Shhh…It’s My Birthday

May 8, 2020

Da Nang, Vietnam

 

I turned 52 years old today.  I’m not sure if it was technically at midnight or not, as I am living on the opposite side of the world from where I was born, a full 12 hours ahead according to the time zones. But it’s late afternoon here now, so that means it’s already my birthday in the U.S. at this point.

So, what am I doing to mark this special day? Having a party with friends? Going out and treating myself to a special meal at a fancy restaurant? Buying myself a gift or a vacation? Nope. None of the above. I’ve been sleeping most of the day, and I finally got out of bed at 2:30pm to shower and make myself some coffee. Now I’m sitting up in the bed in front of a fan that is pushing a soft breeze over my skin in an attempt to keep me cool in the hot Vietnamese afternoon.

Because most everyone on the planet is under some type of travel restriction, social distancing or quarantine order due to the COVID-19 crisis, I am quite likely not alone in this situation. Many of us will have to be satisfied with receiving birthday greetings via Facebook or some type of online video platforms such as ZOOM.

But the truth is, this is pretty much my normal birthday.

The Baker and the Herald

As I have alluded to before, I was raised and spent most of my life as one of Jehovah’s Witnesses. A self-proclaimed “true” Christian religion that is really a 19th-century doomsday cult with a publishing company in control. I’ll not spend a lot of time here discussing the beliefs and practices, except to say that birthdays are NOT to be recognized or celebrated by members of that organization.

The basis of this doctrine is fuzzy at best. The sect aggrandizes itself by asserting that it strictly follows scripture found in the Bible, casting aspersions on other religions for not doing so. Whether or not you believe in the gospels or Old Testament canon is irrelevant here. JW’s insist that they believe what their version of the Bible says, and therefore what is handed down from on high by those in control is accepted without question.

Citing scripture to firmly establish dogma is one thing. Using specious reasoning based on meager data is quite another. The support upon which JW’s establish their tenet about not celebrating birthdays is found in two separate places in the accepted holy writings.

The first of the two accounts that are used to forbid birthday celebrations is found in the story of Joseph. In his misadventures, he finds himself in prison along with the baker and cupbearer to Pharoah, the ruler of Egypt. On Pharoah’s birthday, the cupbearer is released from prison, but the baker is released from his head.

The second report is much more notorious to Christians. It’s the tragic narrative of John the Baptist (or Baptizer, if you don’t like the sectarian connotation). King Herod of the Jewish nation under Roman occupation was celebrating his birthday. And because his illicit girlfriend’s evidently hot stepdaughter pleased him and his cronies with her first century twerking, he promised her whatever she asked for.

She ended up asking for a serving dish containing the messianic prophet’s noggin. So, poor John was executed and brought to the party without getting to enjoy any party favors.

Based on these two accounts, and nothing else scripturally, the JW religion disallows its followers to acknowledge the date on which they came into this world. Their reasoning is that only twice in the Bible were birthdays mentioned, and both times someone’s head was disconnected from the rest of their body. Therefore, God must not want us to celebrate our own birthdays.

No Cake for You

Not only were we not to celebrate our own birthdays, we could also not participate in other people’s festivities. For JW children, this meant that we had to try to explain to our teachers that we didn’t want to enjoy cake and drinks and have fun with the rest of the class when Sally or Jimmy’s birthdays came around.

Instead, probably fifteen to twenty times during the school year when another classmate’s birthday party happened, we would be excused to go to the library

Meme credit: Julianne Hazard

or the study hall to sit quietly by ourselves while the rest of the class ate treats and had a good time. And then try to feel normal when a fellow student asked us why we didn’t celebrate with them.

Try explaining that it was because of the beheadings when you are 8 years old. Or try to feel what it’s like when someone asks you what you got for your birthday, and you had to mumble, “Nothing, because we don’t celebrate.” It’s a special kind of hell being different for reasons that don’t make any sense.

It Gets Easier?

After graduating high school and entering the workforce either part-time or full-time (the Jehovah’s Witness religion profoundly discourages higher education), we would spend those hours with people who were now adults. If our job was in a non-office environment, it was less likely that an actual party would occur in our workplace.

If we did have an office job, then as an adult, we would still have to try to avoid the celebrations in the break room. It was a bit easier if we could beg off by saying we had work to finish up. But trying to evade the person carrying around the card to be signed by everyone in the office could pose a challenge.

While we may have explained several times that we didn’t celebrate birthdays because of our religion, our coworkers really didn’t understand, and probably just thought us a bit anti-social.

If we got jobs in customer service, such as waiting tables, then it could definitely become a problem when a group came to our place of business specifically to celebrate on of their birthdays. I personally remember trying to smile and be polite as possible while expressly NOT wishing my customer “Happy Birthday.” It caused some consternation and more than once affected my tip. Some JW’s even lost their jobs because they refused to join in singing the Happy Birthday song to customers.

Post-Cult Disorientation

I was 45 years old when I finally decided to leave that religion behind. However, when you walk away from the JW sect, you not only stop attending the church meetings, you also stop having association with any family or friends who are still part of it. Because THEY stop having anything to do with YOU.

So, if you’re lucky, you make new friends. And perhaps you begin to do things socially with them, and that can feel a bit weird at first, because before, you rarely did anything socially with people outside the religion. So the conversations are usually very different than what you are used to.

In addition, even though you have physically left the religion, some of the beliefs and dogma are so ingrained in your psyche that you may have difficulty being involved in things that normal people do.  I remember feeling very strange singing “Happy Birthday” to a friend for the first time.

And when my own birthday would roll around, I really had no idea what to do. Should I let everyone know that my turn was coming up? That felt like I was soliciting gifts or for them to plan a party for me – not a comfortable thing for me. Should I throw my own event and invite people. Again, that felt strangely like attention-seeking.

So, I would just keep treating it like any other day. Nothing special about it. Except, I knew that it should be. So, when I spent my evening alone at home, those feelings of not being included as a child kept coming up. I resented the fact that I didn’t even know how to have a proper birthday for myself.  It was quite depressing.

Subsequent Birthdays

It was my second year out of the religion before I got to taste a cake with candles and my name on it for the first time. I was scheduled to attend a dinner party that was a completely separate event, but another friend who was attending knew it was my birthday. She brought a cake, candles, and a card for others to sign.

I got to stand there and listen to other people sing my name in the third line of the song while looking at me. Then, I was asked to blow out the candles. I was trying really hard to look cool, but inside I was fighting off tears. This was for ME? I managed to put out the flames with my breath and not get spittle on the frosting.

The year after that, I found myself a stranger in a strange land. I had treated myself to a two-week vacation to southeast Asia, with stops in Singapore, Thailand, and Vietnam. My birthday fell on a Sunday while I was in Pattaya, Thailand, doing a three-day, open-water SCUBA certification course.

The only person I was familiar with at all was my Australian diving instructor.  My final certification dive took place on the day of my birthday. It was a great feeling for me to have accomplished this. In my conversations with my instructor, the fact that I was turning 48 came up. He suggested that I go get myself a “soapy” massage at one of the local brothel-type massage parlors.

While it was a tempting thought, I dismissed it out of hand. Instead, after taking a long nap, I returned to a more reputable massage shop that I had visited two days before after doing some strenuous pool exercised during my first day of training. The girl there had done an excellent job and had NOT offered any “special” services.

