Monthly Archives: June 2014

Guatemala Part II: Lake Atitlan

134_2642Virginia was adamant.

At the dock in Panajachel, the major town on Lake Atitlan, we hauled our luggage down the stony grade where the ferry boats were moored. And were met by a fellow intent on getting us quickly to our hotel. And the only way to get to any hotel, any village, anywhere on the lake, was by boat.

“Twenty-five U.S. dollars and you are at hotel in fifteen minutes.”

“No, thank you. We’ll take the public ferry. Gracias.”

“You will wait one hour, maybe more!”

“It’s a nice day. The public ferry is six dollars. We’ll wait.”

Ten minutes later we were on the public ferry with all the locals, mostly Mayans in traditional dress, hip to hip, sailing across the lake. 134_2632-001 Ten minutes after that we pulled onto the dock that serves as entrance to Casa Del Mundo. 134_2644 Here, this will give you a better idea of what it means to land a boat at your hotel:

Perched on the side of a very steep cliff, the hotel was a wonder in every way: architectural, engineering, design aesthetic, and hospitality. We fell in love the moment we arrived. But love is often cruel: We then had to walk 100+ steps up, up, and up. Just to get to the lobby. Luckily, our room was just above, only another twenty or so steps. Casa Del Mundo is a magical place. The grounds are lush, wild, as if you were making your way through a well-tended jungle. Which we later found out from the (American) owner that is exactly how he and his (Guatemalan) wife planned it.

We got to the top of the stairs, fumbled our way into our room, and were taken by surprise once again. There was just no way to prepare for the view from the balcony.

Yeah, I guess we’ll keep this room if we have to. Virginia loved the decor, very Guatemalan but not kitschy, filled with artwork, fabrics, masks,  textiles and tile work with all the vivid native colors and textures. 134_2659Outside our room was a courtyard with an amazing view of the lake front on east side of the hotel. That’s someone’s house in the distance. 134_2659-002Inside had large windows and comfortable beds, chairs, tables…and all with views. 134_2659-003 Of course, this was the best view, morning, noon or night.IMG_1326 Plus, we had a friend who helped keep the bathroom clean.

We swam. IMG_1340

 

We kayaked.

 

From Casa Del Mundo, this is where we hiked to.

 

We hiked.

From Casa Del Mundo, this ridgetop Mayan village was the destination we were determined to get to. 134_2639

We made it! The Mayan village in Santa Cruz.

But then we had to hike back! We thought we had it rough until we saw these women and children resting along side the road. As you will see, others took the easy way back to the village. Tuk tuk!

Post-hike, much well-earned snoozing was involved. After we rested and explored the majestic, sacred lake for almost five days, we decided to take a day trip. That’s when things turned strange. So much so that I have to stop here. I need to break out another post, just for our experience in the town of Chichicastenango, home of the largest and oldest running outdoor market in Central America. Things went from odd to bizarre while we were in the bazaar. You’re not going to believe some of the things we heard about and saw there. Mayan priests, medicine men, blood sacrifices. I’m getting hungry just thinking about it! Kidding. It is coming in the next post. Stay tuned. Please?


Guatemala: 3 Worlds In 1 Visit

A Central American gem in the rough, Guatemala has fascinated travelers and travel writers for centuries. The beauty. The history. The people.

Of course, none of them ever got it right.

And in a three week visit, I won’t either. I came away enchanted, but just as clueless as when I got there. Like sipping an amazing cocktail, its flavors awash in your mouth, but with no idea of the ingredients it took to make it. I’ll tell you what we saw, what we did, and how we felt. That’s about the best I can do in one snapshot of time.

My hope is that the commentary and photos will give you a glimpse into a world so foreign and tropical and exotic, yet is closer to my home here in Phoenix, Arizona than it is to where my daughter lives in New York City (by 150 miles, no less).

This is not the forum for political statements, however, I have strong feelings regarding the following. I will be brief.

Recently, several thousand children, in an attempt to find their parents, have made the long and dangerous trek from Guatemala to our borders. By bus, train, car, on foot. Many were exploited, violated, robbed, beaten and worse. But they got here. With fierce determination, self-discipline and the naive courage of children, they made it. And to those who would gnash their teeth about illegals I say: these are exactly the kind of citizens we want as Americans. They have the kind of ‘can do’ spirit that those whose only gesture of fortitude is to rail again their entry to this country don’t have. It took real guts for those children to make that journey. I support them.

