Published: November 21st 2006November 21st 2006
At Home With the Tigers:
A little less than a football-field's length away from where I sleep each night, there sleep over 400 tigers. That's kind of cool to say, but if I don't pay to go into the zoo, I don't see or hear anything from them.
I do have some awesome Tiger statues looming over the place where the Sangthaew drop me off. I also did hear one cool story from Chelly in which one of the younger tigers escaped the other day and ran around chasing frightened Korean tourists. He was really just trying to get back to his surrogate brothers: a big fat farm pig and a cocker spaniel. We laughed. Going to Bed Early and Sleeping All Day:
The girls have to get up for work pretty early each morning, so we usually go to bed early as well. I have little choice in the matter, since sharing a one-room apartment necessitates that I tuck-in when the light goes out, whether I'm ready for bed or not. However, when the girls get up for work in the morning, I don't have to. Thusly, I have enjoyed
some of the best long sleeps of my life here. This encourages me to sleep further, whenever I have the opportunity: whether it be night, morning, mid-afternoon, or in the middle of dinner. Living With African Women:
Sometimes, in the early morning, I awake thoroughly convinced that I am somewhere in Africa, and not--in fact--in the middle of Southeast Asia.
This is the consequence of living with African women. Rattled-off bits of Swahili fly across the room. Beautifully printed scarves and wraps hang from the porch and the clothes-racks. African hip-hop love songs wake me up in the AM or greet me when I return home in the PM. Luscious chocolate flesh is often bared. (For the record, "chocolate," is the color that Chelly tells me Kenyan skin comes in.)
I enjoy it. It makes me feel comfortable and happy. Even if I don't turn out to enjoy living in Africa, I think I'll always want to live with African women. Music:
I'm on a steady diet of Carabao, Bob Marley's "Legend" (which is played everywhere), Shakira albums, African hip-hop hits,
and assorted R+B love songs.
Oh yeah, plus I bought an awesome Iron Maiden DVD. They're Ripping Up Our Backyard:
For the record, our backyard is a concrete parking lot, used mostly by tour buses while they wait for their cargo to finish seeing all the shows at the zoo, but occasionally used by truckers who need to take a nap.
Right, now, however, our backyard has become a post-apocalyptic wasteland. We have no idea why, and no logical reason presents itself, but for several days now they have been tearing up all the concrete: ditching the parking lot in favor of a rubble-strewn field. Way-Overloaded Sangthaew:
A Sangthaew is a kind of share-taxi common in the countries of Southeast Asia. The name comes from the Thai language and means, literally, "two benches." These are essentially pickup trucks with two benches in the back above the wheel wells, a low roof with some handles to hold onto, and a set of wired-up buttons that buzz into the cab.
They are used in most places in lieu of a formal public
bus system. The routes are usually run by cartels of drivers. Occasionally, you will see them running as charter taxis or even as charter buses along long stretches of road (like the one I took from Vang Vieng to Vientiane in Laos).
The Sangthaew are cheap, and I take them everyday.
When I get onto a Sangthaew in the evening to head home from Sriracha, I am usually greeted by the sight of some 25-30 people hanging off the thing. This means that I, the crazy foreigner, have to hang off of the back and feel my flip-flops drag along the road as we go--because the suspension of the thing is so shot from a driver who wants to constantly maximize his load. It's just like Southwest Airlines: an empty seat (or aisle) is the same thing as lost money.
The real fun part is when the benches clear out further down the route, but I get to watch a few young Thai guys stay at the back, hanging on for dear life because it makes them look tough. The Hole in My Jeans:
I guess I'd noticed in
Bangkok that there was a small hole appearing in the crotch of my jeans, but my attention was quickly snatched away--I probably needed to hurriedly type up a rant of some sort.
On another day, in another place, at least a week afterwards, I was rudely reminded of this clothing malfunction. Chelly and Poni and I were in the back of a Sangthaew, headed into town to see a movie or something. I was sitting with my legs wide, the way a dude sits--especially on a hot day. Chelly hit me with a strong elbow jab to the ribs and I closed them rapidly as my body went into a defensive positions.
"What was that for?"
"Baby. Look at your pants."
