Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Swift as a Coursing River

Friday was my final day of languages classes, and this is how it began: At 5 AM, with Disney music and an inspirational speech from Sam Borchard. That was the only thing that could possibly have gotten me and Megan out of bed, considering we had disembarked from the midnight vegetable van barely 4 hours beforehand. Yet somehow we roused ourselves, gathered ropes, harnesses, and anchor-building gear, and zoomed off towards Doi Suthep in the early dawn.

Aside: It's so hard to believe that I haven't put up a blog post in a month. I am truly sorry that I've been so un-vigilant about exporting my daily adventures. Actually, I have been blogging, just not about myself -- if you are really curious, you can stay updated on what's going on in my work life (which is essentially my whole life) by checking recent additions to our website, or by becoming a fan of CMRCA on Facebook.

To put things in perspective, I haven't had a day off since early October. Of course, "not having a day off" could mean anything from moving into my new apartment (more accurately, room) to taking fifty 13- and 14-year-olds from Dubai climbing, caving, and rappelling for the day... r MC-ing a bouldering competition on the now-deserted site of a national flower exhibition that was held by royal decree in 2006... Or spending a dozen dusty hours terracing belay platforms at the base of the main cliff at Crazy Horse... Or designing a team-building-with-GPS scavenger hunt for Thai meeting and convention planners on the grounds of the Mandarin Oriental Dhara Dhevi, one of the most exquisite resort hotels in Southeast Asia.

This isn't complaining; this is BRAGGING! I have the coolest life EVER!!!! But here in Thailand it often seems like people are either doing nothing, or they are trying to do everything. And if you happen to work for one or two of those "everything" people, you barely have time to sleep, let alone write in your journal, let alone translate that into something suitable for the internet. Still, I promise to be more communicative in the coming weeks. I owe a lot to anyone who cares about what I'm doing from day to day way over here in Southeast Asia.

Anyway, Sam and Megan and I zoomed towards the mountain on our motorbikes, knowing that whatever happened next, their final 9-or-so hours in Chiang Mai would be well spent. We had discovered the waterfall two days earlier on a jaunt up to the mountain's famous temple, Wat Doi Suthep, which I can just barely see from the west-facing window of my new room. Standing near the spill-off point of the second of three successive 30+ foot cascades, peering over the edge to try and see what happened to the water down below, either Megan or Sam had said "I just wish we could rappel off this." Then we had one of those fatefully epic moments that foolish adventurers know so well: We had no excuse not to rappel off it.

So that was how we came to be standing there again about 36 hours later, as the sun rose, setting up an anchor that redirected to one side of the falls in hopes of not getting the rope wet (ha, ha). We did two consecutive rappels, using a tightly-woven cluster of bamboo trees as our second anchor, and lowering through ferns and spray into a thigh-deep pool to finish. Mostly because he wanted to, Sam rappelled down INSIDE the final waterfall and got ridiculously wet; Megan and I took the drier route off to the side because she is smart and reasonable, and because I had to go to language class immediately afterwards.

Leaving Sam and Megan to dry out the rope and enjoy the morning, I leapt on my motorbike and zoomed away towards Payap University, where my language class is held. However, I got on the wrong circular Superhighway (the Chiang Mai road systems are a bit confusing) and ended up overshooting the University by one Superhighway intersection. This meant I had to backtrack. But the way I had to backtrack happened to be the same way I had commuted to Payap for the first six weeks of my time here, when I lived out in the village.

As I passed all the familiar landmarks (the prominent billboards that marked the place I used to get off the yellow Songthaeow, the elementary school and apartment buildings that I would walk past on the days I came to Payap early to be on Skype) I was momentarily transported back to my first day of language classes, when I rode the Songthaeow all the way to the big market in Chiang Mai because I had no idea where I was, or where I was going.

Now I was heading to my last day of language classes. Lucky I took the wrong highway. Time is as swift as a coursing river, and most days I find it hard to keep track -- but for those final five minutes of the drive to Payap, I was fully aware of how much 2 months had changed.

Extra credit: What song did Sam play to inspire me and Megan out of bed in the morning?

Monday, October 19, 2009

The Princess and the Giant

Yesterday was a great example of why I will never be more Thai than the sushi at the Siamese Plate.