But, I digress… First stop: Antigua
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Yes, that’s a volcano. Go ahead, click on it. It will give you a better sense of proportion. There are three of these conical giants within view of the city. This one is Volcán de Agua or “Volcano of Water”. The other two come as a pair; Acatenango and Volcán de Fuego or “Volcano of Fire” can be seen with just a turn of your head to the north.

We arrived late. A driver brought us from Guatemala City to our hotel. It was a rough night. On our first morning, standing out on the veranda, I felt a surge of giddy adrenaline at the sight of three volcanoes as I panned across the skyline. It’s both thrilling and not a little off-putting to see the first thing when you wake up. Though Virginia and I did our research before hand, we were, needless to say, unprepared for almost everything we saw. Which, of course, makes the taste of every new sight, sound and touch that much sweeter.

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Two of the three volcanoes just outside Antigua
Two of the three volcanoes just outside Antigua.

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There are marvelous iron door knockers throughout the ancient walled city of Antigua. Image
Virginia demonstrates the height of many door knockers. Why so high? From the 16th century until recently, they were reached on horseback.

After a few days of aimlessly wandering the city, we hired a guide to give us a different perspective of life for local Guatemalans. More on my general philosophy on hiring guides later. The first place Celestino, a native Mayan, took us was a tour of eight Mayan villages that ringed the ancient city.

http://youtu.be/mOW7COIPoEY 7 - Old school shaved ice at Mayan village

At the same festival, making shaved ice treats old school.

This cathedral was in the first Mayan village we visited. It was built, as they all were, right over sacred Mayan temples. Don’t get me started. This one was built in 1546. The brutal Spanish colonization of South America had been in full swing since 1519, a mere 27 years after Christopher Columbus ran back to Spain and proclaimed, “Hey, everybody! There’s a New World over there and it’s free for the taking!” And, yes, that’s a direct quote (with a sprinkling of snark for flavor). IMG_0116

In the Parque Central, young Mayan girls huddle before setting out to sell their trinkets.   IMG_0134
The central part of Antigua is like a box, with nine major streets (calles) that criss-cross north to south. It initially appears to be the easiest city in the world to navigate. You follow the box north, south, east and west, no meandering curves and winding roads to make you lose your sense of direction, right? No.

The problem (for me, anyway) is that you stand on one street corner and look down it, fine. Go to the next and do the same. They look eerily similar. But, hey, you’ll remember landmarks, cathedrals, the crumbling ancient walls, yes? You get to the next corner and…it’s the same thing! Again and again I found myself  spun around, lost in a city that only has nine streets! They appeared to be the same, but were in fact completely different. For someone who prides themselves on becoming quickly oriented, getting a grasp on the local territory, it was often frustrating and occasionally maddening.

Then, just when we start to get our footing, the layout is finally starting to make a bizarre, colonial kind of sense, it’s time to leave for the next portion of our adventure. We were in for another shock. We are taken from a world where our First World sensibilities worked just fine, into a world where everything we knew was challenged. Onto Lake Atitlan; one of the deepest, and most astoundingly beautiful lakes on earth. It’s coming up next; follow me there, won’t you? I can guarantee your safe return, but will you remain unchanged? That I cannot.

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All the fabrics made on those looms. Note Virginia in traditional Guatemalan attire (she still wears it around the house...not)

All the fabrics made on those looms. Note Virginia in traditional Guatemalan attire (she still wears it around the house…not)

Waistband Loom: Ancient yet still used today

Waistband Loom: Ancient yet still used today

Wine made from lowquats, nespiro in Spanish. Sounded great. Was awful to drink.

Wine made from loquats, nispero in Spanish. Sounded great, I love loquats!  It was awful.


Part IV: Thai Boxers and Ladyboys Smackdown

Preface

It started out as a vacation; we just needed to get away. 

It turned into a life-changer. 

Here’s what happened to me and Virginia for three and a half weeks in June.

All of my posts began as emails from Thailand to my incredibly talented and loving daughter, Layla (think I’m only saying that because I’m her father?  Check out her website www.laylaangulo.com then come back here and apologize).  She not only house-sat for us, but six days after we left had to deal the death of our 21 year old Persian cat, Luna, who took the opportunity to spare us from the ordeal.  I loved her dearly, but she was my wife Virginia’s animal soul-mate.

She was one special creature.  I dedicate this journey to her, as her death made me look more closely at my own life.  Thank you, my dear Luna.  And, as always, I know you don’t care.  I’m doing it anyway.

