Tuesday, December 22, 2009

What I Wish for My Niece

My niece's arrival is imminent and will probably happen sometime in the next 12 hours, depending on her preference of birthdate. I've never been an aunt before, have never had this role. But I can't wait. Already, even before her birth, I have so many hopes for this little girl. And so, in no particular order, here are those hopes, little niece of mine:

-that your favorite Disney princess is Belle, because let's face it, Belle kicks some serious ass. Not only is she the only princess who is an active reader, but Belle blows off Gaston because she clearly wants way more than some pretty boy (cough, every other Disney prince, cough). She refuses to let the Beast order her around, fangs or no fangs, AND at the end of the movie she comes to the Beast's rescue aided only by a teacup and some major gumption.

-that you make every man's head turn when you walk into a room and make their heads spin when you engage them in conversation

-that you can (when you're 21 of course) down a beer, crack open an oyster and take the meat off a whole chicken

- that you find the coastal South, whether or not you ever are a full time resident of it. Even if it's just on some vacation as a little girl, when you play in the sand or stare out the window of a car driving over a tidal marsh, I hope you find this place because a life without the coastal south is not a life at all in my opinion.

-that you love the ocean and find peace whenever you are near it

-that you believe in all sorts of irrational things, Santa and God and love and happy endings

-that you love snow, especially because you will be born when there's still a good bit of it left on the ground

-that you make mistakes, not big, tragic ones, but those little, ultimately unimportant mistakes that really define a life

-that you follow beauty, because out of everything in this world, sometimes I'm convinced that beauty( the soulful, honest kind, not the superficial, surface variety) is the only thing that really lasts in this world

-that you read anything and everything, that you fall deeply and hopelessly into the big woods and open plains of Laura Ingalls Wilder and the cozy New England home of the March sisters. I hope you sit with Francie on that fire-escape in Brooklyn and sail down rivers with Huck and Jim. I hope you swear to never go hungry again with Scarlett and discover magic alongside Harry. I hope you one day watch a bullfight alongside Hemingway, ache for true love next to Gatsby, fall in love with that typical bad boy, Heathcliff. I hope you are equally comfortable in the worlds of Jodi Picoult and Ian McEwan. I hope you befriend that hungry caterpillar and the oh so spoiled Eloise. I hope one day you cry with Anne Frank and mourn Charlotte along with Wilbur. I hope you believe in the world on the other side of that wardrobe as much as you believe in chocolate factories run by tiny, magical men. For that matter I hope you read every book Roald Dahl has ever written, because no childhood is complete without James and his peach and the BFG and Matilda. I hope you swoon for Mr. Darcy and follow Marlowe into the heart of darkness. I hope you discover Indians in your cupboard and castles in your attic. I hope you find solace and comfort and inspiritation and all of those wonderful things you can find so easily in books. I hope you crease your pages and wear down your covers and treat your books as old friends.

-that you can one day quote Casablanca and Zoolander in equal measure

-that you love chocolate

-that you see every single corner of this world

-that whether you're Buddhist or Catholic or Muslim or Agnostic you believe deeply in an all encompassing love, a force greater than yourself

-that you go to Paris when you are young and still a little bit naive

-that no boy ever breaks your heart but that you always leave your heart open to be broken

-that you sing along, loudly, to your favorite songs, and that you never think you're too cool to sing loudly along with Journey

-that you have a best friend

-that you have one perfect dance at a middle school or high school dance, with that boy to that song, trust me, you'll know what I'm talking about when the time comes

-that you obsess over at least one boy band, preferably more

-that you go to your first concert and scream and sing so loud that you're hoarse for days

-that you watch Sixteen Candles, The Breakfast Club, and Pretty in Pink, preferably all at once, and realize that it doesnt get much better than the 80s

-that you discover Beverly Hills 90210, and realize oh wait, it did get better than the 80s, in the 90s!

