Everyday is Saturday


location: Bangkok, Thailand
date: 03/21/07

Laura's thoughts: After an epic trip in India, one can not help but make comparisons when discovering new places. Bangkok has been unfolding as quite a surprise. While wafting sewerage stench sporadically arrests the senses, this city seems spotless to our out-of-Western-touch standards. Thai people eat and sleep on the floor, so cleanliness is paramount to them. And to add to our olfactory relief, wild orchids abound in the flower capital of the world. We thought we'd quickly swing through this urban jungle to head for the hills and beaches. However, instead, we have happily stayed for a week enjoying its abundance of glorious temples, sprawling markets, and festive parks blanketed in technicolor for Kite Season. It has also been a treat to trust most food again. Outstanding streetcart meals can be found on every corner and it seems that the water is safe enough to drink delicous Thai coffees on ice. So, this chilly indulgence has certainly become an hourly ritual. With temperatures surpassing 100, we have also been happy to seek nightly refuge on the river canal boats which offer great views of the city.

The greatest contrast to India has been the proponderance of tourism. Famous Kao San Rd. teems with Gringos seeking a cheap beer, bargain trinkets or even a peep show. But many male travellers are shocked when they confront their own questionable sexuality as they realize that the beauty they've drooled over all night has been one of Thailand's multitude of lady-boys. Though this third gender still deals with its share of discrimination here, for centuries transexuals have experienced a certain level of acceptance and integration in this Buddhist culture.

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photo caption: colorful monks decending temple stairs; three serene and joyous buddhas

And that is not the only refreshing aspect of this highly religion environment. I find the way that they celebrate their spirituality so uplifting. Reresentations of the Buddha are always either laughing, smiling with utter contentment, or at peace in meditation. And the bright orange robes, flower & fruit-laden altars, and decoratively gilded temples seem to use joy to move people to devotion. 95% of Thai people are Buddhist and almost all wear amulets and make auspicious prayers before each and every daily activity. I even had my toes blessed before apedicure. Speaking of spa treatments, Thailand is a massage-lovers paradise. For $3.50, my tense muscles have been treated to an hour of penetrating kneading, contorting and caressing nearly every night. And the yoga classes here have also been the best I've found during our entire trip. So, with a week of trekking ahead, my body feels ready to go!

Geoff: Doorways are low in Thailand... and India, and Morocco for that matter. My scalp has borne the brunt of my lack of ability to acclimatize to this reality. It is scabbed, rippled, and contussed. I think the problems are that the doorways don't look that different, and I am not so tall that I regularly have to duck in North America and Europe. This condition is a bit like Thailand in general for me; at first blush, especially starting in Bangkok, it looks more familiar than it really is, with nice cars, sky trains, relatively sane driving, clean streets, etc. It takes a little time to really adjust and see the differences in lifestyles, mannerisms, and attitudes. For one thing they seem really comfortable with the fact that they are currently being ruled by a military "transition" team who overthrew their democratically-elected Prime Minister. Active Coup-Opposition numbers cited in the leading english-daily, The Bangkok Post, are in the tens and hundreds in a country of over 60 million. (Hard to imagine when we had 5,000 people march against the Iraq war in Flagstaff or almost a million dollars spent on a public referendum on a big-box ordinance.)

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photo caption: typical low Thai doorway; streetfood stall dripping with noodles

This acclimitization period was also delayed by the fact that I spent a couple of days holed up in the National Library in Bangkok finishing my long-delayed/overdue/mailigned thesis. On the bright side, libraries seem to me to be one of the greatest common environments shared by all. So, in my extracurricular time, I have come to appreciate that Thai's love to eat and any stall, cart, or alleyway is a perfect place to dine. And dine we have. After examining the cleanliness factor of every Indian restaurant with the fervour worthy of UN Atomic inspectors in North Korea, we have jumped into the street scene with 2 chopsticks and a big spoon. The food rocks. We have come to realize, with a degree of self-loathing, that we fit into that category of "Foodies", given that we spend a disproportionate amount of time discussing coffee roasts, noodle textures, and what we will eat at the next meal- while we are still eating the current one. Thais eat all day with no real set meal times or designated food types for different times of days. As such, the 11 AM shrimp Pad Thai can be a little jarring at first.