June 12th

Thai Boxers and Ladyboys

Heeeey Sweetheart,

Glad you are getting out of the house and having some fun while you are there.  Bet it is getting warmer there, yes?  It’s about 90 degrees here…with 90% humidity so it feels like 140 (or so it seems, probably more like 100 or so).

The Chiang Mai dogs are really monks of the city.

That’s the thought that struck me while walking back from breakfast with V this morning.  They seem to be everywhere and just by their presence add an extra, unexplainable element to the spaces they inhabit.

We don’t like the hotel food and found a tiny place on a quiet side street and ate an American breakfast; cheese omelet, toast, orange juice, and excellent coffee — owner is growing 30 acres of organic coffee beans in the mountains near Suthep.  All for 90 baht.  Under $3.  You can eat here like that all day and night, Thai or Western or Indian or Chinese.

We sat and talked with a young couple from Belgium, on their way for a two month adventure in Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam.  Made me think that another extended trip deeper into Southeast Asia could be in our future.

V really likes Chiang Mai and I was a little surprised as it can seem a overwhelming with all the motorbikes and swarms of people everywhere, but she feels safe.

We’ve seen incredible sites here; temples, people, just life here is so different from what we are used to. When you walk around this city, every turn, every street, is filled with the unexpected, even the most mundane bits of every day life.

Last night she walked through a large bazaar right at the end of our street while I was out watching the muaythai boxing with Somboone and she never felt unsafe or weird.

Earlier in the day a young girl dropped a yellow square of a flier into my hand.  It touted a championship fight that night between a Thai and, of all things, a Norwegian muaythai boxer. When I showed it to V, she insisted on me having a ‘boy’s night out.’

Our guide Somboone picked me up and we drove the short hop to the ‘stadium’ — really a large pavilion covered with an aluminum roof but much of it open to the air.  It was in a seedier side of town outside of the old walled quarter, and the streets were filled with bar girls and ladyboys.

We bought tickets and walked down a gauntlet of bars and bar girls on either side of us.

As we entered the arena I could see a boxing ring that had comfortable seating all around it.  It was like going to a supper club; we had our own waitress.  Joy — not her real name I am quite sure — took our orders and placed the beers in front of us encased in beer cozies to attempt to keep the liquid a cooler than room temperature (90 degrees again), which they did for about 1.5 minutes.  We sat there for over an hour as the fight sponsors hoped more people would come.

It was supposedly a big match but there were only about 50 people in the seats, plus another 50 in the bars.

Picture this:  the boxing ring is surrounded by small storefront bars, each with its own theme; Jenny’s Bar; Happy Bar; Family Bar (yes, people brought their little kids) and Ladyboy Bar.  I had a great idea but had to coax Somboone three times to take my video and follow me over to the ladyboys.  I could see they were bored to tears, had no customers, and were entertaining each other practicing sexy walk moves and endlessly re-applying make-up and gossip.  They could care less about the fights.

Somboone was so concerned.  “What about Virginia?  She get mad?”  All the way there he asked if Virginia should come, he didn’t want her to feel sad and alone.  I had to explain how we work to him, but when he got it, he understood that our honesty and independence adds all the more depth to our relationship.  V really wanted me to get out on my own and I appreciate her for that.

I finally convinced Somboone to film me going up to the ladyboys and offering them a 20 baht bill to have them take a picture with me.  They were very nice, even though they chided me (“20 baht?  Is this a tip, Big Spenda?” — yes, I am cheap).

I stood between two of them.  And they dwarfed me.  6′ 3″ in high heels each with broad tattooed arms, shoulders and backs.  We all waved at the camera and said hi to Virginia.  “We will take goooood care of him, Virginia, don’t worry!”

Yikes.  I suddenly felt a wee bit, uh, wee.  These guys were like football players with large breasts and really good lipstick. Later, the biggest ladyboy walked around the bar area with an eight foot long albino python looped around his neck as a fashion accessory.  Brave and outrageous and often reviled and discriminated against, on so many levels, those ladyboys have balls.

I’m telling you this because you won’t be able to see it.  The video unit we have has no light.  You can only see me and the boys in silhouette.  Dang.  We went back to our seats as the first bout started.  Between two twelve year old boys.  They were so focused, disciplined and passionate it was beautiful and frightening to watch.

