Monday, January 31, 2005

Monday PM

The cat/vet issue of which I spoke in the last post has been positively resolved. No further issues with string and the cat his home busily attacking (aka, scratching up) the comforter set i bought yesterday for my bed. Let's hope she soon gets bored with the newness of it all as I spent way too much on it for her to use as a scratching pad.

Last night's culinary experimentation with tom kha kai (basically Thai coconut/chicken soup with lemongrass) was a success. Rather simple recipe too, once you manage to locate all of the ingredients. I took most of it to work today for any employees so inclined to try it and those that did absolutely loved it, so I've formally added it to the menu of the forthcoming dinner gathering. The stir-fried Chinese broccoli with chilis and dried shrimp also turned out well, though to be honest it's one of those "can't fail" dishes, unless you are just so inept in cooking ability that you can't even boil water.

Still two more recipes to try between now and next weekend (savory minced pork (or chicken) salad and papaya salad). If I'm feeling energetic I may even try my hand at making homemade spring rolls, but they seem like a lot of work for very little return given the fact that they can be inexpensively acquired from any Thai restaurant. But the latter option is no challenge at all.

Saturday, January 29, 2005

No Strings Attached

An unexpectedly eventful day that all started early this morning when I noticed one of my two cats walking across the living room dragging a string behind her.

"How odd," I thought.

To spare those with delicate constitutions, I'll sum it up this way: eveidently the cat had ingested a long string the other day which was now working its way out of her system. Ingesting strings can be deadly for animals as they tend to create blockages in their intestines which leads to all sorts of unpleasantries. As the string had obviously not quite cleared, I gathered up cat, coat, and keys and headed off to the local vet who recommended I go to the Tidewater Vetinary Emergency and Critical Care Center out in Virginia Beach where I left her for X-rays and overnight observation. The string was removed (I really didn't want to know the details) and other than being a little dehydrated, the cat looks fine. They are going to run another set of X rays in the morning just to be sure before releasing her. This is good news and much preferrable to the surgery option which would have set me back about $1,200.

Upon my return home this afternoon late, I scoured the apartment for string sources. I've always been extremely careful of such things, as my cats will readily attempt to eat any string, dental floss, or assorted small plastic things they can find. Ultimately I found the source of string: during my vacation, the cats had ripped open the bottom cover of the box springs on my bed and there the strings were hidden from view (my view, obviously not the cats' view). So a few minutes with a pair of scissors and the offending strings have been removed and safely discarded.

Since I was already way out in Virginia Beach, I then visited one of the better Oriental grocery stores in the Tidewater area. This was fun. Aisle after aisle of fish sauce, vegetables, noodles of every conceivable kind, and sundy other things, some of which I saw in Thailand, and many more I had never before seen. I simply couldn't resist, so I grabbed a basket and started loading it with the essentials needed for most Thai recipes, plus some other things I just had to buy. I also picked up a Thai cookbook filled with familiar dishes I encountered during my travels there. I think I may have hit the proverbial "goldmine" with this book as it appears to be geared towards authentic Thai cuisine, not the Americanized version one finds with similiar cookbooks at the typical book retailers.

So tomorrow I will attempt a few of these recipes as a trial for the dinner gathering I've now planned for next weekend.

Friday, January 28, 2005

Again The Weekend

Another weekend is upon us and again I have no real plans. As I'm in the mood to do some serious cooking, I might throw and impromptu dinner gathering Sunday depending on who's available. I've never minded cooking for just myself (though sometimes it can be a chore), but it's always nice to try new recipes on a few unsuspecting victims .....errr friends.

I may have to do some shopping tomorrow. For about two weeks now I've been whining about the need to visit Barnes and Noble, so may as well knock that out tomorrow morning. Not sure exactly what I'm in the mood to read, so I'll probably just browse the sections until something catches my eye, whatever that may be.

Off to putter about the apartment until the inspiration to do something strikes.

Thursday, January 27, 2005

A Stitch In Time....

