August 30, 2015

The view from here

Here are a few photos of our university, our apartment and our pick-up truck (will be officially ours on Tuesday) in Chiang Rai. Our living room isn't set up well yet, so we will wait on those photos.

Mae Fah Luang, a.k.a the university in the park

Our bedroom (Grandma, your mom's tablecloth is on the nightstand)

kitchen view 1

kitchen view 2

our awesome balcony

our truck, name TBA, 2010 Isuzu D-max Spacecab

August 27, 2015

Bug thoughts

One of the striking features of Southeast Asia is the amount of flora and fauna.

This morning I saw the biggest spider of my life hanging out in the entry to our apartment building. No big deal, just a GIANT spider whose leg span was at least the size of my palm. If that thing comes inside my apartment, I don't know what I'll do. Call for Alan, probably.

Right now, I'm listening to the frantic buzz at the end of a fly's life. It's stuck in the web of a much smaller spider that apparently has set a trap near my desk. The fly is trying to get away, but evolution has made that spider's string too sticky. He's stuck. He will either be eaten alive or die of starvation--either way, he's done. I'm a little grossed out and a little fascinated.

Just some bug thoughts for now.

August 25, 2015

Ode to street food

For the past two nights, Alan and I have been exploring a little street food district just off campus.

Although street food is a common culprit for what ales travelers' bellies, I think it's an important part of experiencing a place. I also rationalize that it's somehow building my immunity to tummy bugs. It's like a vaccine that I won't faint from. Not right then, anyway.

No, this isn't a fainting story.

So, back to the street food vendors. They set up little stalls along the sidewalk, or in larger covered areas. Many of them sell the same things, so as I browse, I always look for what catches my eye out of uniqueness.

Tonight, I spotted a large table covered in jugs of ingredients, and in the middle of all the jars, there was a pan of freshly fried something. It looked like the homemade tortilla chips that my Mom makes for tortilla soup. They are undoubtedly the best part of that dish. Salted, and a little crispy, a little soft. The Thai version was a little thicker, but looked really good. I could see where they were being deep fried, and doggonit, deep-frying always makes things more delicious.

So, I watched a few Thais get their meal so I could just point and hope to get the same thing. Here's a summary of my food. A handful of egg noodles goes into the bowl, then some chili sauce, fish sauce, sugar, peanuts, two kinds of garlic, red pepper flakes, fresh cilantro, green onion, a dash of MSG, and a spritz of soy sauce. The bowl is topped off with some of those crispy tortilla-ish things (after she has used a scissor to chop them into bite-size pieces). The cook then quickly stirs the entire bowl and hands them to you. The fresh and slightly spicy aroma of Thai food is so good in general, and this dish didn't disappoint. It was delicious, and about 75 cents.

My tastebuds are loving Thailand. Between the awesomely cheap and delicious street food, and the ever-present freshly-brewed ice coffee, I'm pretty much in heaven here. I don't even miss cheese yet.

August 24, 2015

For Bebe

Note: I wrote this on Saturday evening--it's now Monday afternoon.

I often plan blog entries in advance. Today, I was planning how I’d write some detailed descriptions of our day deep cleaning (I’m talking scour pads and bleach) our new apartment.

Sometimes between my plan and when I sit down to actually write, other things happen.

I called my mom to chat about Thailand, and I found out that my cat Berlin died last week, probably right around the time when I left Nebraska. She wasn’t old or sick, so I definitely wasn’t expecting it. After she had been missing for a few days, my brother found her little body on the edge of their property. Based on what he and my stepdad saw, she was probably in a fight, or got injured somehow. She loved to hunt mice and rabbits in the swampy area behind their house, so I guess at least she was in one of her favorite places.

The death of a pet is heart-wrenching. Berlin, or Bebe, as I usually called her, was my cat. I made a questionable decision when I was 19, and my roommate and I ended up with two kittens. Unfortunately, around the same time, I started to do the world-traveling that now defines a lot of my existence.

So my little black cat with white paws and whiskers got to live with my parents, in a much bigger house, with a better yard, and with more places to pee. She had a little trouble adjusting to new places, and usually resorted to peeing on carpet or other surfaces to try to mark her space.

I think she had settled into her surroundings pretty well in the past 5 or so years. Once I left for graduate school, she had discovered the heated floors in my parents’ bathroom. The warm tiles became a favorite place. Recently, she had taken to burrowing under the comforter on my parents’ bed. My mom often sent me photos of the little bump under the blanket.

I’ve often felt guilty that I couldn’t provide for Bebe myself, but I know she had a good life at my parents’ house—much better than she would have had tagging along with me on international flights.

