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Like Taking Candy from a Japanese Kid

October 23, 2007 in Holidays

After I returned from Thailand, “Halloween” was the buzzword at school. The spider gel gems are up on the windows, the pumpkins are out, and after each class, the staff members remind the kids and students that Halloween is coming soon and they should wear a costume to class!

“Ehhhhhhhh????” grouse the students.

Halloween exists in Japan, but it is by no means a given. Some of the stores sell Halloween costumes here and there are “Happy Halloween” signs up in places but for all I’ve heard my students talk about it (which is to say not at all) I venture a guess that Halloween exists at all here to a) sell candy and costumes and b) give Western ex-pats a more familiar reason to get drunk. For some of the younger students, coming to our school is the first time they’ve heard of it or had any reason to dress up, thus the grousing when the staff shows them pictures of Halloweens past – confused-looking children wearing witch costumes, bunny ears, or Spider-man masks, flanked by teachers whose costume ideas are totally lost on most of their students.

As for me, I don’t care why it exists. Halloween is by far my favorite holiday and I will take it any way I can get it. I was thrilled to learn that our school teaches Halloween and can’t wait to wear my costume – whatever that might be. Today’s shopping trip to Loft in Kokoromura will have the answers.

I do have one complaint about Halloween at my schools. At any of them, there are countless plastic pumpkins to be found on desks and tables. In America, even weeks before Halloween hits, a plastic pumpkin can only mean “candy” so I have, on a number of occasions, dashed to the nearest orange plastic pumpkin and thrust my hand inside, searching for, perhaps, mini packets of Pocky Sticks, Crunky bars, or Pure gummies.

Yet, the plastic pumpkins are always empty.

What’s Grosser than Gross?

October 21, 2007 in Uncategorized

The other day, a student told me that he feeds his 9-month old baby gruel. Had I not lived in Japan for 9 months and already come to realize that the Japanese use the oh-so-Dickensian term “gruel” to signify rice porridge – a popular breakfast food here – I might have been taken aback. Nope, not surprised any more, although I couldn’t help being amused, as I always am to get that little bit of Victorian England in my life.My student is at a fairly high level in his English studies so I explained to him the connotations of the word “gruel.” Even though technically it’s correct to use it – for, indeed, rice porridge is gruel – the word “gruel” is commonly associated with the meals of poor children who haven’t got any parents. He’d never read Oliver Twist, but he “got it” and nodded. He asked if I’d ever had gruel. I told him that I haven’t – traditionally, mushy things that are bland in color turn me off.

I then told him that in America, we favor oatmeal to porridge but we do have a soggy rice dish of our own – rice pudding. As I described how milk and sugar and raisins and cinnamon combine to create one of America’s great comfort foods, I witnessed a curious thing – my student’s face had frozen.

“No rice pudding for you?” I asked. My student – who comes from a culture where seaweed is eaten for breakfast and “meat mix” does not mean “chicken, beef, and pork” but instead means a mix of all of the cow’s internal organs – was ashen.

“Sweet … rice?” he gulped.

Overheard in Thailand

October 16, 2007 in Uncategorized

During training, one of the trainers asked each of us what we were interested in doing while we were in Japan. When it came my turn, I said I wanted to travel around Asia – that I was dying to go to Thailand some day. “It’s beautiful,” agreed the trainer. ” … but it’s not a great place to go if you don’t like being pestered.”

Thus, I give you:

Overheard in Thailand

 

The Little Chicks Say: “Cheap Cheap Cheap!”

Khao San Road Vendor #4: Cheap cheap! I give you good price. Where you from?

On What, Exactly?

Khao San Road Vendor #35: Cheap cheap! Where you from? I give you good price.

Hello to you, too!

Khao San Road Vendor #57:
Where you from? Hello? Where you go? You want? I give you. Good price! Hello? Hello?

No. Over there. Not here.

Khao San Road Tuk Tuk Driver #10: You need car? Where you go? Where you from?