My two bosses Josh and Kat, the co-founders of CMRCA, are getting married in November.  It sounds like it's going to be an amazing weekend -- half in Thai and half in English, on a mountain somewhere north of Chiang Mai, near where Kat grew up.  All of the guests, or at least all of the company staff, are wearing traditional Thai Lanna dress.  For women, this means waist-to-floor length patterned skirts, silver belts, silk wrap-around shirts, and a variety of embroidered sashes and jackets, as well as lots of nature-themed jewelry.  Men wear light cotton slacks and these sort of classy shepherd shirts, with loop buttons and three-quarter-length sleeves.

Anyway, yesterday the office girls and I drove to a suburb of Chiang Mai, where a co-op of Thai women make and rent traditional Lanna clothing.  It was in a beautiful old wooden Thai house/pavillion that sort of grew into the trees, so vines hung down in open corridors and green leaves (still attached to branches) lay piled on the roof like snow.  In one long room the seamstresses had hundreds of pieces on display, as well as manequins demonstrating about a dozen different styles.  My coworkers were so giggly and excited -- just like girls going to weddings all over the world, I think -- and we all spent the next 20 minutes pawing through the patterned skirts, looking for that perfect color and design!

One by one Dao, Pui, Nid, Boom, and Benz found their favorite skirt and changed into it.  Then the seamstress ladies chose a complementary silk wrap-shirt, tied them in the style each girl chose, and picked out jackets or blouses or sashes.  They tied their hair back in buns and pinned on big fat fake buns (I have the feeling traditional Lanna women didn't cut their hair, EVER) secured with Titania-esque tiaras of silver leaves.  I was amazed... all of my low-maintenance, capri-and-t-shirt wearing coworkers transformed into classical beauties before my eyes!

I would have been much more giggly and excited myself if it wasn't for a certain uneasy foreboding that had settled in my stomach (and it wasn't the spicy pumpkin curry I had for lunch, thank you very much).  The seamstresses left me to the end, and as I compared skirts of all colors and patterns, they kept giving me worried sidelong looks.  I started to feel a sense of real cultural displacement.  Soon the reason for seamstress' nervousness became clear: after I'd changed into the relatively simple silvery-purple skirt that I'd selected, one of them hustled over to me and said in this quiet-but-emphatic way that is very typical of Thai women, "sai mai dai! san guhn bai!"

Or, "You can't wear that.  It's too short."

She was right, of course: the skirt came to a few inches above my ankles.  Over the next few minutes, I got the sense that Lanna women are serious about ankle modesty.  The seamstresses combed the whole shop for a skirt that might reach from my waist to the floor, to no avail.  Besides being possessed of secret ankles, Lanna women very rarely clear 5'4''.  

In the end they abandoned the idea that I could be made culturally congruous, and put me in the longest skirt they had.  See the picture, unless you are offended by bare ankles.  It was a wonderful outfit and I felt lucky to be wearing it!  My coworkers happily included me in a fun, girly, and self-admiring photo shoot, without a second thought.  But still, I felt bad that the seamstresses had been so uncomfortable.  Maybe they will manage to lengthen my skirt before the wedding.

Me and P'Pui as Lanna princesses (I call her "P" because she's older than me; if she was being formal she would call me "Nong Nali.")

Obviously, I'll never be Thai on the outside.  But as you can see, I am actually happy in this picture, not mortified at my extreme un-Thai-ness.  I can work on being Thai in other ways: Through language classes in the morning, work in the afternoon, fun with friends in the evening, and trying to find a place to live whenever I can. 

Happy Autumn to everyone, from the end of the Thai rainy season!

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Language Barrier Killed the Radio Star

Life at my homestay in the village was full of surprises. One Saturday I was helping my host-aunt and uncle cook for their fantastic street-side food stand. A Ning had a very funny attitude about helpers. She liked to select the most exciting imaginable cooking task, such as a bowl of 1000 tiny chilis that needed to have their stems removed, and hand it to me with a big glowing smile: "geeeft for you!" Oh, the joys of participant observation.

We were out on their back porch performing various food-related tasks when I suddenly heard my name on the radio. At first I thought I must have been hearing things, but then the radio said "America" too...

I should explain that this is a local radio station, a one-man show produced and hosted by the venerable DJ Kong. Mae Noi says that everyone in the villages of Doi Saket, Mae Rim, and San Sai listen to him every day. To preserve my dignity I prefer to think he broadcasts within 100 meters of his house. He plays emotional Thai rock music and gets a lot of calls from older women on staticky cell phones, who seem to be reporting the latest village gossip.

