Thursday, May 28, 2009

Decluttering and More

I’m just back from a stay of almost two weeks in Chicago and now on my way to Princeton for Reunions – I didn’t want an assignment that would prevent my going on these long-planned trips, and now that I’m catching my breath only momentarily I’m glad for the extra time I recently learned I’ll have before taking off for the next adventure.

Chicago was a whirlwind – all three trips back there have been. My first trip was the most emotional – I can expand on that when I get to that point in the narrative, but for now I’ll say I was choked up when I passed the building I called home for nineteen years, I was brought back to reality by doctor’s appointments and dealing with insurance again, and I had a full (if not overfilled) schedule of people to see, ending the relaxed vacation pace I had experienced to that point; it was the turning point and/or the beginning of the end of the trip – from there it was non-leisurely all the way east, and I arrived in Southampton a bit shell-shocked. My second trip there was easier – still packed, but with the ability to turn lemons into lemonade, I felt good about it.

Well, this time I was there for a long time, and it was a long-awaited and rewarding trip. I had more medical appointments – when I had scheduled them they were follow-up/maintenance, but they evolved into Peace Corps Response clearance forms and tests and shots. I did some pre-Philippines shopping – it’s still easier for me to shop in Chicago than anywhere else; I know where to find what I need. I gave my first official Third Goal presentation as an RPCV – to the Princeton Club of Chicago, where friendly faces were attentive and asked great questions. I had the last class for my non-profit certificate (or the second-to-last, assuming I finish the coursework for it before the independent study that replaced the one that was cancelled). I had a variety of social activity – a couple of plays, a couple of movies (highlight: Star Trek), a Cubs game and a Sox game (and watched parts of the Blackhawks playoff games – good for them), a drink, a dinner, a dessert, and another highlight – the just-opened Modern Wing at the Art Institute (also the just-opened 20,000-square-foot Whole Foods). Oh, and the all-important haircut.

But the main reason I stayed beyond the class was to go through my storage space. When I came back for Reunions in 2007 after nine months in Morocco I felt that I lived without things that I couldn’t or didn’t part with when I was packing up, and if I had an extra week I could go through and get rid of maybe half of it. I didn’t have that week at the time, but I planned for it this time. I hired a professional organizer to help me – some friends came by as well, but it helped to have someone who was objective and who had a proven system.

The first day we started right in on the boxes near the front of the space. Got through some clothes and some files and some miscellaneous – I ended up with things to toss, things to donate, and things to pass along to friends. The second day she had another assignment, so I was on my own; I continued to go through files. The third day we both realized that we had to get a better handle on what was there, so we moved every single box out of the space and then organized them – photos in the back corner, not to be touched this time, kitchen stuff out of the way, ditto, books in a more accessible corner, since there wouldn’t be enough time this week but there would be next time, files in the front for me to go through after our time together was over, clothes in the middle, and mystery boxes (a.k.a. “front hall closet” also accessible for next time). Our last day together we did all the clothes – about a third of them ended up going downstairs for charity pickup. And the rest of the week I went through as many boxes of files as I could. And yes, I finally got rid of the magazines – eight boxes’ worth.

What was hardest to part with? The things I had saved from trips – maps and brochures and other reminders and explanations of where I had been. And race brochures, numbers and results. I’m still a little sad about those things – but I have to remind myself that I’ll be happier with less clutter than I will be with any individual item. At the same time, it was good to see some of my stuff again – I look forward to being in my own place again.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Loving Laos

The Pra Bang Buddha, for which the city is named, is on view in the former Royal Palace, now the National Museum, which we visited after breakfast (I had boiled chicken with rice, and now have more appreciation for hotels that have Asian breakfast as an option). The same royal line lasted for centuries until the communist overthrow in 1975, and the palace preserves some of that legacy – most interesting to me were the throne room, with mirrored mosaic walls, the clothing, and the room full of gifts from other heads of state (the one from the U.S. had something to do with the astronauts, I think – but I may be getting it confused with something I saw later in the trip). Once a year, the Pra Bang is paraded around the city. On the museum grounds there was also a photo exhibit of a monk retreat and an exhibit of drawings of Old Laos.

We then went to several wats, each slightly different, and each magnificent examples of Lao architecture (the roofline is the most noticeable difference – I can’t tell you much because I was experiencing rather than studying). The most historic was Wat Xiang Thong. We also went into a few shops – perhaps I should have bought more, but I had in mind that Chiang Mai would be my shopping-for-other-people location. I did buy a small Buddha for the day of the week when I was born (Sunday – standing, hands clasped in front of body, representing the time after the Buddha realized enlightenment) and a small sticky-rice basket.

