Tuesday, September 2, 2008

This Is It

So I've been very sick the past week or so, with insane sinus pressure, a very sore throat, and lots of coughing. Today I finally feel better, but I leave Thailand tomorrow morning, very early. I feel sad to leave. After the past few weeks, which were slightly crazy, I thought I'd be ready to come home. But today on the boat, walking through the streets, smelling all the food, and yes, even seeing that dead dog in a cart, I felt regretful that I have to go. Despite all the things about Thailand that are exhausting and annoying, I love it here. People are so friendly, the food is so fresh and everywhere, the weather is--well, really hot, but--intense, and so on.

I will be back for sure, but I know I'll have some culture shock readjusting to life in the U.S. again. As Owen said, everything is a little more dull in the States. It would also feel different if I felt like I actually had a home to return to. Before I came to Thailand I moved out of my apartment, so I'm going back to where Andrew lives in Lincoln Heights, Los Angeles. Better than--and not as dull as--Riverside, but is it home yet? Not really. I guess I can wander through Thai Town when I'm feeling lonely for the odor of fish sauce and when I want to see people wai a shrine. But it won't be the same.

Friday, August 29, 2008


These past few days I've been reestablishing myself in Bangkok, trying to figure out what to do, where to go, how to get over this sickness. I've developed a strange routine that involves an expensive mall, lots of air-conditioning, and an occasional trip up the river. These things I know how to do. I know how to take the Skytrain to Siam Paragon for an expensive lunch or to see a movie or to hang out in the bookstore. I know how to reboard the Skytrain to go to the river, where I can take the boat for 17 baht either to the backpacker ghetto (which I am so sick of) for cheap food or to one of the pretty sites along the river.

Today I hung out in the hostel for awhile and read, after eating my free breakfast of watermelon (daeng mo), pineapple (sapbarot), and bread (kanom-pan). I finished the Hemingway last night, so I begrudgingly picked up the Dickens' that I've been trying to make it through for the past few weeks. When I first got here I was tearing through books. 600 pages? No problem. Give me four days, max. This Dickens' book is about 750 pages of tiny print. Not only that; it's Dickens. Which means that, yes, there's humor. Yes, there's social commentary. But my god! Why spend page after page on so much character development! Come on, Dickens! I know she's innocent! I know he's shady. Let's get on with the narrative! Bleak House is its name, in case you're itching to go read it.

I left the hostel to return to MBK, a big shopping center/mall thing with everything you could ever not want and then some. Yesterday I had bought an iPod charger, against my better judgment, and of course it doesn't work. So today I thought I might be able to at least try to get my money back. Well, after walking around the maze that is MBK I finally found the place where I bought the charger and the woman played double dumb. Yesterday her English was pretty good, today when I asked her "Pud pasa angrit dai mai ka?" she responded "Mai dai." Nope. No English. I tried to explain that the charger I bought from her yesterday didn't work. She told me that I didn't buy it from her. Nope. She doesn't sell that kind, she said. It was clear to me that yes, she did sell that kind, in fact, her hand writing was the same on all the stickers on all the (most likely defunct) electronic chargers, including mine. Trying to maintain Face (critical in Thai society) and to have a mai bpen rai attitude, I smiled and walked away defeated.

Grumbling along, I decided to walk over to the REALLY fancy mall, Siam Paragon, to waste some time. I thought maybe I'd go see a movie, but there wasn't anything playing that I wanted to see. So I just sat on a chair on the fifth level, watching movie previews and staring at the wall. It felt pretty good.

I got back in the Skytrain and decided to go to the river to catch the boat to go see Wat Arun, one of the oldest Buddhist temples in Bangkok. It's really pretty, and cool because it doesn't have the sort of opulence that Wat Pho and the Royal Palace have. For decoration there are ceramic plates in the shape of flowers. The Buddha images are not super fancy. Plus, you have to walk up really steep staircases to climb up on the stupa (a.k.a. jedi, pagoda). Everywhere I turned, however, there were Japanese or Italian tourists blocking my path, snapping photos of one another without actually looking at their surroundings. I have a lot of venting to do about the world's tourists, as I'm sure you've read, and this just continued to annoy me as I tried to circumambulate the area.

