Laos (Part One)

March 21, 2018

Chiang Mai, Thailand

 

I’m taking time now to post stories about my experiences from my first year in Thailand. They won’t necessarily be in chronological order, but rather what I’m motivated to write about on any given day. This is my first post concerning my 11-day trip to Laos last year.

Moving Day

On the first day of May last year, I used Uber to move my meager belongings from the place where I was house-sitting to my new apartment outside of Chiang Mai. I had accepted a position to teach at the local primary school in the town, and found a decent-sized studio apartment in a building not far from where I would be working. Not only was it conveniently located, but because of the way my unit was situated in the three-story concrete building, I did not have to deal with direct sunlight heating up my home.

My new studio apartment. I guess I did make up the bed for the picture.

The furnished apartment came with air conditioning, a refrigerator, and a more western style bathroom, with a separated shower (as in not having to stand next to the toilet and get water all over the floor). The property also included a nice swimming pool, beautiful landscaping, and laundry facilities.

Instead of unpacking my belongings and setting up my new place to my liking, I simply threw everything on the bed and the couch, grabbed my backpack and filled it with some clothes, documents, and a book. After taking a quick shower, I mounted my rented motorcycle and headed back into the city.  I had booked an early morning flight to Udon Thani, near the border of Laos, and I planned to stay overnight with a friend who lived much nearer the airport than I now did.

Heading Out

It was raining gently the next morning as we walked out on the tarmac to the waiting propeller-driven airplane. Nok Airlines nicely provided the passengers bright, yellow umbrellas to help keep us dry as we waited to walk up the staircase into the fuselage. The flight itself lasted a little less than an hour, and bright, sunny skies were over Udon Thani. I walked into the terminal, looking for the ground transportation that would shuttle me to the border, about an hour north of UT. I found the kiosk for the minivan shuttle, only to discover that I didn’t have enough cash (or at least Thai money) on me, and the currency exchanges weren’t open yet.

On the tarmac at Udon Thani. Nok airplanes are so cute!

A quick moment of panic later, I found an ATM and used my U.S. debit card to take out a couple thousand Thai baht, transaction fees be damned. Then I walked back and purchased the only remaining seat in the minivan.

 

Fun with Bureaucracy

At the Laos border, I stood in line to exit Thai Immigration, stood in line to submit my application to Laos immigration, where they gladly accepted U.S. dollars for the fee, then stood in line to retrieve my passport with the Laos entry stamp. While in one of those lines, I happened to meet up with two other American guys. One of them had done this several times. “This” being a visa run. My entire reason for coming to Laos was because my Thai tourist visa was expiring, and I had to leave the country to apply for another at the consulate in Vientiane. Since this guy had experience, the other man and I politely asked if we could tag along with him, splitting a fare to the consulate. He agreed, and we were able to bargain with a van driver to take the three of us there for only 100 baht each.

During the ensuing ride, I discovered that neither of these men were the type with whom I would choose to hang out. Both were slightly racist and completely misogynist in their conversation. I decided not to engage them, rather just stared out the window as we drove into the city.

Upon reaching the consulate, we each grabbed visa application forms and started filling them out while shuffling back and forth through the seating that doubled as dividers for the snaking line of people. On the form, I discovered that the consulate required two passport photos with white backgrounds. I had brought my passport photos from the Chiang Mai immigration office with me, because I was prepared.

Could have been worse. 666?

However, Chiang Mai immigration office requires BLUE backgrounds, so all of my preparation was pointless. I got to the front of the line, ready to plead my case, but was told that I had to get new photos. Fortunately for me, there was a kiosk to take my picture inside the building adjacent the covered, outdoor visa application area. Of course, I had to pay for the new photos, but it wasn’t really much money. Way less than the more expensive scammers set up outside of the gate. I returned to the line and put my application in just a few minutes before the deadline. I was handed a receipt with the number 600 prominently displayed. This was my queue number for the next afternoon when I would return to pick up my passport with my new visa.

No Particular Place to Go

With no plans, no reservations, no clue for the next 30 hours until I picked up my papers, I began walking away from the consulate, looking for two things: lodging and food. I decided to not purchase a SIM card for my phone while in Laos, instead depending on finding free WiFi to aid in my communication. It was hot, of course, and I really didn’t know anything about Vientiane. I checked out a couple of hotels near the consulate, but they were relatively expensive for the quality of the accommodation. Meaning that although they were pretty cheap, they were also pretty unclean and gross.

Instead, I entered a coffee shop with air-conditioning, free WiFi, and an outlet to charge my phone as I looked online and found several hostels were available near the river. I booked one that had decent reviews, finished drinking my iced coffee and charging my phone, and headed out, using my maps program offline. It was a 45-minute walk in the heat, but I was able to get a glimpse of city life in Laos while I was trudging along with my backpack.

After checking into my hostel, I tossed my bag on my lower-berth bed in the sixteen-bunk dormitory. Took a nice, cool shower, washing the sweat out of my t-shirt and underwear while doing so. (Backpackers must learn how to survive cheaply!) After hanging them outside on the deck to dry, I put on some fresh clothes and walked to find myself something to eat and explore. I found a nice night market set up alongside the river, and discovered to my delight that I was in clear line of sight to the cellular towers on the Thailand side, and thus was able to use the data plan on my phone.

New Connections

After grabbing some noodles, I found a local bar that was on the third floor of a building facing the river. The large room was open on one side to the outdoors, with large fans moving air around. I was able to eventually grab a seat at a small cocktail table next to the balcony. The market below, with its colorful umbrellas and stalls for food an merchandise made for nice scenery, along with the inky black Mekong river reflecting the lights from Thailand. Perfect for enjoying a cold Beer Lao Dark, which I discovered was pretty damned good.

View of the Mekong River from the bar.

I noticed quite a few other foreigners were in the bar. Probably most of them were in Vientiane for the same reason as I was. I also saw a lot of locals enjoying themselves. One of them in particular caught my eye. She was a pretty woman sitting alone at the bar nursing a bottle of beer, and after several minutes of debating with myself, I asked the waitress to “serve that girl at the bar another of what she’s been sipping on for the last half-hour.” Instead of asking for another beer, she ordered some type of cocktail instead. And then raised her glass in my direction. I tipped my bottle back at her, and wondered if I had just committed an error. But in a few minutes, she walked over and joined me at my table. We talked for a few more drinks, with me coaching her English a bit. She told me that she was trying to teach herself the language while working full-time in a clothing shop and raising two kids. I was impressed that she spoke as well as she did without formal lessons.

When it was time for the bar to close, she asked me where I was staying. I told her it was close, and that I had walked to the bar pretty easily. But she offered me a ride on the back of her motorcycle, so I accepted. I don’t think she understood what I meant when I said I was staying in a hostel, and she looked a little surprised when I had her stop in front of the guesthouse. As I was leaving the next day for Luang Prabang in the north of Laos, there wasn’t going to be time to see her again, but I had her contact information and told her that I would message her when I returned the next week.

I went inside and sat down in the lobby so I could charge my phone again and use the Wifi there, because the signal was better. While I was there, another woman walked in from her night out, and we ended up having a really nice conversation about teaching in southeast Asia. Lydia was from Uganda, and spoke perfect English. She was on holiday from her job teaching in central Vietnam. After about an hour, we both walked up to the dormitory and went to sleep in our respective beds.

Lowering My Expectations

The next morning, I slept in a bit, as the consulate wasn’t going to begin handing out our passports until after 1pm. I noticed with a bit of horror that the cleaning lady was simply changing the pillowcase and refolding the blanket on the next bed over, which had been vacated earlier. Instead of replacing the sheet, she simply brushed it off and went to the next bunk. I decided to not give the place a good review on Hostelworld.com. After collecting my laundry from outside, I showered, and packed my bag. I decided to walk back to the consulate, taking a different route from the day before.

Upon encountering a fairly large shopping “mall”, I went inside to enjoy the cool air-conditioning. One of the ladies at a kiosk offered to sell me a belt, which I actually needed. I haggled with her over the price a bit, turning to walk away until she agreed to the reasonable price (about $15 US) that I was holding out for. She punched a couple of new holes in it, so it would still work for me after I lost weight from sweating my ass off in the heat. I then sat down and enjoyed a lovely coffee before heading back out into the sweltering noontime sun.

It turned out that I didn’t need to show up at 1:30 to collect my passport. Being that I was number 600, I ended up waiting for two hours before I was called to go to the window. I found a seat inside the building where the photo booth was, because there was air-conditioning inside. I was able to pass the time by engaging in conversations with other westerners who also had a high queue number. One of these was an Israeli man who lived in the Chonburi province, south of Bangkok. He offered to split his private cab with me back to his hotel, which was in the direction of the bus station I needed to get to, and he told the driver to give me a good price to take me there. I don’t know if it was a good price or not, but it was helpful that I didn’t have to haggle and try to give directions.

Friends in New Places

After purchasing my ticket for the overnight bus, I found that I still had about four hours to kill. The bus station was way outside of town, and there wasn’t anything of interest in sight. The food stalls didn’t really look appetizing, and they didn’t serve beer, so I decided to walk up the road a bit, thinking perhaps I’d find something. After walking about 3 kilometers (I’m stubborn), I came upon a dusty intersection with a few commercial buildings. I spied a bar/cafe across the street. Inside, I was able to get WiFi connection, plug in my phone, and enjoy a cold beer along with some hot food. A small group of locals came in and sat down at a nearby table.

When it was time for me to head back to the bus station, I decided that I better hit the toilet before leaving. While washing my hands at the sink, one of the local guys from the other table came in. He began to ask me the normal questions to which I’ve become accustomed: “Where are you from?” “Where do you go?” “How long you stay?” I answered politely, and mentioned that I needed to get going because it was a long walk back to the bus.