Plans to head out this evening to do some shopping were waylaid by a follow up trip to the dentist this afternoon. The stitches from last week's extraction were removed and the wound is healing well, though the dentist had to "install" some more packing into the void which was then stitched in place. So more pain and suffering. Certainly not as intense as that of last week, but sufficient to keep my in out of the evening's cold.

I had planned on going out this evening to purchase some floor lamps, window blinds, and other necessities for my office, which is finally undergoing a compelte makeover. Painting began today and I selected subdued earth tones to replace the bright "Tatooine desert yellow" that I've stared at for just over a year now. The old color wasn't too offensive (other than being a little too bright), but it just wasn't "me." The new selections will make the office a little darker, but with the appropriate lighting it should work nicely. It will also compliment the variety of decorations I picked up in Thailand and South America. So with the new colors, blinds, carpet, plants, etc. my office should rate high on the "coolness factor" once it's done.

Wednesday, January 26, 2005

Evening Coffee

Haven't been home long from my afternoon class and am relaxing with a cup of well earned coffee. I was in such a rush to get to the university from the office that I didn't have time to stop at the Starbucks on campus for the tradition pre-class infusion of life. A dangerous thing when faced with a three hour lecture. Correct that: a three and a half hour lecture. The professor got carried away and before we knew it, it was 7:30 and we had gone three and a half hours nonstop. Oddly enough, I didn't mind this as the professor's enthusiasm is so strong, so infectious that the time passed quickly and she could have lectured another half an hour as far as I was concerned. The class? Epidemiology. A most remarkable course that ties in nicely with my current career and longer-range academic and career goals.

As I warned in my post this morning, it was a busy day at the office and the time there too passed quickly. I had to spend a considerable amount of time working on yet another personnel issue (a new hire scheduled to start next Monday) in addition to all the other things mentioned this morning. So today was a matter of racing from one meeting, one project to another while at the same time juggling all these peripheral management issues that seemingly come at you out of the blue and demand immediate attention and usually an immediate decision. Oddly enough, I felt so in my element today. The pressure was on, I was pulled in so many different directions at once, and I absolutely loved it. What makes this particularly amusing is that only a few years ago I simply wanted to be left alone in the lab to do my work in peace without any external distractions. I suppose this is indicative of the natural progression of things: both the employment transition into a management role and developing the skills to cope with the pressures and responsibilities that come with such a position.

The next few months are going to be a real test of whatever leadership skills I may (or may not) have. Two developments are going to complicate matters at work. First of all, beginning today my secretary will be out on medical leave for about six weeks and a temp will be slow in coming (if at all). Thankfully, I have a few people on my staff capable of covering front office duties in addition to their own. So we'll see how this goes. More significantly, my division is going to come to the aid of another division in the organization that's currently foundering in personnel and productivity issues. The real trick is going to be rallying the fortitude of my staff to take on additional responsibilites without a letup of their own. I foresee much diplomacy on my part as well as the "leading by example" thing.

So if I thought today was fun (and it certainly was, from a crazy point of view) it's only going to get better as the weeks go by.

Ealy Morning Coffee

I was up at 4:30 this morning, wide awake and ready to start the day. It's going to be a crazy day around the office as I have meetings at 8:30, 10, and, 11:30, then meet with my technical staff in the afternoon to put together some data for a presentation at next week's regional conference. Then I have hurry over to the university for class at 4:20. Ack!

The problematic employee of which I spoke in a previous post was soundly diciplined not only on Monday morning, but Tuesday morning as well. I would have much preferred to get it all over and done with on one day, but the process calls for a preliminary counseling session followed by the formal written notice in 24 to 48 hours. He's not happy about it, but at least he'll think twice before behaving in an unprofessional manner around a citizen. This is the hope anyway.

Also as a result of Friday's incident, I'm in the process or organizing some sensitivity/awareness classes for my entire staff. Only a very small handful may need such training, but as I really can't single them out, everyone will have to go through the class, myself included. I've always told my staff that I would never ask them to do anything that I would not do myself, so my presence will be important to demonstrate not only this point, but also the validity of such extracurricular training.