I looked, and guess what? Crotchless Jeans.
"The children have been staring at you."
So I had to sit with my legs tight together the whole way into town. Then I had to hide it at the mall, and on the way home.
The next day, I got out my sewing kit and a piece of printed fabric I'd bought in Laos which was supposed to be magicly charmed. I spent the
morning sewing up the hole and putting a patch over it.
The jeans have been fine ever since, and I think they look pretty cool. The Necklace Chelly Gave Me:
Chelly wanted me to have a trinket to help remember her by, and something she could use to mark her territory. It just so happens that there was a little Africa necklace hanging on the corner of Poni's bed, and Chelly decided this would be my gift.
The necklace is painted and beaded in what Chelly calls the "True Colors": a combination of the Ethiopia-inspired Rastafari colors of red, gold, and green (which are also the colors of many modern African nations), and the colors of the Pan-African Flag of the Universal Negro Improvement Association and African Communities League (UNIA), described by the UNIA as, "red representing the noble blood that unites all people of African ancestry, the color black for black people whose dignity is upheld by the existence of the flag, green for the abundant natural wealth of the Motherland, Africa."
Just for fun, the green part is a little, carved Pot Leaf. Chelly doesn't approve of
Marijuana use, so I guess this is here just to remind me of what I can't have.
I wear it every day now, and it has actually served to identify our couple's mix of nationality. When Gai met us for the first time on the way to Ko Samet, he ID'd me as an American because of my short-sighted, patchwork of small tattoos, and he ID'd Chelly as an African because of the necklace I was wearing! Go figure. Multi-Colored Asian Tour Buses:
All the buses here, aside from the government buses, are painted in absurd, bright patterns. The Korean ones are usually the most tame, with brightly painted circles and swirls and stripes and maybe the words in English, "underseat cockpit". But the Thai buses are crazy: wild air-brushed murals of cartoon characters and American or British flags and recreations of Thai legends. The best ones have Finding Nemo of The Little Mermaid stuff all over them.
We see dozens of buses a day come through the Tiger Zoo, so I've become a real connosieur. Small Talk:
Everywhere you go, Thai
people want to make small talk. And it's always the same couple of questions...
"What's your name?"
"Where are you from?"
"How old are you?"
"You're very handsome." (Not really a question, but they always end it with an inquisitive look and a pause that waits for reply.)
"Do you have a girlfriend?"
"How long have you been in Thailand?"
And, usually it ends at that. I don't mind really, but it gets rather dull to just repeat the same answers all the time. I've thought about making a t-shirt that just says:
Nic. U.S.A. 24 Years Old. Thank you, I know. Yes, and I live with her at the Tiger Zoo. Two months. I've also visited Laos.
Chelly's approach has been more smart-alecky than mine. She likes to pretend she doesn't speak English. Sometime she tells them her name is, "Khao Nyao," and that she's from Laos. (Khao Nyao means, "Sticky Rice.") That one's really funny to us and to the Thais, but I don't blame you for not getting it. Farang Prices at the Night Markets:
Night Markets are the lifeblood
of this country's economy. Every night they set up at different empty lots along the highways and in town. Every night they are swarmed with people looking to buy a good, cheap dinner or some pirated CDs, used hardware, or fresh meat and produce to cook for their families. But when I go, it's not always that cheap.
One shrewd, smily Thai lady at the night market tried to charge me 80 baht for a pineapple the other day. I normally get my full, ripe pineapples--peeled, cored, cut, and bagged--for only 40 baht. Chelly pays 15.
This is how it goes all around Southeast Asia, different prices for different people. As a rule, white people pay the most.
What about the 80 baht pineapple lady? I returned her smile, added a laugh, and walked away. Shouts from the crowd:
I get a lot of stuff shouted at me when I walk down the street, ride my bike, go to the store, or wander around a night market. They mostly just call me "Handsome" or "Sexy Foreigner". I hear these about fity times a day, at least. The Rip-Off Covers CD:
I was in the Robinson shopping mall, looking for some good cheap DVDs and CDs to bring home for Chelly and Poni. I found a couple of my favorite movies for an unbelievable low price, so I nabbed them. Going to the counter, I learned that Robinson's has a minimum purchase size for Visa, so I went back to the music section to look again. I found a CD called, "RCA Hip-Hop Hits" that had some songs I really enjoy from Snoop Dog and Fat Joe and a few other characters, as well as songs I can't stand from guys like Eminem and 50 Cent. I figured it was a mixed bag, but the ladies would like it. So I picked it up and brought it home.
