Tag Archives: humor

Cuisine, Culture and the Cascais Coast

In this episode Aisha tackles preparing a Portuguese dourada (fresh caught Atlantic golden bream) for dinner, a trip to one of the most important private collections in the world (Gulbenkian Museum in Lisbon), lunch in a hidden gem of a local restaurant, and a long, leisurely ride down the three kilometer boardwalk from Cascais to the beach at Praia da Poça, also known as São João do Estoril.

Every day I never tire of saying the same dang thing; “Isn’t this lovely?”

As the days of Aisha’ time with us come to a close, we see many beautiful sites and appreciate every one that passes before us. Doesn’t make knowing she will soon leave any easier. However. Que será, será, baby.


Lettin’ Loose in Lisbon

We set out to see the City. Not the pretty postcard shots and iconic landmarks that you can find on virtually every Lisbon photo ever taken. I have plenty of pictures of ancient buildings, grand architecture, plazas and fountains and hillside vistas.  We wanted to get closer to the everyday lifeblood of old Lisboa. Since it’s August and the height of tourist season — feels like all of Europe has descended on Portugal — we couldn’t escape all the crowds, but were always on the lookout for the little alleyway, the path of least congestion, or the side track that might lead to a different perspective of this city’s place and time. Although friendly and always welcoming, Lisboa does not reveal all her secrets at once. She wants to get to know you first. This was Aisha’s introduction. They got along just fine.


Fantabulistic

We love our friends, George and Nirava; he the skillful driver; she the marvelous gourmet chef. They are spoiling us with great food, wine, and excellent company. The weather here in the fading weeks of September continues to be a succulent feast of its own: Warm, soft days and with the kind of sunlight that beckons painters, poets, and professional lollygaggers such as myself to come out and play.

 


Journey To Chichicastenango

134_2648-005“She is speaking Quiche, the Mayan language,” said Pascual, our excellent guide.

“Why is she trying to give me money?” Virginia said, as the old woman kept offering coins from a leather pouch.

“A little hard to understand, I’m afraid,” he apologized. “Her accent.”

The old woman kept eyeing me as she continued to push coins on Virginia .

“She wants to buy your husband,” said Pascual, finally, with a tortured look half-way between a smile and a grimace.

“For what?”

“I can’t be sure. The word she’s using is either for ‘boyfriend’ or ‘blood sacrifice.’ ”

“Whichever one’s the case,” Virginia held up the money, “she’s giving me way too many coins.” 134_2654 We had traveled three hours from our cozy cliff-side retreat on Lake Atitlan to Chichicastenango, the largest and longest running market in Central America. I approached Pascual as we got off the bus and secured him as our guide. Why? Because that’s what you do in a country where you don’t speak the language. Plus, he was wearing an official-looking guide vest with his name on it and he looked honest. Oh, you mean that’s not how you’re supposed to do it? I understand it’s possible, with technology and travel forums, to do a reference check. Even here. But sometimes you just have to go with your gut.

“Hungry?” he asked.

“Starving!”

He walked us through the thrall of the market as peddlers called, cajoled, waved and whistled after us to buy their wares. Pascual led us up a set of stairs to a second-story restaurant overlooking the marketplace. I was sold on Pascual. The breakfast was great (fresh brewed Guatemalan coffee? Sí, I will have another cup, gracias!) and it was a wonderful first move. From our table on the long veranda above the busy market, we got our bearings; the two controversial cathedrals that faced each other in the square, and in the distance the sacred hill still used daily for Mayan ceremonies. 134_2646 The Medicine Man (squatting, and not a Mayan priest as I mistakenly blurt out in the video) working the crowd. He is making a pitch for the healing powers of the of the plants and herbs he has collected and laid out from the jungle. In the video you can see a venomous snake wrapped around his neck as proof of his power over nature. (Retraction: Okay,Virginia says I have to take it back.  I admit it; the snake is probably not poisonous. But, really, wouldn’t that be the coolest?)

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Yes, there is poverty. Yes, there is (some) malnutrition. Yes, they are sending children to our borders so they can find and be with their parents again and escape the crushing conditions the poor are exposed to – don’t get me started. This is not the forum. The situation is too complex to make simplistic judgments from media reports – of any flavor, be it mainstream or fair and balanced. If you think you know or have heard the ‘real’ story, you simply don’t. As is the case with every major event or condition, social or political, very few people on the planet actually know what is going on. And it is not me or you. That’s the only ‘fact’ you can count on and that’s all I’ll say about it. For now. In an indoor portion of the marketplace, fruit and vegetable sellers display the full bounty of Guatemala’s verdant land.

http://youtu.be/VnDtNtbz8Z8 134_2647 http://youtu.be/OI64uProG14 134_2648-003After we barely escaped me being sold, Pascual wanted to know if we would like to see a Mayan ceremony.  We were on our way, walking out of town and up the side of a mountain faster than you can say, “human sacrifice.”