Bebe was a natural hunter and she loved to practice with toys. We used to play a version of fetch with these small mouse toys that I would send careening across the wooden floors of the entryway. Bebe would skitter along after them, struggling to keep her grip on the slick floor. She’d pounce and attack the little mouse for a few seconds before trotting back to me with the mouse in her mouth, ready for the next round. That part of her personality was unique.

She was also a finicky eater, preferring the “paté” version of Friskies food over other textures. Bebe also loved yogurt, especially finishing the last bit from a plastic carton. We had that in common.

My favorite moments with Berlin were our cuddle time. Although she wasn’t a people-cat, when Berlin wanted affection, she made it known. She’d get right up on your lap or your chest, and nuzzle your face with her face. If you stopped petting too soon, she’d nuzzle under your hand to inspire a few more strokes. She liked to knead legs and stomachs as she purred and enjoyed the love. The last time I saw Bebe was one of these cuddle times, and I’m grateful for that.

I’ve always loved cats, and I’m heartbroken that I won’t see Bebe again. I loved her the best I could when I was home, and thought of her every day when I wasn’t.

Her body is buried now in the back yard, under a little wooden cross. I imagine her spirit roaming kitty heaven on warmed tile floors where there’s always a mouse to play with, plenty of paté, and a blanket to burrow under when you need to rest.
Rest in peace my Bebe girl. I will always treasure the time we had together during your life with our family. One day I’ll join you in kitty heaven, but until then I know you’ll be watching over me.

August 20, 2015

Some Things are Just the Same Everywhere!

Everywhere you go, there you are.

I’m pretty sure I’ve started other entries this way, but today—my 28th birthday—it just seems like the right phrase. Or maybe this:

Everywhere you go, there are your ridiculous medical idiosyncrasies.

In general, I’m a super healthy person; however, vasovegal response is something that I’ve dealt with my entire adult life. Going to the doctor for shots or to get blood drawn is a huge ordeal for me because of my tendency to faint. Apparently, the stress of the procedure causes a spontaneous seizing up of the blood vessels in the brain, resulting in momentary loss of consciousness.

Today Alan and I had to get check-ups and some lab work at the Mae Fah Luang University Medical Center as part of the process to get our work permits. I was pretty nervous about the lab work, as I know what a pain in the ass my condition is for doctors and nurses. They give me a very routine shot or take some blood and I end up slumped on the floor, unconscious.

I explained to the staff that I at least needed to lay down so that if I fainted, I wouldn’t hurt myself.

The young female nurses, decked out in lavender and mint uniforms, braces, and hair-bows directed me to the Emergency Room so I could lay down. It was certainly an interesting choice for someone who is clearly squeamish about blood and the like.

Anyway, once I entered the ER, I removed my shoes and hopped onto an empty bed between two people with injuries that looked fairly serious. I’d guess one had a broken leg and the other had road rash from a motorbike crash. As the nurse had said a few minutes earlier, “You’re welcome to Thailand.” The grammatical and pragmatic mismatch of her utterance seemed somehow very fitting as the tourniquet was wound around my arm, protruding my veins for the draw (I’m a little squeamish just writing that).

I optimistically asked the nurse to also tell me my blood type after the draw because I honestly don’t know—I tried to test it in biology class during my undergraduate degree, but nearly fainted after not being able to draw any blood from a needle prick. I had to lay on one of the lab tables while my classmates fanned me. Very embarrassing. However, I had no problem dissecting a cat later in the semester. Weird how that works.

I didn’t mind the prick of the needle, and I thought I was in the clear as I laid a few minutes to rest afterward. I was still feeling a little car sick from the days’ previous adventure to Doi Tung (Royal Village) which awaits visitors at the end of a super curvy mountain road. I stood up, and made it back to where Alan was standing in the waiting room.

All was in order as Alan and I took seats on a long and cushioned bench to await the results of our blood and urine samples. As I stared at a sign announcing an “Influenza Corner” (what is that, anyway?) I felt a wave of nausea and heat. Instinctually, I tried to lay down in Alan’s lap to avoid the fainting crumple to the floor…

The next thing I remember was a vivid flash of images and coming back to reality totally disoriented. I guess I was out for at least 30 seconds before I awoke frightened and gasping to Thai nurses fanning me and asking in their sweet ways whether I was okay.