By the time I got home that afternoon, I was so eager to hear some familiar music, I put the CD right in and pressed play. The first song was something I didn't know too well, but it sounded like a bad mix or maybe the bass and treble on our system were set funny. So I skipped to the Snoop track I
wanted to hear and it became blaringly obvious that this was a CD of cover versions. Really bad cover versions. Disturbingly similar beats and samples, but not nearly as well-produced as the originals. The vocalists do awful impersonations for the most part, and they change all the cuss words to something kid-friendly.
It's bad enough when they sell you low-qualilty burned CDs that skip viciously, but it totally sucks to buy a good-looking, quality disc and have it be covered with music you don't want to hear. It even makes me appreciate whack MCs like Eminem and 50, cause even THEY sound better than their imitators. Farm Roads and Bad People:
Chelly told me not to go out on the country roads becuase there were "bad people" there. She told me stories about beheadings near the reservoir at night and foreigners being robbed when they wander too far out from the zoo. So, I left my money at home and went in the middle of the day.
I spent a couple days just exploring on foot. It was actually quite a bit like certain parts of Sedro-Woolley and rural Skagit
County: laid back farmers, lazy fields, dusty roads, dirt trails through the woods, loud chickens and pissed-off mangy dogs: same-same but different. I also found ten different ways to get to the lake, most of which involve crossing fields and private property on little trails. Damn, it feels good to be a kid again.
(The stories Chelly told me were pretty much all B.S., by the way. She likes to mess with me.) Dealing With Dogs:
It's the same as being a kid back home: learn to run, to bare your teeth, to growl and bark, or in bad cases to wrestle the bastard and grab his jugular with your teeth. The Quest for Baan Thara Bhura:
I'd seen the signs for days, taunting me, "Baan Tara Bhura, 2km."
What was this Baan Tara Bhura?
Where was it? (2km up the road, duh.)
When would I go there and what would I find?
These signs would create the impetus for my first set of wanderings into the wilderness around the Tiger Zoo.
These wanderings began on the
highway, following the signs. I passed a lot of hideous construction, shack houses, and a half-decomposed dead dog that looked ominously like a sign to abandon all hope.
What I ultimately found was a dirt road, some chicken coops next to a low shack, a group of grungy fishermen probing a dirty reservoir for fish, and a crappy half-built luxury housing complex.
Then I had to walk another hour and a half to get home.
Damn you, Baan Tara Bhura!!!!!!!!!!!!! Construction All Around:
Like Sedro-Woolley in the 90s or like Seattle since 2001, they seem to be doing construction everywhere I look. I hate that really, it bums me out. Great, empty fields and beautiful forests being bulldozed for housing developments. Fantastic natural vistas being obscured by apartment towers and industrial complexes. Well, I suppose everything is transitory in this modern world. A lot of people get jobs out of the construction industry, and then the services they built facilities for help to enrich the lives of them and their families. I guess I'd just prefer it if we were all in treehouses. The Ranch With the "AMRY" Jeeps:
On one of my many adventures up the road and out into the wilderness, I came across an awesome ranch. The place is big, with lots of land for farming, and a lot of cool structures. There're also several horse stables and corrals.
I saw this all from the side of the road, of course. The place is well-fenced and gated and there was a guy at the gate, paid well to glare at me when I walked by.
But, also in view from the road outside the gate, I did catch a glimpse of the homeowner's collection of jeeps.
They're all old army jeeps, U.S. I suppose, and they've been impeccably restored. The only problem is that the restorer was a bit dyslexic and painted logos on that read, "AMRY" instead of, "ARMY."