Just then, a very loud noise interrupted our conversation. It was the sound of heavy raindrops reverberating on the metal roof. Not just a few, but a downpour. Shit. I had not planned for this to happen. Now I was looking at a miserable walk in the rain, which was going to soak not only me, but my belongings as well. I walked around the corner of the outdoor restroom to see a monsoon, with sheets of water being pushed by the wind. The voice in my head was whining and cursing. And then the voice behind me said, “You come sit and drink beer with me and my family. This rain stop soon, then I take you to bus.”

Enjoying hospitality with Pan and his family

For all of the stories you may hear of scam artists and rip-offs in southeast Asian countries, I guarantee you that there are a dozen more of the kindness that these people show to strangers. Pan, his wife, and his brother-and-sister-in-law moved their chairs around to accommodate me and made me feel welcome. Three of them didn’t speak any English, but that didn’t stop them from offering me food and sharing their beer with me. Pan acted as interpreter while I answered questions about America and myself, and asked my own questions about Laos. It was a humbling experience. Pan asked me if I was on Facebook, and if he could add me as a friend. Yes, and yes. I may never cross paths with Pan again in person, but I’m able to share his joy over a newborn baby and other moments in life. I’ll always be grateful to him for that simple act of humanity by inviting me to wait out the rain with him and then taking me to the bus station on the back of his motorcycle.

The bus adventure and Luang Prabang will wait for another post.

All Creatures Weird and Creepy

March 20, 2018

Chiang Mai, Thailand

 

One of the fascinating parts about living here is discovering the different variety of fauna that surrounds me, as opposed to what I was used to seeing back in the States.  I was introduced almost immediately to some of the indigenous wildlife after arriving last year on New Year’s Day in Bangkok. My friend arranged to take me to a temple complex outside the city where we dined with the crowd and then walked around. There was a large pond formed by a stream that had been dammed up, and I was gazing down into it, watching the large carp who were feeding on pellets being tossed at them. Just to my left I spotted a good-sized snapping turtle floating lazily with his beak just breaking the water’s surface. None of this was really new to me. I’d seen snapping turtles while growing up in Florida. I’d seen big fish in ponds, though never this amount at once. It looked as if you could walk across the water by stepping on the backs of the carp, they were so thick.

Monitor lizard. Not the one I saw.

What I didn’t expect to see was a seven-foot monitor lizard to clamber out of the water and up the bank to the walkway.

This was cool. They walk quite the same as the alligators that I had seen as a boy. It seems a little cumbersome for them, and I do believe that they are much more graceful in the water. The monitor lizard pushed himself up off the ground, keeping his legs bent at an odd angle to do so. For some reason I was reminded of the plastic legs that we used to attach to the segmented bodies of Cootie toys.

Cootie

I watched as he lumbered towards one of the temple buildings, only to freeze in place, then slowly retreat back to the water as a group of three worshippers appeared around the corner of the structure. Evidently most monitors are a bit shy.

Later, when I had settled into my digs at my training course up in Chiang Mai, I began to see (and hear) other unfamiliar creatures.  Birds that I didn’t recognize. Birds that I DID recognize, but were different than the ones I’d seen before. Like chickens. Usually, when we see chickens in the States, they tend to be more squat and plump, probably based on the breeding and the diet. Here, the chickens stand a bit taller, and are scrawny. You can tell the difference when you order some fried (or roasted) chicken at the food stalls. The pieces (drumstick, wing, etc.) are pretty small in comparison to the ones you’ll find at Popeye’s or Church’s. But the taste of the chicken here is so much better.

But before I digress into a story about food…let’s get back to lizards. This place is overrun with small gecko-like lizards.

Your basic, friendly house gecko

Some nights, the outside walls seem to be moving because of the amount of these little buggers running around. And they’re fast. Their movement is almost worm or snake-like.They wriggle when they run. I sometimes find them in my room, which is cool with me, because they are voracious eaters of bugs. I just wish they’d do a better job of getting rid of the pesky ants.

Some species of these creepy-crawlies grow larger. There’s a type of lizard called a “To-Kay” by the Thai people, based on the sound that they make.

Maybe not as friendly?

It’s a very distinctive call. Starts out with a loud “tik! tik! tik! tik!”, then a pregnant pause, followed by a much louder “Toh-Kay! Toh-Kay! “Toh-Kay!” The interpretation of the sound is subjective, of course. The first time I heard it, at about 3am, I thought for sure that it was some kind of bird yelling “Fuck-You! Fuck-You! Fuck-You!” I couldn’t figure out why a bird would be awake to curse loudly at 3am, but every night, that damn thing would be waking me up. It was a few weeks before I asked someone about the bird, and was informed that it was, in fact, NOT a bird, but a lizard. The 3am began to make a bit more sense.

I swear he was bigger in real life.

To-Kays can reach lengths of 8″ or more, and from what I’m told, are quite valuable if you find one big enough. I’ve also been told that they will bite if provoked. I had one invite himself into the vent window in my shower last year. Startled me a bit.

I’ve also been startled (at first) by large, muddy water buffalo standing across the street from me as I got ready to leave for work. Now they seem commonplace.

Howdy, neighbor!

A local farmer will lead them into the neighborhood to graze on empty lots. Sometimes he’ll tie them up alongside the street, and I’ve almost run into them on my motorcycle at night, because those suckers are nearly impossible to see in the dark. Almost always visible, though, are the large piles of bovine shit they leave behind in the middle of the road.

During rainy season, I’ll regularly see large bullfrogs peeking out of the watery rice fields, and smaller frogs leaping great heights and distances trying to make it across the road. It’s always a pity when they jump right in front of a passing vehicle.  Last year, I actually saw a fish “swimming” on the street surface trying desperately to make it to the ditch where there was water.

My students know the words “rabbit” and “squirrel”, but I have yet to see a (wild) rabbit or a proper squirrel here. (But then, my kids also know the word “snowman”.) Mainly the rodents I see here are rats. Rats are everywhere. In the cities, I’ve witnessed black, plastic garbage bags moving as if possessed by demons. But it’s always a rat or three scurrying around inside. Cockroaches are ubiquitous as well. If you’re a squeamish person, it’s probably best not to walk around at night.

NOPE!!!

Some of the spiders here are frightening as hell. One species, the huntsman spider, can grow to the size of your hand. I’ve been told that they are harmless to humans, but I believe that is bullshit. I’ve had to kill a few of them in my room, and even though they were much smaller than the advertised “large” size, they still nearly gave me a heart attack.

During my school break back in October, I visited southern Thailand for a couple of weeks. One of the places I visited was Hua Hin, about two hours south of Bangkok, on the western shore of the Gulf of Thailand. While there, I decided to hike up to a popular viewpoint overlooking the city and the water. As soon as I got out of the main commercial/residential area of the town, I was startled to see troops (also called missions, tribes, or cartloads?)  of monkeys sitting along a long concrete wall.

Monkeys in Hua Hin

This was my first experience ever seeing monkeys in the wild. Most of them were about the size of a small dog or a large house cat, though a few of the males were noticeably bigger. Not knowing their nature, I was a bit wary, having heard stories of monkeys throwing their shit at people. Fortunately, that didn’t happen. They are, however, perverts. I witnessed some behavior that would be better suited to a hard-core porn website. Later, after I had finished taking pictures from the various viewpoints, I saw a large male sitting on the steps that I needed to take to get back to the entrance. I didn’t know what he wanted, and I had no desire to tangle with him. So I simply waited, and made sure that my phone was securely in my hand, since monkeys are notorious thieves.

After the mugging

And sure enough, larceny was on his mind. After about thirty seconds of me watching him, he turned his back to me and loped up towards a small group of Chinese tourists who were on their way to the photo op spots. One of the ladies was clutching an iced-coffee she had just purchased at the stand near the entrance. Two seconds later, she was clutching only the plastic holder, as the klepto-monkey had jumped up and snatched away the cup of icy espresso. Guess everyone needs their caffeine fix.

I haven’t had any experience yet with the larger wildlife, namely elephants. My friend from Chicago is visiting later this week, and we have booked a visit to a cruelty-free elephant sanctuary where we will get to bathe and play with the majestic creatures. Many people come to Thailand or other Asian countries and pay for the experience of riding the elephants or watching them perform tricks like painting and such. What these people (hopefully) don’t realize is that behind the curtain of fun activity for humans is the horrible treatment of the animals, as they are beaten, chained, and gouged with bullhooks in order to train them to perform. Fortunately, the information is becoming more widespread, and a few elephant camps are changing to cruelty-free, no-riding sanctuaries as the demand for these grows and tourists are voting with their wallets. I’ll be sure to share stories and pictures of our visit later.

I had intended to use this post to talk about the dogs and cats here, but my word count is already past 1,600, and I’ll have lots more to say about that in a separate post.

 

The Drowning Pool

March 19, 2018

Chiang Mai, Thailand

 

When I was a child growing up in the panhandle of Florida, one benefit of being the kid of a medical professional was that my parents could afford to build a swimming pool in our back yard. Twice. Both of the homes we lived in during the years between 1975 and 1987 (when I moved away back to Michigan) had large enough plots for us to have an in-ground, outdoor natatorium, complete with diving board, and in the first instance, a slide.

Example only. Not my childhood swimming pool.

This was a very nice perk, as the tropical heat in Florida is pretty oppressive. My brothers and I were constantly in the water, swimming laps, having diving competitions, and playing Marco Polo with friends whom we would invite over. If we weren’t in our own man-made swimming hole, we were out at the state park swimming in the springs, lakes, or rivers (along with the occasional water moccasin and alligator).

The Blue Hole swimming area at Florida Caverns State Park.

My brothers and I learned how to swim at a very early age. So early, in fact, that I do not remember taking any lessons or my parents teaching us. It seemed as normal as walking or climbing. It never occurred to me that other kids might not have the same experience. As far as I knew, all of my friends were able to swim. None of us were Mark Spitz (yesterday’s Michael Phelps), but at bare minimum we could do a basic doggy paddle and keep our heads above water. It wasn’t until my adulthood that I became aware that there was a large company of people who were unable to swim. Much of this non-amphibious population was made up of minorities who, because of segregation laws and practices of the recent past, never had the opportunity to learn, as they were not allowed to so much as dip their feet into a public swimming pool.