She once again did very professional work on my aching muscles and while she did, we talked about our lives a bit. She discovered it was my birthday and was surprised that I was as old as stated. Then it was my turn to be shocked when she said she was 46. Because she didn’t look over 30.  Long story short, I asked her out to dinner, we sat in a bar while we drank and talked more, then she took me home. No cake, no candles, no card, but happy birthday.

Since then, my other birthdays have been a mixed bag. One year, I was again traveling, this time in Luang Prabang, Laos. My fellow travelers at the guesthouse, all strangers, went to dinner with me, then supplied some donuts with candles. The next year, with nothing in the works because I was still too shy to ask people I knew if they wanted to have a party, I threw my own little surprise party with my English students by purchasing a cake and ordering pizza delivery.

Two years ago, I found myself doing nothing again. I’m pretty sure I spent the evening watching Netflix alone in my apartment and answering birthday wishes that were coming in on my Facebook feed. Honestly, that’s the only reason that I know when my friends’ birthdays are. And I feel guilty if I miss sending them an electronic greeting.

Last year, a couple of my students joined me, along with a friend who was visiting from the States, and a young woman whom I had met on Tinder a few weeks before. We went to a Thai-style Korean BBQ place where it was hot, noisy, and had food not quite to my liking.  One of my students did bring a cake, however. Chocolate.

How Do I Make My Birthday Special?

Last week while sitting on the beach in Da Nang as the sun went down, a young man, Adrian, who we had previously met recognized us and approached to say hello and have a chat. It turned out that it was his birthday, and he invited us to join him later with a few friends at a coffee shop/bar that had just reopened after the lockdown.

My girlfriend (last year’s Tinder date) decided that she wasn’t feeling much like going out, but I wanted to get out and enjoy myself a bit. I walked over to the venue a few blocks away and was surprised to see about 20 people already there. Most of these people were expats, staying temporarily in Vietnam. There were a few locals as well. But few of them were long-time friends with each other.

I stayed long enough to drink one beer and witness the cake showing up and to join in the singing. By this time, the crowd had swelled to around 35-40 people. I found myself wondering how this party had come together. Who planned it? Did Adrian just put it out there to everyone he met that it was his birthday, please show up? Or did someone else do the heavy lifting? What do I do to make my birthday feel like this?

Salvaging the Day

This story began with me feeling sorry for myself because I allowed my mind to dwell on feelings of neglect and resentment.  There was nothing in the Airbnb rental apartment for my girlfriend and I to eat, so we really had no choice but to go out for dinner.

We had decided to go to a small burger joint that not only had good food, but offered a free burger on your birthday. Why not? So we walked the 3 1/2 kilometers, following the beach road to get to the restaurant. As we walked, I tried to explain to her how I was feeling and the resentment that I still maintained about my lack of experience in how to deal with my own birthday.

When we ordered, I still felt weird about telling the staff that it was my birthday. It seemed to me like trying to take greedy advantage of someone’s hospitable offer. I ended up ordering two burgers for myself, one free, and one that I paid for along with fries and beer, because that made me feel less guilty about getting the complimentary one.

We ended up hanging out for a long time, even after we finished eating. Talking to the staff and other customers was a treat, especially for me, as it still felt like a novel thing after a long month of limited contact with other people.

And then, because sometimes I can be a glutton, but rationalized it because I hadn’t eaten anything else all day until dinner, I took my girlfriend to another place that served Chicago-style deep dish pizza. It was quite good, and we enjoyed most of it before boxing the rest to take home (It didn’t make it home). I discovered that I felt better, less depressed.

Maybe it was the enjoyable food. Maybe it was the stimulating conversation at both eating establishments. Maybe it was all of the messages pouring in from friends all over the world whom had been notified by Zuckerberg’s infernal time-wasting app that Bob’s birthday was TODAY.

After getting back to the apartment and showering the sweat from my body, I spent the next few hours acknowledging well-wishers and reconnecting with a few of them in brief conversations. And then I finished this story. It was a good birthday after all. And this story is the gift I give myself.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Traveling With Strangers (Part 1)

I’ve enjoyed so many great experiences traveling, that it makes it difficult for me to decide which one to write about. So, I decided to look back through my picture archives and choose one that jumped out at me.
 

TRAVELING WITH STRANGERS

If you spent your life only traveling with family or close friends, like I used to, the thought of striking out on your own can be daunting. Fear of the unknown or of being in a strange place without your usual security blanket of people you are familiar with is a normal feeling at first.
 
Perhaps, then, you may consider going on an excursion with other like-minded people, even if you don’t know them. Yes, we were raised being cautioned about “stranger danger”, and while it is definitely a good idea to be circumspect, don’t allow an overabundance of apprehension to keep you from an adventure of a lifetime with friends you haven’t met yet.
This is my story of one time I overcame that uneasiness, and it turned out to be one of the most rewarding experiences of my life.
 

ROAD TRIP!

I’ve briefly mentioned before that I had joined Couchsurfing, basically a free AirBnB service for travelers, and had been hosting strangers from around the world in my Chicago studio apartment. One of the other great things about the organization were local meetups and opportunities to engage in planned activities with other members.
 
I had already enjoyed a camping trip with two locals in the late autumn of 2013, and we had only just met briefly before that outing. Even though the unexpected chilly (ARCTIC!) weather made it a challenge, we had an amazing time, and to this day, I am in touch with my two friends from time to time.
One thing that I had always wanted to do was to drive the circle route around Lake Michigan. I’d seen it advertised on road signs along U.S. 31 that ran along the western side of the state of Michigan when I lived there. So when a couple of local ladies posted in the website asking if others were interested in doing the circle tour, I excitedly signed up. It was to take place over the long Memorial Day weekend at the end of May 2015.
 

NOT MOURNING THOSE LEFT BEHIND

I was not the only one who expressed interest in going. At one point, there were over 12 who said that they were definitely in. However, most of those people didn’t have their own reliable transportation. Or any kind of gear. Or maybe money?
 
Whatever their reasons, the 12 or so people began to beg off one by one. So at the morning of departure, the Friday before the holiday, we were down to five. I was the one with the vehicle, a 1999 Toyota Avalon, which, in theory, was a six-passenger car.
 
However, only four of us met at the rendezvous point, a pancake house on the north side of Chicago. The fifth phoned and said he was running way late, and if we chose to leave without him, he would understand.
I had taken an unpaid day off work to start the trip, so I did something out of character for myself at the time. I spoke up and voted the unknown guy off the trip. And everyone else seemed to agree with me.
 
Before we got together at the pancake house, I briefly made contact and acquaintance with the two young women, Felicia and Marija, who happened to be roommates. But I really didn’t know anything about them. The fourth member of our car pool was Rahul, a recent arrival to Chicago. He had joined up and ended crashing on the couch in the ladies’ apartment the night before.
All three of my travel companions were in their early to mid-twenties. I was in my mid to late-forties. As I ate my breakfast, I secretly wondered how this generation gap might affect our four days spent in close quarters. Especially since only the two women knew each other at all.
 

DEPARTURE AND FIRST DETOUR

Having ditched the late dude, we now had plenty of individual space in the car. Almost all of our gear fit in my generous trunk. I had brought a ten-person tent that I kept for myself after my divorce. The rest of it was sleeping bags, inflatable mattresses, spare clothing, and food. We had planned to camp along the way, so as to save money, and enjoy the outdoors.
 
