Strollin’

9 Jun

Since the tiny gentleman joined us, I’ve tried to make it a habit to take evening stroller walks around our neighborhood. The munchkin gets some fresh air and sometimes a relaxing snooze, and I get to stretch my legs. I have taken to ambling up one side street (yaek) of our ‘hood and down another, often making a bit of a loop. Occasionally I run errands while out and about, but normally I wander without a set plan. Prior to these walks, the majority of my moving throughout the neighborhood had been via motorbike; it has been highly enjoyable taking in the scenery at a significantly slower speed. Many of the yanks were uncharted territory, and I’ve discovered all manner of intriguing sights over the past few months.

One of my favorite things has been admiring and photographing the abundant greenery. A large portion of Thailand is lush and green and fabulous, and our neighborhood is no exception. Every nook and cranny has something growing in it. Crack in the sidewalk? There’s a plant sprouting. Empty beer can? Makes a great repurposed planter. Leave your bike laying around a little too long? There’s a vine climbing all over it. The typical Thai home has dozens of pots and containers outside, some artistically arranged, some strewn about, and all have various plant life growing. Even in downtown Bangkok, one can find potted plants in parking lots, and vines contentedly flowering around corners. It is safe to say that the flora of Southeast Asia is doing quite well. Since I began my walks I’ve seen zillions of gorgeous flowers, and all manner of fruits and vegetables, including pomegranates, limes, chillies, and jackfruit (photo on the right). Recently I found and photographed the tiniest pineapple I have ever seen. I am fairly certain the Thais think I’m crazy when I pause and crouch to snap pictures of oranges and flowers, but that hasn’t stopped me.

Along with the amazing plant life comes some grade A people watching. As the sun begins to set and the temperature cools down, the Thais emerge like clockwork. Only the farang are silly enough to run around in the heat of the day; the Thais wait until sunset to enjoy some fresh air. In our neighborhood, people hang out on benches, take walks, and let the kids run about. Our neighbors across the street loves to play a net-free version of badminton in the middle of the road with their pint-sized daughter. Kids race their bikes up and down the yaeks while the grownups chit chat in front of their homes. I have certain streets that I’ve taken a liking to for one reason or another, so I frequently see the same people engaged in their evening activities. One of my favorite walking loops has a trio of cute little kids who ride their bikes near the stroller so they can coo and giggle at Oliver. Another street has a gentleman who can often be found squatting near a small grill, cooking up dinner. Although I have taken many a plant-themed photo, I have mostly avoided taking pictures of our neighbors. It seems far more polite to simply smile and nod as we stroll past them. With that in mind, please enjoy this exceedingly floral photo collage (and also a random millipede – it was just huge).

 

Knocked Up Abroad

25 Apr

Get it? Hehe… Yes, I had entirely too much fun thinking of that title. Enjoy. 😉

Many people have asked me what it was like being pregnant and having a little munchkin while living overseas. I have been debating for months now whether or not to write a post about this topic, partly because I didn’t want to overshare, and partly because I’m not sure how to answer the question. Since I’ve never had a child while not living abroad, I have nothing to compare the experience to. That being said, I’ve had quite some time during my maternity leave to reflect on the past year. Without further ado, here is a brief overview of my experience being pregnant in Thailand. This is by no means representative of what having a child here would be like for anyone else, so please forgive any generalizations (blame it on my semi-tired new mama brain).

The Thais love babies. LOVE babies. The moment my belly started showing in a way that was clearly maternal and not overweight farang, I became very popular. Everyone, and I mean everyone, felt the need to touch my stomach. My preggo belly was fair game for all, from the gentleman who works at my favorite massage place, to the students’ grandmothers. For the most part, this did not distress me since my stomach felt like it belonged to someone else entirely and was no longer part of my own body. The only times this became alarming were the surprise attacks; I would be walking down the hall at school and a student’s mom would pop up and reach for my belly, nearly tripping me. I didn’t mind the belly rubs, but I really didn’t want to fall on my stomach and squash the little one.

