April 30, 2016

The Dream, Chiang Rai, and Store Credit

Today, headed North on the so-called superhighway that runs from Bangkok to Burma, I remembered that I'm living the dream. My dream. Living abroad (and doing it like a boss). When I'm buried in paperwork and grading, I sometimes forget to zoom out and see the bigger picture.

I might have only been going to the big grocery store for weekly errands, but I was casually commanding a rumbling diesel-fueled manual pick-up truck through weekend traffic, dodging errant motorbikes and speed-hungry lorries (semi-trucks for my fellow Americans), all while singing along to tunes on my iPad. Pretty badass.

The drug and human-trafficking checkpoint no longer seems so foreign, though I'm still a little relieved every time I don't get pulled over. Not that they should or have any reason to, just that I've seen enough episodes of Locked Up Abroad to know that not all justice systems are created equally. All that to say, I have to pass a checkpoint on my way to the grocery store. Then, I turn down a narrow country road lined with palm trees and rice paddies, before parking in an otherwise unnotable lot.

Alan and I spent the morning, hangovers and all, in the fancy customer room at the Isuzu dealership while our truck was serviced. Alan took a nap in a recliner (seriously) and I graded papers at a nearby table while a giant TV blared Thai soaps and talk shows. We took a mid-morning break to get some food.

Our lunch was about as Thai as it gets. A roadside noodle shop selling mysterious pork bits in a salty broth with glass noodles and green onions. Cars roared past, kicking up dust as we sucked down our noodles. For about 2 bucks, we both filled our bellies.

We spent a few more hours waiting for our truck, settled the bill, and rolled off the lot a little safer and a lot cleaner than we had come in. I learned it is possible to get through a car tune-up with knowledge of about 10 Thai words and a lot of patience.

The past few weeks have been like living inside my parents' Traeger smoker. If the traeger had roaches and lizards. And maybe if it were a few degrees hotter. Kidding.

The smoke problem in Chaing Rai seems indicative of the general attitude toward rules here. It is illegal to burn your fields, and there are signs all over the place, but yet, one can look out and see fields on fire. No one is being held accountable. Thus, the air is a nasty gray soup, most days completely obscuring the normally beautiful views of the foothills of Chiang Rai. April's outstanding heatwave hasn't done much to improve the situation. Apparently we are breaking heat records that were set 65 years ago.

You don't have to tell me that it's hot. I wear these beautiful, if absolutely suffocating, wool pencil skirts to work every day. Luckily, our offices and classrooms are air-conditioned, but by the time I trek across campus to my classroom, my face and hair look like I've just been at the gym.

We don't have any air-conditioning at our apartment. It's not that bad with a couple of fans going, but yeah, it's not that great either. Egg likes to lay belly-up under the fan. I don't blame him.

I actually bought what I thought was an air-conditioner the other week, but neither Alan nor I felt that the evaporation cooler did anything to help our hot house, so I tried to take it back to the store.

One person spoke English. I speak just enough Thai to really get myself into trouble. Imagine dealing with a customer service person and having about 20-30 words in common between the two of you. Imagine that the customer service person doesn't want to accept the return, but it cost you more than you wanted to spend anyway. I patiently negotiated for about 30 minutes before finally getting store credit. They wanted nothing to do with the cooler that I had used for an hour before deciding I didn't like it. On one hand, I get it. On the other hand, I think that making sure the customer is satisfied is really important, and that a few returns won't have that big of an impact on profit, but that losing customers and customer networks might. Anyway, in the end, I was somewhat ok with the outcome and left the store feeling pretty defeated and hot.

So, living the dream also includes dealing with strange things and frighteningly familiar things, like customer service counters.

There are only a few weeks left in the semester, so I'm very much looking forward to our short but sweet vacation time in early June. We are thinking islands. Talk about living the dream!

April 15, 2016

Visiting Southern Thailand for the Songkran Holiday

In Thailand, they celebrate the new year in April. It's the hottest time of the year, and people splash each other with water to celebrate.

Alan and I decided to take a new AirAsia route from Chiang Rai to Hat Yai, Thailand. It is the only direct flight out of Chiang Rai, other than Bangkok.

Hat Yai is a huge city in the deep South of Thailand, not far from the Malaysian border. Where we live is just a short drive from the Northern border with Myanmar, so basically, it's as far as we could go and not have to deal with getting visas.

Alan chose the flight, and I was in charge of the accommodation, so I chose a small, German-managed beach resort in Songkhla, about an hour from Hat Yai. The beach always helps me relax.

The scene here is serene and tropical. The flower blooms are absolutely technicolor bold, and many buildings and fences are painted to match. My favorite are these big bushes with super-bright magenta flowers. The sea air is warm and clear, which is even more enjoyable because we've been living in crop-burning smoke for the past month. The water is turquoise blue and clear as can be. There are millions of beautiful seashells and lots of tumbled sea glass. The water is the temperature of a warm bath. There is a reason that Thai beaches are famous.

Interestingly, we are way off of the beaten path (still) for foreign tourists. The beaches are empty save for the occasional fishing boat. Most foreign tourists don't come this far south. Most Thai adults don't do the beach the same way that Western people do. Westerners put on their bikinis and sunscreen and lay out in the sun or go swimming, maybe stopping for a drink now and then. In my observation, the Thai way to have a beach holiday involves lots of beach-side picnicking. If you swim, you wear gym clothes for modesty.

The past two days, Alan and I have borrowed bicycles from the resort to ride down the beach road. It was a highlight of my trip for sure. Our purpose was to get to the grocery store in town to buy a few big bottles of drinking water, but the journey was wonderful. We cruised the road with blue-green sea to one side, and lush tropical plants to the other. It was downright hot and the sun was relentless, but occasionally we would get festively splashed by Songkran celebrators.

We picked up green mango salad for lunch both days, a light and cheap option for hot days.

A few people wanted to take selfies with us. We usually oblige, despite how weird it is. It makes me feel like a celebrity, sort of.

We're headed into Hat Yai City today for our last vacation day. I'll miss the tranquility of this resort, and the easy vibe that beach towns usually have. It has helped me unwind and slow down. I guess I can't stay forever.