-that at some point you watch every single episode of Saved by the Bell

-that you cook only if you darn well like to cook, stay home with the children only if you darn well want to stay home with the children, and realize how blessed and fortunate you are to even have these choices

-that you can curse like a sailor around friends and act like a perfect lady in company

-that you are at ease in stillettos or sneakers, dresses or sweatpants

-that you never diet or think you're anything other than beautiful

-that you will let a boy open a literal door but metaphorically open your own, that you realize that you can be whatever you want to be, and that anyone who tells you otherwise is a fool

-that you act foolish and young and silly on many, many occasions

-that you have at least one slumber party where you stay up all night

-that you have at least one slumber party where you and your friends hold a sceance and/or try and levitate someone and/or play truth or dare

-that you realize that no trait in this world is as important as human decency, that one kind person is worth more than a hundred cool people

-that you're smarter than your aunt and accept that "popular" means absolutely squat, that you never try to be someone you're not in order to get in with the cool crowd, trust me on this one kid

-that you're always good to your momma and sweet to your daddy, no matter how old you are

-that you never act dumb to impress a boy, also trust me on this niece of mine, any boy who likes you because he thinks you're dumb is a waste of your time

-that you believe in fate and destiny and all of that stuff that adults have a hard time believing in

-that at least once you ride a really big roller coaster

-that at least once, as a pre-teen or teenager, you spend an entire day at the mall with your best friend

-that you not text until you're 20

-that you not Facebook until you're 30

-that you realize that one human connection is worth more than 1,000 facebook friends, that you leave the cell phone in your purse during dinner (on silent I might add), that you never text in company unless you ask the person you're with if they mind

-that you're a dutiful grandaughter

-that you NEVER agree to go out on a date with a boy if he asks you via text/Facebook/gchat/any other way wherein you do not hear his actual, live voice

-that you hold your ground and wait for boys to ask you out on proper dates, not hang-outs, not meet-ups, but an honest to goodness date. I don't care if this is the year 2025 or 2030, dates will never go out of style, you're worth it

-that you watch a lot of TV (just don't tell your mom and dad!)

-that you love politics and fashion, celebrity gossip and sports, that you never let anyone tell you that you can't love all of these things simultaneously

-that you have that one teacher who changes your life

-that you really love food

-that you're never afraid to ask questions

-that you identify with Buffy and think Bella is a vapid, idiot

-that you're not afraid to dance, even if you're a spaz, especially if you are a spaz

-that you find a dream, whether it's to be president (you are a DC child after all) or to study rare birds on some tropical island, find what you want to do, what you love to do and fight for it

-that you understand that class is a conscious choice, not an income bracket

-that you say the word "y'all"

-that you're opinionated and stubborn as a mule

-that you stay away from box hair dye

-that you never come within a ten foot radius of Sun-In (if they even still make that stuff)

-that you watch Titanic before the age of 12 and absolutely weep

-that you're just as happy playing basketball as playing dress-up

-that you realize that Barbies are not representative of the way women actually look

-that you realize that models are not representative of the way women actually look

-that you realize actresses are not representative of the way women actually look

-that you have a stuffed animal to sleep with

-that you're happy and healthy and loved every single second of your life

I hope all of this for you and more little girl. And I can't wait to watch you grow up.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Traveler Tales: Part Two - Railay

 Raily was always too good to be true. That much was obvious from the moment our boat struck off from Krabi Town and within minutes began to pass looming limestone cliffs so big a small village could fit on top of one. The pea soup thick mist surrounding us and the method of transportation only made things more surreal. You see, there are no ferries to Railay. Railay does not have any kind of harbor or pier. To get to Railay one takes one of these.

This is a longtail-boat, and it makes an inordinately loud putting noise, so loud in fact that you have to shout to be heard over it. My two lovely traveling buddies here, Tara and Caitlyn, and I, along with about 100 pounds of combined weight in backpacks and other assorted carry on items (we did not pack light) rode this little vessel the forty-five minutes or so to Railay. Now if you're picturing an island in the United States, you would assume there would be some way of transferring oneself and one's luggage to land without having to literally jump off the boat into the water. But Thailand is not the United States. Thai people don't eat peanut butter sandwiches or live in the year 2009 (I swear I am not lying about this). And they also don't stay dry upon arrival at an island.