Along with the belly rubs came a wide variety of comments and questions. The combination of cultural differences and the language barrier resulted in some fascinating conversations about my preggo state of being. “One or two?” was a popular question, especially as I reached 30+ weeks and became decidedly large. Nothing makes a woman in her third trimester feel more awesome than being reminded of her size. The size remarks extended to my swollen feet from the ladies at the massage spa: “Feet so big!!”, and, awkwardly, my growing breasts. Our maid commented, “Oh, big you! Milk a lot, a lot!” Suddenly, conversation topics that were previously off-limits in polite society became fair game, and not just with the Thais. I found myself earnestly discussing nipple cream with a male coworker, being asked by a parent if I was peeing often, and casually chatting about placentas with near-strangers. Does this happen in the US?

My favorite pregnancy-related comments came from my students. Being preggo while teaching small people is awesome. They were endlessly fascinated and curious about my increasing state, and the variety of background knowledge each kid had about pregnancy ran the gamut from fully informed to adorably clueless. Questions included: When will it hatch? Is your belly big because there’s an egg in there? Is your belly getting bigger every time the baby gets bigger? Is he sleeping now? Can he watch TV? One of my little munchkins took to measuring how far her arms could go around my growing belly, and kissing it hello every morning. Another slyly suggested his own name for the baby. Several third grade girls, former students, brainstormed male names for me. Among their suggestions were Andrew, Robby, Michael (off the table for obvious reasons), and Liam. Their top choice was Leonardo, and they had thoroughly thought through their suggestion: “Leonardo after the painter and Leonardo DiCaprio, and you can call him Leo for short.” The picture on the left is the kindergarteners trying to listen to the baby and find out if he’s talking.

Finally, there was the hospital experience abroad. Bangkok has some world-class hospitals, and people come from all over to have surgery here for a fraction of the cost. I don’t know what my experience would have been in the US, but here in Thailand the prices of the birth were reasonable, and the care was excellent. I loved our doctor. She was tiny and Thai, flawlessly dressed, and perfectly coiffed with a random butterfly tattoo on her neck. I suspect she is over fifty, but some subtle tweaks have made her appear rather ageless. I kept calling her the Thai Dr.Ruth; she was both very proper and completely frank about everything. Even in the midst of my super painful, drug-induced contractions, a part of my mind was observing the classy, black lace dress she was sporting under her lab coat, and thinking how wildly unsuited for a baby delivery her ensemble was. Her complete calm and reassuring vibe made the whole process as fuss-free as possible.

And now… we have a munchkin! Mr.Oliver is officially eight weeks as I hit publish on this post. Tales of parenting in Thailand will be sure to follow. 🙂

 

 

Pranburi

18 Feb

* Taking the opportunity of my maternity leave to polish off a blog post that has been pending…

Winter break this year found me thirty-two weeks pregnant and not inclined to travel very far. However, I wasn’t about to let twenty-four days of school break pass by without at least a little adventure, so off we went to Pranburi. Although the area is only a thirty minute drive south along the coast from the city of Hua Hin, it feels like a completely different world. Hua Hin is bustling and filled with tourists; Pranburi is closer to being the middle of nowhere. Orestes had a dubious expression on his face when our car first pulled up to the hotel, the usual “what has my wife gotten me into now?” face that I know and love. 🙂

I admit that on our first afternoon stroll the area did not appear to offer much in the way of entertainment. The beach front is occupied by hotels and restaurants, but other than the one main road along the coast, the area is quite empty. The hotels and tiny shops quickly fade into pineapple plantations as you head inland. That area along the Gulf of Thailand is known for its kitesurfing opportunities, which looked like great fun, but clearly wasn’t an option for me at that moment in time. After the first afternoon of aimless wandering, we rented a scooter so we could venture further afield.

