For the past few years I’ve listened to friends choose ‘anchor words,’ which they use to ground themselves for the New Year. They choose words like “courage” to remind them each month to be brave, or “persistent” to encourage them to strive for what they want. Since being surrounded by wordsmiths in graduate school I’ve thought about choosing my own anchor word, but never did because I’m crap at keeping New Years resolutions.
This year, however, I fiddled around on Dictionary.com and see if anything spoke to me. I’m about to embark upon another new job, new country, and new community–why not try a new tradition?
I thought about the areas I lacked in in 2018, and what could I improve. I stopped at my second search: tenacity.
I found tenacity after searching for synonyms of drive. Drive–“an innate, biologically determined urge to attain a goal or satisfy a need”–is something I’ve always had. I’m a driven, goal oriented person. The past year in Bangkok, however, my drive has slipped. Some people said it’s because I’m a first year teacher. While teaching 102 just-reaching-puberty boys does wear you out, my drive has been puttering like a sedan with two wheels and a missing transmission ever since my father passed away.
In my last year of graduate school, just six months after my father unexpectedly dropped dead of a heart attack, my drive was so minuscule that the school psychiatrist put me on anti-depressants. The Wellbutrin did it’s job kicking my energy up enough to teach, complete my thesis, and work towards other goals and opportunities, but I still had the gnawing feeling that I used to put in more effort. I used to write more and submit more. I used to carve out time for projects and friends. I knew what it felt like to care about things, and I didn’t anymore. After graduate school I kept making and reaching goals, but the caring still wasn’t there. Fake it til you make it, I thought, but it’s hard to fake a drive that used to be your life-force.
Thus I figured drive was the word I should hitch my metaphorical boat to for 2019. Being the writer that I am, I wanted my anchor word to be jazzier, so I thought of determination and tenacity. I Googled tenacity first. I expected to browse the list of synonyms for something with more pizzazz, but the Dictionary.com definition of tenacity stopped me. To be more specific: the third definition stopped me.
1. the quality or fact of being able to grip something firmly; grip.
2. the quality or fact of being very determined; determination.
3. the quality or fact of continuing to exist; persistence.
Following my father’s death, I struggled to want to exist. The grief and trauma was so foreign and consuming it was hard to see a way out of it. Then my boyfriend of almost seven years dumped me equally as unexpectedly, and I just simply didn’t want to exist. I was angry. I was distraught. My drive for life had already been teetering on a cliff, and my ex kicked it right off the ledge and attached a lit stick of dynamite to finish the job. I made destructive decisions, completely aware that I was on a solid path to not see the next year. I told my grief counselor, “I’m not going to survive this.”
“If you keep saying that,” she said. “You won’t.”
I shrugged. “Good.”
After a particularly rock bottom night in which I should have killed both myself and my dad’s dog, but miraculously didn’t, I booked a one-way ticket to Asia. I didn’t think it would make me feel better. I just needed something different. I hoped the stark change of scenery would reset me somehow.
Bangkok has reset me, but not in the ways I thought it would. When I meet people who’ve lived in Thailand for multiple years they say things like: I found my peace or I finally learned how to relax and enjoy life. That’s great…for those people. For me? I became more selfish. I broke social engagements. I led some dates on because I didn’t feel like having the confrontation that comes after ‘it’s not working out.’ My focus slipped. I worked, I made friends, I wrote, and I traveled, but I felt detached; as if I was still faking the ambition. I worried that I was turning into a person without drive, goals, or an ounce of caring.
Then, somewhere around the end of December a flip switched in my mind: I wasn’t a different person. I hadn’t lost my drive. I was just sad. And for a year, I let myself be sad.
Death and grief sucks. There’s no other way to put it. It fucking sucks and none of us are taught how to process it, even though it’s something everyone on Earth experiences. We’re mostly led to believe that grief is something you just “get over.” To not get over it seems weird and tragic. Because of this, people who are grieving feel self conscious if they’re “sad for too long.” You stop talking about your grief; you stop talking about the person you’ve lost. To the outside world, your decreased conversation implies you’re moving on and enjoying life again, which maybe you are, but that doesn’t mean you can’t still be a bit sad. Death sucks–be sad.
Leading up to the turn of the New Year I worried that there was a lot I did wrong in 2018, but now I see that there is a lot that I did right. Sure, my normal ambition took a backseat, but I took that energy and put it towards acknowledging that I’m sad. And I let myself be sad. That doesn’t sound like something that should warrant any energy, but for me it did. It meant spending an entire year replacing my normal bending-over-backwards-to-please-people attitude and replacing it with if-I-want-to-stay-home-and-be-sad-and-watch-Netflix,-then-I’m-going-to-stay-home-and-be-sad-and-watch-Netflix. Some people might find that depressing. Others may find it liberating. I found it to be necessary.
If 2018 was all about allowing myself to live the life I have found myself in, then 2019 will be about morphing it back into the life I want. Yet another reason for the word: tenacity. After you’re socked with grief, you not only have to be tenacious about picking up your broken pieces, but you have to be tenacious in putting the pieces back how you want–or don’t. Be tenacious to do whatever you want. After a year of feeling detached and letting myself drift, I’m ready to be tenacious: tenacious about life, about art, about travel, about friends, about relationships, about whatever the hell I want. I’m going to be determined and firm and I’m going to exist. I’m going to be so tenacious that I’m not going to feel self conscious or regretful about ending this blog on such a cheesy damn note :).*
In case anyone is interested:
synonyms of tenacity: persistence, determination, perseverance, doggedness, strength of purpose, tirelessness, indefatigability (this cannot be a real word…), resolution, resoluteness, resolve, firmness, patience, purposefulness, staunchness, steadfastness, staying power, endurance, stamina, stubbornness, intransigence, obstinacy, obduracy, pertinacity
*JK I regret that ending.
When you’re jet lagged and running off maybe two hours of sleep, you forget to check the open/close hours of the place where you booked a rental car in Honolulu (which you only booked because it was so much cheaper than picking up at the airport). You take a city bus to the rental place. The bus driver continuously gets off the bus to help people on/off because “it’s Christmas,” he says. His sweet gesture causes you to arrive at the rental place at 12:03 only to learn that they closed AT NOON, and, despite them being inside the office, they will only talk to you through the glass door and say there’s nothing they can do for you (because a magical elf locked the door and they can’t possibly unlock it? Fuck off). You call corporate and cry because you are so damn jet lagged and you just want a bloody car and for fuck’s sake you were only three minutes late and those three minutes were from the bus driver helping two elderly people onto the bus and into seats.
Corporate says you have to go back to the airport to pick up a car and the cost has now gone up SIX times. A security guard helps you call a taxi. The people in the rental place still watch you from behind the glass door, and you resist flicking them all off.
At the airport rental place a young girl says you look like you had a rough day. You tell her you just flew in from Thailand and three minutes has just fucked your bank account because does your US account even have $1,000+?? She walks you outside. She puts her finger to her lips and whispers “let’s give you a free upgrade.” Again, your eyes water because you’re tired and foggy, and this girl is so nice, but also still screw those people behind the stupid glass door.
And that is how you end up in a sexy convertible VW bug in Hawai’i.
Stay tuned for the sequel: How Jet Lag Made Me Steal A Bottle Of Water From Dunkin Donuts.
The blue destination dot on Google Maps seemed far away as my two friends and I crawled out of the minibus at the Kanchanaburi bus station. It was nearing 8 p.m. We’d left Bangkok around 4:30 p.m. The driver shut the door and drove off, leaving us standing dumbly in the street. My two friends, one a fellow expat also living in Bangkok and the other a friend visiting from the US, looked at me. I’d planned the trip. I’d booked the accommodations and looked up transportation options. What I hadn’t done was confirm that the mini bus would drop us near our hotel for the night. I tapped ‘directions’ on Google Maps. The blue line scrolled up the screen. We were still 50 km away.
Kanchanaburi is home Erawan National Park, one of Thailand’s three national parks. It borders Myanmar and is most well-known for the infamous Death Railway and “bridge over the River Kwai.” I’d originally planned the weekend getaway to show my visiting friend a part of Thailand that wasn’t Bangkok or a touristy island. I thought we’d spend the weekend just floating on the river and tromping through the jungle: peaceful and relaxing.
Then, days before my friend arrived, I broke up with a guy I had been dating exclusively for a few months. The split was drawn out and messier than I’d expected. My US friend was visiting after splitting with her husband. I invited my Bangkok friend along the moment she texted about her own love travails. Just like that, the trip to the River Kwai flipped from a “hey let’s lounge, eat, and sleep” trip to a “girls rule, boys drool” therapy session.
Three men at the bus station approached us. They asked where we wanted to go. I showed them the map on my phone.
“Oh very far,” one man said.
“Is there a way there?”
The hotel was in the countryside. We weren’t staying at the floating resort the first night because longboats stopped at 6 p.m. I’d booked a stay at a place nearby.
“You can take taxi,” the man said. He pointed across the parking lot.
My Bangkok friend and I looked at each other. Thai taxis are either solid pink or green and yellow sedans. The only vehicles we could see were motorbikes and songtheaws (pick-up trucks with cage-like roofs over open beds).
“Is he pointing to that songtheaw?” I asked my friend. She shrugged. “Are you pointing at the songtheaw?” I asked the man.
“A songtheaw all the way to the hotel?”
“Yes. About one hour.”
I looked at my Bangkok friend for advice. “I think it’s our only choice,” she said.
We told the man we needed to run to the 7-11 first.
“Are we going to need beer?” my US friend asked.
The longest songtheaw ride I’d ever taken was about twenty minutes. The open beds contain only two long metal benches. Songtheaws are meant for quick hop on and offs, not long distance travel.
“We’re definitely going to need beer,” I said.
The next morning we learned we were still nearly 40 km away from where we needed to catch a longboat. A man from our countryside hotel offered to drive us, and by noon we finally arrived at the River Kwai Jungle Rafts Resort.
I’d learned about the resort from friends who had stayed there during a long Thai holiday. I didn’t know what to expect except the resort was on the river and supposedly an elephant lived nearby and liked to frequent the river.
The River Kwai Jungle Rafts Resort floats on the bend of the river. There are about 100 bamboo rooms each with a double bed and a twin bed. The rooms rest atop buoys tied together with twine. Small bridges connect each section of rooms.
We tried to go for a swim, but ended up being swept away by the strong current. I managed to grab the last ladder of the resort and pull myself onto the dock of a room. My Bangkok friend grabbed a buoy further down. Two Thai men lifted her out of the water. My US friend missed the resort completely and ended up at a beach a few yards away. The Thai men (who we termed the official “farang catchers” of the resort) told her to walk through the woods and swim where a rope tied the resort to the bank. We gave up on swimming after that.
We spent the rest of the afternoon relaxing: sleeping in hammocks, reading, writing, and intermittently spilling our problems to each other. A German tour group arrived and for two ours we watched them excel at jumping into the river, floating to the end of the resort, pulling themselves up the same ladder I had just barely grabbed, and repeating the process over and over. Had they been around to witness our swimming kerfuffle I would have taken their machine-like jumping and floating as bragging, but I think they were just smarter.
Outside of the kitchen, the resort didn’t have electricity. As the sun set, staff members lit oil lamps and tiki torches. The only sources of light in our room: an electric candle, a battery-powered lantern, a small flashlight, and our phones, which we used sparingly since they couldn’t be recharged. Once it was dark, we followed the torches to the riverside dining area. All room reservations come with set breakfasts and dinners included. A waiter brought us six different plates of food. Tiki torches and oil lamps don’t provide the most ample lighting, so I have no idea what we ate, but I think there was chicken, veggies, maybe fish, and rice–always rice.
We spent the rest of the evening drinking wine and gin and tonics. We joined some of the waitstaff as they sang old rock n’ roll songs on guitar. Everything was pitch black except the orange orbs of the oil lamps. Tokay geckos chirped periodically. I once thought they were supposed to be a sign of love, but seeing as the three of us were nursing broken hearts, what love were they a sign of? That we’d made the right choices in our relationships? That we didn’t? That we should love ourselves?
