Humbled

Cute tucked in everywhere

Everyone is smiling at the experts.

So now that I’ve been here in Thailand for about 12 weeks,  I like to consider myself more than a tourist. More than a traveler, even.  A bit of an expert.   I’m an Expat.  I’ve made the commitment and I deserve the respect.  When Thai’s ask “Where are you from?”  I proudly respond, “I live in Min BUR ee.”  They smile and say, “Oh, you live in Min bur EE?”  I cringe and obediently repeat their quick language correction, and sheepishly say, “Yes, Min bur EE.”  

As a seasoned local, I know 15 Thai words all together and can confidently say hello, thank you, please, yes, no, left, right, here, chicken, pork  and can count 1-5.  And when ordering food I can look slyly at the pictures and quickly think, “that’s the green curry”, “that’s tom yum soup”, “that’s a fish thingy” and then point to the picture and nod “yes.”  The servers are almost always impressed.  In fact,  a few nights ago, Rick took me to a VERY hipster place in Chinatown called The Tep Bar.  Tucked away down a winding little alley, it’s darkly lit with a lotus bud on each table.  Traditional Thai music played by artistic college students to entertain us  and the wait staff is ultra cool with old school Chinese beards and man buns.  First plus, drinks are two for one.  Score.  The very modern server brings her iPad over to take our order. I tell her our choices and she dutifully pulls up the picture on her screen and I nod, “Yes.”  Deep fried chicken dumplings.  Spicy pork balls.  Bamboo Butterfly.

Music, wine and little tapas style plates.  Eating bits of everything, laughing and enjoying the music.  Dumplings are super crunchy; pork balls are super spicy and the bamboo butterfly…crunchy on the outside and creamy on the inside.  Wait a second.  I take a closer look.  Bamboo BUTTERFLY.  In the pupa stage.  Even with a picture.  Nice one Forang.  They were pretty good, actually.  And by the way, two for one in Bangkok means that you get two drinks for the price of two drinks.  And if you have three, instead of four (because while I am a silly Forang, I am not stupid) you still get charged for four because it’s two for one and three is not divisible by two.  It makes perfect sense.  You see, I’m practically native.

laughing-at-us

Once we finally got to the Royal Palace, even the statue is laughing at us!

The next day, now that we’re fully integrated into Thai culture, we figure we can go for the big time.  Just take a taxi down to the Grand Palace for a little tour.  Now you need to know that this area  is tourist central.  Mad house. Think Roman Coliseum.  Think La Rambla in Barcelona.  Think pick-pockets and cons.  Think “RUN!!”  But we KNOW Thailand now.  We live here.  We’re ready.  Easy enough.  Grab a taxi and off we go.  As we get close to the Palace, I realize that we can save at least 5 baht (15 cents)  if the driver stops a little early.  I holler, “Tee NEE, ka!”  (Here, please.)  Such an expert.  We get out of the cab and start our leisurely walk to the Palace gates.  On the way, a nice man, wearing a police logo polo shirt stops us.  “Hello, the gate to the Palace is here.  I’m here on holiday from Phuket. I work for the government.  You live in Min bur EE?  Then, let me help you get a good deal on this Tuk Tuk down to the Thai long tail boat ride that I just took.  I loved it.  One hour.  No shopping.”

And, we did it.  

Oh, the boat ride was nice.  Thank God I saved that 15 cents because we were totally ripped off.  We even had to pay to get OFF the boat.  Yep.  Another nice one Forang.

smiling-all-the-way-to-thebank

Smiling al the way to the bank.

side-of-train

Sky train to Minbur EE….I think.

Needless to say, all we wanted to do was take our deflated selves back to Min bur EE.  So, we hop the subway to the skytrain.  Headed home.  Expertly done.  On the train platform, another Westerner approaches us and asks about directions to the airport.  “Oh, it’s the same train we’re taking.  Just come with us.” We board the train.  We chat.  He’s heading to Vietnam.  I ask if he knows about getting a” Visa on Arrival” (which I know about since I’m an expert) and his face falls in disbelief.  “No, I don’t know about that.”  So I quickly google it on my phone because as an Expat of 12 weeks, I have a local service.  Thankfully, we were there to save the day and he got the information he needed.  But, then I realize that I haven’t been paying attention to the train stops.  Where are we?  I listen carefully to the overhead loudspeaker.  “Blah, blah, KA”.  Is that our stop?   Yes.  Definitely.  “Blah, blah, KA” is where we need to get off.

Well, it wasn’t.  And, next to a freeway, finding a cab willing to drive to Min bur EE was close to impossible.  Time to Uber.  At first, no cabs took the call.  Then we got one!  We waited.  They cancelled.  Then, out of the blue, a Buddha taxi pulled up.  Over time, I’ve noticed that some cabbies have Buddha icons on the dashboard.  This driver patiently smiled and  listened and figured out where we needed to go.  Exhausted, humbled and very grateful, we finally made it home.   
Thank you Buddha guy.  

monk-making-a-call

Maybe he called our cabbie? “Hey Joe. Forang needs help. Right. Thanks man.”

Unrequited

“I know we’d be best friends”, I thought as I finished the epic book,  The Storyteller: Tales of Life and Music by Dave Grohl.  I imagine that if we were introduced at some dive bar, we would hit it off instantly.  I mean, Dave and I, we have a lot in common.  He’s witty.  I’m sort of witty.  He has kids.  Whoa, so do I!  We def like the same music (his), and we both swear like sailors.  It’s a perfect fit.  

I feel the same way about the Dalai Lama.  That guy.  Having never really had a grandpa, I am sure that he would be the best fit for me.  Think about it.   We would sit together in long stretches of silence until I asked, “What is the meaning of life?” and he would slowly smile and say something like, “This.”  Yes.  We would definitely see eye to eye.

Or the late Betty White.  I imagine sitting in my living room with her.  She with her graying hair, me with mine.  We would smile at each other slyly and shoot funny one-liners at each other – egging the other on to more and more edgy humor.  Finally, she’d put her arm around me and say, “You’ve got this girl!” and I would be filled with the self-confidence that only an older role-model can instill.