To be fair, our boat driver warned us. At the Krabi Town "pier" we sat surrounded by a group of Thai boat drivers, half joking amongst themselves in Thai, half conversing with us in English. Low tide, they all repeated. No good to go to Railay at low tide. Must swim. Okay well maybe they didn't say the swim part but their looks inferred as much. So really it's our own fault. We pulled up to East Railay beach, a crescent moon of shore surrounded by sheer, craggy, monstrously huge limestone cliffs. None of really noticed that a handful of other long tail boats were stopped a football field or so away from the sand. We were too busy "ooing" and "ahhing" and OH MY GOD ARE WE REALLY HERE -ing. But then the boat driver stopped the boat, cut off the engine, hoisted a little ladder onto the side, and looked at us expectantly. Luckily I had already been in Thailand six months at this time. If this was pre-Thailand I would take one look at the ladder leading directly into the Andaman Sea, and be all "excuse me? you expect me to back-stroke the rest of the way?". But I was fully ingrained into the often humorously bonkers aspects of Thai life. So I shrugged, hoisted myself over the ladder, hitched up my dress, and took the splash. I nearly fell over into the knee deep water but managed to stay aloft. I had visions in my head of a casual, breezy arrival at Railay, wearing a sundress, sunglasses perched jauntily atop my head. Instead I was going to be slipping and sliding my way down "the road" (as our driver called it). The road = a slim, slippery completely underwater concrete surface extending all the way from the beach to where the boats were. And I was going to be doing all this with a 25 pound backpack on my back and a laptop case held frantically over my head, all the while muttering to myself "please don't slip and fall into the water with all of your possesions and laptop". In the rain. Did I mention the very moody and atmospheric mist had turned into a full fledged monsoon? And when I say monsoon, I don't mean it in the way some people say monsoon when it's raining a tad hard. I mean an honest to God, rainy season, South-East Asian MONSOON, people. So taking baby steps, one by one, me and my friends made our way down the path. And then we went back out to the boat to do it again. So by the time we had all of our stuff on "dry" land, I was drenched to within an inch of my life and covered in sand and mud.

And I could have cared less. Because I was in Railay. And like I said before, Railay is simply too good to be true. And we were on the "ugly" beach, as if ugly has any meaning in a place like Railay. Ugly in Raily means that the limestone formation over there doesn't have as much green on it, and that beautiful clear water has a few mangrove trees cluttering it up, and that sea turtle has really let himself go. I mean seriously. Loaded up with luggage, we checked out the "road signs" (a wooden post with hand written signs pointing to the different hotels and restaurants). Then we set off on foot down the path leading off the beach. There are no cars on Railay. There are no roads on Railay. It is wonderful and perfectly tiny and quaint. So we pack muled our way over to where our hotel was, Railay West, the "pretty" beach. And as much as I joke about East Railay being ugly, well when you get to West Railay you sort of see what the guide books mean. You almost want to nudge the person next to you and say, "my GOD that last place was a real dog." Because West Railay would make the French Riviera seem homely. It's like walking onto the world's most realistic movie set, and even though you can smell the salt water and feel the ocean breeze, it has to be fake. There's no way this could be real. The three of us arrived at West Railay and stood there like cartoon characters, our mouths wide open and jaws on the sand. It didn't matter that it was monsooning and that we'd just taken an unexpected dip with all of our belongings. Nothing mattered except that we were there, staring out at this (albeit a rainer view of it).

This place is the kind of beautiful that changes you. It's the kind of beautiful that can never really be summed up by a photograph or post card. It's the kind of beaitful that isn't supposed to really exist. And I do not understand how the Thai people who live here or near here can stand all this beauty all the time. After a certain point wouldn't your head explode with too much beauty? I was there four nights and five days and my head nearly exploded. Before we came here I read a lot in guide books or on websites, saying that Railay was the most beautiful place in Thailand but that it had been "ruined" by development. Well clearly the people who write for Lonely Planet or Travelfish have never been to Myrtle Beach or anywhere on the US's eastern coast for that matter. Because Railay may have a handful of tasteful hotels and beachy bars and restaurants, but they would have to build a 10 story Planet Hollywood globe to ruin this place. And maybe my persepctive was skewed. You know there is an advantage to traveling during monsoon season. There were some tourists on Railay but compared to the beaches I'm used to back home during the summer, this place was barren. Unfortunately the few tourists who were here happened to be of the European speedo variety but what can you do? Those men will never wear any swimsuits that do not look like they were made for a ten year old girl.

