Embarrassment #1: Show and Tell

Under normal circumstances, when you are surrounded by your own culture and familiar surroundings, embarrassments not only occur, but are unavoidable. It should come to no surprise, then, that I have had my fair share of run-ins while establishing a new life in a vastly different culture.

This entry begins a series of embarrassments in the said establishing. Enjoy!

Traffic in Bangkok has an understandable infamy. Thirty-minute walks become 45-minute taxi rides become one hour bus rides. Fuel gauges see more action than speedometers. This dilemma has a wide variety of solutions ranging from subterranean (Metro Rapid Transit) to aquatic (bus boats). However, none of them are as thrilling, frightening, or effective as the motorbike taxi (motor-taxi).

There are two specific reasons why foreigners are drawn to the motor-taxi. By efficiently slicing through the nooks of traffic with surgical maneuverability, the motor-taxi appeals to the most temporally parsimonious. Only costing Bht15 ($0.45), the overall frugality dangerously fuels an absolute disregard for safety and any sense of conventional western traffic laws to give it an incomparable allure one could describe as having a death wish.


Compounding foreboding sense of imminent doom is the seemingly unpredictable nature of traffic. Motorists pass in unnecessarily wide lanes. The impatient passers come to compete with the insufferably meek for a right-of-way out of the two unmoving isles that have formed in one lane. Motorbikes take to moving between halted autos, creating a network of lanes within lanes within lanes. The yellow dotted line not only divides the directions of traffic, but indicates a two-way traffic lane motorbikes share. This lane also suffers jams when the nooks narrow and two bikes cannot pass one another.

Pandemonium is tantamount when motorbikes begin to travel on sidewalks and against traffic to avoid going around the almost ubiquitous center divider. And as if all of this wasn’t nerve-racking enough, consider that there are parents (both mother and father) driving a motorbike through all of this with their offspring.

That deserves reiteration.

Families of four commonly ride on 110cc motorbikes, none of them wearing helmets. Babies are in arms. Toddlers are standing between the legs of the driver. It truly is a miraculously frightful site.

My nervousness kept me from trying out the motor-taxi for quite sometime. My Thai in the first weeks of my life here, even in comfortable circumstances, reminded me of a calf awkwardly learning to stand. Thai’s slippery tones coated the little twig legs of my meanings, causing them to predictably fall to the ground. I simply couldn’t bring myself to sheepishly approach the motley crew of orange vested drivers at the end of my street when I still had difficulty telling the by-then familiar clerk at 7-11 I didn’t want a bag for the bazillionth time. My emasculating intrepidity left me studying the motorbike passengers from the windows of my bus and taxi rides.

I noticed some sat side saddled and others sat normally. This perplexed me. I would watch one pass. Then another. None of it seemed to have any rhyme or reason. It dawned on me that the side saddlers were riding with motor-taxi drivers and the regular sitters rode with personal acquaintances. My sissiness, I thought, paid off. I just spared myself the embarrassment of sitting on a motorbike improperly. My confidence was renewed.

Thereafter soon came the day when I hesitantly approached the lounging and chain smoking drivers. At the back of the line, I asked to go to the store at the end of the street. Two drivers languidly leaning against a wall pointed to the front of the line and demurely smiled. Other drivers chuckled. They slid towards the front as I walked. They could see my calf legs wobbling.

Again, I asked to go to the store. The driver responded only by putting on his helmet and starting his bike. I sat as I had observed to be appropriate. Giggles broke from everyone.

“Phu-ying! Phu-ying!” declared the man with a ghostly mustache leaning on the left. I might not have known much Thai by then, but I knew when I was being called a woman. All the side saddlers had been women. Such a blatant distinction had slipped right pass me in the hectic traffic.

Already feeling my legs slipping, a pointing finger from the wispy mustachioed man still against the wall brought about uproarious laughter. The driver next to him fell to the left and rested his head on the other’s shoulder, slapping his chest with an exaggerated relish. Still sitting side saddled, I followed his finger to my wide open zipper and discovered the source of their laughter and my embarrassment. Normally, it’s no big deal. But normally you’re wearing underwear and not showing the shaft of your penis to a group of strangers.