David Cassidy would have instantly fallen in love with me if we had ever met.  I know it.  I mean, we had a huge connection through his fan club.  I knew every detail of his life (thank you Teen Beat Mag) and dreamed of what I would say to him the first time we met.  “I knew you would find me,” or “David, what took you so long?” Gone too soon.

Now Joan (Jett that is) and I would have a slightly different relationship.  First, I’m sure she’d want to kick my butt for playing down my inner child all these years, and then, she’d be that “tough love” sis who would say things like, “Fuck! Get off your lazy ass and write it down!  You gonna die in that office chair?”  Gotta love Joan.

One day, I’m certain I’ll run into Bill Bryson while traveling.  He and I will have a lot to talk about.  As the writer of A Short History of Nearly Everything, and my favorite, A Walk in the Woods, he will definitely add depth to virtually anything I have to say.  But best, we can swap travel stories and together, plan our next big adventure.

I think Carl Jung would have a heyday with my list of unrequited loves.  Each one representing little bits of me – or the projection of who I want to be.  So there it is.  Time to consciously channel my people.  Here we go 2022!  I’m totally ready for this ride.

I Heart Millennials

My statement was met with disbelief. So, I repeated myself, very slowly. “When I was a kid, no one used olive oil. We used Crisco or Wesson oil.” Both sons just shook their heads sadly. Finally, one son said, “But mom, how did people make dipping sauce for artisan bread? How did they make Aglio e Olio? How did they cook?” I sighed. You’ve just got to love the Millennials.

The Millennials, also known as Gen Y are folks born anywhere between about 1980 and about 1996. It’s a big group, much like their parents, the Baby Boomers. When the Millennials started entering the workforce, there was a lot of negative chatter about this younger group. Words like selfish, naive and indulgent were tossed around. But, I think this was the typical reaction that older generations often have with younger generations. The common response to change.  I remember the first time I had a boss that was younger than me. That poor woman!  I mean, she was a baby. Not yet 30, I was deeply offended that someone that young would be in charge of ME! I mean really? How could anyone understand the world without living in it for at least 50 years? Of course, that was part of my learning.  Yes, she had to work through things for the first time that I had dealt with years before, but, I too, had yet another journey to follow. And folks, that was a hard one. Not only did I need to allow this generation to learn and strive, perhaps I had a few lessons to learn from them.

Introducing the Foodie

During the 60’s, women were overjoyed to have their workloads reduced in any way possible. This was a generation of women that typically stayed at home with their kids, did all the housework and cooked all the meals. Lots of household improvements came about during that time.  Excellent vacuum cleaners, dishwashers, dryers and even electric curlers!  But best of all, pre-packaged and pre-cooked meals.  Take Campbells Soup. Not only could you warm it up and eat it right out of the can, you could add it to a number of things and make whole meals. Tuna casserole? Check. Green bean casserole? Check. Cream sauce? Check. Add that to a little Velveeta cheese and you had a 1960’s meal made in heaven. This was my model and I embraced it!

Maybe an obvious outcome, but Millennials take food very seriously. I’ve been trying desperately to keep up with my children on this but am clearly in way over my head. Thanksgiving, for example. My son “spachcocked” a fresh, organic turkey. That is, he removed the backbone, crunched it down like you’re giving it CPR and cooked it – only after brining for 48 hours. His partner made a gorgeous cheese souffle and my other son’s girlfriend brought a Charcuterie board. (We used to call this a meat and cheese tray – but this did NOT have any bologna or Velveeta cheese slices.) I have been practicing just saying SharcootaREE for the past week because I really want to impress my friends.

“Shoulds” are a thing of the past

Like many people my age, I grew up believing I had a lot of things I “should” do.  Based on guilt-fueled parenting/education and cultural expectations, the “shoulds” of life often coincided with our typical American rites of passage. Birth, graduation, work, marriage, children, empty nesting (cruises mandatory), retirement and death. In that order. Step out of this and that guilt thingy we acquired was there to get us right back in line with the norm. But for the most part, the Millennials have seen right through that. Instead, terms that were previously saved for psychotherapy are now embedded in our everyday language. “Create boundaries with toxic people.  Find your authentic self.” “Provide space to center your mind in order to make informed and thoughtful decisions.” This has led many Milleninals to create a life path that is much more thoughtful, creative and independent than typical of previous generations. Taking a break from work isn’t uncommon among this group. Saying “no” is interpreted as healthy. Asking for what is needed isn’t considered rude. Delaying or side-stepping altogether, marriage and child-bearing is a choice among many. Taking time to get to know yourself, first.  Honestly facing the tough stuff – death, divorce, addictions, trauma – with some tools.  It’s pretty impressive.

Sexuality and Gender

No one was gay in the 1960’s. Wait, I got that wrong. No one was “out” in the 1960’s.  This is probably one of the best things the Millennials have walked us Boomers through. If you want a real “blast from the past” about how Americans viewed sexuality and gender back in the day, watch a 1960’s movie.  Heterosexual all the way.  Everything was  based on the “should” path discussed earlier.  Next, watch a few old Saturday Night Live episodes from the 1970’s.  Homophobic storylines and jokes abound.  The 80’s?  Not much better. The 90’s took a turn and people like Jerry Seinfeld said, things like, “Oh no.  I’m not gay.  Not that there’s anything wrong with that.”  Thirty years after that transitional decade, American culture has finally taken a healthy and honest look at sexuality and gender. For me, I needed a tutorial from my sons about updated language to describe our spectrum of being in this particular realm. At first, I didn’t understand the use of preferred pronouns, especially the use of a plural (they/them) to replace a singular!  As a word loving person, this totally rocked my boat.  I could imagine Webster et al. slamming down important books about language usage with twisted scowls on their faces. But like everything new, it slowly began to make sense. Even language changes. I mean, when was the last time you used Thou or Thee in a sentence? More importantly, the Millennials have helped the older and the younger generations navigate a way to honor and uphold each individual, as they are. Nothing but authentic self here. It’s totally refreshing.