Sunday, January 23, 2005

Parsley: A Window to the Soul?

It occurred to me this morning just how out of touch I am with with many aspects of society and culture. I went to Harris Teeter to buy some groceries (having a friend over for dinner tonight) and was in the checkout line when the guy behind me strikes up an animated conversation about football. As I have not even watched a football game in well over ten years, this caught me off guard and I quickly scanned my cart for anything that suggested I was a football fan (scallops, crab, shrimp, tomatoes, flour, cheese, wine. Nope. Hmmm. Parsley. Must be the parsley).

Evidently there is some sort of big game today and all I could do was stare blankly at the guy and say "Game? What game?" This relevation ended the conversation and for a brief moment I felt almost guilty for being completly oblivious to something about which many people are so passionate. Perhaps I should have put back the items in my cart and instead buy cheap beer, nachos, and hot dogs so I could kick back and enjoy the game along with millions of others (I still have no idea who's playing or the significance of the game). But then again, I don't have cable and my TV lacks an antenna, so all I would be able to do is sit there, wave parsley, and shout encouagement at the blank TV screen.

But I'm not one to go along with the crowd and my cluelessness as to football is but the tip of the iceberg. My youth was spent doing what was expected but as I got older, particularly during the college years, I developed my own strong sense of self. I certainly don't fit into any preconceived mold with respect to hobbies, interestes, academic pursuits, occupation and the like. I'm this ecclectic mix that defies pigeonholing into any particular cagegory.

Perhaps I'll write more on this later tonight. In the meantime, I need to foray into the kitchen and get dinner going. Yeah, it's early yet, but I have a lot of prep work to do. I'll be sure to close the blinds before hauling the parsley out of the fridge, lest I'll have a dozen screaming football fans banging on my door.

Saturday, January 22, 2005

Snow and Rain and Thunder

As it turned out, the snow this morning lasted all of ten minutes before changing over to rain and occasional sleet which has yet to stop. We even experienced a few rumbles of thunder this evening. Rain, sleet, and thunder: how weird is that?

It was simply too cold and wet to leave the apartment today, so the shopping trips metioned this morning will have to wait....perhaps until tomorrow. I left the apartment once and that was to make the obligatory run across the street to Starbucks then down the block to return the DVDs I rented on Thursday. Otherwise, today was a very lazy day. It was nice, however, and much needed.

I'll be more productive tomorrow.

The Weekend

A cloudy, cold morning in Norfolk. Supposedly the snow is on the way, but there's much indecision as to how much we're going to get. Currently we're slated for an inch or so before it turns to rain, then back to snow tonight, but all of this may change depending on the track of the storm. Either way it's going to be messy.

Damn bad weekend to be on call.

The beauty of this weekend is that I have absolutely no plans other than staying more or less close to home and refrain from alcoholic refreshments JUST in case I'm paged. Much of what I may or may not do depends on the weather. As there are a few books and a number of DVDs on my list to buy, a trip to Barnes and Noble or Best Buy in Virginia Beach would be nice but such forays will ultimately depend on the condition of the roads later today. I may also wander down to the small cell phone store (the store itself is small; it's not that they sell small cell phones. Just had to clarify that) a half a block away from the apartment. I've gone without a personal cell phone since the spring of 2001, so it's about time to move up into the technological century again. Many of my less charitable friends roll their eyes when I speak of this, but I'll show them! HA!

But at least they can still mock me for not having a microwave.

I'm recovering nicely from Thursday's dental procedure and my tooth (or more precisely, the lack thereof) has evolved to nothing more than a dull, annoying ache with occaisonal stabs of real pain, mainly when I'm out in the cold such as occurred yesterday. Early in the morning two of my employees were involved in a minor (and I emphasize MINOR) traffic accident which amounted to nothing more than a bump between vehicles, such as would occur with an over-vigorous parallel parking maneuver. As soon as I got the call, I rushed to the scene and stood around in the cold and wind for almost an hour waiting for the police to eventually show up and do the paperwork. There was absolutely no damage to either vehicle, depsite the claim by my employees that they were sitting still when the car hit them at 45 miles per hour.