location: Chiang Mai, Thailand
date: 03/28/07

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photo caption: jungle boy and leaf umbrella on "package tour"

Laura's thoughts: If I thought Bangkok was tourist mayhem, Chiang-Mai is Asia's little Vancouver, minus the 30% Asian population. At least inside the walled central city, tourists seem to outnumber locals 10-1...and many are here to stay. With its organic juice stands, reggae bars, and general chilled atmosphere, this city has great Western appeal. There must be a few thousand middle-aged men here (nick-named Ronny McThailand in the Lonely Planet) who have found themselves a Thai wife, with whom they've had a few stunning children and made this country home. Then, there's the eternal backpackers who originally came for two weeks and never left, or the entrepreneurial types who have capitalized on some niche market (veggiecafe/bookstore; Anusara yoga center; mountain bike guiding company) and established lifelong careers in Thailand. For those looking for foreign culture, being surrounded by so many comforts from home can come as a disappointment. However, who are we to knock Thai immigration when we come from multi-cultural North American where we relish the diversity that expats bring? Perhaps Thai citizens feel the same. They certainly take great pains to ensure that tourism thrives here, with an entirely separate tourist police force and idiot-proof signage everywhere.

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photo caption: our friend Roger with hunter guides; Roger, Rachel & Geoff bushwacking through bamboo stands

So, when in Rome... We have jumped on the tourist band wagon, even joining one of the prerequisite three-day jungle treks that every visit to Chiang-Mai includes. And while 2 hours of walking a day, and souvenir shops at every hill tribe village are not our cup of tea, we still dug the lush setting and long afternoon waterfall breaks. Then, to make up for the cush luxury of this outing, we privately hired a guide to take us (with our Arizona friends, Rachel and Roger, who've joined us for a week) to brave the real jungle for a day. Well, we certainly got the "roughing it" experience that we were looking for. Our guide hired two local hunters to lead the way through the brush that he had never traversed. Then, we proceeded to machete through bamboo tangles and bushwack up & down 40 degree pitches for eight hours. Along the way, our personal gunmen shot a beautiful tropical bird for dinner, and shared their beehive lunch delicacy with our whole crew. (Fortunately my vegetarian instincts passed on what turned out to be raw larvae!!). This adventure ended fittingly with a ride home in the bed of a pick-up. And to add to the challenge of keeping our butts in the truck, we had to strategically plan our bounces to avoid landing in the puddle of blood that our guide’s menstruating dog deposited on the floor.

location: Ko Phi Phi, Thailand
date: 04/02/07

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photo caption: limestone and electric blue sea off Phi Phi Lei; Geoff blissing out on DiCaprio's "The Beach"

Laura's thoughts: Life is so chill on Thai islands that, on their temple altars, the locals make Buddha offerings of cigarettes and juice boxes with a straw (after all, Buddha wants to relax and avoid bacteria on the rim of his drinks as much as the next guy). When we touched down on Phi-Phi paradise we actually needed to destress more than we had anticipated, after a harrowing landing on our domestic flight. With no verbal warning from the crew and an abrupt upward thrust of the plane's nose followed by a rapid thirty-second descent, our wheels touched down with a thud and huge sighs of relief from passengers who were quite certain that their pilot had been a rookie. Apparently, he confused the up controls from the downs when told to prepare for landing and, thus, had to make a jolting correction. Never a fearful flyer, I was definitely sweating this one and exstatic when it was over.

Anyway, though still quite ideallic, Thailand's not what it used to be. Tales of empty, endless beaches and quiet evenings shared only with the stars and cicadas seem now to be only that of lore. The internet and the entire population of Sweden has let the good word out about every secret corner in Thailand, and, with ample budget airlines flying here, development can hardly keep up with tourist demand. But who are we to balk at that? We know that we are part of the problem, not the solution. So, as usual, we're making the most of it and enjoying the thriving Thailand of the new millenium. From our thatched bungalow with free wireless, we shared our beach with orange people (a term for salon-tanned Scandiavians, which we learned during our stay in Copenhagen) and self-proclaimed "So Borat" frat boys from Texas. Also, just behind our resort was the constant sound of heavy reconstruction machinery, serving as an important reminder of the devastating tsunami that hit this island little more than two years ago. In fact, the proprietor of our favorite noodle shop generously relayed his survival story to us in detail. We were riveted by his story about nearly drowning in his own home until the top wooden floor gave way and pummeled him under 10 feet of rubble, from which he was extracted by a Western man who saved his life.

