This is So Thailand’s fault

I’m Andy-less for an hour, and whatd’ya know, my plane breaks down.

Nevermind the goodbye scene from Dr. Zhivago I reenacted while watching Andy board his plane, following his descent down the ramp to the gate from where I stood above. We were both in tears when he left, but the last few hours had been torture anyway. We didn’t say much to one another and when we did we’d just stare blankly into each others’ eyes, knowing doom was impending.

Once he was out of sight and I was seated at my gate awaiting departure, I honestly felt a little bit of relief. I wasn’t dreading anymore. The moment had come and passed. It was shitty like I’d always thought it would be. But it was over. And it was soon time to board the plane.

I was looking forward to five hours of solid sleep on the way to Singapore (where I’d connect to Korea, and then to San Francisco), but the universe seemed to have had other plans.

As we took off I heard four loud booms, and out of the corner of my eye I saw a big flash. I looked out the window only to realize I was seated right next to the engine, which meant the booms and the flash probably came from that.

I was immediately uneasy because those incidents weren’t characteristic of any other flight I’d been on. And I became even more frightened when the plane started listing oddly to the right. The speed was all off. And for fifteen minutes into takeoff, we were way too low to the ground; like wing-scraping-ground-low, should we list too far to either side. I knew something was wrong before the pilot even came on the loudspeaker to confirm it.

“Ladies and gentlemen, we are making an emergency landing back in Delhi for technical and precautionary reasons. Please make sure your seat belts are fastened.”

Precautionary my foot. A freaking engine just blew!

The seat next to me was empty, looking melancholy, like it had been waiting for Andy to board and then sunk into despair when it realized he wasn’t going to. Then again perhaps I was just projecting onto the seat.

I’d never wished Andy was in the seat next to me more than in that moment. But I also knew that if something really bad were to happen, I’d be glad he weren’t in that seat.

We made it back to Delhi safely and after another 2.5 hours on the ground we were up in the air again, in a whole new plane. Which I wasn’t going to complain about.

I always said Thailand wasn’t going to let me go that easily.

This is SO Thailand’s fault.

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Until Next Time

Last night I had a strange dream.

I was on one of the top floors of a skinny high-rise, in the middle of a big city. I was staring out the window at the neighboring high-rise, thinking it was curiously swaying. And that didn’t seem good.

Soon my building started swaying too, and all at once I knew it would topple over. I thought to myself, this is where I die.

But I didn’t die. I was one of the few who made it, because for some reason, being close to the top floor saved me. Actually, mine was the only floor spared.

Once I emerged from the rubble on the ground, I saw the damage that had been done. Blood was everywhere. People were screaming. They were missing limbs. Some were on stretchers. Some were already dead.

I knew I had to call and find my parents immediately because they would be worried. I couldn’t reach them.

Some time after I woke up I remembered this dream and it didn’t take me long to figure out its meaning.

In my conscious mind, I don’t think of my journey as a disaster anymore. But somewhere, deep down, my subconscious must still feel that way. I know I consciously felt that way for a while.

The falling building was all of the scary things that happened while I was in Thailand, the disaster I could not control. It was me knowing and feeling I was constantly in danger and being able to do absolutely nothing about it. And frantically trying to find my parents was my final leg of the trip– my journey home.

Andy and I sit in the New Delhi airport as we speak, three hours away from saying goodbye for the last time. I’m dreading it. It’s a feeling I’ve never ever had, knowing I have to rip off this band-aid that I’ve worn for eight months straight in one fell swoop.

But Andy wasn’t, and isn’t, a band-aid.

He was the cure, the remedy to Sherein leaving, to the robberies and the accidents, to Nicky’s death, to my constant struggle to fit in in Thailand. I never quite did fit in. But I always fit with him. He was a stupid joke when I couldn’t see a smile for miles. He was a trip to the store for medicine when I was sick.

He was the cure.

And once he is gone, will I get sick again?

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Until next time, and 7,000 miles away…

Until I am home again.