I knew V would freak out but I was going to film it anyway.  And then it happened.  Ran out of memory.  I could not get another image onto the video. It was not going to happen no matter how much I cursed and pleaded  and shook it.  I looked up to catch Somboone, his lips moving silently, encouraging the gadget to work for me.  It dawned that we were going at the same problem in two different ways:  As westerners we cuss and bang on stuff that isn’t working.  Somboone was calling upon the spirit of whatever mechanical god that guides and controls the gadgetry to answer his prayers.  It was bizarre and kind of cool all at the same time.   Both ways had no effect and, really, it didn’t matter.  We gave up, sat back, and let the night proceed.

The fights that lead up to the main match were great; the boys got older and there was a match between two women that outshone the men in every way; fierce, competitive fighting that got almost brutal in its intensity.

Joy bet me a drink on the outcome (they love to gamble and at every round a guy would come by to take bets) and though I thought for sure this one young lady would take down my bet, she lost and I won, though I did not take Joy up on the drink — three beers were enough for the night.

The main match was a disappointment.  Both fighters, Norwegian and Thai were overweight, they had guts on them!  In every other match the boys or women were in superb shape with long thin muscles that their handlers massaged between rounds with oils and creams.  But the big fighters looked crappy; I have less of a stomach than the Norwegian champ.  They went three languid and lazy rounds before the Norwegian put down the Thai in what looked almost like a fixed fight.

But what a night of male bonding with me and Somboone who took such good care of me and his sincere concern for our comfort.  I spent a bit more than I thought and had him wait for me at the hotel.  V was still up and she came down to say goodbye to our Chiang Mai guide and, now, our friend.  He thanked us profusely and drove off into the still humid night.

More later; we have to run and catch our plane back to Bangkok, then ride the night train 12 hours down to the southern part of Thailand.  We will be out of contact a day or so.  Love you!  DAD


Part III: Doi Suthep

Preface

It started out as a vacation; we just needed to get away.  It turned into a life-changer.  Here’s what happened to me and Virginia for three and a half weeks in June.

All of my posts began as emails from Thailand to my incredibly talented and loving daughter, Layla (think I’m only saying that because I’m her father?  Check out her website www.laylaangulo.com then come back here and apologize).  She not only house-sat for us, but six days after we left had to deal the death of our 21 year old Persian cat, Luna, who took the opportunity to spare us from the ordeal.  I loved her dearly, but she was my wife Virginia’s animal soul-mate.

She was one special creature.  I dedicate this journey to her, as her death made me look more closely at my own life.  Thank you, my dear Luna.  And, as always, I know you don’t care.  I’m doing it anyway.

June 11,2011

Chiang Mai

Heeeeeeey Sweetheart,

An excellent day, full of interesting turns of events — and it is not over.  I’m with V at an internet café, half a block from our hotel, which has lousy internet service.  V is slated to go to the Chiang Mai Cultural Centre for a dinner and traditional dancing.  I no likey.  I’m doing something else.  Bar Girls at the Foxy Lady!  “Mister Geezer, I love you long time!”

No.  Even better.  I’m going with our elephant guide, Somboone, to a Thai boxing match.  Muaythai boxing, a mixture of regular boxing with kickboxing and other martial arts — and a lot of gambling — thrown in.

Somboone, sweetheart that he is, really wanted V to come just so we would not be separated, but the fact is I know my wife.  Thirty seconds into the match she would be gasping, hiding her face with her hands and desperate to leave, but would be so polite as to say she was going to stand outside and wait for the match to end.  It would be a TKO for her (Technical Knock Out).  So this is better for us both.

Day before yesterday Somboone took us on an all-day trip.  We went to Doi Suthep, a sacred temple near the top of the mountain that looms just outside the city.

They say that if you haven’t been to the shrine at Suthep, you haven’t been to Chiang Mai.

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It is a long, winding drive through a verdant forest with mountain streams and tall, billowy trees that are often the sacred bodhi trees, along with stretches of bamboo forests growing 50 feet above, blocking out the sky — the sound of which is this ethereal whoosh that blows over the mountain top and adds to the already heady reputation that the forest is a mystical place full of ancient legends, spirits, and gods.

We parked in a large lot and walked to the entrance, always heading up an ever-steeper grade, passing endless stalls of vendors selling juices, hats, tee shirts, lottery tickets, jewelry (always fake, we were told), and a continuous parade of souvenirs and knock-off clothing.