Among my other possessions was a wallet full of compact discs that I had burned on my computer, using music from my extensive collection of hits from the 1970s and 80s. I wasn’t sure how well they would be received by the millennial group I was with, but it turned out that they loved the music. It wasn’t long before they were singing along with me, doing carpool karaoke.
The weather was absolutely perfect as we set out, moonroof open, windows down. I turned onto the onramp for the Kennedy Expressway going south. Traffic was building because of the holiday weekend, but we soon made it through the downtown Chicago Loop area and onto the Dan Ryan.
 
Normally, my choice of routes would have taken us south on I-94 to the I-80 interchange, where we would go east into Indiana before continuing on I-94 into Michigan. However, the ladies had mentioned that they really wanted to go to Gary, Indiana (a place where nobody wants to go), because they had always wanted to see Michael Jackson’s childhood home.
 
That was NOT on my itinerary, but I also recognized that this was not MY trip alone. So I put on a cheerful front and we got off of the Dan Ryan Expressway right around the Englewood neighborhood and onto the Chicago Skyway, or I-90, heading south-east. This is a toll road, and at some point, we came to the line of toll booths. I was dismayed to see that they didn’t currently accept my I-PASS transponder for a fly-through payment.
 
As I applied the brakes to come to a stop at the booth, I heard (and felt) a “clunk!” I didn’t know what it was, and it didn’t seem to continue as I accelerated away from the toll booth, I put it out of my mind.
 

HOME OF THE “KING OF POP”

Gary, Indiana is a sad reflection of what happens when the good times go bust. A once-burgeoning steel town, it is now but a husk of its former self. All that seems to be left is blight and crime. A very depressing scene to drive through.
 
The ladies used GPS map to guide me through the streets to a run-down and scary-looking neighborhood. Many of the small, bungalow-style houses were boarded up, and the rest had security fences, bars on the windows, and “Beware of Dog” signs, without any sign of dogs to beware of. Mostly, the yards looked unkempt, with scraggly bushes and brownish, or uncut grass.
 
But in the middle of that depressing ugliness, sat a beautifully-painted house. It also had a security fence around it, but instead of chain-link, it was wrought-iron with brick pillars. The lawn and shrubbery had been tended recently. There was a granite plinth with a tribute to M.J. and some information about his childhood in Gary.
 
No sign of life, and the gates were locked, but we took some pictures. After about fifteen minutes, we had seen what we had come to see, and decided to get back on the road to our adventure.
 

Wedding Caterer

August 29, 2019

Chiang Mai, Thailand

 

“Bob! Calm down. Take a deep breath. We are here doing the best we can to help you. It’s going to be fine.”

She was right. I needed to chill the fuck out. This was not the disaster I was imagining.  I needed to escape the confines of my perfectionist expectations and let my gracious volunteer helpers do their jobs. I began to breath normally as I allowed the relief of letting go wash over me.

“You’re right, Connie,” I replied after a moment. “I’m sorry for losing my cool. I really appreciate you and the others helping me with this. You’re right, it’s going just fine.”

Here I was, on the third day of my four-day holiday weekend, getting ready to feed about 150 people who were just outside in the large multi-purpose room of a Knights of Columbus hall. Up to this point, they had been snacking from common dishes of pretzels and peanuts that were set in the middle of each round table that sat eight people each. The newly-minted bride and groom were due to arrive at any moment, say some bashful words, then sit down to be fed along with the attendees.

I was not a caterer. I was not a chef. I was not even that much of a home cook at the time, to be honest. What the hell was I doing in charge of a wedding reception for this many people?

Being the Good Guy

About six weeks prior, my wife had been visiting the home of a family friend, whom she had known for years as she was growing up.  The family were members of the same close-knit church that we were also part of. The woman’s daughter, Amanda, had been a baby-sitter for our own children on numerous occasions over the past few years after we moved back to the mid-sized city of Anderson, in central Indiana. In the living room of the double-wide trailer home surrounded by someone else’s corn fields, Amanda had been close to tears as she spoke to my wife about her upcoming nuptials to a young man from Baltimore.

Amanda’s mother and father had been involved in a messy divorce a few years before, leaving her and her brother with their mom, the dogs, and little money. She didn’t let this situation keep her bubbly personality from shining through, however. Amanda was an angel. Great with our kids, and wonderful with everyone else, too. But bubbly personality didn’t go a long way in paying for things.

When my wife came home that evening, she spoke to me about Amanda’s plight. Her mom was busy working to pay the normal bills, and had little time to help with the wedding plans.  “She’s really worried about the reception,” my wife told me. “She doesn’t know what to do about the food.”

My own personality tends toward looking for ways to be helpful. I notice when strangers on the street look lost. Often, I will slow down and try to decide whether or not to assist another motorist who is experiencing a flat tire.  I feel a twinge of guilt if my decision is to keep walking or driving without stopping to give directions or help with the car jack. Sometimes I wonder about my motivations for this. Is it a messiah complex sans religious ardor? Or just plain nosiness in some cases?

I looked at my wife for a long minute without saying anything. Her eyes were looking back at me, expectantly. My head churned with the possibilities and logistics of offering to assist. “She’s getting married on Thanksgiving weekend, isn’t she?” I asked.

“Yes, she is,” came the reply. “Just like us. It’s the week of our anniversary.”

I remembered back to almost nine years before, when I had traveled from northern Virginia to this same town, relatives and a few friends in tow, to attend my own wedding. In somewhat the same situation monetarily. My bride-to-be had been completely in charge of planning our marriage soiree. She had worked hard to get a beautiful rental hall at a discount, and then persuaded a family friend, an industrial chef for the local school system,  to provide a lovely, plated dinner for over 200 guests at cost. Not that Helen needed persuading. This woman was a saint, if there ever was one.

“Tell Amanda not to worry about the reception dinner,” I found myself saying. “I’ll do it.”

Intelligence Gathering

Some of the thoughts that proceeded my gallant offer to help were: the Thanksgiving holiday would give me two full days off work to prepare for this undertaking; I knew other people who I could ask to help me (mutual friends of Amanda’s family as well); and… Amanda was special to our family, and I’d do whatever I could to assist.

Six weeks is not a lot of time to prepare, but I’m a professional procrastinator. It took me a full week to get myself over to Amanda’s home to sit down with her and her mom, Lorraine, and find out what type of plans and budget that they had. I had a few questions for them.

“How many people are you expecting?” was the obvious first question I had to have answered.

“Well,” Lorraine replied. “We invited 400.”

I closed my eyes and ordered myself not to react. “I see,” I responded. “Now, Amanda,” I continued, as I looked directly at the young bride-to-be. “You know that I love you, and everyone who knows you loves you as well. But getting 400 people to come to your wedding is probably a stretch. Most weddings I’ve been to at our congregation (local church) have had no more than 200 people, mine included. I’m honestly guessing you’ll have about 150 people who are actually able to make it.”

Amanda nodded with acceptance at this sage advice from a man of a whole twenty-nine years. Lorraine, however, objected to my judgement of the attendance situation. “Well, I don’t want anyone going hungry. We do have people coming from Maryland, too, you know.”

We spoke back and forth for a couple of minutes, discussing logistics of travel and whatnot, before compromising on a number of 300 people to feed.  Now time for my next question.

“What is your budget for food and drink?” I inquired.