Just Crossing the Street, Man …

Khao San Road Tuk Tuk Driver #32:
Where you want go? I take you. Come here. Where you from?

That’ll Actually Be Another 10 Baht …

Tuk Tuk Driver #57: Where you want go? I take you.
Asia-weary Tuk-Tuk Passenger: To the Grand Palace.
Tuk Tuk Driver #57: Grand Palace. Okay! (drives a few blocks, then pulls over) Hello. One hour, I take you. Where you want go? I take you ….
Asia-weary Tuk Tuk Passenger: No! Grand Palace! Fast fast! Now!
Tuk Tuk Driver #57: One hour. I take you [pointing to various locations on a map in the tuk tuk]. Where you want go? Cheap cheap. I take you on good tour.
Asia-weary Tuk Tuk Passenger: No! Grand Palace! Now! Fast fast!
Tuk Tuk Driver #57: Where you want go? I take you. Where you want go?
Asia-weary Tuk Tuk Passenger: Your mom’s house. Shut up!

Young Man, Someone Will Make a Man Out of You Here in Bangkok … Heck, It Might Even Be a Man …

Inebriated 20 year-old English Chap: Hello. Where are you from?
English Teacher #1: America.
Inebriated 20 year-old English Chap: What’s your name?
English Teacher #1: Liv.
Inebriated 20 year-old English Chap: That’s my sister’s name! Where are you from in America?
Liv: New York.
Inebriated 20 year-old English Chap: Liv, did you know that I’ve always wanted a girlfriend from New York in America whose name begins with the letter “L”???
Liv: No, I did not. My boyfriend might have something to say about that, though.
Inebriated 20 year-old English Chap: Oh no!
Liv: Sorry.
Inebriated 20 year-old English Chap (turning to English Teacher #2): What’s your name?
English Teacher #2: Pepper.
Inebriated 20 year-old English Chap: Pepper! You know, a bloke who wears glasses can only look a prat. But a girl looks sexy …
Pepper: Thanks.
Inebriated 20 year-old English Chap: I’m in Bangkok with me mates on holiday. You know, I’ve never been away from mum and dad for more than 8 days when I went to a musical festival!
Pepper: Wow.
Inebriated 20 year-old English Chap: I know! Are you girls coming to a bar with us later?
Pepper and Liv: NO.

Ao Lang Beach One-Liners

Ao Lang Beach Vendor #7: Cheap cheap! I give you good price! Where you from?

Ao Lang Beach Vendor #17: Where you from? Come look. Cheap cheap!

Ao Lang Boatsman #5: You need boat? Ko Phi Phi? Lanta? Rai Lay? I take you.

Ao Lang Beach Vendor #23: You like? You buy two? Black and white? Look so nice! Buy two – I give you good price. Cheap cheap!

Young, Fresh Burmese Beach Vendor: Where you from? You come back next year?

And now … the 2007 Thai Vendor Eloquence Award Goes To …

Ao Lang Flyer Distributor #10: Take my card – don’t break my heart!

*

This all said … later, after the snorkeling, swimming, sunburns and sea urchin:

 

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What it’s like to ride an elephant. My shoes, before they became covered in jungle cave mud.

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Jungle Life

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Vines and Invisible Critters

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Chillin after a hard hour’s work

Protecting a jungle temple by robbing its visitors blind … my friend, the monkey:

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After: dusty, muddy truck ride back to the bungalows and then one more $5 meal:

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… a much needed shower, a $8 Thai foot massage …

and then it was back to the kids.

Oh My Boy!