The Midnight Boat to Koh Tao (Horror Boat)

Two days have passed since we were in Chiang Mai, comfortably celebrating Christmas with eclectic foods, live guitar, and freshly poured lager. We saturated ourselves completely in a sensory buffet. Now, the hull of a decrepit boat clutches the coastline, a still and soundless corpse staring blankly bank at Nic, Sam and I. Beneath our feet, the red, damp soil gives way to our steps and I am reminded of chilled animal fat as my sandals wetly peel away. Our anxiety escapes in short bursts of nervous laughter. We walk towards the midnight boat to Koh Tao, an island of the eastern coast of Thailand, hiding our apprehension from each other and our selves.
Inner conflicts mount.

“Haven’t you seen this before? It’s every bad horror movie ever! You know this is how they begin! Look at that thing! It’s not a boat. It’s a casket!”

“Don’t you think I know that? I know that! But what options do we have? Turn back?”

(What would I write in this story’s place?)

My inner monologue has every right to be suspicious. The closer we draw to the boat the more dauntingly it looms over us. Unappealing details develop as we walk up the small mound that is the coast. Barely audible creaks are the closing hinges of a lid closing, stealing the silence. Metal clinks against metal like the chiseling of epitaphs. The boat is so still that the silhouetted forest behind it seems to rock back and forth.

My pack feels as heavy as an anchor and my stomach is one. I am unsettled and quickened by the excitement of this pending adventure. No great thrill has come without risk.

Our feet hit the metal floor of the rusty hull, sending hollow thuds throughout the boat. We stop for a moment and contemplate our next move with unsure smirks and glances at one another; there is no clear path up into the cabin of the boat. A Thai worker, covered in dirt and grime, points down from the narrow side of the hull to three barred steps, also dusted with rust. He isn’t wearing shoes.

“What the hell have we gotten ourselves into?” Nic asks with rhetorical softness. The boat’s floodlights throw macabre shadows on his face and while others recoil into the trees behind us.

“He’s not wearing shoes,” exclaims Sam, building on Nic’s surprise of the developing dilapidation.

“I know!”

I am too overwhelmed. I am trying to gather as many details of our boarding as possible: the barred steps flaking with rust; the thick silence of the night swallowing our voices and breathing; our onlookers; the musk of wet, oily metal. There are a few boatmen standing and squatting from stairs on the other side of the boat. Their glossy eyes feed on our responses to such utter unfamiliarity. To them, we are merely new actors in the rerun that is their lives. Travelers are the only nuances in the nightly audience of the nautical misfits.

The path to the cabin squeezes us between a six-foot fall to the hull’s floor on one side and a wet splash into the littered black water off the other. Jutting two-by-fours lie parallel to the path with boards sticking out from underneath them waiting for a clumsy passerby. Carefully, we leave the hull and enter a hallway where ‘clean’ clothing stiffly hangs in the paneless windows.
Flickering fluorescent lights sickly reveal insect peppered spider webs on the walls and in the corners of the hallway. Even the spiders, it seems, had the good sense to abandon ship.

Ascending a set of stairs at the stern, our sleeping quarters come into view.
Dozens of dingy bare mattresses line the walls on two stacked shelves. A few were already filled with weary travelers. Some are wearing shoes. ‘Ironic,’ I thought. ‘They’re wearing their shoes in their dreams and while there are workers not wearing any in their reality.’

As I set down my backpack and claim my bed on the top near an open window, Nic and Sam tuck themselves into a bottom corner on the opposite side and almost immediately fall asleep. Restlessly invigorated, I wander the boat.

The top of the boat is empty. Flaking rust crunches beneath my feet. Across from the stern I see that the silhouetted forest is an island of trees severing us from the Gulf of Siam. Our journey is almost made palpable by the night’s humidity. Even the breeze seems to struggle in moving the air.

Hours pass without any sign of embarking. A worker says that we’re waiting for the tide. After another hour, I know we’re waiting because they’re hoping for more passengers. Only a quarter of the beds are occupied. Content and tired, I take a beer from my pack and go sit on the stairs where the misfit audience had been.