Lorraine fielded this one as well. “Well, you don’t have to worry about the cake,” she said. “We have that covered already. We can also handle the punch bowl. And we aren’t serving any booze.”

That last part didn’t surprise me. The religion we were members of had strict views on the use of alcohol. While not completely prohibited, we were instructed often about the evils of intoxication, and it was HIGHLY recommended that we seriously consider whether or not to serve alcoholic beverages at gatherings (we didn’t have “parties”), especially wedding receptions. The leadership made it crystal clear that culpability for a guest overindulging would fall on the groom, as HE was head of his new family and also responsible for whatever happened at his event.

“Okay. So no cake, and no beverages. I’ll just be handling the food.” I agreed. “So how much do I have to work with?”

“We have $500,” came the guileless reply.

Somehow I managed to not spit out the iced tea I was drinking. I forced myself to remain still and not break eye contact. I breathed in slowly and simply said, “Okay.”

Oh!  Fuck ME!

How the hell was I supposed to prepare wedding reception food for $1.66/person? I asked my wife this not-quite-the-same question when I returned home that evening. She just looked at me with her eyes widened, shook her head and shrugged her shoulders. “Oh, my god! What have I gotten myself into?” I moaned.

“You’ll figure something out,” she said. “It’ll be okay.”

I went to sleep that night thinking about it. I spent the next day at work thinking about it. I spent the following evening thinking about it. My dreams were of peanut butter sandwiches and boiled eggs. This wasn’t going to be a plated dinner. There wasn’t enough in the budget to make anything close to the baked chicken, roasted potatoes, green beans, and dinner rolls that were served at our reception.

Look What I Found!

I commiserated to a co-worker about what I had undertaken. She suggested that I go to the Gordon Food Service (GFS) store in town. They had wholesale food and prices. The city didn’t have a Costco or Sam’s Club, so this was the place to buy in bulk. So on the weekend, I headed over to Scatterfield Road on the west side of town to this white cinderblock-and-glass building with the big red awnings.

Inside, I was at first overwhelmed by the sizes of the food packages. One gallon plastic tubs of salad dressing sat beside five-gallon buckets of cooking oil and pickles. Looking back, I needn’t have been surprised, but I had just never seen food in containers of this size before. As I walked around the first corner, my eyes spotted a tin can of Starkist tuna that held 66 oz. of fish. This was over thirteen times the size I was used to buying at the Safeway store. Suddenly, the vision of the peanut butter sandwich dream popped into my head. An idea began to take shape.

I have always loved tuna fish salad sandwiches. My dad used to make them a lot for us when we were kids. Canned tuna was relatively inexpensive, and combined with chopped onions, celery, mayonnaise (my father hated Miracle Whip) and a bit of pickle relish, spread between two pieces of bread, he could feed three hungry boys for less than the cost of a McDonald’s Happy Meal.

Tuna sandwiches are usually by no means fancy. But if the crusts were removed, and the bread cut just so, tuna FINGER sandwiches could be considered almost elegant. I began to do some quick math in my head. (Three hundred people multiplied by 1.5 ounces of tuna per sandwich…) I might be able to make this work! But I knew that a wedding guests does not live on fish-stuffed bread alone. It would take more than pulling a Jesus Christ trick to keep Lorraine (and me, admittedly) from being mortified at the dinner.

By carefully looking at each product GFS offered -rejecting some outright, contemplating others-, and keeping the cost tally in my head and on a scrap of paper (why didn’t I bring a calculator?) I found a way to possibly do the impossible. I didn’t make any purchases that day, but went home to mull it over and come up with a concrete menu plan.

A Strategy Takes Shape

In the end, I chose to buy ten bags of frozen meatballs, ten cans of sauce (five each sweet-and-sour and BBQ), five large cans of tuna fish, a half-gallon of pickle relish, a gallon of mayonnaise, ten dozen eggs, and two gallon-sized tubs of ranch dressing. I had decided that buying fresh vegetables for the tuna salad and egg salad sandwiches (some people may not like tuna?) was probably best done at the regular supermarket. I had also elected to make a large cut-vegetable tray and serve it with ranch dressing. The bread would also not be purchased until the day before the wedding.

Also procured at the wholesale store were several disposable aluminum chafing dishes, along with the attendant stands and cans of Sterno jellied alcohol cooking fuel. A few large round serving trays, made either of aluminum or plastic on which to place the finished sandwiches and cut vegetables. I ended up buying these with my own money, as I intended to keep them after the wedding was over. Somehow I thought they would be very useful should I decide to host a Super Bowl party in the future.

Countdown: Thursday

Because I needed the food to be as fresh as possible when served, it made no sense to start any cooking or mixing until absolutely necessary. My refrigerator had been rearranged to store as much as possible, and I borrowed freezer space from my neighbor across the street. Most of the stores would be closed early for the Thanksgiving holiday, so it was pointless to try to buy anything anyway.  I also knew ahead of time that there was no way I could do all of the cooking and preparation myself, so I had asked a few volunteers from the church to help out. I had five women who were willing to assist. Our church forbade the celebration of Thanksgiving (or pretty much any other holiday), so Connie, Renee, Marilynn, and Sarah were all available . Most of them were older than me, wives and mothers, and had experience with cooking for their own families.

I said that there were five, even though I only mentioned four names so far. Thursday morning, I got a call from Helen, the same lady who had very graciously catered our wedding reception so many years before. She had heard what I was doing, and softly chided me for not asking her for help. She told me that her industrial kitchen she used for cooking and delivering meals to all of the schools with a Head-Start (preschool) program was available for me to use on Saturday morning, if I wanted.

Up until this point, I had worried about how I was going to heat ten aluminum pans of meatballs, cook and peel over sixty eggs, and mix huge bowls of tuna salad in a home kitchen. I had planned on divvying up the ingredients to the aforementioned ladies and asking them to each bake two meatball containers in their own kitchens. Logistics was going to be a nightmare, as they all lived scattered around the county.

With the generous offer of the commercial kitchen, my problems in this area were solved. I breathed a huge “thank you!” to the deity that I still believed in at the time. And I spoke an even bigger “THANK YOU!” to Helen over the phone. Afterwards, it was a matter of calling Connie, Renee, Marilynn and Sarah to ask them to meet me at Helen’s “office” Saturday morning.

No other work was done on Thursday. It was our own anniversary, so being relieved of the huge burden of where to cook, I spent the afternoon planning where to go to dinner with the missus. Then I remembered that it was Thanksgiving Day. Nothing was open. We ate at home and watched “The Lion King” on VHS with the kids.

Countdown: Friday

Up early Friday morning to check my shopping list and head to the grocery store. Fortunately, because it was Black Friday, anyone out spending money would be at the mall, sporting goods stores, or fashion outlets. Nobody wanted to think about food, having stuffed themselves to an uncomfortable state the day previous. I practically had the place to myself.

Because of the freshness issue, I still couldn’t really begin to do much with the food at this point. I would bring everything to Helen’s kitchen early the next morning, and then ask the ladies to cut, chop, pour, mix, etc. as we pulled together this culinary feat. I would have to satisfy myself with imagining the trays filled with carrot slices, celery sticks, broccoli and cauliflower florets, pickle spears, black and green olives, all adorned with a few radish roses that hopefully someone knew how to cut.