My OTHER Travel Companion

I suppose in the name of all fairness and sensitivity I should forewarn any male readers: this post may make you a bit uncomfortable. Female readers: you’ll totally get it.

Let me start out by declaring Nepal as a non-womanly-issue-friendly-zone. I’ll shoulder half the blame and say that I didn’t come here as prepared as I should have been. Mistake taken to heart.

What I’m trying to say is that if you’re on vacation and you’re a girl, annoying old Aunt Flo doesn’t care. She’ll gladly show up at your months-planned beach holiday — or, even worse as I’ve discovered– on your trip to the remote Himalayan mountains of Nepal. She doesn’t call first and she will undoubtedly overstay her welcome. So it’s best to prepare for these visits well in advance.

Which I didn’t do.

So Andy and I had to take a walk through the small, simple, and unassuming village of Nagarkot– a tiny little farming village miles away from even third-world city civilization– and beg for reprieve in the form of feminine products.

Picture it. The only white girl in a 30 kilometer radius, humbly entering each little family-owned, closet-sized shop, explaining to the man at the front what a tampon is and asking if he had any.

Half the time I would have to pull one of my last remaining ones out of my backpack to clarify what I meant, and half of the time the man would take it from my hand, examine it intently, only to declare with a coy smile that no, he did not have any tampons. The other half of the time the man in question would run over to his friend’s/brother’s/son’s shop and ask him if he knew what I was talking about. In the end I probably entered around 20 shops, spoke with 20 shop owners, and without a doubt rocked the foundations of everything they’ve come to know and believe.

The quest was ultimately unsuccessful. I was lucky enough to find a local pharmacy which was no bigger than a jail cell, but where the owner spoke enough English to tell me, “Cannot get here. Have to go to Kathmandu.”

Well, that wasn’t going to happen.

In this meek and modest town of about 100 people, I think the whole village now knows Aunt Flo’s paying me a visit. And not one of them has a damn tampon.

Scenes from Nepal, Days One and Two

Nepal is majestic.

Kathmandu is not, but luckily we’re staying about 30 kilometers outside of Kathmandu, in the tiny mountainside village of Nagarkot.

Just from our brief time at the airport and drive through the city, I can tell Kathmandu is somewhere I never want to go again. It’s dusty and dirty and probably quite dangerous for a tourist like myself. By contrast Nagarkot is quiet, clean, and beautiful.

The village is nestled on a Himalayan mountainside, and its inhabitants live simple lives. The shops and eateries are nothing more than tiny wooden shacks placed haphazardly on uneven dirt roads.

Our hotel is adorable and quaint, and looks over a Himalayan valley from 7,000 feet in the sky. It really does feel like we’re in the sky because we are often face to face with the clouds. Just beyond the valley are the snow-covered Himalayas, the actual ones I’ve been looking to see, like Annapurna and Everest. Everest base camp isn’t far away.

Our hotel room is massive, the very top room, with 360 degree views of the mountains. When the clouds come we can’t see out of our windows, but we like it.

Yesterday, I kept saying to Andy, we are so lucky to be here. I remember when I first started out on this journey almost eight months ago, I had said that if I didn’t do anything else, I had to see the Himalayas.

It took a lot to get here. Lots of saving money, lots of planning, and A LOT of traveling. But we’re finally here, and I haven’t felt this lucky in a long time.

Today we went trekking through the Himalayan lowlands. No snow where we are, but it’s still cold. At one point we had been hiking so long I thought we were lost. Imagine, lost in the Himalayas! But we made it back.

We’re sharing a room with huge spiders and moths and there’s no heat or hot water and only sometimes there’s electricity.

But when I saw those mountains peeking out through the clouds, I kept thinking, I am so lucky to be here.

Goodnight, Thailand

Alas, today is our very last day in Thailand. As I say farewell to my place of residence for the last seven months I am inevitably forced to replay the memories of those months over and over again in my head.

I’m not sure how to feel.