Our Bodies

About 15 years ago, I was at a parade with the boys and one of their friends.  I saw a woman in the crowd wearing a bright lime green pants suit.  I am ashamed to admit that I laughed and turned to the friend and said something like, “Wow, check out the outfit.”  The young friend smoothly replied, “I’ll bet she feels great in it.”  Boom.  Schooled by a teenager. And she was right. Why did I think my judgment meant anything? How petty. The practice of body shaming was rampant when I was growing up and I was a part of this really hurtful behavior. As I reflect on this, it seems that it was an attempt to get everyone into the same mold.  But leave it to the Millennials to blow that mold to bits. I mean, look at the gorgeous body art. I remember my step-mom telling me that a single ear piercing could raise the suspicion that I was a “lady of the night.” Really. These words were said. Now, of course, the art of tattoos and piercing is nothing short of breathtaking. I’ve grown to love the artistry of both. 

 I could go on and on.  Interesting sport upgrades like BMX, Snowboard Cross and Slackline. (Look’em up Oldsters. Pretty fun to watch!)  Technology that connects us across the World, improves lives and solves problems.  Candidly reflecting on, and then acting on, the uncomfortable and serious problems of Global Warming, Racism and Sexism.  

The Millennials.  Unafraid to look into the metaphorical mirror at our naked bodies. Seeing what is raw and real. Addressing and dealing with the truth.  And, that is remarkable.

Three generations with the Millennials taking the majority.
I think we’re in good hands.

Pandemic-American Style

Remember  when you’d go to work even though you had a little sniffle, maybe a cough, even a scratchy throat?  Hell, remember when you went in with a 102 temp after you threw up a little that morning? Nothing a little Tylenol couldn’t fix.  

Ah, the good ‘ol days!   

One such occasion stands out clearly in my mind.  I had been in Thailand for maybe 6 months.   I had a runny nose, cough and scratchy throat.   And like any good American, I pulled up my bootstraps, got dressed, and headed into work.  Tough as nails.  So I trotted into the school office to get my mail, tissue in hand.  As usual, our secretary, Miss An, greeted me with a smile.  But when I replied with a gravelly whisper, I was met with a shocked look.  Miss An, so very very polite, hid her total horror at my condition by asking if maybe I needed to be home in bed.  “No, no.  I’m fine.  I work like this all the time,” I said, as I loudly blew my nose and hurled the spent kleenex  into the trash can.  Now, barely able to hide her disgust, she suggested I go to the infirmary.  I laughed and said, “This is nothing!  One time I worked for three days with strep throat.  Didn’t even know it.”   Quietly, she opened her desk drawer and pulled out a surgical mask.  “Miss Melissa, maybe you could wear this?”  I looked at her in disbelief.  A mask?  That’s weird.  How was a mask going to help ME?  I was already sick.

It wasn’t until a few months later that an American colleague, having been in Thailand for several years, explained to me that it was “impolite” to go without a mask when ill, even with a very slight sniffle.  And the big “aha”?  The mask protected those around me.  You see, it wasn’t about me, it was about the group.  This was later highlighted when a section of our school had a Typhoid outbreak.  You read that correctly.  Typhoid.  Even though I had been vaccinated, there was still a 20% chance I could contract this potentially deadly disease.  I could even be an asymptomatic carrier.  I was tested and quarantined until my test results came back.  I mean, I was in a country that literally screened me for Leprosy and Elephantiasis upon entry.  Diseases so far from my reality.  Diseases not to be trifled with.  And the Thai people knew what to do.  Stay home when sick, wear a mask, get tested, get vaccinated and quarantine if needed.  All of this to keep others’ safe.  Keep the group safe.

You know where I’m going on this.  So why?  Why has masking, and vaccinations and testing and quarantine for COVID been so very, very contentious and divisive in my beloved United States of America?  Well, I think it has a lot  to do with American culture. 

Think about it.  What is America but a country built on self-reliance and individualism?  My own ancestors were religious refugees from the Old World.  Fleeing a king and country that had criminalized all protestant religions, they boarded the ship Bevis in 1638, sailing just as government agents arrived in an attempt to stop them from leaving England.  They didn’t want anyone telling them what to do so they struck out to make their own way.  Strong and individualistic, our roots were forged on a foundation of hardship that often forced people to first, look out for themselves.  My ancestors weren’t so different from the majority of people that sought a second chance in the New World. (Well, our white ancestors.  But, that’s another blog.)

And guess what?  There’s a study to support what we pretty much already know.   Geert Hofstede took a look at 40 countries back in 1980 (slight revisions have been made since) and compared them.  One aspect of culture that he examined was the emphasis on individualism (orientation toward the individual) versus an emphasis on collectivism (orientation toward the group) in the various countries.  With a score of 91, the US scored the highest in the world at the individualistic end of the spectrum.  Go figure.  Thailand? Twenty.  Individual rights versus duty to community.

Since returning to the US, I’ve been caught by surprise, more than a few times, when Rugged Individualism played the lead in everyday concerns.   

“Potluck?  Assign a dish?  Thanks, but I’ll bring what I want.”

Little kid jumping off the top of the big toy? “Not my problem.”

Need help with that 150 lb bag of cement?  “No no. I’m fine. At 85, you think I don’t know what I’m doing?” 

“Split the bill?   Fair and square.  Let me get my calculator.”

“Honey, let’s stop and ask for directions.”  “No. I know exactly where we’re going.”

“Not wearing a mask!  I mean, I don’t wanna.”

No vax?  “My right.  My choice.”

“And for God’s sake, don’t tell me what to do.”

Frankly, about the only time I’ve witnessed an attempt at Collectivism is when a “friend” needs help moving.  

So, here we are.  Nearly two years into a Pandemic that makes my brush with Typhoid look like an encounter with a small furry kitten.  And while I love so many, many things about America, I’m troubled that one of our important core values is crippling us in ways that could last for years to come. 

 Rugged Individualism.  Our bedrock and our tyrant.  

References and interesting stuff:

Geert Hofstede’s studies Overview

Individualistic Cultures and Behavior – Simply Psychology(opens in a new tab)

Understanding the Americans: A Handbook for Visitors to the United States

Returning to America

My personal ad would read something like:

 “Middle-aged woman, repatriated Expat, desperately seeking  Authentic Thai Green Curry. Looking for homemade curry paste full of fiery hot crushed Birds Eye peppers. Prefer Thai eggplant.  No peas or carrots. Fusion Pan Asian Curries need not respond.” 