At the store, I bought several loaves of white bread, all of the previously listed vegetables, plus some onions for the tuna salad, and a bottle of yellow mustard. One improvement that I had personally made on my father’s tuna recipe was the addition of mustard to the mix. Because he hated the sweet tanginess of the bastard salad dressing cousin of mayonnaise, his tuna salad lacked a bit of zip. The mixture was already sweetened by the pickle relish. I added mustard to give it a tiny bit of zest.

Ever the worrywart, I made phone calls to the volunteers to make sure that they would still be on time the next morning. They politely hid their exasperation with me and assured me that they would arrive as scheduled.

Recalibrating Plans

With nothing to do, I just fretted and agonized over what would go wrong. What if, what if, what if ran through my head over and over. I was driving myself crazy. I decided that I needed to see the space where the reception was being held. I tried calling Lorraine, but no one was at home. Thinking that this might be a good sign, I headed over to the KofC hall. Sure enough, there was Lorraine and her sister putting up decorations.

The banquet hall was divided into two large rooms. One had a stage, and this was where the dining furniture was being set up. Large round tables surrounded by eight chairs each. I imagined them full of people, eating BBQ meatballs and finger sandwiches, perhaps a bit of vegetables and ranch dip on the side. Then, I imagined them sitting there with nothing, waiting, impatient. A chill ran through me.

I remembered other weddings I had attended. Sitting at the reception, hungry, bored, and irritable while the guests were waiting what seemed an eternity for the bridal party to take myriads of pictures back at the wedding ceremony venue. One thoughtful couple had broken tradition- the groom  not seeing the bride until her walk down the aisle- so that they could take most of the pictures before the wedding guests arrived. We didn’t have to wait to eat that afternoon. I knew that this was not to be the case tomorrow, however. Tomorrow’s guests were going to be hungry, bored, and irritable.

Making a quick decision, I added to my list of items to accomplish today. Another trip to GFS for some cheap plastic bowls and large bags of peanuts, pretzels, and potato chips which with to fill them. I might not be able to ward off the boredom, but at least I might temper the hunger and irritability a bit.

Before I left the hall, I spoke with Lorraine about my plan to set up the buffet in the second room. There were some long, rectangular tables that fit this purpose nicely, and even some white tablecloths to cover them. I noticed another room off to the side, and inquired as to its purpose. It turned out to be a food prep area, with a sink and a working refrigerator. I almost leapt with joy, because it was now possible to divide forces tomorrow morning.

My new plan included sending two of the volunteers to the banquet hall with the vegetables and other items that didn’t need to be cooked. They could set up the tables with the snacks, put together the chafing dish holders and prep the veggie trays. This was going to be much better. A wave of happiness washed over me as I imagined things going exactly to plan.

Ignition

Early Saturday morning I woke with a start. In my dream, I had been surrounded by what seemed like a galaxy of angry people dressed in tribal outfits and carrying rudimentary weapons. The were hungry, and looking right at me to take care of the issue. Behind me, there was a large cauldron of boiling water filled with cut vegetables, but no meat. The realization that if I did not quickly provide some, it would be provided in the form of ME.

Shaking off the dream, I quickly dressed, then began packing the trunk of my car  with the food. I first headed over to Helen’s kitchen to have her show me what I was able to use. Sarah and Marilynn were going to meet me there in an hour, while Connie and Renee would go to the banquet hall around two in the afternoon. The wedding was scheduled to begin at three, and it would most likely be 4:30 before the first guests would arrive at the KofC, ten miles away from the church. So with the amount of work they needed to do, there was no reason to send them too early.

Helen greeted me warmly at the entrance to her kitchen. She was a big woman with a bigger heart. To those who didn’t know her, she could seem a little gruff. Think Mabel “Madea” Simmons, from the Tyler Perry movies, just not as tall. She began to show me the large ovens where we would be heating the meatballs and sauce. A huge gas range was in the center of one wall. Next to it, beneath a stainless-steel prep table, were stacked some of the largest cooking pots I had ever encountered. Boiling five dozen eggs was going to be a lot less work than I had previously thought.

When the two volunteer ladies arrived, I had already got the ovens pre-heated and the water for the eggs was boiling. We cut open bags of meatballs and poured them into the aluminum trays. An industrial, table-mounted can opener made removing the lids from the sauce tins a breeze. Sticky sweet-and-sour sauce with visible chunks of bell pepper and pineapple soon covered half of the small orbs of processed beef, chicken, and pork. The other half were drenched in a thick, tangy, reddish-brown BBQ-flavored liquid. Aluminum lids were attached, and into the ovens they went.

Meanwhile, the eggs were just finishing their super-heated bath, and now needed to be drained and cooled so that we could begin the arduous process of peeling the shells. Helen had kindly stayed behind and had instructed me to pour some vinegar into the boiling water. This would help ease the shell removal operation when it became time.

As the eggs were being chilled, Sarah was tasked with mincing the onions and Marilyn tackled the celery. We kept making jokes about Sarah tears. I took the job of opening the five large cans of Star-Kist and draining off the liquid into the sink. The smell of onions and fish filled the air in the workspace. Mixed with the sulfur bouquet from the eggs, the whole place was redolent of a particularly bad fart.

It’s Always Something

Somewhere between mixing the tuna together with the mayonnaise, pickle relish, and chopped vegetables, and checking the temperature of the previously frozen meatballs, it struck me that Connie and Renee were not going to be able to unlock the door to the KofC without a key. I tried reaching Lorraine, but again, no answer at home. I knew that the mother of the bride was not going to be available to let the two ladies in at 2pm.  Besides, I needed to drop off the veggies and snacks so they could begin their work. How had I forgotten about this important aspect of the plan?

The big problem was that I didn’t have the key either. I was going to have to track Lorraine down to get it. I started to feel a knot growing in the pit of my stomach. I couldn’t leave just yet, because I needed to finish making the egg salad and put the finishing touches on the tuna. For some reason, I felt that it had to be me to do this, not trusting the (probably more experienced) volunteers to take care of it.

Pressure did not have a good effect on me back then. My poise began to leave me, and I think I started to become a little more bossy than usual. When Helen looked strangely at me and asked me what in the world was I doing to the tuna as I squeezed almost an entire bottle of French’s mustard into the five-gallon bucket where I was making the salad, I was a bit snappy in my reply. “I know what I’m doing, Helen. This is MY recipe!” Not cowed in the least, but most likely recognizing that this was not my usual disposition, she backed off and sat back down and began to read. Marilyn and Sarah exchanged looks, but stayed silent.

I should have apologized right then and there, because I realized I had been wrong to speak that way. These women were taking time away from their own families or free time to help, because I had asked them to. Sure, they were doing it because they, too, knew and liked Amanda and Lorraine. But it was really to help me with this daunting task that I had undertaken. However, I let the stress of the situation control me.

Explaining that I was going to have to go to find the key and let Connie and Renee into the banquet hall, I asked if they would be able to finish on their own. Helen had allowed us to use some margarine tubs from her own stock to butter the bread before adding the salads. This would keep the moist tuna and egg salads from soaking through before the guests could eat them. We also ditched the crust removal. There was just not enough time, so fancy be damned. The ladies assured me that they could indeed handle the remainder of the work without me. Helen told me that she could transport all of the finished food to the venue in her van. I gratefully accepted her offer.

Bob Loses His Shit

Luckily, I was able to connect with Lorraine at the church, where she handed me the keys. She asked me how things were going, but was too distracted to listen to my reply. So I drove off to meet the other two enlistees.