The coastline of Pranburi is lovely. Even in the busy tourist season of img_6848December, there was an underwhelming number of people about, most of whom were domestic tourists. A delightful breeze blows constantly (hence the kitesurfing) which meant that one could lounge in the sun for hours and never overheat. We had a third floor room at our cute little hotel; the two flights of stairs were a little exhausting but the private terrace with a beach view more than made up for the extra climbing effort I had to exert.

On one afternoon, we visited Pranburi Forest Park, a large protected mangrove swamp with a raised walkway. Mangroves fascinate me, both their snazzy root structure and their environmental role in preventing erosion and creating habitat for creepy crawlies. The walkway was lovely and shaded, and provided a nice little stroll through nature; we saw some crabby fellows and heard some splashing monitor lizards. img_6871Our drive to the forest was also a bit of an adventure. Google maps led us to what seemed like a dead end, and I stopped at a hotel to ask directions. The lady at the desk cheerfully directed me through a closed wooden gate, and sent us off down a dirt track into the wilderness. She knew what she was talking about however; a few minutes of off-roading and a monitor lizard sighting later, we emerged next to the parking lot of the park. I was tickled pink by the whole escapade; Orestes was perhaps less than amused to be driving his preggo wife along a bouncy dirt track.

On another afternoon, we drove south along the coast for quite a ways. We discovered a unique looking temple, and a colorful gathering of Thai fishing boats, among other things. There is apparently a cave temple one can hike to; I was game to try but reluctantly allowed myself to be persuaded not to by some fellow hotel guests. Next time! Pranburi also offered up some tasty seafood options, and a whole lot of quality relaxation. The final verdict? Pranburi is perfect for quiet time. We both agreed we would happily return but perhaps with a group of friends so as to have some more entertainment… or it might be perfect for beach time with a tiny munchkin!

Seoul

3 Jan

We visited Seoul in late October, which means this post has been pending since early November. I have been incredibly unpunctual in my blogging efforts, and I am going to shamelessly play the preggo card as an excuse. Something tells me that the arrival of the munchkin man will add to these delays… However, I figure better late than never, so here goes with some thoughts on Seoul.

One of the undeniable perks of international teaching is the chance to align interesting professional development opportunities with desirable travel destinations. I was sent to img_6392Seoul to attend an ESL-themed PD, and Orestes came along because adventure! Although I had to spend four solid days attending the conference, I made time to lead Orestes on mini-explorations every evening. Seoul in late October was in the midst of some glorious fall weather. Autumn has always been my favorite season, and living in Thailand has deprived us of that delightful temperature change for five years. I not-so-secretly wish our long break between school years took place in September/October. Seoul had everything I’d been missing: leaves changing colors, the brisk wind and chill that make extra layers necessary, and that unique, dry scent that accompanies the decaying of plants and the turning on of heating systems. I spent our six days in Seoul thrilled and freezing cold (but weirdly thrilled about being cold).

Aside from the fall weather, another great thing about Seoul was the food. Korean barbecue is world-famous for good reason, and we did not waste opportunities to stuff our faces. One of the gentlemen img_6457attending the PD had previously lived in Seoul, and he organized a dinner one evening at a local BBQ joint. It was the sort of place where tourists never end up; the floor was made of cement slabs, and the air was filled with the smoke of dozens of tiny grills. The seating consisted entirely of hollow stools made out of metal barrels. To prevent one’s jacket and other belongings from acquiring a meat/smoke smell, one lifts up the seat cushion, and stashes said belongings inside. Smelly clothes and pick pockets foiled all at once! I thought these were brilliant. I also loved the general concept of Korean BBQ – grilling your meat of choice, choosing tasty tidbits of kimchi, pickled radish, and sautéed garlic to add in, and wrapping it all up in leafy greens with spicy sauce. Here’s a little montage our some of our eating exploits while in Seoul:

