seminar outside of town this weekend. I didn’t know much information about it, but I said that I would anyway. Hell, it’s an opportunity. I was told that, along with a partner, I would be training about 30 primary school teachers from a remote district 180 kilometers from here on how to teach English to their pupils. I’m really not qualified to do this, but she needed someone, and I wanted the exposure. Then I found out that the 30 teachers were actually going to be 150 teachers, and I almost shit myself. My partner and I have one six-hour day on Saturday to train these teachers to an impossible standard, and then watch and give commentary Sunday as they demonstrate what they learned from us. In order for us to get up there, we leave tomorrow (Friday) at 4:30 pm. So, I have an interview in the early morning, rush back to teach my final summer camp class, then rush back with my lesson plans and weekend clothing (all on my motorcycle) about 18 kilometers from here so we can start the 3-hour trip north for the training seminar. I am exhausted just thinking about it. As the Thai people say, “Mai pen rai.” (“Whatever”, or “that’s life”)

One of my friends who reads this blog chastised me a bit for leaving him hanging on the date story. I haven’t really talked much about my love life in this blog. But for the sake of honesty, I’ll share some of that.

My girlfriend back in the States and I broke up a few months before I left for Thailand. It was a mutual decision, and even though it was not painless, we remain on friendly terms. We were simply in two different places in our lives, and it just wasn’t going to work out being on the other side of the planet. I wish her nothing but happiness and success in her future.

I have said for a long time that I do not desire to marry again, or even be in a relationship for a period of time. I really want to focus on myself and things that I wish to accomplish, without distraction. I have a standing arrangement with a close friend back in the Chicago area that if she hears that I have a girlfriend in the next couple of years, she can buy a ticket to Thailand and come punch me in the face. However, I have a very difficult time in practice being alone. So, when the coffee girl smiled at me, and we subsequently began having daily conversations which ended with her asking me out, I was of course very pleased with that.

May is a beautiful woman and is very easy to like. That night, I met her at the rooftop bar of the mall where she had her coffee stand, and we talked and got to know each other a bit more. She is 35, divorced, with two young daughters. And she is looking for someone to marry. Red flag! Danger! Will Robinson! Shields up! Right?

But there was something about May that made me still want to see where things would go. We went out several times over the course of the past two weeks, and I found myself really being drawn to her. The way she looked at me. The way she held me tight as she sat on the back of my motorbike when we went out. The way she treats everyone so kindly. I found myself at odds within as I struggled with my goals versus wanting to be with her. In the end, it just didn’t work out. She wants to be married sooner than later, and I’m not about to rush into anything again. We ended our brief relationship last night.

While I know it was the right decision -not just for myself, but for both of us- I can’t help but feel badly about it. We chose to part as friends, but I really don’t know if I can handle seeing her again for a while. It was beautiful while it lasted, and I don’t regret trying, but breaking up hurts a bit. Even if it was only for a fortnight.

Stand down, Wendi. My face will stay intact for a bit longer.

กาแฟ Kāfæ (Coffee)

February 23, 2017

Chiang Mai, Thailand

My life here in Chiang Mai has begun to settle into a bit of routine. I sleep in most days until 9:30 or 10am. My friend, Nick, will message me and ask if I’m ready to go get something to eat. I grudgingly get out of bed and wash up and brush my teeth before slipping into some semi-clean clothing and sandals to walk to grab breakfast. There are so many cafes and food stalls to choose from within walking distance that we could probably eat at a different one every day for six months. But we end up patronizing the same few, as one would back home. When you find a diner and a waitress you’re comfortable with, you sort of gravitate to that place.

I know that I’ve mentioned this before, so forgive me if it’s repetitive, but our morning meals tend to include rice or noodles, meat, vegetables, an egg, and lots of heat from the peppers. We have become accustomed to the spiciness, to the point that we will usually add extra from the condiment jars on the table. Just like real Thai people. Okay, maybe we don’t make it quite as spicy as they do yet, but we’re improving.

Normally, with a meal like that back home in Chicago, I would have ordered a Diet Pepsi to wash it down with, but I have yet to see a Diet Pepsi in Thailand. I haven’t had one since leaving Chicago two months ago. So here my drink of choice is iced coffee. And I have found one place in particular from where I prefer to order my coffee. Yes, it’s the little coffee stand in the mall basement food court. The one with the pretty woman who has the lovely smile. Now I will admit that the reason I bought coffee from her the first time was because of the smile she gave me when our eyes met as I sat at the table near her counter. Okay, maybe the second time, too. She’s really got a great marketing technique going there. But damn if her coffee isn’t good. And less expensive than the cafes where I normally would buy a coffee with my meal. (Expensive is a really relative term, because it’s the difference between $1.30 and 86 cents US. Try getting that deal at your local Peet’s)

If you order an iced Thai coffee, what you get is a mixture of a very strong, black liquid, sugar, powdered creamer, sweetened condensed milk all stirred together and poured over a large cup of crushed ice, then topped with more regular condensed milk. It looks like a Starbucks iced cappuccino, but tastes way better. It is very similar to Vietnamese ca phe sua da (sweetened iced coffee). I’d place my order, and watch as the woman would draw hot water with a ladle from a large electric urn, then pour it into a cloth bag in which she had placed a large amount of ground coffee beans. She would hold the bag over a glass that contained the other ingredients, letting the extremely dark and aromatic coffee drain into the container until it was completely full. She then stirred the concoction and poured over the ice, topping it off with more ice and condensed milk before sticking a lid on the cup. I would then happily exchange 30 baht for the icy goodness and put a straw in the top before thanking her and walking away.

I really looked forward to my coffee, smile, and eventually daily conversation with May, as it turns out her name is. I walked up one morning and she surprised me by greeting me in my language. Her English isn’t perfect, and sometimes I don’t quite understand what she is trying to say at first, but it’s way better than my Thai at this point. During our conversation, I told her that although I loved the sweetened version of the Thai coffee, I really wanted to have it black. She looked at me in disbelief, and said “no sweet?”  I nodded, but she went ahead and put a tablespoon of sugar into the cup anyway, because she says that nobody can drink it completely black. I laughed and acquiesced. The result was a tall clear cup of ice filled with the obsidian brew. It was very strong, and it was completely delicious. May shook her head, still not quite convinced that I could drink it like that. So for the past three days, I’ve had my coffee ice cold, super dark, and with only a slight hint of sweet. I still do like the “regular” version, but the calorie count has to be tremendous.

Yesterday, May told me that she is going to have to move her coffee stand somewhere else, as the food court management has decided not to renew her lease when it ends in the middle of March. She is in a very small area that she shares with at least two other vendors, and it seems that management is letting one of the food vendors expand into the tiny space she inhabits. I hope she finds a good spot, and that it’s conveniently located. Need to feed my addiction.