Sunday, March 20, 2011

Melaca, Melaka, Melacca

Coming from Thailand, Malaysia was remarkably clean. The roadsides weren’t dotted with litter. There wasn’t a trash pile in sight. And, at regular intervals, you could see trashcans! The buildings still have the mascara-streaked look of age and weather; patchwork roofs with panels in various shades of rust and rot popped by. But overall, Malaysia seemed to be a remarkably clean country. 

Bahasa Malay turned out to use roman characters. After so long without seeing much even resembling English, it felt like we could read everything. However, there is no common link that makes any of it decipherable. Signs were also in Tamil and Chinese, as there are large populations of Indians and Chinese. Luckily, everyone seemed to speak English as a common language. 

Having only limited time in Malaysia, we decided that our time would be best spent in the World Heritage City of Melaka.  Melaka (Melacca? Melaca?) has a rich mixing of cultures, past and present. You can see the colonial remnants from the Dutch, Portuguese, and British. Like the rest of Malaysia, you have Indian, Chinese, and Muslim Malaysians, each with distinct neighborhoods and cultures. (But, unique to Melaka, you also see the intermarrying between Indian and Chinese.)

We stayed on the edge of Chinatown, listened to the Call to Prayer from the mosque across the street, and watched a Hindu parade.

Galleries and museums mingled with the guesthouses, restaurants, and trinket shops. The galleries boasted friendly owners and high price tags. The museums were full to the brim with mannequins dressed in traditional garb (and little regard to proportion or ethnicity), posed in various dioramas explaining colonial or cultural history. 

Melaka was awash in rich, vibrant colors. Chinatown was draped in red lanterns. Doors and shutters were painted in yellows and blues. Maroon brick poked through crumbling white.

Trees and plants infused the homes with splashes of green in interior courtyards below skylights. 

Walls, doors, and even all the chainlink and barbed wire fences were painted turquoise.

At night the city was on full display. Houses were lit in reds from every angle. Neon lights illuminated bridges and trees. Tourist boats rushed up and down the river that winds through the middle of the city, adorned and flashing. 

Our four days were spent just meandering around the city, walking up and down the river, wandering through the neighborhoods, and then napping in the afternoons. Good food, friendly people. If the beer hadn’t been so expensive it might have been perfect. Hats off to the World Heritage folks, they’ve proven themselves to us once again.

Saturday, March 12, 2011

Conquering Water?

While living in Southeast Asia, as with pretty much anywhere else we live, one of the goals is to get certified in as many ridiculous things as possible. Win already has Thai Massage under his belt, but hopefully next term I will even that one out. We would love to learn to blow glass and weld. We also want to get Scuba certified, and with its clear water, coral reef, and extensive marine life, southern Thailand is an excellent place to learn to scuba dive. 

Unfortunately, I can hardly swim. 

I have always considered swimming to be more of a survival tactic than a fun summertime activity. This may be due in large part to the fact that I never properly learned how to swim. An incident in which a chubby pig-nosed kid held eight-year-old me underwater didn’t help. The second time he did it helped even less. I can swim well enough to not drown going from point A to point B, given that A and B are not far apart. I hold my nose when I go underwater. I don’t go in water if I cannot touch the ground. I am just not a swimmer.

Back in December we spent a three-day weekend on Koh Tao. We decided to go on a full day snorkeling trip. Babysteps along the road to eventual scuba certification. 

At the first dive spot, I donned the full snorkel gear, climbed down into the water, and abruptly panicked. The fins were twisting and turning underwater, trying to pull me down; the life jacket was sneaking up in an attempt to suffocate me; the mask was all wrong; the boat was alternating in its efforts to push me underwater and inch the ladder out of my reach. That was it, I couldn’t do it. I sat on the boat crying, shaking, and smoking a cigarette while our guide tried to comfort me in Thai.