Aside from attending my PD and eating BBQ every night, I picked out a few cultural sights for us to see. We visited the War Memorial of Korea located in a park not far from the neighborhood where we were staying. A super short history lesson here: At the end of WWII, the Soviet img_6404Union “liberated” the north of the country from Japan, while the US occupied the southern portion. As the Cold War begin, Korea was split in two. In 1950, North Korea invaded the South in an effort to unite the country. The US defended the South, while China and the USSR aided the North. The war was intense and bloody and incredibly damaging to the entire Korean peninsula. The main fighting came to an end in 1953 when an armistice was signed, creating the DMZ; however, no peace treaty has ever been signed, so technically the two countries are still at war. A large monument in the park, titled the Statue of Brothers, represents a South Korean soldier embracing a North Korean soldier, offering forgiveness. The cracked dome they are standing on symbolizes the split between the two, and the hope for a unified Korea (under the South’s government of course). Both governments consider themselves the true Korean government.

We also explored the National Museum of Korea, with its many cultural art displays, and the Dongdaemun area, where we encountered a delightful combination of food truck festival, architectural ruins, and trendy LED light display. Oh Asia… On our last morning in Seoul, I got up early to watch the changing of the guard at Gyeongbokgung Palace. Although the guard changing was quite popular with tourists, the palace grounds are extensive, and I wandered through a large portion of them in relative peace and quiet, enjoying the cloudy fall morning.

Final impressions of Seoul: The city is ridiculously clean and organized, which contrasts dramatically with what we’ve gotten used to here in Bangkok. The sidewalks are swept daily, and the impeccably punctual metro system has public restrooms in every single station that are monitored by attendants (the new yorker in me was fascinated by this). Seoul is pricier than Bangkok, and colder, but it seems like it would be a great place to live. Orestes and I both agree we would like to return and further explore!

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Luang Prabang Take Two

7 Dec

After the hustle and bustle of the Boat Racing Festival in Vientiane, it was nice to settle in to the laid-back calm of Luang Prabang. The petite city is one of my favorite spots in Southeast Asia. Around every corner lies a new and lovely vista to admire. The city is positively filled with picturesque temples, gorgeous river views, antique buildings, and flowering trees. Four days spent wandering and relaxing were exactly what we needed to finish up October break.

Since we had already spent time in Luang Prabang a few years ago, I felt less pressure to go out and do anything in particular; however, we did sample a few touristy items, including a visit to the UXO Visitor Center (UXO = unexploded ordinance, aka bombs), and a tour of TAEC, img_6359the Traditional Arts and Ethnology Centre. I tried my hand at basket weaving in a half-day class at TAEC with a patient Khmu gentleman. The Khmu are one of the hill tribes in Laos, and the men are traditionally the weavers. It turns out I am not a master basket-weaver, but I was pretty proud of my handiwork nonetheless (the photo on the right is the completed gift basket I wove). I also got up at dawn one day to observe the tak bat, the early morning collection of alms by the Buddhist monks. The barefoot, saffron-robed monks and novices walk the city in a single file line to collect rice and other food offerings from the devout, who sit patiently waiting along the streets and in front of their shops. Although I had heard that sometimes tourists try to involve themselves inappropriately, the limited number of fellow tourists I saw out and about in our end of the city were respectfully watching and snapping pics from a distance. The traditional ceremony was very peaceful and beautiful to observe. (see pics below)

By far my favorite outing from our time in Luang Prabang was a day spent at the Living Land Farm. A tuk-tuk picked us up from our hotel bright and early, and drove us to the farm around 30 minutes img_6335outside of Luang Prabang. The farm and its rice paddies are tucked into a lovely little valley. The morning was rather misty and the vibrant green of the rice fields contrasted beautifully with the distant hills (the Lao call them mountains, the Vermonter in me calls them hills). After being outfitted with rice paddy hats – I believe their proper name is Asian conical hat – we were led out into the fields. One of the members of the farm cooperative led us through the many steps of rice farming: how to select the best seeds to plant, transplanting seedlings, harvesting rice using traditional tools, threshing, sifting, and even grinding rice into rice flour.