During the last few years, I’ve searched the Pacific Northwest for this perfect food with little to no success. I didn’t expect to miss this dish so much. I didn’t realize that my “comfort” food had changed so dramatically. When I initially moved to Thailand, I anticipated the culture shock of living in a new land. However, I didn’t expect to feel the same coming home. The longing for the familiar, the adrenaline rush of new experiences, the comparisons, the misunderstandings, the hilarious observations. Apparently it’s called Reverse Culture Shock and it’s real.  Three years later, when you expect to be done with all that, it hits you right in the face, like a PNW wind and rain storm that turns your umbrella inside out.

Back then at age 53 with two grown children and a marriage spanning three decades, what in the world was I thinking? Up until we made the decision to move abroad, we had lived in the same suburban home for almost 20 years and the Pacific Northwest for…53.  

My husband, Rick, and I really thought we knew what we were getting ourselves into.  Personally, I thought, “I would be able to reach out and experience the world in a more gritty way. To connect with cultures, people, the earth. To feel exhilarated and exhausted. To experience life from a different, gritty, vantage point that challenged my beliefs and caused me to grow intellectually, personally, spiritually.” At least that’s what I wrote in my job application essay. I soon learned that I had vastly underestimated words like “gritty, exhilarated and exhausted.” But we adapted. We learned. We changed. It was fabulous.

So our return to the US has been a long, interesting, and surprisingly bumpy ride. Feeling like a foreigner in the place I have lived for most of my life has given me a brand new look at my own culture. Yes, even the PNW can be “gritty, exhilarating and exhausting”.   So, here I am – finally ready to reveal my personal adventures as an Ex-Expat.  I guess I’m going Gonzo.

Not familiar?  “Gonzo” Journalism was coined to describe the style of writing first honed by Hunter S. Thompson, a 1970s icon and writer without a filter.  It’s a style of journalism in which the writer involves themselves in the action to such a degree that they become the central figure of the story.  Thompson was a cutting edge, often offensive writer that brought insight through participation in everything he wrote about.  He was a radical in his field – changing the rules to fit an ever changing world.

So, this could be interesting.  I’m nothing like Hunter S. Thompson.  In fact, is it even  possible to be a middle class, middle aged, well-organized and trustworthy Gonzo Journalist? 

Maybe.  Because whenever the waitstaff asks, “How many spicy stars do you want in your curry?” My answer is always, “How many you got?”

I won’t miss the traffic

Airplanes are like a vacuum- a moment in between.  Walking in out of steaming, sweaty humidity into a blast of orchid scented air conditioning. From gritty street food to perfectly portioned and packaged cuisine.  From an energizing life full of twists and turns to a controlled and sterile environment. Time stands still as I anxiously wait to begin the next chapter of my life. My friend, Michael said that he finds these long flights to be cathartic-a chance to ponder and reflect on what was. Well I’ve got 15 hours to reflect away.

Two years in Thailand.  So much. So much I’ll miss and a few things I won’t.  And, as not to disappoint, I’ll encapsulate a huge and rich experience into a series of sarcastically humorous anecdotes.

I’ll miss golden things.

So much gold!!  Majestic Wats (temples) covered with glittering gold and sparkly colors. Giant golden Buddhas.  Fancy golden shoes, hair pieces and purses. Even gold leaf to enhance the presentation of food. But my favorite are the gold shops found in many market area streets and in every mall.  It’s blinding! You can find everything from fake golden watches to 18 carat traditional jewelry. It’s deliciously over the top and very Thai.

I’ll miss 6pm.  

Why? Because the Thai national anthem is played in all public locations. The taxi, the grocery store, the restaurants.  But the best is at Lumpini Park in downtown Bangkok where hundreds of people stop dead in their tracks (runners, the outdoor Zumba class, picnicking families) to silently stand and listen respectfully.  Then back to business as usual. It reminds me of a giant game of freeze tag.

I’ll miss baby walkers.

Once a standard piece of baby equipment in every young family’s home, these wheeled scooters were outlawed in the US a while back because they posed a danger near stairs and things. Parent looks away for a second and little buttercup is careening off the balcony.   But in Thailand, you can still get your hands on these risky racers. A friend recently commented on the US legal issues around guns versus baby walkers….

Just leaving that here.

I’ll miss the weather.

Hotter than hot. Humid beyond words. Downpours that drench a person in seconds.  Thunder so loud it sounds like a bomb in your living room and lightning so close you hear and feel the deafening crack of the strike. Truly awesome.

I’ll miss my daily commute.

Everyday.  360 round trips. On my bicycle.   “ My” monk collecting alms each morning at 6:30am.  The guards in my neighborhood that saluted me, clicked their heels and hollered “Kup”! The flower lady and the sticky rice lady. The guard at school that consistently stopped me and looked at my ID to make sure I was legit- 360 times.

I’ll miss Bangkok Air.

We did a lot of flying. In fact, in two years we logged more than 25 round trips to various places.  By far, Bangkok Air was the best! It’s the airlines of the 1960s.

  • Flys out of the “good” Bangkok airport (BKK)?   Check.
  • Adequate legroom? Check.  
  • Free checked bag? Check.  
  • Snappy flight attendant uniforms? Check.  
  • Free beer and wine? Check.  
  • Meals on every flight even if the flight is only an hour? Check.  

And speaking of snappy uniforms, I’ll miss snappy uniforms.

Hotel personnel; Swensen’s Ice Creamery servers; every single school student -including University; nurses (complete with 1950s cap) and of course flight attendants. All perfectly coiffed and  tailored – in matching uniforms.

My friends.

When you move to another culture, you make friends quickly and intensely.  These are your “war buddies”. You work, live, travel and party with these people.  You loan your stuff, you share a ride, you cover for each other in any and all needed circumstances.  I will miss the camaraderie with this very special group.

Pretty much, I’ll miss everything.

I have loved living in Thailand, even when I hated it.  It has offered me a chance to move beyond the safe and familiar and really experience life in a way I did not anticipate. I can never really explain it, and I suppose I really don’t need to.  All I know is I am grateful beyond words for this experience.

As for things I will not miss?

The traffic.  Trust me on this.  I will not miss the traffic.

 

Thank you Thailand.  I am better because of you.  Sawadi Ka for now.