I calmed down by the next spot we stopped --- a cove with much calmer water and more to see --- and took Win’s advice. I went in without the fins (which I still think should be called flippers). Without the waves and awkward, uncontrollable frog feet, it was quite pleasant. Fish skittered past below and around us, blue and yellow, iridescent, neons, in a variety of shapes and sizes. I was in water and I was enjoying myself. 

It is now March and we are going through southern Thailand on our way to Malaysia. We planned to spend time in Hat Rai Leh and Koh Phi Phi, with the goal of snorkeling on Phi Phi, this time with fins. 

Rai Leh is a peninsula cut off from mainland Thailand by a series of towering cliffs. Accessible only by longtail boat, Rai Leh is renowned for its world class rock climbing. We found a room on the cheap side, just five minutes’ walk to the white sand beach and turquoise water that makes the other side so expensive. Aside from rock climbing, which neither of us do (Okay, Win claims to rock climb a little, but I have yet to see proof), there is little to do other than lounging on the beach drinking overpriced cocktails or kayaking around the peninsula’s various cliffs and rock formations. We decided to stay two nights in order to kayak without the pressure of catching a ferry in the same day.

The kayaking looked spectacular. But, being yet another water sport, in the open ocean with its waves and speed boat wakes, not to mention speed boats, was something I found mildly terrifying. I had been in canoes in lakes, but never in a kayak. I was expecting more than an oversized piece of plastic with seats. We were the only ones in life jackets, and I’m sure Win was simply humoring me. Every time we hit waves, no matter how small, my chest would tighten up. What if we flip over? 

But we didn’t. And eventually I accepted that we probably wouldn’t. 

Once we broke away from the flocks of other kayakers, the cliffs were even more impressive than from a distance. A surprising combination of geological happenings, they were eroding from the bottom while sprouting massive stalactites from the sides and the tops of eroded caves. Trees sprouted from every nook. 

The stone giants loomed over us tranquilly as we figure-eighted our way around and between them. We stopped on tiny hidden beaches, where I was stung by an equally tiny jellyfish and pinched by a miniscule crab. Kayaking was exhausting, but it was yet another step forward in my comfort with water. I even was conversationally tricked by Win into agreeing to go parasailing.

Next stop Koh Phi Phi. We braved the frat party, tourist-only atmosphere in lieu of the world class diving. While we didn’t have time (nor was I yet at the comfort level) to try to get Scuba certified, we figured that we would stay two nights and spend the day in between on another snorkeling trip. We also thought that by taking a longtail boat trip, rather than a big boat, we would stand the best odds of having a small group like on Koh Tao. 

A Thai picked us up on foot in the morning, as there is no motorized transport on the island, and we walked up and down the streets as our group snowballed. Once at the beach, we got into one of the three boats. We chose the one with families with children, hoping to avoid having to listen to stories about friends getting wasted and the like. We even befriended two delightful older Canadian men, one of whom looked and sounded like Canada’s version of Jack Nicholson, the other had mastered seal tricks.

First stop, open water. I once again panic, this time based on the fact that the lifejackets are all big enough to fit a grizzly bear of a man and will not adjust to a small enough size to not make me feel like I’m drowning. I was shown up by a pregnant woman, snorkeling sans lifejacket. But half of our group wasn’t snorkeling either, so it wasn’t such a disaster.

But the rest of the trip was. An old Spanish woman swam out too far and was trapped on a coral reef perch, bleeding and crying. Our boat sputtered to a stop in open water and, when efforts to tow it behind the other longtail boat failed, we bobbed and ate lunch until a replacement arrived. The new boat wasn’t big enough to hold all of us, so we were precariously spaced in order to not tip it over. The new captain skipped all but one snorkeling spot (the one cove, at least, was as beautiful as advertised). Luckily, the smaller boat had smaller lifejackets, so I was able to join Win in snorkeling comfortably. It was the abridged version of our full day of snorkeling. 