The thing that bothered me the most were the aspersions my employees were casting at the guy who hit them. He was young, from Central America, and obviously hasn't been in the U.S. that long. Evidently, they saw him as the weaker individual and were verbally bullying him when I arrived. He was obviously frightened, so my first action was to put myself between the kid and my two miscreants..errr...employees and did what I could to calm the kid down. A friendly demeanor and tone can certainly go a long way towards this end. Oddly enough, one of my employees continued harrassing the kid despite the fact I was standing right there. Unbelievable! My guys should know better. It was all I could do to refrain from royally dressing him down right there in the streeet. As my friends know, I have the patience of the Biblical Job and it take a lot to get me angry or upset, but what I saw yesterday certainly pushed the limits of my patience. At my order, the instigator begrudginly shuffled off to sit in the vehicle until the ordeal was over, but not without first shooting me a particularly nasty look that essentially said "why are you siding with that foreigner and not me?"

Obviously this incident calls for stern disciplinary action and I brought the organizational policy and procedure manual (a manager's best friend in many situations) home with me this weekend in order to throughly review the process and my various options (written reprimand, formal counseling session, suspension, etc.). Ideally, punishment should have been doled out yesterday, but both of them rushed themselves off to the doctor for "severe back and neck pain" as soon as we returned to the office and subsequely went home to recover from the "horrific" accident, so I didn't have the opportunity. However, come Monday morning they will be soundly disciplined. They have to be made to understand that as public servants, we have to maintain a certain demeanor with the public regardless of the circumstances.

Thursday, January 20, 2005

No Pain, No Gain

The snow of yesterday afternoon has all but physically disappeared, but it lingers still in the conversations of practically everyone you meet. It was quite a mess here last night as the snow started falling shortly before rush hour and subsequently turned all major roads into accident-strewn parking lots. I was in class when we suddenly got word that the university had closed (mind you, we had but a light dusting of snow) so all the students could rush out and contribute to the rapidly growing nightmare traffic. And it was most certainly a nightmare. I live no more than three miles from the university and it took nearly two hours to get home and that was with the use of shortcuts.

And more snow is forecast for tonight, tomorrow, and the weekend. Ugh.

Today was a very short workday due to a dental appointment at ten. I finally got around to getting that one problematic tooth extracted. Boy was that ever fun. The procedure lasted nearly two hours due to the implantation of grafting material after the tooth was surgically removed. The tooth was also one of the large ones way in the back (a molar?) so it wasn't exactly in an easy to reach place. The procedure was much more time consuming and a lot more costly than a regular extraction (not a major concern due to solid dental insurance), but the upside to the more elaborate procedure is that I'll have a replacement tooth implanted in the void in about three months.

The subsequent pain was more than a little intense. (My opinoin of this is probably biased since I don't tolerate pain all that well.) I had the luxury of experiencing nearly the full brunt of it due to a pharmacist very slow in filling my Vicoden prescription. When they promise half an hour, they really mean an hour and a half. But one Vicoden later, all is well with the world. I felt well enough a short while ago to wander down to the local video store (a full half a block away) to rent a bunch of movies for tonight and tomorrow if we get snowed in and the office closes.

Tuesday, January 18, 2005

The Good Samaritan Strikes Again

Currently it's 19 degrees here in Norfolk which is certainly some of the coldest weather we've had in a very long time. The old steam radiators in my apartment are hissing and chattering away and the warmth is absolutely wonderful despite the fact that I have the radiators turned way back. Not quite turned off, but very close to it. If I had them wide open, I would be able to bake bread on my desk and fry eggs on the windowsill.

Typically I don't mind the cold, but this is a bit much. When I got home from work this evening, I had to park way down the block and walk to my apartment building and nearly froze en route. Had my path home been just a few steps farther, rescuers wouldn't find my body until spring when the snowbank melted. But this is Virginia and there was no snowbank, so I trudged on against the biting wind and blowing leaves.