The whole place was just so unabashadely wonderful. I loved everything about Railay. Our first night we ventured back over to East Railay (we took a "shortcut" in the dark that unfortunately led straight through the rainforest, but we made it out alive). West Railay may be the pretty gal on the block, but East Railay is backpacker central. And you know what, yes, backpackers can sometimes be painfully obnoxious and loud and rude. I cannot tell you the number of drunken Australians I encoutered during my travels (seriously no nationality gets drunker than Australians, doesnt matter the time or the place, you could be on a 7am nature hike and you will run into boozy Australians). Yet part of me loves these backpacker enclaves. I love the sense of community. Any backpacker area, particularly on an island with no cars, is guaranteed to feel like a drunker version of summer camp. You run into the same people again and again. You strike up conversations with total strangers, because everyone has one important thing in common. In the case of Railay everyone was there, in this place of places. We had a drink at one little bar, with those cliffs looming just as largely at night as they did during the day. Then we ventured farther down, passing Bob Marley bars (there is always a Bob Marley bar at any SE Asian island you go to), passing completely empty bars with thumping club music (ditto). The water was at high tide and so there was about a foot of walkable sand. The mangrove trees cast long shadows on the sand underneath an almost full moon. And then we made it to the end of East Railay, to what was literally called, The Last Bar.

Oh, the Last Bar. I could write a book about this bar. I could dedicate a poem to it. In my mind it's up there with Casablanca's Rick's Cafe, with Cheer's Cheers. This bar was nothing more than a cement floor, a few dozen tables and chairs, a little stage. But it was in my mind, the quintessential backpacker, expat, traveler summer camp bar. That's one thing I really miss, a good expat bar. You can't get that at home. You can't get that bittersweet feeling of sipping a cold beer in a foreign country, listening to Western music, surrounded by other travelers and foreigners, knowing that you're not the only one who is both deliriously happy to be there while at the same time missing home. There's such a great collection of people in these places. There's the aforementioned boozy Aussies. There's the Eurotrash, all short shorts, long nails, leathery tans and blindingly white blonde hair, so brittle looking that you want to touch it just to see if it really is that crispy. There's the adventure sports guys; you can always spot them. These are the boys (and sometimes girls) who follow waves or sharks or big giant rock formations around the world. They're bruised and scarred and give off that undeniable look of health and vigor. There's the older Western guys, in from other parts of Thailand, often sitting with a very young Thai girlfriend. There are the Thai people of course, smiley and happy and even from a distance, just glowing with kindness. And there are a hundred other types, and at The Last Bar, they were all in attendance. We met a shirtless, heavily tatooed British man who was the only Western full time resident of Railay. He provided us with a hookah and shisha (don't worry mom its legal!), and told us about the other Railay, during high season. He informed us that at high season every single room is booked, to the point where people slept on the floor of the bar. We met a charming, young gay man who had just come from Kuala Lumpur (one of our destinations) and happily gave us advice. We sat sipping cold beer for hours, practicing our Thai with our waiter, and by the time we left we felt like we had been coming to this bar for years.

We went back every night for the remainder of our stay. The first three nights everyone pumped us up for this AMAZING singer who would be there the last night. The older Thai lady who worked there assured us he had the voice of an angel and would make us sob. How could we not go? And so we went, for only the fourth time, but what felt like the 400th. We took our usual seats, ordered some cold ones (and some of the only cheaper Thai food in Railay), and waited for this vocal phenomenon. Finally he came on, along with a band, and launched into one of the most entertaining musical sets I've ever listened to. The guy had a good voice. I wouldn't necessarily call it the voice of an angel. My eyes stayed dry. But in that setting, in that bar, it was about as perfect as you can get. He played songs from home, the way all of these Thai bands do at Western patronized bars. And he played them well, oldies and not so oldies, everything from the Beatles to Jason Mraz. By the end of the night we unabashedly sang along. When he busted out Take Me Home, Country Roads, I sang that song like he was singing about my Virginia, instead of that less cool Western counterpart. Looking around, at all of the assorted nationalities, at all of the misfits and restless souls, I fell in love with this place. Because at a good expat bar you're simultaneously home and miles from it. And The Last Bar, as far as expat bars go, was the best.