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photo caption: stunning bays along our snorkeling long boat tour

Before we arrived, many had warned us that we'd find Southwest Thailand still ravaged by this fatal wave. However, we've since learned that Thai people are highly improvement-oriented and, apparently, most beach resorts look even better than before. That said, it seems that there may have been a significant exodus of Thai people who've left island life for drier land after experiencing this natural disaster. Because now many rebuilt businesses are Western run. And, contrary to Chiang Mai, many of these expat entreprenuers are women who've married Thai men (Meaghan McThailands, if you will). After a week here, I can see the appeal of staying for a while. And fortunately, the other warning, delivered by our friend Rachel's mother, about terrorist beheadings of school teachers, has proven to be untrue as well. There is still some politcal unrest here, but, we've learned not to listen to the fear-mongers who tend to make us think that foreign lands bear greater hazards than home. We've felt a great sense of safety and security everywhere we have been and, again, we've affirmed that the map is not the territory.

Geoff: It is really thrilling to see familiar faces after so many months. Just starting to catch up with Roger and Rachel made us realize that we have become so accustomed to our own company that it is difficult to encapsulate, to our friends over beers, just how impactful this trip has been to our lives. Maybe a little precursor of things to come - but it's good to now start conversationalizing (not a word I know) what we have been thinking and writing about. Anyway, lately our adventures have been more of the vacationing sort than the travelling type - no value judgement intended. It just makes it a little more difficult to feel like we have compelling things to say. Plus, the plethora of tourists who visit Thailand every year have made the locals understandably a bit cavalier about meeting foreigners. So, the rich cultural exchanges to which we had become accoustomed in Morocco and India have been more scarce, offering us less insight to share about the people of this country.

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photo caption: Roger and Rachel chilling on their Phi-Phi hammock and taking off (leaving G & L friendless again)

However, I can say this: the Thai people have one of the most incredible natural resources for vacation/tourism that I have ever seen. Like all less-developed countries that are fairly economically-dependent on tourism, their visitors create disturbing impacts. But, I do believe that it is also helping to drive some of the progress in their economy. Enhanced transportation and communication infrastructure is one area, another is language development, and a final one may be support for more progressive environmental policy. Certainly, when you are watching islanders burning some of the tourist garbage each morning, you realize that it is not being consistently applied. But, water and sewage treatment continues to advance - especially in the tsunami reconstruction areas.

On a vacation note: the snorkeling around the islands of Phi-Phi is still astounding. The water clarity was amazing while we were there and the reefs seemed to survive the tsunami intact. We would sometimes spend 15 minutes swimming around one 12-foot-square outcropping because it was so rich with activity. Meanwhile, harmless 5-foot reef sharks would sail by while the vast majority of the recalcitrant tourists were guzzling Chang beers, 40-feet away on the beach, completely unawares.

location: Ko Lanta, Thailand
date: 04/06/07

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photo caption: the best digs of our entire trip - the Where Else bungalows on Ko Lanta island

Laura's thoughts: GOD BLESS THE SHOULDER SEASON! Not only has our daily mean temperature in Morocco, India, and Thailand averaged a perfect 78 degrees (24 for the Canucks), but travelling just before or after each country's peak season has afforded us cheaper accomodations and much smaller crowds. Autumn in Europe (after the backpacker rush), early winter in Essouira (after high desert temperatures fall), mid-winter in India (before the snow melts in the North and the monsoons hit), and spring in Thailand (pre-rainy season, and post-temperate climate of Dec-Feb) has still offered us endless sunshine and no need for advanced room bookings. And, at last, we have found the desolate getaway that we have been craving (even in tourist-infested Thailand).

