Wednesday, May 13, 2009

and it begins

And it begins…

So this is a little delayed. I’ve been in Thailand now for a week and a day. I’ve had opportunities to post, internet access in both hotels we stayed in during orientation. But until right now I haven’t been able to wrap my head around even trying to write something about my experience thus far. What can I say about my first week in Thailand? How can I possibly put into words the thousand and one overwhelming, amazing, beautiful, stressful, insane, funny, interesting moments I’ve encountered in this short space of time? And I’m really not sure I can, but I will try for posterity’s sake, so that I can look back on this time when I’m old and gray and force my tried, forgetful mind to remember every vivid moment.

Let me first say that my flight, excuse, my flights to get to Bangkok felt like they took about a two weeks. This was not helped by the fact that I touched down in four different time zones along the way, changed planes three times, went through security three times, and took a total of four endless flights. I couldn’t help but picture my journey displayed via one of those old timey movie maps. You know like in Indiana Jones when he jumps from continent to continent and they show his progress with an animated line drawn across a cartoon map. That was me, bouncing from Richmond to Chicago to Los Angeles to Hong Kong to Bangkok, except it was less of a jaunty, thrilling adventure and more of a tedious, never ending transit from hell. My journey took 30 hours and I was barely walking by the end of it. I have never been so profoundly exhausted as when I walked off my flight in Bangkok. I had slept about 4 hours in the last 40 (15 hour plane ride + coach + a middle seat + no leg room= not conducive to in flight sleeping). I had no idea what time or day it was. I had been served plane food breakfast about 3 times in a row, which only added to my confusion. It was the fifth airport I’d been in in two days, and there was a whopping eleven hours difference between Bangkok time and the time I had just left. Add to this the surreal nature of my last two flights where all of the attendants were wearing swine flu preventative face masks (I swear to God I felt like I was in the midst of some science fiction movie). Also side note I got the feeling that as an American (and thus from a nation sharing a border with Mexico) I was viewed as somewhat contaminated. On one of my flights I sat next to an Asian couple who were both wearing face masks and I’m pretty sure they saw me as one giant germ. I had to fight the very strong urge to fake a violent coughing fit, just to see the looks of horror on their faces (or the parts of their faces not covered up by medical masks). But I digress. Let’s just say the 30 hours spent travelling left me more than a little delirious. It was definitely an out of body experience, and I’m frankly surprised I didn’t just curl up on top of one of my giant suitcases and take a nap right there in the airport. Also note to self, never take a heavy tote bag, a heavy lap top bag and a heavy purse on a plane journey again. I had bruises all over my shoulders the next day from hauling these items from plane to plane to plan to plane.
With frankly more poise than I thought myself capable of in such conditions, I managed to get my bags onto a trolley (with some assistance from a burly man, my bags were, ahem, a little over weight, okay fine they were so overweight that they had to put a special tag on them instructing that whoever lifts them bends their knees due to their excessive heft). I wheeled my way through the airport, and walked in circles for about half an hour until a girl with a trolley much like my own asked if I was there for Teach in Thailand. An hour later we were picked up by an arranged driver and taken to the orientation hotel (Pinnacle Lumpini if you’re curious). Thus the next phase of the journey began.