Still hoping that I had misheard, I glared at the little plastic radio and listened. Unfortunately, my Thai was just good enough to understand what the DJ said next, which was "What is Nali doing?"

A woman's voice replied: "She's chopping eggplants."

At this point I could do nothing except brandish my knife bemusedly at A Ning, who was holding her cell phone and waving me over to talk with the DJ ("geeeft for you!"). There was no escape. I spent the next minute or so stuttering on the Doi Saket regional radio station, our own little radio echoing each grossly mispronounced word and nervous laugh on a half-second time delay. My host family was helpless with laughter. As, I imagine, was everyone else in the vicinity, at least those who were fans of DJ Kong.

The end result of this episode was that the parental generation of my host family decided that DJ Kong and I were destined for each other. I endured a steady stream of DJ Kong jokes until later that weekend, when after a beautiful dinner at a mountain lake near Doi Saket, they dragged me to his house. A Ning, who had never met DJ Kong in person before, was beside herself with excitement. Grinning from ear to ear, Mae Noi handed me some fruit to give to our host. No Noi (my host brother's girlfriend) drew me aside conspiratorially and assured me that DJ Kong was not actually handsome. What a scene!

DJ Kong turned out to be a kind man in his early 50s, with a simple but impressive broadcasting setup in his garage. He gave us a quick tour, and though I assured him repeatedly that it was not necessary, he insisted on interviewing me for the show. Live, of course. Resistance was futile, so I sat in a chair next to him, half delighted at the silliness of the situation and half dreading my inevitable embarrassment. No Noi and Mae Noi were poised at my shoulders, ready to whisper the appropriate answers to the DJ's questions in my ear.

After a short, pathetically one-sided "interview," we began receiving calls from listeners. If understanding DJ Kong's questions had been tricky, following the callers' speech was totally impossible. Through static and feedback we would hear something that was obviously a question for me, though I'd have no idea what it was; everyone in the room would look at me expectantly while I gaped at them in uselessness. Then No Noi and Mae Noi would lean in and whisper different things in both my ears. Sometimes I recognized one word from the garbled question and ran with it, trying to guess what they had asked. That worked a couple of times, until a disastrous misinterpretation caused me to mistakenly announce to the entire Doi Saket region that I don't have a boyfriend.

Eventually DJ Kong would quietly answer the caller for me, and I would scramble to close the call with a frazzled "khop khun kha" (thank you). For the next few weeks the following scene was repeated several times, at the temple, at local restaurants, and especially at the market: An older lady would stop to look curiously at me. Mae Noi, as always, would introduce me as her daughter. The lady would laugh at this, and Mae Noi would point at me conspiratorially, saying something about "DJ Kong!" Then the lady would say to me, with a look of dawning recognition, "Nali is chopping eggplants!"

So that was who I was in Doi Saket: an idiot, a novelty, a daughter, and a radio star.

Saturday, October 3, 2009

Bai Tioh!

For the past two weeks I've been on break from my morning language classes. No more 7 AM Songthaew rides, no more Skype chats in the hallway, no more pineapple smoothies. Well, I still had smoothies. But instead of working full time at CMRCA, I finished up my homestay by spending those weeks out in the village of Doi Saket. With only occasional connection to the outside world, I helped my host mother sell vegetables at the market, almost got used to not understanding 95% of what people said around me, ate sticky rice at least three times a day, read every book I have here twice, and collected all sorts of wacky adventures.

I found village life rather unpredictable, which ironically I never would have predicted. True, some things could be counted on: Every day I went to the market with my host mother to sell vegetables. But then, as I was demurely cutting the rotten bits off of cabbages and humming the theme song of a terrible Thai soap opera, a friend or relative of Mae Noi's would drop by and mention that they were going somewhere. I rarely followed these conversations, but all would become clear enough when Mae Noi turned to me and said in blessedly slow and clear Thai (as if she was speaking to a sentient rock) "Nali bai tioh, mai ka?"