One of the beauties of taking a full year to travel is having the luxury to change plans on a whim. We boarded a ferry to Ko Lanta, with the intention of transferring to another boat to Ko Jum, a remote island without electricity which had been recommended to us by a fellow traveller. However, upon arrival, we learned that the afternoon boat to Jum had been cancelled during the low season. So, we booked a $10 room for the night, at the Ko Lanta Riviera Resort on Khlong Khong Beach, only to find the spot we've been searching for all year. Just a 400-meter walk from the Riviera lay the "Where Else?" bungalows. With Astrid Gilberto wafting from the bamboo beachbar speakers, artistic mobiles and lanterns made from shells and coconuts, and a view to die for, we were sold. On this entire two-kilometer strip of beach, there may be only 200 people staying in its dozen resorts, and, surely, every thirty-something hipster has chosen this place. We are not ashamed to admit that our taste is both typical and predicatable. At least we know what we like. And this is it! So, we promptly moved and stayed for the whole week. (in a room w/private outdoor shower & hammock for only $8!)

location: Railay, Thailand
date: 04/09/07

Laura's thoughts: Having both gotten a bit soft around the edges, what with noodles at every meal, lots of loafing on the beach, and little exercise lately, we loved spending a few days in this recreational mecca. Surrounded by uniquely beautiful limestone rock, Railay is a veritable playground for outdoor lovers. Whether you want to hike to a hidden lagoon, cliff jump, kayak through tunnels laced with stalactites, or rock climb, you can do it here. And, we made sure not to miss a thing. So, finally, Geoff can stop hasseling me about dragging my new climbing shoes around the globe, because we made good use of them here. In fact, we each even summited our first 5.10d.

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photo caption: climbing, cliffs and coves in Railay Beach

Also, if I didn't already have enough evidence before coming here, I have now confirmed that I must have been a fish in a previous life. Growing up near Cape Cod, my love affair with water started young. But after spending every spare weekend, during my "Arid"zona summers, finding another secret waterhole from our "Day Hikes with a Splash" book, I realize how much my body craves moisture. And this sure is a good thing since we are moving back to one of the wettest climates on earth after the trip. These few luxurious weeks, swimming around the clock, have only whetted my appetite for water all the more (no pun intended) - so much so, that they have me waxing poetic.

Ode to Water a la Dr. Suess
(after five years of living in Arizona)

Water, how I love thee.
Let me count the ways.

I love you when I'm thirsty.
I love you when I'm dry.
I love the roar of ocean waves.
And you gently babbling by.

I love you when I'm filthy.
Or when I'm so hot it aches.
Sometimes I love to sing in showers.
And to swim in deep, dark lakes.

I love to boat, and surf, and dive, it's true.
And most of all to float on you.

I love to drink you with my tea.
And cook you with my macaroni.

I love you when you turn to snow.
And when you help my car to go.

There is no end to this long list,
Just know that you've been sorely missed.

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photo caption: Laura blissed out on H2O

location: Surat Thani, Thailand (en route to Ko Tao)
date: 04/10/07

Geoff: It seems like Thailand is a great place to meet other travellers who can enrich your experience. Plus, a lot of these travellers have been coming here for years and can provide helpful tips and back story on some of the undecipherable customs. Ivar, the Norwegian mountain of a man, was one such character. We met him while waiting to catch the atrocious sleeper ferry here. Over pier-side beers, he enlightened us to the love of the king, the cause and effects of the sex trade, and even some rudimentary Thai vocabulary. Ivar has had a Thai girlfriend for one year and 2 months, and during that period he has travelled here seven times. The beauty of close-ended relationships is that you can cut to the chase and ask meaty questions without concern for violating conventional personal boundary timelines.

Thus, we learned that while his girlfriend smokes, she is not a sex worker like most of the female smoking population. Similarly, female tatoos are a "branding" that makes it impossible to return to respectable life after their time spent improving the lot of their family. (Ivar's theory, I have not substantiated any of these concepts so...) We also learned that the fabled Thai sex-trade is only 5% fueled by foreigners. According to Ivar, the vast, super-majority of married men here, at some point, frequent bordellos. This lack of respect by males towards females helps fuel the desire of Thai women to marry Westerners. (Ibid) Regardless of the veracity of the numbers, it can't help but colour the way we look at the culture.