CROWDED Ferry

Fear 101

My cousin Dave is one of those people that somehow knows a lot about a lot.  Frankly, I’m not sure where he gets most of his information.  But, no matter his sources, I’ve yet to be disappointed with his knowledge and advice. The man is a carpenter by trade, but has interests that run the gamut.   For example, he wrote a book on investing in the penny stocks; he has read most of the Bible; and he has a good understanding of  Phobia Exposure Therapy.

Exposure+TherapyYou read that correctly.  Exposure Therapy.  And wouldn’t you know, this turned out to be really helpful when I announced I was moving to Thailand.  Truth be told, I didn’t do a lot of research about Thailand until AFTER I was hired by my school.  So, it wasn’t until  I had signed my contract, quit my job in the States, put my house on the market and given away our piano, that I realized that Thailand is full of…..snakes.  And not just little garter snakes. No no. Real snakes. Cobras, Pit Vipers and Pythons. Sea snakes. Kraits and Keel backs. Of the over 300 snake varieties in Thailand – more than 35 are venomous.  

While everyone should have a healthy fear of venomous snakes,  I definitely had an irrational snake phobia. Just talking about snakes would make my palms sweat and send my heart racing. I would beg to discontinue any conversation on the topic.  In snake prone areas, I would avoid any possible sighting by simply staying indoors. I never watched the snake scenes in Indiana Jones movies and never looked at pictures or watched You Tube videos of the creatures.  I didn’t want to hear about anyone else’s sightings. And, I NEVER went to the Reptile Man’s annual assembly at the boy’s elementary school.  (“The #1 Rated School Assembly performance in the Pacific Northwest!!”) So, you can imagine my feelings when I realized I was moving to a place actually famous for it’s snakes.  

But, I was determined.  I wanted to beat this stupid fear and have it behind me.  I wasn’t going to let something like this stop me from exploring the world.  I was done with being afraid of snakes. But, it isn’t that simple to just erase a phobia.  As a counselor, I actually have training in Exposure Therapy.  So, I started.  Me the counselor. Me the client. And, that worked for a while. I created an “exposure ladder” which is a list of tiny steps in which I exposed myself to all things related to snakes.  First, I just thought about snakes for a few seconds at a time followed by a relaxation exercise. I moved up to saying a few words about snakes and looking at pictures of snakes.  It was working.  I became less prone to unbearable anxiety with these first small steps. But, there is a limit to self-therapy.  I needed a little nudge to move on. I was going to need help.  

So, somehow the whole thing came up in conversation with my cousin Dave.  Can’t remember how.  Beer was probably involved.

I told him what I was doing and he said, “Well you know, you gotta put your hand on the pictures when you look at them.”  I looked surprised. “What?” He continued. “Well, there’s that whole brain thing where your hand will send a signal to your brain that the picture isn’t a real snake.  Then, your brain won’t act like it’s an emergency. You won’t panic. Then, the next time the picture won’t start the anxiety.”

So where the hell was I during my graduate level classes on the subject?  Clearly, this man could help me. So, with his advice, I went from pictures to videos pretty quickly.   And then, I was ready for a big step.

Just a few months before our move to Thailand, Rick and I were going to move some furniture out to Dave’s place in Gold Bar, Washington.   A couple days before, Dave had called and said, “Hey. You wanna go see the Reptile Man exhibit when you’re up here?  You know. For your phobia.” Yep.  The one and only Reptile Man had his permanent exhibit about 10 miles from Dave’s house.  Same one of elementary school assembly fame. “You can see the venomous ones and put your hand on the glass terrarium.  If you’re feeling like it, they will let you hold a Python. I’ll be there if you want,” Dave suggested. Oh man. I was scared but I had to do it.   So, with Dave by my side, I went to see the Reptile Man exhibit.  We walked from one glass case to the next where I would put my hand on the glass and look at the snake for a minute or two.  No real anxiety. My stateside therapy was complete.

Fast forward to Thailand.  No snake sightings. Not one.  Well, I saw a dead one on the street.  I saw pictures of the baby cobra that a friend found in his house; heard about the cobra in the preschool play yard at school; heard about the python and the monitor lizard fight behind my friend’s restaurant.  Lots of stories. I did go to the  Queen Saovabha Memorial Institute, also known as the Snake Farm (famous for the extraction of  venom to make anti-venoms) here in Bangkok and saw lots of beautiful snakes in captivity.   But, no wild snake sightings.

So, during a hike when the boys were here in December and our Karon guide asked us, “Do you want to see a Green Mamba?”  I was surprised. “A snake?” I asked. “Yes.” he said. He had seen it on his way to meet us. I asked him if it would be safe and he said  “yes” and I said “yes”.  About a mile into our hike, the guide smiled and pointed at a branch about 5 feet away from us. On it, the biggest green snake I had ever seen. I would never have spotted it on my own.   It was beautiful! Clearly, it had just eaten something and was not going to be moving anytime soon. I looked at the snake with a bit of caution – not paralyzing fear. Now, I’m not sure it was a Green Mamba, as they are native to Africa.  It may have been a green Pit Viper. Either way, highly venomous.  It was one of the most memorable moments of my time here.

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I was calm enough to take the picture! Thanks Dave.

I’ll bet that when the guide asked me if I wanted to see that snake and I if I had said “no”, we would have just walked past it and I would never have known it was there at all.  It was highly camouflaged in the tree. It made me wonder how many snakes – or other wildlife – I have walked past without knowing.  Or not wanting to know.  Like many things in life I suppose.  Looking intentionally at the life around us isn’t always easy. Facing your fears isn’t easy.  Being engaged isn’t easy.

But, it’s magnificent.

Thanks Dave.  Definitely owe you one.

 

Blackberries

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Chuck and me. August 2017

Blackberries don’t grow in Thailand. It’s something I miss about late summer in the Pacific Northwest.  My family will tell you about the ritual torture of blackberry picking “excursions” which involved Tupperware containers and long sleeves ending in at least one of us needing to be disentangled from thorny tentacles. The end result?  A freezer full of blackberries to make jam, pie and cobbler for the rest of the year.  I miss this seasonal tradition.

But, unexpectedly, here I am.  Back in Washington state.  I’m not in Thailand.  Instead, I’m standing in my brother-in-law, Chuck’s, backyard staring at the incredibly ripe, dusty scented blackberries on his bush.  I’m not an idiot. So, I grab a Tupperware and start picking.  Seize the moment.  