We didn’t climb the sacred hill to see the golden stupa on top – had to leave something for next time, after all – and we left the daytime markets and a handicraft center unexplored. There’s also a waterfall for those who have time for another cruise, and the village right across the Mekong has its charm. One of the initiatives of the Lao government is called “stay another day.” It’s a shame we couldn’t (Marilee had to get back for work) but seeing how much more we could have done in Luang Prabang and in Laos just helped to elevate it to its award-worthy status! We had time for a Lao-food lunch (I can’t tell you what spices and recipes make it different from Thai food but it was delicious! I had a Lao version of tempura and chicken with basil) at a place called Indochina Spirit – and all too soon it was time to fly home. When we got back, we had Thai massages – for Marilee, two hours; for me, one hour and one hour on the internet, making plans for the week ahead.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Loving Luang Prabang

Laos might also win the award for Place I Most Want to Return To – either that or Cambodia. Two days in only one city in each was definitely not enough! In addition to Luang Prabang, interesting places to visit in Laos include Vientiane, the capital, and the Plain of Jars, but one could also take a multi-day slow boat down the Mekong or go trekking to see hill tribes or see other ancient history or other natural beauty! Luang Prabang was the heart of the ancient kingdom for 1000 years and has both red-roofed temples and French-Indochinese architecture. After our cruise, we walked along some of the streets and went to the Night Market – it’s hard to show the scope of the night market, but there was stand after stand of beautiful handiwork and craft items. Then we had Best Dinner of the trip – at L’Elephant, with delicious French cuisine (pumpkin cream soup pictured here; steak au poivre and a bite of Marilee’s buffalo with herb butter not shown but thoroughly enjoyed all the same).

The feeding of the monks is perhaps the main (tourist) attraction of Luang Prabang (I put tourist in parentheses because this is not done for tourists – the monks need to eat). In Bangkok, monks go out individually at dawn to gather their food for the day. In Luang Prabang, the reverent procession of monks in their colorful orange robes is a sight to see. We had no idea we could give out the food, too! The tuk-tuk driver who took us from our hotel to the boat ride was waiting for us after the boat ride – he took us to dinner and back to the hotel and then arranged to pick us up before dawn the next morning to feed the monks. He knew a good place to buy sticky rice (and told us not to buy candy for them) and a premium place to situate ourselves; he brought stools and a mat for us so we were all set.

The ritual was a very spiritual experience, though at times I felt like Lucy in the candy factory, trying to keep up with the line of monks going by and put a bite-sized portion of rice in each alms bowl – no touching the monks (note, the bowls that the monks actually use are much bigger than the tourist-sized ones I bought). It was more fun for me to participate than it would have been just to watch, and our ever-helpful driver took pictures for us!

The winter solstice is hard to notice this close to the equator – it’s sunny almost all year round from about 6:15 am to 5:45 pm – it gets a little longer in the summer, but not a whole lot – so it was neat to be here on the shortest day of the year.

Monday, May 18, 2009

Meandering Down the Mekong

Martha and I have a ritual of giving out awards at the end of the year – Best Dinner, Best New Place, Best Discovery are sample categories. I told her that for 2008, I had to confine my awards to the first eleven months and then do a special round for the trip. I didn’t end up doing that, but many of the awards – including the three mentioned above, along with Best Moment, Best New Place and Best Weekend – probably would have gone to the weekend of December 20-21, when Marilee and I went to Luang Prabang, Laos. I had told her that if there were any places on her list that she wanted to visit before she left, I’d be up for it. She chose that one, and to thank her for her hospitality I treated to hotel and dinner.

I didn’t expect to be going anywhere other than Thailand and Indonesia, so I didn’t do any advance planning, but since I had the Rough Guide to Southeast Asia with me as well, I was able to read up on Luang Prabang, which it calls the most perfectly preserved historic town in all Southeast Asia (the entire town is a UNESCO World Heritage site!) and on Laos in general (after years of xenophobic communist rule following the Vietnam War, it reopened its doors only in the 1990s) – and then the Bangkok Air magazine had an article about it, so I learned more while on their boutique flights. Thomas the Travel Agent arranged our airfare (a good one came through at the last minute) and we were able to get visas on demand when we landed.