Thailand is also a land of tropical heat. It regularly exceeds 38 degrees Celsius (100F), many times rising into the 40s. That kind of swelter can make life miserable. So I’m lucky enough to have found a nice apartment with air conditioning and a good-size private swimming pool to help escape the heat.

I get to ride the pink unicorn in the pool at my apartment.

There are public pools as well, but I am admittedly a snob when it comes to these, having grown up with pools where we controlled who peed (or rather, hopefully not) in the water.

An informal poll of the kids whom I teach reveals that many of the 7-8 year-olds have not yet mastered the ability to swim. So, it seemed a good thing back in August of last year when workers with jack hammers and backhoes showed up at the school and began breaking up part of the grounds and building forms for pouring concrete to build a pool. Our children would be introduced to proper training for this vital life-skill.

However, as a group of foreign teachers, we were less than gratified to see the construction begin. The reason wasn’t because we are anti-swimming. It’s because the school administration has constantly been claiming how little money they have. “No, sorry, there is no money for the supplies and basic equipment you are requesting.” “An English lab sounds like a wonderful idea, but we just don’t have the money to give you an (already) vacant room to set it up.” “We don’t have money to give you a meaningful raise.” The reason for the swimming pool is nothing but cosmetics. There are larger schools in the area which have cinemas and swimming pools, and our director feels that his school should have the same. It’s not about the education of the kids. It’s about bragging rights. Lipstick on a pig, is what we call it in the West. But, as I have discovered in the past year of living here, much of Thai bureaucracy is more interested in form than substance.

At any rate, we were able to witness the slow progress of the pool construction every day. This pool is above ground, made of concrete, using different construction methods than I am used to seeing. What I did notice, as they were pouring the walls and floor, was that the depth remained the same throughout the entire basin. There is no gradual incline as you would expect to see in a pool of that size. The height of the walls, from bottom floor to the top, where the walkway surface was set, measures about 130cm (50+ inches) by my estimation. Which is taller than many of the students that I teach.  As in over their heads. Yet, construction continued. A steel roof and ventilated enclosure was erected over the pool. The walkway was tiled. Steps leading from the school grounds to the top of the pool surface were built, complete with crooked guardrail. Shower and changing rooms were constructed. A filtration pump was installed, with only one (I counted) circulation port, which was positioned almost right next to the intake. The interior of the pool was painted blue. Yet, no one seemed to notice that there was a problem with the design. During one of our foreign teachers meetings I brought up the matter again in a rather dark way as I suggested that we place bets as to when the first kid would drown.

Sometime in December, the pool was finally filled with water.  The circulation pump ran for a few hours, the jet pushing water out, and the intake sucking it back in almost immediately. The water at the far end of the pool remained still. After a few days, a greenish cast could be seen on the water, which also seemed to contain particulate matter. Chemicals were introduced, and portable auxiliary pump was brought in to help move the water around. During the four-day New Year’s holiday weekend, one of the assistant directors (whom I call Aqualung- we’ll get to that later..) reportedly visited the pool with some guests and had a small private party. Perhaps that’s when the issue was discovered. In early January, I witnessed Aqualung standing up on the pool deck with the school director. They were looking down into the pool and not saying much. I saw the director move his hand in a horizontal fashion, making  imaginary perpendicular lines. I knew immediately what he was conjuring.

The next day, the pool was drained. Workers returned and began drilling holes into the interior walls, near the top. They returned a couple of days later and installed chrome railings around three sides of the basin, leaving the fourth side bare, as that entire wall is for the spill-over filtration intake. So now, the kids who are unable to stand up anywhere in the pool without inhaling water will be able to grasp the rail and make their way around to the single metal ladder which is the solitary means of ingress and egress to the tank. Did I mention that there are no graduated steps to enter/exit? Did I mention that there IS NO SHALLOW END to this fucking pool!!!????

Perhaps you can make out the ladder at the far end. The railing is visible on the left.

A few weeks ago, the regular morning ceremony was extended by 90 minutes for the pool dedication/blessing. The students were sitting on the concrete walkways and driveways, plastic chairs were set up for VIPs in front of mountains of flower arrangements, and a group of orange-clad monks were on hand to perform ritual chants in between grandiose speeches from the big-wigs. I didn’t stick around to witness this. I went home instead, and returned in time to teach my first class at 9:50am.  The pool continues to not be used. It has since been drained and refilled twice. The other day, a new swimming coach was introduced to the gathered students and faculty at morning ceremony. A young woman, fresh out of university. She, among all of the other prospects got the job, not because she was the most qualified, but because every other experienced applicant took one look at the pool and walked away. I’ve been told that the pool is going to be open only on the weekends, and to those who wish to pay for the privilege of using the unique facility. I will have to wait to see if this is true or not. But, as a betting man, I’m wagering that the pool will last less than a year before it is closed again. Hopefully before someone dies.

I can’t wait to see their plans for a cinema.

Whisper to a Scream

March 19, 2018

Chiang Mai, Thailand

 

The school was practically a ghost town when I arrived this morning a little past 8am to punch the time clock. There were only three other motorcycles parked in the small lot behind the cafeteria, where usually there would be dozens. As I walked around the corner to the main building which houses the administration offices, I noticed that all of the doors to the Anuban (Kindergarten) classes were shuttered and locked. Normally at this time there would be myriads of children running around and playing, but there were none to be found. I saw exactly four other people during the time I parked my bike, walked to the time clock, and then returned to the parking lot to leave. Two of them were assistant teachers. whom I recognized. The others, a man and a woman, were unknown to me. They were up on the deck of the drowning pool, looking at the green-tinged water and taking note of something. I returned to my bike in silence, pausing only to watch as two of the school cats were locked in a stare-down with each other. The black one with the short, twisted Thai tail had his back arched as he glowered at the calico miracle momma cat who looked ready to rip his throat out. Over to my right, the white bitch lay in the sun, chewing at her scabby tail again. After about thirty seconds, one of the assistant teachers walked up behind me to her own motorcycle, her presence snapping the spell, and the two cats unlocked from their cold war and moved on. The mangy white bitch continued her self-grooming routine, unbothered.

Today is the first official day of the school break. Classes will not begin for the new term until May 7. But because the Thai government decrees that the schools must be open for 200 days out of the year, my school requires that the teachers continue to clock in every day until the end of March, even though there are no classes. The pointlessness of this demand is just one of the things that I have had to get used to as I deal with the bureaucracy here in my new, adopted home. I gave myself the concession of not wearing my teacher clothes to perform this ritual, instead donning a pair of blue jeans and a polo.

In a way, this may be a good thing for me. It forces me to get out of bed instead of sleeping the morning away. I’ve become quite lazy in the past few months. My last post was from the end of October, five months ago. So I have decided to take the time that I would normally be teaching classes to be productive. I’m outside by the swimming pool listening to The Icicle Works while sitting in a lounge chair with my computer and coffee, shaded by the bamboo umbrellas as the air around me rapidly warms with the still-rising sun. Five small children have just invaded my serenity and are busy splashing in the pool, unsupervised. Well, four of them, anyway. One boy is just sitting on the chair next to me, watching the others having fun in the water. Maybe he can’t swim. I have many stories to tell about my first year of teaching here in northern Thailand. It’s about time that I started writing them. Hopefully without getting water splashed on me.

 

There goes my goddamn peace and quiet

 

 

 

 

Raging Bull

 

October 31, 2017

Chiang Mai, Thailand

 

I have never been a violent person. At least not as a rule. Sure, when I was a kid, I used to get into angry fights with my brothers, and some punches and kicks were thrown, but mainly I was in defensive mode, waiting for them to foolishly try a karate-style kick to my face. That’s when I’d grab the swinging foot and dump the kicker unceremoniously on his ass. I didn’t follow up by punching them when they were down. There was the time when I was four (and I really don’t have a recollection of this story) that I evidently got so pissed at my babysitter that I threw a “D”-cell battery at her and knocked out a tooth.

Otherwise, I was afraid to get into fights. My parents strongly encouraged us to “turn the other cheek” and walk away when threatened or bullied by others. My fear was not so much of getting beat up as it was of getting in trouble at school and then subsequently at home. The two times that I recall fighting back ended with the other party complaining about a busted jaw or broken nose. Either way, blood was spilled with my single punch to the face. I was horrified by it. In my dreams, when I get into a physical altercation, my instinct is to fight to the death. In my dream-state, I am filled with so much rage and fear that I continue to pummel the other person until they are pretty much raw meat. I wake up in a sweat, with my heart pounding. Fighting is not something that I enjoy.

Violence in movies does not necessarily turn me off. I am not in love with it, but I’d prefer to see realistic portrayals of what happens when someone is shot, punched, hit by a train, etc., as long as it fits the storyline and is not gratuitous. But I have never enjoyed watching boxing matches, or the currently popular UFC-style fighting. The ancient Romans were entertained by such blood sport, and I had mistakenly thought that we had evolved past that. The sight of two men (or women) beating the shit out of each other for others’ amusement is not my choice of entertainment.

So, you would think that the sight of the Muay Thai ring commanding the center of the Reggae Bar in Koh Phi Phi, Thailand would hold zero interest for me. But the opposite was true. I was drawn to it. There was a large sign inside the bar stating that anyone volunteering to fight another patron for three, one-minute bouts would receive a free bucket of whiskey and mixer after the fight. The whiskey didn’t tempt me. But the thought of testing my fighting ability against another man somehow did. I can’t explain it. I wanted to get in that ring. I watched other contestants sparring, and it looked to me that they weren’t really taking it too seriously, just having a bit of fun clowning around. Even the Thais who got in to fight without the protective gloves and pads were hamming it up for the crowd of drinkers. I decided that I was going to sign up for this before I left the island.