I have no idea how but I stayed up until 7pm that first day. I even tried to nap and found myself incapable of it. You know how sometimes people say they’re too exhausted to fall asleep. I had never experienced that until that first day. Every fiber of my being was bone deep tired, yet I couldn’t fall asleep. So with no other alternative, I ventured out with a couple of the girls in the program to the Lumpini night bazaar, just across the street from our hotel. The first impression walking out of the hotel (even in my hysterically tired state, everything was vivid, maybe even more so because I was so tired) was the heat. Then I felt the sticky humidity, pressing in on every pore. We walked onto the street, and my senses were bombarded. People everywhere, crowding the sidewalks. A steady stream of traffic on the street, cars and taxis and tuk tuks (auto-rickshaws, called tuk tuks for the distinctive noise they make). A few more steps and we’re in the midst of vendors selling street food. And oh the street food. After a week here I can say that one of the most distinctive features of Thailand is the street food. You walk anywhere and you can’t help but be surrounded by it, the smell, the sight. You turn your head one way and there are whole chickens sizzling above leaping flames. Another direction and you’re confronted by the biggest, most bizarre looking fruits you’ve ever seen. Sprouts and shrimp and noodles sizzle loudly in frying pans while huge vats of aromatic red and white soup bubble near by. There’s every food you can name. Beef, chicken, pork. Whole fish deep fried with their heads still on. There’s rice, steamed or fried up, more rice than you could ever wish to eat in a lifetime. There are charcoal fires with huge chunks of raw meat cooking away on top (forget the health department, I’m pretty sure every American health code is violated in just one of these stalls). People line up on their way home from work to collect plastic bags filled with spicy prawn soup or a wrapped up package of paad thai. Or if you’re not in the mood for a full meal, how about one of the many vendors selling fruit. There’s pineapple and mango and watermelon but also the strangest fruits you’ve ever seen, huge green things with spikes all over them (durian, which apparently stinks to high heaven and is banned in many hotels as a result), tiny round fruits with green hairs sprouting liberally from the surface. There are rows of whole, peeled coconuts. There are fried pastries and doughnuts. There are vendors who sell crushed ice which in traditional Thai style you top with various gelatinous objects and sweet, sugary syrup. There is so much more food than what I’ve just named, all just sitting there on the street, impossible to ignore. You walk a block in Thailand and you’ve seen an entire nation worth of cuisine.

My stomach was too confused to eat a real meal that night. Poor thing had been subject to airplane food for 25 hours, couldn’t blame it. So instead I enjoyed a delicious fruit shake. There are tons of stalls selling these all over Thailand, and it’s sort of the equivalent to an American smoothie. Except take out the sugar, the frozen yogurt, the booster powders, the frozen nature of the fruit. A fruit shake here is crushed ice and insanely fresh fruit. I had a coconut one and it was one of the best drinks I’ve ever head. Bursting with the flavor of the coconut, far more than any frozen concoction ever could.

And then finally, finally, I went back to the hotel, and slept for twelve hours. I think I might have woken up once. It was glorious. The next morning I met the rest of the Teach in Thailand kids at breakfast (every morning we had breakfast at the hotel-a huge spread of western favorites like French toast and pastries along side thai staples like noodles and rice). On first impression they were a really cool, interesting bunch, and that impression remained the rest of the orientation. We’re definitely from all over. I’m one of a handful from the east coast, and one of only two southerners. There are two Canadians, one Australian and a Russian who came later. Without much preamble we were herded onto a bus and taken immediately to one of Bangkok’s and Thailand’s famous sites, the Grand Palace and the Temple of the Emerald Buddha. Looking back that whole experience is kind of a blur. My jet lag was starting to really set in, it was so, so hot (we’re right at the tail end of Thailand’s hottest month), I was trying to meet everyone and learn everyone’s names, we were led by a tiny, Thai woman who was half tour guide, half drill sergeant. I was wearing capris (quite tasteful ones if I do say so myself and the second we got off the bus, she took me by the hand, led me to a little stall selling wrap around skirts and put the skirt over my pants herself). Apparently capris are not appropriate clothing for going to a temple, who knew? What I do remember is that it was this colossal structure of gold and gems and statues, techni-color bright and elaborate and ornate and huge. There were elephants and monkeys aplenty (the statue kind, not the live kind mind you). I saw the emerald Buddha (which you have to knee in front of and take careful consideration to now point the soles of your feet in its direction). I blessed myself with holy Buddhist water using a lotus flower. I did several other things that are supposed to bring good luck. I took lots of pictures, which is good, because again, the events of this day are sort of blurry.

