Travel as Metaphor

The blog of novelist Sue Swift.

Tuesday, February 13, 2007

From the “Who wouldda thunk it” file: Sue and the orphans

My buddy Gladys, who used to teach the weightlifting class I take, recruited me to help out with what seems to be her favorite charity: an orphanage. The residence, which houses twenty children of varying ages, is a series of shabby buildings in a suburb of Chiang Mai.

I am not quite sure how Gladys persuaded me to fix the kids an American meal. I am not a kid person. If it were left to me, the human species would reproduce by cloning.

The whole pregnancy thing creeps me out. It’s like the movie Alien, where the monster is growing inside a victim’s body and finally bursts out, killing the host.

Did you know that women still die in childbirth?

As a child, I never played with dolls. We had puppies, which are—face it—much cuter, don’t need their diapers changed and don’t get colicky.

When Gladys asked me what I really enjoy doing, I told her that I love to cook, never dreaming that she would persuade me to cook for twenty orphans.

But she did.

My first idea was that I wanted to make something thoroughly American, food that the kids would never eat in Chiang Mai. Hamburgers and hot dogs, of course, with fries.

Then I went to see the orphanage. It’s not as primitive as the average Boy Scout campsite, since there’s a fridge, big sinks and long tables. But there’s a dearth of silverware and there’s neither a grill nor an oven.

But I am a creative cook and well able to switch gears when necessary. There’s a range with a couple of burners and two big pots, so I could prepare spaghetti with tomato sauce. OK, so it’s more Italian than American, but so what? Gladys assured me that the kids would love whatever I cooked, and knowing the appetites of growing children, I was sure she was right.

Then I had oral surgery and a tummy ailment and just felt generally tired. I suggested to Gladys that we simply take the kids to Pizza Hut. We could get a couple of sang-dhows—these are pickup trucks outfitted with camper shells and bench seats down their length, and very cheap transportation--pile the kids in and take them to the restaurant. Easy-peasy.

Gladys nixed that as too expensive, and when I figured out that the excursion would cost about $100, I decided she was right.

So a spaghetti feed it would be. Today we went to the biggest supermarket in Chaing Mai, the Tesco Lotus near the airport, to buy food. Accompanying us was Steven, one of the orphanage staffers, who drove an Explorer so we could carry all the food.

We get to the store and start to look for the ingredients. Basil--check. Italian pasta—check. We pick Tesco brand fusilli, a noodle we’re sure the kids have never seen and would enjoy.

But when we got to the sauce fixings, we crashed into a brick wall. There were a few sad-looking jars of Prego, but we’d need about ten of them to feed this crowd. Because they’re imported, that was out of sight. And although there are plenty of tomatoes grown in Thailand, there are no canned tomatoes except—you guessed it—expensive ones imported from Italy. Because it’s winter, the tomatoes in the produce section are more green than red, and we’d need about a bushel of them to make sauce for the gang.

But if I’m anything, I‘m creative. If these kids wanted to experience what American children actually eat, I could do that easy. I grabbed three loaves of bread, two jars of peanut butter (Jif smooth and Skippy super chunk, my fave), strawberry and grape jams. I found hot dogs, buns, mustard (French’s) and ketchup (Heinz). Potato chips and Tesco cola.

I was good to go.

We hurried back to the orphanage, where I found out that the kids would return from school at 3:45, no doubt hungry. I whacked out two dozen or so PB&J sandwiches while Gladys made fruit salad and another staffer warmed the hot dogs in a wok. Then Steven and I put together the dogs. I squeezed mustard onto the buns, he plopped the meat in and put them on plates next to the sandwiches.

The kids arrived, an astonishingly organized, polite and well-dressed group. Two or three of the girls and a couple of the boys were dressed in scout-style uniforms and, instead of the kids attacking the partially laden plates like a plague of locusts, two older boys washed their hands and helped open chip bags and arrange chips onto the plates.

After a very few minutes, we were good to go. With a minor amount
of prompting, the kids chorused, “Thank you Auntie Susan” before sitting down and eating.

I’ve never encountered so much gratitude for so little effort…really, this could not be defined as my finest culinary moment. But the kids were curious and explorative, finding the mustard weird but liking the ketchup so much that one was spooning it into his mouth as though it were a food (remember when the Reagan administration sought to define ketchup as a vegetable? This kid would have gone for it).

When we left, Gladys explained that some of the kids were actually orphans while others were abandoned by parents who preferred drugs to parenthood. Some of the moms and dads were in jail while others were just…gone.

The orphanage is privately owned, but the couple who started it is running out of savings. Only four of the twenty kids have sponsors.