Tioh (pronounced tee-oh) is the operative word here. To quote the illustrious Ted Conbeer, it translates roughly to "field trip." It could mean hopping on the back of a motorcycle to visit a beautiful waterfall, or a bizarre topiary garden with hedge mazes and bushes carefully pruned to resemble elephants, bunnies with whiskers, and a Stegosaurus. It could mean sitting cross-legged on the splintery floor of a traditional Thai house for several hours, helping the lovely daughters of a neighboring vegetable vendor sew button eyes onto stuffed horses while watching a HORRENDOUS Thai-dubbed American horror film. Or, my hopes raised by that magic predictability-defying word, I might be led on a "trip" across the street to help wash a mountain of dishes. Often it meant going to someone's house and sharing a snack or a meal, for no apparent reason other than to eat together. Maybe I would consent to dragging myself out of bed in the 5-o-clock hour to put on a white shirt and accompany Mae Noi and Yai Da (her mother-in-law) to a special festival or ceremony at the nearest temple. Once I found myself singing karaoke, drinking beer, and dancing in my host-aunt's living room with a bunch of her friends from work -- at 3 PM on a Wednesday.

Bush bunnies at the botanical garden

1,250 monks all take alms at once on the main street of Doi Saket, early in the morning, to commemorate what everyone called the "big monk's birthday." Whether he was the fattest monk, or the oldest monk, or simply the most high-ranking, I have no idea...

Definitely the most epic tioh: going to the market with A Ning (red shirt), A Tao (blue shirt), Yai Da (purple), and Mae Noi (sitting out of sight behind the cauliflower) from midnight til 6 AM. This vegetable stand is the core of the family's financial livelihood.

I love tioh. I especially love its ubiquitousness in village life, which is otherwise dominated by strict work patterns. But the real reason I said yes every time I was invited to "bai tioh" (bai means "go") was that it allowed me to get to know the people in my village life on a much more genuine level. Since our conversations were heavily limited by the language barrier, following folks around and helping with whatever they were doing afforded me a real chance to engage with them. This became my defining strategy for life in Doi Saket. The moments of connection were truly valuable, because I felt strange spending so much time with people and never knowing what they were talking about. There was a lot of English in my head, and a lot of Thai outside of it. I was a little lonely, though I was certainly never bored.

Coming soon, hopefully, in no particular order: Posts about the market, my Doi Saket radio career, following host family members to their night shift jobs, and why I am the least Thai person ever to be fitted for a traditional Lanna-style dress. Also pictures. Lots of pictures.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

New Routine, No Routine

Yes, it's true... I've been neglecting the blog thing for almost 2 weeks! Sincere apologies to anyone who actually reads this stuff (I love you, Mom). Luckily, I have a great excuse: I've spent the last 10 days helping to design and execute CMRCA's first corporate team building program! It was no practice run, either: on two weeks' notice, we put together a day of epic education and adventure for the 56 global senior members of Standard Chartered bank. That's a HUGE Asian/African/Middle Eastern/British bank which actually made 5 billion USD last year. As they say in Thailand, wooOAAOW!

Our program had them joining forces with 5-12-year-old orphan kids on a "Fantasy Expedition" in the morning -- lots of team bonding, Thai storytelling, and general mayhem. Then, after lunch, we drove the execs to a nearby park/lake/mountain/forest area for a miniature adventure race, complete with biking, kayaking, GPS navigation, culture shock, and tricky team initiatives. It went fantastically well and I promise to write more about it later. However, I'd like this blog to tell something close to the whole story, so I still have some catching up to do.

Certain beloved folks have asked after my Thai address. Here it is, though it might not do much good:

Denali Barron
Chiang Mai Rock Climbing Adventures
55/3 Ratchapkhinai Rd
T. Phra Singh
A. Muang Chiang Mai, 50200

It really is remarkable that any letters get to where they're going here. To put it mildly: Thai people and street names do not get along. This was made profoundly clear to me on my first day of attempting to find the CMRCA office. Even when I was only one or two blocks away, but didn't know it, people scrutinized the Thai business card as if it was written in pa sa Norwegian. It might as well have been. If someone asks me where I work and I tell them "Ratchapkhinai Street," they will be just as lost as I am. But if I tell them it's "near that temple and this gate into the Old City, between the donut shop and that famous hotel," they will know exactly what I'm talking about.

Even that method is full of traps, however. I recently learned that glaai with a rising tone means "close to," while glaai with a mid-tone means "far away." DAMN IT. (Actually, the postal service does work somehow. I've received two letters so far and I love, love, love them both. Thanks Jess and Julie!)