See, yet another reason you need a skilled guide. To get you to the places many tourists haven’t bothered to tread, and to give you the inside scoop. For example, there hasn’t been a human sacrifice in about four hundred years. They switched to poultry in the late 15th century and, apparently, it works for them. Still, we were not disappointed, human sacrifice notwithstanding. 134_2650-001We climbed Turcaj hill (the Sacred Place) through a corn field (the god of corn: very important).  Everybody carries a machete in Guatemala. But this gentleman had two. I did not ask why. 134_2651-004We reached the hilltop and looked down on the…Mayan cemetery. We looked around. We were in an open space. There was a cement gazebo with several fire pits within. But the focal point was the outdoor altar. The entire area around it was charred and blackened from hundreds of years of fires for ritual and prayer. The altar itself was a carved block of stone called the Cofradia of Pascual Abaj.

Pascual our guide (the most popular male name in the region) told us the story of how this altar came to be. 134_2652 You can read the official version here.  And yes I know the stone looks rather, um, phallic. And yes, of course I have my own theory, thanks for asking! 134_2651-006Because the Spanish, who had already dug in and ravaged the country by the mid-16th century, were such incredible dicks on every conceivable level, I see the Pascual Abaj as a kind of subversive salute from the Maya to those who would try to own them body and soul. 134_2651-005We saw this kind of not-so-subtle message everywhere at this important Maya city. The Maya may have long ago submitted to their Spanish overlords, but they never surrendered who they are at heart. 134_2651-002Mayan priest burning candles and the traditional incense, copal, while performing prayers.

As we were the only people at the site, obviously tourists, I kept noticing the priest casting agitated glances our way. So did Pascual. So did Virginia.

“You should stop filming,” Pascual said. I did, but the agitated priest picked up the pace and volume of his prayers to the fire, but with direct hand gestures toward us.

“That doesn’t seem like a good thing he’s doing,” said Virginia.

I suddenly felt a force take hold and hurl me to the ground. Gasping for breath, I could feel the power from the words of the priest as they –

“Stop it,” said Virginia, standing over me. “Get up. Stop fooling around and let’s go.”

We moved quickly but in an orderly fashion away from the ceremonial site and onto the trail leading back to the marketplace.

Apparently, Virginia informs me, it was not a spell or whatever from the priest. I had slipped on the waxy ground from all the burnt candles and simply tripped and fell. Though I would have preferred a more, shall we say, dramatic telling of the incident.

“No incident,” she would later say . “You fell down, period.”

On the way back down the hill I asked Pascual point blank if he was Maya or Catholic. I had a bit of a clue since he sported a small and tasteful tattoo on his hand of a Mayan deity, between his thumb and index finger. But his answer surprised me. 134_2649-001Catholic (he pronounced it: cat-TALL-ick). Married with two daughters of his own, he said his mother and father and grandparents are all Maya, but that it is too tough a religion for many younger people to practice. Too strict in its tenets. For example, they make Catholics look like liberal atheists when it comes to birth control. Don’t even think about it. It was made for a people who could withstand anything thrown at it. And needed all the followers they could get to help them survive whatever came at them. get-attachment.aspx The one mask we bought.

17th century replica of a mask featuring the corn god on the headdress.

We also bought two stone images that ‘looked’ ancient. Then we said good-bye to Pascual, tipped him generously, as that was his only pay, and got back on the bus to Lake Atitlan. When you’re traveling, despite all the precautions and research, in the end you need a guide and you have to trust your gut in picking one. We had a great time with Pascual. Can’t tell you all the other people on the bus with us who didn’t and fumbled and floundered with guide books and were constantly hassled by aggressive vendors. They were miserable and complained all the way back.

On the bus ride back to Lake Atitlan, I caught Virginia looking wistfully at the leather bag she’d purchased from the old woman who tried to purchase me. She held up the pouch, jingled the coins inside.

“You owe me one,” she smiled.

Back at Lake Atitlan we geared up for the third and final leg of our trip. One we were not going to do. I cut it out of our original plan. It was just too hard, too reckless, too dangerous and expensive. All of the criteria you use to determine whether something is worth your time and money and safety was laid against it. But we were told time and time again while we were in Guatemala, you must do this. It didn’t seem feasible, it was hundreds of miles out of the way. We decided we just couldn’t let this opportunity go by. What if we were never able to return? We would kick ourselves if we passed up this one chance.

So this chance we took.  And I ask you to take this chance with me. Come with us. Come to one of the most important — forget important. One of the most amazing places we have ever visited. Come with us as we go back in time. Come with us to a civilization that rose, flourished as one of the most enlightened, intellectual and spiritual civilizations ever to exist…and then vanished, almost over night, more than a millennia ago. To this day no one knows why.134_2683-EFFECTS Come with us to the ancient city of Tikal. Where written language, astronomy, and mathematics were developed to an astonishingly complex degree. Experts are still trying to work out their systems. It’s where the search for the ultimate meaning in the universe came within in striking distance…before simply disappearing off the face of the earth. Gone without a note as to why. Ah, but what they left behind for us…

Shall we, then?
Good.
Oh. Bring water. And insect repellent. You won’t survive without either one.


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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