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
THAILAND

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"