A blond man sits observing the busy workers. Wearing jeans, sneakers, and silver rimmed glasses, he and his smile are humorously stark. We greet one another and amicably go through the traveler’s routine questions. He’s from Sweden and has been traveling for quite some time. He had spent some time in the DRC as a reporter.

Violent vibrations steal our attention. The boat’s crane roars with grinding gears. It slowly swings toward three workers standing near three barrels towards the open tail of the hull. All of them are shoeless. The Swedish man and I discuss our backgrounds and histories further over beers and cigarettes as the workers hurriedly load the barrels.

After four heavily loaded vehicles are driven on, the boat again grumbles with great complaint. Screeching cables fail to lift the tail. Like a tree branch in a wind storm, a cable snaps and the tail falls to the ground with a shaking thud.

“WHOA!” everyone unanimously exclaims.

Several previously sleeping workers gather around us to watch a man spark welding cables without any safety glasses. Bright lightning flashes in the welder’s dark face and light up the surrounding trees as if a group of tourists were somewhere back on shore.

The midnight boat doesn’t leave until 3:00am.

Satiated with many beers and local entertainment, I roll into bed. My pillow is small and slickly stained with the oils of many faces. The boat slowly lurches. I sleep.

Great nausea wakes me. Everything in the room shifts as the boat ferociously careens in a pummel of enormous waves heard splashing outside the open window at the head of my bed. Boxes of beer clatter down the stack and shatter. The lurches are so extreme that I begin to slide up and down in my bed. I am forced to lie flat so that I don’t fall out of bed.

It was around 4:30am that I puke for the first time. My head sticks out of the window, projectile vomiting into the gulf. I am exercising demons from the church of my stomach. The light of the hallway below flickers, strobe lighting my pungent stream. Throughout the night, this continues. I don’t fall asleep again and only leave my bed twice to endure the horrors of the bathroom.

Green, murky water with unidentifiable bits sloshes against the peeling sky blue paint of the bathroom walls. A rusted barrel of water is the only thing I have to support myself. The light switch hangs from a pipe, exposing copper wires that damply glint. Everything drips. The floor water washes over my feet and I cringe. Using water from the barrel and my hand, I clean myself leave quickly enough to vomit over the rail into the abysmal churn.

Having returned to bed, I drink water so that I have something to vomit for what feels like an eternity. My abdomen is sore.

The night progressively worsens. Below me, the woman with the puntable, yappy dog thunderously vomits. I’m infuriated by her intrusions; I’ve been trying to remain quiet out of consideration for the other assumedly sleeping passengers for hours and she is a wildebeest birthing a pineapple horizontally from her throat. In this moment, I hate her. All of my frustration, all of my pain, all of my weariness now has a body. It’s curled in the fetal position in the darkness. My hatred bellows and slides in the night.

Nic visits me in the early morning. It is still dark. He heard me from across the room, from across the ocean of an engine’s drone beating against the inside of my forehead.

“Are you alright, buddy?” His voice has a comforting tone and his hand rests coldly on my ankle.

“No. Not at all,” I groan. My throat is a broken bottle covered in sand.

“I’ve been vomiting for hours. I’m drinking water just so I can have something to vomit.”

“Shit. I’m sorry, man. Is there anything I can do for you?” He sounds grave.

“No, man. Thanks.”

“It might help if you move to the bottom. The rocking doesn’t feel as bad. I went up to the top and closed my eyes and almost got sick, but down there you’re closer to boat’s center of gravity, so you move less.”

“I can’t move right now. Thanks for checking on me.” Besides not having the capacity for movement, my only friend is my window.

The waves grow and send the boat swaying more drastically. I rely on the tilt of the boat to send me to the window when I need to puke. My shoulders stop me. I aim my head and use the momentum of the tipping boat like a finger down my throat. My water bottle rolls off my bed during one of my more epic episodes. Dry heaves follow. When daylight breaks, I retch for the last and most painful time. It is tar thick and dark green. Bile. The part that felt unsettled on the bank of animal fat in Chumphon. The ooze slides down the side of the boat in the dimly gray dawn. An oasis of land breaks the oceanic desert’s horizon and I feel relief I had had in my mind all night.

After the boat docks, I achingly stand and put my pack on my back. My movements are awkward and feel new with atrophy. The stale stink of beer rises from the sticky glistening floor. Surprisingly, I don’t feel nauseous.