Now, out of the experimental chaos of those first few days, a pattern is beginning to emerge. Of course it is chameleon, changing every day... I stay late at the office, not wanting to leave the familial joking atmosphere for an hour of breathing fumes in the Songthaews (color-code pickup trucks, the choice form of public transportation in Chiang Mai), or I discover that if I walk 15 minutes to the highway from Payap University, the red truck will charge me 40 baht instead of 100. Even so, things are starting to solidify. It's a good feeling. Riding in a Songthaew is especially unnerving when you have no idea where you're supposed to get off.

I wake up every morning at exactly 6:03, when the Doi Saket Rooster Choir holds rehearsal immediately outside my window. Awesome. I like to laze around for a little while before trying to persuade Mae Noi to cook something for breakfast that does not involve whole fish or gummy worms. We've reached a sort of agreement about fried eggs and garlicky sauteed vegetables with steamed rice. This is quite a wonderful breakfast, though she still throws me the occasional curve ball. Such as curried snake.

Mae Noi drives me out to the Super Highway on her motorbike, where I catch a yellow Songthaew towards Chiang Mai. After about 20 minutes, I disembark on a fairly random street corner and wait for one of my friends from language class to drive the additional 5 minutes to Payap University. Sometimes I walk, which takes half an hour. From 9 to 12 I rian pa sa Thai with my fellow nak seuk sa -- a very colorful crew including two Japanese exchange students, an older British couple, two Frenchmen who are working as tutors, a Chinese graduate student, two guys named Tom who are both from Vancouver, a girl from Alaska, two Hawaiians, a nurse from LA who is volunteering at an AIDS clinic, and me. We spend a lot of time asking each other very simple questions, grumbling about tones and word order, and slowly (but surely) learning.

At noon, class is over, and I get to have lunch with Lauren and Elena -- fellow PiAers who are teaching English at Payap. Familiar faces are like fresh air. The open-air cafeteria has a wonderful smoothie bar, and I can now place my order entirely in Thai. Woohooo! At around 1 PM I depart on my walking/red truck journey to CMRCA, which is a lot simpler now that I know the name of the Old City Gate and the stupid donut shop. Then I hang out at the office until 5 or 6 -- my favorite part of the day.

Every afternoon, my supremely awesome coworkers ask me two questions: (1) what I have eaten today (2) what I learned at school. When I haltingly tell them about the day's language lesson, they take great joy in rejecting my classroom Thai and telling me how people actually talk, which tends to be completely different. I also get to clean things, boulder, tinker with the website, practice Thai tongue twisters, spontaneously write articles for Singapore climbing magazines, and create adventure races for some of the most influential bankers in the world. Ha. Tough life, right?

Just as the rest of the Chiang Mai climbing community starts to arrive for evening bouldering, I leave to take red and yellow Songthaews back to Doi Saket. This is a bummer, but I just have to remind myself that I have only 2 weeks left in the home stay, and loads of time after that to get to know these people. All is well once I get back to bahn Mae Noi, where there is inevitably a lot of beer, rice, relatives, basic conversation, and an early bedtime. Weekends are a very different story, and I'll have to start route-finding once again when I move into the city. But the most amazing thing is that my new/no routine in Thailand is thoroughly populated by family and friends. Every day presents a challenge, yet I am starting to feel comfortable -- even though I could hardly be farther away from home.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

How to Find Mae Noi's House

Take the superhighway from Chiang Mai towards the village of Doi Saket. You'll stop and go for 20 minutes, trying not to inhale too much exhaust, then drive for 20 minutes more once the traffic untangles itself and starts to flow. The countryside will open into rice patties and banana groves. Office buildings, schools and markets will become occasional gas stations and sausage stands. When you see the white spire and red-gold rooftops of Wat Doi Saket shining on a hilltop to the east, you're getting close. Turn left off the highway on a street marked with a cluster of Thai script signs and one Pepsi symbol.

Follow this winding street to a small road that parallels the long white wall of another temple, whose name is impossible for me to remember or pronounce. Turn right just after crossing the canal. Now putter down a narrow lane lined with small family homes -- some the traditional Thai wooden-box-on-stilts design, others the modern whitewashed-walls-with-tile-floors model. Depending on the time of day, you could see uniformed school children biking to class (7:30 AM), hear monks chanting in their timeless nasal monotone (7-8 PM), or pass Mae Noi going to market on her motorbike (3 AM, 10 AM). I would never want to drive a full-sized car on this residential soi, as it is only slightly wider than the Boulder Creek Path, and nearly as trafficked by people on two wheels or feet. Not to mention the stray dogs and idiotic chickens.