We reached Maya Bay, the backdrop for the movie The Beach and supposed climax of the trip, and had to swim, scramble over sharp rocks, climb rickety, moss-covered steps, and then walk to get there (something that the pregnant woman, children, elderly people, and now a sick woman couldn’t do). It was swarming with people and boats, and the water was a pale murky green. Compared to the bright blues and turquoises of everything else we’d seen I couldn’t see what all the fuss was about.

And then it started to rain. Hard. The sunset portion of the trip was cancelled. Despite the roof over part of the boat, it was raining inside the boat as much as outside. We sped back to Phi Phi, soaked, shivering, and protecting our camera case with a lifejacket. 

Land was in sight when our captain got the longtail stuck atop a massive underwater rock (one of many now visible due to low tide). I envisioned multiple sinking scenarios. When he finally freed the boat and made his way through the minefield to reach shore, we leapt to the safe haven of solid ground. It wasn’t even our beach, but being an island meant we could walk back. I was not going to drown. 


I still haven’t mastered the flippers. Win has (hopefully) gotten used to my clinging to him like a wet baby koala anytime the water is too deep or something touches my foot. He gives me solid advice and information to stave off the panic, things like “You can’t touch here” are always better than the surprise of sinking. While Phi Phi’s misadventure did nothing in the journey to scubaing, at least I didn’t drown.

Thursday, March 3, 2011

Cat Cat Cat Cat Cat

Living in Thailand there have been many things that I miss from home. Good beer, the knowledge that, yes, there will be toilet paper and soap in a public restroom, cheese, the non-existence of squat toilets, drinkable tap water, speaking the same language, vegetables. And what I wouldn’t give for an everything bagel with cream cheese. But also, I miss my cats.

Thailand is full of stray animals just ripe for the petting. But with the exception of two local strays, you will not see me petting a stray dog. Devoid of much in the way of personality or affection, stray dogs do little to pique my interest. They bark. They eat. They sleep a lot. Sometimes people put collars on them. End of story. Cats, however, are another matter entirely.

Fewer in number (although possibly just smaller than dogs), stray cats have become my Thailand hobby. As far as I can tell, the Thais don’t seem to pet cats; cats are merely a nuisance. Even the ones who appear to live in one place with one family do not get what I would consider pet treatment. Where is the love? Where is the anthropomorphizing? Why no cuddling? Clearly, in my two-minute love fest with each and every stray cat, it is my job to give them the lifetime of affection that they have been lacking. I’m sure I often look like the tourist equivalent to a crazy cat lady. 

I pet them all. The resident Petchaburi guesthouse feline is welcome to lounge on the vacant chair at our table as we drink our beer with ice and plan the next day’s events. I moon over the pathetic kitten in Laos, mangled stub tail all akimbo, singed fur covered in street grime, purring in my lap as I eat my meal. And let’s not forget Koh Tao’s dolled-up “ladycat,” stunning blue eyebrows and vibrant rouged cheeks courtesy of the bored ladyboys working at 7-eleven. But no Thai cat has caused me as much strife as Kitten.

Kitten. Tiny, starving Kitten. Originally part of a trio of cats that congregated in our backyard around meal times looking for leftovers --- Momma Cat, Daddy Cat, and Kitten --- Kitten remained behind as the other two moved on. Three cats had been good, but I was satisfied with only one. And Kitten looked like she needed an extra helping of love. Unfortunately, Kitten was an asshole.

We fed kitten daily. Put a little pile of food on the wall surrounding our yard whenever kitten was around. Put out a bowl of water.

What was our reward?


Kitten was loud and whiny. She would scream and hiss if we walked into the backyard. The slightest movement evoked low, guttural meows and additional hissing. Once our backs were turned she would slink over to wolf down the food, not stopping to chew, before retreating back to the farthest reaches of the yard. We even realized as Kitten got older that she is, in fact, a boy. But applying a masculine pronoun to such a whiny creature felt wrong, so Kitten is still a “she” to us. 

Aside from the devil cat trapped in our neighbors’ backyard, which once a month would climb the chain link fence, claws hooked, to stare out at us and make the terrifying sounds of a wailing banshee, the neighborhood was lacking in alternatives.  Kitten had to pass as my Thai pet. Four months and we could only get within a foot of Kitten. This is supposed to be progress.