One of the more amusing steps in the process found us plowing a rice paddy behind Rudolfe, the farm’s trusty water buffalo. Had you asked me several years ago to predict where I’d be at this time in life, five months pregnant and using high knees to tromp through paddy img_6828mud behind a buffalo would not have been my answer. That being said, the paddy mud felt delightful on the feet, and I had a grand old time wading about in it. Having gracefully acquiesced to the rice farm outing to make his preggo wife happy, I was pleasantly surprised when Orestes flung himself into the activities with enthusiasm. All of our hard work was rewarded at the end of the morning by a round of freshly pressed sugar cane juice, some rice-based treats, and a delicious Lao lunch. We even got to sample homemade rice wine (never fear, I only took a baby sip). Our guide informed me that traditionally they give the rice wine to Lao women post-delivery to help the milk flow and to “tighten things”. Alas, we didn’t bring any back with us.

Luang Prabang, you are delightful, we will be back. And now, a few of my favorite photos, added to the post “big size”.

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Vientiane

5 Nov

img_6730By all accounts, the capital of Laos is usually a sleepy sort of city. Vientiane is described in the Lonely Planet as languid and laid-back. Although it is the largest city in Laos, it tops out at a petite 760,000 or so. The Mekong floats leisurely by, and temples and cafes line the streets. Orestes and I visited Vientiane at the beginning of our fall break in hopes of some wandering and relaxation suitable for a lady five months pregnant (that would be me). Well, interesting as Vientiane turned out to be, languid is not the word I would use to describe it.

Unbeknownst to us, the weekend we arrived coincided with Boun Suang Heua, the annual Boat Racing Festival. For several nights leading up to the actual races, a street fair took over one of the main thoroughfares of Vientiane. Stalls offered food, drinks, music, shopping opportunities, and carnival games. Every evening was an opportunity for people watching; the city was packed with domestic tourists who had come to enjoy the races. The festival is meant to be an homage to the water divinities, and the Nagas, the serpent deities who live in the Mekong and protect Laos. In reality, most people use the festival as an excuse to eat, drink, and be merry.

On the final day of the festival, the park and street along the Mekong were closed to traffic. Thousands of people lined the riverbank. We could not get anywhere near the finish line, so we settled for seats in the shade along the river. From our vantage img_6747point, we watched the neon-clad racers as they performed a sort of warm-up ritual that involved plunging into the Mekong over the sides of their boats, and stretching/praying in the water before climbing aboard once again and paddling upriver to the starting line. Each long, narrow boat holds around fifty rowers. In this day and age, most of the teams have corporate sponsors. Both men and women participate, racing in heats two kilometers downstream to the finish line, accompanied by the frantic pounding of drums. I have no idea which team won, or how they sort this all out, but the crowd was enthusiastic. We watched until the noise and the heat made this preggo ready for some aircon.

We spent the remainder of our time in Vientiane ambling about, seeing the sights and taking refreshment breaks. We visited the Lao National History Museum, which is housed in an old colonial villa. img_6270As with many museums in Southeast Asia, a visible lacking of funding leads to outdated displays that show a decided lack of upkeep. In several spots on the second floor, I was a little worried we might fall through the dodgy wooden floorboards. However, the museum was interesting as it went through all of Lao history from the Stone Age to 2007 AD or so. The blatant anti-American and anti-Western sentiment in the exhibits about the Vietnam War is readily apparent; to be fair, we did bomb Laos excessively during this period, so lingering resentment is completely understandable. (For more on Laos history, check out my post here.)

Aside from our museum visit, we checked out several of the shiny wats in town, and did a lot of walking along the park bordering the Mekong. We missed out on a few of the locations I had wanted to explore in Vientiane because they were closed for the boat festival – I suppose we will just have to go back!