One of the other interesting discoveries we made was about the role of the king. A very enlightened and humble man, he commands the utmost respect from the people. He is very careful about how he injects himself into public and political life and, as such, has been able to maintain huge support in the face of military coups and the like. In fact, the lack of turmoil surrounding the current military oversight appears to be because the King gave his tacit approval. He hates corrupt politicians more than he supports democratic principles- so it appears. He has also done a ton of great things for the country, including destigmatizing wearing glasses and admitting physical imperfections - he has some pacidermian-worthy ears of his own that he apparently uses as a tool of self-deprecation. As a followup, he forbid cosmetic plastic surgery except for cases of disfigurement. I would love to see Queen Elizabeth publicly try to staunch the rise of body enhancements. Canada would be a republic in no time flat.

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photo caption: They sure love their King! (in his 80th year, city billboards still often portray him as a fetching youth)

Laura's thoughts: Either Thai people have come to learn that travellers lack any resourcefulness, patience, or saavy whatsoever, or they are more efficient than the Germans and love wayfinding more than the Danes. I have never before been anywhere that was this incredibly easy to get around! Unlike India, where our 200-k journeys took all day and provided infinite epic tales for the website, moving from place to place in Thailand is an uneventful breeze. For example, travelling from Railay (a non-road accessible peninsula in the Southwest) to Ko Tao (a small island 500-k Northeast) took 2 minutes of planning and only half a day. Imagine this: On your way to enjoy sunset maitais, you tell the friendly Railay travel agent that you want to be in Ko Tao tomorrow and she quickly produces a combo-ticket which includes a 30-minute longtail boat off the penisula to Krabi town, a 2-hour bus to Surat Thani, a cab to the pier, and a 3-hour ferry ride to Ko Tao. All for $20. No figuring things out in each town, no getting lost, no praying to the porcelein gods, and a timely arrival. Plus, all those hours saved not fussing with travel plans can be spent pursuing far loftier goals like improving your tan, lengthening your afternoon hammock nap, and perfecting your snorkeling technique.

I know that we have previously mentioned the "vacation" aspect of our Thailand phase numerous times, but 27 hedonistic days in, my Catholic guilt and Jewish work ethic are hammering away at my conscience. After all the Dalai Lama's karma talk, I have to wonder if any amount of my previous lives' good deeds would be enough for me to deserve this. I know that I have always made my bed everyday, I don't eat land mammals, I never throw away plastic or aluminum (except in India), I'm a good tipper, and I only fart in private, but I feel like I'll have to dedicate the rest of my life to reversing global warming in order to pay back my karmic debt for this trip. Anyway, it's totally worth whatever the cost may be! Speaking of H.H., I sure picked the wrong time to take his "harm no sentient beings" edict to heart. After swearing off killing bugs during our first three weeks in Thailand, I'm now a swatting fool. Instead of my poison oak in Italy, prickly heat in Morocco, or my human feces rash in India, my limbs are now covered in swollen, itchy bumps from sand fly, red ant, and mosquito bites. One thing's certain - when my body is finally red-dot-free, I'll know that I'm leading a boring life.

location: Ko Tao, Thailand
date: 04/12/07

Geoff: Tanote Bay, where we are staying, is home to a number of diving operations because of the beautiful coral bays, rocky islands and fish variety. It redefines swimming for me. Throw the fins and mask on and, voila a whole new world. The water is about 32 degrees celsius, so you can stay in until your whole body starts to prunify- and we did. The highlight of the snorkeling was an around-the-island tour that visited sharks' bays and Mango Bay. I did not know that water could be that clear. We dropped into this protected cove and both started laughning. We could see fins, sharks, fish, and coral as far away as 40 metres. I spent 20 minutes chasing squid around, watching them change colours like chameleons- hmmm, maybe I will pass on the fried calamari for a while. It is heartening to know that such places still exist, and even more shocking, that they coexist with hundreds of daily human visitors. Koh Tao seems to have done a lot of work trying to mitigate the effects of its popularity by instilling an environmental ethic ( a watered-down, economically sustainable one at that, or we wouldn't be here.)