I saw one of them driving down the road a few days later and it made me laugh. That's when I decided I had to return and take a picture of a couple of them, just to share with you. Cosmic Bowling:
They have cosmic
bowling here, just like Riverside Lanes in Mount Vernon, but they rip you off worse. We were told that it was one price for the shoes, then we pay a per person fee (50 baht) and bowl all night during cosmic. That's how they do it at home, so it made sense to me. Plus, Chelly speaks Thai and we're absolutely certain that's what the lady told us.
We did bowl all night, and we ordered a couple pitchers of Heineken and some really expensive dinner because we thought the games were cheap.
Uh, no. We get up to the counter and they want to charge us 50 baht per person per game for every game we played, even though the main lights were out and we were bowling under disco balls and a loop of really bad dance music and hip-hop the whole time.
It was a rip-off, but it was fun, I guess. The girls had never seen the inside of a bowling alley before, so I got to hone my skills as a bowling coach. Poni picked it up well, but Chelly was still walking up and throwing it at the end of the
night. She bowled about 80% gutter balls, but with a big smile on her face the whole time. I bowled better games than most of the people in the place, which was a first for me.
We left jovial, but all woke up the next morning with sore wrists and forearms. It was my idea, so my treat, and so my wallet also hurt.
We probably won't be bowling again soon. Movies:
It's all romantic comedies or military films.
I've been seeing this whole wave of military films here in Thailand. Every time we go to the theater, the only English language film is some heroic pro-military movie, and all the previews are for films about epic battles or even army comedies. And I love these kinds of movies. It's powerful, exciting shit for a man: all about comraderie and honor and the satisfaction of a good fight. But be careful how much you buy into it (and tell your sons), this is the kind of stuff tha--in real life--puts young men in jail, in the hospital, or on the streets, and the ones that fall hook-line-and-sinker might
end up in a V.A. Hospital or one story underground in a box.
I've also seen a LOT more romantic comedies than I ever thought possible. This stuff is starting to haunt my dreams, and to be regurgitated in wildly epic and poetic movie or story ideas that I wake up in the morning and jot down in my journal, which ironically ticks Chelly off. Cook It Yourself:
We found a restaraunt one night where we cooked our own food in water and fat and this is the best-tasting and probably the healthiest thing I've eaten in all of Asia.
They bring out a little pot filled with hot charcoal and a cool contraption that goes on top. The center of this contraption is like a grill with small holes, so that air can escape from below, but most of the grease and flavor rolls down the sides. Around those sides is a trough that holds water. They bring some fat to grease up the grill with and a bowl of prepped meat chunks (mostly pork, some chicken and beef and duck liver and prawns and bits of squid).
You put some meat in the middle, and while it grills, the drippings flavor the water, which is heating into a soup. Get some of the prepped veggies and noodles that they bring you boiling in the soup and you have a full meal eat while you cook.
I think this should be transported back home and people should eat this way everyday, because it rules. Smile Now, Cry Later:
I've got a tattoo on my right shoulder, which I wrote about briefly back in October in a blog entitled, "Per Angusta, Ad Augusta." This one says, "Smile Now, Cry Later."
It's a pretty traditional image in the U.S., especially with the Mexican Low Rider scene. I used to see it a lot on cars and t-shirts and stickers. I've always loved it as a tattoo, and I dig the meaning, so that's why I got it.
What I didn't expect was to see it spray-painted across a wall in Sriracha, Thailand.
I was shopping in a part of town that doesn't get any foreigners, looking for a bike. Right next to the bike shop where I bought
my red Siam Bicycle Company speed-machine, I found the mural.
Who knows what the story is behind this one? I thought it was pretty cool. The Bicycle:
There I was, a grown-ass man--and a foreigner on top of that--riding a little kid's one-speed bicycle as fast as can be down the side of a busy Thai highway. How could I resist the chance to be that guy?
My first few days in Sriracha were pretty dull, I must admit. Before visiting Koh Chang, however, I did get the chance to wander around quite a bit. All of this exploration was on foot, of course. I discovered a nearby resort with an empty gym, a really cool pool hall with porn on the walls and rampant gambling, a reservoir where they say dead bodies often float up, and assorted other places of local color. So, immediately upon my return from the island, I set out to buy a bicycle.