I’m about to get really cheesy here. Try to stay with me…
As the tokay geckos called to us and we started to ad-lib songs with the waitstaff, I thought about the power of female friendships. It’s something I’ve thought about a lot since my boyfriend of seven years dumped me unexpectedly. After he dumped me and I (quite literally) felt like someone had chopped an arm and a leg off my body, women from every avenue in my life came out to send me love and support.
First, there were my female college students: they didn’t know what had happened except that their teacher (me) was unable to show up for their final exam (because he dumped me over the phone on the eve of final exams). A dear friend of mine subbed the exam timeslot for me, and told my students, “If you care about Ms. Georgia, send her some love. She wanted to be here today, but she got some bad news last night.” Three of my female students emailed me to say how much they enjoyed my class and appreciated having a space where they felt they could open up and confide in a teacher. The wife of one of my colleague’s messaged me to tell me what a strong, adventurous person I am, and that even though we hadn’t had a chance to hangout much, she wanted to send along words of encouragement. Female acquaintances from undergrad reached out to me, family friends, etc. One of my best friends flew from Wisconsin to help me move; past coworkers from Chicago and Colorado reached out; a previous boss sent me her Spotify account so I could listen to her breakup playlist; friends from undergrad, grad school, and a seasonal summer job drove hours just to spend weekends with me; even brand new female friends at my temporary summer job took me out for drinks and checked up on me throughout the summer. The out-pour of love and empathy was astounding, unexpected, and so so needed.
Society dictates women to be caretakers and communicators. This can obviously be a bad thing when we get into the “women are taught to be too nice and never stand up for themselves” area, but it can also be wonderful. Women not only have a tremendous amount of care and empathy to give to the world, but there’s something about a woman in distress that brings other women to the frontlines. My friend from the US and I had spoken only sporadically over the past three years. Most of what I knew about her came from Facebook and Twitter posts. Still, the moment I learned of her divorce I invited her to Thailand without hesitation. My Bangkok friend, too, was someone I’d only seen a handful of times over the past year. Our schedules rarely aligned. Once she divulged her own love troubles, inviting her along for the weekend getaway felt like a no-brainer. In the week and a half I’d been single, every girl friend I’d made in the past twelve months showed up to let me vent, cry, groan, and just generally be a bouncy ball of emotions. I’m someone who takes a while to fully open up to people, but lately it feels as though I should treat every new female friend like a close family relation, because that’s certainly how they’ve been treating me.
I’m not saying guys don’t turn up for each other, nor am I saying that I’ve never received any support from guy pals (because that would be a blatant lie–thanks Mike, Simon, Roe, Rob, and Carl–to name a few), but there is something about women coming to the aide of other women that just feels powerful. And I can think of a million examples where this has happened in my life even before my breakup with the seven year bf. When my father passed away, three of my best girl friends from high school were at my door in 24 hours. Two of my mother’s girl friends were there within about 10 hours, and I’m still not even sure how they found out so fast. Women turn up when there’s a tragedy–no matter how big or small. And, actually, that’s part of the beauty of female friendships. They never treat any tragedy as small or insignificant because we know that to the person who is hurting, that hurt doesn’t feel small or insignificant.
Maybe, as women, we show up for each other because we know what it’s like to have strong feelings and emotions that are often pushed aside as “crazy,” “too much,” and “just get over it already.” Maybe it’s the knowledge that I’ve been there, too. Maybe it’s an unspoken sisterhood among the whole sex. Or maybe women are just awesome. Either way, I think all ladies should spend their next girls getaway trip along the River Kwai.
When a desk agent from my Hanoi hostel asked if I wanted to book a hiking trip through Sapa I thought, Sure. Why not? I’d hiked plenty of times. I had a limited amount of time in Vietnam and Sapa was supposed to be a “must see” place. A hike seemed like fun.
The journey started with a 5-hour overnight sleeper bus to Sapa. Hours before I was to board the bus I felt an unexpected wave of panic. I knew nothing about Sapa. It was in northern Vietnam and had mountains and rice paddies, but what else? How hard was the trek? How long was the trek? I’d signed up for a two night/three day tour. Did the night on the bus count as one night or was I staying in a homestay for two nights? Was the homestay someone’s house or was it a hostel? Was it going to be cold or hot?
The sleeper bus arrived in Sapa at four a.m. The guide said we could continue sleeping until six a.m. When we did leave the bus, different guides held signs with names on them. I was paired with a young French couple. Our guide, Hun, took us to a local hotel where we could shower and eat breakfast. After breakfast the French couple joined their day-trip hiking group. I waited in the lobby for the rest of the travelers who’d also signed up for the overnight hike.
Sapa was colder than I’d expected. I had two long sleeved shirts and a winter jacket, but I didn’t have a hat or gloves. My socks were thin and holey. The lobby had a NorthFace pop-up store and I bought thicker socks and a warm hat. Across from the new, shiny NorthFace gear was a basket of worn, muddy, green camouflaged rain boots.
Before I left Thailand, a guy I’d been dating told me about his own hike through Sapa. “They’ll have boots for you to rent,” he said. “Sapa is muddy. Rent the boots.”
“I have perfectly good hiking boots,” I said. “I’m sure they’ll be fine.”
“They’ll be ruined,” he said. “I threw mine away. You should rent the boots.”
I glared at the basket of mud covered boots. I didn’t want to do something this guy had advised. In just forty-eight hours of being in Vietnam we’d fought twice. Both arguments were petty and mean and left me crying in the hostel stairwell. Quite honestly, he was ruining my trip. In Sapa, I planned to leave my phone on airplane mode in the hopes that being out of contact would allow me to enjoy Vietnam rather than feel miserable over a guy (and, consequently, feel doubly miserable because I felt miserable over a guy).
Hun walked over to the boots. He told a nearby couple that they should rent a pair. “The mud is slippery,” he said. “It is deep and hard to walk through. You will want boots. Your shoes will be ruined.” The woman asked if Hun was exaggerating just to make more money. Hun shook his head and repeated that normal hiking shoes wouldn’t suffice. I noticed he sported his own pair of the camouflaged Wellies. I decided to be smart rather than petty and pulled out a pair that would fit my massive feet.
The overnight hike consisted of me and three couples: an Indonesian woman and an Australian man, a German girl and an ex-US Marine, and a Swiss couple. Hun gathered us around a map as we waited for a minibus to take us to the trailhead. He pointed to Sapa. “We are here,” he said. He traced his finger south. “We’ll hike here for lunch. We should arrive around noon. Then we’ll go here,” he moved his finger west, “and stay in the homestay. Tomorrow we’ll hike north to where the bus will pick us up and bring us back to the hotel.” We all nodded. “This is an intense hike. Everyone can do that?”
No one nodded. Hun looked concerned. “This is the most intense hike through Sapa,” he said. “You know that?”
“I knew we were going hiking,” the Indonesian woman said.
“Someone at our hostel booked this,” the Swiss woman added. “They didn’t say anything about the hike.”
Hun’s expression dropped.
“My guy just said I’d spend the night,” I said. I didn’t admit that I still didn’t understand where I was spending the night.
Hun drew a line on the map from where we stood to our lunch spot. “This is ten kilometers,” he said. He drew a line to the homestay. “This is seven.” The terrain would be rough, he explained–lots of mud, steep ups and downs, and narrow, rocky paths. On the second day we would hike seven more kilometers. He gave the various altitudes in meters, but my non-metric American mind couldn’t commit them to memory.
“What about the other hikers?” someone asked. At six a.m. there’d been about twenty buses full of travelers ready to explore Sapa. Surely the hikes were made for all skill levels.
“Those are day hikers,” Hun said. “Not many do the overnight.”
We looked at each other wide-eyed. No one had been warned about the intensity.
“Does everyone still want to go?” Hun asked.
“Is there a shorter route?” the German woman asked.
Hun looked at the map. “When we get to lunch, there’s an option to do fewer kilometers.”
“Maybe four kilometers instead of seven.”
Hun looked at us like we were toddlers who’d yet to master potty training. “Let’s see how we get through today.”
Our hike started in a field just below the town. A group of local women intersected with us and followed behind. They wore traditional colorful, woven skirts and jackets; clothing that reminded me more of Peru than Vietnam. Some of the them carried baskets on their back. One woman had a five-month old baby strapped to her.
The hike seemed deceptively easy. We tromped through calf-high grass and crossed streams over narrow logs. There were a few tight pathways and a slight incline, but nothing strenuous. Maybe the hard part was the distance, not the terrain, I thought. We stopped at an overlook that gave a great view of the town and surrounding mountains. We left the overlook and headed down into a tree covered valley.
Beneath the trees the path suddenly changed. Rocks stuck out of the ground like weeds in an unkempt garden. Hard dirt turned to mud. We walked more cautiously as the path started going up and down randomly. The women with the baskets grabbed our hands at particularly dicey areas. It soon became obvious that each one had sort of “claimed” one of us and had taken it as their personal duty to keep us from falling. The girl helping me, Min, looked fifteen. She was shy and seemed to be new to the whole “helping bumbling tourists” gig. She offered me her hand whenever there was a big step or jump. When the ground turned to slick mud she held my hand until we reached dry, solid earth.
Two hours into the hike we were still four kilometers away from the lunch spot. Hun’s face was that of someone who is annoyed, but trying not to show it. Clearly we weren’t making the progress he was used to.
When we did finally reach the lunch spot town, we said goodbye to the women. Min told me she had to go back to her village. “You will buy something from me,” she said. She held out a collection of embroidered wallets and bags. Where was she carrying those? I’d expected to give her a tip, but a bag was okay, too. Other children, younger than Min, appeared. They held up colourful bracelets and shouted prices. The three couples on the hike also bought scarves, bags, and wallets from the women who’d helped them. I left with two wallets, a purse, and a bracelet. The wallets I bought; the purse and bracelet were gifts from Min.
At the lunch spot we ate noodles and discussed whether we wanted to take the short hike or the long hike. A taxi drove by. “What the hell, there are cars?!” the Indonesian woman exclaimed. “Why aren’t we in one of those?” We watched groups of other hikers walk by. We judged the intensity of their hike based on how muddy they were. Mostly everyone was cleaner than us.
We finished lunch and told Hun we wanted to take the shorter hike. Our legs were already sore and we knew we weren’t hiking fast enough. Hun looked like he didn’t understand the question. “You said there was a shorter hike,” the Swiss woman said. “Four kilometers instead of seven?” Hun continued to stare at us. He had a pretty good poker face, but his eyes twitched as if he might laugh.
I gasped. “You tricked us! There’s not a shorter route.”
Hun smiled. “The hard hike is done,” he said.
“What we just did? That was the hardest part?”
“And it’s seven kilometers?” the German girl asked.
“Is it flat or is it more up and down.”
“It is easier. Some flat; some up.”
“Is there another way to the homestay?” the Indonesian woman asked. She pointed to the road. “There was a taxi. Can I get there by car?”
Like with the question about a shorter route, Hun’s face was blank, but in his eyes you could see him weighing whether to tell her the truth or not.
“You can take a motorbike,” he said. She would still have to walk with us to the next town. From there she could hire a bike.
The Indonesian woman clapped her hands. “Great! I’ll be waiting at the homestay for you guys. I’ll get the drinks ready.”
We said goodbye to the Indonesian woman and started the last leg of Day One’s hike. We headed up. And up and up and up. We were on pavement and going through towns, but the incline became so steep that I wondered whether I should just crawl using my hands.
An older woman dressed in the traditional Sapa garb appeared beside me. She asked my name and where I was from. She looked strong, but weathered. I guessed she was about eighty years old. Just like the women before, she carried a large basket on her back.
The pavement ended as we entered a bamboo forest. The ground once again changed to mud, but worse than before. The mud was slick–very slick. We slipped and slid as though we were on a sheet of ice. When our feet sank, the mud held until you used both hands to wrench your leg free. Twice my foot came out of my boot. The mud reminded me of my father’s art studio, where we made “slip” to stick pieces of clay together: wet, mushy clay that acted like glue. The older woman held my hand throughout most of the walk, occasionally pulling me straight up a few feet.