And it’s a lovely moment.  Warm sun on my back.  Scout and Sandy giving me dog grins and running around the yard.  That familiar blackberry smell that feeds my thoughts:  “Fair’s just around the corner.  So is school.  Watch out for dog poop.  What’s that sound in the bush?  Oh, a squirrel. That’s why the dogs are barking. Wonder if Chuck likes cobbler?  Well, we will find out.”  I fill the Tupperware and head to the kitchen.

Unfamiliar kitchens can be challenging, but my nephew, Mitch, walks in just in time. He explains the oven, locates a pan and I’m set.  I haven’t spent much time alone with Mitch since he was a little boy.  Now 18, he has become a wonderful young man.  We talk and joke around until he goes to work.  

As the smell of the blackberries start to envelope the house, one of Chuck’s sisters, Janet, asks, “Are you cooking something?” I react. “Oh shoot!  Yes.  Cobbler.  I couldn’t figure out the timer!”  She bursts out laughing.  I’ve never had the reputation as a solid cook in this family so no one is really surprised by this.  But there is considerable surprise when I pull it out of the oven.  It’s gorgeous and the smell is incredible.

It even gets Chuck’s attention. “Did you make that?” He asks with a little disbelief.  “Jeez, Chuck. Yes, I made that.  Don’t act so startled.”  He slowly grins.  I’m so glad to see him smile.  

When his pain is bad, I try to sit nearby and not talk.  When he’s doing better, we watch TV and joke about whatever.  I make chicken salad sandwiches and vacuum a little.  I try an edible (it’s legal in Washington) and Chuck thinks that’s funny.  In fact, a few of us try the edibles and  it is especially funny when another one of  his sisters dishes her salad right on top of her spaghetti noodles.  That gets a belly laugh!

It’s just a few days before I need to return to Thailand and my job.  I’m sitting next to Chuck and we’re watching Grace and Frankie, my new favorite sitcom.  Staring straight ahead, Chuck takes my hand and says, “It means the world to me that you are here.”  We sit and cry quietly together.  Finally, I say, “I love you Chuck.” And he turns to me and says, I love you too.”  I know it is true.  And it means the world to me.

Butterflies and Bombs

“Hold up!”, Rick yells as we are coasting down a hill into an expanse of green, rimmed by jaw dropping Karst mountains.  I quickly brake and turn to see him stopped in the middle of the deserted road, helmet off and looking perplexed.  “What’s wrong?”,  I holler back.  He grins.  “Butterfly in my helmet.”  We both laugh.  Butterflies and grasshoppers the size of your hand, green landscape as far as the eye can see.  Mountains.  Rivers. This place is unbelievable.  Hiding amid Thailand, China, Cambodia and Vietnam is a real gem.  Laos.

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Tired of planning vacations, we opted for a cycling tour of Laos.  It fit the criteria.  It required no planning and just an hour flight from Bangkok.  The “tour” turned out to be me, Rick, Tee (the driver) and Ked (the guide).  Bikes included, hotels booked, luggage shuttled in the van.  Cycle from Luang Probang to Vientiane in 5 days.  With an average of 60 kg per day, we felt confident that it would be fine.

Except that we hadn’t really ridden our bikes seriously in awhile.  Now, we ride everyday.  But, you have to remember, we live in Bangkok where the biggest hill is the roadway that goes up and over the many khlongs (canals) that spiderweb their way around the region.  This is not an exaggeration (I’ll do that later in this blog).  There are no hills.  Zero. So, 60 kg in much of Thailand is a 3 hour walk in the park.

So, when I start up the 5 percent – four mile long, climb on the first mountain pass, the internal monologue begins.  “Slow and steady wins the race”, I chant to myself.  “The mind gives up long before the body”, I think.  And as my good friend, Christie, used to say, “Hills are our friends.”  This positive self-talk works for awhile.  And then a stroke of luck.  A distraction!  As we pedal at a pace of about 5 miles per hour, a group of school children are walking home along the road.  One little guy, maybe 7 or 8 years old,  starts running along side me. “Sa ba di !  Hey! Where you from?”, he shouts and grins.  “Thailand!”, I pant.  “You know English?”, he asks.  And the English lesson begins.  Me riding – him running next to me.  “What’s this?”,  he shouts as he points to his arm.  “Arm”, I reply as I down-shift.  “What’s this?”, he yells as he gestures toward a tree.  “Tree”, I grimace as I remind myself of the great exercise I am getting.  Then, in mid-stride he takes off his flip flop and holds it in my face.  “What this?”, he demands.  “Shoe”, I gasp.  And without missing a beat, he quickly slides the shoe back onto his foot – all the while, keeping pace with me.  It goes on like this for about a mile.  Then, he smiles and points to a winding path and trots away waving and shouting “Bye bye!”.  He’s home.

We reach the top of the pass completely exhausted.   But, we are met with incredible views, a cool breeze and lunch.

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At 5000 feet I’m exhausted after teaching English all the way up!

Looking out over the vista, it’s hard to believe the history of this quiet nation.  From 1964 to 1973, as part of the now infamous Secret War, the U.S. (supporting the monarchy against the communist Pathet Lao) dropped more than two million tons of of bombs on Laos during 580,000 missions.  This is the equivalent of a planeload of bombs every 8 minutes, 24 hours a day, for 9 years – making Laos the most heavily bombed country per capita in history.   While this is a tragedy in itself – the secondary tragedy continues today.  Out in that beautiful expanse of green are an estimated 80 million live bombs.

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80,000,000 cluster bombs out there.

80 million undetonated cluster bombs.  Most the size of a tennis ball.  All deadly.

And we continue our spectacular ride. Our guide, Ked, shares that he is from the north.  His village, he explains, is not too different than the ones we are riding through.  Tranquil rice paddies.  Water buffalo grazing.  Little children running to the side of the road to see the foreigners.  Waving and and grinning. “Sa ba di!”, they yell.   “Sa ba di!”,  we wave back.  So many little children.  With 70 percent of the population under the age of 30, most people were not even born to witness the bombings.  Later, we found out that many don’t even know about the bombs or UXO (Unexploded Ordnance).

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Look closely! I’m waving and there is a little kid in the right hand corner of the picture waving back.