As per my usual modus operando, I thanked them, in Thai, and immediately moved to lie flat out on the hospital floor. Once on the floor, staring up at a graceful daddy long legs spider on the ceiling above me, I realized I was in Thailand, and that yet again, I fainted because of a needle-based procedure. Thailand is a beautiful place, but coming to in a Thai hospital is, how can I put this, probably NOT on my list of to-dos. The staff were a little horrified that I was on the floor, but they dealt with the large foreigner sprawled in front of their check-in desk pretty well. One of the male nurses loosened the side zipper of my dress pants and checked to whether the band of my bra might be too tight. It sounds a little weird, but I thought it was medically sound and a helpful gesture to ensure my proper blood flow. My blood pressure was found to be normal, and a fan was brought to help me stop sweating (my chronic issue in SE Asia, regardless of whether I’m passed out on a hospital floor). I had hot tears running out of my eyes from disorientation and embarrassment for causing such a spectacle.

For the next few minutes, I just laid on the floor trying to get my bearings. The tape holding the cotton ball to the offending needle mark was pulling too tightly, so I asked Alan to remove it. I stared up at the spider and wondered why this always happens. After what was probably 30 minutes on the floor, Alan helped me move the the bench. Shortly after that, our colleague arrived to pick us up. She was surprised to see how badly I was doing. I couldn’t even sit up because of the continuing nausea. Fortunately, we had to wait for the results anyway, so my need for rest wasn’t obtrusive…yet.

Once the doctor was ready to sign off on our paperwork, saying we were indeed “free from defect”—an irony not lost on me, the lady who is way too nauseous to even sit up—I became a bit more of a burden. I couldn’t sit without feeling the warm tingles of an impending faint or puke session.
Me and Zip the cat, chilling on the floor...

Ultimately, I ended up back in the ER to rest. A flamboyant nurse brought me water and a cold pack that actually seemed to speed my recovery pretty well. The doctor, on the other hand, decided that I had some exhaustion and electrolyte imbalances, so he prescribed two anti-barf meds and sent a few packets of rehydration mix home with me.

The short car ride between the Medical Center and our new on-campus digs was hellish. Every bump sent a wave of nausea through my entire body. Nevertheless, we made it, and we even stopped to pick up our freshly laundered sheets to go with the new mattress.

Alan set up the bed as quickly as he could so that I could lie down again. We also fixed me some of the rehydration drink, which seemed to help immediately. One thing that is very hard at the beginning of a trip to a very foreign place is knowing how to keep your body in balance, I’ve had two bouts of big jet lag and several long plane rides in the past two weeks, not to mention lots of sweating the moment we hit the ground in Thailand. My body has no idea what’s going on, and add to that some BBQ chicken assholes and a little carsickness—no wonder I was on the floor of a hospital.

The doctor did sign off on my bill of health, after asking whether I could be pregnant (I’m not). According to the tests, I don’t have a meth addiction or syphilis. Two pieces of good news (I wasn’t worried).

So, after three days in the country, I’ve already had lab work and two visits to the ER. The funny thing is, I still don’t know my blood type.

Chicken without Borders

I ate barbequed chicken ass within 200 meters of the Thai-Burmese border.

Feel free to stop reading now, as I’ve totally spoiled the plot of this entry.

It all started at the Poonyamantra resort where our faculty orientation was being held. Following a light dinner, a few colleagues’ stomaches were still wanting more, so we set off to find a certain Chinese barbeque spot in the Thai-Burmese border town of Mae Sai. I didn’t know where the restaurant was before we got in the car, but since I’ve always been fascinated by Burma, and by land crossings, not to mention by grilled meats, this was the opportunity of a lifetime—just 3 days into my stay in Thailand.

Mae Sai at 10 PM is a quiet city. Birds lined up for hundreds of feet on telephone wires strung just in front of hotel facades and dentistry buildings. The buildings themselves hd a European flare, tall and narrow with triangular roofs and wooden frames. In the glow of street lights, we found our barbeque stand. Some of the experienced Thais chose what we would be eating, and then they volunteered to take us closer to the border for photos.

The border itself had the same strangely European style of the building facades—a little bit awkwardly vertical. As we got closer, the signs were translated from Thai to English, Chinese, and the wonderfully mysterious Burmese script.

The natural border is formed by a river, and the guards were just closing the traffic bridge. A foot path to the “Northern-most point in Thailand” was still open, so we braved a dark alleyway beneath the bridge for a photo op.

On the Thai side, we stood in a well-lit and comparatively vibrant scene. Just across the flowing brown water, though was a much different picture. The Burmese side of the footbridge border was mostly dark, with just one guard standing watch in the moonlit shadows a blocky colorless building. The Burmese side looked how I’d picture North Korea in terms of lack of flare, lack of color, and lack of people out and about on a Wednesday evening.
Where's the Y?