I thought about Hun’s promise that the hard hike was behind us. He either lied again or this was unusual. The first ten kilometers had been hard, but the bamboo forest was excruciating. My body wanted to collapse. I slipped and tripped; saved from falling only by the freakishly strong older woman. My legs felt like toothpicks trying to support a coffee table. My pants were covered in mud from the constant spray of stepping in puddles. I couldn’t look up so I had no idea how the others were fairing. All I heard were groans, grunts, and the squish of boots in the mud.
We finally reached a waterfall just outside our homestay. We caught our breath and looked at one another like we wanted to blame someone for the misery, but who? Hun stood to the side. He looked dry, fresh, and energized.
“I thought you said the first half of the hike was the hard part,” I said. He smiled sweetly. For a moment I hated him.
The video is shaky because I hit ‘record’ on my camera and kept walking. It was too slippery to not have both hands free.
Tired, muddy, and drenched in sweat, we trudged into our homestay. We took showers, drank beers, and sat at a riverside pavilion, while our host and Hun prepared dinner. We chatted easily for hours. Vietnam was my first time really solo traveling, and it amazed me how well we all got along after only having met twelve hours before.
We all ate dinner together: the three couples, Hun, the host, her husband and young son, and myself. The spread was large and delicious with spring rolls, fried pork, salads, tofu, maybe some dumplings, and other Vietnamese dishes. I was so hungry I didn’t care what we were eating. The host brought out a bottle of “magic water.” She and her husband poured shots for everyone. As soon as our cups were empty they poured more…and more..and more…I think there were eight shots in total. Somehow I got away with only doing five. I still don’t know what the liquor was, but it looked and tasted similar to moonshine.
We slept in a loft on side-by-side mattresses. Each bed had a white, gauzy mosquito netting, and the most plush, fluffy, soft comforter I have ever used in my life. Seriously–if I could have taken that comforter with me, I would have.
The next morning my legs felt as though someone had run over me with a motorcycle and then dropped a boulder on each thigh for the hell of it. I’d slept on the bed at the end of the row and I got up before everyone else. I didn’t want anyone to see as I slowly and awkwardly lifted my body off the ground using only my hands and arms. Going down the ladder that led to the loft, I held onto the hand railing tightly, again making my arms do all the work.
Hun finally had pity on us (or maybe he was just tired of fighting) and said we didn’t have to hike again. We could chill at the homestay until eleven, when we’d head out of the valley and meet the minibus on the main road. The walk out of the valley was still longer and steeper than my legs wanted, but at least we were done with the mud and the rocks and the slipping.
One thing I will say for Sapa, it did make me forget about my torrid dating life for about twenty-four hours. There’s nothing like torturous exertion and boot-camp-like exhaustion to get your mind off boys.
If I had the option to do it over again, would I take the same hike? The hardest, most arduous hike of my life? The hike that left me limping and unable to walk up and down stairs like a normal person for four solid days? The hike that made me sincerely hate our sweet guide for about one hour?
(For those keeping up with the blog: biking 470 km in India was still more painful than this trek.)
While flying down an Indian highway at 100 km/h, I didn’t have the normal thoughts someone would have during their first trip to India: This is awesome! I’m in India! On a motorcycle! Why is there a cow in the road? Instead, at nearly 11 p.m. at night, after driving 470 km, all I could think was: Oh my god. I’m 30.
I landed in Jaipur around 1 a.m. Friday morning. After some confusion with my hotel shuttle looking for a Mr. Georgia rather than a Miss, I arrived at my room and collapsed onto my bed around 3 a.m., but I couldn’t sleep. I was too ecstatic. India, along with climbing Mount Kilimanjaro, has been at the top of my Travel Bucket List since the fifth grade, when I learned about Travel Bucket Lists. I don’t know what it is about the country. I could go with the cliche the colours, the people, the landscape, the food, but I honestly can’t pinpoint one single thing. I suppose it’s like my love of Chicago or the Greek Isles: sometimes a place just borrows under your skin and stays there.
Because of my new job, I could only stay in India for four days. That’s crazy for a country as large as India, right? Normally I’d wait until I had much more time off, but I’d been given the opportunity to meet a friend, K, in India. K, who is Indian, had just spent ten days biking through Jammu-Kashmir. He asked if I wanted to meet during the last few days of his trip. I wanted to respond like a teenager who has just been asked to the prom by her crush: YES OMG I WILL GO TO INDIA WITH YOU I THOUGHT YOU’D NEVER ASK LET’S LEAVE NOW.
Instead, I went the less psychopathic route: “Yeah cool. Let me see about tickets and if I can afford it.” So chill.
Going to India has been such a long-held dream of mine that I’ve struggled with what to write about it. The one thing that keeps sticking in my mind is expectations. I had a lot of expectations for India; so many that it made me nervous. You know how you can build a place up in your mind, and then when you get there you realize it’s not as great as you’d expected? This happened to me with the Moulin Rouge. I loved the movie, loved the romanticism, and just the spectacle of the dance hall. When I saw the real Moulin Rouge, however, my body physically deflated. It was so shabby and seedy looking that I didn’t even care to stop and take a closer look. I snapped an obligatory picture and left, feeling mildly depressed the rest of the day.
India had been built up in my mind just like the Moulin Rouge, but–because it’s a country and not just a building–quadruple-fold. As I waited to meet K in the hotel lobby the morning after I’d landed in Jaipur, I couldn’t stop fidgeting. I had really high expectations for India. Expectations that were maybe too high and could easily be shattered.
Expectation #1: Food
Who doesn’t love Indian food? People without taste buds, that’s who. To me, Mexican food and Indian food are the best cuisines in the world (sorry, India, you get beaten out because the American in me still wants all the cheese all the time). I could eat both every single day. When K and I sat down to our first meal in Jaipur, he said that we would only eat Indian food during the four days. I had zero qualms with that.
The food in India varies depending on which state you’re in. Jaipur is the capitol of the Rajasthan state, which is extremely arid. Limited water means there’s a limited variety of fruits and vegetables. Instead, Rajasthani food has a lot of dairy and game meat (for someone who doesn’t like game meat, I have never eaten so much lamb in my life, although K later pointed to a group of goats and said, “Mutton!” so who knows what meat we were actually eating).
If you’re going to Jaipur, I’d recommend Chokhi Dani, a mock traditional Rajasthani village (think Epcot without the Disney stuff). There’s dancing, music, magicians, shops, etc. At the end of the night, you can eat at one of four different dining areas, all of which serve traditional Rajasthani fare: two indoor dining halls, an open air dining hall, and a royal fine dining place. K and I ate at Jeeman Khas, one of the indoor communal options. We sat in a hall without about twenty other people. We each had a large tray made of leaves and handmade clay cups. For an hour, waiters scooped ladles full of paneer, aloo, masala, and some other stuff that I don’t know how to search on Google, but it was delicious.
Expectation #2: Bargaining
Bargaining is standard in most of Asia. A street vendor will quote a price to you, you quote something lower, they go mid-range, and eventually you agree on some amount.
I am shit at bargaining. Not only does it make me feel rude, but the one time I tried to bargain I countered with a price that was just five Baht less, and I agreed to my own price before the shop owner could even give a counter offer (but why would she have? I took off five Baht. That is the equivalent of $0.15). I hate bargaining. Maybe it’s because I grew up helping my parents do art shows, where no one bargains because it’s handmade art, and if you bargain you’re likely to get a pot thrown at your head. Or maybe I’m just too polite…or a pushover.
K bargains. It’s either ingrained or a source of pride or both. He told me to let him know whenever I wanted to buy something, and he would bargain with the shopkeeper. Before leaving for India we had watched a YouTube video of a girl who traveled around the subcontinent for a month. In the video she held up a beautifully beaded tunic. “I got this for three pounds!” she says. K paused the video. “She got it for 3 pounds. I’ll get it for one.”
Unfortunately for K, my inability to bargain spreads like a cloud of perfume and clings to anyone in the immediate vicinity. As we walked past shops I would see something I liked and point it out to K. (Honestly it was hard not to buy everything. Colours, patterns, and sequins? India will help me realize my dream of becoming a Lisa Frank notebook.) K would speak with the shopkeeper (in Hindi), and then tell me the price. I would then pull out my wallet, and K would stare at the ceiling trying not to roll his eyes. Apparently the bargaining hadn’t actually happened.
At one shop, while the shopkeeper packed up whatever I’d pointed out, K said, “You are really bad at this.”
“What did I do?”
“You pulled out your wallet. I can’t bargain if he knows you’re willing to pay.”
“I thought you’d already bargained.”
“No! We were just talking.”
“You were speaking Hindi!”
“We could have gotten much lower.” K had one of those fake smiles where you’re annoyed, but you want others to think you’re happy.
For the rest of the trip, we used a code word.
Expectation #3: Animals
I expected to see cows in India, but I didn’t expect to see so many cows. I lived in Estes Park, Colorado for a summer, and that town is ruled by elk. If an elk wants to cross the road, everyone stops until his royal elk-ness has sauntered by. India is the same with cows–they are everywhere and they have the right of way. I’m not even sure if anyone owned any of the cows or if they were just free cows. Like the elk of Colorado, the cows did lose their allure with me after a few days (maybe I’m still scarred from being charged by elk for no reason). K had to screech to a halt to avoid hitting one on the highway. We left our shoes outside of a temple and had to wait on a cow walking down a flight of stairs to get them back. On the streets of Pushkar, a cow head butted me into a motorbike. Since cows are revered in India I squeezed out of the way to keep from getting completely knocked over, but I wanted to push the cow and tell it to shove off.
(Photo credit: Kishan Mishra)
We encountered camels, dogs, monkeys, and a weird furry pig, and a line of elephants at the Amber Fort, but the animal I lost my mind over were peacocks. Wild peacocks. I am ashamed to admit it, but I never thought about peacocks being wild. I’ve only ever seen them roaming around zoos as if that’s where they came into existence. When K and I biked up a mountain one night I heard high-pitched caw-caw sounds from the trees. I knew the sound was familiar, but I couldn’t remember from where or why. Then, when we came upon a muster of mating peacocks (the collective noun for peacocks is “muster”–you’re welcome) I heard the sound again: “Oh my god there were peacocks in those mountains?! PEACOCKS ARE WILD HERE?!”
We found the peacocks on a drive up to a Sikh temple. I was so shocked I may have shrieked. The males had their tail feathers in full fan mode. They bounced their butts and slowly approached disinterested females (been there, girl). Some of the guys tried to pair up and sandwich a lady peacock, but she’d just peck at the ground as if dirt and bugs were way more fascinating than overzealous bro peacocks. It was like watching frat boys at a house party continually strike out.
Expectation #4: Attention
In case it’s not obvious, I am white–very, very white. Picture the most generic white girl you can think of and that’s me: blond hair, blue-eyes, skin-that-turns-red-after-fifteen-minutes-in-the-sun-and-gets-burnt-through-a-tinted-car-window white. Because of this, I do get stares in Asia (and some photos taken of me). Even K, after we ate at a South Indian restaurant in Bangkok, told me that I’d probably get some attention in India and that I should refrain from wearing shorts or tank tops.
On our first day in Jaipur, K and I explored the Amber Palace and Jaigarh Fort. When we walked between the two sites, I took off my tunic (I had a tank top on underneath) because no one else around and it was really hot. As if on cue, a guy and a girl suddenly appeared and asked to take a photo with me. Then, inside Jaigarh Fort, three other guys asked for photos as well.
Had I been on my own I would have agreed to every photo. Why? Because it has been ingrained in me as a woman to be polite least you make someone angry and they take it out on you. Would I have wanted to take the photos? No. The photos I’ve taken with strangers are typically people who I’ve at least chatted to for a bit and then they ask if we can take a selfie. These guys, though, didn’t even say ‘hi.’ They’d just come up and ask for a picture. (K also mentioned that the guys possibly wanted them for raunchy purposes, which definitely turned me off of taking any photos.)
I ended up only taking two photos: that guy and girl we came across when I took off my tunic and a mother and her child (that one wasn’t creepy!). The rest were scared off or snapped at by K. On our first day in Jaipur, lots of guys asked to take a photo and were surprised when K said something in Hindi. On the second day, when K dressed (according to him) “more Indian,” (jeans and a t-shirt rather than Thailand-backpacker elephant pants) I’d see pairs of young guys look at me, talk to each other, pull out their phones, and walk in my direction. They’d turn the other way the moment they noticed K.
