Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Angels in the Darkness

My visa was going to run out and my new employer was able to help me out.  I needed to have a letter and a stack of documents to take with me to a Thai embassy outside Thailand to get a new visa and not have to worry for a bit longer about getting deported.  Such worries are new to me.
I can't quite figure the logic of sending thousands of people outside the borders only to stand in line in front of Thai nationals to get a stamp in a passport.  Such activity could easily happen inside the country and they could gain from the travel money spent.  As it is, I had to find an embassy I could go to that wouldn't break my bank. The employer would give me the paperwork but not the cost of travel.  Two weeks earlier, I took a bus north to Myanmar but that only gave me 15 days.  I needed more time.
Embassies in Singapore and Malaysia involved getting on a plane which gets expensive.  Cambodia was too far and I don't think there is an embassy in Myanmar...besides once in Myanmar was plenty.  That left me with Laos, the nearest country to the east of here.  The embassy is in the capital city, Vientiane, which I had heard was beautiful, at least from a couple of students from my TEFL class.  Actually, I had heard quite the opposite from travel shows thus my curiosity was up.
Getting there is a bit of a challenge.  There are direct flights from Chiang Mai though more expensive than I wanted to spend.  Plus, the Thai embassy has time limits each day as to when you are able to drop off your paperwork.  Office hours are from 8:30 to noon each day.  If you arrive after that, you are locked out.  You drop off your paperwork on day one and then return the next day in the afternoon to pick up your passport with visa attached.  Thus, we were committed to spending a night there.  That gets me back to my original complaint about all this.  Sending tourists and business people out of the country to spend the night in a foreign hotel and eat the local food only takes money from Thailand.  Where is the logic?
Not flying directly leaves us with flying to the town of Udon Thani, an eastern city in Thailand.  We caught the early morning flight from Chiang Mai to arrive at 9 in Udon Thani.  The websites I read about it said there would be many different taxis and busses waiting to whisk me away to the border.  Actually there was just the one line for cabs which we caught.  The cab turned out to be the fellow's personal car which was clean and comfortable.  We drove for an hour to the border.  He couldn't cross so he left us there.
Lao Songtauw.  Nee sat up front and I was in back.
From there, I had to give my visa to Thai immigration where they took my exit card, charged me a fee, and sent me on my way.  Nee just walked through.  We then caught one of the oldest, most beat up bus I had seen in Asia.  That took us across the Mekong River into Laos.  I had to once again go through Lao immigration and at this point Nee was getting fed up with transportation.  She did her best to negotiate a deal into town, only to get us onto a very dilapidated songtaew, about half the size we see in Thailand.  The androgynous driver said he was a guy but looked and sounded like a girl.  Hey, this is Southeast Asia.
We rattled along for another hour making it nearly 11:00 when we arrived.  We got through the gate past a long line of more songtaews and tuktuks and entered the gate.  The crowd was several hundred people from all over the world all waiting under a steel roof in the hot sun.  The next number was 120 and mine was 286. Oh my.  I knew I was in trouble.
We waited for several hours, chatting with people from all over the world, sweating, eating over-priced street food.  That night we explored Vientiane.  Though on the surface it looks much like Thailand, it is quite poor, by comparison.  Cars and motorcycles are mostly quite old, streets are not cleaned, and locals can't afford to eat out.  The French did leave many beautiful buildings and straight roads, but maintaining them is a challenge.  Another thing the French left, though, was the bakery.
Near our hotel, I found several, all smelling wonderful in the early morning.  We went in search for breakfast, but were a bit early, so we wandered the town.  We saw more homeless than Thailand, more dirty streets, a number of temples and many hungry dogs.  The landscape was beginning to depress me and made me want to go back home.  Then for a moment, I could here the soft sound of singing; the voices of young women singing in harmony.  I turned and saw six girls riding bicycles down the quiet street, wearing matching t-shirts for the restaurant the worked at nearby.  They were singing to a radio one girl was carrying, and the voices seemed to fill the void and make the filth disappear for a moment.  As suddenly as it began, it ended as they got off their bikes to go to work.  I was impressed with how they seemed to be so comfortable with their world.
A Lao temple near our hotel
We returned to Udon Thani that night and stayed in a far better hotel without dirty sheets and buzzing mosquitos.  We ate Thai food at a street corner cafe, something so common here yet difficult to find only a few miles away in Laos.  I thought of how Laos have had to struggle for so many years and yet they still manage to sing their way to work.

Sunday, May 13, 2012

Mr. Roy Gets Sick

I had planned to write about our trip to Laos a couple of weeks ago; about finding wonderful French bakeries, seeing a country far more poor than Thailand, more French food and briefly being followed by a set of angelic girls singing their way to work on their bicycles.  However, this week was far more challenging and deserves its place today.
A representation of my lower GI tract

I got food poisoning this week.  Up until now, I have managed to eat street food, home-cooked food, friend-cooked food, raw food, berries I found in the wild and even a nicely cooked cricket at the market with no ill effects.  The water here is rarely drunk straight from the tap as I did in the US, though people cook with it without fear as did I.  Wherever you fill up your gas, the station always gives you a free liter bottle of water to take home for the kiddies.  Up until last week, we had been happily living downtown within walking distance of limitless restaurants and street vendors, selling everything from fresh cooked fried rice to little balls of meat skewered on sticks.  I generally avoided the latter, though, since they also have a habit of coating all the meatballs with a sugary syrup which I find a bit nauseating.  Through it all, I managed to stay in one piece and generally erect.  That is until this week. 

