Sunday, November 9, 2008

In the land where pickup trucks are taxis and scooters own the roads...

Pattaya. The moonlight was above us, and just below it, the building tops of Walking Street were engulfed in a web of neon lights and power lines. The city's hot spot was preparing to show us what it was made of, and it'd surely be something we'd never laid eyes on before. Not to mention, the scantily clad locals and Eurotrash we'd come to know and associate too well with the nightlife of this city was not something I'd first expect as a way to spend a family Christmas vacation. Cue Chevy Chase. Yet, here we were.

Two days prior I'd been at work, on my last day at a job I'd given up after tirelessly searching for an occupation more to my personal and financial liking. On that night in Pattaya I thought about the last meal I spent with my former colleagues, and how we had turned the company's kitchen into a red and green haven best suited for elves and holiday dwellers. A pot luck luncheon full of tables adorned with pumpkin pies, savory casseroles, and cookiescookiescookies. All I could imagine people were eating for the winter times - warm, homey, comfort food. We left all of it behind when we stepped onto the pavement of Pattaya, and welcomed with open arms the cozy warmth of tropical sunlight.

The heat of the day, having subsided, left the warmth of soupiness in the air, offset with a mild breeze coming off the water of the bay. Chris and I, alone on our first adventure there, and acting as sidekicks, meandered through the outer crust of the town streets. The closer we came to the action, the more the air became filled with the smell of taxis, or Baht Buses, as they're called. All lined up ready for the night of work ahead of them, catering to the vehicle-less patrons ahead.

A Baht Bus: Picture a pickup truck, beat to shit by a Pennsyltucky good ol' boy, and given shoddy seating in the bed. Attach to it a slightly open aired cage of metal structuring allowing minimal passenger protection, and you've got yourself one of Thailand's most popular forms of transpo- the Baht Bus. The Baht, of course, comes from the name of the Thai currency. The trick, and part of the adventure in riding in one of these vehicles, is the negotiation of tender. There is no flat rate on a Baht Bus. No meter. Only a driver speaking in varying fractions of Thai/English sentences while debating with an unknowing American about a formidable price for shelling out the bumpiest ride imaginable. Before they even enter the bed of the vehicle, it's the rider's job to propose a price they're willing to pay. Then the driver will counter offer with higher price, usually much higher than the would-be passenger is willing to agree upon immediately. Sometimes the two sides will argue according to the number of passengers, and sometimes there will be more than one party of passengers at stake. There are several variables, but one thing became certain after my first Baht Bus experience with Vera, Chris' Mom. Bargain. Bargain your ass off. Stand your ground. They will do their job, and argue with their best interest in mind. They'll make every attempt to upsell you and raise the price. But this ain't no episode of The Price is Right. The audience won't help you, and your wallet IS at stake. Never agree with the number they utter right off the bat. They want your money just as much as your drunk ass needs a ride. It's an unnerving experience at first to have to bargain. I don't think we're used to it, as Americans. Not on the scale of how much bargaining there exists in Thailand, at least. If you're a foreigner, you are upselled, without question. But with that healthy portion of American ego I was dealt from the get go, I have no qualms about speaking up. Just so's ya know.

We made our way down Ocean Drive, moseying parallel to the bay. Everywhere were the bright lights of bars, clubs, discotheques, and establishments that, if considered in any other country, were of questionable legality. Being amongst the crowd of locals and tourists, and in such abundance, forced our walk to seem more like moving as sheep in a flock. We moved in subtle unison and meekly made our way out of the pack several times to stop and oogle at sidewalk merchandise or have a cheap lager at a bar (it seems that lighter beer is all they imbibe, apparently). Eventually we came to the strip that all the hubbub was said to have taken place - Walking Street.

It has something for everyone, which seems like a vague description, but it's as accurate a statement as any. Whether you had planned on buying a postcard, a plate of fried rice, or some sex, this was the place to do one (or all) of those things. Now this is not to say that I come from a family modeling itself after the Waltons, but it's a bit eye popping to see, for the first time, a woman openly selling her body to a stranger. Woman...probably still a girl. I give her that title only based on her experiences and heavy makeup, that of which has only been remotely comparable to my 8th grade homeroom teacher.

We hadn't really meant to stop, but the hapless herd of bodies had allowed us to take in an extended viewing of a building on our left lit almost solely in red neon. It appeared like a cheap hotel plucked straight off the strip at the Jersey Shore. The kind of place that's your last resort when the Holiday Inn and DoubleTree are all booked. Maybe even then you might just drive home rather than stay a night in that hellhole. In the center of the second floor had attached to in a cascading staircase that led directly to the spot on the street where Chris and I were standing. Lining each side of the widened staircase were the petite and perfectly situated bodies of Thai women, all dressed in their apparent uniforms: a skimpy red party dress. There they were, every other step or so, posing in mirrored images of each other, eerily alike, yet all beautiful.