Finally the Un-Expectation: Pain
K wanted to rent a motorcycle so we could travel to Sambhar Lake (80 km west of Jaipur) and the town of Pushkar (148 km west of Jaipur). We rented a Royal Enfield bike. We traveled on the highway for half of the trip, and two-laned potholed roads for the other half (for my midwestern friends: think of Michigan’s roads).
Before traveling to Jaipur, the longest I’d ever spent on a motorcycle was 45 minutes. I don’t know how to drive a motorcycle and, apparently, I don’t know how to ride one either. I should have treated it like a horse and lifted myself before every jump (aka pothole). Instead, every time K hit a pothole or speed bump I’d fly off the seat and come down hard. My tailbone felt bruised and fractured after hours of this. When K stopped short I’d fall forward, straining and pulling my torso and tailbone even further.
This is when I thought: oh god I’m thirty. I landed in India just five days before turning thirty. I had many typical moments of: OMG I AM AN ADULT. SHOULDN’T MY LIFE BE MORE PUT TOGETHER THAN THIS? I’VE SCREWED EVERYTHING UP. Then I’d remember that life is short and you should do what makes you happy. Seeing/doing as much as possible and having adventures (and something to write about) is what makes me happy.
Still, riding a motorbike for eight hours (EIGHT. HOURS.) is a fantastic way to remind you that maybe you don’t feel older than twenty, but your body is older than twenty. A decade older. K is not only used to motorcycles, but he’s a few years younger than me. I tried really hard to act like I wasn’t in pain and that riding the motorcycle nearly 500 km was totally fine. However, by the end of the journey, K had to stop every half hour so that I could get off the bike. At the last stoplight before we reached our hotel I cried.
The next morning, K asked if I wanted to bike out of Jaipur again. I’d once mentioned wanting to see the Chand Baori stepwell, which is featured in a lot of films. The stepwell was in the village Abhaneri, about 94 km outside of Jaipur. Did I want to get back on a bike that felt more excruciating than when I got my IUD? Hell no. Did I want to seem like a cool, adventurous person, who was totally not feeling like oh god my body is getting older and I can’t recover as quickly as I used to? Yes. So I agreed to go.
We never made it out of Jaipur. Maybe there is a god who knew that if I rode that bike for even another 20 km I was going to break in half. We ended up getting turned away at the entrance of the highway. A toll booth worker said bikes weren’t allowed, but he gave no explanation. I have never been so grateful for an inane rule.
We were then pulled over by a cop. K went to the police stand in the middle of the road while I stood on the shoulder with the bike (right next to a set of speed bumps, where I got stare after stare after stare as cars and bikes slowed down). The cop asked where K was from, where I was from, and what we were doing. He told K that I shouldn’t be on motorcycle on the highway. It’s no place for someone like her. When K told me this, suddenly I wanted to get back on the Bike of Pain and drive as far as we could go until we had to be back for our 10 p.m. flight. I can’t ride a bike on the highway? Screw you, sir, I already went nearly 500 km. I will ride that bike until I can no longer feel the lower half of my body!
Instead, K paid a bribe and we left.
There you have it! Four days in India: forts, food, peacocks, cows, bribes, and a broken body. Did it meet my fifth grader’s long held, exceedingly high expectations? Absolutely. I loved India–love India. My next trip will be longer.
My first professional publication was an essay about how I am unable to ask for help even when I need it. In the essay, I took a 12-hour long ferry from the city of Lerwick on the Shetland Islands to Aberdeen, Scotland. A typhoon had just passed over the North Sea, creating waves so large that it felt like our boat was at a ninety degree angle. Every time we hit the water it sounded like an airstrike. I had accidentally overdosed on medication and spent five hours locked in a bathroom throwing up constantly every half hour. I felt certain I was going to die either from a shipwreck or my body would just give out. Eleven of my friends were on the boat, too. I wanted to get one of them and ask if they’d sit with me, but doing so felt silly. Why ask someone to keep me company just because I was scared, sick, and exhausted?
The essay ended with me (obviously) surviving and coming to the conclusion that I shouldn’t be afraid to ask others for help. Then I wrote an essay about another illness (years after the North Sea experience), which also concluded: admitting you need help is not a weakness.
It turns out that the ending of both essays are fictional. Here I am, almost exactly one decade later from crossing the North Sea, and I find myself in the exact same position, making the exact same choices.
Five days ago my throat became horse. By Thursday it was hard to project loud enough to talk to my classes so I took a sick day on Friday. I spent the whole day in bed intermittently watching Modern Family and napping. I took some pills I’d gotten from a pharmacist, but my voice kept getting quieter and quieter.
During the night I woke up constantly with a choking cough. It felt like someone had shoved a wet washcloth into my sternum. I jolted awake with nightmares of being in that Grey’s Anatomy episode where a woman learns a surgical rag was left in her chest after a surgery. In the morning I emailed my doctor’s office. They said to come in at 10:30.
And here is where this event starts to feel like a tragicomedy.
After two Grab bikes cancelled on me (because in Bangkok, asking a taxi driver to drive more than two kilometers is such an inconvenience) I booked it to the train station. I made it to the clinic five minutes after my appointment time. Drenched in sweat and out of breath, I ran into the waiting room and stopped dead when I saw the receptionist was someone I had one matched with on Bumble. I think he recognized me, too, because his head jerked a little, like when something takes you by surprise (or maybe I just looked horrendous–we’ll never know). I couldn’t remember if we’d mutually stopped talking to each other via the app or if he was one of the guys I stopped responding to once I started dating someone exclusively.
Like the coward that I am, I acted like I didn’t know him, gave my appointment time, and filled out the patient information sheet. When the doctor saw me she asked if I had a history of asthma. I don’t. She listened to my lungs and tutted. “You might want to consider an inhaler,” she said.
“Until your lungs are cleared. You’re full of fluid.”
She checked my blood pressure. “Your pulse is high.”
“I ran here.”
“It’s still too high.”
She said my tonsils were swollen and I had a severe upper respiratory infection. I ended up passing on the inhaler and took two types of antibiotics instead. The doctor wasn’t sure which method would be better, but I questioned my ability to inhale something. The few times I’ve smoked I’ve just let the smoke hang in my mouth before blowing it out.
In bed and on the meds, I felt even worse. My fever climbed to 100 degrees Fahrenheit, I kept shaking, and felt like I needed to vomit. My heart raced and my chest felt tight, but I chalked it up to panic rather than illness. Right before my dad passed away, he had what he, my mum, and I thought was a bad flu. He was achy, ill, weak, and hot. On the day he passed away, I urged him and my mum to go to the doctor, but Dad refused saying he was too sick to go, and he would go the next day if he didn’t feel better. He passed away suddenly that evening. Movies and pop culture have lied about the cliche of someone’s left arm hurting and then they collapse. In reality, a heart attack can also look like a flu or indigestion.
I think a lot about how my dad was sick and didn’t ask for help. I wonder what would have happened had my mum and I been more forceful about going to the doctor. Then again, I get my stubborn resoluteness and feeling of “I’ll just handle it on my own” from somewhere, so who knows if we could have done anything at all.
Thinking about my dad, I texted a few friends. I asked if they’d be home in the evening. When a few responded yes and why, I couldn’t think of a response. I’m sick and scared and want to make sure someone will notice if I stop responding to text? I’m sick and scared and just want to be around someone? The two people I’m closest to in Bangkok are gone and I feel totally alone?
Instead I went with the pathetic: This is going to sound really silly and I am mortified for even bringing up, but this is easily the sickest I’ve been in years. I’m trying to see who is around tonight in case I actually need help?
I could hear the ghost of my twenty-year-old self on that North Sea ferry, sitting pinched between the wall and toilet. You’re an imbecile, she said before cough out more bile and unknowingly straining her pectoral muscles.
Two of my friends immediately offered to help. They asked if they could bring anything, do anything, or just stay in my apartment with me. The small amount of courage I had in initially reaching out vanished. I said I didn’t need anything and that I’d let them know if I got any worse. One friend offered to let me stay in her spare bedroom. While I wanted to jump on the offer, I thought of the inconvenience I’d put her and her husband through and said I’d be fine at home.
In truth, I wanted to be with someone. When you’re sick and live alone, your isolation seems to amplify. Liz Lemon said she feared choking on something in her apartment and not being able to give herself the Heimlich maneuver. A part of me had that same fear, except I thought I’d faint and hit my head. Or just plain pass out. Either way, when we’re super sick, we all just want someone around, don’t we? And when you’re in a foreign country, don’t you especially want to be with someone?
Around 10 p.m. I still coughed out chunks of my lungs and irritated my throat so much that there were tiny specks of blood. I felt both nauseous from the antibiotics and ravenous because I hadn’t eaten since ten a.m. Friends had offered to bring food, but did I accept? Of course not. My mouth tasted like rust.
My fever had gone down 0.2 degrees. It seemed hopeful, but I could still barely talk. I turned on another episode of Modern Family. A scuttling noise behind my closet made me pause the show. It was followed by a hiss that sounded like a pot boiling over onto a hot burner. For years I have had this weird fear that I am going to leave a burner on and engulf my entire home in flames. I ran into my living room, partially convinced I’d started a fire and the hissing was the sound of the sprinklers going off (despite the fact that a) I hadn’t used my burner for hours and b) there’s a sprinkler in my bedroom, which I would have noticed had it gone off).
The hissing came from my bathroom, where the toilet hose spurted water like an open fire hydrant.
I know a certain amount of plumbing from working in hotels, but when I tried to cut off the water the lever wouldn’t budge. My addled, fever-infected brain told me to pick up the hose and try to stop the water with my hands. Obviously this did nothing except spray water everywhere and make the hose fly out of my grasp (I guess I can’t complain about low water pressure in my building).
I threw the hose in my shower, removed everything that was getting wet, and ran into the hallway to get a neighbor. When no one answered their door (thanks a lot, jerks) I texted my landlord for help. She said maintenance should be around on the ground floor.
I found the maintenance guy as he headed out for a smoke. At this point it didn’t matter whether he spoke English (which he didn’t) or I spoke Thai (which I don’t) because my voice was so shot that I could barely reach the decibel of a whisper (for those who have read the Shetland essay, doesn’t this sound eerily familiar?). I showed him a video of the hose erupting. He lackadaisically picked up a tool bag and ambled behind me like I’d asked him to replace a light bulb. In the elevator he talked to me and asked questions in Thai. I shrugged and pointed at my phone and throat: “I don’t know what happened. I was in my bedroom and it went WHOOSH. I have no voice. Sick. Very sick. I don’t speak Thai.”
In my bathroom, the man tried to turn off the water switch just like I had. “I did that,” I said. “It won’t budge.” He said something in Thai and held the still gushing hose in his hand. He pointed to the hose and the toilet tank, which I had removed when the off switch wouldn’t work, hoping I could stop the water from inside the tank.
I shrugged. “I don’t know what you mean.”
He said some stuff and pointed to the sink. “Cold water.”
“Is there cold water?”
“Cold water.” He gestured to the hose.
“Is there cold water coming out of the hose? Yes?”
He left and walked down the hall. I heard a door open and then a giant bang sounded above my head. It sounded like that pop when fuse blows, but times ten. The guy came back into my apartment, looking as surprised as I was.
The water finally stopped. He took the nozzle off the hose. He talked as he examined it. I wasn’t sure if he was talking to me or the hose. I turned the voice recorder on in my Google translate app. It said: comfortable smile period. Big help.
He shook the nozzle at me. He pointed at the hose. “Cold water,” he said again. He pointed at my shower head.
“Cold water,” I repeated.
He shook the nozzle. “Cold water.”
“It only uses cold water?”
He pointed at the sink. I turned the faucet. Nothing came out. “Oh. You shut off the water?” He nodded. “So no cold water?” He nodded. “But also no hot water?”
He pointed at a tear in the rubber lining of the hose. “When will the water come back?,” I asked. He moved the handle of the faucet and shook his head. I typed tomorrow or tonight? into Google translate. He stared at the screen, looked at me and said, “Office.”
“I go to the office?”