The fighting ring at Reggae Bar on Koh Phi Phi

The next day, I got up early and went on a planned scuba diving adventure. It was a lovely day and the dives went beautifully. Unfortunately, I got seasick (for the first time in my life) both times I returned to the boat, and ended up feeding the fish for a while. I rested for the better part of the late afternoon, even taking a nap that evening until about 9:30. Then I got up and headed over to the Reggae Bar to fulfill my promise to myself. I told one of the staff that I was interested in getting in the ring. So they had me crawl between the ropes and stand there while they asked who wanted to challenge me. A guy from Argentina, Luciano, about half my age and in good shape, stood up and volunteered. Great.

Luciano and me, before the bout

They gave us both a pair of boxing shorts (smelly, sweaty from other use), his red, mine blue. We stood around waiting for a bit for the other bouts to finish. As I drank the single beer that I had ordered, I chatted with him and we both reassured each other that we were only into it for the fun, that we weren’t REALLY going to be fighting hard. At least that was my impression. I had time to ask another patron to take pictures with my phone, and then it was time.

The referee explained the rules to us. No elbows, no knees. We could hit with our thick, boxing gloves and kick with our padded shins and feet. No hitting from behind, no kicks to the groin. That settled, we touched gloves, and the bell rang. The agreement that I had come to with Luciano didn’t seem to be understood exactly the same by both sides. He came at me and landed a heavy right cross to the left side of my face. My head snapped back a bit to the right, and my thought was, “what the hell??” He got one more good punch in before I realized that HIS idea of fun was different than mine.

 I got my gloves up and blocked his next few attempts. I saw that he was leaving his face exposed, and I took advantage of the opportunity to poke him right in the nose with a left jab. I was still pulling my punches however, because I somehow still believed that we were supposed to be fooling around. And that’s when he started kicking. His right leg shot out and around and connected with the side of my left thigh. It hurt like hell. This dude obviously had gone through a bit of training for this. Unfortunately for me, I kept letting him do it. Had I used my head a bit, I would have pivoted the other way, not exposing that side to his devastating kicks. But my (stupid) reaction was to drop my gloves and ask him, “didn’t we agree…?”… and immediately put them back up to block an oncoming blow.

Mercifully, the bell rang, and we both retired to our corners. I took a small sip of water supplied by one of the attendants, and tried to stand straight with my left leg on fire. I looked around the crowd, and everyone seemed to be having a great time. I told myself that I could make it through another minute, then rest again. The bell rang again, and we were back at it. I ducked quite a few punches, and got in a couple of good ones myself. At one point, Luciano reeled backward and stumbled, but didn’t fall. I should have pressed my attack, but didn’t. He got in two more crushing kicks, then came at me. I ducked under a roundhouse right, popped him once. He then connected while I was heading away, and the punch took me off balance. I was headed to the mat. I got up right away, and looked for my opponent, but the ref was quickly in my face and removing my headgear. I asked him what was going on, and he said, “Stop fight. Over.”

“What? Why”, I bellowed. I was ok. My leg hurt like hell, but I wasn’t dazed. There wasn’t a count while I was down, it was less than a second.

“Safety”, came the reply. I was about to argue the point, and then I realized that my leg was done for. I couldn’t keep taking that punishment.

Both winners?

“Fine,” I acquiesced. I let them remove my gloves and footpads, then went over to the Argentinian and gave him a sweaty, congratulatory hug. The ref took us both by the hand, and raised Luciano’s high in the air. The crowd cheered, we both got medals and buckets of liquor. I limped over and removed the fighting shorts and put back on my own clothing. There were high fives and hugs and mentions of “great fight”, “that was awesome”, and “you’re brave” for both the winner and the loser.

My reward
My real reward

Yeah, so I didn’t win. But I didn’t feel like a loser, either. It was a cool experience, and probably something I would try again. But next time….fuck Mr. Nice Guy.

8-Ball

September 5, 2017

Chiang Mai, Thailand

 

I stared at the small mirror on which the little glassine bag and his casino rewards card rested. “Come on”, he said. “You know what to do.” And I suppose I did know what to do, but I was definitely not ready for this.

It was mid-September, 2016, and I was hosting a guy from Texas. Gaco had requested a stay on short notice as he was coming to Chicago. I was still recovering from a trip to New England for Labor Day weekend, had just finished hosting some people and events during the Chicago Couch Crash*, and also just got a new roommate.  I could have easily said “no”, because of everything else going on, but something about Gaco’s profile information and his nice request told me that it would be worth hosting him. I made arrangements to pick him up at a train station outside of the downtown area, and afterwards we met up with some new Filipina friends at the grand opening of a huge Filipino superstore that everyone had been going on about. The ladies had ordered food from inside, and we all sat out on the sidewalk eating interesting dishes and having a really fun conversation. Gaco didn’t know anybody there, and I only knew one of them briefly, but he made himself at home with the group.

The Filipinas were all tired from fighting the crowds at the store, and so they decided that they were going to check out early and go home instead of staying out to go dancing or karaoke. So Gaco and I headed back toward my place on the south side of Chicago. Before we got all the way to my home, however, I decided that we really owed it to ourselves to have a couple more beers. Reggie’s Music Joint and Rock Club on the corner of State and E. 21st had always been one of my favorite places to hang out and bring my couchsurfing guests. It was within walking distance to my apartment, which was convenient if heavy drinking was planned. Reggie’s boasted a very cool downstairs bar with live music, another soundstage for ticketed events, an amazing record store on the second level, and one of the coolest rooftop bars in the city. This place catered to everyone’s taste. Some nights there would be folks all dressed up in leather and chains for a heavy metal concert, other times it was hip/hop. The music joint bar bands ranged from country to 80’s, jazz to current pop. Everyone felt welcome at Reggie’s. It was probably the most integrated bar I ever saw in Chicago.

It can be difficult to find parking near Reggie’s on a summer weekend. I felt lucky to grab a spot on 21st across from the Chase Bank branch. It was just after 10pm, so I didn’t have to pay the meter, which was nice. After showing our ID’s at the door, we walked up to the rooftop bar and ordered a couple of beers. It was pretty crowded, and seating was scarce. I noticed a couple of vacant spots at one of the octagonal picnic-style tables that was otherwise occupied by a group of women and one guy. I sauntered over and asked if we might grab a seat, and they graciously welcomed us to join them. They turned out to be a group from a couple of local radio stations, including a couple of on-air dj’s who had been at the RiotFest concerts earlier in the day. Some of them were more drunk than the others, including the guy dj, who was making a total ass of himself. I trolled him for a bit until it got boring. Gaco headed back to the bar counter to get us a couple more beers, and I saw him over there talking to some old guy sitting on the barstool.

Since the radio personalities were pretty much finished with their night, they got up to go, leaving me there by myself. Gaco was still engaged in conversation with the dude, so I wandered over. This guy was tanked. His name was Jeff, and he was spouting some weird shit over and over, and the only reason it was funny to me was because he looked like what Jason Statham will be when he gets old and goes to pot. There was a girl sitting on the barstool next to us, and she was laughing at Jeff’s stupidity. As long as we were drinking, I didn’t care. It was a good time. The young lady’s name was Char – short for Charlene, and at some point she started to tell me about some personal stuff that was bothering her. I could see that she just needed to talk, so I guided her over to one of the covered picnic tables, as it had begun to sprinkle rain. She vented for a bit while Jeff continued to hold court at the bar. A few minutes later, Gaco walked over to us, looked at me and asked, “Do you want to go hang out on a boat?”

Now, you would think that someone with a bit of maturity and savvy would maybe ask a couple of questions at this point. Like perhaps, “Whose boat?”, or “Isn’t it a bit late (midnight) to be going out on a boat?”

The mature and savvy me had taken the night off, evidently, so my immediate response was more like, “HELL YEAH!”

It turned out to be old, fat, loud Jason Statham’s boat. I looked at Char and asked her if she was willing to join us. She hesitated a bit, perhaps due to maturity and savvy, and said that she lived in Humboldt Park, and would need to make sure she got home safely. Gallant that I am, I told her that I would keep her safe and promised to make sure she made it back.  So we were four.

Gaco, Char, Me, and Jeff at Reggie’s. (Come on..he kind of looks like a grumpy, old Jason Statham, right?)

The first order of business was to make sure that we continued to be well-lubricated. Reggie’s didn’t do carry-out beer, so we jumped into a cab that Jeff had hailed without our knowing, and headed off. Up State Street and around a corner was an establishment that would cater to our needs. I was volunteered to go in and pick up the beer. As I was waiting for the guy at the register to acknowledge my presence, I saw and smelled the food being prepared, and I just had to order some deep-fried onions, which made the rest of the cab ride to the marina very smelly. Jeff alluded to having party favors, which I understood to mean that he was in possession of some weed.

Jeff’s boat turned out to be a 45-foot sailcraft instead of the powerboat that I had imagined. The moon was very close to full, and because the sailboat was taking up the slip at the far end of the pier, we got to see an unobstructed view of the beautiful reflection on the calm waters of Lake Michigan. It was a soundless night, unsullied until all four of us decided that we needed to take a piss. The boat didn’t have a proper head, just a bucket, so the three boys stood at the end of the stern and whizzed into the lake, while Char squatted down on the edge of the pier next to the bow. Not a creature was stirring in any of the surrounding watercraft.

Down in the cabin, it was a bit cramped quarters. There wasn’t a lot of headroom, but as we sat down on the sleeping berths, it didn’t really seem to matter. The beer continued to flow, Jeff continued to be loud and boisterous, and Gaco continued to laugh at his antics. Old, fat Statham decided that I reminded him of Jeff Lynne from Electric Light Orchestra, and kept badgering me to sing, except he was asking for songs by other bands instead. I did my best to make him happy, but he’d usually interrupt me before I even got to the chorus lines.

About the time that I started wondering how my night ended up like this, Jeff half-stood up and said that it was time to get the party started. I was confused. Weren’t we already…? He reached into his pocket and pulled out a small envelope, then began bellowing for his mirror. I had no idea what he was talking about, until he grabbed a very small mirror – about four inches square -, plopped a little baggie and what looked like a credit card on top of the looking glass, and shoved it at me. “Here,” he brayed, “you cut it.” I just sat there and stared. “Come on,” he said. “You know what to do.”