Many vendors in the early morning were already frying sausages of pork, chicken and some other unknown meats, but not dog or cat — they love them here.  Dogs and cats are simply everywhere, walking the streets, always well-fed and not diseased, in and out of traffic like they own the place, which they do, and generally act as though they are in dog and cat heaven.

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It is weird.  You look at all the dogs that simply lay down anywhere they choose — in some places in the middle of the street — they walk around with an ease and a sense that they can’t believe they have this karma; here they are with no job, no predators, nothing to do but hang out, see what all the humans are doing, and wait to be fed, as if they know, like the saffron robed monks, that Buddha will provide, no matter what.

We began the climb. Up wide steps, stepping over the sleeping or wandering dogs, to the next level.  Then to the next level of steps.  Steeper.  V heard something and asked Somboone what it was.

A lady in her makeshift stall says to Somboone in Thai.  ‘Buy birds. For health or success or whatever you desire, then set them free.’  We bought a six-pack of tiny sparrow-like birdies and continued up the steps.  Bought our tickets to the shrine.  Somboone and all Thai people are always free to this and all shrines, temples and holy places.  Only foreigners or ‘farang’ which is what they call us — a mispronunciation of a French word they turned into farang – have to pay the entrance fee.

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At the base of the last and steepest set of stairs — 309 to the top, we stepped aside to an overlook.

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We said a prayer for Luna and asked these creatures the same thing we asked of Chang:   To let her know we love her and to tell her that we are all right, even though we miss her dearly.  V untied the ribbon on the basket.  A moment later and six anxious birds took flight faster than I’d ever seen; like they were shot into the sky, free at last, free at last, thank God Almighty – except…wait a minute.

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V asked where the birds would go.  Somboone said that they would likely return.  Only to be caged again.  Only to be bought again.  Only to be freed again.  And on and on.  Kind of like the whole Buddhist reincarnation belief system wrapped up in a single gesture that contains everything within it: the end, the middle, and the beginning again and again.  Until they (and we) get it right.

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Exactly 309 stairs later (!) we huff and puff to the chedi (shrine).  It is an impressive golden stupa consisting of a thick round base, more than a 100 feet in diameter with a spire reaching like an antennae up to the sky another 50 feet or so.  It is said to contain a most precious relic:   a piece of the shoulder bone of Buddha.

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There are many ‘stations’ or stopping points around it and groups of pilgrims walk the stations, burning incense, reciting prayers on laminated sheets left for that purpose,  like hymnal books in a church, and even more vendors.

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It is said that a white elephant was given the relic, and was released into the jungle. It climbed up Soi Suthep which was at that time called ‘Sugar Elephant Mountain.’  Perfect name.  It trumpeted three times, fell down and died right here on this site.  The king called for the temple to be built.  And so it was.

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Almost as many vendors as pilgrims, selling lotus flowers, photo displays of the chedi and holy spots and other smaller Buddhas placed around the shrine.  We passed a beautiful white Buddha, a gleaming ceramic deity about six feet tall, rare as they are mostly gold.

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It was sort of like seeing a black Jesus instead of the usual brown-haired European version so popular with a lot of Christians.

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I have to run.  End of Part I of our adventure to Doi Suthep.  Part II tomorrow.  I love you!  DAD


Part II: Chiang Mai

Preface

It started out as a vacation; we just needed to get away.  It turned into a life-changer.  Here’s what happened to me and Virginia for three and a half weeks in June.

All of my posts began as emails from Thailand to my incredibly talented and loving daughter, Layla (think I’m only saying that because I’m her father?  Check out her website www.laylaangulo.com then come back here and apologize).  She not only house-sat for us, but six days after we left had to deal the death of our 21 year old Persian cat, Luna, who took the opportunity to spare us from the ordeal.  I loved her dearly, but she was my wife Virginia’s animal soul-mate.

She was one special creature.  I dedicate this journey to her, as her death made me look more closely at my own life.  Thank you, my dear Luna.  And, as always, I know you don’t care.  I’m doing it anyway.

June 8, 2011

Chiang Mai

How Are You?

Heeeeey Sweetheart,

We just got back from a massage and are feeling more relaxed.  We’ve gotten one every day, either body or foot.  Are you doing okay?  We know you have been through a hell of a lot and are so grateful you are there and have taken such good care of all the details.  We hope you are now doing some fun stuff just for you!