It was a short flight from Bangkok; from the plane we could see the Mekong River and the whole of the historic town laid out. We went down to the river for an afternoon excursion, which took a group of four of us to Pak Ou caves, a repository for old and unwanted Buddha images that is a shrine in itself, and to a Whiskey Village across on the other bank (though Marilee and I were much more interested in the silk than in the fermented rice liquor – I bought a couple of table runners and she bought six scarves!). Those destinations were charming but so was the tranquil journey, with cultivation right next to the river and lush green forest behind it, hills on either side, and an occasional other boat passing by. Best Moment – if I felt really happy in the hammock, I felt both at peace and completely energized on that boat ride on the Mekong. The Mekong! I never would have dreamed I would go there. The welcome picture on the left frame was taken from the fields in front of that village – if there were such an award, it would get the trip award for Best Picture!

Sunday, May 17, 2009

Job interview? Who knew?

I mentioned the job interview – I actually had more than one along the way! I hadn’t completed the Peace Corps and profiles before I left Morocco, as I had intended, but I had sent out a few resumes. One opening that I happened to come across was for the National Peace Corps Association, the “alumni association” of RPCVs. They were starting a social media web site and wanted someone to be in charge of that effort. I have always been interested in keeping in touch and connecting, way back to my days as vice president of membership for the Junior Academy of the New York Academy of Sciences. So I sent in a resume and lo and behold, they wanted to talk to me! I had an interview at 11:30 pm Thailand time – not easy, after being on the overnight bus the night before, but I think I held my own (plus, the Director of the NPCA had served in Thailand). Alas, I did not make it to the next step, but that would have meant coming to Washington the following week and starting in early January to have everything ready to launch on inauguration day! I could have done it, but was happy to continue my trip. I finally joined the site this week and – well, it’s a work in progress.

May as well talk about my other interviews now, even though it’s jumping ahead. At some point in Thailand I received an email saying that I had made it to the next round in the Foreign Service Officer process (I had taken the written test on July 14 and then had to pass a QEP – Qualifications Evaluation Panel? – with essays. I also had to provide references, though I am not sure anyone called them). The next step was the oral assessment - from Thailand I scheduled it for the latest date possible, March 19 – so that set the outer time limit of my travels. I’ll write more about the oral assessment later, but suffice it to say for now that I signed up to take the written test again in June!

My sister kept telling me to look for jobs in Asia – she said the economy was bleak and there were no jobs back here. Job-hunting mode is very different from travel mode, though – not that easy to look. However, I did ask Marilee if she knew of anything, and she said she had been to an RPCV lunch in Thailand and there met the director of Junior Achievement Asia/Pacific, who was looking for someone to do Junior Achievement Thailand. I could do that! I was a Junior Achievement Advisor way back at Mrs. Smith’s Frozen Foods (I consider this a little-known fact about me). The director, Nancy, and I emailed back and forth and by the time we spoke I had left Thailand and was in Indonesia; she was making a trip to California and we agreed to meet there at the end of January. To make another long story short and get ahead of myself again, I asked her if I could tell other people about the job, and Linda’s friend Linda, who I met in Chiang Mai, got the job! Nancy and I still met in California – you never know.

Lastly – I wanted to try to get to Hong Kong on the way back to the states. My friend Vincent, who lives there, was part of the inspiration for this trip. One year at Reunions, when I was unhappy at my last job, I told him I wanted to travel to Asia, but that I couldn’t just quit my job and travel. He looked squarely at me and said, “but could you?” and that stuck with me and motivated me. The flights didn’t work out (this time!) but since I had gotten in touch anyway, he asked me what I was doing. He’s COO of a company in Hong Kong, and it turned out they were looking for a marketing person to do fashion watches in Canada. I swore off Corporate America but this would be Corporate Canada! We had a conversation over the phone while I was in California, and I told him I would think about it – that was okay, since he wasn’t exactly ready either. I still want to explore the non-profit/development area, but it’s something to keep in mind. It eased my mind somewhat to get all of these interviews and possibilities anyway, before I was really starting to look for a job!

This is an entry without pictures to accompany it so here are some more Thailand scenes:
Decoration from inside Big Buddha temple on Ko Samui:

Different Buddha poses for each day of the week (you make an offering in the slot for the day you were born):

Map of Thailand showing where Peace Corps Volunteers are:

Female monk:

The monk world is a man’s world – each Thai man is expected to become a monk for a while at some point in his lifetime. It is not usual nor particularly honorable for a woman to become a monk – so those who do do it because they really feel the calling.