Yeah, I’ve seen enough movies and television that I knew what was supposed to be done. But as most of you are already aware, I grew up rather sheltered. I didn’t have close friends in my childhood who used drugs of any kind. If asked, I couldn’t have told you which of my classmates sold or even used marijuana. I heard the terms “dime bag” and “roach” bandied about when I was in high school, but didn’t have a clue what they really were. That sheltered life continued into adulthood, as my family’s religion kept us separated from most other people on a social level. So I never was exposed to drugs or paraphernalia. I was 40 years old before I was even approached on the street with an offer to buy weed. It was only earlier in the summer of 2016 that I actually tried marijuana for the first time (I found that smoking it has little and less effect on me…edibles are a completely different story).

I continued to stare at the mirror, plastic card, and bag of cocaine for another couple of seconds, then just said, “I’d rather not.” Flabby, elderly Transporter-with-a-beard had this incredulous look on his face until all of a sudden, Gaco piped up. “I’ll do it!” he said. I watched as the mirror was passed to my right, and my couchsurfing guest began to empty the white powder onto the glass. He held the mirror with his left hand as he began to use the credit card (which turned out to be a rewards card from Horseshoe Casino in nearby Hammond, Indiana) to divide the pile of coke into four caterpillar-shaped lines  I didn’t even have to do the math. Four people, four servings.  Oh, shit.

“Uh, yeah,” I said. “None for me tonight.” Gaco looked up at me in a mixture of balefulness and amusement. Now he had to start over. Which was probably not a bad idea, because his squiggly lines didn’t look like the expertly cut ones I’d seen Denzel snort up in “Flight.” Old man Statham shook his head. Char didn’t say a word. She just stared greedily at the little piles of powder. ‘Who ARE these people?’ I wondered, ‘and how did I end up on some strange guy’s sailboat at 1am watching a scene from “Blow”?’

As Gaco finished putting the final touches on the three more generous lines of nose candy, Jeff pulled out a for-real $100 bill, just like in the movies. He rolled it up tight, grabbed the mirror, and snorted up the first little seam of chalky-looking powder. He handed it over to Char, who with no hesitation, sucked the second line up into her right nostril. She wiped her nose with one hand, and gave the mirror to Gaco with the other. I watched in detached fascination as this guy I agreed to let sleep in my home hunched himself over the mirror, with the cylindrical Benjamin Franklin shoved up his sniffer. Holding the reflecting glass in his right hand, he guided the money straw with his left over the last line of cocaine as it disappeared.

Now what? It occurred to me that Jeff had probably been a combination of drunk and high the entire evening. But what effect was the narcotic going to have on Char and Gaco? I had promised the Texan that he could sleep on my couch for a couple of nights while he was in town. I had also guaranteed Char that I would make sure she got home safely. Was I the only responsible party here?

The party continued, with more clinking of beer cans, and Jeff’s boisterous antics, with Gaco egging him on. Char got a little more quiet. She had been asking if the group could go back up topside for some air. The sailboat captain had no intention of leaving his cabin, so I gently guided the girl up the steps to the stern deck. The stars were brilliant in the sky, and the lake serene. We sat there as she talked about her family and the business she worked for. She wanted to join a walk for suicide prevention, as it had struck close to home in the past. I wanted to know how she was so expert at snorting coke. She gave me a wan smile and said that she had been doing drugs since she was 13. I didn’t know what to say to that. She continued about some of the problems that she had experienced and I began to see a woman who was fighting a lot of demons. She moved closer to me, then eventually into my lap. There was a spider on the stern rail, right next to where her finger rested. I pointed it out, lest she be startled by it. Rather than pull her hand away, she pushed it closer to the spider, and allowed it to walk up her finger. I told her that I could never do that, as I suffer from arachnophobia, and she told me also feared spiders. The only reason she felt like she could do it was because she was high from the coke, and felt a bit euphoric. Meanwhile, Gaco and Jeff’s conversation had muted, and we discovered that they had passed out and gone to sleep. Jeff had crawled up into the forward compartment, and Gaco was on one of the sleeping berths on the starboard side aft.

Char and I talked and sat for a while longer, then dawn began to break. I knew that I should get some sleep, and she said that she was exhausted as well. We made our way down into the cabin, and took up sleeping positions on opposite sides of the sailboat. I set my alarm for 7, because I remembered that I had left my car in a paid parking zone that would start up at 8am. Chicago is notorious for handing out expensive parking tickets, and I had no desire to get hit with another. I was able to get a good hour of rest before my phone began to chime. I woke Gaco up and told him we had to go. I gently shook Char until she opened her eyes. I reminded her of my promise to get her home, but she just looked at me and said that she was going to stay. I asked if she was sure. None of us really knew anything about Jeff except what he had told us about having been a stockbroker whose wife had divorced him and blamed him for the death of their daughter. He had bought the boat with what remained of his share of the sale of their house during the divorce. Char nodded and said she’d be fine. Well, she was an adult, so I told her goodbye and left with Gaco in tow.

He and I walked back towards Grant Park in the downtown area so it would be easier to catch a cab back to Reggie’s and my car. He was in good spirits, and we were both hungry. I told him there was a very good soul food restaurant in my neighborhood, and we decided breakfast would be an excellent idea. As we drove down Martin Luther King Jr. Drive towards Peach’s cafe, I admitted to him that I had never been in the presence of people using cocaine before.  He said it was his first time too. I looked at him in disbelief. “Dude!” I said. “You snorted down that line like you were a pro!”

“No, I actually didn’t,” he replied.

“But I saw you! You moved the rolled-up bill over the coke and it was gone!”

“That’s what you saw,” Gaco said as he smiled. “I actually tilted the mirror a bit and pushed the cocaine onto the floor of the cabin as I went over it. It was dark in the cabin, and nobody noticed.”

“If you didn’t want to do the coke, why didn’t you just say so? I did.”

“Well, Jeff seemed so intent on sharing with us, and I didn’t want to be a dick and disappoint him,” he said with a wink.

As I thought about the expensive little pile of powder hitting the grubby floor of Jeff’s sailboat, and how crazy the night had been, I started laughing out loud. Gaco joined in, and we were soon both in tears.  I parked the car on 47th and King Drive. “Let’s go get some shrimp and grits!”

 

*Couch Crash:  Within the global couchsurfing community, there are members who set up special events in their respective cities and towns. Usually occurring over a weekend, these events are open by invitation to couchsurfing members across the globe. It’s a nice way to showcase your city and bring a bunch of cool people from around the world together for some food, drink, activities, and fellowship.

 

 

Don’t Move

September 4, 2017

Chiang Mai, Thailand

 

Sitting completely still is not as much of a difficulty as I had imagined. If you told my mother that I said that, she would not believe a word. According to her, I was a very fidgety child, and neither of my brothers or I could be counted on to stay in place for more than a few seconds. “Rambunctious” was the term she applied to us, which was a nicer way of saying “unruly” or “very naughty”. At any rate, sitting quietly was apparently beyond my abilities when I was a child.

In my quest to experience life to the fullest, I look for new challenges wherever they appear. Obviously, some of them are more scary than others, and I’m not always ready to accept them. My fears of heights, spiders, and looking stupid continue to confront me at times. I have overcome them somewhat, however. I have stood in the glass boxes hanging out over the sidewalk along Wacker Drive from the 103rd floor of the Willis (Sears) Tower in Chicago. It only took me three attempts on different visits to the observation deck to actually make that step. I allow some small spiders to inhabit my shower here in Thailand. I made an agreement with them that if they stay put, don’t invade my space or start crawling around while I bathe, I’ll let them have their homes and their lives. The large Huntsman spiders have not signed an agreement, however, and they continue to die as soon as I see them. As far as my self-consciousness goes, I no longer have to be drunk to get up and sing karaoke. I will dance in public. I’m hoping to get an opportunity for open mic night or some improv classes.

As I’ve said before, when presented an opportunity to try something new, I will say “yes” unless there is a good reason to say “no”. (Morbid fear still is a good reason sometimes.) Last week, there was an invitation on a local Facebook page looking for a nude model for a drawing/painting class here in the area. More specifically, they were looking for a “fat, nude model”. I was a little torn. I have always been on the heavy side for my entire adult life. And I’ve always been self-conscious about that fact. I seldom like my photographs, as they remind me that I’m not the muscular, trim, Fabio as I imagine myself. But I was intrigued by the challenge of being completely vulnerable in front of a group of strangers, so I didn’t allow myself to ponder over the “fat” part of the request, and I made the decision to reply to the message right away. Within a few hours I received a message from the woman who ran the studio. She told me that they were excited to be able to work with a live model (apparently, it’s a bit difficult to find people here who are willing to pose sans clothing), and that she would call me on Thursday to confirm. They were looking for someone who was heavy – at least 80kg (I’m a bit over 100kg) – and could spend the day Saturday sitting in one position for periods of time while the artists sketched, or used watercolors and oil paint to render a copy of a less-than-perfect figure.

I spent the next two days wondering if she was going to call me and tell me that I was chosen, or was going to let me off the hook. Part of me was kind of hoping for the latter, but honestly, I really wanted to have the experience. I visited the studio’s Facebook page, where they were inviting artists to join them for the event with the “fat, nude model”. The photographs of the paintings they used to advertise this made me wonder if I was actually what they were looking for. The models in these paintings were morbidly obese. I now found myself wondering if they would be disappointed in me.  Maybe they would feel cheated that I wasn’t as big as they had hoped for.  I had to laugh at the irony of worrying about being fat enough for the artists. On Thursday, I got the call from Pui, the woman who ran the studio. She told me that she would pick me up at 8:30 near the North Gate in Chiang Mai, and take me to the studio 20km away from the city. I would be paid a minimum of 700baht (a little over $20US), provided with lunch and snacks, and given stretch breaks throughout the day. The modeling would begin about 10am, and finish at 4:30, after which I would be taken back to the city.