“Something in Thai–office.”
“I go to office tomorrow?”
“Something in Thai–tomorrow.”
He shook the nozzle and picked up the hose.
“I need a new one? New?”
He held the nozzle and hose, lifting them up and down like a balance.
“I need a new hose, nozzle, or both?” I intertwined to fingers (like an idiot).
“Tomorrow,” he said. He threw the nozzle into my sink and pointed at it. Then he pointed at the hose and then back to the nozzle, pointing specifically at the small tear.
“I’ll go to the office tomorrow, you’ll replace that, and then water?”
“Something in Thai.”
“I’ll just go to the office tomorrow.”
He pointed to the nozzle one last time and repeated the same Thai word three times. When he left, I repeated the word into Google translate. Google said: era and comfortable (again).
The next morning I awoke with my fever broken, but my throat, chest, and voice feeling exactly the same (my chest is a bit worse, but I think it’s just sore from all the coughing). I went down to the main office, where they told me I needed to go to the store and buy a new hose. Of course, I couldn’t just go to the Big C across the street, they said. I needed to go to the HomePro three kilometers away because “they have high quality hoses that can handle our high water pressure.” I asked if I could just refit the pipe to not need the hose because, let’s be honest, I’m western and I do not use the hose. The office people looked at me in disgust and said no.
I put on normal clothes, threw a hat over my horrendous, un-showered hair, and trekked to HomePro. Google said it opened at 8:30 a.m. I arrived at 9:30 and the security guard said nothing opened until 10 a.m. Google and I are apparently no longer friends.
When the store did open, I learned that toilet hoses come in many lengths and sizes. I showed a clerk the video of the hose spewing water. He asked me something in Thai and pointed at the side with just hoses and the side with hose and nozzle sets. I suddenly realized why the maintenance man had been shaking the nozzle at me–I only needed the hose. My nozzle was fine.
I left with the hose in hand, scheduled a 3 p.m. appointment with my apartment’s maintenance, texted my landlord that this should all be deducted from my rent (because, again, I don’t use the hose so how is it my fault that it broke?), and went back to my apartment to relax.
Once in my apartment I looked at the nozzle in my sink. Then I remembered the hole in the rubber lining of the nozzle. Kill me. I didn’t need to replace the hose; I needed to replace the nozzle. Are. You. KIDDING ME? I went back down to the office and they said that yes, I needed to buy the full set and not just the hose.
What’s going on with my upper respiratory-ness during all of this? Soreness, feeling winded just from walking up a flight of stairs, and still speaking so softly that I have to repeat things in order to be semi-understood. So going to and from HomePro twice = an unhappy, wheezing Georgia.
Even though I had purchased the hose just one hour before, and the same clerk helped me, I couldn’t just exchange the item for something else. Who knows why, but a single hose is more expensive than a hose and nozzle set, and when the total came to -40Baht the cashier said I had to find something in the store to make up the difference. I wanted to scream at her. DO YOU NOT HEAR HOW BAD MY VOICE IS? DO YOU THINK I WANT TO OR EVEN CARE ABOUT 40 BAHT? I WANT TO BE IN BED. KEEP THE STUPID MONEY.
Seriously though, let’s have a quick aside–what the hell is with Thailand and returns? I bought a book for someone two weeks ago and immediately realized I’d purchased the wrong one. I went back two days later with the book, receipt, and original bag. This wasn’t a tiny independent bookshop with limited stock. This was a major chain bookstore inside a gigantic mall. Yet still, the cashier had to get a manager and then I had to sign several forms in order to exchange a book for another book that was the exact same price. Now, I try to exchange something just one hour later and the store can’t refund me forty Baht? I’m sorry, but honestly, Thailand, what the hell?
The cashier took me around the store looking for something that was exactly 40Baht because apparently purchasing anything above 40Baht was just not an option. I signed three forms and left the store with the stupid toilet hose set and a box of Ziploc bags. (Seriously, Thailand, WHY?)
As I trekked back home, one of my friends checked in. I told her about the hose debacle. “You should have said something! I could have gone for you!”
Again, my twenty-year-old self, who thought she would die in the North Sea, cursed me. I had thought about asking someone to help get the hose. My chest still felt like there’s a wet rag inside and I felt I had to lean close and shout just for people to hear me. Asking some to get the hose, though, felt like a huge imposition. If I wasn’t dying, shouldn’t I just do it myself?
Apparently I’ve learned nothing in the past decade. Four years after my North Sea adventure I got a horrible eye infection that left me unable to see in daylight and I’d scarred my eyes so badly I can never wear contacts again. That time, too, I lay in my apartment, which I shared with two other girls, and panicked alone instead of reaching out to someone for comfort. My sister lived in the same city as me at the time. Did I contact her? Not until I’d already spent a terrifying hour with the eye surgeon. When my graduate school dissolved my assistantship, and I thought I would have to drop out, I spent days crying on my living room floor rather than asking a friend to come over. In fact, the only time I started reaching out was when my dad passed away. I reached out mostly to my longterm boyfriend, and when he too left unexpectedly I reached out to friends.
Asking for help does not come naturally to me. After two straight years of grieving and seeking comfort, I felt exhausted. I wanted to go back to some semblance of normalcy, and dealing with things on my own was one of the easiest things reclaim. I know this is not a great trait. You don’t always have to be staunchly independent. I wanted someone with me in Bangkok while I was sick and kind of scared. I felt alone, but I wasn’t, or at least I didn’t have to be. I reached out a tiny bit, but then took it all back and amplified my suffering. I had no one to blame but myself (and my student, who I think got me sick).
When I returned home after my second trip to HomePro, I finally asked my friend for Tom Yum soup. She brought it over and said to call her whenever I needed something. “It’s okay to ask for help,” she said, like a mind reader. “You don’t have to do everything yourself.” I told her I would and, this time, I meant it. For the next half hour I fretted over whether to text the guy I’ve been dating and ask if he could come over for a bit when he’s back in town. Honestly–I should be institutionalized because I am a crazy person.
I would love to end this post the same way my North Sea essay ended and say that I’ll be better at asking for help from now on. That, however, would only be half true. I’m still stubborn, uneasy about imposing, and often resolutely independent to a fault. I’m still the person who, when my vision went black during a class, I didn’t tell anyone and simply drove to the doctor’s office, which is a fantastic decision when your eye sight is inexplicably giving out (turns out it was the warning sign of a debilitating migraine–so FYI).
I am definitely not going to say I’ll turn a new leaf, stop being a coward, and start reaching out to people. I will, however, try. That’s something, right?
Also, just so no one thinks I’m here in Bangkok constantly feeling sad and lonely (I’m not–it was just a crap weekend), stay tuned for posts about my short trip to Jaipur and how maybe I don’t hate camping as much as I thought.
Also an update so that no one (Mum) is worried about my health–my throat feels fine, but I still have no voice and I cough a lot. I’m less nauseous now that I realized I should eat something with the antibiotics…
I can’t believe it’s been over two months since my last post. That’s mostly because I got a new job, which consumes my working week. Any free time I have has been spent with friends or writing for various publications.
When my new job’s Board of Directors offered me a position, the President said, “You cannot write about our school.” (The most I can say is that it’s an all-boys school.) At the time I laughed and said, “That won’t be a problem.” What I wanted to say was: why would I write about a bunch of teenage boys? How interesting can they be?
Turns out, they are very interesting. The Lord of the Flies is real, and there’s at least four or five Piggys in my class. One kid already fell down a flight of stairs, and my students did nothing but take his shoes off and poke him. There have been several moments where I want to say, “Why didn’t you get an adult?!” and then I realize I’m the adult. (I think this is why alcohol isn’t sold in Thailand between 2 and 5 pm. All of the teachers would guzzle a bottle of wine before the end of 6th period.)
I also can’t write about my school because my students have found my websites. So hey, guys.
And now, a quick recap on my travels from the past two months.
First Trip: Penang, Malaysia
I went to Penang, Malaysia because I needed to reset my visa for my Lord of the Flies job. At first I told coworkers I was going to Kuala Lumpur. “KL sucks,” they said. “It’s just a big, fancy city with nothing to do.” So I changed my plans to Penang. Then they said, “Penang sucks. It’s boring and there’s nothing to do.” I stopped listening to everyone and decided to just stick with Penang. I’d survived boring Vientaine; couldn’t I survive boring Penang?
Maybe my coworkers and I have different levels of boring and exciting because I LOVED Penang. The small city reminded me a lot of Savannah, GA: historic buildings, cobblestone streets, no sky scrapers, a port, and art at every turn.
When my friend and I first arrived at Penang, we found out the power box to our AirBnB had been stolen. The AirBnB owner rushed over and shuttled us to a row of townhouses he and his boyfriend owned. “Do people steal power boxes often?” I asked.
“No,” the guy said. “This has never happened before.” (Again, stealing a power box is also something I would both expect and not expect in Savannah.)
The switch ended up being fantastic. My friend and I got an adorable two-story townhouse with garden-esque swings in the living room, an outdoor courtyard that led to the shower and bathroom, and my bed was even suspended off the ground like a gigantic full-sized mattress hammock.
Whoever spearheads the tourism industry in Penang is a genius. Although my coworkers hated KL, I think most travelers to Malaysia either visit KL or the beaches. Penang is at the bottom of the destination ladder. However, what does draw people to Penang are the photo opportunities. Asia is really into the selfie and Instagram culture. Obviously the West is into that, too, but there are actual “selfie spots” in Asia: staged photo areas made just for Instagram (there’s a large swing and a giant bird’s nest in Bali just so people can take their pictures in them).
To lure social media obsessed millennials, Penang has several museums that are just for picture taking. My friend and I first went to the Upside Down Museum, where everything is bolted to the ceiling to make you feel as if you’ve walked into a home that was turned on its head. Museum stewards pass you from room to room, and position you so that you and the thousands of other Upside Down Museum visitors have identical photos.
What I also liked about Penang was the seamless blending of cultures. There’s China Town, Korea Town, and Little India, and there’s no noticeable divide between any of them. In Chicago, there’s also a China Town, Korea Town, Little India, and countless other national neighborhoods, but they’re separated by blocks and blocks of just plain ol’ Chicago. In Penang, the neighborhoods were next to each other and it was hard to tell when you walked from one to the other except that some of the street decorations changed.
If you like small historic cities with great food, great nightlife, and street art, Penang is the place to go. And if you know and love Savannah, Penang should definitely be at the top of your Travel Bucket List.
Second Trip: Hua Hin, Thailand
Maybe I’m going through my first ever bout of homesickness for the U.S., but Hua Hin reminded me of a Florida beachtown like Fernandina or Palm Beach. Like Penang, there were no sky scrapers and the tallest structures were temples and a Buddha statue. Like Florida, the ocean is a mix of blue and turquoise, the sand is white, and there are surfers trying to ride baby waves that Californians would laugh at.
Whereas Penang was walkable, Hua Hin seemed easiest to get around by bike. A friend and I rented a moto from our guesthouse, and were able to zip around to the Cicada Market, some temples, and the Artist Village. Without a bike I don’t think we would have seen as much as we did or we would have been shelling out a lot of Baht for taxis.
As the child of artists, I geeked out hard over the Artist Village. It’s inland from the beach and you need a car or moto to reach it. It’s set up like a small village with open-air houses clustered together. Each house is packed with art: oil paintings, acrylic paintings, ceramic sculptures, glass, driftwood creations, etc. A few artists sat in the houses working on new pieces. I don’t know how long we were there, but I could have stayed all day. I ended up buying an oil painting from a Thai artist who was painting inside one of the houses. He also gave my friend a free painting because my friend is Indian and the artist loves India.
Third Trip: Khao Yai (sort of)
I booked a weekend trip to Khao Yai National Park during a week when my students were driving me up the wall and the school got a long weekend because of hand, foot, and mouth disease. I wanted to get away from Bangkok, and since I’d already done the beach I decided to head up north.
The trip to Khao Yai was my first time traveling solo in Thailand. Part of the reason I went solo was to see if I could do it solo. Despite my post about being more confident in Thailand, if I’m with someone I largely let them do the talking. With Khao Yai I wanted to do everything myself: find the bus, find the resort, etc etc.