I turned to Chris, "What the hell is that place? A Thai funhouse of horrors?" Without even missing a beat, he pointed to a middle aged European man wearing a cheap suit that was approaching the staircase. "Look, you see?", Chris asked. The man began his ascent and carefully looked up and down each side, as if appraising the selection in the supermarket cereal aisle. He stopped, took one by the arm, and led her up the stairs, through a door, and out of our sight. "He was shopping for the right one. Apparently, she was his choice of the evening." I'm fairly certain that my jaw was planted firmly on the ground. Although I shouldn't have been at all shocked, I found my provincial, Puritan roots a bit overcome by the shamelessness of it all. We as Americans hide this blatant form of sexual exploitation, but in Thailand, it's in the open, for all to see.

The spirituality of the trip had all but lost me on that evening, and made way for a new kaleidoscopic view of the people and their trades of the night. No longer on the forefront of my mind was the Golden Buddha we had laid eyes earlier that day, but the young woman, who'd never laid eyes upon the man whom she was about to conduct the most obvious of transactions. The very thought of what transpired in her mind as she left the staircase to follow a stranger into a dark room left me speechless for a few minutes. I found myself unable to hold steady conversation about any of the spectacles we would see for several street blocks to come. Another thought seeped it's way into my mind as well: I bet, silently to myself, that that girl could make enough Baht in one night to support an entire family for a month.

We strayed from Walking Street to take in our first Mai Thai boxing tournament, and we did so while sitting at a collection of bars designed to surround the ring. We watched, we laughed, we played Connect Four in between fights, and we drank the cheapest beer we'd ever drink.

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Location: Walking Street, Pattaya; Status: Feeling somewhat dirty, intoxicated, and yet intrigued.

We actually spent a good portion of the first morning during our stay walking from atop the hill of Berne and Vera's condo, down towards the town center of Pattaya. It being pleasantly scorch-worthy, we ignored what our skin told us was so, and went on our way - drunk with curiosity. Wendy, in all her adorable glory, had arrived a day ahead of us, having made the journey from Virginia alone. She seems to be at the head of the pack of the four of us - leading us down the hilltop path with the youthful verve of a newly appointed company leader. Every step behind us and in front, we stared ahead at the green-blue bowl of Pattaya punch. The bay of Pattaya City, seemingly clear from afar, appeared more like a tropical version of the Schuylkill River, injected with Frost Gatorade and transported to our new locale overnight.

I still had trouble believing I was here, and until I started to sweat through my clothing at 8 in the morning while downing my first authentically made fried rice for breakfast, my body still felt like it was on the plane. The first glimpse of city given to us boasted all the commerce of a recently abandoned ghosttown. The nightlife of the city was what we would come to know and love/not feel quite comfortable in. A feast for the eyes and ears to say the least. More on that later.

On this morning, our legs carried us into a city the size of Philadelphia, maybe bigger, and certainly much denser. And we had arrived at the ocean side, retail-influenced sector of this new place. But where the hell were the people? The walkway towards everything was paved with the remnants of every past evenings' goings-on, but with a lack of life walking among it. Slowly, we saw shopkeepers opening their corner stores, and carts lined with fresh fruit and sticks of slow-cooked meat being pushed to their street corner destinations by the collective of older Thai women much past the brink of the American stereotypical age of retirement. (Warning: long sentences.)

It wasn't after much hungered debate that we all decided to venture towards one of these carts, off in an alley among the slowly waking city. We sat down on plastic chairs encircling what was perhaps once a suitable table to eat from, and listened to the women, our hostesses, cackling away at rapid speed the menu, and what was what. Tell you the truth, the food in those large pans was hardly discernible from Purina dog chow slow cooked in a curry, but I was in no shape to be picky. I had just spent more than a day's travel on United Airlines' cuisine from hell, and besides, THIS IS the experience. Exactly! I'd just spent a day on a plane, and I wanted nothing more than to taste and savor the down home (corner cart) culinary traditions of these seasoned Thai women. The only moment of pause I had about digging in, in fact, was the meat content. I'd traveled to this haven of glorious food (cue the orphanage song from Oliver) as a vegetarian, and would likely remain so during my visit.

In choosing, Chris and I ordered just what we wanted - I played it a bit safe with a few fried eggs and jasmine rice, while he took a gamble and had a dish of an incredibly hot lamb curry with rice at 8:30 in the morning. There's really nothing more amusing than watching a grown man sweat his brains out and run to the nearest corner store for a bottle of whole milk to help the pain of curry subside.