Now before you start worrying about me, let me tell you that I did not spend all of my time in Railay at a bar. Oh there were days of lying on beaches, of sitting besides beaches eating fresh fruit picked off the trees above my head. There was the time at night where the entire ocean glowed, something about phytoplankton and algae. I can't define it for you in scientifc terms, but I can tell you that it doesn't happen that often and we were there for it. Picture swimming in the warmest waters, looking down, and every time you move a hand or a foot the entire ocean erupts in shimmering bubbles of light. Picture the waves crashing and a thousand tiny flashbulbs go off. It stormed pretty much once a day while we were there (again rainy season, go figure) but I didnt care. We stayed on the beach until the clouds came, and then we moved up to the hotel's restaurant right off the sand and watched the storm move in. Even the storms in Railay are off the charts beautiful, these big, rapid explosions of rain that leave as suddenly as they come.


At dusk, as the freckled, sun burnt Westerners left the beach to shower and cool off, the Thai contingent would move in. The first day we could hear this insane shouting and screaming from our bungalow. We walked up to the beach to investigate and saw that it was full of Thai people in jerseys. There was a game of volleyball next to a game of soccer next to a game of some sport I had never seen before. Apparently this was the Railay games, where presumably the staff of the hotels and bars (there is not much in the way of a Thai town or permanent residences here) ferociously compete against each other in different sports. This could have been the World Cup, the way these people cheered each other on. Me and my friends would sit at tables with icy fruit shakes and watch these games as the sun sank into the sky, the end of another day as long and perfect as the best day of summer.

And then there was the rock climbing. If you know me you wouldn't necessarily picture rock climbing and me in the same sentence, or even just the same general vicinity. But Railay is world famous for their rock climbing (rememeber me talking about all those big limestone cliffs, well they're there for more than just to look pretty), and my friend wanted to do it, so I thought what the hey. We rock climbed the second day and after one day in very tropical sun I was a nice, healthy magenta color. But I soldiered on. We met our Thai guide, got our harnesses and special shoes (you can't just wear any old shoes to rock climb, doncha know), and walked along the shore until we got to an area with a handful of other climbers. I saw people on the ground with harnesses on, fiddling with ropes, and thought, well this can't be that bad! And then I looked up. High, high, so very high above me, were people, human beings dangling off giant cliffs, at the complete mercy of a harness and the person beneath them holding the rope. And that's when the first little alarm bell inside my head went off. I was supposed to do this, risk life and limb climbing up a jagged piece of earth. Why would I do such a thing? Humans aren't supposed to climb things past the age of ten. And even then it's trees, sensible things to climb. Who climbs a jagged piece of earth? In the rain no less! But before I had time to go into a full blown panic it was time for our first "climb". Now looking back this was a tiny, baby cliff, about as high as a fairly short tree. This was the beginner cliff designated for people who well, look like me, about as weak and unathletic as they come. My muscles are practically concave. To attach the rope our guide climbed this thing without a harness or rope. He practically did it in one leap. But at the time, I looked at this glorified pebble and saw a mountain. I might as well have been looking at Mt. Everest, so terrifed was I of this baby cliff designed for dogs and toddlers. And that's about how I acted as I climbed it, all shaky and "please don't let me FALL!" and "SWEET JESUS I CANT DO IT." I admit this with no pride and with a great deal of embarassment. It was not my finest moment. Here I was, surrounded by world class climbers, people who were hundreds of feet up in the air above me, whistling and solving complex math equations while they did it, and I was having a nervous breakdown over something that could have been in my backyard. You know the scene in Spinal Tap when they perform on stage and this big, dramatic replica of stone henge is supposed to come down and instead its this teeny, tiny thing which can easily be trampled by the dancing dwarves. This cliff might as well have been that teen, tiny stonehenge.