I got back on the boat and decided to head back the way I came, toward the Catholic cathedral, Assumption. I got there about 15 minutes before the evening mass started, so I sat in a pew by myself in the back to watch how Thai people enact their Catholicness. There were a few Westerners who came in for the mass, but not many because it was in Thai. The Westerners bow on one knee when they see the altar, whereas Thai people put their hands together and wai the altar. During the service when we're instructed to greet each other, rather than handshakes everybody looked around the room and wai'ed each other. I really liked that. You don't have to talk to each other, you don't have to shake hands awkwardly, or, if in the Unity Church give each other big stranger hugs, you just silently acknowledge each other with a wai. I like it.

The church was beautiful. There was no choir, but a lone woman in the front had a microphone and sang acappella so beautifully that I couldn't help crying like a baby. It was one of the prettiest things I've ever heard. I think the songs were traditional Catholic hymns translated into Thai, but the way she sang them was heartbreaking. I have to admit that no matter how incredible a Buddhist temple is, a Catholic cathedral always trumps it for me. It's probably personal and cultural associations, but the buildings themselves are almost enough to make anyone a believer.

I'm not sure what me retelling my day has to do with routinzation. I guess I just feel like sharing these simple experiences with someone. Being alone is a really interesting experience, especially when you're alone in a place that isn't your home. I wonder who people think I am from a distance, when I sit alone in the Skytrain and watch the advertisements for pizza and Bergamot. If I were with someone else I wouldn't wonder so much. But as it is now, it's just me, hoping I'm making the most of this.

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Scholastic Progress?

This has been a strange summer. I'm in Thailand for scholarly purposes. The first six weeks I was here to learn Thai and Pali, living near the monks at Mahidol, Salaya, learning about Thai culture, primarily as it relates to Theravada Buddhism. The next couple weeks were mine to spend how I wanted, and I chose to go to Hanoi in part to renew my visa and in part because I've always wanted to see Vietnam. Next, Owen came to Thailand and we headed down toward the ocean to spend a relaxing week or so swimming in the gulf and riding a dirt bike around the island. As you know, the relaxing week was prefaced by a not-so-relaxing train wreck, though when we actually got to the island the weather, water, and everything was perfect. Now that my skin is peeling and I'm coughing the Bangkok Cough, I'm supposed to be back to my scholastic endeavors, but I feel sort of lost. I had planned on researching Thai temple festivals when I got here, looking at how absurdity and humor play into these annual celebrations. However, in the "rainy" season (I only say that in quotes because it's rained less these past two months than it did during the six weeks I was in Thailand for the "dry" season six years ago) they do not hold annual temple festivals, so there are no performances to observe. If tomorrow is Friday, which I think it is, I'm planning on attending a comedic play at Chulalongkorn University to see how Thai humor is expressed visually, since my language skills aren't quite advanced enough for me to see how it is expressed verbally. But I'm not sure what this will have to do with my research intentions.

So I'm thinking about going back to my original plan, which was to do a mini-ethnography of the Catholic Church here in Bangkok. I've been told by several Thais, that Thai identity is shaped by language, Buddhism, and the king. It is interesting to me to see how Thai identity can be maintained without one of those three elements. Does the lack of Thai language skills make someone less Thai? What about being a Christian, or disloyalty to the royal family? I read about a union organizer in Bangkok who was fired because she protested the law that everyone must stand when the tribute to the king is played in movie theaters. The company that fired her was afraid that she would give them a bad name. I think I'll try to visit some of the cathedrals in town and start to hopefully talk with some people. Also, I should visit the Seventh Day Adventist Church here, to continue my research from last quarter, but I'm not sure I want to. I really liked the people I met in Redlands, so maybe it will be a good opportunity to see how it's done here.

Anyway, I'm still trying to get over this sickness, so I don't feel guilty for spending extra time on the internet, for watching The Hills at the hostel, or for reading the Hemingway that someone left behind at the hostel. I feel I deserve a few days of relaxation and comfort, time to let myself process the last two months, which feel to me like several tiny little lifetimes stacked on top of one another with little coherence between them except this same pair of eyes taking in and digesting what I can, and letting the rest slide away or lie dormant in my mind until something in the future decides to conjure them up.