And then there was the lady standing in her driveway madly waving a broomstick in the air.

Was she fighting off an attacking bee? Doubtful. Too cold for bees. Curious soul that I am, I stopped to investigate, staying well out of broomstick range. It turned out that sometime during the day the wind had blown a large piece of plastic wrap up into a tree in her otherwise pristine front yard which was billowing in the wind as we stood there in the bitter cold and fading light of evening. Even with the broom handle, she was a bit too short to reach and haul down plastic, so at my request, she offered me the broom stick which I began waving wildly in the air. A passing car slowed and for a moment I thought the driver was going to leap out and save us from what was obviously a robust attack by renegade bees.

But as I am nearly six-three, I soon got hold of the plastic and hauled it down. The lady issued a quick thanks and scurried inside with the plastic in hand and her hero, mission accomplished, trudged onward towards home.

Monday, January 17, 2005

Afternoon Coffee

Well it's been a quiet week in Lake Wobegon...

Wait...wait...that's not correct. Let me start again.

Well it's been a quiet day in Norfolk. I've worked diligently on the thesis and consequently have made respectable progress. A little more to go (no more than a few more hours' work) and the infernal thing will be finished and on its way to my advisor. Between bouts of hammering away on the laptop (and periodically removing cats from the keyboard---the laptop is warm, so I guess they want to sleep there), I've also managed a much-needed trip to the grocery store, plus a few additional errands. Most importantly, I caught a nice afternoon nap.

So here I now sit in the study with a steaming cup of coffee before me. The howling wind is causing a rouge branch of the large magnolia tree next door to brush occasionally against my window. I must remind the neighbor about that before the next hurricane season.

It has been a week now since I returned from my trip and it seems that I've recovered about as much as I'm probably going to. (Yes, I know I ended the last sentence with a preposition. So sue me!) On a certain level, things aren't quite the same as they were when I left. And I don't mean in a material sense either; it's more of a matter of perspective, of insight into what comprises life here as I know it. Things seem so much smaller, so much more inconsequential, and my patience for a lot of the buffoonery we all have to deal with on a daily basis grows very thin. Our emphasis on material acquistion makes me sicker now than it did before. Is this grasping materialism the heart of American culture, the best we have to offer?

I noticed this phenomenon two years ago when I returned from a trip to South America, but that trip was much shorter than this one. So I suppose three weeks away was sufficent time for many perceptions about life at home to evolve. Perhaps all this is symptomatic of a broadening worldview, the greater realization that wherever we go in the world, we're all largely the same at heart, with the same needs, dreams, and hopes. Tear away the artifical construct of nationality, the label that we use to separate us from them, "good" from "evil" and you're left with just us, a bunch of humans, who often don't treat each other as we should, bound together, traveling on this tiny blue planet as it spins through infinte space and time.

Funny this sort of thing is never mentioned in any travel guides.

Monday AM

A holiday from work, but I was up early this morning nonetheless. Today promises to be very busy between cleaning, paying a few bills, running to the grocery store, and working on a thesis project that's due today. The latter has priority, obviously, (particularly since I haven't even started on it) and I'll probably get rolling on that as soon as the caffeine is coursing sufficiently through my veins.

Sunday, January 16, 2005

The Here and Now

A rainy and terribly cold afternoon in Norfolk. One would think that with these temperatures, we would be getting snow. But NOOOOOO. All the snow had to happen when I was away on vacation.

It's one of those afternooon to wrap up in a blanket and read. I just perused the book collections in my living room and study (my apartment looks like a library.. except for not having a reference librarian on staff...yet!) but nothing really caught my eye. I've either read them all or if I haven't, am not in the mood for that particular tome. Ah well....maybe it will be a good afternoon to run to Barnes and Noble.