On the bank Nic argues with a taxi driver as I muster my all to stand. The price is negotiated and agreed upon. Nic taps me on the shoulder.

“Come on, man. Let’s get outta here.”

“That was the most horrible experience of my life.” My eyes are only half open and are dry, keeping my lids motionless.

“We’re with you on that,” Nic says with the same sympathetic softness heard last night. Samantha is silent.

“No. You’re not. No one is. I have never felt so alone,” I coldly and curtly retort. My words feel like they are still stabbing at the puking woman and her barking poodle. I immediately regret them and avert myself from his static gaze. I feel ashamed, for my thoughts and my impatience. The truck starts up and takes up the road, away from the beach as it fills slowly with hundreds of tourists.

To see more pictures of the midnight boat, click on the link below.
The Midnight Boat to Koh Tao

Morning Meeting

Morning for me began earlier than usual. Three coworkers have started to play basketball around 7:30am and I told them that I would meet them on the court in front of my building. They weren't there. I continued on to the office to find two of them sitting at the reception desk fidgeting with some new speakers.

"Hey! Why aren't you playing basketball?" I requested, a twinge of annoyance unintentionally escaping in my voice.

"P'Poo is on holiday. He has the ball," said Yai. Yai looks like a tanned Asian snowman with a thinned Beatles haircut. His eyes are beady and always steady, calm, peering out from behind two oval and petite lenses. He speaks English with a slight lisp, which always has me wondering if he speaks Thai with a lisp too.

Yai's sense of humor is terrific as he is the only one that tells me he hates me, often promising to kill me. I'd be lying if I said I didn't incite such threats.
"P'Poo has the ball, huh? Is it, I don't know, in his office?" The sarcastic indignation was smeared like butter on my slowly spoken words. Yai smiled slightly.


"What the hell?!" I retorted, mirroring Yai's half smile and building the mock injustice in my voice. "Then why didn't you get it and come play?"

Both Yai and P'Keng giggled. P'Keng doesn't understand much English, but he has come to understand my sense of humor, and I his, enough that language is less of an obstacle. For example, the Thai word for 'to give' is said the same as the English 'hi'. So, for several months now, morning greetings have consisted of one of us saying 'hi', and the other one sticking out his hand and saying 'okay'.

The first day I arrived in the office, he introduced himself to me, unwavering and in a very monotone English. He has eyes like a basset hound, always at peace and calm in his brown, round face. His shiny cheeks are bulbous and he has a Buddha belly. This and his height give him a jolliness reminiscent of a mall Santa Claus. After he told me his name, he lifted his arm up a little high to put it around my shoulders, turned both of us to his wife, a secretary who was sitting behind her desk, and said, "Look, twins." Laughter exploded from all corners of the office.

"I don't know," said Yai, his tone going up and down with the last syllable.

"Well, dude! Next time, call me so I know and don't wake up at freakin' 7:00am to play a game that won't be there!"

Again, they both laughed. There are times when I'm not entirely sure if they are laughing because they understand or because they enjoy watching me feign frustration. Like with most friends, it's likely both.

The whole exchange took place over a minute, but the camaraderie present in our words and facial expressions left an impression that makes it feel like it was my entire morning. Only three months ago I struggled to establish a sense of belonging, a fresh identity amidst a sea of street vendors and stray dogs. But this morning, more than any other, I felt like I belonged in my office. That my comfort was not only established but present didn't dawn on me until the mid afternoon, when I reminded myself that I'd be waking up again the next morning at 7:00am, hoping to find two coworkers playing basketball in the settling Bangkok fog.

Christmas Eve from a Window in Chiang Mai

Shortly after arriving at the B.M.P. (Backpacker's Meeting Place) in Chiang Mai, Nic, Sam and I rented motorbikes. For the most part, Christmas Eve was spent riding around and trying to find Sam's bike. We parked it after it ran out of gas and and then went in search of a gas station. When put to the test, it turns out, while under stress, I can order gasoline. When stress free, I can't understand when a Thai man is telling me that I will need to get gas soon.