On our fourth day of riding we reach the Nam Ngum reservoir.  Created by the Nam Ngum Dam, this is a huge lake covering 250 square kilometers.  Controversially known as the “battery” of SE Asia, Laos has many hydroelectric dams along the Mekong and its tributaries that help power the region.   We haul our bikes onto a tiny boat and begin our relaxing and picturesque two hour crossing. On the way, out boatman points to an island. “Prison”, he states solemnly.  Ked proceeds to tell us that only “very bad” people go there.  And this must be true because according to the  1979 New York Times article I read on the internet, and I quote,  “The camps are called ‘reeducation centers for social evils.’ The inmates, according to official explanations, fall into three categories: drug addicts, prostitutes and hippies.” Then, our boatman points to another small boat overloaded with reeds – heading to the prison.  Ked explains that the inmates use these reeds to  make simple baskets that are used in daily life. Things like sticky rice steamers, chicken pens and sieves used to strain liquids.  Hard labor.  That’ll whip those hippies into shape!

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After five days of riding through some of the most beautiful landscapes I have ever witnessed, we arrive in Vientiane, the capital.  Located on the Mekong River, it’s a quiet city and easy to get around.  Saddle sore, we wander and eat and get massages.  

But we still have bombs on the brain, so we visit the COPE museum , whose mission it is to educate the public on UXOs from the Secret War.   We learn that children are often the ones to find the bomblets while they are playing.  And, because the small cluster bombs look like a toy – kids will throw them like a ball – with tragic consequences. In 2016, President Obama visited Laos and committed an annual 90 million dollars – for three years – toward the effort to clear these bombs in the next 10 years.  I haven’t heard that Trump is repealing this.  Let’s keep our fingers crossed and hope that it doesn’t cross his desk.

IMG_3440And as the sun sets on the mighty Mekong, I can’t help but think how the dark and the light meet.  How an incredibly beautiful and friendly country can still be plagued with the remnants of a war that ended 45 years ago.  How a nation of youth must deal with the the mistakes of the old.  And, how like everything in life, there is either no easy answer or no answer at all.

 

 

Mama Rides “Street”

Lazy Sunday morning.  I glance up from the couch to see Rick walking down our stairs.  He looks a little down.  “Hey, you o.k.?”  I ask.  “Naw.  I’m grumpy and I’m bored.” he says as he stares at his phone.  I ask the next question as I silently brace myself for the answer.  “So, what do you want to do?”

“Well, I figured out how we can ride our bikes to that park Jeff told us about last night. You know, the one with the beautiful bike path.”  O.K., I’m thinking.   That park is 10 kg from our house – which in most cases is no problem.  Except, here in Bangkok, there are serious obstacles for a bicycle.  Obstacles that require laser sharp concentration to avoid; obstacles that change from day-to-day; obstacles that move and shift in the moment; obstacles that require major upper body strength.  This is not a cute little pedal to the park.  Oh no.  In order to GET to the beautiful bike path – we have to ride “street”.

If you are unfamiliar with this term, riding “street”  basically means you use  “trail” bike techniques in a city.  For example, launching off or jumping curbs or “gaps”; navigating technical turns around obstacles; riding in places not meant for bikes like staircases, narrow ledges or rails. Pushing the physical limits of the bike and the human riding it.  Fifteen year olds do this – on their BMX bike.

“Alright.  Let me change into my bike shorts”, I sigh.   I grab my gloves, a water bottle, hat and sunglasses, wallet and phone.  We are out the door in 15 minutes.

We’ve got a series of navigational challenges today.  The street market, the sidewalk, the Khlong path and two 6 lane roadways. A few new features to consider as well: Sunday morning market traffic and unfamiliar soi dogs.  

The Street Market:  Unusually busy this morning.  So I throw it in a “hard” gear for super slow riding and increased control.  Hands on breaks.  Ready to step down.  This is stop and go.  Old lady on the left. Sharp turn through narrow opening between Durian cart and parked motorcycle.  Little kid straight ahead.  Brake hard – foot down.  Smile and say “ahhhhh” to the mother of the little rascal.  Motorcycle behind – go slowly straight ahead – do not swerve – or you will get hit.  

The Sidewalk:  There are three types of obstacles on every sidewalk in Bangkok.  “Lips”, “Left/Right” and “Crappy”. “Lips” are everywhere.  These are little steps up or down that have been created by the settling of the sidewalk.  Even walking, these “Lips” are a hazard – especially for toes.  “Left/Right” requires that you go left and right as if you are weaving through a series of cones.  This is pretty common.  Trees, benches, random poles, stairways, etc. create a gritty slalom course. Some of these objects are placed purposely to keep motorcycles off the sidewalks. Some of it is just bad planning.

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Example of “Left/Right obstacle. Rick is swerving left here.

“Crappy”, are areas of cement sidewalk, that through heavy use and natural settling, are simply put, in “crappy” condition. The jagged, jutting and missing cement pieces create the perfect opportunity for launching off or jumping “gaps”!  I’m always so happy to see this particular obstacle.  Navigation requires hyper concentration and control.  Hit it wrong – and you’ve got a flat.

 

The Khlong:   Rick yells, “Turn left” and I’m like, “Where?”  He’s standing next to a three-foot wide opening by an overpass that leads to a narrow bridge over a Khlong (canal).  There are so many little narrow paths that run along the Khlongs and down side streets.  Most don’t have guard rails.  Just a raised cement path, about 2 feet wide, on stilts, over water.  And not the nice blue waters of Pinterest Thailand.  No.  This water is filled with Monitor Lizards, garbage and weird stuff.  After hearing about another cycling friend that got run off  a Khlong path by a motorcycle, I often just walk my bike.  I do not want to go swimming with a Monitor.

The Scary Busy Road:  Some roads are best avoided altogether.  These are the scary busy roads with tons of traffic going 30-70 mph.  Therefore, we simply carry or “portage” our bikes over one of the numerous pedestrian overpasses.  Today, I did this 4 times up and 4 times down.  Good for upper body strength.  Yeah.