October 14, 2007 in Uncategorized

In Thailand, the sea life is infinitely ungrateful. It is well-fed by tour guides, fiercely harbored by environmental groups, lauded as the subjects of countless worshipful travelogues, documentaries, photographs and paintings … and yet it only seeks to harm. Witness: several bleeding fellow tourists, their flesh shredded by the soft coral lurking beneath the aquamarine waters. Witness, too, my own legs which were bitten by one or two yellow-and-black stripey tropical fish. We snorkeled between jagged, forest-capped cliffs, our speedboat flanked by lazy longboats. My mask, too loose, afforded me only several seconds of ecstatic gazing at the fish and coral below; brief, gasping seconds that I considered well worth it each time I stuck my head beneath the surface. Our vessel captain delighted in hurling bits of bread into the clots of snorkeling tourists in order to lure a swarm of hungry, snapping fish. This is how I got bitten and, thus, leapt out of the water and back into the boat with my legs touching only air.100_49381.JPG

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Witness, too, Pepper’s foot. She did not deem it necessary to actually take pictures so I cannot actually allow you witness it but I invite you to consider it all the same.

We swam off Poda Beach in turquoise water that felt like soup, shot through time and again with deliciously cool currents. We swam out to where we could no longer touch and, after treading the water that cooled our sunburned limbs, we paddled back into shore. I skipped on my toes, unwilling to touch anything that was alive or inherently harmful. I made jokes – told Pepper about my father’s somewhat recent unfortunate encounter with a jellyfish.

“Try not to step on anything, then,” Pepper said wisely. Then, beside me, she yelped.

There had been something sharp on the sea floor, she explained breathlessly, and she had just stepped on it. The pain wasn’t subsiding and, confused, she thrust her foot up to the light. We both peered – the sea-puckered white sole of her small foot was now decorated with a constellation of several small blue-tinted dots that appeared to be embedded just beneath her flesh.

I swallowed. “Pepper,” I said. “This might seem like an importune time to ask, but … you didn’t by any chance have those little blue dots in your foot before, did you?”

“Sea urchin!” declared our vessel captain once he’d been brought to the scene, where Pepper could no longer stand due to the pain.

“Fifteen minutes – you feel better. Is okay!” he declared to our relief and began to systematically whack her foot with a snorkel he had armed himself with – to release the hooks and the poison, he explained. Poison? Fantastic. Nearby, hovered another passenger who hopefully added that urine could also help. Though Pepper was in terrible pain and we had both seen the jellyfish episode of Friends (an irrefutable source of knowledge, to be sure), we met his suggestion with silence. The fellow passenger suggested urine again; two times; three times; four times, he suggested someone urinate on Pepper’s foot.

“Have you got to go?” I asked gently the third or fourth time he mentioned peeing. He laughed and shook his head, and everybody’s legs stayed shut, aside from our sea vessel captain’s – he had sat himself down on the shore with his legs spread on either side of Pepper to anchor himself against the crashing tide.

“Oh my boy!” he cried each time a new wave had splashed over Pepper and into his lap, through the open ends of his swim trunks. With his free hand, he frantically tried to splash the water back to its original depths, but he was unable to keep the cold water and sand from swirling into his trunks. Pepper and I discussed, later, the origins of this strange, passionate elocution of “Oh my boy.” Was our Thai captain, I hypothesized, confusedly combining the popular English cries of “Oh boy” and “Oh my god”? Or was he crying out on behalf of his boy, which was being repeatedly pelted by itchy sand and unwillingly dipped into chilly water as he attempted to rescue Pepper from the sea urchin’s attack? Even after much debate, we are still somewhat divided on this front.

After 15 minutes, Pepper did begin to feel better, just as our new Thai friends had promised. The constant rain of snorkel whacks had numbed her poor foot and the tall, stout, burly captain’s story of his own recent sea urchin attack – resulting in his tears and a Thai shower, courtesy of a female friend – was a refreshing and welcome delight. Pepper popped an ibuprofen and, the danger and fright over, we were able to marvel at her foot – slightly swollen and with tiny black spikes protruding from the blue dots.

On the boat back to Ao Lang Beach, our fellow passengers sat with their wounds daubed in orange merchurochrome and Pepper’s foot lay propped up to help alleviate the swelling. My legs still retained the memory of those tiny, nipping little mouths and the lot of us on the boat suffered various degrees of sunburn. Our urine advocate sat silently, limp and salt-soaked like the rest of us.