Finding the right bus ended up being easy because two bus station attendants immediately set upon me and rushed me from the ticket window to the correct bus. When I said I was going to Muak Lek, the bus station lady looked at me oddly.
“Muak Lek?” she asked.
“Yes? Muak Lek?”
“Muak. Lek?” She raised one eyebrow as if to say, are you sure?
I pulled out my phone and showed her the spot on Google maps. She sighed and shrugged. “Muak Lek.”
I fretted slightly when the bus driver had the same are you sure? reaction to my Muak Lek ticket. The ride took about two hours. The bus pulled over onto the shoulder of the highway and the bus attendant came to my seat and grabbed my bag: “Muak Lek.”
As the bus pulled away I realized why everyone seemed confused about my destination. Not only was I the only person who got off at Muak Lek, but the stop was just a small shack on the side of the highway with a sleepy, practically empty market behind it. I called the resort where I was to stay and tried to explain where I was.
“Are you by a clock tower?” the concierge asked.
“Umm there’s an overpass.”
“What did you pass before the bus dropped you?”
“A cow sculpture.” I could almost hear the man drop his head in frustration. “There’s a broken down bus beside me,” I said. “Does that help? If you drive down the highway, you can’t miss it.”
Somehow the man did find me and he shuttled me to the St. James Resort, which had had a special deal on Agoda and was the entire reason I decided to be bougie and stay at a resort rather than my normal cheap AirBnB route.
Turns out, the resort is 44 km away from the entrance to Khao Yai. The resort is almost exclusively geared toward golfers, and not only did I stick out because I was one of only a handful of guests on the enormous property, but I was the only one there not playing golf. My lack of golfing also limited the places I could go because much of the resort was a “Golfers Only” golf course. Instead, I spent the weekend looking at the gorgeous mountain view from my room, enjoyed the luxury of having a bathtub again, and sat at the golf shack drinking Chang and eavesdropping on British men talking about their Thai wives and girlfriends.
Next up: a quick weekend trip to Jaipur, India and a few weeks in Japan and Hanoi, Vietnam.
I keep going back and forth with this post. On the one hand I’m like: “It’s been one year since your life collapsed. Look how far you’ve come! Write about it!” Then I start writing and I think: “Goddamn why are you still SO SAD?” Then I cocoon myself in between blankets and pillows, put on my dad’s dogtag, and watch comedy shows on Netflix.
On May 5th I got a tattoo of a semicolon. It both represents that I’m a writing nerd and signifies the partial end of one sentence (life) and the beginning of another, but without a full stop period. The tattoo only took five minutes to get (roughly the length of one Coldplay song), but I’d been thinking about it for a while. I chose May 5th because that was the one year anniversary of my life falling apart.
On the night of May 4, 2017 I lay in my living room on an air-mattress-turned-couch. I’d sold most of my furniture in preparation for a move, and my apartment was half in and out of boxes. I watched the “Casino Night” episode of The Office. The next evening I would graduate from my three-year Master’s program. I tried not to think about how my dad would not be at the ceremony because he’d died unexpectedly ten months previous.
Just as Jim and Pam kissed for the first time ever my boyfriend, R, called. “I have some bad news,” he said. I thought he was going to say he couldn’t make it to my graduation because of a business trip. Instead he dumped me. Typical engineer, it was quick, methodical, and so cold I could almost imagine him holding a crumbled To Do list in his hands with “break Georgia’s heart” as the last item not crossed off. He said he’d been thinking about ending things for months, but didn’t know how to tell me. Apparently over the phone at 11:30 p.m. the night before my graduation was the ideal moment.
And that was that. My seven year relationship (nearly thirteen if you include the six years we were best friends) ended without any sort of warning and without me having a say in the matter. It was like experiencing my dad’s death all over again.
To be totally honest: this broke me. I had just barely been keeping myself upright after my dad’s death. My counselor told me to lean on people in my grief, and I did. I leaned on R the hardest. When that leg of my wobbly chair was also kicked out from under me, I gave up. Grief is exhausting. A double douse of grief? Unfathomable. I spent the next several months telling my counselor “I’m not going to survive this.”
“If you think that way,” she said, “then you won’t.”
Four months after R said he had “some bad news” I moved to Asia. I didn’t go for the cliche Eat, Pray, Love experience. Sure, having a handsome Brazilian lover would be great, but I didn’t look at Thailand as starting over or building a new life. I’d wanted to move to Asia ever since graduating from undergrad. R and I had planned to move to Asia together, but it turned out he never really intended to go. I decided to continue with the move because I didn’t know what else to do.
I don’t know what I expected from Thailand. I knew I wasn’t going to move here and immediately be happy, but I thought I’d at least gain some feeling of accomplishment or pride. Instead, when 10:30 a.m. May 5th, 2018 (May 4th 11:30 p.m. EST) rolled around—exactly one year since the Bad News Phone Call—I felt…nothing. I rode a BTS train to work. I looked at my phone when it hit 10:30 a.m., sent a few friends a happy one year anniversary of my life imploding! text, and went to work. That evening I got the semicolon tattoo, and then I headed to meet a friend at a rooftop bar.
On the way to the rooftop bar I thought about what had changed in the past year. Sure, I’d moved to a new country, started a new job, and made new friends, but given my history that didn’t feel that spectacular. It just felt like my usual transient life. My personality had changed a bit: I’m a bit more upfront about my feelings and less likely to tolerate bullshit, whereas I used to bend over backwards and forwards to do anything for anyone even if I didn’t particularly like them. I’m a lot calmer and more apt to let things roll off my back because, let’s face it, I’ve seen how awful life can be so everything else pales in comparison. I’m also a bit more likely to just drop and leave anything/anyone that even slightly upsets me, which is a boon and a curse.
I was at the rooftop bar for an hour when suddenly an older man beside me collapsed. I was standing at the bar, waiting to order a drink, when the bartender gasped and shouted in Thai. A bald man stood beside me and he turned just in time to catch the older man, who grasped at the lip of the bar. The bartender, bar manager, and house manager all ran to the man. Everyone cleared as much space on the crowded floor as possible. I bolted to the opposite side of the room. I tried to catch my breath while my friend asked what had happened.
I wasn’t at home when my dad collapsed. While my mum and I were at the hospital, our neighbors called someone to clean the house before we returned home. I have never seen any physical evidence of what happened to my dad. To me, Dad was there one moment and then he was gone without a trace. All I can do instead is replay over and over what I think happened. Seeing the man collapse at the bar was like seeing my morbid imaginings come to life.
Thankfully, the man was okay. He walked out of the bar with the help of the house manager. I spent the next hour halfheartedly flirting with a Brazilian guy (maybe there is an inkling of Eat, Pray, Love after all) to distract myself. I wanted to curl onto the ground and cry. 365 days, a move halfway across the world, and yet it felt like nothing had changed. One small reminder of my dad still brought my energy to a grinding halt for days or weeks. If a date went well I took steps to push the guy away because it’s hard not to believe that every relationship will end in crushing heartbreak just like the last one.
Before you close your browser window and think, “Oh my god this girl is too sad and beyond hope,” I promise this will end on a slightly more uplifting note (because it can’t get much sadder, amiright?).
I left the rooftop bar and went to a friend’s apartment. On the way there I called another friend. Both of them let me cry and rage and babble and just generally fall apart and, with their help, put myself back together again. In all honesty, my friends didn’t even have to do anything. They just listened and showed me that they were there for me.
Days after the tattoo, the one year implosion anniversary, and the man collapsing, I realized that there’s been another change I hadn’t fully acknowledged: my trust in friends. I’ve always made friends easily, but it takes me a while to make good friends. I tend to keep people at arm’s length and tell myself if this person suddenly leaves, that won’t bother me because we were never that close anyways. I chalk this up to my transient impulse and how I tend to just up and move and leave whatever community I’ve established. After losing my dad and R, friends seemed to come out of no where to lend their support. They flew or drove from states away to be with me; they planned weekend trips to keep me company; they fed me; they gave me Mr. Darcy dolls and break-up playlists; they sent words of encouragement, helped me move, let me crash in their apartments, and let me call day or night to talk about anything. People I hadn’t talked to in years reached out. Even people I’ve only known for a short time in Bangkok have been immensely caring and helpful.
I’ve always known I had awesome friends (and coworkers!). I just didn’t know how many I had until this year. Obviously I wish I could have figured it out a lot sooner and through a different avenue, but it’s heartwarming to know that even when life seems to be collapsing like a massive sinkhole, I have so many amazing people to help pull me back up.
Just a small sampling of these kickass people.
So cheers to all of you wonderful people! You’ve helped make this past year a little bit more bearable.
Oh god, was that cheesy? That was cheesy. Here’s a gif to make us all feel a little less awkward:
When I asked my Thai friend about Songkran, she looked me up and down, laughed, and said, “You’re a walking target.”
She used her spoon to dig out a chunk of mango from our shared bingsu. “We throw water at foreigners,” she said. “You’re going to get soaked.”
I’d heard about Songkran when I first arrived in Bangkok, but not much detail. A few people called it “the water festival.” I imagined people boating or placing flowers in the Chao Praya River that cuts through the city. It wasn’t until my friend and I shared the bingsu at the night market that I realized water would actively be involved. Of course it would be. Just like the shrimp or whiskey festivals in coastal Georgia—you don’t just stare at the shrimp or whiskey. You consume it. Or, in Thailand’s case, you throw it.
Songkran is Thailand’s most famous festival. Also known as Thai New Year (Happy 2561 everyone!), the name Songkran comes from a Sanskrit word meaning “passing” or “approaching.” Lots of Thais head home to spend the holiday with their families. Everyone wears colorful, Hawaiian shirts. The water is a sign of respect and well-wishing. It represents washing away someone’s bad luck so that they have a happy new year. Elders, monks, and Buddha statues get the water poured gracefully over their hands and heads. Everyone else gets the water chucked at them, basically drowning them in good luck. (And let’s be honest, after my past few years, someone can just dunk me in a pool of luck.)
As Songkran’s three-day celebration neared, friends and coworkers kept doling out advice: Stockpile food and alcohol; Don’t leave your apartment unless you have to; Accept that you’ll be soaked for three days; People will rub a floral-scented powder on you without asking for permission; You’ll get groped; Don’t punch anyone who grabs you; Leave your cell phone at home. I wasn’t sure whether to be excited, annoyed, or nervous. Having water thrown at me seemed funny, and a splash of ice-cold water would be a welcomed relief from Bangkok’s heat. Having people smack me with powder…that did not seem like a good time. My natural instinct would be to hit anyone who grabbed me out of the blue. Also, I wear glasses. If they break, I’m screwed.
Since no one could give me specific details on what to do or expect during Songkran, below is a step-by-step guide based on my personal experience.
Step 1. Be Waterproof
On the first day of Songkran, I wore a swimsuit under workout clothes. I knew I was going to get wet, but I still questioned just how much. Were friends exaggerating when they said people would pour buckets of water on me? I popped my phone, money, and train pass into the waterproof pouch I normally reserve for kayaking, slung a water gun over my shoulder, and headed out the door.
I made it about two blocks from my apartment before getting wet. A woman and six kids leaned over the railing of the sidewalk and threw water at passing cars. When the woman noticed me she motioned to the kids. All seven scrambled to refill their cups and buckets. I had to pass with only a few inches between us so they mostly tipped the water against me. Thank god the kids were toddlers and could only reach my waist. The lady dumped her cup on my head.
For the full three days of Songkran I was doused with water fairly consistently. One morning I was splashed on the leg while leaving the train station. Another afternoon I was walking alongside a road and felt a spritz hit my face. I turned and saw a guy smiling and holding a water gun like he was Bruce Willis in Die Hard. At a club, two men chucked buckets of water at my friend and me. Then the club itself kicked it up a notch and turned on the sprinkler system.
Step 2. Join the Festivities
If I live in Bangkok for years, maybe I’ll become as annoyed with Songkran as my coworkers. Since I’m still a newbie, I went with friends to Silom, one of Bangkok’s two big Songkran celebration areas. Silom, Bangkok’s unofficial downtown, was cordoned off from traffic so that revelers could have the largest street water gun fight you’ve ever seen. People ambled up and down the street for about two kilometers, shooting each other with water. Then they’d turn around and do it again. It was like the world’s slowest, wettest parade.