View across to Myanmar (a.k.a Burma)

Well, here we are

It's the Russian Roulette of meat!

The grilling process

We snapped a few shots of ourselves, the razor wire wrapped around the fences, a strange sign saying “Welcome to M anmar” with the “y” clearly missing. Note: Burma and Myanmar refer to the same country—the name you choose is very political, but I choose Burmese as the adjective because I think Myanmar as an adjective and noun is confusing.

So, back to the grilled meat we went. The type of barbeque is apparently particular to this city. It’s called “Ma-La” which is the name of a special spice mix used on the meat. The result is delicious, no matter what part of the animal you’re eating. I ate intestine, stomach, kidney, and few other things I didn’t know. By the third round of meat, it was my turn to pick, so I went up to the cart and surveyed the options. Knowing it’s better to eat first and ask later, I selected a few interesting looking skewers of meat.

I later found out that I had picked beef heart and chicken asshole. Who knew that beef heart could sound so appealing by contrast? In case you’re wondering about the texture of the ass, it was crispy on the edges and chewy in the middle. Not the worst thing I’ve ever eaten. I managed to eat my share, and so did everyone else. There was a lot of variety, so the strange cuts weren’t a problem.

So, like I told you in the first sentence, I ate chicken ass 200 meters from the border. It was awesome.

First Impressions of Thailand

I wish I had composed this entry sooner, when my first impressions were more “first,” but here I am, five-ish days in.

Chiang Rai is gorgeous. It’s a green and luscious paradise of oversized leaves, tropical flowers, and misty mountains. It still takes my breath away. The campus where I now where, Mae Fah Luang University, is in the middle of all the lusciousness. If you’re a Nebraskan reading this, imagine the Henry Dorley Zoo, but without the animals. Add in some stray dogs and kittens, and you’ve basically got how our campus looks. It’s beautiful.

And even thought the campus itself looks like a resort in terms of natural beauty and food options, our Dean generously took the English department to a small resort for a multi-day orientation. After an introductory meeting on campus, we continued with some community and cultural service at a temple on the way to the resort. Our department offered the monks a large Buddhist lent candle and a tub of supplies for their daily lives. We participated in a Buddhist prayer session, and then continued on, heading North from the university, which is already 15 kilometers outside of Chiang Rai proper.

The resort property was quaint and cute, with lots of birdhouses and tropical foliage. Most of the meetings were in a large room that was well air-conditioned (yes!), but I spend the most quality time with my new colleagues over the many meals we ate together at the resort. All of the food was excellent and fresh. My favorite item, though, was the freshly brewed Americanos (form of coffee) that were available all day. I must have had 10 over the 3 days.

Just now, Alan and I are settling into our new apartment, a semi-furnished apartment on campus. We bought a mattress, bedding, and towels with the help of a colleague, and we plan to buy other essentials over the weekend. The apartment did not come with much in the kitchen. Only a sink. If we want to cook, we will need to buy a hot plate and/or microwave, and probably a small refrigerator. For the time being, we will eat the excellent campus cafeteria food and enjoy not having to do dishes, save for a few coffee cups here and there.

The people we’ve met so far have been sweet, courteous, and the kind of people who go out of their way to help. Speaking Thai, or I guess, NOT speaking, understanding, or reading Thai has been a challenge for us. It took a long time for us to learn the basics in Turkish, and I know we are in for a steep learning curve here too. I’m ready.

Big tree with strange other things growing on it (I said "What are those!?)

My name, written in Thai; and my new university photo

Inside the Buddhist temple

Coolest flowers at the resort

Rice field--we are in Asia after all!
Overall, my first impression of Thailand is hugely positive, much more so than my usual first impressions of places. I think Alan and I are in for many good things in Thailand.

August 14, 2015

Notes from the US

Yummy picnic with my in-laws in Flagstaff

Alan and Walter Dog
Bridesmaids in Phoenix

Turkish Breakfast with the family

Eleven days in America: four in Flagstaff, three in Phoenix, and four in Lincoln. A lot of it was eating, but most of it was reconnecting with friends and family in my various home bases in the US.

I enjoyed eggs, bacon, and a lot of coffee for breakfast. Shredded Mini-Wheats with almond milk, an espresso set from a Flagstaff coffee boutique, a sushi night with my parents, an Arby’s meal with my in-laws, In-N-Out burger with an old friend. Alan and I made beyti kebab (spiced meat inside a crispy lavash wrap) for his parents, and I served up a grand Turkish breakfast for my parents and grandparents.

I ate as much Dairy Queen ice cream cake as I could in 48 hours, and I had Mexican food as often as my body would allow.