Siri Doesn’t Know Shit.  According to Siri, we should be able to cross a bridge that takes us directly to the park.  However, Siri doesn’t live in Thailand and hasn’t taken into account a large industrial complex that was quickly built-in the last two weeks.  Maps provide loose guidelines more than anything here and that  little blinking dot indicates that we are definitely HERE and at least getting close. So, we ride through a construction site (no hard hats needed in Thailand) and under an overpass only to meet up with an aggressive Soi (street) dog. Great.  So, using the same safety strategy as you would with say, a cougar, Rick jumps off his bike to get the bike between himself and the dog.  I do the same and we run/walk our bikes quickly past while not making dog eye contact.  Back on our bikes we pedal standing up, as fast as we can, like a couple of ten year olds.  

And like most everything here in Thailand we suddenly end up where we want to be-but, not quite sure how we got there.  The park is lovely.  Shade and benches.  Romantic couples lounging about and old men slowly walking as they  contemplate the trees.  We ride around a man-made lake on the perfectly groomed path.  Level, wide, no motorized traffic.  We sit and stare at the still water enjoying the silence that is interrupted only by birdsong.  An oasis.

After 10 minutes I turn to Rick.  “Ready?” I ask.  “Yep.” he nods.  Time to head back to through the urban jungle.   Settling back on our bikes, Rick turns to me and grins.  “Let’s go back a different way.”  I grin back.  “You know where you’re going?” I ask.  Rick just smiles.  Looks like another adventure.

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Badass.

Thailand Two point Oh!

I’m exhausted.  Seattle to Bangkok.  7000 miles.  About 24 hours of travel.  I’ve done this seven times in the last 12 months. Even so,  when I hail a taxi home, I’m startled when I open the door and the cabby says, “Madam Teacher?”  I look up from my fog of fatigue and see the driver smiling at me.  In all of Bangkok, the driver recognizes me.  Unbelievable, but such a welcome surprise.  “Chai, ka!  Ramkhamhaeng Roy Goi Sip, ka?” (Yes, Thank you.  Ramkhamhaeng 190, please?), I say in my terrible “taxi Thai”.  He smiles and nods.  And rather than taking the longer, more expensive way – he opts for the short-cut.   I slip into the backseat and close my eyes.  The bliss of familiarity.

Year two in Thailand.  It’s  the “same same” that makes it different.

It’s not all about the heat. This time last year, I wore just my underwear around the house in an attempt to stay cool.  To Rick’s disappointment, I can now prance about fully clothed!  I don’t have to stash a shirt and shorts near the door in case someone drops by.  We manage the sun as a “severe weather condition”.  Hat, umbrella, sun screen, water bottle – check.  Seek AC as needed.  Strenuous activities in the morning and evening – or just not at all.  My friend, Christine, runs every day.  However, she calls it “the Thai shuffle”.  Super sloooooow and steady. 

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Sun Protection 101: Find shade – or carry it with you.

Fluency in English as spoken in Thailand.  While I’ve worked to increase the number of Thai words I know – my real language success has been in mastering my speaking and listening skills in English as  Spoken in Thailand (EST).  When US friends recently visited, I was astounded what they didn’t understand!  My God, it’s English!  “Gerween CooEE Madaaaaaam?”  (Green Curry Madam?)  “Whe meester toodAY? ( Where is mister today?)  And  speaking.  When I say,  “Okay, okay!”  it means,” yes” or it means, “I understand”, or it means, “do you understand”, or it means, “let’s just stop talking now because we don’t understand each other.”  Easy.

Thai massage is no longer torture.  Kuhn Bon smiles when I walk through the door of the spa. It’s all  “Sawadee Ka!” and wai-ing (bowing) and smiles.  “You go AaamareCA?  Whe meester Reeeeechard, toodAY?  Tooo ow-er  for you?”  So comfortable.  My weekly two hour massages have paid off.  My body is “in shape” for our full contact workout.  Rick too has commented that between walking barefoot and consistent massage, his formerly aching feet are much improved.  The therapy of this ancient art is not to be disputed.  Plus, I really like these women. They are funny and kind.  Always a smile just when you need it most.

I don’t carry my camera everywhere.   Hailing a taxi, paying the bills, grocery shopping.  These are no longer exotic adventures.  “But, people ride motorized scooters with their kids on the handlebars!”  Yeah, yeah.  I know.  And, nobody wears a helmet and people carry enormous dead pigs on the back of their scooters too.  And some scooters are rigged with a BBQ on the back for duel riding/food stall functions.   I’ll take a picture when I see 5 people AND a pig with a LIT BBQ  on a scooter.   Now that will be something.

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Photo green light: A Golden Lexus.

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Photo green light: The snake my friend found in her kitchen.

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Photo green light: Excellent Cosplay costume.

We drink beer with ice.  You read that correctly.  It’s true and I know it’s fundamentally wrong. And, I’m not sorry.  Thai beer is bad no matter what. People argue, “Oh Leo is the best.”  Or, “I’ll only drink Chang”, like we’re talking about some handcrafted microbrew or something.  No.  It is all bad.  Think Brew 66 or Schlitz.   So, do you want warm bad beer or do you want cold bad beer?  See?   

Rick & I are same same – but, different.  After one year, my Facebook profile reminded me of the day we moved to Thailand.  I look at the picture of Rick and I.  Six checked bags held everything we felt important enough to bring.  Rick’s hair was short.  My skin was 10 shades lighter.  We look like we are heading to Disneyland with innocent grins of complete ignorance.  Yet, if we’d known what was in store for us, would we have waltzed onto that airplane with such confidence?  However, one thing remains exactly the same.  Rick’s shirt.  

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It’s safe to say, that this past year has included some of the highest and lowest points of my life.  You’ve likely seen my highlights on Facebook:  Standing at the top of world in the Himalayas; swimming with Manta Rays; sipping a Martini in a world class sky bar; front row seats at a concert; visiting ancient ruins.

But just under the social media radar is the good stuff. The real stuff.  The life stuff.  Missing my family and friends more than I could ever have imagined while meeting more friends and building lasting relationships.  Wishing I could get back to a school system that I fully understand and believe in while having new and amazing opportunities for professional growth here in Asia.  Being completely perplexed by Thai culture and then beginning to understand – a little at a time.  

So.  Year two. I feel like I just got back in line to ride the roller coaster at the Fair.  I hated it and I loved it.   And for some reason, I want to do it again.