Saturday, May 16, 2009

Back to Bangkok

In Morocco, the Peace Corps Volunteers are forbidden from traveling at night – Morocco has one of the highest road accident rates in the world. I thought this was a world-wide rule, but in Thailand the PCVs are encouraged to travel at night – it’s safer. Especially in the trains and the VIP air-con buses. The bus ride was actually fairly comfortable – with a pillow, blanket, and reclining seat, I managed to get some sleep. There was a middle-of-the-night food stop – I didn’t want to eat, but it was interesting to walk around and try to identify the various foods (without a lot of success).

When I decided to come back on Friday morning, there was a chance that Marilee could have taken the day or even the afternoon off. She couldn’t, but I had plenty to do back in Bangkok anyway. First, I slept a little more. Then I hand-washed my clothes and went to Wawee Coffee for some internet. Since I had the next hotel set, I thought it was safe to be away from the internet for a couple of days down south. No! There was an email about a job interview! Luckily I was able to arrange it for that night. I couldn’t have talked on the bus anyway.

Then it was back to the Monk’s Bowl Village, to get bowls for my sister and myself. I walked around more of Old Bangkok for a while – it’s a big city, but I felt pretty oriented. Went to Khao San, the backpacker area – very lively, with lots of shops and street food and guesthouses. Glad to be staying at a more sedate place, but also glad to see it – had street-food pad thai and then an espresso brownie at Starbucks!

I walked to the river and got on the boat, this time passing under that cable-stay bridge (turns out it is the world's longest single-span cable-stay bridge), to head to the Peace Corps office. It’s a beautiful office, in an old mansion, and is shoes-off! My kind of workplace. I visited Marilee, took a tour of the office and met some staff and current volunteers (in Morocco, the Administrative Officer sometimes sent friends and friends of friends to spend the day with me when they wanted to meet an actual volunteer; in Thailand, they won’t let people visit actual volunteers – they would get too many requests!).

Back on the boat, I visited Wat Arun, the Temple of Dawn. This looks impressive enough from the river, but up close you see the beautiful porcelain mosaics, and you can climb it for a nice view of the river and the Grand Palace complex on the other side. Then it was back on the river to the Skytrain – and to Bodytune, for a head/shoulder/neck/hand massage (had to balance out the foot massage I got early on). Marilee met me there and we went out for some delicious Japanese food for dinner. You name the cuisine, Bangkok has it (inshallah, Manila will too).

Friday, May 15, 2009

My Day in Railay

When you are in a place for only two nights you can’t really take an all-day excursion to nearby islands – especially when you haven’t seen the place where you are! There were no half-day excursions available (I could have rented a sea kayak and tootled about for an hour or so – or, had I had the right shoes with me and some advance planning, I could have gone horseback riding on the beach) so I just stayed in Railay!

The beaches are all about ten minutes apart; exploration was in order. First I walked across the neck to East Railay, where I walked along the beach (it disappears in high tide, which is why West Railay’s beach is nicer) to a cave.

Then I went down the neck to Phra Nang Cave Beach – stunning and secluded,

with a cave shrine to the mythical princess who is said to live there (filled with, um, offerings to the princess from local fishermen)

and a hole in the rocks that you can walk through, depending on the tide.

Then I had a lunch/shopping interlude.

And I spent the afternoon at my own resort, walking back and forth along the beach, swimming, writing postcards by the pool, and enjoying another stunning sunset.

It’s hard to believe that in December 2004 a huge wall of water came up on this beach – it seems so tranquil. Railay has completely recovered, but parts of Thailand (not to mention other tsunami-affected countries) are still rebuilding. Is there something I can do to help? I still want to go to New Orleans and help, too, if there’s something I can do.

Thursday I went back to Phra Nang Cave Beach in the morning – the walk there, which at one point passes walls of rock, was contemplative in itself, and then the destination was still pretty special the second time. I decided that it was just as well that this was my last day on the beach – the PCMO (Peace Corps Medical Officer) said that the malaria pills she prescribed make you sensitive to the sun, and I probably needed a break from it. Went for a final swim and had a final lunch, and then took the longboat to Krabi town – walked around there for a while, went to the post office, and had a snack before getting on the 5:00 pm VIP air-con bus back to Bangkok.