Since I was now relieved of the burden of transport, I was able to help (hinder?) Connie and Renee with the veggie trays and set-up. I had also brought with me about half of the tuna salad and some bread to begin making some extra sandwiches. Which was a good thing, because I realized that I had not eaten anything all day myself. I made myself a tuna on white, poured some potato chips onto a plate, and washed all of it down with a Coke from the vending machine in the back.

With about 30 minutes before the first guests were expected to arrive, I put out the bowls of snacks on the tables. The chafing tray stands were already out, with the fuel cans ready to be lit. The bottom trays were partially filled with water that would be heated by the Sterno flames, and they would provide an even heat to the food trays once they were placed inside. Connie and Renee had done a beautiful job filling two large trays with cut vegetables, and we had placed covers over them to keep any errant flies from coming into contact with the food.

People began appearing sooner than I had expected. Not trickling in, either. It was like a wave. For some reason, I felt it was my responsibility to greet them and direct them to where they could hang their coats before pointing the way to the dining hall. The pretzels, potato chips, and peanuts did not last long. These people were hungry. While I was happy with my decision to have snacks at the tables beforehand, I started to think that I should have brought more.

At 5:00, the dining area was full, but no sign of Helen, Sarah, or Marilyn. More importantly, there was no sign of the food. The unease I was feeling increased with each passing minute. Where was she? Where were the meatballs and sandwiches? Would they arrive before the wedding party? Before Lorraine?

Not having any way to contact Helen to ask and therefore calm my agitation, I began to pace nervously in and out of the food prep area. At some point, I slammed my hand onto one of the kitchen tables and whisper-screamed, “Where IS she? She was supposed to be here by now! The wedding party is going to be here any min-”

Suddenly, my shoulders were grasped firmly by two foreign hands. I quickly looked up from my ground-gaze and saw myself facing with Connie. Not a big woman, but tall, she stood nearly eye-to-eye with me. “Bob!” she exclaimed. “Calm down! Take a breath. We are all here doing the best we can to help you. It’s going to be fine.”

I just looked at her. I was embarrassed. I had come unglued. Behind her, Renee met my eyes, then looked away. Taking a deep breath as instructed, I started to steady myself. “You’re right, Connie. I’m sorry for losing my cool. I really appreciate you all so much for helping me. It will be fine.”

Two minutes after my mini-meltdown, Helen came walking through the door, now dressed in more formal attire. “Your food is all out in the van. You are going to have to get it in here. I’m tired, and I’m going to go sit down.”

It had not occurred to me that Helen would want to clean up and change into nicer clothing to attend the wedding reception as a guest. I had been selfishly thinking only of what I needed to get done. “Yes, please, Helen. You’ve done more than enough, more than I could have ever asked. Thank you. And…I’m really sorry for earlier.”

She looked at me balefully for just a moment, then broke out into a beatific smile. “Honey, it’s okay. You know I love you.” She gave me a big hug. “Now, get out there and get that food!”

I quickly grabbed a couple of young men from the dining hall to assist me in bringing in the food. There were four chafing stations, so two BBQ and two sweet-and-sour meatball trays went onto the buffet table while the remaining six went into the food prep area, kept hot by being in insulated containers that Helen had produced from her kitchen. Renee and Connie quickly helped to tray up the sandwiches, which had been cut into triangles for the guests. Not quite as fancy as my original idea, but more elegant than whole squares.

Dinner is Served

Just as we put out the serving utensils for the buffet tables, Amanda and her new husband swept in with the rest of the party in tow. She looked lovely in her white gown. Lorraine walked through the door attired in a green dress. The mother of the bride walked over to me and inspected the cuisine. “Looks good,” she said. “I hope there’s enough.”

I assured her that we had plenty in reserve. The fact was, we suspended making sandwiches at one point, because we didn’t have enough room on the trays to stack any more. There was plenty of bread, margarine and tuna/egg salad left if we ran out.

Once a prayer was offered, the guest streamed in from the dining room. Each grabbed an eight-inch Chinette (fancy paper plate) from the stack and began filling it with the available comestibles. I stood behind the buffet table, trying not to look too proud. I bid Connie and Renee to go and sit with their families. I wasn’t going to be able to sit with mine. My wife and kids were fine- she had her mom, sister, and assorted nephews and nieces to help her.

It wasn’t long before the vegetable trays were picked clean, with only the cauliflower and broccoli remaining. I think that everyone got a little bit. I put out more meatballs as the first ones were emptied. The sandwiches seemed to be a hit as well, with guests coming back for seconds and complimenting me on the taste. However, they didn’t all disappear. There were still two layers left on the trays by the time people turned their attention to the cake.

But What About Your Doggy?

I never made it into the dining hall during the reception. Didn’t dance. Didn’t hear the groom give a thank you speech. In fact, I didn’t even eat. Instead, I found myself looking at all of the leftover food. I had put out more trays of meatballs, but they had barely been touched, and there were still more in the back. There were still plenty of sandwiches left, plus about a gallon-and-a-half each of non-breaded tuna and egg salad.

I began begging people to take food with them. But very few people were in the mood to do so. I didn’t have any to-go containers to facilitate them to bring leftovers home. I was able to send a couple of full trays of meatballs home with Lorraine and her son, and another two with some different locals. But I ended up having to toss away the sandwiches into the dumpster behind the building. It hurt me to do that. I wished that there was a homeless shelter that I could have donated to.

Personally, after it was over, I ended up taking home two containers of meatballs, the tuna and egg salads, and the remaining loaves of bread. Good news: don’t have to cook this week. Bad news: guess what’s for lunch and dinner every day for the rest of this week. But I do love me some tuna salad sandwiches, so it was okay, I guess.

Lessons Learned

This experience was both traumatic and triumphant for me. Without knowing exactly what I was getting into, I took on a titanic feat and prevailed in the end. This gave me the confidence to begin to invite other families over to our house for a home-cooked meal instead of ordering pizza delivery. This, in turn, forced me to improve my culinary skills. I began to really enjoy cooking, and also entertaining. Later, when we had larger spaces, I wouldn’t hesitate to invite as many as 25-30 people over for a gathering. But I’m pretty sure that doing another wedding reception is not in my future.

I also took away from this adventure a much better understanding of how to handle stress, and to trust other people to do what they’ve been asked to do. My employers over the years have generally fallen into two categories: micromanagers who drove me crazy by telling me every single step of my job and being critical when I didn’t do it their way; and those who told me what they wanted, gave me the tools I asked for, then got the hell out of my way and let me work. I want to be that kind of manager of people. And I want to never find myself getting so anxious over things beyond my control that I start to treat friends and helpers with unkindness.

And lastly, I have learned to trust my instincts and stick to my guns. After the bride and groom had gone off on their honeymoon, after I had cleaned up all of the trays and put everything in my car to take home, and when it was time to turn off the lights and lock the door, I ran into Lorraine, who was still there. “Quite the reception, from what I hear,” I told her.

“Yes, it turned out really nicely. But I’m glad this week is over,” she sighed.

“You and me both,” I quipped. “I’m exhausted.”

“Oh, yes. Thank you so much for taking care of the food,” she responded. “Amanda and I really appreciate it. And all of the guests told me how good it was.”

“Thank you for saying that,” I said. “But I couldn’t have done it without help.” I went on to explain briefly how the five ladies had been indispensable in the effort. “By the way,” I continued. “How many people were there?”