Our move was stressful.  We were driving the pick-up in our apartment that was better set up for motorcycles.  There was no place to park out of the rain, and sometimes no place to park at all.  The rain came in bucketsfull, drenching me to the bone as I did all I could to cover things and move the truck out of the way of other trucks wishing to leave the building or move someone else.  Once moved, the rain stopped and the heat came.  Days have been drearily hot here lately; so much so that I find myself getting a bit woozy from it.  Then came the bugs.

Our first night at our new place was cool and damp.  What I didn't know was that cool and damp also brings out hordes of flying insects.  We came home from dinner out to find the kitchen filled with lacy-winged insects covering the windows, lights and filling the air.  Nee had me place a tub of water on the floor, a cure her mother used.  Sure enough, within minutes, the little devils dive-bombed the tub and they were gone.  The next morning, the back porch (aka outdoor kitchen) was covered in wings.  We also have an assortment of beetles, ants and other things that fly into your face. 

The final curse was the heat.  The rain disappeared and all last week we had heat that would melt rubber.  Excess heat makes me nauseous so this was not much fun.  Enter the food poisoning.  Somewhere around Tuesday evening I went from happy-go-lucky Roy to my-god-wheres-the-toilet Roy and I managed to lose all I had consumed for the day.  Perhaps it was the heat, or maybe the week old peanuts or anything else I may have consumed.  This followed me the rest of the week until today.  Maybe it was the tap water I made coffee with that morning, or maybe I just was born under an unlucky star.

Today we went to the hospital.  In Thailand, out-patient care usually takes place at the hospitals during the day and small clinics dotted around the area during the evenings. Both are run by the same doctors, as I have been told.  We went to McCormick Hospital, comically shown as Mcommich Hospital on the GPS in true Thainglish and was able to see a doctor in minutes.  Definitely not the American experience.  I wasn't asked about insurance and the fees were 1000 baht including four drugs...you can do the math.  When I was called to see the doctor, I was announced as Mr. Roy.  No one goes by last names here.  I received four plastic packets of pills, one I take before I eat, the other I take after, another I take in the morning and I can't remember when to take the last one.  Don't leave them out of their packets, either, or you will never know when to take them.

So far I have been referred to as Khun Roy, Mr. Roy, Teacher Roy and even briefly Ajarn Roy.  Anyone one of them would be happy to stop going through this period of deja flu (haven't I seen this toilet before?) but, alas.  I have been home for the afternoon, licking my wounds in my airconditioned bedroom and the problem is still with me.  Perhaps in a day or two the antibiotic will start to work.  Or maybe I will just dream of the lovely eclair I had in Laos and how much better I felt that day than I do at the moment.  It was filled with real chocolate cream, too.  Mmmm.

Saturday, May 5, 2012

A Funny Thing Happened to Me On My Way to School

I came here three months ago to find a new life as an English teacher. Last week, I was unemployed, had a potential for working several schools to earn a small income and my visa was about to run out.  Suddenly, I got a call from someone I had applied to months ago and everything changed.  It appears that I won't be teaching English any time soon however I will be able to return to my old career and stay here in Chiang Mai.  Making this return has saved me, for the moment, though I am not sure where it will lead. A few things needed to change to make this work.

First, we needed a car.  Nee has a friend who knows a mechanic who appears to also be in the used car business.  In the US, he would need a license to sell cars but here he just needs his driveway.  He showed us a number of cars over the last few weeks until last week.  Then we found a Nissan March, a car that looks more like a fat motorcycle than anything you would want to fill with your weekend suitcases for the trip to the coast.  The Nissan dealer had one that was a year old and already had enough miles as if it were three years older.  The price was a bit too good to be true, as well.  We mentioned this to our friend and suddenly another car appeared at the mechanic's.  This time a Chevrolet, five years old and very low mileage. 

I have been driving since the early 70's and most of my cars were Japanese with the exception of 71 Buick Skylark which I loved, even if I did have to put a piece of a two-by-four in the seat to make it level.  Fast forward about 30 years and now I am in Asia looking at a Chevy.  This one looks like my Camry, though, so it isn't a far stretch from my own perceived reality.  We drove it and loved it, breaking the heart of the dealer for a few seconds.

Next we needed a home closer to the job.  We had looked before and didn't find much.  This time, we stopped the truck in a neighborhood and Nee asked a lady who was cycling by with her baskets full of fruit to sell.  She pointed out a place behind the temple we were next to and we wandered in back.  There we found Shangri La, a beautifully landscaped resort complete with Koi carp, a fountain and hand-carved wooden doors.  The owner showed us around, offering us water, telling Nee about other houses available for rent nearby.  Finally she remembered a set of row houses that she happened to have an arrangement with and we walked in and decided we were home.  Thus, we now have a new home and a newish car.  Next I needed a visa. That is another long story which includes a trip to Laos and far too many modes of transportation.  In the meantime, we are moving tomorrow and begin the next phase of this adventure.  More about Laos later.