The irony, of course, was that back on the shore, both Pepper and I really had needed to go.

Down with Ko Phi Phi

October 12, 2007 in Uncategorized

We arrived in Krabi on Sunday afternoon and shared a taxi to Ao Lang Beach with a couple of German travelers who were staying on the nearby Rai Lay Bay.

That night:

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On Monday there was the aforementioned slow-to-start tour of the Ko Phi Phi islands – famous for providing the setting for The Beach. On a packed speedboat, we vaulted over intensely choppy waves in water that changed, without warning, from clear bottle green to a deep, lustrous turquoise. The tour was to be comprised of swimming, snorkeling as well as a brief jaunt at the infamous Maya Beach.

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The famous Maya Beach in question

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Just … wow. Right?

Khao-s

October 11, 2007 in Uncategorized

There were only 2 nights in Bangkok so – apart from a brief jaunt to Chatuchak Market – I spent most of my time on Khao San Road, what wikipedia calls “a backpacker’s ghetto.” In a nutshell:

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More budget hotels, street booths, restaurants, hair weavers, filthy backpackers, internet cafes, lithe stray kitties, 24-hour tailors, transvestites and unabashedly persistent handcraft/restaurant/club/taxi/ tuk tuk ride hawkers than you could shake a stick at. Khao-s in every direction – personified in the ubiquitous howls of “Where you go? Where you from? Cheap cheap!” that follow you down the road and into each shop.

At night, the shouts of drunken frat boys on holiday combine with the street vendor cries and a curious selection of pop songs that are, apparently, played on loop: “La Camisa Negra” blasting from a restaurant on the second floor of a building and, to my delight, “Dragostea Din Tei” coming from a street booth. The stray kitties are healthy-looking and beautiful, unlike Japanese strays that always appear on the edge of leprosy. Pad thai, fried rice, falafel and doner kebap are sold on roadside carts – pad thai for just 15 baht. I hadn’t had Thai food since I moved to Japan, therefore I found it necessary to eat at least 4 times a day. Lard naa, green curry, pad thai, bottles of Tiger beer, a luscious Indian dinner, tom yam soup, and bites of Pepper’s papaya salad were all mine; enjoyed on the sweltering roadside or in roadside cafes.

The second night, I bought a gauzy navy, white, and burgundy strapless knee-length dress with a puckered bodice, shot through and through with glittering gold threads. This dress cost me around $7 USD, but in Bangkok, $169 USD could have gotten me a suit, 3 shirts, and a pair of pants. I’m still uncertain as to whether I did the right thing by ignoring these signs.

Un-Thai-mely

October 9, 2007 in Uncategorized

Thai time is not Japan time. At Suvarnabhumi Airport, an unsmiling woman at the desk told me that the bus to Khao San Road would arrive in “half an hour.” After half an hour had passed and there was no bus, I asked another lady outside if the bus was late. “6:30,” she said. It was 6. I explained to her that the unsmiling woman inside had told me the bus would arrive at 6.

“She wrong,” said the lady. And that was, apparently, enough of an explanation.

Today, the Ko Phi Phi island tour was supposed to come at 8:30, but it arrived at around 8:45 – 15 minutes which had me panting and fretting until the open-backed metal truck arrived, half full with other tourists. Pepper, who had been in Thailand for 2 weeks before I arrived, has reported domestic flights departing around ten minutes before schedule. True to her experience, our own flight from Krabi to Bangkok left on a similar time frame.