The Hills

Since I've been feeling sort of sick lately I decided to take it easy last night and watch movies on the hostel's communal television. First I watched Best in Show, followed by the Princess Bride, which brought out an international contingent of fans from every crevice of the hostel. Apparently Inigo Montoya's vow to avenge his father's death is known and loved across the world. After the Princess Bride two Australian women, who work as tour guides throughout Asia, confessed to me that they had just purchased bootleg copies of the Hills from Sukhumvit. The students that I've taught at UCR all enjoy watching the Hills and I've always sort of wondered if it's really as bad as I imagined it would be. It is! In fact, it's worse! I love it! It may seem sort of masochistic to enjoy watching untalented, stinking-rich 19 year olds snag highly-prized jobs in Los Angeles, but instead it's pleasurable. It just sort of reaffirms the fact that life doesn't make sense, the good are not rewarded, the meek shall not inherit, etc. etc., and all that's okay. Justice is a fantasy, whereas the Hills is Reality, in its most artificial incarnation. Yeah, it's totally PoMo.

Tonight we're going to watch a couple more episodes. Maybe I'll pop open the bottle of Japan Airlines' wine that Owen left here and the three of us will all happily toast the lives we'll never lead, represented by the shimmering blondes of the Hills. And, of course, under my breath I'll utter a second toast to train wrecks.

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Train Wreck, part 2

When I got off the train I felt sort of guilty for not trying to help other people. Owen was still in the train, as were most of the other passengers. I learned, through another little catastrophe I experienced a few years ago, that while Fight or Flight are commonly thought of as the two responses to trauma, Freeze is an equally important third reaction. For some reason my brain kicked in the Flight response, while many people on the train were stuck in a Freeze daze. As I watched the diesel pour out of the tank and onto the ground I got more and more nervous that there could be a fire, and at worst an explosion. Finally more passengers came out of the train. The train conductor was holding the door open at that point, making it easier for people to push their way out.

When Owen got out we examined the tracks, the torn-up earth, and the debris, to try and determine what has caused the derailing. In some places the tracks were bent and warped, wavy almost. I assumed the tracks had been laid down incorrectly, which had caused our little train to crash to the ground. Up the tracks a little way a large crowd of people had gathered where there was a road. After debating whether or not to walk around the train and try to keep following the tracks toward Chumphon, Owen and I decided instead to go toward the crowd of people. Maybe they could help us figure out what to do next. As we walked down the tracks there were individual cards from a deck of cards. I picked up the joker, nervously laughing that it would be a good memento of the fact that I had just survived a train wreck. A train wreck! We had just survived a train wreck.

We began to approach the crowd when we realized the true cause of our derailment. A mangled car, really just a mass of twisted metal, was laying in a heap on the side of the tracks. We had hit a car or truck. A group of people knelt on the ground, and I assumed they were helping someone who had been in the truck. A man's legs hung out of a window. They weren't bloody or dismembered in any way. But they were already showing the gray hue that indicated the person they belonged to was no longer alive. Out of another window hung a man's torso. Likewise, his skin had already begun to turn a different color. Neither man was bloody or bruised, just dusty. We continued walking. As we walked past stray items that had flown out of the car on impact--clothing, bottles--Owen turned to me and said "That joker card came from the truck. That deck of cards was in the truck."

We stood by the side of the road for awhile, with townspeople and other train passengers, not sure what to do next. I felt parched, as though I hadn't had a drink of water in months. I don't know if it's a common reaction for people to feel thirsty after fearing for their lives, but it felt like I'd been walking through the desert. I also had a bitter taste in my mouth that began the moment the train struck the truck, a taste that I can only compare to battery acid; a taste that still lingers in my mouth today, almost exactly one week later.

We figured that the tracks were bent not because the State Railway of Thailand sloppily laid down tracks, but because our train had bent them in its swaying and collapse. We could see, from where the truck was, that our train had dragged for quite awhile on the ground after hitting the truck. It seemed to happen quickly, but we must have been on our side for quite awhile before the train finally gathered enough earth underneath it to stop its velocity.