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photo caption: ideal snorkelling bay on Bamboo Island; beautiful Tanot Bay in Ko Tao, as seen from our bungalow balcony

Laura's thoughts: With twenty hours of underwater time under our belts, now the only thing I see when I close my eyes is an array of irridescent fish. And although Magic Mushroom Lassis are sold legally at some Thai beach bars, the following stream of conscious prose was not drug-induced...honest.

Snorkeling Dream Sequence

Arranged by height, six canary-yellow, zebra-striped angels dutifully saunter by. In the distance, a schoolroom full of students in lapis-lazuli uniforms stare, with eager eyes beaming, towards their garishly lipsticked headmistress. Taunting them through the window, dozens of mischievous frogs play hookie. They know where the real fun is. In a nearby hidden enclave lays a den of inequity, carefully guarded by Bosco the Bouncer, pimped out in full disco regalia. Every silver-bejewelled beauty in the joint flocks to this casanova who's sporting a neon-green spotted zoot suit swirled with hot pink stripes. Always game for a good time, a gang of swingers in multi-colored cordoruy bell bottoms sweet talks their way underground. Feckless and innocently unawares, Nemo has no need for the debauchary of his depraved cohorts. He's perfectly content to play hide & seek with his own shadow, only occassionally peeking through his orange shag carpet to see what he's missing. Circling the perimeter of this scene, but too timid to join in, Goldie gazes enviously at her peers . Recently orphaned, she pines most as she watches the Dolphin family. Decked out in matching purple & white softball shirts, they prepare to cream their cousins, the Powderpuffs, at the annual reunion. Ever the impartial observer, Grandpa Joseph, in his technicolor dreamcoat, is chosen to referee the match. On the sidelines, an adorable crew of co-eds, in gecko-bespeckled bodysuits, cheer equally heartily for both teams. But every party seems to have its spoiler, and barelling onto the field comes a bully in fatigues and an orange raincoat. Out of his big mouth he shouts "FIRE!" until everyone scatters and he's got the place to himself. THE END

location: Bangkok, Thailand
date: 04/14/07

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photo caption: Choa Praya River Ferry

Geoff: Today we took another little tour on the local river ferry service. For 60 cents each, it is the cheapest overview of the city available. This system is the model of operational efficiency. You snooze, you miss it. In fact, on our last ferry ride, we were taking the final boat of the day, south, to catch one of the nightly river dinner cruises, when we experienced this efficiency first hand. At the last second we realized that we should get off at a particular stop and in a moment of hesitation, Laura jumped off the already departing boat and I chickened out of the Hollywood leap that would have accompanied an attempt to follow. Instead we stood there like dumbstruck idiots staring in disbelief as my boat sped into the darkness.

Hmmm, we will just follow our long-established protocol for situations like this. Hmmm, we don't have a protocol, we don't have phones, we don't even know the name of our hotel, and to add to the comedy, Laura doesn't have any money. In keeping with her dislike of pockets and love of sleek, stylin sundresses, I am carrying all necessities. No worries, I will use logic and just rush back to the last ferry stop, less than one kilometre away. I will run in the 39 degree heat in case she is walking towards my stop. After receiving wrong info and searching for the wrong ferry stop, I decide to take a cab. Unfortunately, my cab driver, took me to two stops back, through a traffic jam, and 50 baht later returns me to the same spot where I started. Wring out the shirt so I don't look like a fugitive and repeat the entire sequence on foot and then by taxi number two. Upon reaching the correct pier ONE HOUR later, I find the only people waiting are rats and transvestite prostitutes. Hmmm, I wonder what Laura is thinking now? She has no money, but I am sure that won't stop her from talking her way onto a boat or taxi. So, I decide to take a water taxi across to the dinner cruise launch spot just in case. Fruitless. 2 hours later I make way back to the hotel, via taxi and a scrawled map, to find Laura drinking a beer on the patio, thankfully, smiling. One of the benefits of being on a long trip is that you can allow for a certain amount of mistakes. Still no pockets for Laura, but she has relented and bought a little purse. And, by the way, Laura wants to thank the nice father of two from San Francisco who gave her the 100 baht for the cab ride home.