A video from the Silom celebration.
Step 3. Drink
I’m sure I’m going to get some flack for listing this as a “how to” step, but when you’re being pelted with water nonstop, you need something to take the edge off. Some of the water guns felt like water cannon. At times you’re being sprayed from multiple directions, and there’s always that idiot who shoots you right in the face (or in the ear—why?). Do you really want to be stone-cold sober for that?
Take a shot or two before joining the festivities or pop down one of the Sois and have a drink at a bar. Or you can take the classy route like my friends and I did: buy beers at the 7/11 and shotgun them outside the automatic doors. Then fill up your gun with water and jump into the fray.
Which leads me to the next step…
Step 4. Have a Working Gun
At first I didn’t want to buy a water gun for Songkran. I don’t love calling attention to myself, and spraying unsuspecting strangers with water just felt uncomfortable. I bought a gun only when I realized I needed it not to spray people, but for my own self defense (how American of me, right?).
I bought a Mickey Mouse gun specifically because it reminded me of my dad and I like to include his memory in every holiday (even if it’s a holiday he’s never taken part in). Unfortunately, my gun sucked. Water spurted from the gun like a hose slowly being turned off. The water also wouldn’t stop. I tried tilting the gun to the sky or plugging the hole with my finger, but nothing worked. A pathetic stream flowed out of the gun until the water reserve ran dry. I spent most of the time at the Silom Songkran festival using my friends as human shields.
Step 5. Stay With Your Buddy
This is specific to the large water gun fights. The water fights are crowded and just plain bedlam. Your cell phone is tucked away in a waterproof pouch, which makes it hard to use. If you get separated from your friends during the water fight you might as well make new friends because you won’t find your people again.
Step 6. Always Be Prepared
After one day of Songkran in Bangkok, my friend and I traveled to Koh Samet for the long weekend. We took a bus to Ban Phe, a ferry to the island, and a songtaew to our hotel. A songtaew is a taxi-like pick-up truck with a raised roof and benches in the flatbed. As the truck motored down the narrow streets, locals threw water at us. The whole ride was like a water based war zone. Kids shot at us from the side of the road. Whenever the truck stopped, they ran and threw buckets of water. At one point half a bucket was poured straight over my shoulders.
Step 7. Enjoy
This step is really just a combination of Steps 1-6.
Songkran is a fun holiday. Everyone is happy because they’re off work and it’s the turn of the New Year: a time to make a new start. Unlike in the U.S., where the New Year happens during the coldest months, Songkran can be spent outside in a bathing suit and shorts. Some of the water guns are aggressive, but, on the whole, having ice-cold water thrown at you in ninety-degree heat feels really good. Playing with water guns makes you feel like a kid again, and at least the powder stuff you get hit with smells nice. Even in a city as large as Bangkok, you feel like you’re on a beach holiday.
The U.S. could really benefit from a holiday like Songkran. Obviously we have things like Thanksgiving and the Fourth of July, where everyone celebrates in roughly the same way, but it’s fun to have one specific thing that everyone takes part in (Songkran: the water, Holi: the colors, Batalla da Vino: the red wine).
My Number One Tip:
Everyone should come to Thailand and experience Songkran! Even if it’s just for a day. Then you can escape to a beach, where you’ll still get wet, but who cares—it’s only water.
When you move to a country that has a completely different culture from what you’re used to, it’s easy to commit a faux pas here and there. When one of my friends first moved to Thailand a coin rolled down the floor of her classroom and she stepped on it to make it stop.
“The class gasped,” she told me. “The money has the face of the king on it. I basically stomped on the king.”
Thanks to her I knew to keep my feet clear of any Baht. I also knew a few other cultural taboos such as don’t point at anyone with your finger or with the bottom of your foot. Still, two weeks ago, in an attempt to get a student to say “foot” instead of “feet” I lifted my leg in the air, pointing the bottom of my shoe right at a young girl. The foot-assaulted student visibly shrunk and the others went, “Ooooooo.” I turned red and apologized profusely.
I’m lucky that most of my faux pas are committed in front of my students because they’re very forgiving and seem to find me funny (which I think is a good thing?). In one of my first classes I tried to discuss a new vocabulary word: protest.
“Have any of you gone to a protest?” I asked.
“Do you know what a protest is?”
“Like a riot,” one student said.
“Right, but it doesn’t have to be loud or violent. It can be a peaceful protest or a silent protest.”
“Would anyone join a protest?”
Students shifted in their desks, looked at the ground, and twisted their mouths. Even though they’re adults, they looked like kids who’d been caught cheating on a test.
“No one? Has anyone seen a protest?”
My most talkative student said, “We don’t have those in Thailand.”
“You don’t have protests?”
“How can that be possible?”
Another student chimed in: “We had protests a few years ago. Yellow Shirts and Red Shirts, but no more.”
“You’ve never had another protest?” I asked, skeptical. Everyone looked away. “That cannot be possible,” I said. “There must be something people disagree with that they protest about. What about the Women’s March?”
I pressed the topic further, but my students refused to respond. Later that evening I met a friend for drinks and told him about the class. “Georgia,” he said, “Thais don’t talk about politics. It’s not like the U.S.”
“They don’t talk about politics or they can’t?”
“A bit of both. Thai people are incredibly resistant to talking about politics.There are some instances where you can get in legal trouble for it. They just don’t do it, especially in a group setting.”
“So you mean I was trying to force them to talk about something they’re not allowed to talk about?”
The following week I apologized to my class. I learned that a group of five or more people talking about politics in Thailand can legally be arrested. I knew that didn’t include a classroom setting, but it explained why my students had been noticeably uncomfortable. The next time a vocab word teetered on the subject of politics I covered it only briefly:
“Do you have debates in Thailand?”
My talkative student responded no before I finished saying -land.
“Awesome. Moving on…”
Being American, I am especially wary of committing a faux pas. Not only are Americans stereotyped as rude, entitled travelers, but our current political/social climate is only reinforcing that image. When I first moved to Thailand, two Americans were arrested for posting a photo of themselves mooning the camera in front of a temple. Mooning and traveling is apparently something these two Americans do and they even had an Instagram account called Travelling_Butts, which has since been taken down. This is a prime example of what people expect from Americans: doing stupid stuff without fear of consequences because ‘Murica. You have to dress “modestly” in Thai temples: cover your shoulders and wear something that goes past your knees. Showing your ass in front of a temple? That’s just blatant ignorance. It’s thanks my idiotic countrymen like the Travelling_Butts that I am über cautious of disrespecting or insulting Thai culture (or any culture for that matter).
My latest faux pas happened last weekend. I took someone’s shift at work and afterwards headed for the train station at an hour I wasn’t used to. I had my earphones in with my music on low. As I entered the train station I heard anthem-like music playing over the loud speakers. It wasn’t very loud, but it was noticeable. In Thailand, when the national anthem plays, everyone stops and listens. If you’re in a crowded train station it’s like a large flash mob suddenly freezing in place. Unfortunately, the station I was at wasn’t crowded. There were barely ten people around me. I looked at the ticket machines. A Japanese family fiddled with money and argued over the train map. Another man beeped his BTS pass and walked through the turnstile. The guard that stands at the turnstile stood a bit more rigid than normal, but she didn’t salute so I figured the music piping over the loudspeakers wasn’t actually the national anthem.
I walked up to the turnstile with my BTS card in my hand. I then saw a man frozen in place near the escalator. I stopped mid-step. The BTS guard and I made eye contact. I looked back at the Japanese family still trying to slip coins into the ticket machine. Then I looked over at the ticket booth, which, had I been a smarter person, I should have looked from the start. Both ticket takers stood in front of their chairs and stared straight ahead. Ah shit.
Like someone playing freeze tag, I stayed frozen with one foot on the ground and the other mid-step behind me. My arm stretched slightly towards the turnstile, ready to beep my BTS card. Did I look ridiculous? Absolutely. Did I feel ridiculous? Shockingly no.
A friend had told me how she and a date were in a train station when the anthem played. Everyone around them froze, but her date kept moving. He said it didn’t matter because neither of them were Thai. The whole thing happened so fast that my friend kept walking. Later, she said she felt insensitive. “We’re guests in this country,” we both agreed. “We have to respect their traditions and take part when we can.”
Although I looked like one of those robot street performers waiting for someone to drop money at my feet, I didn’t feel ridiculous. I hoped my comical stance displayed my respect for my host country. Being white and blonde it’s pretty obvious that I am a foreigner. When the music stopped I beeped my card and walked through the turnstile. The guard laughed as I walked by and gave a slight bow. I shrugged. “Whoops.”
On the escalator I made note of the time. The next time the anthem played, I would stand still like a normal person instead of freezing like a startled squirrel.
I am crap at ordering street food. Bangkok is practically bursting at the seams with food stalls, food carts, and foldout tables laden with 25 Baht banana leaf wrapped goodies, and yet I rarely order anything more than a coconut or iced coffee. This has nothing to do with sanitary worries or being picky about food; it’s all to do with my embarrassment at the language barrier. In every other country I’ve lived in or traveled to I have either known the language or known enough to get by. Thai is a tonal language. Apparently I’m tone deaf. My students try to teach me how to say simple words and phrases, but just like they can’t make a vee sound, I can’t mimic anything they say. This means that to order street food, I can only stand there, smile, and point. I know that that’s an acceptable way to operate, but, after living here for nearly three months, simply pointing and smiling makes me feel ashamed.
Last week, however, my shame-at-not-speaking-your-language meter was finally broken.
It started with a trip to Vientiane, Laos to apply for a visa that would allow me to stay in Thailand for more than thirty days at a time. The trip started on a sour note when I landed in the hospital the first night (#foodallergies). Only the doctor spoke English. The rest of the evening was spent with nurses smiling at me, squeezing my shoulder, pointing at needles, and periodically checking the IV drip. All I wanted to do was return to Bangkok. I spent the next four days wandering the city, staring wistfully at Thailand across the Mekong River. When I finally got the visa I practically ran to the airport: Finally! I can leave Laos!
I returned to Bangkok and brought my passport to my school’s HR office. The next morning a text from the HR manager woke me: Your visa is not stamped.
I responded: What?
When you came through the airport, they did not stamp your visa.
And that means…?
Come to the office now.
I arrived at the school an hour later. The HR manager showed me where the airport Immigration officer had ignored my visa completely and given me another thirty-day tourist visa again.
“So what do I do?” I asked.
“This must be fixed today or else your visa will be invalid.”
I imagined the smiling faces hidden behind surgical masks. Nooooooooooo!
The HR manager suggested I go around the corner to Bumrungrad International Hospital. The hospital has an immigration department for patients who need visa extensions.
I went to the hospital’s business center on the 10th floor. A nurse bowed and took my passport. He flipped to the tourist stamp. He pointed at the expiration date, smiled, and handed it back to me. This doesn’t expire until the end of April, he eyes seemed to say. I flipped to the visa and pointed at the entry date. Then I flipped back and pointed at the tourist stamp. I did this several times until the nurse gasped. He took my passport and showed it to a woman sitting at a computer. Her rose colored skirt suit made me think she was the boss. She walked my visa back over to me. “What room?” she asked.
“I’m not a patient here,” I said. “I work around the corner. My job sent me.”
She nodded and spoke to the nurse and a secretary. They went back and forth in Thai for a bit. Finally she handed my passport back to me. “My staff is going to Immigration in Changwattana at one. They will take you there and bring you back.”
I took a seat in the lobby. About five other people sat on surrounding chairs and couches. A guy sitting directly across from me flipped through the pages in his passport. He looked about my age. I tried to read the front of his passport booklet, but his hand covered the gold lettering.
The secretary and the lady in the rose suit came over. Rose Lady held out her hand for my passport. She handed it to the secretary, who dropped it into a Ziploc bag. Rose Lady stepped aside and gestured to the elevator. Followed by the other guy with the passport and about ten other people, we all went down to the ground floor. Rose Lady held her hand towards a couch in the waiting area. In Thailand, it’s rude to point with your finger, so every time she gestured for me to go somewhere or do something she did it with a sweeping open-palm that reminded me of movies where princes ask someone to dance at a ball.