I decided that transportation was of the upmost importance to me now, but the day I actually needed it most happened to be the day I spent searching.
tipped off by Chelly, who'd been tipped off by a Thai co-worker, that the place to buy second-hand bicycles was down at the end of the Sangthaew route, amongst the small family shops near the waterfront. This was, in fact, the place to buy second-hand refrigerators, TVs, and stereo systems, as well as chintzy religious or patriotic decor for the home. There were no second-hand bicycles.
After walking around several blocks in ever-widening circles, I had found only one shop that sold bicycles at all, and these were all colorful little kids' bicycles. In fact, I had found this shop three times, each time stopping to check if any of the bikes were big enough for me or within my price range. They weren't.
Fruitlessly continuing my search for a second-hand bicycle, I began asking people who had bicycles where they had gotten them. Some of these people were riding theirs when I asked them: they just shook off my uncomprehended words and kept riding. Thankfully, though, some of these people's bicycles were parked outside their places of work, making them captive to my attentions. It did little good.
I learned after my first few attempts that
asking them where to buy a second-hand bike was pointless. No one seemed to know what a "bicycle" was, and they had an aversion to the phrase, "second-hand". So, I started to ask people how to, "speak Thai," for bicycle. It was a great idea, actually, but all I got was blank stares.
At one point, I ended up in a barber shop with a helpful barber. There was a bike parked outside and it belonged to one of the other barbers, so I'd come in to ask some questions. There was an aging policeman here on his break, as well as several barbers, a female clerk, and a few customers who looked like they probably worked at or owned owned shops on the block. It looked like a good place to find at least one English-speaker. Nope.
After failing to get the location of a second-hand bike shop, I tried to pick up the Thai word for bicycle. They answered me with a phrase, slowly so that I could learn it. But, when I repeated the phrase, the whole barbershop erupted in laughter. It probably meant something like, "Monkey Tits". Eventually, one of the guys told me
I could buy the bike outside for 200 baht. It was in terrible shape, but I know a deal when I hear one. I went into the breakroom to give the bike's owner his money, however, and he laughed me out of the place. Pranksters.
After failing in the barbershop, I decided to ask some more people where I might buy a bike. I got some help eventually, but ended up following the directions straight to the kids' bike store I'd left only 30 minutes before.
And that's about when I gave up.
I walked the streets back in the direction of home, still keeping my eyes peeled for a used bike store, just in case. No such luck, however. But, just at the end, just as I was about to cross the highway and catch a Sangthaew home with my tail between my legs, my eyes beheld a gorgeous, 21-speed mountain bike. Next to the bike was a smiling old man, selling lottery tickets in front of his daughter's restaurant.
I stopped and asked the man how much he paid for the bike. Happily, we discovered that we were able to communicate in a mix
of mispronounced English words, mispronounced Thai words, and written notes or drawings. It turns out he had paid far more for the bike than I could ever afford, but he did know the whereabouts of a local bike shop that sold nice, men's bikes, and that might have some used ones.
I followed the old man's directions to the Trek bicycle shop. There I discovered that used bikes were unavailable. I also discovered that new bikes cost almost as much here as they do at home: too much.
So I gave up again and started looking for my way back. Picking my way down the street, I ended up spilled over onto the wide, divided road that leads to Ko Loy island. I didn't want to go to the island, and I didn't see any side streets or alleys, so I cut over through a restaraunt to the next street. And, it just so happens, this put me directly in front of the shop that sells children's bikes... again.
My head was ready to explode.
I made another attempt to head home, this time stopping for an hour or so in an internet cafe to check
emails and upload some pictures. This brief respite gave me time to pause and reflect on the day's events, and this is when I decided I was gonna have to just bite the bullet and buy a child's bicycle.
I headed back over to the shop that by now I knew so well. I picked out one of the larger boys' bikes, had the old man at the shop pump up the tires and raise the seat, then took it for a ride. It was silly, it was small, it was slow, but it would do.
I paid for the bike, but still had a few more things to do before it was street-ready. It seems they assemble the things with all the bubble wrap and plastic still on them, so that when you buy a bike that's been sitting in the same place for two years, only the un-covered parts are dusty. Th old man brought me a tiny pair of Crayola scissors and I used them to cut off plastic wrap and bubble wrap from the bike frame, basket, and spokes. Then he handed me a feather duster and I polished off this steel beauty.