For the first time in well over a year, I hauled myself out of the apartment this morning to attend formal meditation. There's a small Buddhist group that meets a few blocks from where I live that practices in the tradition of Thich Nhat Hahn, the Vietnamese Zen master now living in France. Up until about a year or so ago, I attended on a fairly consistent basis, but over time developed a keen interest in lazy Sundays, so my attendance ultimatly dropped off.
Depsite my time away, the format of the meeting had not changed: introductions and open discussion among the group followed by a videotaped lecture. All of this was followed by 20 minutes of sitting meditation, ten minutes of walking mediation, then capped off with 20 more minutes of sitting meditation. Afterwards a bunch of us went out for lunch and general socializing. It was very nice getting back into the practice and the group was as warm and welcoming as ever.

Over the years, formal meditation has helped keep many things in my life in the proper perspective. It is so easy to become overwhelmed with the comings and goings of daily life, particularly when you pile full-time graduate studies on top of everything else. Meditation is one of those neat little things that keeps one focused on the present moment, the here and the now and makes everything so much more manageable. While one should certainly be aware of the big picture, ones primary focus should be on the task at hand, whether completing a project at work, studying for an exam, washing dishes, or simply just being alive in the present moment.

Certainly a most profound and useful philosophy.

Wednesday, January 12, 2005

The Land of Compassion

In the short time I’ve been home, many have inquired as to my take on the tsunami disaster in Thailand. Was I there? Did I get any great pictures? The answer to these questions is invariably no. I was in Bangkok far to the north on that dreadful day and subsequently didn’t travel any further south than Phetchaburi, located on the Gulf of Thailand far from any immediate tsunami effects.

As mentioned in a previous entry, I didn’t learn of the disaster until much later that same day and I think at that time no one, myself included, truly understood the magnitude of the event. Only much later that night and over the course of the next day did we begin to comprehend the scale of the disaster, not only in Thailand but across the Indian Ocean. As television footage filtered in and the death toll climbed, we began to realize just how fortunate we were to have decided to go north to Chiang Mai that week instead of south to Phuket.

While far from the immediate devastation, I was certainly not oblivious to the effects in Bangkok.Over the course of the following days, local news channels and CNN were running non-stop coverage, as were the newspapers. Certainly television footage of waves sweeping away busses, homes, and people are the things that captures the attention of the world and with good reason for it was unprecedented in modern history. But it was the response of the Thai people that to me was truly newsworthy, a heartwarming ray of hope during those dark hours and days. Perhaps even before the general shock wore off, Thais leapt to the response in a myriad of ways. Seemingly overnight, donation boxes sprung up on almost every street, calls for blood donation received a vigorous response, and at drop off points people from all walks of life lined up to deposit clothes, household goods, and other essentials for those who lost everything. People who probably had very little to give were giving what little they could spare. Walking by the Red Cross in Bangkok one afternoon a few days after the disaster, we saw truck after truck, each heavily loaded with boxes of sundry sizes, leave the compoud en route to the devastated southern provinces. Remarkably, cars and busses and taxis all pulled over to let the convoy through the abominable, yet typical traffic congestion.

On a superficial level, these things themselves were only part of what made the response so significant. Similar things were surely occurring in other affected countries and, later, the world over. However, it was the conviction, the heartfelt, serious manner in which the Thais went about their response that made it touching and demonstrated that, despite all that's wrong in the world, the better, brighter side of human nature, when faced with seemingly overwhelming challenges, is capable of shining though the clouds of war, hatred, ignorance, and fear.

Thailand is known as “The Land of Smiles” for its friendly, easy-going people. This certainly proved true on innumerable occasions throughout my travels around the country. Based on what I observed following the disaster, Thailand could also justly be called “The Land of Compassion” for the remarkable outpouring of the wallet, home, and heart for those affected by one of the worst natural disasters in recorded history. So with respect to the tsunami disaster I was fortunate in two very different, yet related ways. First, my travels that week took me northward. Second and more important, I was so very fortunate to have witnessed compassion, true compassion, in its most practical, yet sublime form.