I don’t quite feel relief, as I would have felt to leave a few months back when things were really really lousy. I don’t feel sad, as one would expect to feel upon leaving one’s home, even a home of just several months. I feel more numb than anything else.

I don’t feel sorry for myself anymore for the difficult things I’ve faced along the way. But I don’t feel particularly grateful for them yet, either. I don’t feel like a wiser person with new insights and enlightened advice for others, like I thought I would at the start of my journey.

We are headed to Nepal at the end of the day today. It was my last wish to see the Himalayas before I make my final trip home.

Perhaps I will find insight there. Or, perhaps I won’t find what I’m looking for until long after I have returned home.

I just don’t know yet.

It’s a Bug’s World

As an extension of my post on animals, and before I leave this place for good, we need to talk about Thailand’s bugs.

Because they are a silent force haunting me all the time, lurking in my backpack or under our bed, waiting to come out and eat my toes or eyeballs or simply eat me alive at every turn of my head.

The bugs here are no joke, man. No laughing matter. The spiders are forces to be reckoned with.

I came to Thailand with a totally groundless phobia of spiders and will leave with a phobia that is 100% rooted in logic and empirical rationale.

I could tell you stories of cockroaches who thought it was their lucky day to creep into our open hotel room door, or of hand-sized huntsman spiders who hitched rides in my travel bags and revealed themselves at our next destinations. I could talk about the dinner plate-sized orb spiders we’ve almost walked into on jungle treks. I could tell you about walking stick bugs that really do look like sticks and then scare the bejesus out of you when they decided to start acting like bugs instead of sticks.

I think pictures will tell these stories better than I could. When looking at them, just assume these critters were found on or near pillows, in or near backpacks, and on or near food we were about to consume.

Some are quite beautiful. Some are deadly. Some are considered local delicacies. I have tried the fried cricket and the scorpion, but it stops there. I will not eat a giant trash-dwelling cockroach. I will not!

I hope the Himalayas are more forgiving, bug-wise at least.

Animal Days

With a good night’s sleep under my belt I am ready to put away the frustrations of yesterday and tell the thrilling stories about our time in Pattaya.

Though much of it has been spent relaxing at our hotel (which features 29 styles of rooms, including a boxing-themed room with a boxing ring for a bed, where we pretended to beat each other up; and a space odyssey room, where we watched the movie Alien and felt a part of the doomed mission), we have also managed to enjoy some of the best things about Pattaya.

Koh Kheow Open Zoo

I’ve been hesitant to visit any zoos in Thailand because I don’t even like zoos back in America, as it seems like the animals never have enough room to roam. My thought is, just leave them in their natural habitat if you can’t give them a close resemblance to it.

But Andy really wanted to go to Koh Kheow Open Zoo where he promised me the animals were living lives of luxury. I agreed because, if that was the case, I wanted to see it for my own eyes and give Thailand the chance to ascend in my book of standards. I also felt I owed Andy after the infamous Koh Tao cancellation. And mostly I agreed because he promised me I could drive a golf cart around the premises all day. I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to turn the tables and torture Andy with some screwy driving skills of my own. After another harrowing hour-long bike ride to Chon Buri where the zoo is, I was ready to shove him over and take the wheel.

Once we were set up with the golf cart, we began our journey through the zoo.

While most of Thailand’s people probably wouldn’t hesitate to push the country’s animal population off a cliff in one fell swoop, Koh Kheow Open Zoo seems world’s away. The term “open zoo” is exactly what it sounds like– many of the animals are free to simply roam the grounds wherever they please. All of the animals appear robust and healthy. The property is dotted with trees, lush greenery, and there’s hardly a souvenir booth in sight.

Our first encounter was with a pack of deer that was roaming around the front entrance. Across the pathway from the deer, black and white monkeys were swinging uninhibitedly from the trees. These two completely distinctive animals were living perfectly in coexistence. We stopped to feed the deer some of the vegetables we purchased at the ticket counter.