“Oh, we did a count during the reception. We had one-hundred-and-fifty-three people. Big crowd.”

Epilogue

Sometime on a  winter evening in 2001, I was sitting by the living room window in our new home in Michigan, where we moved two years prior. It was snowing, and I was watching as it piled up softly on the bushes outside. The phone rang, and I answered it.

“Is this Bobby?” a young woman’s voice inquired.

“Yes, it is,” I replied. “Who is this?”

“This is Amanda. Used to be Amanda Essep. From Indiana?”

“Of course! How are you? Still in Baltimore?”

The conversation continued for a moment as we caught up on family and geographic particulars.

“Anyway,” she went on, “the reason I was calling is because some of my husbands relatives keep asking me about your tuna salad. They loved it at the reception and want to know your recipe.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

Hydrophobia

January 14, 2019

Chiang Mai, Thailand

 

They looked innocuous enough. Simple handles that swung one way or another to allow the water to enter the machine. All I had to do was reach over and turn them 90 degrees counterclockwise. But terror gripped me. How was I going to get this done?

Easy Money?

At the time, I was  19 years old, broke, and living in the basement of the home of a family friend. I could have had a full-time job and been better off financially, but the religion which raised me encouraged us to live simple, work only part-time, and spend the majority of our time in spiritual pursuits. So, I worked roughly 100 hours a month as a construction laborer, and spent a bit more time than that engaged in knocking on doors preaching their brand of gospel, or preparing and attending services three times a week.

In northern Michigan, the winters can be brutal and the conditions make outdoor construction work difficult at best. Many contractors tend to slow down during those months, so I didn’t always have the same amount of work available. Even though my expenses were pretty low, I still needed to earn money to pay for my rent, gas, insurance, etc. So when a friend of a friend offered me a chance to make some extra money, I was not going to say no.

The friend of friend’s name was Arty. He had a cleaning business of sorts, and during the winters, some of his contracts included doing housekeeping for rental homes and cabins that were adjacent to the ski resorts. Tourists from the more southern regions of the upper Midwest (e.g., Detroit or Chicago) would come up for the weekends to hit the slopes of Nub’s Nob, Boyne Highlands, or Boyne Mountain. They tended to stay in rental homes (think AirBnB before AirBnB existed) that were close to the ski lodges. And someone needed to clean up in between guests.

The house that Arty took me to see was about 45 minutes away from where I was living. It was in the woods, had beautiful views of snow-covered forest, and an open floor plan which begged to be used for small parties. I remember it having only one bedroom, a tiny galley kitchen, and a single bathroom with tub, toilet and sink. There was also a small laundry/storage area with a washing machine and dryer.

My instructions were to start by stripping the bed, putting the used sheets and towels in the washing machine, then cleaning the countertops, emptying the dishwasher, and vacuuming the 1970’s-era wall-to-wall shag carpeting while the laundry was going. I would then have time to place the clean sheets and towels in the dryer while I finished windows and other needed chores. It should have taken about 90 minutes to complete everything. I don’t remember how much money I was paid for this weekly routine. I know that it was probably not much, but I was desperate, so I took the job.

When Arty was explaining quickly about how to use the washing machine, I neglected to tell him that I had ZERO experience using one. My mother had always done our laundry when I was growing up. And the friend of the family who I was staying with did not trust me to use hers, so she would just wash my clothes for me. I guess that was a perk, but it didn’t really help me in life. So, because Arty mistakenly thought that I knew what I was doing, he simply told me that I had to turn on the water valves before running the machine, then turn them off again when I was finished. And therein lay the problem.

The Closet Monster

When I was about five years old, I suffered a very traumatic (to me) experience. My aunt and uncle lived in a basement apartment, and once when we visited them, I went to use the toilet. Because the bathroom was situated in the basement, thus lower than the plumbing that ran to the septic tank, there was an ejector pump installed in the closet next to the sink that would turn on and force the wastewater up into the main drainage pipe. So when I flushed the toilet, the pump started up with a loud, unexpected THUD! and a WHOOSHing sound. It scared the living shit out of me. Had I not just finished emptying my bowels already, I think I would have crapped my pants.  I ran out into the living room, terrified. The adults thought it was pretty funny, and didn’t really take the time to explain to me what the noise was, show me how it worked, and tell me that there was nothing to fear.

I was a sensitive child, and I let my fears rule me. From that day forward, I refused to use the toilet in a strange place without someone going with me. When we went to a restaurant as a family, I would always make one of my younger brothers accompany me to the restroom. This continued probably until I was 11 or 12 years old, and then it just became too embarrassing. But the fear did not leave me. Even though I never once had that same experience again, I was still very uneasy about moving water. Pipes scared me. I didn’t like taking stairwells in tall buildings alone because I had to walk past the red-painted, 6″ fire mains that ran vertically and had big, scary valves attached. I didn’t like turning on and off the pump to the swimming pool that we had installed in our back yard. The infrequent times that mom’s washing machine became unbalanced and shuddered this way and that would freak me out.

Added Anxieties

I once read a story about a disaster in Louisiana that happened when I was 12 years old. Lake Peigneur, once a sportsman’s fishing paradise, was completely drained in a matter of hours because of a drilling accident. The water was sucked down into an existing mine underneath the lake, and the swirling vortex swallowed barges and boats down into the earth. The thought of that stayed with me, and I also became nervous about large bodies of water, even the swimming pool, especially at night if I was alone.

This dread stayed with me well into my adulthood. When I was in my 30’s I started a new job working at a paper mill. My first assignment was working in the basement of the building that housed the big papermaking machine. Down there was hot, noisy, and smelly. There were also scores of pumps and hundreds of pipes and valves- small ones, larger ones, and huge ones. My first thought was “No fucking way!” But I desperately needed the good money that the job offered, and I forced myself to remain calm and try to do the job. The longer I stayed and concentrated on my work, the fear eventually began to fade.

I cannot place all of the blame on my relatives for not handling the situation better back when I was five. As an adult, I probably would not have reacted much differently, I guess. No one realized how traumatic it was for me at the time. But I do believe that what we experience as children, without having the knowledge and perhaps the adult intervention to deal with events that affect us, has long-lasting effects, and can even be crippling. I wish that my parents had recognized that something was not right about their growing son having such an irrational fear of water and plumbing, and had tried to address the issue.

Unexpected Triggers

Last year, I went for a ride a bit north of my village to a reservoir/dam near Doi Saket in Thailand. It was dry season, so the reservoir was not brimming at the moment. I rode past the giant, sloping, concrete spillway without giving much thought to the potential power of all that water pent up behind it. I turned to the right down a road that I hoped would get me to the top banks of the reservoir. There was a canal to my left as I rode, and I noticed that the farther I went, the more turbulent the water in the sluice became. As I rounded a corner, I saw water gushing out at high pressure from the small gateway at the base of the hill. All of a sudden, the old fear came roaring back. My hair stood up on the back of my neck, and I felt a dreadful tingling in my spine and in my guts. I quickly turned my motorcycle around and rode back in the other direction, trying to calm my nerves. The fear is still there, just buried and mostly under control in my daily life.

Staring into the Abyss

So there I stood, at nineteen years of age, pondering the simple valves that controlled the flow of hot and cold water from the spigots to the washing machine hoses. I was afraid to touch them. I didn’t know what I should do. I needed the money. But not badly enough to face my fears.

