Learning the Ropes

February 10, 2017

Chiang Mai, Thailand

I’m sitting at the desk in my new studio apartment (hotel room, in actuality) looking out at Doi Suthep, the mountain that sits on the northwest corner of Chiang Mai. In the foreground are a few semi-tall buildings, some smaller structures with corrugated roofs, and a lovely green copse of trees that hides most everything else. It would be very peaceful, were it not for the bit of noise from traffic on Huay Kaew Road, and the constant roar of commercial flights taking off from the airport just to the south. The butterflies that are flitting around the trees below seem not to take notice. There is a bit of haze from the city that hangs over the landscape, but otherwise the sky is blue with a few wispy, white clouds in suspended animation.

Nick, my friend and former classmate, and I have just returned from a late brunch at one of the myriad little cafes in the area. For 80 Thai baht ($2.31), I enjoyed a plate of pad see ew and an iced coffee. The portion size was a little small by American standards, but I’m learning to adjust my intake. I’ve got quite a few adjustments to make in order to savor life here in northern Thailand. Some of the things that I must get used to are the sidewalks, the dearth of paper napkins, and the constant temptation to eat the endless supply of street food in front of me. The sidewalks tend to be narrower than what I’m used to, and there seems to be no uniformity in height from one block to the next. A pedestrian is perpetually dodging and weaving between concrete power poles, street signs, and food vendors. It’s many times easier to walk on the street facing the oncoming traffic. It would be maddening to a civil engineer from the west.  As far as the paper shortage goes, if you get napkins at all, they tend to be what we in America would consider toilet tissue. You learn to do the best you can and not make a big mess with your food. This would definitely not work with BBQ ribs. Last night, I went to dinner with another classmate from Shanghai before she left for home this morning. Catherine and I walked to a real-life Italian restaurant that served one of the best Caesar salads that I’ve ever eaten. What I marveled at the most, however, were the proper linen napkins that we had at the table. It’s funny how the otherwise insignificant things make such an impression when you’ve done without for a while.

I’ll have to start a new paragraph for the street food. I’ll keep it short for now, but it will definitely be a topic for at least a few individual posts in the future. It’s almost impossible to walk a city block here without passing a temporary food cart or tiny stall hawking some meat or fish grilling on sticks. Others serve various types of fruit or fresh-squeezed juice. In the evening, the streets change as the vendors come and set up temporary stands complete with gas burners and grills, home-made fans to keep the flies at bay, and folding tables surrounded by colorful plastic stools for customers to sit and eat the dishes that are cooked to order. The smells are a combination of strange and mouth-watering, and it’s difficult to not try something. These ad hoc food courts would NEVER be allowed in America, at least not anywhere I’ve ever been. Many westerners have expressed disdain or concern about unsanitary conditions and unrefrigerated product, but I am starting to believe that we have become too coddled. I’ve lost count of how many times that I have paid 10 or 20 baht for something that looked too good to pass up, and I have yet to get sick.  This is a definitely a place where you can channel your inner Anthony Bourdain.

As I mentioned earlier, I now have a semi-permanent address. Nick, who is from Arizona, and I both wanted to remain in Chiang Mai to teach and live. We decided that it would be good to team up and tackle the challenge of learning a new culture together. After spending the better part of the week partying and hanging out with classmates, we took Tuesday to look for accommodations. We ended up renting two separate studio apartments on the fourth floor of the current place for a month, to give us time to find jobs and look around for a more permanent housing situation. Our goal is to find a furnished two bedroom at an affordable cost, so that we can split the rent and save money for the other things we want to do. Nick is a pretty-well educated naturalist with a masters degree in something-or-other. He’s chill and very easy to get along with, and we hit it off pretty much immediately during the training program.  It’s interesting for me to watch him deal with the fact that all of our former classmates have moved on and back to their home countries. He’s a sensitive soul, and I can tell that it’s a bit distressing for him to lose people that he’s become very close to. I feel it too, having developed deep friendships with those whom I went through so much challenge and stress, but I have moved so many times in my life that I have become a bit inured to leaving friends behind, or vice versa. That being said, I’m really glad that he’s here, because without his company, I’m pretty sure I’d feel more lost than I already do. We’ve been helping each other with our resumes and discovering how to maneuver around our new city. Which leads to a funny story:

Yesterday, Nick got a haircut and a beard trim at a local barbershop recommended by the lady who runs the apartment building. I was very impressed by the job the barber had done, so I decided that I would get my beard trimmed professionally as well. Over the weekend, I had already treated myself to a haircut and a mani-pedi (hey… I do what I like) at another salon close to our hostel. The problem is, I don’t speak Thai, and the lady spoke very little English. So it was difficult to tell her exactly what I wanted. It turned out okay, but she did cut the hair on the sides of my head pretty short. So, you think that I would have learned a lesson from that. Not exactly. I happened upon another barbershop in the alley behind our apartments, and they offered beard trims for 60 baht (less than $2). I sat down and told the lady that I wanted just a nice trim and shaping. She smiled and nodded, and I sat back in the comfort that I was in the hands of a professional. Then she proceeded to take the clippers and shaved the left side of my face down to the bare skin. Another lost in translation moment. I’ve not been clean-shaven since 2013. The lady did ask me if I wanted to keep the moustache, and I VERY carefully showed her that I wanted to keep the chin part, too. So, now I have myself a nice goatee. And the knowledge that my beard will grow back. It was also my very first time being shaved with a straight-razor. I’m not sure why that made me so nervous. I couldn’t help but think that all the lady had to do was to slide the blade across my throat at a certain angle, and I’d be done for. I tried to comfort myself with the realization that the woman who cut my hair in Chicago could have easily driven the shears into my temple had she had the inclination, but that most people aren’t homicidal like Sweeney Todd.

Another plane just roared overhead, and I realize that I still have much to accomplish today. Nick just texted me to suggest that we leave early tomorrow morning (while it’s still cool) to hike to Wat Phra That Doi Suthep, which is the golden temple on the top of the mountain. We’ll see how that goes. I’m already sore and winded just thinking about it. Please remember that my wishes are to be cremated if I don’t make it back.

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