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Tuesday, May 29

Thailand Travels: Day One

After passing through the customs gate at the airport in Bangkok, a sign translated into English stating “Way Out” and not “Exit” was our first clue that we had most definitely left Kansas. Only steps past this sign, the barrage of tour company bombardment began. We honestly had no idea that there were so many innovative ways for people to offer simple taxi service. One even used tactics that stopped us at first but brought us quickly back to the realization that it was just yet another sales ploy. Then, just because you said no and kept walking, this meant nothing to these salesmen. After a six hour, late night flight, we lost patience quickly with the bombardment and started forcefully pushing past people, following the signs towards the local taxis.

You see, Bangkok is crazy cheap for foreign travelers. However, this is only the case if you are smart enough to know how to go about it. Don’t take those taxi offers inside the airport or you will likely be paying for more limousine-like service, versus the simply taxi that costs a mere $4 to go downtown to your hotel.

Safely inside our everyday, standard taxi, we took our first breaths of the intensely oppressive mug hanging in the air as we watched the many neighborhoods of Bangkok illuminated by the moonlight fly by our window. And I mean fly… as the cab meandered itself in and out of lanes at breakneck speeds.

We had booked our trip through Expedia, choosing a rather low cost option but one with a few extra stars behind the hotel name. It looked nice enough in the pictures. Pulling up to the Lebua at State Tower, we realized that perhaps we might have gone out of our league. The doormen rush to open doors. The bellboy rushes to take your bags. The desk clerk rushes to check you in while you sit in plush sofa comfort. Then an escort rushes you to your room, even opening the door for you so you don’t have put any effort in with your own tender fingers. All this… with the biggest smiles on their faces as the clasp their hands into Buddhist lotus flower positioning and bow in welcome to you.

As we entered our room, it took all we had not to laugh at loud at the simple but exquisite luxury of the room. The front room housed a dining table and then a separate seating area, complete with a flat screen for your Thai television viewing pleasure. Placed on the table were a life white and purple orchid, a welcoming box of chocolates and a handwritten card thanking us for our visit. The hallway was turned into an efficiency type kitchen and closets where the lights would turn on as you open the doors. To the left were double glass doors that rolled back to show a bathroom larger than either of our two spare bedrooms. Double sinks, deep tub with spa settings, western toilet with bidet settings and a corner shower encased in glass. The towels that hung awaiting our use would stretch from head to toe when opened up with a thickness equivalent to the best towels you could find at a Neiman Marcus. Onward into the bedroom to find an oversized king bed with all white plush linens that you sunk into. As it was late, the maids had turned down the linens in preparation for our bedtime and dimmed the lights so that the view from the balcony of the river and the city glittering like so many stars stood to lull us into good dreams.

But bedtime was not to be had for us just yet. It was 10:30 p.m. Bangkok, 12:30 a.m. Japan time and we were too hungry to sleep. Leaving luxury behind, we headed out into the sticky night air in search of our first Thai meal.

And leave luxury we did. For there is one strange thing about Thailand. Like Japan, rich and poor live side by side. This stately hotel of 64 rooms back up directly into the one of the shabbiest neighborhoods I have ever seen. Only as our days went on would we realize this was completely normal in this city. Overly skinny dogs and cats sniffed the streets in search of food littered on corners. Buildings looked as if it was impossible for human life to exist inside. (WE would be told the next day that buildings in the area were 250 to 300 years old surviving through the tropical elements, hence the appearance.) Wires hung in drooping clumps from overloaded poles, threatening to snap and swing electric down onto people in the streets below.

And everyone was on these streets. It must be difficult to find air conditioning inside these homes so most locals could be found at dilapidated tables outside their front door. Some were hanging out at similar decrepit tables next to food vendors serving various Thai mixtures. We wandered in all directions looking for the “nice” part of the neighborhood with a restaurant or two located inside. On this first night, it became very clear that pretty much all restaurants are outside locales. As we wandered the dim and dirty streets, cabs in all varieties would stop and ask us if we needed a ride. All smiles… all full of help… we declined all offers and kept on trekking.

Finally coming to a more normally lit area, we entered an outdoor restaurant in Silom Village. Tanks of shrimp, fish, crab and other sea creatures greeted patrons along the pathway. At least the meal would be fresh, so we took a seat. Easing ourselves into the heat of Thai food, we ordered a grilled pork dish, pad thai and crab legs with lemon, garlic and pepper with each arriving on beautifully decorated plated. I topped my first meal with a fine mai thai that only after I had drank half did I consider that the ice cubes might be made from unfiltered Thai water. I shouldn’t have to explain what that would do to an unsuspecting stomach. Luckily, the cubes were filtered and all went well although the drink did little to unparch me from the intensity of the dishes we consumed. Another lesson quickly learned, eating the spiciest of foods in 33 degree Celsius weather is a tremendously difficult task and will cause you to sweat like you imagine you would if sitting on the edge of an erupting volcano… a lesson we would choose to repeat on a nightly basis.