The ground is about two feet below my feet, and I was shaking. I couldnt even reach the top. I came down and tried to avoid eye contact with anyone who witnesses this travesty, while loudly talking about how slippery the darn thing was, and of course I would have been able to climb it if not for the slipperiness people! And this was the beginning. There were three climbs left. Now my flight response was in full effect. But what other time would I get the chance to rock climb a  limestone cliff in  Railay. I couldn't just give up. Embarassment be darned. I would embarass myself repeatedly if I had too. And I did embrass myself, to a lesser degree the next climb and to an even lesser degree the one after that. The rain was really starting to come down. You'd look up and see a hundred tiny specks of water shoot down from the far away top of the cliff. My hands were scratched. My legs were bruised. But against all odds I was starting to enjoy myself. And then the fourth climb, the hardest one.For this climb we'd have to arch backwards for part of it, climb up and out, very tricky with the whole gravity thing. But two miraculous things happened. The first, my friend Cailtyn, told me she'd buy me a drink if I made it to the third of these ledge things in the rock, fairly high up. And well for a backpacker with limited funds the promise of a free drink is quite the motivator. The second miraculous thing that happened is that I stopped being scared. The first teeny baby climb I was terrified of falling. I knew I was in a harness. I knew there were ropes and a very strong Thai man controlling the ropes. But still, it's hard to push aside that basic human instinct that falling off a cliff is a bad thing. And if you're scared you can't climb. You're afraid to reach up and balance your foot on that miniscule little outcrop of rock. You're scared to arch backward. So you do the wrong things, try and pull yourself up with your hands (a big no no in rock climbing). But after my 3rd or 7th fall (who's counting), I finally got it. I didn't need to be scared. I had fallen off a cliff repeatedly that day and I was fine. Every time I fell, the harness caught me and I would simply dangle and spin in the air like a broadway actress playing Peter Pan. And so for this fourth climb I just went for it. I listened to my guide. He said to lift off with my right foot and put my left foot in that tiny little crevice, well I was darn well going to do it. And I did fall, but as soon as I fell I kept going. And you know what, I made it to that third ledge, AND I kept going. And from far below me I heard claps and cheers. Now this may have been delirium (by this point I was probably the most physically exhausted I have ever been). It may just have been that these nice people felt sorry for me and they were clapping for me the way you'd clap for a small child who goes number 2 in the toilet. But honestly, I dont care.

You know how people always talk about a runner's high? Well I've always thought runners were insane and that was just crazy talk. But I totally get it. I was doing something so physically demanding that the next day my arms hurt just hanging limply at my sides, but I was loving it. I pushed myself beyond anything I could imagine and it felt awesome. The rest of the day I couldn't stop smiling. That night at The Last Bar, bruised and battered, we ran into two Scottish rock climbers who had been climbing with us that day. Both of these men were experienced climbers who come to Thailand once a year just to climb. One of them turned to me and said "you did pretty good out there." It was one of the best compliments I've ever recieved.


And then, cruelly, impossibly, it was time to leave Railay. This time we walked quite a distance out into the water with our stuff, then climbed into a long-tail boat (which is impossible to do with any dignity I might add) which took us out to deeper water to get onto a ferry. But maybe it's good they make it so hard to get to and leave Railay. It's fitting you have to earn this place a little bit. Railay shouldn't come easy. It's too beautiful, so beautiful in fact that I still can't really believe it was all real. Of course I'm being overly sentimental and nostalgic. I'm building Railay up into this mythical place. It couldn't really have been that perfect, right?

I tell myself, logically that it couldn't have been. But maybe forget that rule that everything in life has to have a flaw. Forget that we have to be reasonable and practical, that nothing and nowhere is perfect. Maybe Railay quite simply was.

Friday, December 18, 2009

snow :)

Lord I sometimes miss Thailand. There are moments where I ache for that place. But tonight, as the snow falls down softly upon my Richmond, as the white of the sky and the white of the ground create a different shade of night, I can't help but be ridiculously happy to be home.

I hope I will always be madly, truly, deeply in love with snow. I hope it always makes me feel this way, because tonight, even in the midst of such change and uncertainty in my life, I am filled with a renewed sense of wonder, connected to that thread of childhood hope that is so often missing in the adult world. I hope the sound of snow falling always breaks my heart in this, the most wonderful way. Because my God, is there any more beautiful sound on earth, that soft half silence as the world stops?

Snow is one of my favorite things, if not my absolute favorite thing. It makes things new and fresh and beautiful. It makes everything quieter, gentler somehow.

I never want to see snow as a nuisance or a bother or inconvenience. I only ever want to see it as that singular, perfect thing that keeps me standing at the window, unable to get enough of the sight of it, unable to ever want it to end.
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