But then, it started raining cats.

First came Orange Cat. Tiny, striped face peering down at us over the neighbor’s rain gutter, she gingerly spoke up. Kitten gave Orange Cat the royal treatment previously reserved only for her human feeding machines, but Orange Cat was unfazed. On a mission for love, food, and possibly a place to give birth, she marched straight past Kitten’s defiant yowls and showered us with affection.

The next day, Daddy Cat, lured back from wafting aromas as we made Cup O Noodles at our outdoor, single-burner stove, boldly sauntered straight through the backdoor and into the kitchen.

The message has dot-dashed its way along the feline wires: The farang teachers feed cats. Kitten lounges on the wall at a safe distance. Daddy Cat sniffs his way around the yard. Orange Cat curls around her round belly waiting for us realize that this is her new home. Even Banshee makes the occasional, blood-curdling appearance, screaming in heat at confused Daddy Cat. And with the shake of a bag, my Thai pets come running.

Time Difference

Why are there stuffed crocodiles on top of every car in the parking lot? Why has that man walked a half a block along the telephone lines? How do you fit six people on a motorbike? Why do none of the clocks say the same time?

It’s been just over five months since we moved to Thailand, and I find myself questioning what is happening on a regular basis. Five months ---various cultural surprises (some pleasant, others less so), a finished first semester, a full year’s worth of illnesses (on my part), two thousand students, three pregnant stray animals, bug bites by the hundreds, a dozen new friends, one catastrophic elephant ride, a whole heap of bruises --- and here we are. During this time I have struggled, much more than Win, with the lack of planning, the disregard for punctuality, and what I saw as general confusion.

We go to school the first week and learn we have no students Friday. We show up to school and find out we have short classes for Sports Day. We show up the next day and find out Sports Day is next week, so it will be short classes until then. We arrive on Tuesday and are told that, no, today will be Friday classes. Half day Friday. No, Thursday and Friday. First period is a concert, last period is first. All last minute, day of. No calendar, scrap the lesson plans.

In a parade for Father’s Day (King’s Day) having the foreign teachers come is an honor, so we went. After an hour and a half of getting all of the individual school lined up, teachers donning pink or yellow, and the bands ready to lead, color guards in spandex and neon, drum majors in heels and cowboy hats, we were ready to go. We then walked several kilometers through barren parts of town at dusk on streets that hadn’t been cordoned-off and to the delight of no spectators, all while carrying cardboard cutouts of the King.

In attempting to book an elephant trekking tour we settled on the jungle trek instead when the elephants were all booked. We assumed that the two treks were different and separate. The assumption resulted in a five-minute hike through the jungle, first crossing a river, then clambering up an ant-covered embankment, climbing an ant-covered ladder, crossing back over the same river (more ants), and falling in line behind the elephants to finish our trek. We dodged mounds of elephant poo and crossed rivers in water up to our armpits, bags held overhead. All this while the Thai families sat comfortably atop elephants, shaded by umbrellas, dry and unharmed by ants.

We go to a restaurant and get a menu all in Thai, so we just point at something and hope for the best.  The best instance resulting in stir fried veggies when I was feeling nutrient-depleted; the worst, rice gruel with a raw egg at the bottom and spare parts soup, complete with grey meat, tripe, liver, and various other indistinguishables. We go to a restaurant, try to order food in general and are told “Mai Mi,” no have. No have food? No have cook? We don’t know, but they don’t have something. We show up at one of three border crossings to get into Burma/Myanmar, “Cannot.” Why? “Burma is closed to you. Open Thai Burma only.”

Five months of nothing going according to plan, but here we are. And I have become much more adaptable and easy-going. There was little choice. We live on Thai Time. Things happen when they happen, and always somehow work out. When we don’t understand each other we smile and shrug. A smile goes a very long way. A good sense of humor goes even farther.