Stomachs filled and clothes soaked, we started the walk back to the hotel, encountering again a multitude of offers for a ride even on at the front steps of our hotel.

Upstairs, even overwhelming exhaustion did not stop us from taking icy showers before collapsing into bed. Day two loomed ahead and promised to be the first real part of a major adventure.

Wednesday, May 23

Just How Prevalent is Smoking in Japan

We heard all sorts of stories before we moved to Japan. One such story involved how restaurants would be shaded with the hazy gray ringing the heads of everyone in the joint, all with a lit cigarette. While there is definitely a large part of the population that smokes here, I haven’t felt the need to bolt from many public places. There are the occasional times that you are walking down the street and the person in front of you is puffing away, sending little clouds back into your face. Just walk slower and it goes away.

Yesterday as I was cruising down a stretch of busy road, I came to a stop at a red light. Pulling up next to me was a young guy on the ever prevalent motorbike. I didn’t pay any particular notice until I saw him drop something and bend over to pick it up… only to put it in his mouth.

Is a cigarette really that necessary while you are operating a motorbike on a busy road that, should you drop it, you would still pick it up and smoke it?

Just wondering.

Saturday, May 19

An Indigo Day

The bus drove us north past Tokyo and then west on Thursday morning, heading to Bushu Nakajima Konya. Nakajima Konya is a family workshop known for 160 years and four generations of indigo dyeing. Arriving at the entrance, it appears that little has been changed of the buildings and the lifestyle of the family in those long years. It had been pouring all morning, causing me to sprint past the entrance and through the slippery mud field into the main workshop building. It only occurred to me as we were leaving that I hadn’t taken any pictures of the outside complex.

Inside, the Kamakura Chapter of our International Ikebana group was given guidance on how to fold and rubber band a handkerchief to create four different patterns. The Japanese women started folding without hesitation after being given a brief demonstration through oral instruction. This instruction, however, left the American women rather mystified. We trudged on staring at those around us who seemed to grasp what was going on. From here, the indigo dyeing instruction seemed to completely end. Further progress came amidst much laughter and what logical guesswork we could determine.

The group slowly migrated to another building with their folded creations. There, it was determined that we don gloves and dip our foldings into a vat of honestly quite rancid smelling water. From there, everyone slowly migrated to concrete vats of indigo constructed in the floor to begin the actual dyeing process. Squatting over a vat and praying you didn’t drop your little creation into the deep, shiny, sapphire water, we swirled and squeezed our handkerchiefs. Often someone would pull theirs out to confusingly declare it a nasty shade of green. Balancing uncomfortably on our hunches, it was only after swirling for an excessive amount of time trying to remove the green did we come to find out that the fabric will remain green until it is oxidized. To oxidize, we removed the rubber bands from our sopping handkerchiefs, unfolding the piece and lightly flapping it in the breeze trying hard not to slosh indigo onto the person doing the same next to you. A quick rinse in water that seemed as blue as the indigo water and we had completed the dyeing process.

The opportunity was given to dye other pieces like scarves and tablecloths for an additional cost. But seeing as how I was no indigo expert, I choose to meander in the direction of the shop to buy a piece from the professionals. Plus, I needed to find a sink to start the process of undyeing my hand and wedding rings that had turned a Smurftastic shade thanks to a leaky glove. My final product may be far from perfection but it is certainly a Kimono Karen original.

After the members had dyed their share and spent even more of their share, we lugged both wet and dry goods onto the bus and headed out for lunch. The restaurant was a traditional Japanese setting requiring pillow sitting while we slurped down cold udon and ate tempura. The Japanese lady beside me told me I didn’t slurp loud enough to which I replied how honestly hard it was to debunk all previous manners taught to me and make such sounds. She then started feeding me all sorts of little treats to try including what I think was dried eggplant rolled in sugar.

Back on the bus, another Japanese grandmotherly type started passing my friend and I various snacks and candies. After just eating a huge meal, I could hardly fit more in but we thanked her with repeated bows and smiles and placed the handfuls of various Japanese munchies into our handbags.

While the direction of the day had been increasingly vague and confusing, I still headed home with satisfied feelings in both my head at trying this long-standing Japanese trade and even more particularly in my stomach that was stuffed with Japanese delicacies.

Saturday, May 12

Hello? April?

What happened to April? Seriously, was the month cut short in days like that crazy February month? Because I just can’t believe that the month passed and I don’t remember much of it.