Next we stopped at the hippo den. Common sense surprisingly won out here, so these dangerous guys were kept in a secure pond/garden area inaccessible by humans. Though we could not get close enough to pet them, we were able to walk over a bridge above the pond where the hippos sat in the water, mouths wide open a la Hungry Hungry Hippos, waiting for passersby to throw in corn cobs and green bean stalks. We had a good time playing basketball with them, trying to make every shot clean into their gaping chops. They’d clearly done this before.

I took note of the large area the hippos lived in, complete with both land and water, and enough greenery for a year’s worth of meals.

Just around the corner we came upon a strange animal we had never seen before. Three sloth-bear-Tasmanian devil-looking things sat on a tree branch with a zookeeper sitting a few feet away. We learned this creature was a binturong, more commonly known as the bearcat, and the three were a momma and her two babies. The man asked me if I wanted to hold them and of course I was more than obliged. They were sweet, loving guys who curled up around my body and into the crevices of my neck. The man even showed me how they hang from trees by wrapping the momma’s tail around my arm as if it were a branch and letting her dangle from it. She was heavy, and thus further reinforced the fact that I need to start working out again.

Along the way we saw the most beautiful, exotic birds I never even knew existed. We saw white lions chase each other, and we saw tigers, cheetahs, pumas, and panthers. We stopped to feed giraffes, ostriches (who, if hungry, are quite frightening I might add), elephants, rhinos, and monkeys. At one point a gang of about 100 monkeys came at our golf cart like a menacing street gang. Moms with tiny babies hanging from their underbellies skillfully blocked us at the front while a couple of cagey males stole our bag of vegetables. I had to pull off some adroit driving expertise to escape without running anyone over. When all was said and done we felt lucky that our bag of vegetables was all that was lost to the precarious and hungry gang.

We ended the day with feelings that are hard to come by in this often unforgiving country. We felt like we’d gotten our money’s worth– at 300 baht ($9) per person, the entrance fee was negligible. We felt exhilarated to have seen species that don’t exist on our home continents.

Most of all, we felt proud; proud of Thailand for giving back to the ecological community in such a profound way. All of the animals were healthy and seemed content. Many different species were allowed to coexist within the same enclosures, and it seemed this created a harmony within the zoo that I’d never felt in others. And the environments looked as though they exactly mirrored the natural ones where the animals came from. Not once did I see an animal or cage and go, “Awww,  poor thing,” as I usually do when I visit zoos.

Pattaya Elephant Village

One thing Andy and I have been itching to do is ride elephants in Thailand, Thai style, through lush jungles and deep rivers. We haven’t had many chances, except for when we’ve been in super touristy areas where elephant trekking is just another attraction; and that mostly means the elephants are treated extremely poorly. We did not want to pour our money into businesses like these just to accomplish a goal on our list. So we decided that if we didn’t find a place where tourists were scarce and the elephants lived in comfort, we would have to scrap the idea altogether.

Luckily Pattaya offers an elephant-riding experience that fit all of our criteria.

Pattaya Elephant Village is a safe haven where former worker elephants who can no longer serve a utilitarian purpose come to live out the rest of their lives. The only work they do is carry around a few tourists and workers around the quiet estate and surrounding farmland.

We were initially impressed with the looks of the place– we were the only white people in sight and the only noise we could hear was the wind rustling the trees.

Soon we were introduced to our elephant whose Thai name I cannot remember, but she was beautiful and peaceful. She wasn’t emaciated or even rugged-looking. She seemed like a happy elephant. We felt okay climbing onto the saddle.

She took us through rivers and jungles. She stopped along the way to shovel tree branches into her mouth with her long snout, spitting out the ones that had fire ants crawling all over them.

She walked very slowly throughout the countryside, giving us an hour-long ride. We pet her from time to time during the journey, telling her, “Good girl.”

All of the workers at the elephant village seemed to have a deep connection with the elephants. There was no feeling of aggression or hints of ulterior motives lurking around.

It was a place of peace and serenity, a purity that’s hard to find in this country.

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Don’t get used to it but, well-played, Thailand. Well-played.