Later that night, as Sam slept, Nic and I watched chickens being slaughtered out our bedroom window. Throughout the day, we had left that window open. Our room persistently smelled like feces. Sam and I felt comfortable in blaming Nic for the unpleasant aroma. It wasn't until the two of us were standing in our underwear, staring at the dozens of chickens coming to their end, did we know the truth.
A man in the back of the warehouse, standing in front of stacks upon stacks of pink crates filled with chickens, would pick up a chicken with the care of a baggage handler and slit its throat coldly, tossing the dying creature into a bin with the other bleeding birds with the same apathy with which one might throw dirty laundry into the hamper. He was as calculating as a surgeon and equally removed. The bird was picked up in such a way that it couldn't resist: pick it up; tilt it back; grab the head; slit the throat; throw it in the bin; repeat.





One life was gone in less than ten seconds. We must have watched him kill 50 chickens. Not one of them fought or even struggled, as if they knew an end better than their existence was upon them. Not a wing was lifted in protest. They were the last autumnal leaves on the trees, waiting for their gust of wind.

Thirty minutes passed. We watched the bin of dead chickens fill twice, each time its contents were emptied into a steam machine for feather removal. I can easily imagine our faces floating in the darkness of our 2nd story window, palely lit from the florescent lights of the slaughterhouse. Our mouths are slightly parted. Our eyes are filled with the intrigue reminiscent of children on Christmas morning. Instead of marveling at mountains of presents and lights galore, we stared in awe at the process that brought food to the mouths of our neighbors.

The workers took a break. Nic and I laughed at the absurdity of it all. We each sighed and walked to our beds contemplatively.

"Hey, Nic. Merry Christams."

"Merry Christmas, buddy,' he chuckled.

Just Pictures, No Words

These pictures should have been shared on a more broader basis sooner. I'm sorry it has taken me so long. I will be uploading more and writing more stories in the coming weeks.

Enjoy the pics! Please leave comments.

Odd Culinary Indulgences

In spirit of Thanksgiving, I thought I would mention some of the bizarre foods I've tried since being here and a few of the foods I avoided. The rating system accompanying my descriptions are arbitrary.More...
1) Grasshopper: Fried with red chili powder and served whole, the first step is to twist off the head and pull out the spinal cord. This part, I'm told, "tastes like shit." Fortunately, shit is still something I haven't tried.

What It Tastes Like: An overcooked french fry flavored with chicken broth. Before trying, I refused profusely. My friend and coworker insisted I try, claiming it tasted like chicken.

"P'Boom, if I wanted to eat something that tastes like chicken, I can eat chicken!"

Why I Ate It: I became immersed in a 7 cup pool of vodka tonics and remembered that my mom told me to try everything once.

Rating: 3

2) Dragon Fruit: Have you ever seen this? Google it. It looks like something out of a Sci-Fi movie. It is oval and the outer part is pink with green leaf like things growing off of it. The meat of the fruit has the feeling of kiwi and is white with black seeds throughout.

How It Tastes: It is very starchy and mildly sweet. I was expecting something puckering, but received a pleasantly mellow experience. It is high in fiber, which is good for my butt. You can never be too kind to your butt.

Why I Ate It: Because it was new fruit and not meat. All the weird things tend to be meat or bugs.

Rating: MMM

3) Pig's Liver, Blood, and Heart: Thai cuisine throws hardly anything away. Eating internal organs is very common. The liver excluded, these items are typically served with noodles in a delicious beef or chicken based broth. In my opinion, that is where the deliciousness stops.

What They Taste Like:

Liver: I've never tried it because eating the organ responsible for removing toxins from the body just seems odd. Would you eat animal rectum? No, I didn't think so.

It has the consistency of creamy sand and tastes like meatloaf that soaked in rancid orange juice.

Rating: 2

Blood: It is prepared and looks very much like tofu. It is a gleaming burgundy cube, gelatinously dancing to the sway of the server's saunter. The taste is mild and almost bland, but my mind ran a muck when I tried it, pulling up images of slaughter and the hit Showtime series Dexter.

Rating: AB-

Heart: Actually, this was surprisingly tasty. Then I bit into an artery and gagged. Tasty yes, but texture plays a huge part in food for me. I can't handle chewy things that don't change in composition after chewing them.