This past month was much like the months that would fly by when we lived in DC. Days were filled with work, work and then a little bit more work. It was the month of April that made me fully realize that my honeymoon with Japan is firmly over. Not that there isn’t still so much to see, do and experience… just that work has again taken the priority position in my life to experiencing. This is actually a true regret for me. I came to Japan to slow myself down. I know I talk about this a lot. But I seriously grew tired of the fast pace with which I rushed through everything, barely taking in my surroundings. I tried hard to make my time here different. April was a back slide into the person I used to be which, if I am being honest, never really went that far away from. May and June will not allow me to reverse that pattern just yet. But come hell or high water, July is going to be all about slowing down again.

April wasn’t all bad. There were some highlights. Okay, two highlights. I learned to tango with a hot Argentinian who couldn’t keep his eyes off me. Okay, it was really only a fifteen minute lesson… which occurred in front of a hundred plus Japanese women at the Ikebana International event… and he was really watching my feet… but I still got to shimmy up against a sultry stranger and it was perfectly acceptable to Kimono Hubby.

My second highlight was a dinner at Outback Steakhouse in Tokyo. To many of you, this is surely not considered a highlight as you are tossing back those mega pounds of steak and Wallaby Darned’s on a regular basis. However, should you decide on a life in Japan for any length of time you will come to realize that the Japanese do not generally serve big, juicy steaks, potatoes smothered in sour cream, cheese, and bacon, frozen frou-frou drinks nor do they dip their onions into vats of fat and call it a meal. We had been recommended by some Japanese friends to try this other steak place in the past. They raved about this place and after enough miso soup, it sounded pretty tasty and worth a shot for an American night out. When we left after our dinner that night, we had to come home and make a second meal. The steak size was so paltry, similar to thin slices of delicious sashimi. While I am a fan of sashimi, it is not the preferred method for steak. One should never leave a steakhouse hungry. Outback, oh how I love thee… I was sick for two days afterwards but damn it was worth it.

I did forget a magnificent third highlight (literally) in my original calculations! I found a hairdresser who knows what a lowlight is and was able to begin reversing the damage to my locks. For chicks... this is big. Seriously BIG! She even comes to your house to do your hair and charges a third of what I paid in DC. If she wasn't already married, I'd totally pop the question.

So here we are in May. As of today, we achieved one highlight for the month. This morning we trekked to the local Japanese mall to see Spiderman 3. It has been all the rave here for over a week. Since we have yet to go to a Japanese movie, we thought this would be an excellent choice. 1,800 yen per ticket which is roughly $15.50. Expensive but I figured worth it for the experience. The movie was scheduled to start at 12:15 but you are supposed to be in your seat by 12:05… your assigned seat. Yes, they assign you a seat when you purchase the ticket. At exactly 12:05, the previews began with four previews, all of American movies but dubbed partially into Japanese. Plus the titles were in Japanese. Looks like some good films are coming out although I have no idea what the names might be. Moving on… at exactly 12:15, the movie began. When does that happen at home? Brilliant idea, this starting on time stuff. The movie was as expected and I was enjoying it despite the backs of the chairs being a bit unsuited for someone of my dorsal length. Twenty minutes before the movie was over, something happened to the picture and a haze gathered across the screen. This is of course when all the good action is happening and Mary Jane is hanging from a cab stuck in a web clinging to two skyscrapers. Back home, someone would have adjusted the picture pretty quickly or their might have been a mutiny. Here, everyone sat quietly in their chairs and watched the last twenty minutes in its relative obscurity. I, of course not wanting to be the rude American, sat there like everyone else. Together, we quietly watched as I got hotter and hotter under the collar, with a growing headache due to squinting at the screen. When the movie ended, as I had been informed, people sat there quietly continuing to watch the credits because they do not get up and rush out of the theater like Americans do. That would be rude. As hot as I was, I sincerely didn’t give a hoot. Who can read the damn credits anyway when they are all blurred into anonymity? I practically shoved Kimono Hubby into the aisle. So much for my Japanese movie going experience. Next time, we’ll wait for the flick to come out on base and pay a measly $3 bucks and not care if the movie goes to crap when the good stuff happens.

I do have many things to be looking forward to in the coming weeks. We are less than two weeks from Thailand and I can barely stop the stupid grin on my face. Next week, I am taking a trip with Ikebana International to learn how to do Japanese indigo dying which will surely be an amusement as I can promise that some part of me will surely be turned permanent blue by the end of the day.

For the rest of today, it is back to homework and housework. Indeed, lame I may be these days. There is one thing I get to smile about for the rest of this weekend… its grillin’ weather! Which means I get to turn over my cooking responsibilities to the man of the house. Ahhh… if only every day could be a grillin’ day.