It costs about $100 per month to sponsor one of the Rainbow House orphans. If you want to contribute to the orphanage, or just want to know more about it, here’s their website:

Friday, February 09, 2007

On to Krabi

Sunday January 21: This is the kind of day that makes me think that I need a keeper. My flights to southern Thailand were YESTERDAY. I don’t know how but my mind mysteriously transmuted Saturday into Sunday…a lot has been going on emotionally. The Walua house closed this week and that was very emotional. Bruce and I had a lot of hopes and dreams bound up in that house…

I got lucky. I went to a travel agent recommended by a new friend and she got me onto flights south later today and made sure that the hotel still had my room for me.

Tuesday: I hate this place. Maybe my subconscious mind knew I’d loathe it and didn’t want me to go, made me forget the Saturday flights. The resort is a total backwater, dull as the dusty dirt beneath my feet. It’s utterly generic, could be plunked down in Palm Desert, Cancun or Florida—or anywhere—and fit in perfectly. So what’s the point?

The room itself looks nice, but it smells like rat poison and sweaty socks. It’s probably one of the three worst rooms in the entire place, being on the edge of the resort with a crappy view of the adjoining property, which is under construction. As a single older woman traveling alone, I have become accustomed to getting crappy rooms, and I am not in a position to tell the staff that I know they have better rooms available…they do have a big convention on site. (I have occasionally demanded a better room when I know that they are available. And gotten it).

On top of that, this place is nowhere near Krabi town, not that Krabi is anything special. Unless one gets a shuttle, it’s a 500 baht ride to the beach. That’s about $13. I would have rather stayed at the beach. My brother recommended this place, and it’s the last time I take his travel advice, since we don’t share tastes. (When I talked with him after the fact, his response to my belief that the place could be anywhere was an enthusiastic YEAH! As though it was a good thing.)

The staff have minimal notions of service, and later I heard from others that southern Thais are snotty, unlike the sweet northerners in Chiang Mai. The hotel internet costs 100 baht for a half hour, about fivbe times what it costs everywhere else in Thailand, including in Krabi town. The ladies at the desk refused to make a deal for the week, unheard of conduct. The workout room is minimally equipped.

Krabi itself is hot and humid, which I expected. The resort grounds are lovely, but it’s really not enjoyable when at 5:30 p.m. one is chased indoors by the heat. It was hot out at 10 in the morning, too. It’s totally enervating.

I am trying to make the best of it but wish I were home in Chiang Mai, where living wouldn’t cost me $75 per day. Unfortunately it would cost me more to leave now than to stay and stick it out. But I resolved to get the most out of the southern Thai experience that I can. I booked excursions for the next two days, one to the islands and some snorkeling, and the other a kayaking trip through the mangrove forests.

Island hopping ‘til 2 p.m. left me whipped, but did engender an appreciation of the Andaman islands of Thailand. The ocean’s temperature is comfortable, and I saw corals and sea urchins I had never seen before, as well as a couple of white tubular sea creatures with dark spots curled on the ocean floor which I wondered were sea snakes. I decided not to get close and find out since every sea snake I have read about is extremely venomous.

The seascape itself is quite interesting, with huge limestone monoliths thrusting out of the ocean, their sides dripping with stalactites and clothed with forest. Makes one wonder what geological process created them.

Check out the photos above--there's one of me in a cave and another of an island.

The next day I took the kayaking excursion through the seashore caves and mangrove forests, which was great. I have terrific photos, including some of a monkey perched on a kayak drinking from a woman’s water bottle. I also met some lovely people, a couple from Vancouver Island who were hanging with a guy from Brazil…we had a lot of fun.

24 Jan 07

I had a cool and interesting dream. I was with an unmarried cousin of mine who lives in London, but we were in downtown Sacramento. I come upon her when she was being harassed—someone was trying to take one of her rings, and I got rid of him. We wanted to get home to my mom’s but didn’t have a car. We walked to a place where a freeway offramp spilled onto the street next to a supermarket, where I thought a lot of taxis would pass (in waking reality there are few taxis in Sacramento, though it was at Q or P, where there might be some taxis. Maybe. But in reality there isn’t a supermarket there).

Good idea? But there were a lot of other people there clamoring for taxis and there were none, except one on an adjoining street, and someone got that.

I took her over to the state capitol to get a streetcar north that would go to Northridge which, btw is a suburb of Los Angeles and nowhere near Sacramento. It was late, and we went into the trolley office to talk to the lady there and get change. Finally the streetcar came and we got on. She stayed on while I got off somewhere, don’t remember when, and walked, sort of following the track, but climbing around and through other things.