Saturday morning came early as I was out late the previous night. I got up and showered, dressed, and packed my bag. As I rode into town, I began to wonder why exactly I had agreed to do this. I pushed the negative thoughts out of my mind and just focused on money (which made me wonder if that’s what prostitutes do) and the fact that I would hopefully have a cool story to write. After eating a quick breakfast of khao man gai (chicken with rice), I walked to the meeting spot at the North Gate. Pui was there waiting for me, along with another woman who was one of the artists. She then said that the rest of the group was joining us, and sure enough, four more people walked up. Pui was driving her pickup truck, which meant that we had four in the cab, and three others reclining in the bed with the art supplies and groceries. As I greeted each one in turn, I tried to not think about the fact that these people were paying to have me strip off my clothes and let them render my figure to paper/canvas. It was a little bit weird for me. But everyone was nice, and they didn’t seem to treat me as the object that I felt like.

There were two guys in the group. Lorenzo, from Italy, was a tall, thin, young man with long hair and a beard. Gio, shorter and stockier, was very dark-skinned, and I thought he might have been from India, but his accent said different, and he told me that he was Australian (although his heritage is Indian). One young woman from the UK had brought along her mother. Mia, and her mom (whose name escapes me) are both involved in NGO work to help developing countries. Hannah, the remaining girl grew up in Chiang Mai. She said that she was half native, which explained her fluent Thai speech. It was an amiable group, and I found myself relaxed in their presence, pushing to the back of my mind the reason why I was there with them. As we drove further away from the city, and into the wilderness, I realized that there was no turning back at this point. I was committed.

Pui’s place was a family farm, with groves of mango, papaya, and banana trees growing on the foothills of the mountain.  Pretty remote, and very beautiful. As we were driving up the rutted little dirt lane, I started thinking that this would be a good place to hide bodies. She and her parents had a homestay (guesthouse) on the premises and she had also built an open-air art studio out of mud and timbers, all by herself. After some light refreshments, we trekked out over a couple of hills to the studio.

Ten o’clock came, and the group had their easels all set up and their pencils/brushes/palettes all arranged. Hannah was on the couch (cut out of an old bathtub) where I would be sitting, trying out different poses that would suit the artists and be comfortable for me. I settled on one that looked like I could easily maintain for a length of time, and then it was the big moment. I took a deep breath and walked around the corner to undress. Thankfully, Pui had provided me a towel in which to wrap myself while I was naked, but not yet posing. Ready-or-not, here I come. I stepped out into the main room, dropped my towel, and sat down in the pose.  Six people were looking at me intently, sizing me up, checking from different angles. Lorenzo asked if I would take off my glasses, which actually helped, because with my near-sightedness, I couldn’t really see their eyes. I picked a spot on the wall across from the couch on which to focus my attention. Hannah set a timer for 20 minutes, and then the work began.

As I sat there without a stitch on in front of these people, I began to take stock of my life thus far.  I watched the blurry shapes in my peripheral vision move slightly – looking at me, looking at the easel, back to me, back to the easel-, heard the strokes of the pencils against paper, brushes on canvas, and I thought of all of the other crazy things I’ve done in my 49 years. When I was four, I ran ahead of my father on the pier, began climbing the lighthouse structure, and promptly lost my grip and fell onto the rocks, garnering a nice concussion (and probably my acrophobia) in the process. As teenagers, my friends and I used to regularly take inner tubes down the Chipola River in Florida, floating past snakes and alligators sunning themselves on the riverbanks. I’ve given speeches and presentations in front of crowds of hundreds or thousands. I quit my steady job with a good income and sold everything to move across the world to a place unfamiliar to me in both customs and language. Right before I made that plunge, I visited BDSM dungeons, went to a party as an enslaved man, rode through the streets of Chicago naked with a bunch of other bare-assed people. I tried illicit substances for the first time in my life. I often buy airline tickets on a whim to destinations without having any plans. But posing in the nude was one of the nuttiest things I ever did. I tried to imagine what my former coworkers would think if they knew.

The chime on Hannah’s phone caught me by surprise.  Twenty minutes had gone by very quickly, and she asked if I needed a break. I told the group that I was good for another five minutes if they wanted. My ankle had started to ache from the position, but it wasn’t so bad that I couldn’t tough it out for a bit longer. After the five minutes was up, I sat motionless while Hannah used strips of masking tape to mark the positions of my feet, body, and arm. I then grabbed a small piece of tape and placed it on my focus spot on the wall. I wrapped myself in the towel to walk around, as I felt it uncomfortable to be standing around talking while I was exposed. It was at this point, when I glanced at the sketches and rough outlines that the artists were doing, that I realized my mistake in choosing the pose in which I ended up. The pictures of me -relaxed on the couch, one foot in front of the other, one arm draped over the back, the other resting on my belly/leg with my hand over my thigh- looked like a pervert Netflix-and-chilling all by his lonesome. I couldn’t help but think, “Oh my God! That guy is sitting there pleasuring himself, and he’s ME!” Way too late to change the pose now.  (Fortunately, Hannah didn’t really like it either, so she took a creative liberty and moved my hand to my side instead of in my crotch area.) After about a five-minute break, I went back and sat down, posing for another 25 minutes.

We stopped for lunch at noon, and took a 90-minute break. Pui made some delicious pad thai, and I enjoyed a couple of helpings. I had put my clothes back on for this, of course, because eating naked is just too weird. After we returned to the studio, Mia began to play some 70’s music from her Spotify account. At first, it was amusing, because trying to be completely motionless while you are listening to “Stayin’ Alive”, “Play That Funky Music”, or anything by James Brown, is almost impossible. There was also an uncomfortable minute or two when some French musical duet came on. I couldn’t understand the words, but I definitely knew that the guy was trying to seduce the girl – and winning at it, too -because the moaning, heavy breathing, and grunting that was going on as well as the singing made it perfectly clear what was happening. I never stared at a point on a wall with more earnest focus in my life. I can’t help but wonder if she didn’t play that on purpose. Bitch. (Kidding!) But as much as I enjoyed the other tunes, they were problematic for me, because they gave me a sense of time. Now, sitting for 20 minutes was four songs, or maybe five. Or perhaps a sixth would begin, because we started in the middle of another. And because my back and my butt were really beginning to feel the strain of sitting (it wasn’t a cushy recliner, after all), I started to count songs and the time became my focus. Fortunately, Mia finished up her painting early, and decided she was too hot sitting in the studio. She packed up her materials and took her Blue-tooth speaker with her to the main house.

When 4:30 came, I was more than ready to quit. I put my shorts and t-shirt back on, grabbed the blanket and cushions, and headed back to the house with the remaining artists. We all enjoyed some more food and drinks. They had already asked me if this was my first time posing as a model. Lorenzo mentioned that many models have a very difficult time being completely still, and they were very impressed that I sat like a statue.  Pui asked if I would be interested in sitting for other studios in the future, because of the shortage of people willing to pose in the nude.  She also handed me an envelope containing 1,000baht, which was considerably more than I was promised. Additionally, they gave me one of the drawings. A very nice gesture, but I promise you, it’s not going up on my wall.

 

Would I pose in the nude again for the sake of art? I thought about it while I was sitting there, and the conclusion I came to was probably not. Being stationary in the same pose for that long got to be tiring. I wasn’t doing it because I needed the money. I wasn’t doing it because I knew that the artists needed me. The main reason I did it was because it was a new experience. Something that wasn’t necessarily on my bucket list, but came up and I was able to add it and cross it off. It was an interesting thing to do, and challenged my sensibilities. And it also provided me with something to write about.

Tied Up

July 24, 2017

Chiang Mai, Thailand

Sitting there on the base of the throne chair, holding her clothing and jewelry, I felt self-conscious. I didn’t know exactly what my role was. The large room was dimly lit, and there were perhaps a dozen others there to witness what was taking place.  About ten feet in front of me, she spun, suspended from the ring in the ceiling and completely trussed up with rope. She cried out in a mixture of pleasure and pain every time he smacked her, hit her with the end of another braided strand, or viciously twisted one of her exposed nipples. Her eyes remained closed, except occasionally when – and I don’t know how she knew- she was facing me… she would open them and look right at me to see if I was still watching.

I had met Dana just that day, when I cut short a holiday weekend trip to Milwaukee. She had sent me a request to stay at my place through Couchsurfing, but because of my planned travel, I was not going to be in town when she wanted to come. I asked one of my friends if he was available, and he agreed to host her. I returned to Chicago the day after she arrived, and I joined her and Ted for an afternoon walking around the city. I found Dana to be outgoing and fun to be around.  We walked along the lake shore and shared stories of travel experiences. I don’t remember why it came up, but I told a story of the time I had been blindfolded, bound, and handcuffed in a woman’s apartment while on vacation to another city. It had been a truly amazing and beautiful experience, as I found myself completely helpless and under the woman’s control. As erotic as the situation was, it did not culminate in sex. I left the encounter with a new found interest in BDSM, but had never attempted to pursue it further.

We also talked about why Dana was traveling with so much luggage. I couldn’t understand why a woman needed that many bags. She said she had to bring many pairs of shoes, because sometimes she wanted to dress up, sometimes to dance, and other reasons. I remember rolling my eyes at that. Such a diva, this one.  Perhaps that was why Ted had privately asked me if I could take over hosting responsibilities when I got back. I agreed, and we eventually made our way back to his condo to collect her bags. It was at this point that Dana told us that she had made a reservation to go try something…different, and wanted to know if we would be interested. She had found a kink dungeon in Chicago online and wanted to check it out. I glanced over at Ted, who looked more than a little doubtful about it. But I have developed a habit of saying yes to new opportunities when there is not a good reason for me to say no.  So I turned to Dana and said, “Absolutely!”

Dana informed me that we would have to use fake names, because she heard that nobody at these places uses their real ones. So she had decided to go as “Akiko”. I played along and said I would introduce myself as “Bill”, and then we could go as a married couple who were very curious about learning the ins and outs of BDSM. Dana laughed at this and we had a good time fabricating our story. Ted just rolled his eyes and shook his head. Then the three of us went to dinner.