The four of us took photos and gawked a bit at the miniature temples planted side by side to a bar, and eyed up the locals with unbridled curiosity. It was difficult not to look like the outsiders. Wandering about in our western clothes, our pale skin quickly turning to light shades of pink and red, and armed with our cameras, we had no choice but to look the part, and own it. Yet any notions I'd had prior about feeling the stares and glares from the native people as they watch us watch them was quickly squashed upon finishing that first meal. By the time we had gotten up and began roaming was about the time that the city began waking up, and commerce proceeded to engulf us.

The faces we started to see looking back at us were not at all focused on our shoulder bags and bottled water, or our pointing fingers and dropped jaws. They looked at us square in the eyes and used our language in their country. Greetings like, "Hello", and "How are you?" were heard from every smiling face we passed. I'd heard that Thailand was the "land of a thousand smiles", but I hadn't realized that I'd be nearing that number on day one!

Perhaps my naive attitude shown through my youth was getting the best of me, because I had a difficult time seeing this place through the eyes of what I know deep down to be true. I know what our presence might mean to the simple Thai man or woman. Through and through. We equal revenue to them. We are bringing money into their lives, jamming it into their pockets, and slipping it into the occasional g-string. We help feed their economy. But I couldn't help but let their positivity on that morning infect my mood. I see a smile and I return it. For me, it's contagious...much like seeing someone yawn. Next thing I know, I'm yawing back at them.

Forgive me for going on about the smaller hints of remembrances of my trip. I find myself dreaming about being back there, right in the middle of Pattaya, or on beautiful Koh Larn, or in the jungle of Koh Chang, or the clustered and frightening streets of Bangkok. As mezmorizing as the entire trip was, I feel like the lessons learned are still metastasizing in my mind, forever gelling themselves to my outlook on everyday western life. The single experiences are in and out of the forefront, and I'll do my best to shine light on those when I can, but the feelings they left have lingered. They are why I keep writing, as infrequent as the writing may be.

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Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Cultural shock, my ass...this is a complete upheaval of the senses.

The following is the beginning of a collection of posts, hopefully posted in a timely manner. It follows the two weeks that Christopher and I spent in Thailand last Christmas - 2007. This is my first entry - enjoy!

Traveling to Thailand for Christmas vacation has been, so far, one of the great experiences of my life. Not only has the secular and spiritual part of this holiday been completely obliterated, it being a Buddhist nation, but the grandeur of beauty and historical importance of this country leaves me in utter awe. I find that my eyes and ears overflow with the splendorous allure of cultural differences, so much that I'm at a loss to find the proper words to describe how I feel about this country. I'm left with only tidbits of recollections from each place we visit, and each person we meet. I can only write what I've seen, with the hope that it will evoke a definite feeling later.

Arriving at four in the morning last Monday after three plane rides totaling a day's travel, Chris and I fell asleep quite soundly and without a problem. We woke early to the sound and smell of unfamiliarity, only to regret that the night wasn't longer. We suddenly belonged nowhere, strangers in a strange land. Awaking in a new place is always a bit alarming at first. The feel of the bed, the angle at which you're used to seeing the first light of a new day, the smell and taste of the first big gulp of air as you come to consciousness. The immediate ease we felt was due in part to the security and comfort of our accommodations, and more specifically, our hosts: Chris's parentals - who we hadn't laid eyes on in the five months since they'd moved there. A brief visit with his family - Mom, Dad, and Wendy, his sister - and we were out the door -travelling literally up the street to the Temple of the Golden Buddha. It just so happens that the city Chris's parents are living in for the next year and a half, Pattaya, has a temple located conveniently nearby that houses a ginormously large Golden Buddha statue in meditation pozish. Native Buddhists, locals, and farangs alike converge to take a peek, pay their respects, catch a glimpse of the monk that waits in the wings for the next parishioner making their way towards the enclosed shrine-like temple located adjacent to the statue.

Looking back to this morning, it was the first of many that included the witnessing of Buddhist tradition, prayer, and very noticeably, the first sighting of many - countless, in fact - statues of the Buddha. All the many likenesses in statue, painting, paperweight, postcard, and keychain form are in more abundance in Thailand than I ever could have imagined. And in an admirable, not annoying, way. The Buddha is everywhere. He is in peoples' homes, in their temples and holy grounds. He is in markets, convenience stores, businesses, bars, and front yards. His image and meaning are honored in every way, and the mere image is only where it begins.

But, I'm branching out a bit here.