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photo caption: rest stop for the Farang Express; family shenanigans at the Songkran Water Festival

Laura's thoughts: The tourist/ex-pat phenomenom is so prevalent in Thailand, they have actually created a new word in their language to describe us, farang. An entire industry of services designed just for foreigners (pubs, magazines, buses, and hostels), now incorporates this term into their name. Since Geoff and I are always ones to crave the locals' experience while we travel, we have to admit that we will not shed any tears when we disembark from the Farang Express. Like cattle, we've been squeezed into every imaginable vessel of transit, knee-deep in gringos, all dizzylly whizzing around the same tourist circuit. Needless to say, we are now thrilled about the little detour that we've decided to take, en route to South America. Tomorrow, we're heading to Hokkaido, the northern island of Japan, to visit our friend Greg Canuel, who has lived there with his Japanese wife and children for almost a decade. He is sure to take us off the beaten path and give us an authentic taste of the culture.

All this said, of course we thoroughly enjoyed our time here. And it has been fun to see this country in full festival spirit just before we depart. Songkran, the Thai New Year's Water Festival, was celebrated this weekend. For three days, the streets were replete with pick-up trucks full of hooligans emptying buckets of water on passing strangers, children armed with water oozies, and balloon bombs dropping from every second story window. The unique holiday rituals that we've witnessed in each country have told us a lot about their cultures. Perhaps the Aid Hadaa lamb sacrifices of Morocco, the Holi spray painting of India, and the Songkran water fights of Thailand are reflections of their people, in the same way that maurading around in Halloween costumes and begging for sweets, door to door, speaks volumes about North Americans. Whether true or not, the temptation to make such comparisons is irresistable.

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photo caption: Anywhere, Earth with the Triumpharate if you look closely (Coke, Burger King and Starbucks)

At any rate, we find ourselves, again, between worlds. On such a trip, far more time than ordinary is spent in such a state, and it has illuminated many things for me. Firstly, tranferring quickly from one disparate culture to another makes more obvious those unfortunate, homogenous elements which can be found "Anywhere, Earth". Beyond the list which has existed since the 70's (McDonald's, Coke, and Nike) we can now add: Teva, Billabong, 7/11 & Jack Johnson tunes. Though I know that the latter surfing songster has been sure to donate 1% of his billions to good causes, this overexposure may soon be the death of his career. Also interesting, while in transit, is to watch my mind move from wakefulness to neutrality . Like an insomniac, when I find myself suddenly without the constant stimuli that travel often provides, I count...anything. Those who know me well are already aware of this neurosis. It may be people in a waiting room, windows on a building, or times a stranger says "like". Whatever the object of my innumerating is, it fills the otherwise unengaged space in my brain. But, believe me, I do not cherish this habit. In fact, I swore off it for my 2006 New Year's Resolution; however, that lasted only a month. Therefore I am left to live with it. And, thus, I have the following figures to share from our trip:

1. Since leaving Flagstaff we have been on 12 planes, 24 trains, 10 buses, 8 ferries, and 7 long car trips (excluding cab rides).
2. We have slept in no less than 67 different beds in 49 cities in 14 countries.
3. We've been gone 226 days and will arrive in Vancouver in 108 more.
4. Forever plagued by my ugly, sized 10 feet, I will leave Thailand, regrettably, with only 8 of my toenails. However, Geoff cheerfully reminds me that an 80% is still an "A" in Canada.
5. I have only played my flute 59 times since we left North America.
6. Yet I have read 31 books.