It was hard to tell who else in the lobby was heading to Immigration. The hospital caters to an international crowd, and it was clear that everyone (except the staff) was an immigrant, mostly from the Middle Eastern. I tried to catch the attention of the other guy with a passport, but he was engrossed in flipping through his booklet.
A white van pulled up. Rose Lady did another “shall we dance?” gesture. The guy with the passport and I climbed into the van. The secretary took a seat next to me and Rose Lady sat in front by the driver.
“Do you do this often?” I asked the secretary.
She smiled at me.
“No?” I said.
She smiled and shook her head, which I took as I don’t understand you rather than an answer to my question.
The drive out to Immigration didn’t take long. When we got there, Rose Lady talked to the secretary and van driver while the other guy and I stood by the van. He smiled at me and gave a little wave. This is normally when a sane person would say hi, I’m so-so, but this was my first time getting a real look at my visa trip buddy. Before I’d only seen his profile and the top of his head as he looked down at his passport. Now we were inches apart and looking right at each other. He. Was. GORGEOUS. He was taller than me and had muscular arms, dark brown hair, and a tan that made me picture him living on a beach somewhere. He looked like a Disney prince. When he smiled I laughed nervously and ran my fingers through my hair, which I do more as a nervous tick rather than any kind of seductive look-at-my-hair move.
The Disney prince and I followed Rose Lady into the building. She took a back entrance and told us to hangout in the crowded waiting room. I made my way to the back of the room and found a column to lean against. Disney Prince followed. He smiled at me as he propped himself against the other side of the column. Suddenly I didn’t care about my visa. Send me back to Laos! I just wanted to talk to the Disney prince.
I tried to think of the best opening line. Something funny and/or clever. I was grateful I’d actually dressed up a bit rather than arriving at my school in jean shorts and a workout tank top. I poked my head around the column. “Are you getting your visa extended?” I asked.
Disney Prince smiled and leaned closer. He cupped his ear.
“Are you getting your visa extended?” I asked again.
He pinched his eyebrows together. He shrugged.
“Ah. No English?”
He shrugged again. He didn’t understand either of my questions.
I pointed at my mouth. “Language?”
I waved my hand. “It’s okay. I’ll stop.”
We leaned on the column for another few minutes. Disney Prince tapped my shoulder and pointed to two empty seats. We sat down. I’d recently discovered a translation app on my phone: you speak into the phone in one language and it translates it to another language. It’s sort of like Google Translate, but more instantaneous and with more inflection. I tossed my phone back and forth. How do you use the translation app without a) looking like a complete nerd and b) not even knowing what language the other person speaks. His passport had been royal blue. What country had a royal blue passport?
Rose Lady appeared beside us. She handed her cell phone to Disney Prince. “Translator,” she said. Disney Prince listened for a few minutes and handed the phone back.
It hadn’t occurred to me that Disney Prince didn’t speak Thai. He didn’t look Thai, but I’d somehow assumed he knew the language. When Rose Lady handed him her phone, I realized Disney Prince probably knew even less Thai than I did, which is a real feat. Speaking Thai would make my life easier (and make me feel less rude), but I can get by in Bangkok with just English. I can get by in a lot of countries with just English. But if you can’t speak English or Thai…what do you do? Disney Prince was an actual client of the hospital. Was he sick? Was someone in his family sick? I hadn’t been too worried about miscommunication at the hospital in Laos because the owner of my guesthouse, a Laotian woman who was fluent in English, had driven me there and stayed with me. What would I have done if I only spoke French? Or Portuguese? What do you do if you don’t know a word of the local language or a global language? How do you communicate with the hospital staff? How do you ask anyone for anything? And most importantly, how was I supposed to ask this guy out for drinks if we didn’t know a single word of each other’s language?
Disney Prince’s phone rang. I leaned in, hoping to hear how he said ‘hi’ and thus figure out what country he was from.
Even his baritone voice made me want to giggle like a grade schooler, but it didn’t help place his country.
We sat in the waiting area for two hours. Every now and then we’d brush arms or legs, smile, and then turn back to staring at our phones, the floor, or, in my case, being a creep and looking over the shoulders of the people in the row in front of us: one guy was reading a mystery novel, whose title I couldn’t catch, another was reading a Wikipedia article about the bombing of Laos, and another was creating a flyer for a big football match happening outside of Beijing. When our numbers were called, we got up and made our way to the front. It was nearing four p.m. and the crowd was getting restless. A tall man pushed past me, making me stumble into some chairs. Disney Prince moved some people aside and cleared a path for me. We weren’t able to talk to each other, but I was pretty sure we were falling in love.
Disney Prince spoke to the Immigration officers first. He sat in a chair while the officer and Rose Lady talked back and forth. Then I went in and, again, flipped between my visa and the tourist stamp. The officer looked annoyed. I didn’t know if it was at me or the airport dope who didn’t bother to look at my visa page. She stamped the page, wrote something in the passport, and handed everything to Rose Lady. I returned to the waiting area. I stood near the tall man who had pushed me. Disney Prince sidled up beside me and gave me a thumbs up.
Thirty minutes later we each had our passports back. As we followed Rose Lady back outside, I held up my passport. Before I could ask, “Where are you from?” Disney Prince held up his. “Kuwait,” he said.
“Ah! Kuwait!” I proclaimed, a bit too exuberantly. Disney Prince laughed.
The ride back to Bangkok took over an hour. About fifteen minutes into the ride I turned to Disney Prince.
“Vacation?” I asked.
He leaned forward.
“Vacation in Bangkok?”
He cocked his head.
I put my arms out like a plane and swayed back and forth. I pointed at the skyline. Disney Prince looked at the skyline and then back at me. Shockingly, my charade had not conveyed my question: are you vacationing in Bangkok or are you living here? Because you’re gorgeous and I think we should go get a drink.
When we arrived back at the hospital, Disney Prince stuck his hand out to shake mine. “Nice to meet you,” I said. He waved his passport at me.
As I walked back, I realized six hours had passed and I’d used only a handful of English words. In fact, after leaving my school I’d been relatively silent throughout the whole ordeal. Even Rose Lady hadn’t been that proficient at English and the Immigration officer hadn’t said a word. For two months I’d been terrified of situations where I could only communicate using hand gestures. Not to get too cliche, but words are my life and not being able to use them is frustrating. Yet somehow this trepidation had disappeared for the past six hours. I joke that Disney Prince and I were in love, but we had formed a real partnership throughout the afternoon: staying next to each other and always making sure neither of us was left behind. We were able to form some sort of connection and the only word we’d both understood was “Kuwait.”
When I returned to my neighborhood, I walked through my usual row of street vendors. I thought back on the day and how I’d accomplished so much without having to speak. Maybe it was because the hospital staff was so nice. Maybe it was because Disney Prince had such an enchanting smile. Or maybe it was because I’d had no other choice than to fumble through the day in order to validate my bloody visa. Whatever it was, I finally walked up to a street stall and ordered food. Then I walked up to another and another. By the time I got home, I had enough food to last a week.
The first time I went to California I hated it. I don’t know why, I just did. On the surface California had everything I loved: beaches, otters, National Parks, diverse cultures, art scene, hippies, liberals, Mexican food, and a landscape ranging from surfer ready beaches to sprawling metropolises and imposing mountain ranges. Despite checking all of those boxes, however, when I first traveled to California at fourteen-years-old I thought it was blegh. I was tagging along on my mother’s business trip. We started in Pasadena, hit the typical Los Angeles and Hollywood spots, and drove along Highway 1. California was in the midst of “June Gloom,” and therefore colder than you’d expect for the beginning of the summer. I bought a hoodie at the boardwalk on Venice Beach and thought, “This coast sucks. The east coast is so much better.”
I returned to California fifteen years later. It was the first Thanksgiving after my father’s death. Neither Mum nor I wanted to celebrate the holiday at our home in Georgia, where Dad’s missing presence would feel like a too-tight turtleneck. Mum and Dad had met in California, and she wanted to visit their old stomping grounds and see some old friends. I agreed just to make her happy.
We started in Los Angeles and then drove to Morro Bay, Malibu, Ojai, Santa Barbara, and San Diego. As you do, we ate fabulous Mexican food, saw elephant seals, and I spent about five combined hours watching otters float and swim in the ocean (did I mention I really like otters?). On the fourth night I called my boyfriend from Santa Barbara. Like me, he also didn’t like California, but unlike me he had/has never actually been to California. I told him that we were completely wrong about the state. California is awesome!
“It’s full of hippies,” he said.
“I love hippies,” I said.
“It’s too vegan and people with hybrid cars.”
“Just try it,” I said. “We should take a trip out here. There was a giant Trump sign spinning above a Kia dealership in LA. There are uber liberals and uber conservatives out here. It’s like something for everyone!”
“The gun laws are some of the most restrictive in the country.”
Guns were something my ex and I could never agree upon. He believed you should have guns upon guns upon guns. As of last year he had four or five guns (he lied about purchasing the last gun in an attempt to rile me up–what a charmer!).
So that’s yet another win for California: restrictive gun laws!
By the end of that Thanksgiving trip, I was in love with California. The coast, the cities, the diversity, the food–I understood why it was the most populous state in the U.S.
Pictures from the Thanksgiving trip to California. Why did I hate this state?
This past December, Mum and I once again flew to California to spend a holiday. Now that I’m living in Bangkok and Mum is still in GA, we decided to meet halfway for Christmas. Somehow, California was deemed “halfway”: a twenty-nine hour journey for me, a five hour flight for her. Tooooooootally halfway.
Once again, I fell in love with California. This time we headed north up to Sequoia National Park and Yosemite. I love National Parks and I knew Yosemite would be great, but its beauty still amazed me. However, what really got me were the giant sequoia trees. As we drove around the snowy, unsalted roads, I kept swerving to the side because I was too busy staring up at the trees the way I would a skyscraper. These trees are just massive. Beyond massive. I learned that the most common reason a sequoia falls down is its size: it simply gets too big for itself and then BOOM! You know that saying, If a tree falls in a forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound? I am confident that a sequoia makes a sound, and I am confident that someone hears it even if they are not nearby.
I grew up a staunch east coaster. I love the Atlantic Ocean, the I-95 drive, and all that the EC has to offer. I liked visiting the western U.S., but never had any desire to move there. “If I end up in the U.S.,” I always told people, “I’ll either be in Chicago or somewhere on the east coast.” While I still think I’ll eventually settle in Chicago one day, California has made it onto the list of Places I Want to Live. Will I be able to afford it? Probably not. I’ll get a fancy box or maybe I’ll just live in a car because what artist can actually afford to live and eat in California?
However, I think struggling to make it in CA would be worth it. Between having places like San Francisco, San Diego, Yosemite, Joshua Tree, and Big Sur at your disposal, how could you ever be board? And then you have the Pacific Ocean, countless arts and cultural things to do, and, hell, if you’re a gun nut, I am positive you can find a shooting range and you can shoot your bloody heart out. California, after all, is not just “full of hippies.” It’s full of almost every type of person you can think of as far as race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, social class, education status, religion, etc.
For me, California is like the movie Love Actually. The first time I saw Love Actually I hated it. On the surface it had everything I loved: dry British humour, Hugh Grant dancing, Colin Firth in a wet shirt, music, and London. It checked all the boxes on Georgia’s Best Movie Ever list. Instead, Bill Nighy annoyed me, I found the Portuguese girl flat, I didn’t understand why Keira Knightley kissed her husband’s best friend, and the woman everyone kept calling fat was not fat. Then, for some reason, I watched Love Actually a second time and LOVED. IT. Bill Nighy? Hilarious! Keira Knightley? Still an odd choice, but it was just a kiss and maybe there wasn’t tongue. The Portuguese girl? Lovely. The “fat” chick? Still not fucking fat.
California was the same way. The first time, I hated it. I don’t know why. Maybe it was because I was unexpectedly cold. Maybe it was my first time being forced to explore solo while my mum sat in meetings. Maybe I was PMSing. Who knows. But the second go-around in Cali? And the third? Love. Love, love, love!
California, you’re awesome. Let’s live together someday?