In Japan, 6:30 means 6:30 and if there is no train or bus when you arrive, you obviously missed it. If the bus or train actually is late – something I’ve only encountered once in my nearly 10 months here – the conductor will personally hand each passenger a lateness ticket to help explain to one’s boss why they are late. Once a person who employed a rather Thai sense of time, I have been beaten into Japanese submission. After having to fill out several lateness reports at work when I was – literally – 2 minutes late I began to conform. The joy of having a train arrive when it’s supposed to arrive has been immense. Like a beggar suddenly treated to a night at the Plaza, I have become accustomed all too readily to the California king sized bed. When I’m shown the cot once again, I am an unhappy monkey.

Tuesday’s elephant trekking tour departed on time but arrived back at the bungalow 15 minutes late. Win some; lose some.

Out of Hot Water

October 6, 2007 in Uncategorized

Last night we stayed in a hotel that cost us about 375 baht each. There were no blankets on the beds – only thin towels. This made us laugh.

After two rides on tuk tuks that we are certain caused the strange coughs and tickles we’ve felt in our throats this evening, we scoured the road for a new place to stay. Tonight, we are staying at a hotel just across the street. We found it much quieter than our room from last night, which was – according to Pepper, since I passed out as soon as I hit the pillow – livened up with the shouts, honks and wild music from Khao San Road below. At this hotel there are, in fact, real blankets on the beds as well as a large mirror embedded into a beautiful example of Thai carving. The fan above the bed rotates in lazy circles, delivering just the right amount of ventilation, and the mattresses are extremely soft and spongy, almost like a Tempurpedic, but we dare not hope. The price is about 110 baht cheaper than the place we stayed in last night, coming at about 8 USD each.

There is no hot water. We learned this fact from another foreigner, who was asking the lady at the front desk if it existed just as we were coming around the corner to tell her we would take the room. She told us to go around the corner of the alley to test the faucet and gauge the temperature for ourselves before committing to the room we had, 30 seconds before, been certain we would take. We followed her pointed finger into a dark, snaking alley, illuminated at the end by the light from a raging open air street bar and, after a bit of searching, found the rusty faucet embedded in a concrete wall. We tested it and deemed it quite a refreshing wake up call. This made us laugh, too.

Two Nights in Bangkok

October 6, 2007 in Uncategorized

Here now in Bangkok, where it is warm and balmy without being wet. There are angry Buddhist statues dotted between handicraft or hair extension booths and restaurants; lavish makeshift shrines graced by earthly leavings such as a three quarters-full Fanta bottle and skittish, darting geckos haunt street corners. There are so many foreigners I am stunned and everywhere there are signs and speakers of English. Last night, after Indian food – the first I’ve had since visiting Pepper in July – I ended my exploring early, completely worn out from 10 hours of travel. One night more and we will head to Krabi.

On the bus from the airport, an Italian couple boarded shortly after I did, to my delight. As the seats were limited I asked them, in Italian, if they wanted to sit together. The words were fuzzy coming out of my mouth, however – since my parents gave up on Skype in favor of the more user-friendly Instant Messenger, I haven’t actually spoken Italian out loud since I saw them last August.

“What?” asked the man, in English.

“We’re okay, thank you,” said the woman, also in English. I was mortified.

Off

October 4, 2007 in Uncategorized

Yesterday, there was a moth in the train to work that weaved, fluttering, between the passengers, who gasped or laughed, threw up their hands and, in general, spazzed for about 40 seconds before we stopped at Kokoro Station and the moth angrily beat his wings out of there.

After dinner with Sean last night, we prepared to ride our bikes back to our building and saw a young woman being carted out of a building on the backs of two men, seemingly passed out. Another girl, ostensibly,  her friend, carried with her a see-through plastic bag a quarter-filled with a strange, clear red fluid. The party clomped to the curb where yet another woman was waiting, waving wildly, next to a cab. Our ride home was occupied with confused musings about what could have transpired.

I had two unexpected breaks at work yesterday, during which I chatted with teachers and studied my level 4 JLPT guide, pleased to find that I already know many of the things in it.

… and now, I’m off to Thailand to meet Miss Pepper for one last South Asian hurrah before she heads back home to the States. We hope there will be elephants.