Back to Normalcy...Almost

I'm slowly becoming readjusted to the routine of my life, but with one notable exception: I'm getting up much earlier than usual. Historically, I've pretty much been an early riser, but crawling out of bed at 4:30am as Ive done the last few days is a bit much. Starbucks isn't even open at that hour! The early start to my day isn't necessarily a bad thing as I have even more time to focus and plan my day before heading out to the office.

And speaking of the office: one of the goals for this coming week (and possibly weekend) is to give it a total makeover starting with new paint and new carpet. I picked up a host of decorations whilst in Thailand and when combined with items I picked up from a previous work trip to South America, I have enough things on hand to give my work environment a singularly unique character.

And by the way: I'm in the process of sorting out my big trip for this year: Honduras in December. Hopefully by then I'll have figured out how to post pictures on here.

Monday, January 10, 2005

There and Back Again

The arrival back home in Norfolk about a quarter till five yesterday afternoon thus ended my first (but surely not the last) Thailand adventure. The flights went smoothly and unlike the outbout trip, my luggage actually arrived home when I did. So it was a good ending to a truly awesome vacation.

The route home took us from Dallas to Memphis then eastward into Virginia. From my window seat I noticed the pattern of mountains change from seemingly random to long ridges running in a north-south direction which I presumed (correctly as it turned out) to be the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia. Soon the mountains dropped away and our flight then followed a river coursing across the broad, flat plain. Given our location and the topography below, this had to be the James River. Ultimately the river passed though a familiar city: Richmond. From that point we turned southeast, still following the James River towards the coast and home.

On that final stretch I began to pick out familiar sights: Jamestown and nearby Williamsburg and a number of colonial-era plantations built right on the brown meandering river below. These were the travel destinations of my youth, those eagerly anticipated daytrips back when my world was much smaller than it is today. Somehow this was a fitting end to the journey to and from Southeast Asia and symbolic in many ways of how the limit of ones horizons evolve and expand over the course of a lifetime.

Friday, January 07, 2005

Winding Down

A sunny and very warm early afternoon in Bangkok. The street below the apartment is more or less known as the best “amulet market” in the city as evidenced by the number of people wandering up and down the street or simply lingering over a stall examining whatever trinket trough a small magnifying lens. Through the open windows comes the sound of vendors and prospective buyers haggling over prices, the occasional tinkling of bells, the barking of a dog, and the rumble of traffic from the main street a block away. It has taken some time to adjust to such a riot of daily life and to be honest I’ve adapted to the point where I’ll miss it when heading home tomorrow night. Nothing I’ve seen in the States can even compare to such a vibrant, thriving (and at times irritating) style of life.

We returned to Bangkok very early this morning after spending two days in Pattaya, the quintessential vacation resort most frequented by foreigners. I was not particularly fond of Pattaya as it was largely a typical resort city lacking in the character and charm that have made most of the towns and cities I’ve visited so endearing. It may just have well been Virginia Beach, but with many more large hotels and palm trees. And traffic driving on the left. The trip down there was nonetheless worth it as it provided a very different perspective of Thailand and one that I will most likely avoid in any return trips. Despite its singular lack of charm, Pattaya provided a certainly sense of “completeness” to the vacation as I’ve traveled now from the mountains to the sea and many places in between.

More than likely this will be my last journal entry from Thailand, as I’ll be heading home tomorrow night. One regret concerning this trip (other than the fact it’s winding down) was the sketchier nature of Internet access than originally planned hence the sporadic frequency of my entries. I did however keep a detailed written journal of travels and assorted noteworthy observations, so I’ll continue to post here once I return home. Along with my camera, The journal book was my constant companion throughout Thailand. There was always time to jot a few lines, whether sitting by the beach in Pattaya or Cha-am, having coffee at some small Chiang Mai cafĂ©, or resting on a shaded bench at The Temple of the Emerald Buddha here in Bangkok watching passersby both Thai and foreign marveling at temple architecture so ornate so beautiful it is known the world over. There is much more I want to relate, particularly those larger themes that permeated the entire trip, those ever-so-Thai elements that colored brightly even the most mundane of activities.