Istanbul

14 Oct

The story of how I ended up in Istanbul for the better part of a day is rather roundabout. When searching for summer flights, many of the airlines were quite persnickety (and by persnickety I mean pricey) when it came to three week stopovers in Madrid en route to New York City from Bangkok. Turkish Airlines turned out to be the least troublesome of our options, so despite being a less-than-direct flight path (I had to fly east to Istanbul from Madrid to fly west towards NYC) we purchased the tickets. The itinerary came with a rather lengthy (14+ hours) in Istanbul, and friends recommended leaving the airport for some exploration. Perfect! We acquired visas and made plans. Then the Turkish political situation deteriorated. And terrorists bombed the airport. And there was a failed coup d’état. The US State Department warned not to travel there. Orestes and I thought long and hard about the decision, but ultimately we decided to still venture out and explore, he on his layover, and me on mine two weeks later (for various reasons, we headed back to Bangkok at different times and I was flying solo – literally).

I landed in Istanbul bright and early before the sun rose, img_5951and hopped myself up on Turkish coffee in the airport. Truth be told, I was a little nervous about venturing out on my own. Despite my confidence in my decision, I was worried that having lived through Thailand’s coup, and traveling to multiple “unsafe” countries worldwide had made me less wary than I should have been. I boarded Istanbul’s metro, prepared to turn around should I spot anything alarming. Well, it turns out I needn’t have stressed. Other than a shocking lack of female metro riders (seriously, where were all the women?!) I saw nothing out of the ordinary. I spent the better part of seven hours wandering the central portion of Istanbul, and the only things I saw were amazing architectural sights.

My first stop was the Blue Mosque, which is officially titled the Sultan Ahmed Mosque. I had to wait for the morning prayers to be over, and I spent the time wandering the gardens and surrounding area, as well as purchasing a scarf to appropriately cover my head. I was fortunate that the morning was on the cool side; long pants, long sleeves, and a head scarf in summer make for a sweaty mosque visitor. The Blue Mosque helpfully has history and information posted around it, so I also used my spare time to educate myself. Construction was completed in 1616, and Ahmed I is entombed therein. The hand-painted blue tiles on the interior ceiling give the mosque its common name. The mosque is simply gorgeous. Perhaps due to the recent troubles in Turkey, or the early morning hour, I was one of the only visitors. I lingered for quite some time, both inside and out, tipping my head back and admiring the intricate details on every surface. The photos do not do it justice, but I tried.

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Leaving the Blue Mosque, I strolled along a tree-lined walk to the Hagia Sophia. The two amazing sights are barely a stone’s throw from one another, and the intervening space contains a lovely tiled fountain, park benches, and a peaceful plaza. Like the Blue Mosque, the Hagia Sophia was almost empty. The huge  building was built in 537 A.D. as a Greek Orthodox cathedral, and converted into a mosque in 1453. For the past century, it has been open as a museum and has not been used for religious purposes. The space is truly enormous, with towering stone walls and hanging light fixtures.  An interesting mix of Christian and Muslim art covers the walls in muted shades of greens, yellows, and grays. The photos completely fail to capture how immense, echoing, and ancient the Hagia Sophia is. I was starting to feel my early morning wake-up and jet lag at this point, and I spent a long time in the cool, quiet interior, gathering myself for the rest of the day.

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A bit of lunch and a strong cup of tea revived me for the last stop on my exploration plan, the Basilica Cistern. The underground site is ancient; a basilica originally stood on top of it (hence the name) and the img_6694cistern has been used for water storage since early Roman times. As with the other two sights, the sheer size of the cistern is impressive. A helpful pamphlet informed me that it has the capacity to store 100,000 tons of water, although it currently contains only a few feet lining the bottom. A wooden walkway leads visitors in a loop around the cistern, passing some of the more interestingly carved columns that support the ceiling. Dim lighting and the faintly reverberating sound of dripping water give the cistern a solemn vibe; loud noises seemed somehow inappropriate.  I was reluctant to leave as I was tired, and the cistern was blissfully cool ~ the day had warmed significantly since my outing began. Eventually, I headed back to the airport in a pleasantly exhausted haze. There are more sights to be seen in Istanbul, but they will have to wait for another time. In the meantime, I’m extremely glad I went!