These useless facts, I realize, do nothing to capture the essence of our journey. So, I must constantly watch my propensity to quantify rather than qualify experiences. And, again, I am reminded of another Dalai Lama message about mindfulness. Even in the tedium of airports, there is beauty and inspiration to be found. And the thought that our busy lives and minds cause us to miss many of life's small wonders can make me profoundly sad. The desensitized nature of our over-occupied, technologized Western ways has never been made more clear than it was by a recent Washington Post story. It exposes what tragically occured when world-reknowned violinist, Joshua Bell, played a Bach masterpiece, incognito, in a DC subway station during their hectic morning commute. Check out "Pearls Before Breakfast": http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2007/04/04/AR2007040401721.html

Certainly, the same "wake up and smell the roses" philosophy, espoused by this piece, inspired our decision to quit our jobs and travel around the world for a year. However, one can never have too many reminders.

location: Sapporo, Hokkaido, Japan
date: 04/25/07

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photo caption: Kaede and Momiji in all their cuteness; healthy children's birthday party snacks in Japan

Laura thoughts: After a bit over a week, visiting our friend Greg and his adorable kids in Japan, our rent-a-kid contract has expired. As usual, our occassional glimpses of parental life have left us with an enhanced appreciation for the tremedous work that is required to raise children and the incredible joy that it can bring. 5 yr. old Judo-master, Kaede, and Momiji, who just had her third birthday on Sunday, kept us laughing all week, in two languages no less! My proudest moment as a surrogate caregiver came when when I succeeded in teaching them to sing the old Styx classic, "Domo Arigato, Mr. Roboto" while their Dad left alone us in the car to do an errand. Unfortunately, he may not agree with my successful assessment of this accomplishment after hearing them repeat it, at the top of their lungs, incessantly, all week. On the lower end of the "Aunt & Uncle of the Year Award" spectrum is the moment when Greg left the kids in our care, at the public pool, and Momiiji ended up in the ER to have a dislocated elbow fixed (thank goodness, at least, it was not broken as we had thought). At any rate, Greg and his wife Kaori have done an amazing job bringing up two such well behaved siblings who have such a genuinely warm relationship with each other, and a refreshing comfort with strangers. And while I do think that they are exceptional kids, I have certainly noticed a trend (in Japan, India and Thailand) for children to behave far better than most in North America (of course, the children of our family and friends are exempted from this generalization) . We have witnessed little to no public temper tantrums or even crying fits in any of these countries and often wondered why. In the case of Japan, I do have a theory, so I'll just throw it out there: DIET! Like the photo above, a typical snack of oreos, coke, and doritos is replaced, in Japan, with triangular seaweed, rice & salmon wraps or sausages cut into the shapes of sea animals just for fun. Food for thought...

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photo caption: freakish arm swelling from Thai insect bite

Having already mentioned the ER, I should make note of the fact that we got a veritable tour of the Japanese medical system. Day 1 found us at a dermatologist where Geoff was prescribed steroids and antihistamine for what they thought was an allergic reaction to a Thai insect bite. However, at the end of his dosage, he's still got forearms like Chris Sharma, so we may need a second opinion. Day 2, Momiji, who'd caught a stomach virus, went to the hospital to receive an IV drip for the dehydration. Then, on Day 3, just for the novelty of it, Greg brought us to Abikosan, a shaman-like helaer who has helped his family through numerous ailments. She insightfully picked up on Geoff and my battery of chronic aches and pains (his lower back and right shoulder, my neck and traps) without our saying anything, and she offered us her healing hands. This was quite interesting and I wish we had more time to recieve her therapeutic treatments.

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photo caption: steamy dip in a volcanic onsen; Laura's foray into Taiko drumming (I smell a new passion!)

In addition to this taste of traditional Japan, we had exposure to many things quintessentially Japanese during our visit: Volcanos and onsens (natural hot springs - which are ubiquitous in the northern island where Greg lives); Judo and Taiko drumming (the latter of which I was thrilled to try-out, with the local club, on our final evening); a very minor earthquake; incredibly small economy cars; and of course, sushi. The intersting part about having experienced so many aspects of this culture is that Greg's hometown of Ikeda, ostensibly, feels like Eastern Ontario, and many of these exotic products have been imported by North America for years, begging the question of what foreign even means in the 21st century. I think that most people who love to travel are searching for Otherness, yet this is getting harder and harder to find in our global society. That said, I still believe that travel opens our eyes to alternative existences, behaviors, attitudes and living standards. So, it is this broadened perspective that I will take back with me after our year is up.

Other page links:
recommended reading from our travels

recommended accomodation from our travel
rough trip budget