It's easiest to find our house on Saturday and Sunday, because my host father's younger sister A Ning, her daughter Donut, and my host brother's girlfriend No Noi set up a fantastic weekend food stand right next to our driveway. They're always there when Mae Noi and I return from the market around 5 PM, standing behind 8 silver pots of glorious cuisine. Pumpkin coconut soup, rice noodle curry with parsley, chives, and pickled onions, spicy bamboo shoots, mango sticky rice, crab papaya peanut chili salad, fish and vegetable stew, and whatever else they felt like cooking that morning. It seems like the whole village stops by on weekend afternoons -- crooked old men on bicycles, young women with healthy round-faced babies, the occasional distant teenage boy, beautiful 4'8'' grandmothers who receive utmost respect -- picking up a bag of pad ga prow muu for dinner and grinning in kindness, incredulity or surprise (can't tell) at the giant white girl.

Mai Noi's front yard is scattered with chickens, drying laundry, banana trees, and songbirds in cages made of thin bamboo. The house itself is modestly sized and uncannily spotless: living room, 2 bedrooms, bathroom, kitchen. However, it feels much more spacious than that, because we spend most of our time hanging out on the front porch with everyone in the neighborhood. Paw Teet's whole extended family -- younger sister and brother, mother, and uncle, with their respective spouses and children -- live within 50 meters of each other. Most every night the women from each household will bring a dish or two to Mae Noi's porch, and they will drink and talk and eat, while I eat and drink and listen. Sometimes, by popular demand, I bring out my guitar. For inexplicable reasons, the only American songs they know are Take Me Home, Country Roads and Have You Ever Seen the Rain. On a good night, the little kids dance like wild creatures while the men bang out percussion on their whiskey bottles.

Without question, the event of the weekend was Nou-Nou's haircut. This is our very silly terrier, who at first was so hairy I don't think he could even see. But Golf (my brother) and No Noi took him to be shaved on Sunday, and everyone at the Doi Saket market seemed to know about it. I lost track of how many times a customer or neighboring vendor would wander over with their eyes crinkled in laughter and say "Nou-Nou... SKEENHEHD!!!" He looks like a little rat-dog now, but I'm sure he is much happier. Wearing that kind of a coat in the tropics could not have been comfortable.

Perhaps to celebrate the shaving of Nou-Nou, Mae Noi made a remarkable salad for dinner yesterday. It had lettuce, tomatoes, peppermint, slices of a tart cucumber-esque vegetable, gray uncooked shrimp, and whole cloves of raw garlic. I took one bite that happened to contain two of these action-packed garlic cloves, and I thought my head and stomach were going to explode. I was dancing around the yard the way my astoundingly uncoordinated and energetic 5-year-old host cousin does for his favorite Na-Li guitar tune, "Baby Beluga." If you've never eaten raw garlic, try it sometime. It is a unique epicurian experience!

Other cultural/culinary adventures so far include barbeque pork intestines (chewy, but saved by an amazing dipping sauce), marinated gummy worms (which, in context, made me want to cry), and the bowl of blood (needs no explanation).

I love being part of this family! The grandmother, strong as steel, who smiles and chats with me even though she must know I can't understand a word she says; the bright and adorable 16-year-old Donut; the even further misnamed Focus (pronounced Phu-KAT) who is the most precocious 5-year-old in Chiang Mai Province; his mother, tough-loving A No, who fondly calls me "Giant Girl;" the men who insist I speak in Northern dialect, bellowing "sawatdee CHAO!" whenever I greet them with the general Thai "sawatdee kha;" A Ning with her ridiculous cowboy hat and unbeatable work ethic; and of course, the indefatigable Mae Noi. This full immersion is a gift. I wouldn't trade any of it -- even the now-familiar sensation that my head is going to explode.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

First Impressions

From the air, the landscape around Chiang Mai looked very green and very flat. I was relieved to see low-lying blue hills rise to ring the horizon as we neared the ground. My heart was pounding like the first day of summer camp! After collecting all my gear (2 backpacks and one guitar case, all completely stuffed), I met Pi Kat outside the baggage claim. She's a slight Thai woman with spectacles, a former Thai National Climbing Team member, a silver medalist in speed climbing at the Asian X Games, and co-founder of CMRCA. She welcomed me with a hug and swept me into a bright blue Jeep, which broke down about 50 meters out of the parking lot.