Anyway…off to wander about Bangkok. Still a little shopping and sightseeing left to do.

Tuesday, January 04, 2005

Raiders of the Lost Monks

Did a bit of cave exploration yesterday near Phetchaburi, a small city located several hours drive southwest of Bangkok. This was perhaps one of the most harrowing, yet exciting adventure of the Thailand experience due to the ruggedness of the terrain, the tight, dusty confines of the cave, complete lack of lighting and safety standards, and the sheer beauty of the limestone walls. And the monkeys; so many monkeys. Dozens of all sizes were running around the parking area when we arrived. Some were sitting on parked cars; others were just ambling about looking for handouts or tourists to pester. One of the first things I noticed was a foreboding sign that warned against teasing the monkeys. Nothing to worry about, as I was not about to tease any monkeys and besides, how do you tease a monkey anyway? And what would happen if you tease them? So with my backpack and all personal belongings close at hand to prevent monkey theft, we headed up the stone steps.

The first cavern we entered was set up as a Buddhist temple of sorts, complete with a host of Buddha images including a long Reclining Buddha running almost the length of the main chamber. Everywhere there were candles and flowers left by the devout, and the scent of incense permeated the entire cave. As it common with all temples in Thailand (as well as Royal sites and every home you visit), we removed our shoes before entering this cave and placed them next to the stairs outside the entrance where there was an attendant on duty, presumably to shoo away any primates curious about footwear. Few things would make the daytrip more difficult than a monkey running off with one or both of your shoes. As it turned out, I should have worn socks. The floors of the cave temple were made of granite and it was so very cold on bare feet.

As remarkable as the cave temple was, it paled in comparison to the next cave we visited much further up the mountain. For this one a local boy volunteered himself to be our guide for whatever price we thought was appropriate. So up the trail we went following the quick footsteps of this kid in flip-flops holding a powerful, yet antiquated flashlight. Ultimately we came to a bend and off to the left behind a large tree with its roots gnarled around rocks was the entrance to the cave, tucked away next to the rock wall. I suppose it could be called an entrance: a narrow opening (basically a hole in the ground) with an even narrower ladder (or was it a ‘stairway?”) descending into the shadowy depths. We could not see the bottom here and I began to question the wisdom of following some random kid down stairs so narrow you could only descend sideways while holding on to a wobbly railing that was probably useless were you to lose your balance. At the bottom he provided us with little entirely useless candles which soon blew out as we descended deeper into the cave. I hoped that he had fresh batteries in his flashlight.

Deeper into the dark we went, passing areas so low that you had to remove your backpack and crawl through on all-fours. The beam from the kid’s flashlight waved everywhere as he pointed out sketchy places on the trail and interesting features nearby. Fortunately my friend was able to translate much of what was said and I was happy that the kid’s discourse in geology, though basic, was largely on the mark. At some points the trail was but a little ledge between the limestone wall and unseen depths below. I suppose they weren’t all that deep or some semblance of safety precautions would have been in place. Or so I hoped. I entertained everyone by occasionally stumbling in the dark (intentionally, of course). Ultimately we descended a flight of narrow, crumbling stairs and squeezed through a gap into a large antechamber lit only by a broad beam of sunlight coming through a crack in the high ceiling. In the muted light we could see a flat, crude stone platform off to the right on top of which sat life-sized statues of two monks. Rumor has it that these two monks used to descend into the cave to meditate many years ago and the place was set up as a shrine for their piety, inaccessible as it was. The dim antechamber, the narrow beam of sunlight illuminating a narrow swath of limestone wall and floor, small piles of rubble presumably from past landslides, the dusty statues: the scene was straight out of an Indiana Jones movie.

So after taking our time exploring the depths of the cave and examining the beautiful limestone formations we followed the kid back to the surface more or less along the same path as our descent. Upon our return to the parking lot we noticed our dusty truck absolutely covered in monkey tracks. The hood, the roof, the bed. Everywhere. I can’t imagine what they would have done if I had disregarded the posted warnings about teasing.