I do remember with more clarity our boat ride in the river. Bangkok has a river flowing through it, and there are houses lining it. We took an hour ride through the river on a traditional Thai longboat, although it had a motor so maybe not so traditional. The boat went very fast and I spent a lot of time trying not to inhale spray from the not so clean river, but I did make some observations. For the first time I really noticed the spirit houses I had read about in the guide book. They’re little structures that are built near pretty much every house/office/building in Thailand. It all goes back to animism which to grossly oversimplify is a belief in spirits in all living things that is prevalent in Thai culture. You’ll see the tiniest, beaten down shack and sure enough there will be a little spirit house, kind of like a larger, more elaborate bird house, usually white but with colorful trim, with little statues and offerings all over it. Other observations-the tiniest, most beaten down shacks will also often have satellites on their roofs, kind of a nice commentary on our technology obsessed times. There are some really beautiful trees and flowers in Thailand, even in its biggest, busiest city. There are coconuts and palm trees everywhere.

After the boat ride we ate lunch at a restaurant on the river. There has been some stiff competition, but this meal was perhaps the best I’ve had in Thailand thus far. This might be due to the fact that this meal coincided with my first ever spicy prawn soup, aka, the most amazing dish known to man. It’s a soup flavored with lemon grass and chilies (and many, many other things which I will one day look up and try to recreate), bursting with delicate prawns (aka shrimp) and mushrooms, and so, so, so good. It’s sweet. It’s spicy. It has more flavor in one bowl than some seven course meals have in all of their assorted dishes. Please go out to a Thai restaurant and try it if you’re curious because it’s really incredible. Subtle, nuanced, aromatic, but most importantly, utterly tasty. I also got my first real glimpse into staples of Thai food. Lots of fried seafood. Lots of rice. Lots of ambiguous meat (delicious yes, but ambiguous, you’re never quite sure if you’re getting chicken or pork or some other anonymous meat). Lots of spice. Like coughing, gulping water, nose running at the table spicy. I have to admit something. Before I came here I thought I could handle spicy. I put hot sauce liberally on things (the extra hot kind even). I sought spicy food out at restaurants. I grew up with a Texan for a mom after all. But coming here, well, I realize I don’t know from spicy. Thai mild is American extra extra extra hot. And I’m pretty sure all I’ve had so far is mild (apparently they don’t usually serve real spicy to farang-aka foreigners who obviously can’t handle it). But wow, even mild, is the kind of spicy where you’re panting by the end of it. Awesome but intense. Random aside, I’ve learned that to combat spicy food you’re not supposed to drink water. Water actually makes it worse and spreads the spiciness around in your mouth. What you’re really supposed to do it eat rice. Hence why every meal here is served with tons of the white stuff.

After lunch we had our first course of lessons (we had many over the orientation) and of course one day into the trip I immediately get sick. I never get sick at home and one day in Thailand and my throat is horribly sore and I feel like poo. This did allow me a glimpse into how pharmacies work in Thailand though. Pretty much everything is over the counter. I walked into a pharmacy the next morning and literally pointed to the amoxicillin behind the counter. And it cost ten dollars, no insurance, no nothing. I’ll let you digest that for a second. Pretty much we are grossly overcharged in America and maybe there’s some good reason behind it, but I’m just saying. How come in Thailand, a relatively less affluent culture than the US, people can get their meds for dirt cheap while I spent 80 dollars a refill on my prescription meds before I came here. End of mini rant.

So this blog is crazy long and I’ve only reached my second day. I think I’m going to have to leave it here for the moment and continue where I left off next time. I’ll try to post more frequently and get caught up to the present. I will say that this experience is only a week old and already I’m feeling like something important is happening to me. Thailand is pretty amazing. I miss home, but I’m this trip it for the long haul (or the 5 month haul). I can’t wait to see what happens next.

1 comment:

Catherine said...

Hi Liz,

I just wanted to extend a warm welcome to Thailand.

(not that you need additional warmth :-)

Reading through your first experiences in the Kingdom takes me back to my own.

I wasn't coming into Thailand fresh from a Western country, but it was intense all the same.

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