After dropping Ted back off at his place, Dana turned to me in the car and said, “I need to be honest with you. This is not my first time going to one of these things.”

“I thought it might not be,” I replied. “It’s okay. I don’t mind going with someone who knows what’s going on.”

“No,” she insisted. “You need to understand. I do this often. Professionally.”

I raised my eyebrows. “You’re telling me that you are a..”

“Yes,” she interjected. “I’m an expert dominatrix. That’s what I’m doing here in Chicago. I’ve been in hotels for the past two weeks. I’m staying with you because I wanted a break to visit the city without seeing clients.”

I still had not pulled the car from the curb at this point. I just looked at her. And then it dawned on me. “That’s not shoes in your luggage, is it?”

“No,” she giggled a little. “Those are filled with my tools and costumes. I didn’t know how to tell you earlier, because I didn’t know how you would take it. I only invited you tonight because I thought you would be okay with it after hearing your story about the woman who handcuffed you and how you liked that experience.”

“Then lucky for me that I told you about it,” I replied. “Because I’m really curious now.”

And then I drove us to an unmarked location on the north side of Chicago, where we parked and got out. Dana, now Akiko, told me on the way that she was going to this party to meet a guy who was an expert in kinbaku, Japanese rope bondage. She wanted to be tied up.  Oooookaaayy, then.

In the dark, we walked up to a nondescript building where a few people were standing around outside.  “Hi,” an older man greeted us. “My name is Bill.”

Well, there went MY name for the evening. Thinking quickly, I introduced myself as Rob. Akiko said hello, then walked straight up to a guy who looked like one of the bad guys from a Mad Max movie. He was well over six feet tall, wore leather everything, including fingerless gloves, and sported a bright blue mohawk on his otherwise shaved head. This dude looked fucking scary. And to put the cherry on top, his nom de guerre was “Death Rattle”. Fuck. Me.

However intimidating Death Rattle looked, he was actually a very personable guy. He was the kinbaku master that Akiko was there to meet. “Bill” bid us all go inside, where he said there was plenty of food and drink. And he wasn’t lying. Spread around the basement of this warehouse-type building was a buffet of roast meat, vegetable dishes, and desserts. There were coolers full of beer and liquor at the bar. There were a couple of couches to sit on, and a few chairs. Beyond that, the room really did fit the description of a dungeon. Wood walls instead of stone, perhaps, and no actual burning torches, but the lack of illumination gave the place an ominous atmosphere. There were interesting and curious-looking contraptions placed around. Akiko walked with me around the room pointing out the furnishings and instruments, while instructing me as to their use. Some of the items were obvious, such as the cross in the corner with the eyelets for securing the participants with rope or chain. The ring in the middle of the ceiling was of interest. It was anchored to a set of heavy crossbeams, and Akiko told me that was to allow it to support a great deal of weight. “For when I get suspended,” she said rather cheerfully. She then began to talk to Death Rattle some more about what they were going to do. I felt like an interloper at that point, so I took my bottle of Corona and wandered around the room. We had gotten there late, I think, because the other attendees seemed to have finished with whatever kinky things they had been doing, and were chilling out on the sofas with drinks. I didn’t really feel like approaching any of them. I began to wonder what I was getting myself into.

After conferring with Death Rattle for about five minutes, Akiko walked over to me, grabbed me by the arm, and led me back to the bar. “I need to drink before this happens,” she declared. So I grabbed a bottle of Don Julio and poured shots for the both of us. And then two more. And a third round. “I’m ready now,” she said, and waltzed over to the waiting henchman to be tied up. I followed, not sure what was expected of me.  I quickly found out as she rather nonchalantly lifted off the blue cotton dress she was wearing and handed it to me. She was wearing nothing else but a skimpy, lacy pair of black panties. There was a tall-backed armchair atop a pedestal facing the center of the room. I sat on the base of it, not knowing if it was proper for me to sit in the actual chair. A few other people walked over to observe. Death Rattle began to wrap rope around her torso and quickly fashioned a harness. She looked a little nervous. He then looped another rope up through the ring and began to attach it to the one that was tightly bound around her body. All of a sudden, Akiko called out to me to come over. Before she was hoisted up off the ground, she used her still-free hands to take off her necklace and earrings. “Keep my jewelry for me,” she pleaded. I walked back to the throne base and sat, dutifully holding her possessions.

I was not sure what I was supposed to be feeling. We came to this together, and the other participants at this kink party assumed that we were a couple. I did find myself attracted to her, but I had also just met her not twelve hours before. Should I be jealous that she was allowing another man to handle her body, smacking her naked butt with his hands or with the rope whip he held? When he grabbed her tit and pinched while he twisted, which made her shriek, did I have the right to covet his position? I watched him for a few seconds as she spun, dangling five feet off the ground. He didn’t show any expression of enjoyment. He didn’t look turned on. He looked like he was doing a job. As if this was just another day at work doing carpentry or laying bricks. Somehow, this was comforting. I returned my gaze to Akiko. Her eyes remained closed as she rotated, a grimace on her mouth as the ropes must have been cutting into her. But there was also a hint of a smile, and I could tell from that and the sounds she was making that she was enjoying the experience. The others standing around me were quietly observing as if this was a ritual.

When Death Rattle finally lowered Akiko to the floor and unbound her from the ropes, she walked over to me and smiled as she took her dress and jewelry. She didn’t put any of it on. She simply said, “I’m hungry, and I need to sit down.” I led her over to one of the couches where she fell into the cushions. I went over to fix her a plate – lamb chops and steak with some potatoes. She was unable to hold the plate and utensils herself, so like a parent with a child, I cut her meat and delivered it to her mouth on a fork. She was so exhausted that she nearly fell asleep chewing. Some of the others around us began to comment on how beautiful the scene had been, and to ask questions about how long we had been together, because we seemed like such a close couple. Akiko was in no shape to answer, so I fielded the questions as best I could, making up ambiguous lies and being as enigmatic as I knew how. (I’m actually not too bad at it) When she was finished eating, Akiko stood and dressed, and told me she was ready to go. It was after 1am when we left the dungeon that was hidden in plain sight on a Chicago street. I drove Dana home in silence and put her to bed.

For those of you who may be wondering, no, I did not sleep with Dana. There were many reasons why, and those reasons were both hers and mine. She had introduced me further to a world that I knew existed, but had very little practical education and I thanked her for it. She told me later that there was another fetish club in the city that was going to have an open house the following Sunday, and that I should attend with a date.  I did, and I was accompanied by a lovely young Russian woman, who surprised me when she agreed to go without me actually asking directly.

Perhaps I’ll write the details of that experience and others at a later date. But those who are into the fetish lifestyle walk among the rest of us, and you may never know who they are. I believe that many of us are more curious and open to it than we wish to admit. The trilogy, 50 Shades of Grey, however awful the prose, has brought the conversation more out into the open, so perhaps that is beginning to change. Like it or not, sexuality is an important part of our existence, and definitely worth exploring.

Severance

June 21, 2017

Chiang Mai, Thailand

I said goodbye to my brother yesterday. Not in the morbidly permanent fashion that it sounds like, exactly. Nobody has died yet. But it was possibly the last time.

My youngest brother contacted me for the first time in over two years on a messaging app. I woke up to the missive asking if I was alive, how I was doing, did I need anything. After telling me that he would be going to Japan for several months after summer ended, he mentioned that he had just attended the annual convention held by the church in which we both grew up and that I left over three years ago. He then stated that “we are getting very close”, meaning that the end is near. Maybe it is. Looking around at the state of the world, who knows? But for over 40 years of my life, every little upheaval in world politics, turmoil of other religious institutions, or literal earthquake have indicated that the end was near.  My parents thought that the end would come before I started attending school. But it didn’t. And we were sure it would end before I started puberty, began driving, graduated high school, became a card-carrying adult, got married, etc. But it didn’t. And it didn’t end before my own kids went to school and grew up. No matter how dire the predictions have been over the last century, no matter how certain the church leadership was, the end didn’t come.

As humans, our religious beliefs have a profound effect on our lives. They may influence what we select to wear, what we choose to eat, or what we decorate our homes with. Some religions dictate harsh rules, some very strongly encourage certain behaviors, and some pretty much let you do what you want but please toss some money into the coffers, won’t you? In my case, we were forbidden sex before marriage, smoking, use of drugs without a doctor’s prescription. We were “strongly encouraged” to dress in modest fashion, to not attend university, to refrain from seeing movies with certain ratings. There wasn’t a whole lot of “do as you please”. The leadership would find ways to use verses from the Bible to control us as to how much alcohol we could drink, what types of haircuts were acceptable, and even the language we would use to describe things. It really was all about control. Sometimes, the explanations they gave for their directives didn’t really make sense to me. Other times, their interpretations seemed contradictory, or even defied logic. Eventually, I began to question my beliefs. When basic questions about the teachings went unanswered to my satisfaction, I became disillusioned.

I remained pretty quiet about my misgivings, however. In the broader picture, life wasn’t bad for us. I could trust my fellow believers not to steal from me. I was fairly confident that my family would stay intact, as divorce is only allowed in extreme circumstances, one being adultery, which was relatively rare. My friends didn’t smoke or use illicit drugs. I didn’t know anyone in prison. And because research was encouraged, I was pretty confident that other Christian religions were not teaching or adhering to the Bible, which they claimed to follow. I know, for example, and can show proof that Christmas, Easter, and other important “holy days” are steeped in paganism and have zero to do with Christianity. As far as following Jesus’ teachings of being nice, honest, and generally decent to others, our religion was pretty good about it.