So, for the next eight weeks of ski season, I went to the rental house. I vacuumed the carpet. I put away the dishes. I cleaned the mirrors, toilet, sink, and tub. I threw out the trash. And I simply brushed the hairs off of the pillows, sheets, and blankets onto the floor. I shook the towels and re-folded them before putting them away. For eight solid weeks, probably eight different sets of people slept on soiled sheets and used dirty towels. I hope Arty never found out.

Laos- Part 2 (Hell Ride)

January 8, 2019

Chiang Mai, Thailand

(This is the second post in my series about my Laos trip which happened back in May of 2017)

All Aboard!

After my nice experience with Pan and the generous offer of a ride back to the bus station, I was feeling pretty good about my trip so far. But then, it kind of turned sour. I had booked a sleeping bus, as it was to take ten hours from Vientiane to Luang Prabang. I don’t recall the amount that I spent for the sleeping berth, but it wasn’t a big expense.

On the bus, I discovered the reason for the modest price. After checking my large backpack, I boarded the bus holding a small bag of personal items. We entered the bus in the middle, and then squeezed our way either to the front or the back of the bus, depending on our berth number. Mine was to the front, and on the left. There was possibly 18″ of space between the bunks on either side of the vehicle, so it was a tight walk with my bag held in front of me.

When I arrived at my numbered bed, this one up top, I discovered that it was already occupied by another man. I quickly checked my ticket against the berth number, and to my horror, I saw that there were TWO numbers assigned to the mattress. Since the other people were waiting behind me to get to their own beds, I shrugged it off and climbed up the small ladder, trying not to bump my head on the ceiling above. I greeted my new “friend” with a smile and said “sabaiddee” (standard Lao greeting). He politely returned the smile and the greeting, then promptly turned his head and body to the window.

I Wish I Was a Little Bit Smaller (I Wish I Was a Baller..)

The view of the inside of the bus behind me. Yes, those are two-person bunks.

I then laid myself down on my side of the narrow mattress with my bag between my ankles. Now, I’m not exactly short, but neither am I considered tall by western standards. I stand five feet, ten inches, or 178 centimeters. But I found my feet were flat up against the divider between our bed and the one in front, while the top of my head was firmly pressed against the wall behind me. Lying flat on my back was my only realistic option, however, because attempting to lie on my side with my knees bent would have forced me to spoon with the dude on my left. Turning the other way would push my face into the metal safety rail and my ass into the aforementioned stranger. This was going to be a long, long, ride.

The first part of the drive seemed okay, if not completely comfortable. I did my best to try to sleep, as there were no reading lights, and I didn’t have data to play with my phone. Within an arm’s reach across the aisle, were two French women travelers who were talking to each other. I could make out some of the words, so it was a bit of a distraction from my rigid (non)sleeping position. But after the first hour, we found ourselves being thrown from side to side as the bus began its ascent into the mountains on the twisty roads. More than once, I found myself gripping the metal rail to keep from rolling over it and falling to the floor. I was also bracing trying not to slide to the left into my sleeping partner.

I tried to imagine worse conditions, and the only thing I could come up with was the pictures of the layout of the slave ships bringing unwilling human cargo from Africa to North America 400 years ago. I comforted myself with the following facts: 1) I chose to be here, 2) it was only going to be ten hours, 3) there were no rats, and 4) death by impact of the bus blowing through a guardrail and plunging to the chasms below seemed preferable to death by drowning or sharks if the boat suddenly found itself with a hole in the side.

Break, Brakes, and Breakdowns

About 5 hours into the ride, we stopped in some small, roadside village for a toilet break and some food. Even at 1:00am, the wood and tin shacks were open and lit up to cater to the weary travelers. But what was available was a large selection of dried fish, squid, and other formerly happy sea creatures, now spread out on tables under the light. The smell was overpowering. Fortunately, this was not the only option. The ticket price included a meal at sit-down picnic tables. Here, the choice was green curry over noodles: chicken or pork. It was actually pretty tasty, but I felt bad for one of the French ladies, as she was vegetarian. I think she bought a bag of potato chips for her meal.

Friendly doggo!

We stayed at the rest stop for perhaps 30 minutes, in which time I was able to use the toilet, fill my belly, and stretch my legs. There was a cute little dog wandering around the tables begging for scraps. The two girls and I played with him a bit until it was time to get back on the rolling sardine can.

I’d like to say that the rest of the journey was uneventful, but fate had other ideas. Less than an hour outside of the rest stop, the bus suddenly pulled to the side of the road and halted. The driver and other attendants climbed out to examine some problem in the dark. Other passengers, men and women both, exited to take the opportunity to stretch their legs or relieve themselves along the roadside. Southeast Asian culture seems a bit different than Western culture when it comes to bodily functions in public. Being a bit more conservative, I walked in the inky darkness up the road a piece and around the curve before taking care of my own business.

This was the status of the left rear wheel when we arrived at Luang Prabang

This turned out to be only the first of perhaps five stops along the mountain road in the dark because of mechanical difficulties. There was a strange grinding noise coming from the rear whenever we slowed down for yet another curve, and the staff continued to investigate the cause, each time deciding to continue. (I don’t believe there was much of an alternative.) The ten-hour trip turned into thirteen before we finally limped into the bus station at Luang Prabang. I hadn’t slept at all the entire trip, though my bunkmate seemed fresh as a daisy when we disembarked from the bus. So, I learned a couple of lessons: 1) think carefully before deciding to book another sleeping bus, and 2) if I do, make sure to buy the whole damn berth.

The adventure will continue in another post.

The Return

January 6, 2019

Chiang Mai, Thailand

 

 

I’ve never been one for New Year’s resolutions. They just get broken in the first week, and then I end up feeling like a failure and am not motivated to start over. But I do recognize the power that a specific date can have when making goals. And I have made a list of things that I want to accomplish this year. I haven’t set any concrete deadlines, simply that I will have achieved certain things in the coming year. One item on my list is to have written 100 new posts in my blog. Being that I published exactly four last year, and those all in three days in March, this may seem like a tall order. But it’s fewer than one every three days. I don’t have a set length for the posts, just have to write something. There really has been no issue with the number of words I can punch out on the keyboard. But the quality of my stories has to meet certain standards of my own making, so I spend lots of time editing or thinking of better ways to express myself.

So, very quickly, before the coffee shop closes down for the evening, a fast bit about the events of the last ten months:

In April, I began a second job teaching at a language school. When I returned to my first job in May, this made for a seven-day a week schedule which lasted way too long. I finally quit the government school right before Christmas. The money was nice, but I was killing myself and not doing what I came here for in the first place, namely exploring and learning about the culture.

I continued my relationship with a Chinese woman from Hong Kong who I refer to as “Mystery Woman” in my Facebook posts. I’ll write about her at length later on.

I was able to take one mini-vacation in southern Thailand in July, and a proper two-week holiday in Vietnam in October.

One of my best friends visited me in March, then moved out here in July. She’s doing great.

I wasted a ton of time on Facebook and Netflix.

The drowning pool has been empty and down for repairs since the end of September.

The ladies at the coffee shop are now politely eyeing me and encouraging me to make my exit. Catch you next post!

Laos- Part One (Vientiane)

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. (Keep this in mind for when you read my later post: “Hydrophobia”. )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