We really broke down yesterday.  In a hotel room.  In a foreign, strange place, Chiang Mai. We thought we were prepared for Luna to pass, but when we got your email, we could not contain ourselves.  At 21 years old she was ancient by all cat standards, but the reality was she was gone.  It was  tough to face.

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Never in my many years could I ever conceive this much pain over a pet.  I have secretly scoffed at others for such a reaction.  A cat.  A, stereotypical, eye-rollingly (un) common house cat.  But the lesson I know I have been given to gnash my teeth upon is this:  wherever you choose to place your love – and my love was often reluctantly given but it was an ultimately futile attempt not to love her – when it comes to the end, ready or not, you damn well better expect to dig down deep into your normally placid existence and…deal with it.

Luckily, we could not spend that much time dwelling on her death.  We had to go be mahouts for a day.  It was just what we needed to help deal with the first phase of our grief.

We were led by our guide, Somboone, a hill tribesman who comes down from his mountain village for a month or so every year to do guide work and then returns.  Somboone is from the Karin tribe, an indigenous people of Southeast Asia who have lived for thousands of years in the mountains, and is a farmer with a family, but not married.  He was considering becoming a monk and his manner bespoke his consideration.  With excellent English and being the kindest of souls, he took great personal care of us.

We were driven up into the mountains, about 40 kilometers beyond Chiang Mai’s city limits, to an elephant sanctuary.  But before we got there we had to stock up on goodies for the elephants.

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We didn’t just ride the elephants like the other tourists, we learned the commands and practiced them on the elephants; go right – kwah!  go left – Sai!  Back – Toi!  Forward – Pai! Stop — Yoot!  Let me up — Youk kah! – holding the ear and skin of his leg that they bend and you use as steps to hop up onto his back!

We used long hooks to pull them (they aren’t sharp but you have to pull or with their tough skin they don’t feel anything).  We shopped before we got there and got about 50 pounds of fruit, chopped it up and fed it to them – check out the videos at the end of the blog!

With V on one and me behind her on my elephant, we rode them up a long hill to a large gazebo on stilts, high enough so we were just above the elephants, who could look into the gazebo and get more fruit.  They snaked their trunks through the open rails and vied for more pineapple, watermelon and young bamboo shoots.

The work to ride and get them there was hard, but the thrill of riding atop one of these majestic animals was worth it.  “Chang!” That’s elephant in Thai, but it is not only the name of the animal, but the spirit, in fact the deity that rules all the attributes of the largest mammal on earth.  Chang.  I love the word and everything it conjures.  I could not stop saying it, often at the most inappropriate moment, the whole time we were there.

(Of course after the excursion ended and we were stateside, my granddaughter, Aisha, and I would spontaneously burst into song, “Chang, chang, chang!  Chang of fooooools!” after Aretha Franklin’s famous song.  And of course Aisha was singing it about her Big Bamboo, which is what she calls me.)

All this was done with a group of young French tourists and a crew of half a dozen real ‘mahouts’ – or elephant men.  They were totally bonded with the animals and know everything about their charges.  They hug and play with them constantly.

While taking a break in the gazebo — the humidity was near 100% and we were all drenched in our own sweat — one of the guides gave us lessons on how to survive in the jungle.  He also demonstrated how to start a fire with a knife, a bamboo sliver, and a small pile of dried elephant poop.  Took him all of three minutes to start a blaze you could turn into a camp fire.  The mahouts collect all of the elephant dung and sell it to a vendor in town, who makes elegant elephant writing paper with it.  Who knew?  Don’t get me started on all things poop, elephant and otherwise.

 

The experience of being with the elephants — we later rode them to a river and bathed them with hard scrub brushes as they lay on their sides in bliss as we scrubbed them and they shot water at us with their trunks! — was extremely therapeutic.  At the end of a long day of training, feeding, riding and washing Chang in the river, we were spent but grateful.

   

V and I took a moment aside from the other day-mahouts, and spoke privately to our elephant and told him about Luna’s passing.  We asked him to tell her that she is in our prayers and to please tell her we love her.  And when we looked into those huge, brown, and very intelligent eyes of Chang, we had no choice but to believe he heard, understood, and passed our message along to Luna.

More later, but I have to stop here and go recover myself again.  Love you!  DAD

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Part 1: The Raging Traveler Goes To Thailand: Or, How Southeast Asia Changed Everything

Preface

It started out as a vacation; we just needed to get away.  It turned into a life-changer.  Here’s what happened to me and Virginia for three and a half weeks in June.