Now I was ready to be that crazy foreigner, and good God, I was tearing up the highway with my shirt off and a bandanna tied around my face before the sleepy town of Sriracha even knew what hit 'em. Street Signs:
They have them for the mall, and for Baan Tara Bhura, but not for the name of the damn street! Sirens:
No on ever gets out of the way for Police, rescue vehicles, or ambulances. Pretty crass. I, however, stop and pull my bicycle as far off of the road as possible as soon as I see the lights. That's mainly just because the driving on the roads gets even more scary with an official vehicle blazing down the center of full-speed traffic. Playing 'Chicken' With Big Trucks:
Many of the country roads I've been riding along are quite narrow, with room for two lanes of traffic to squeeze by, but just barely.
Ther also appears to be a lot of excavation going on out at the end of them, because
both of my favorite roads to the lake are crowded by a steady stream of big, old-fashioned Thai dump-trucks.
The dump-trucks could drive in their own lanes, but it's much easier to tear around the corners at top speed if you're driving in the center.
It seems like even when they see me--the long-haired foreigner on the little red bike--they still don't wanna get back into their lanes. So, I end up playing a lot of 'Chicken' with big trucks.
And I always win. Radical Scooters and Dirtbike Gangs:
Motorized personal transportation is a big deal here. The Thai people who can afford cars always supe them up and cover them in decals. The Thais who can't afford cars just buy motor scooters or Harley's. Some of them could afford big, expensive cars, but choose to put all their money into tricking-out crazy customized scoots and bikes. There is yet another class of people here, mostly teens, who cannot even afford motor scooters. They ride motorcross dirtbikes. Sometimes, at night, I see big gangs of these dirtbike kids--all with rad, visored helmets and no headlights--tearing up the highway and
looking for trouble. They're so cool. Annoying Thai Kids Playing Loud Video Games:
The pimary hazard of a Thai internet cafe, especially on weekends and evenings, is the video game craze. To make matters really bad, most of the swarms of pre-teen male gamers are playing loud dance games (think Dance Dance Revolution with a keyboard) or playing obnoxiously-narrated Golf and Tennis games. Why can't they jsut kill demons with swords like a normal kid?
I just sit and read about Kenya or Buddhism or Greece or type in my blog for hours on end, while the girls are at work. Writing Down My Dreams And Fears:
Almost every morning, and many times in the middle of the night, I grab my journal to scribble down some dream I've had or train of thought that's been occupying my mind. Like the crazy one about being in Amsterdam with James Martin, Ole Johnson, Nathan Clark, Andy Hatch, and Robert Crawfoot: we were getting stoned and partying with Succubi and fighting battles against demons.
But, I mostly worry about something bad happening
to either me or Chelly. The recurring nightmare is that Chelly gets mauled by a tiger while I am away--she survives but is crippled and disfigured and I either choose to spend the rest of my life caring for her but not pursuing my dreams or I forsake love for greed and worldly pursuits.
I also came up with some brilliant ideas for what I might do with the rest of my life, assuming that some awful tragedy does not strike. Cooking For Chelly and Poni on My Second-to-Last Night:
I've been here for roughly a month, but today is my last day before making a necessary visa run to Cambodia. So, I wanted to make last night special for the girls.
I went to the night market on my own and let them rip me off on prices, buying up armloads of veggies and meats and cooking supplies.
Then I went home and prepared a huge meal by the sound of Iron Maiden live in Germany.
It was mostly BBQ, which is my specialty. I used s spicy curry mix as a rub and grilled pork steaks,
chicken breasts, and a cow's heart. There was also steamed rice with a butter/garlic/tomato sauce, and some steamed mixed veggies in Chinese oyster sauce. The food was great and the girls were thoroughly pleased. I thnk I'll do a lot more cooking when I get back.
But, a word to the wise: don't grill cow's hearts. Total mistake. Some of These Pictures are Pretty Self-Explanatory:
I'm gettting a bit tired of typing, so I'll let some of the pictures I've put in here explain themselves.
There are more photos below