The organization behind the teachings was also pretty good about having us be judgmental about others. I was taught to see “worldly” people, or those outside of our church as “bad associations”. I was led to believe that those not of our religion really didn’t have true love for others. They only showed love when they felt they would get something in return. They didn’t love on principle. And that if I spent more time with them than I had to either at school or at work, then I would become infected with their way of thinking and acting. Those in our church who chose to have association with “worldly” people may not be called out on it officially, but we definitely looked down on them as “weak” Christians. I was definitely guilty of arrogance myself, as I stayed close to what I was told to do.

Even as a young person, I rose in the ranks of the organization, obtaining privileges (which were NOT glory, even if they really were) of service. I was recognized as a full-time minister at age sixteen, was selected to go work at the headquarters of the organization as a volunteer (a very prestigious honor) at twenty. Later, after I married, I was given other prominent positions in the church, eventually becoming one of the leaders in the local congregations. I regularly taught from the podium in front of dozens or even hundreds of people. I was responsible for helping to maintain the spirituality of smaller groups within the congregation. I sometimes even sat in judgment of wrongdoers, with the hope of helping to retain them in the church through repentance, but expelling them if necessary. That was definitely not my favorite part of the assignment.

Expulsion from the church is like death, and often considered worse. If you are no longer part of the congregation, you are treated as a leper. Your family (unless immediate family that you still lived with) and friends has no contact with you, if they keep to the faith. The idea is that the sudden loss of all communication with those you know and love will shock you into repentance. And it also serves to keep the congregation from being infected by your willful wrongdoing and attitude. It makes perfect sense. Or at least it did to me. I personally experienced having to stop communication with some of my friends, and even my own brother (yes, my youngest one) for a time while he was expelled. It was difficult for me, and I was very happy when he was returned to the flock. Later, because of a pretty serious wrong that I committed, I was expelled myself. It took a long 2 1/2 years for me to get back into the church. In the meantime, I didn’t speak with my parents or my brothers, or anyone else in the church. My wife and children who still lived with me continued our daily lives together, but it was a strain at times, as I no longer could attend gatherings with other friends with them, or entertain at our home. So, yes, there was definitely a reason for me to work hard to return.

However, I never really returned in spirit. I attempted to, yet I found the proper assistance by the leadership in the local congregation to be lacking, even though they promised it. I was in a different city and they were new to me, which should have been a good thing, as it was a fresh start for me. But I felt abandoned and ignored much of the time. I found myself simply going through the motions to keep the status quo.  Making friends was always easy for me, though, and soon I was a pretty popular member of the group. I often set up gatherings at our house and entertained as much as possible. I looked for ways to help others when I could. But I never really felt at home anymore. I still couldn’t square the teachings with my own hidden personal beliefs. I had started to hone my critical thinking skills and my bullshit meter was constantly going off. It always had been, actually, but I chose to mute it in my head.

My marriage had never been a satisfying and happy one.  I often felt trapped, but kept silent about it. The statement I made before about how I didn’t fear my parents divorcing now has the caveat of knowing that many of the marriages are unhappy and soul-sucking relationships, and that the outward bliss shown is many times a facade. When I returned to the congregation after my expulsion, I was honest with one of the local leaders. I told him that living forever in paradise (the Bible doesn’t really offer Heaven or Hell, but that’s a whole different topic) was not appealing to me if I had to stay with a woman that I despised. He didn’t know how to respond to that, so he just laughed it off like I was telling a joke. But I found myself living the same lie as before. And I started being more bold about stating my feelings.

The turning point for me came when I began to see a therapist. In the bad old days of the religion, seeing a professional psychologist was considered taboo. The church elders were supposed to be able to help with any problem you may have, because mental illnesses were simply spiritual failings. Eventually, the organization leadership recognized that they were woefully inept at helping people and it became okay to seek professional assistance. I know now why they were afraid of it. My therapist actually just listened to me. She never told me what I should do. She simply let me talk. After a while, I began to trust her enough to tell her about my true feelings and what I was going through. It was difficult to talk about the misery of my marriage or the misgivings I had about my beliefs. I felt like I was being unfaithful to my entire life. But eventually, I heard my own voice. And instead of her saying anything about how I should handle it, I knew for myself what I had to do. After steeling myself for the impact of the fallout, I finally left my wife.

I moved to the city and began to attend a different congregation of the church. I wasn’t ready to walk completely away from everything. I hoped that the change of scenery in my personal life would help me to be happy in the religion. The local elders actually did make a real attempt to welcome me and give me a home there, but I found my bullshit meter going off every time we discussed the teachings from the church literature. It became unbearable, so I stopped going. I eventually told my parents that I no longer was going to attend, because I no longer believed.  After a year apart, I asked my wife for a divorce, and told her that she was free to remarry, because by that time I had already been sexually involved with someone else. This was the death-knell to my relationship with my family. I knew that it would be, and I accepted it. I could have been untruthful to my wife and said that I hadn’t slept with anyone else, but I was tired of living one lie, and didn’t want to live a different one. I have resolved to try to be honest about who I am. It makes me feel much better.

I have very little to no contact with my parents. Once in a while, I send them a message to let them know that I’m still okay and that I still love them. My mother sends a short reply of thanks and returns the love. My son follows the standard and is out of touch. My daughter has recently begun to ignore the rules and now has conversations with me online, but I know she feels guilty about it. I tread carefully, and know that at any time, she may stop communicating with me again. I lost contact with all of my friends from my previous life. Everyone I count as a friend currently is from 2013 onward, with only a couple of exceptions at this time. But I am happier now than I ever was when I lived a lie.

My brother reached out to me to try to get me to come back. It probably broke his heart when it was clear that I have no intentions of returning. He responded that his way of life was what was best for him, and that he wished me well. Then simply, “bye.”

Pick a Topic, Any Topic

June 10, 2017

Chiang Mai, Thailand

I have so many things that I want to write about right now. So, I’m going to just throw some scattershot thoughts out there for a bit.

If you have ever wondered what became of all of the old Singer sewing machine frames and treadles, rest-assured. They are not occupying landfill space. They are all in southeast Asia, repurposed as table legs. Many of the treadles still work, so it’s kind of fun to rock them with your feet as you sit down eating your food or enjoying an iced coffee.

Speaking of food, I went to the market in my little village this morning. There is a large, open-air space that is covered with a tin roof on one edge of town. Each morning, vendors can be found selling fresh vegetables, herbs, and meat. The meat is about as fresh as you could hope for, the animals most likely having been slaughtered the night before. Next to the different cuts of meat that are still being butchered, there rests the head of the unfortunate pig. The chickens are either sold whole, or in pieces. Beef, fish, other fowl such as ducks are also available. I wandered through the stalls marveling at the abundance of fresh produce. Last week, I purchased a toaster oven, an electric pan, and a rice cooker, all second-hand. I then went to a small general store and bought other supplies for my “kitchen”, such as a knife, cutting boards, bowls, and spatulas. I realized that I have not cooked anything (hot water over instant ramen does NOT count) since early December of last year, and I really miss it. So, even though it will probably be more expensive for me to do so, I want to prepare some of my own food. But, walking through the market today, I didn’t buy anything. I realized that I am intimidated. While I recognize many of the ingredients available, I am stopped because I don’t have little jars of spices with names in English at home. I don’t know how to ask for anything without pointing. I don’t know what herb that is they are selling. And I just know that if I do buy meat and vegetables to make a dish, I’m likely to forget something and it’s not going to come out right, and then there’s the storage issues and I’m going to have to clean up without a proper sink and all kinds of other excuses… Basically, I’m being a coward.

On the bright side, I discovered a small café/food stall that offers khao kha moo, which is stewed pork leg over rice. It’s one of my favorite dishes over here in Thailand. It’s served with chopped, pickled cabbage and sliced boiled eggs. On the side you’ll find a savory and spicy red sauce to add. It’s absolutely delicious. I have had it in the city of Chiang Mai several times at the stall operated by a lady in a white cowboy hat who was featured on Anthony Bourdain’s show. But I didn’t know where to find it in the village of San Kamphaeng, where I currently work and live. So, it was a nice find. I’m building a small collection of favorite places to eat khao soi, pad kapow, khao man gai tod, and pad thai.  I’m now almost confident enough to order these things without having to consult my pronunciation list, although I still screw up from time to time.

If I wish to become fluent in the Thai language, I’m going to have to dedicate time for lessons. I’m also going to have to lose my ego and just go ahead and start asking for help. I’m going to have to let myself make mistakes and have people helpfully correct me. In one way, it really helps me to be patient with my students, knowing how difficult it is to remember the words. These past couple of weeks I have been drilling my second-grade students in names of family relationships. “Father, mother, sister, brother”, etc. They have gotten those down pretty well, but are having more difficulty with “parents” and “children”. It’s repetition that is key, and the fact that I oftentimes cannot remember the Thai word for some object or food really helps me to empathize with my students. I’m possibly going to make flash cards for myself to practice remembering the words and proper pronunciation.

The ride into Chiang Mai from San Kamphaeng was beautiful. I am still in awe of Doi Suthep, the mountain on the west side of the city. The way that the clouds come rolling over the top of the peaks, shrouding them from view is still mesmerizing. I grew up and lived most of my life in flat parts of the country. While I did live for a year in the Mohonk mountain area of New York state, and then a few years in northern Virginia close to the Shenandoahs, I’m still taken aback when I see the majesty of the large, looming outcroppings. Chiang Mai area is surrounded by mountains, and the topography creates some interesting weather patterns. I hope that the weather isn’t the rainy variety when I get ready to ride back home later.

I’m sitting in a coffee shop in the Nimman Road area of Chiang Mai while I’m writing this. I rode into town to meet someone that I connected with on a certain dating website. She’s also American, a few (okay, several) years younger than me, and it’s simply a friendly meeting. I’m cool with that. From our online conversations, she seems to have a great sense of humor and is wickedly sarcastic. She just sent me a message to let me know she’s walking this way. (For the record, Danielle, if you get to read this, I checked my phone, not to see if you responded to my message, but to remind myself of your name.)

That’s all the time I have for this post. Still have lots more to talk about. If you have anything in particular you would like me to write about, let me know. I’ll try to work it into an upcoming story.