All of my posts began as emails from Thailand to my incredibly talented and loving daughter, Layla (think I’m only saying that because I’m her father?  Check out her website www.laylaangulo.com then come back here and apologize).  She not only house-sat for us, but six days after we left had to deal the death of our 21 year old Persian cat, Luna, who took the opportunity to spare us from the ordeal.  I loved her dearly, but she was my wife Virginia’s animal soul-mate.

(Don’t forget to hold your cursor over the photos — most have a caption, except the slideshow.)

Luna hung around for several years longer than was required, using up a record-breaking number of cat lives (at least 14 by our count) to rally back from death in order to stay with V and give her the comfort she so came to depend on.  But when we left for Southeast Asia, she knew it was her best chance, and quickly made the transition while we were half way around the world.

She was one special creature.  I dedicate this journey to her, as her death made me look more closely at my own life.  Thank you, my dear Luna.  And, as always, I know you don’t care.  I’m doing it anyway.

June 2, 2011

Bangkok Has Us

Heeeey Sweetheart,

Writing down thoughts while we wait for Yah, our travel agent from Vieng Travel, to begin our day.

V’s checked bag never made it to Bangkok; it is still in Seattle, probably visiting Aisha (our granddaughter) there.  We reported it and they should be sending it soon, but luckily the driver who was to pick us up stayed the extra hour while she filled out paperwork.  It was sometime in the middle of the night after a 20+ hour flight when we stumbled into his van.

They drive on the opposite side of the roads here, and inside the cars, too, English style, so that needs getting used to.  But the highways are big, wide and in good repair — they have to be with something like 12 million people on them; that’s what Nin, our driver, dressed in a beige bellhop’s uniform we would soon see everywhere, said in very broken English.  Some of the worst traffic in the world attempts to drive these roads.

Nin got off the freeway and he pointed out places he and many other locals finished working on the movie ‘The Hangover 2.”  We drove down the same road with the open air market where they shot the chase scene where Ed Helms got hit in the face with the hanging pig.  Nin told us he helped out on the scene where the car went over the canal and landed back on the street.

Nin said a stunt man died during filming and many were injured, some during the monkey scenes — at least that’s what we think he said.  Nin’s English was only slightly better than my Thai (yes, we still know not a single word yet).  The movie poured a lot of money into this city, put a lot of people to work and I expect we will be talking to a lot of folks who were somehow touched by the production.

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What a huge and sprawling city!  Like a L.A. or New York City, but with the Chao Praya River and it tributaries at every turn it is like a steaming jungle in the midst of a city, green with plant life in front of every storefront, house, and structure.

The elegant, almost fractal designs of the Grand Palace; the serene magnificence of Buddhist temples in golds and reds, and all of Bangkok overflowing with food vendors with entire kitchens arranged on a motorbike; abandoned concrete shells of buildings; alleyways filled with rotting garbage; canals with dead floating fish and the remains of ancient debris tossed from bridges by generations long dead.

Constantly shifting from grandeur to squalor on every block, sometimes several times on every block, we walked the city struggling, and failing, to take it all in.

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The humidity is stunning in its ferocity.  When I first stepped off the plane onto the tarmac — they had to bus us to the terminal — my glasses immediately fogged up and my pant legs burst into flames.  Or at least felt like it as the wet heat made my clothes wrap themselves around me — I was steamed like a dumpling.  This may take some getting used to.

The most striking features of Bangkok?  The ones most likely to slip through this vast metropolitan, cosmopolitan, primal, fetid, intoxicating and vexing city?  For one, the web of canals that weave through the city and contain lifestyles on the water that haven’t changed for centuries.

Same with the market places; the produce, the flowers, the spices, and the meats — from the ‘normal’ to Western eyes, to the unforgivably strange (I will spare you the sight of row upon row of pig faces, three deep, which was in one stall, the faces all with the same inexplicable expression, like they had met their end with a laugh.)  It was here where V and me were filled with a heady mix of being in the moment and existing in a timeless space.  All at the same time.  You figure it out while looking at the photos, I could not.


Part V: Into the Jungle: Hmong Hill Tribe and Beyond

“Oooooooooooh,” said Somboone, our guide, his voice rising in a now-familiar exclamation he uses at the beginning of every sentence when he gets excited.  “No, we don’t eat that bug.  Shell too hard and his meat will kill us.”