That morning, our first in that foreign land, was spent in part daze from jet lag, and part awe of the visual spectacle that awaited as soon as we opened our eyes. Over the next two weeks, we witnessed quite a barrage of sights and sounds on such a level of incomparable galore. But that morning, seeing the Buddha depicted in Thailand for the very first time, stands erect in my memory and has since made landmark there. As we walked throughout the grounds, the five of us would scatter a bit, letting the newness take us where it would. I walked immediately towards a small, yet open-aired, teahouse inspired one room enclosure containing a shrine of statues and relics in the rear. The window along the back seemed to faintly illuminate the statues, and I almost became too entranced by their gaining brilliance to notice the Siamese cat sprawled out catching some shut eye on the floor beneath them. How poetic! I couldn't have written the damn cat into my story better if it hadn't really taken place - it was very appropriate for the setting. After a few photo-ops and some subtle gawking, a Thai woman approached the kneeling pillow and took advantage of it. She began to pray. I backed away, not quite sure of the etiquette involved in bearing witness to it all. As I reached the threshold where I began, the Man-in-Orange appeared out of nowhere and sat himself on the stoop above the praying woman and began an almost silent dialogue with her. That was the first moment I'd ever laid eyes upon a Buddhist monk.

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Although I stood a distance away, I caught a healthy glimpse; he was every bit the bald man in a drape that I've seen in pictures, and even more humble than I could have imagined. In a few swift movements, he shook the small broom-like brush full of holy water towards the woman, and upon fulfulling his duty of blessing her, picked himself up and exited the room. I almost wanted to cry at the sight, but my mood had become more a flicker of awe and wonder. I was still sleepy, a bit in and out of alertness; but simply witnessing this transaction awakened me from my acute open-eyed slumber. Eyes and ears open, I was ready for more.

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Moving in and out of the sunlight from room to room, the air was calm and welcoming, although a bit warm for morning. This is their cool season, reaching only into the 90-95 degree range (Farenheit) on the hottest of days. I remember now that we only experienced one kind of climate and weather type during our visit: warm and sunny, just cool enough in the shade. No rain.

The top of an elongated staircase made way to an outdoor gallery, at the very top of Pratamnak Hill, lined with extensive gardens and small praying rooms. Front and center sat the statue of the Golden Buddha, in meditation position. Flanking this centerpiece is a lineup of a smaller variety of depictions of the Buddha in seated, standing, and reclined position. In front of all these statues sat the remnants of recently burned candles, broken plant stalks and flowers, only humbly disrupted by the burning of more candles and the addition of more flowers by the occasional passerby yearning to pay respect to their deity.

Chris and I walked among the statues, occasionally meeting each other's eyes, and at times, only caught glimpses of each other's profile in our peripherals. It was really to be taken in, not gawked at, talked about, or trivialized with banter. We'd smile at each other, stare open mouthed to certain sights, and a few times we'd laugh at the playfulness of a Thai child or stray animal roaming around the grounds with the same fleeting nonchalance as us. We had left Philadelphia 24 hours before, and had arrived in another culture, and with that, another planet of thought and priority. We had nowhere to be but where our eyes took us. Waking up, going to work, coming home, and repeating the process was a thing unrecognized for the next 2 weeks, and maybe never looked at quite the same again.

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Friday, February 8, 2008

To the possibly homeless and hungry gentleman at Taco Bell...

Maybe you weren't homeless. Maybe I'm making a prejudicial mistake. But you certainly appeared it, and hungry to boot. It was one chilly evening last week, and perhaps you had your heart set on a cheesy bean and rice burrito, as did I.

As I approached the entrance, you stood like a guard at the door of Taco Bell, waiting for as cheerful a face as your own. You said, "Hello, Miss. Good Evening.", as I passed by, but I didn't breathe a word. I merely took a swift glance and smiled briefly. I've been greeted with such utterances many times in the city, and more often than not I've given a more than average charitable donation to a person in need. On that night, however, I put my blinders up and trudged through the wind that shimmied unsteadily alongside the building.

As I returned with my feedbag of not-even-close-to-Mexican fare, you remained stationed at your post, with a few possessions surrounding you. Once again, you greeted me. "Have a good night, Miss." I managed this time to smile as broadly as I could while a shudder of guilt waved through my bones. "You too, Sir." was all I could muster. I didn't open my wallet that night and dispense what I very well could have. And although I never truly know where the money would have ended up had I given you some, whether that be in the hands of a grocer or the hands of the local pub keeper, my suspicion and cynicism took over that night.

I'm sorry, Sir. My heart goes out to you, even when my wallet-induced instincts do not.



P.S. If I do happen to see you there again, I'll certainly make an attempt to make it up to you with perhaps a quesadilla.