Finally got home. Mom drove around to find me, I remember her exclaiming, in her usual dramatic style, “Where have you been?”

Weird, huh????

Sunday, February 04, 2007

Back to Thailand

I had a free morning before checking out of the Angkor Star, so I did preliminary packing and then went on a balloon ascension.

On this trip, I have taken almost every conceivable type of transportation: car, motorcycle, tuk-tuk, elephant, boat, plane, and now, balloon. I wonder if I should round out the Cambodian experience by taking one of the cute horse-drawn carriages I’ve seen around Angkor, or perhaps ride a train back to Thailand.

It was a perfect morning for a balloon ascension. Sunny, light cool wind, clear air. I am wearing black denim capris with the cuffs rolled up above my knees, my pink Chicks Rule T-shirt and a black lightweight wraparound sweater. I have a hat and sunglasses in my zebra print satchel, and black Mary Jane style Sketcher flats with white sox on my feet.

A word about the hat. My trusty, washable Sunday Afternoons explorer hat with the wide brim and excellently long neckflap is filthy, so I have one of those hilarious bamboo and cloth hats, the ones that fold in on themselves like a fan. I first saw and fell in love with them, their campy faux Asian print patterns and general kitschy silliness. Mine is hot pink, gold and purple. It’s a sight to behold, as am I.

The balloon ascension was marvy, except for the photos…unfortunately I was shooting into the sun when taking pix of Angkor Wat. Angkor Thom wasn’t visible due to the mist of evaporation. After a few tries, I quit, took a shot of the baray and then just absorbed the wonderfulness of it all. (The baray, BTW is a huge artificial reservoir that waters the area…there are two or three in the area, and the west baray, which I face, was built in the eleventh century by Suryavarman I. It looks to be about five miles long and one across, and half full.

Back at the hotel, I found that I couldn’t pack everything including all my new clothes and gifts, so I opted for buying another backpack. Unbelievably, I don’t have one on this trip, so why not? Who cares if I have a gazillion at home? A person can always use a gazillion and one. Backpacks are like that.

After a half hour of invigorating shopping, I went back to the Angkor Star, packed, ate lunch and checked out. The experience was marred by finding bugs in my rice. Rice was replaced with apologies, but not, as I’d hoped, by a reduction in the bill. This place has no class. Then checkout was marred by the clerk’s retention of my credit card…I’ll admit I forgot to get it back. Very unlike me…must have been distracted by my new silver and carnelian bracelet. Or maybe it was the dead flies in the lunch.

The hotel called my tuk-tuk driver, and after several miscommunications, a bellboy net us at the airport with the missing card. Paranoid, I decided to check my credit card transactions online to make sure that no one had lifted my information.

Moved through ticketing, passport control and security at Siem Reap without incident and am not drinking a latte in the Café Ritazza. My croissant is everything it should be, warm and flaky, completely unlike the cold, lardy lumps offered by the Angkor Star…If one is going to consume carbs, they’d best be perfect, I say.

The view out the window is graceful, an oblong green pool bordered by rock and surrounded by lawns. It’s reminiscent of the baray reservoirs and other artificial ponds in the Angkor complex. Laughing baristas cluster at the next table; it’s a staff meeting. I mention that I used to work at Starbucks and we chuckle. Camaraderie among the hairnet and apron set.

The flight to Thailand was likewise without incident. As we flew toward Bangkok, the dusty land became progressively greener, more verdant, with more water in ponds and paddies flooding the land even though this is the dry season. Testimony to the King’s water management efforts. We flew along the Gulf of Thailand’s shore, hundreds of miles of white beaches interrupted by occasional mangrove forests.

We landed. We taxied. We disembarked into buses to take us to giant Suvarnabhumi terminal. On the bus, a group of us farang women chatted about Cambodia, Angkor, the kids, the sights…as we approached the terminal, we were greeted by giant yellow banners, with the symbol and image of King Bhumibol and the legend, LONG LIVE THE KING. Upon seeing them, I murmured, “It’s good to be back in Thailand.”

Next to me, another American woman said softly, “I missed the King.”

I said, “I did, too.” And I meant it

Thursday 11 January

I had a couple of very vivid dreams last night. The most interesting of them had me getting from an island to the shore with a lawnmower belonging to my parents. I climbed down a ladder to the water with the lawnmower clanking behind me. Down and down I went, until I was underwater with the heavy metal lawnmower dragging me down. I couldn’t stay afloat with it. I would drown unless I let it go. But wasn’t the lawnmower valuable? And it belonged to my parents. Shouldn’t I return it?