Rating: <3

Why I tried them: The liver was peer pressure. I was at dinner with a large group of coworkers and they found out that I have never had liver. Now I know why many are not fans. The blood was absolute curiosity. I might try it again if I've had a few. The heart was in a meal bought for me and I wanted to show that I will be appreciative and try it.

Fish Stomach: Yes, fish stomach. It was served in a thick, non-cream based soup with mushrooms and unidentifiable greens. If you didn't know, you might assume that it was just a vegetable. It is translucent and doesn't look like what it is.

What It Tastes Like: The soup itself was delicious, but the stomach tasted like netting. That was the first word that came to mind when I tried it. The flavor of the savory soup overpowered the stomach and the tongue, and all I got was texture.

Why I Ate It: I was at a wedding for a coworker and again succumbed to peer pressure. People were really jazzed to try it, and so I followed suit.

Rating: meh

Fried Duck's Bill:
There's a point when repulsion is dominated by curiosity. For me, this was that point. How the hell do you eat a duck's bill? Why? It's all bone! Well, I gave it a whirl and found it to be alright, but not worth the effort of massive masticating.

What It Tastes Like: Because it is composed of several small bones, it's like eating sticks covered with deep fried chicken skin. Crunchy doesn't begin to describe the sensation of the jaw crunching and breaking an animals tiny mouth bones. Not worth the effort, really. Again, if I have been drinking, I can see myself indulging in what is put in front of me.

Why I Ate It: P'Boom, my Thai sister, loves getting me to eat new weird things. She was the one responsible for the grasshopper feast.

Rating: daffy

Little Faces Playing to the Heart

Our luxuries are bountiful. So innumerable are our fortunes that they are inevitably taken for granted. Before we leave our beds in the morning, we have most likely already overlooked several riches. Above our heads are roofs that don’t leak and under them are soft pillows. But we are not to blame. Without a stark comparison, it is easy to forget our blessings when they are veiled by daily strife and routines.

Recently, I was afforded an opportunity to see my affluence reflected by the faces of children who lacked it. And yet, they smiled and laughed all the same.

The first time I visited Tanarak Village, an impoverished suburban community of Bangkok, the day was sweltering. The night before, torrential rains fell on the woodstove of the sauna that was the outdoors. My eyes drank eagerly from the windows of the van as we passed abandoned shacks and food carts succumbing to the elements. Roofs were caving in. Parts were missing. Stray dogs slept and crept listlessly in the shade, into shadows hiding all but the floating swarthy faces of the locals.

The van stopped. Coworkers and I loaded with bags of donations made our way through the walkways leading to the meeting area. Along the way, an array of rusted aluminum panels, nails, and scents of frying meats jutted out. Children played along the train tracks. Garbage—like wild foliage—seemed to be growing and thriving off the land. It swam in the water and underneath houses like and with the fish. An orchestra of televisions and laughter from the kids reverberated through the walkway, only to be interrupted by motorcycles whizzing by the line of outsiders.

Prior to my arrival, the office had been working closely with the community (what might be harshly called the ‘slums’ is referred to here as the community) for several months. Meetings occurred where ABAC Poll members and community leaders discussed how to start to improve the quality of life: removing the fish that aren’t fish; renovations that would permit only the frying meat scents to jut out; and providing the children with additional educational outlets and areas to encourage more violins of laughter and less TV conductors.

Initially, the altruism of our purpose unsettled me more than the environment; no background knowledge of the area, the people, or our goals had been made available to me. Even more unnerving was the overwhelming sense of responsibility. But soon after, my doubts and jitters were assuaged when I saw how thirsty these children were for learning. They were my eyes and their windows were my words. In them, I would like to think they saw a way to help their people. In them, I would like to think I saw that possibility.

I have taught there twice now. Each time, we all learn a little more, not only about language, but about life. I cannot speak on behalf of the ABAC Poll staff. Perhaps I would do myself a service to ask them if they are learning anything from this experience or if only I and the children are learning new ways of life. I can say the children are realizing they can teach the teacher Thai, and I am redefining the importance of being a child. Knowledge can open the heart to the youth it has forgotten with time and tragedy.