Slowly people arrived with bottles of water. I felt so thankful when townsperson after townsperson offered us bottles of water. Owen and I tried to find shade to stand in and watched as the emergency workers showed up. I don't know exactly what happened at the truck in that next hour or so. I don't know if they had to cut into the car to try and free people, but I think I heard the sound of a chainsaw or some sort of power equipment. As we stood waiting for a way out of the town, we watched the workers bring in three bodies, wrapped in white sheets and cradled as though in hammocks. The bodies were rushed toward the truck. There didn't seem to be any family members nearby, or if they were nearby they were incredibly quiet and reserved. Death is a strange thing to see in front of you. It happened so quickly. In an instant, I imagine. And these three men were gone from the world, just like that. So fragile.

I've been trying to figure out how exactly the accident happened. I imagine that the driver of the truck just didn't look before crossing the tracks. Maybe there was loud music playing in the truck, or maybe he got the timing wrong. But I do know that there was no honking of the train horn, no screeching of the brakes, just a sudden intense boom, hard enough to knock over a train, and then the dusty silence of what comes after.

Everyone in the train was more or less okay. The baby in the back of of the train car sat quietly in his grandmother's arms while we waited to be taken to our next destinations after a townsperson arranged a bus to take us to the next train station. Some of the tourists were crying, shaking, and calling home. They took us away from the scene in the back of pickup trucks, crammed in tightly so that the sweat was pouring from one person to the next. I felt the bruises on my arm and legs, and the Irish girl whose knees touched mine in the truck had scrapes on her shins from leaping to the ground as soon as the train started to fall. Like me, her Flight impulse prompted her to run out of the train as quickly as possible.

Owen left this morning, but for the rest of our trip when we'd have a beer we'd toast to train wrecks. And now I think about the people who died so quickly that day, wondering what their families are doing, wondering how the town is recovering. I wonder what the State Railway of Thailand, who released absolutely no statement to the press about the train wreck, did with our crashed train cars, how they fixed the bent tracks, whether or not they smoothed out the soil that our train dragged for a couple hundred meters. I will never know any of these things, so I'm just sitting here in Bangkok, fighting my new sickness and wondering when the taste of battery acid will leave my mouth.

But we're alive. My fragile life and Owen's fragile life are preserved a bit longer. I want this experience to change me, to help me focus, to motivate me to live my life fully as possible. I'm not sure that it will, at least not on its own. But I guess I can try to use it as inspiration to change, as an excuse to focus, as a reason to be motivated.

By the way, as soon as I could I got rid of that joker card. I crumpled it up and threw it in a trashcan in the little town north of Chumphon and south of Bangkok that will be imprinted in my memory for the rest of my life.

Monday, August 25, 2008

Train Wreck? Really?

I haven't posted in almost two weeks and there's a lot to write about. Unfortunately I've come down with some sort of wicked cold/cough/sore throat, so I'm not sure how long I'll last at this computer before I need to go have a coughing fit somewhere private.

The day after I got back from Vietnam I met Owen at the Bangkok airport. The next day we walked around Bangkok, exploring Chinatown and taking the boat up the river to see Wat Pho and the backpacker ghetto, eating lots of good snacks along the way. We went to sleep early to prepare for our train ride to Chumphon the next day, and what a train ride it was.

Our train left Hua Lumphong station at around 8:00 am. It was pretty much on time, which, as I found out on our way back to Bangkok, isn't always normal. Also, it was a small train. I had been prepared for a long train with dining car, sinks, etc., but this train had only two identical cars. Owen and I were in seats 9 and 10 in the first car.

The train rattled through central Thailand for awhile. The sights were nice--rice paddies, water buffalo, banana trees--and eventually the entire train filled up with people. There was a baby who kept crying in the back. I played peek-a-boo with a little boy two seats in front of me. The French couple to my left bundled on their clothing because the combination of air-conditioning and fans made the climate inside the train brisk, to say the least. The little boy I played peek-a-boo with left the train with his mother and his little sister. The train continued on.

I like to brag about my neck pillow to people, because it was overpriced and I want to get every cent out of it, and because it's a really great neck pillow and has helped me sleep in all sorts of situations. I loaned Owen this neck pillow while I sat day-dreaming in my seat. Everything was quiet. Calm. Peaceful. The train moved along on the tracks. The world passed by us in streaks of green out the window.