I got to live out my fantasy shopping spree at Target. In preparation for the heat and humidity I’ll be encountering for the next year, I loaded my cart with sunscreen, cornstarch powder, and an additional indestructible water bottle.

Alan and I bought rain jackets and new backpacks at REI.

Did I mention that I acquired a much-needed new shoe wardrobe? Thank you Zappos. Ah consumerism—I love you. I wish I got paid to name drop these companies.

So, superficial eating and shopping out of the way, let’s recap the real highlights of my visit.

Critters: I got to spend time with Alan’s dog, Walter. He’s an old yellow lab who is still sweet as ever with his long jowls drawing his face downward. He appears to be playing a banjo with his back leg when you scratch the spot just above his hip. In Phoenix, I stayed with a friend’s parents. They’ve got two friendly cats who provided my kitty-therapy. Finally, back in Lincoln, I got to take the big blacklab/shepard to the bark park for a swim. I also spent quality time with my cats. Twilight, the 20-year-old cat who has been a best friend since I was 8, is still sweet and cuddly, though her age has taken a toll on her eyesight and agility. Berlin, the tuxedo-colored kitten I adopted without much forethought (college will do that to you), has grown into a sleek and petite cat who likes to burrow under the covers on my parents bed. It’s darn cute. She’s not a people-cat like Twilight, but she has her moments of affection.

Friends: Although most of my friends have dispersed from my homebases to locales around the country and around the world, I was able to meet up for a pedicure and dinner with a friend from volleyball in Flagstaff and another friend for that tasty In-N-Out burger in Phoenix just before my flight to Nebraska.

One of the most important reasons that I came home between Turkey and Thailand was to be a part of one of my best friend’s weddings. She got married in Phoenix during the only weekend I was in the US this year. By the way, being so jet-set has my ego a little inflated! It was so much fun spending time with the bride and getting to know the other maids better. For the bachelorette party, we went to a drink-wine-and-paint bar where we made our best attempts at recreating an ambitious scene. Between the wine and the cute painter assistants, we had a great night! The rehearsal dinner was held in a trendy wine bar in downtown Tempe (I think). It was such a treat to order alcohol with my dinner, as that was a near impossibility in Kayseri. I enjoyed the downtown vibe a lot. The next day, the maids got ready together in a cloud of hairspray and shimmer lotion. I loved it. It’s so fun to be girly every now and then. It occurs to me that I often document the details of life abroad, but that the details of American life are pretty cool too. The ceremony itself was short and sweet. The groom’s father officiated, and he got a little choked up, which sent the room into collective tears. Very sweet. During the reception, my friend’s unique interest in Samba and Brazilian music made an appearance in the form of a Brazillian drum line. The exotic rhythm had us all dancing and following them out of the building into the heat of an August night in Phoenix. The night didn’t stop there, though! We followed up the reception with a pub crawl on Mill Avenue, a hip area of Tempe. I can’t say it was much of a crawl, as Alan and I spent the night catching up with old friends from Flagstaff in the same pub. A wonderful night.

By the time I made it to my own family in Nebraska, I was really ready to see them. After a year, 15-year-old brothers look VERY different. My brother was suddenly the same height as me, with a voice a couple octaves lower. We reverted to our usual ways immediately, conning our parents into a late-night ice cream run on the way back from the airport. Home sweet home.

My priorities for the Nebraska visit were to maximize time with family (grandparents in particular) and pets. I saw my grandparents every day that I was in Nebraska—something I’m very proud of. I’m very close to them, and I had a lot of fun telling them everything about Turkey. They humored me for a Turkish breakfast, which turned out pretty good considering that I had to make do with American ingredients. Amish beef sausage plus some red pepper and garlic is actually pretty close to sucuk (Turkish sausage). I served the whole nine yards: tomatoes, cucumbers, cheese, bread, olives, Nutella, sausage with eggs, Turkish omelette, and of course Turkish tea. I even cooked Turkish coffee after the meal with a cezve I brought from Kayseri. Yum. It was an impressive spread, and I loved sharing details of the meal with my family. One of my brother’s friends had stayed the night, so he probably got a little more than he bargained for when we invited him to the table.

Although it was a short trip, I feel like I squeezed out a lot of goodness. My bags are repacked, and probably sitting on one of those little airport trolleys at the moment. I’m ready to get back to my work as a teacher. I don’t really know what to expect from Chiang Rai, but I’m sure it has a lot of surprises in store for us. I hope we will find a peaceful place to live for a few years and experience a new culture.

Wish us luck and smooth flight connections. I’m already looking at an hour delay out of Omaha as I fly to Chicago to meet up with Alan.