Tangent: the Thai national tourism campaign right now is called "Amazing Thailand!" There are billboards all over the place that proclaim this phrase, usually accompanied by a picture of monks or markets or something gold. As a slogan, it's ok... as a sarcastic foil, it's a stroke of genius. Whenever something inconvenient or bizarre or downright ridiculous happens to you here, it is best to sort of cock your head, open your eyes very wide, and say with a big dopey smile and an Asian accent, "Amazing Thailand!!!!!!!!" It really helps. Anyway, Kat worked some magic on the Jeep and before long we were lumbering towards the city.

Chiang Mai's central Old City is about 2 kilometers square, and is bounded by a four-cornered canal. In some places, the crumbling city wall still stands. The CMRCA office is just inside the boundary of the Old City. I barely had time to register that (1) we were driving on the left side of the road, (2) although traffic was split about evenly between cars and motorbikes, the motorbikes per capita seemed to be carrying more people, and (3) Aerosmith's "I Don't Wanna Miss A Thing" was playing on the radio (?!!) before we arrived at CMRCA.

The office looks very much like the climbing retail section at Neptune Mountaineering, with a small bouldering wall outside in the back. I met a few of my coworkers there, though most were out at Crazy Horse Buttress running a big student program. One exceedingly awesome girl, Pi Dao, took me to the mall to get a cell phone. We hit it off -- even though she insisted that I buy a dangly fuschia pom-pom attachment to make my phone really, you know, Thai.

Finally Pi Kat and I drove off towards Crazy Horse, the climbing area! After about 40 minutes I could see it on the left -- a huge white, orange, and black streaked limestone buttress towering above the jungle, looking especially dramatic against a backdrop of shadowy storm clouds. For a real feel for the place you should check out the CMRCA photo gallery, or better yet come visit me (please!).

Climbing at Crazy Horse!!!

We found everyone inside Anxiety State Crisis Cave, an awesome soaring space that could have comfortably housed Blair Arch and Tower --and it had almost twice as many climbing routes!! Haha! The students were spread out in several groups, trying their luck on top-rope climbs, and Kat and I did a quick tour to meet the CMRCA instructors. I was so busy gaping at the cave walls, chambers, formations, and climbing routes that I kept tripping over rocks and gear. No surprises there, ha. We then exited the cave and climbed further up the hill on a slippery dirt path that was crawling with lots of huge, very interesting bugs... Kat would occasionally point at one and grin at me and say "arroi, arroi!" which means "delicious." Yikes.

We entered another, higher passage which led to a platform about 3/4 of the way up to the cave ceiling. Here, another instructor (Pi Phi) was directing the loading station of an EPIC Tyrolean Traverse connected the platform to a huge hanging pillar that dropped down from the ceiling, but was too enormous to be called a stalactite. The team had set up a free rappel from bolted anchors on this pillar down to the floor of the cave -- a jaw-droppingly awesome setup. After the last student had made it through the system, I clipped in and took a turn, sailing through space to the transfer station... where I met my boss in person for the first time. Hanging from a limestone pillar more than 100 feet above the ground. YESSSSS!

The Tyrolean Traverse ended (and the rappel began) where the belayer in this photo is anchored... 100+ feet above the floor of the cave!

After the students had left and we had cleaned all the gear, Josh and Pi Kat drove me to my homestay, in a little village about 40 minutes outside of Chiang Mai. My host mother, Mae Noi, and father, Paw Teet, are in their early 40s; I have one 21-year-old host brother, whose name seems to be Golf; and his girlfriend, No Noi, lives with the family too. They are lovely, hard-working, hilarious people. There are also several roosters and one extremely hairy Jack Russel terrier named Nou-Nou. More on their lives and my life with them later... the important thing is that we had an AMAZING dinner!