V had developed a game with Somboone, pointing at some  greenery or animal and asking if his people ate that particular thing.  9 out of 10 times, they did.  He stopped answering me and only responded to V, as I kept pointing to things like electrical wiring and discarded car tires.  Somboone is a good sport.

We left the temple at Doi Suthep, but instead of heading back down the mountain, Somboone left the paved road near the summit and entered a precipitous looking trail.  Could not have been a road; it was too narrow and pitted with huge potholes that made us bounce and jerk and hold onto the safety bars inside his SUV.

Half an hour later we stopped at a small coffee plantation that was sponsored by a local college.

A wonderful little place hanging off a jungle cliff in the middle of nowhere.

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We settled in for some delicious coffee and made friends with a chicken.  Okay, a rooster.

“Not for only fighting,” said Somboone. “He is very good hunter.  Very brave.”

A rooster as a brave hunter?  I asked if that’s where the word “cocky” came from.  Somboone looked at me blankly.  Then went on to explain the role of a rooster in hunting.  It suddenly made sense.  The rooster was used less as an actual hunter and more like, well, bait.  Set him out in the wild and wait for what came after him.  Then get critter before critter get bait, uh, brave hunter.

As the rooster paraded around us, it seemed a shame to tell him he was anything but the mighty hunter Somboone described.

Hopped up on caffeine and poultry bluster, we drove on up the mountain until we came to the Hmong village.  The Hmong are one of many indigenous hill tribes (Somboone is a Karin) that have lived in the mountains of Southeast Asia longer than all the Siams and Burmas that formed, changed, crumbled, and were re-drawn into different provinces by ambitious warlords for the last three thousand years.  They were here long before Buddha and many have stubbornly kept hold of the old gods.

Somboone stopped the SUV and we got out.  The

village was quiet and seemingly empty and we walked along trying to get a sense of the place.  Hard to do.  Just seemed like an open space in the jungle with wood and rusted metal roof structures dotting the hillock it occupied.  Yet many homes had solar panels (!)

We walked through the village, like a ghost town, and found only a few residents around.  Perhaps it was their day off from playing local indigenous natives for the farang (foreigner) tourists?

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We visited a school with many children out on recess and playing.  We passed the usual groups of sleeping dogs, chirping chicks and wandering cats.  Truthfully, there wasn’t a lot going on.  The village was quiet, at rest, and well-cared for.

“Where are all the men?” I asked.

“They work,” replied Somboone.  Like anywhere in the world, during the middle of the day people are at work.  Of course.  The old, the very young and mothers were the only people we saw.  Duh.

So we stopped at a tiny store slash restaurant and had lunch.  The teenaged shopkeeper worked on a noodle concoction for us while Somboone delighted us by cutting up a small mountain of fresh fruit — things we had never eaten before.

It was time to leave.  Filled with noodles and a dessert of fruit, I had a nagging longing for something else, but it wasn’t food.

We walked back to the car, watching the few villagers carrying on with their lives, and I just couldn’t put my finger on why I felt so odd.  Then a pick-up truck went by.  A young Hmong mother stood in the pack, clinging to the sides while her toddler son was strapped to her back, staring at everything whizzing by him, uncomprehending.

It was at that moment that I realized what was bothering me.

I was like the toddler, strapped in place, as a world I was too unformed to understand bounced and sped by me.  There was no way for me to have anything other than a tourist’s moment with these ancient people.  In every face I looked, non-judgmental, even blank, eyes looked back into mine.  They’d seen hundreds like me and I barely registered in their consciousness.  We must be like strange, colorful birds, chirping away, unintelligible, looking around, then flying away again, until the next migratory batch flies through.  While they continue with their lives.  Perhaps that is best that way to think of their experience; at least it is pretty to think so.

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Soon we were back in the jungle. Small family farms seemed to spring up wherever there was an open space.

Somboone stopped the car several times to point out an interesting fact (like many of the farmers are Burmese who have fled the oppressive Myranmar government and life and slipped into Thailand, into these mountains where they can live free — no one will come looking for them here I was assured).  And sometimes he stopped just to perform a bit of magic.

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Hours later we exited the jungles of Doi Suthep, passed a man-made lake and, filled to the brim with the day, headed back to our hotel.  Every day had been different thus far and yet every day we came away with similar feelings about what we had seen:  (over) stimulated with sights, images, feelings of empathy, wonder, and gratitude.  And occasionally haunted by what we had just seen.  One could easily become addicted to these kinds of days.


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