Suddenly there was a loud bang, almost a boom, from the front of the train. The train began swaying side to side and everyone around me started looking panicked. For some reason I have a vivid memory of seeing the train conductor's face looking at me in fear, but there's no reason to have that memory. He was up front in his driver's seat. I was in my own seat. At least, until the train fell off the tracks. After swaying from side to side the train fell all the way over, onto the other side from where we were sitting. I couldn't hold myself up so I fell with the train, hitting the ground under the seats of the people on the other side of the train, who were now below me. Boxes and bags began falling and, as I wondered if this was possibly the end of my life, I thought enough to cover my head so that anything that fell on me at least wouldn't crack my skull.

After dragging through the dirt on its side for quite some time. The train stopped. And it was suddenly hot. The lack of air-con made the train, surrounded by the soil it dragged with it, stuffier, almost dusty seeming. Everyone sat for several moments, not knowing what to do. I began to get up, telling Owen we should get out of the train, trying to find my shoes, shaking. And, because my bladder was full, I had peed a little. Yep. Get in a train wreck and you just might pee your pants. I'm just glad I wasn't in the bathroom when the train derailed.

The conductor came into the train looked at us, and motioned for us all to get up and get out of there. He was urgent. I don't remember if he was yelling at us in English or Thai, but as everyone sat there dazed, I knew that we needed to get out. Owen saw his bag across the way. I couldn't find mine and was struggling to walk in the sideways train, barefoot, looking for my shoes. I grabbed my purse. I found my shoes and strapped them onto my feet. Owen spotted my bag at the front of the train, behind a man and a woman who were just sitting there on the side, stunned. I asked in Thai, which was suddenly very clear to me, for the people to hand me my backpack. Kaw grapow mai ka? Breathing felt strange. The air felt strange. Everything seemed so quiet. And dusty. I carried my backpack and my purse to the front of the train and shoved the door as hard as I could. Because the train was sideways, gravity was working against me with the door. But I pushed it open and walked out of the train. People from the other train car, which hadn't slid, but just fell over after our car crashed, were leaving their car.

There's a lot more to this story, but I have to go back to my hotel and check out. I'll try to post more later.

Friday, August 15, 2008

Why Leave Your Country?

This is a question that I want to ask the hundreds of backpackers from Europe, North America, and Australia who go from hostel to hostel, drinking absurd amounts of beer, only mingling with one another, and eating Western food for every meal. I am staying in the Hanoi Backpacker's Hostel, which is cheap, comparitively, at 125,000 VND per dorm bed (about $7.25), and the way people travel at these hostels is sickening. They have no respect for local norms and etiquette, they are afraid to try local food, and they are generally ignorant of pretty much everything outside of the Lonely Planet guidebook and what their Australian hostel owners tell them.

Yes, I'm being harsh. But I'm sick of it. When I tell other westerners that I'm from the U.S. they get this look on their faces like I'm evil, when they're the ones dressing completely inappropriately, yelling drunkenly down the street, and slugging bottles and bottles of booze without any respect for how people actually live in the country that they're actually in. This is not Disney World! This is not an amusement park designed for Western consumption, though so many treat it this way. I'm repulsed. I'm repulsed by the Canadians who sew the Canadian flag patches on their North Face backpacks so that people don't mistake them for Americans, even though they're the ones behaving completely horribly abroad. I am repulsed by the British people who only visit British/Irish pubs in Vietnam. And I would be repulsed by the Americans, except for the fact that there are so few of us traveling these days, with the plummeting value of the dollar and the fear our government has instilled in us. But I would like to hold up a mirror to all these non-American Western others to show them the ugly ugly faces they display to Southeast Asia. It's disgusting. And it's across the board. I've witnessed rude Spanish people, offensive Brits, obnoxious Australians, scantily clad Canadians, oblivious French, and Dutch people who refuse to eat anything remotely associated with Asia.

Why leave your country? Just sit in your living room with a group of international students (meaning those from Europe and N. America) from your local university, turn the heat way up so your face gets glossy the way it does here, and drink yourselves into stupidity. You can play the same bad Western music, eat the same boring Western food, and pretend you're so so worldly. Just don't expose the rest of the world to your inconsiderate antics and nauseatingly oblivious behavior. It makes us all look bad.