We all sat together in a circle on the front porch, no tables or chairs, helping ourselves bite by bite to sweet and sour bamboo shoots, curried pumpkin, chicken satay with grilled pineapple, a whole fish with Thai fish sauce, pork stew with ginger and jackfruit and green chili, mysterious raw meat in a black spicy sauce topped with fresh cilantro, and many other things I didn't recognize but tasted anyway. And rice, of course, both sticky and steamed. We washed this all down with bottomless cups of light, fizzy, iced beer (hmmm... Amazing Thailand?) and finished with these squishy, jiggly, abstractly coconut jello squares wrapped in palm leaves.

I have my own room with a fan pointed directly at my pillow, and I've rarely been so pleased to crawl into bed. Life in Thailand isn't so hard after all.

Monday, September 7, 2009

24 Hours in Grunthep

The sun was just beginning its roll over Southeast Asia when I arrived in Bangkok, a name that makes my (lovely, talented, and mature) 13-year-old sister giggle whenever she hears it. Incidentally, Thai people have a very different and altogether more glorious name for their capital city: Grunthep (groon-TEHP), which is only the first two syllables of the Guinness Book of World Records-certified longest name for a city, ever. Everybody knows the name, because someone -- I imagine the Thai version of Schoolhouse Rock -- had the foresight to make it into a song. My language teacher at Payap University in Chiang Mai sang it for us on our first day of class. It took her 37 seconds.

I had a full day to explore the city. Acting the obedient "falang" tourist, I visited the Grand Palace, which was enormous and gilded and beautiful. Tangent: "falang" is typically interpreted to mean "foreigner," but it's a bit more complex than that. The term is pronounced "fa-rang," and is derived from "Fa-ran-set," the Thai word for French people. This traces back to the first westerners who came to Thailand, who were of course fran├žais. So to be falang is not so much to be un-Thai, but to look more or less French. Therefore, people of non-Thai Asian descent are not falang, but Africans and South Americans and certainly all Caucasians are.

Anyway... I foolishly forgot my sunglasses, so in addition to the Grand Palace I spent a sweltering afternoon squinting at the HUGE reclining golden Buddha at Wat Pho (the soles of his feet were probably 15x35...feet), the especially sacred emerald Buddha at Wat Phra Keow (actually made of jade), and the many crowded market streets. Across the lily-choked river at gilded, glittering Wat Arun, I stumbled upon a private little shrine on the outskirts of the temple complex, built around an ancient, twisting gray tree. Small stone Buddha statues and sticks of incense (some still burning) were carefully placed among the roots. A Siamese cat with two tabby kittens were curled up and mewing in the grass at the base of the tree, looking quite at home.

Close-up of one of the many stunning temples at Wat Phra Keow

To reach Wat Arun I took a ferry ride in a 40-foot long, creaking wooden boat with an exposed, smoking motor that sort of dangled from the back at the end of a long stick. I soon realized that what had seemed to be the river was really a vast series of canals, and I hired another (smaller, and slightly less dangerous-looking) boat to explore them. This craft had some real personality, with rainbows painted on the sides and two white eyes set on the prow. Turns out that Bangkok was once known as the Asian Venice. People live along the water in stilted houses, hang their colorful laundry over the canals, and grow orchids in their backyards. We passed about a dozen wizened Thai men fishing from their porches, and once I caught sight of a 4-foot-long iguana (or some variety of giant lizard) slipping into the murky water! Sadly, my camera battery had died by this point, so I didn't get to collect digital memories of the coolest part of Bangkok... at least this time around.

The last thing I remember before falling deeply asleep in my airport hotel room was the beginning of what must have been an epic tropical thunderstorm. I would have liked to listen to it run its course, but I was far too tired to do anything but sleep and think: Chiang Mai in the morning.

Thai Dye

Celebratory, mix-and-match, a blend of many colors. Tie dye never turns out quite how you expected, and that is part of the idea. There is also the stupid pun factor. I don't know very much about blogs, but a stupid pun in the title is clearly a basic need, if not an obvious necessity.

So: I've been in Thailand for just over a week now, and I know I could not have found a better place to work, play, learn, and live for the coming year. These initial days have overflowed with new sensations, confusion and comfort, the epic quest for a routine... I'll have to start with a few posts catching up on first impressions. Stay tuned!

Family is the most important thing in Thailand, and if you're reading this, then you are part of mine -- so keep in touch. Thai dye is not nearly as fun if you're doing it alone.

Love to all,

Denali, aka Na-Li, aka Nari, aka "giant white girl"