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.

1 comment:

  1. Fabulous, Denali. You make me feel like I'm really there - except for the part about hanging by my knuckles 100 feet above the ground on some limestone thing. Seriously I'm so absolutely excited for you about this whole adventure, in all its all crazy and wonderful cultural, physical, and spiritual dimensions. Reading about the Thai language last night, it's clear that with all those tenses and intonations, it would be easier to memorize the Bangkok phone book - so kudos to you for trying! No doubt you are learning some great Thai recipes as well. We miss you and love you lots! Much love, Dad