Friday, July 29, 2011
Thursday, July 7, 2011
Monday, May 16, 2011
Sunday, May 15, 2011
Wednesday, May 11, 2011
Thursday, May 5, 2011
Monday, April 18, 2011
|Wat Pho, also known as the Temple of the Reclining Buddha|
|Orchids at Pak Klong Talad, the Bangkok flower market|
|Khao San Road, early morning|
|Outside the MBK Center, a shopping mall with nearly 2,000 shops and stalls|
|Delciously ripe okrong mangoes outside the temple|
|Even in Thailand, a world of endless food options... the arches exist.|
|Parakeets for sale at the Chatuchak Market, the largest market in all of Thailand|
Friday, April 15, 2011
Traveling to Bangkok in the middle of April is much like I imagine it would be to lock oneself in a Ziplock bag, and then put that Ziplock bag in the microwave. It’s the kind of heat that I remember from the worst days of summer in Chicago, when you walk out of the house and instantly slump over, like a wilting flower. The sweat accumulates even before you step outside, as if in anticipation of the coming onslaught, and at the end of the day you really wish your shower could somehow produce ice cubes. It is also the type of heat that I recall from a similar latitude, (just one year ago!) on the island of Zanzibar. It’s a heat that, surprisingly enough, I have come to be able to live with while traveling. At least for a little while.
The difference between Zanzibar and Bangkok though, is two-fold. In Bangkok, there is air conditioning. In Bangkok, there are 7-Elevens. Put the two together, and even if you’re out visiting sight after sight, wat after wat, accumulating a layer of sweat that exceeds the amount of liquid you have ingested- at least you know that every block, you can pop in to the local quick-mart for a quick-cool. And when I mean they are on every block, I am not exaggerating. In Chinatown, in fact, there are two 7-Elevens directly across the street from each other. Perhaps they have contests to see who can sell the most Slurpees.
It is the weather in these dog days of summer that has for centuries caused the Thais to celebrate. However they are not celebrating the heat, they are celebrating the cooling monsoon rains that are to come, hopefully sooner rather than later. The three-day festival of Songkran, or Thai New Year, is April 13-15 every year, which conveniently (or not, depending how you look at it) happened to be the day I arrived in Bangkok. Though Thais follow the modern Western calendar, they continue to celebrate their own New Year, and with such vivacity I was beginning to wonder what life it like without Songkran. I knew that it was New Year before I arrived, but I had no idea what that would entail.
Perhaps unbeknownst to both Thais and Nepalis, the Songkran celebration runs parallel to the Hindu Holi celebration that I just experienced while in Nepal. Both heralding the coming monsoon rains, almost all festivities are based around 1) water and 2) colored paste. Whereas in Nepal Holi was mostly a sport for children, the people of Thailand have no such age/ability limits for their participation in the event. In fact, the reserved Thais seem to take this holiday as a once-yearly way of doing whatever the hell they want, without reservations. Everyone in the family, from baby-boo to 85-year-old grandma, is armed with a neon Super-Soaker- and they know how to use it. However, water pistols are not necessary in the art of soaking anything that walks. Cups, bowls, buckets…you name it, I saw it used. Perhaps the most entertaining folks to watch were the cruisers- gangs of friends driving around, crowded in the back of their friends’ pick-up, smearing white paste on buses, spraying innocent bystanders, and generally having a raucous good time.
My first encounter with Songkran was my second day in Bangkok, when I decided to go for a walk early in the morning. I wasn’t really sure where I was going, and was pretty sure I would walk into a water trap. I originally kept my distance from all tuk-tuk drivers, small children, and those sneaky grandmas, until I started sweating so profusely that I didn’t care if I ran into a human-induced waterfall. As if reading my mind, I turned a corner and was immediately spotted by 5 teenage boys and their 3 younger siblings, loading up a 100-gallon barrel with a hose from their house. Hesitantly, they all held their buckets and looked at me. I could tell they weren’t sure whether to do it or not. They really wanted to, but I was not Thai, and I was the only person on the street. I continued walking towards them, put down my bag, and said, “Yep, go ahead!” To which no less than 6 buckets were dumped over my body. It felt fantastic. No wonder people like this festival.
Three days and many saturations later, I got a little sick of it. Like colors on Holi, the Thais smear some type of white-paste-substance all over your face, as a type of blessing, but it’s really just nasty. If it was just a water festival, I would be fine with it. But the paste is gross. I avoided most contact with it, except that at one point an adorable little Thai boy asked me if he could give me some- and how could I resist that? For the greater part of day 2 and 3 though, I stayed inside. The folks from my hostel and I took cabs where we wanted to go (tuk-tuk, or open three-wheel vehicle, would have been a bad idea- I saw people getting hosed), and lived a relatively sheltered couple of days. I met some good folks, and we formed a posse that would have been intimidating had we needed to use it for our protection. Luckily, we never did.
Today Songkran is over, leaving behind only a filmy white paste over the city’s streets and buses. Today was the first day I realized that Bangkok does not just induce a sensory overload on holidays, it induces it every waking moment of its existence. Contrasts of colors, smells, and textures fly at you at an alarming rate in Bangkok. Thai food is loved world-wide for its use of complements- sweet and sour, spicy and salty, rich and light- and the same can be said of nearly every aspect of life in Bangkok. A clapboard house on stilts abuts a small river in Baan Krua, a Thai Muslim community known for hand-woven silk, while one block away wealthy trust-fund babies shop at Siam Paragon for the latest in international couture. A taught-faced old man sits cross-legged on a mat, selling religious amulets to browsing traders in the shadows of the glistening gold and mirrored spires of Wat Pho, while inside the temple complex the massage parlor is packed to the gills, paying customers ready to have their body kneaded and twisted to a fine pulp by some of the country’s finest masseurs.
My mind has not stopped racing, attempting to process everything I am seeing, for the past four days. I only have two days left, and I’m hoping on the plane ride to Melbourne I will finally be able to relax. Though I’m sure there are far crazier cities in Asia, Bangkok twists your mind with such cultural, spiritual, artistic, musical, natural, and material complexities that you hardly know who you are at the end of the day. I’d like to tell you what I think about this place, but I haven’t gotten that far yet. So I’ll just give snippets.
Today began early, when I met a couple fellow hostellers to go to the Chatuchak weekend market, about a 45 min train ride from the center of town. Massive and sprawling, the lanes of the ‘JJ’ (for short) Market wove from knockoff designer clothing to classy boutique, from Thai spices and herbs to buckets and buckets of fake plastic fruit. Perhaps my favorite find of the day, the baby animals section. There were week-old puppies (huskies! wiener dogs!), kittens, guinea pigs, and my personal favorite- bunnies, with the girl bunnies dressed in tutus. After an interesting snack of crushed ice with brown flavorless jelly and brown sugar (definitely doing that at home), we headed back to the hostel, for fear that we would die in the belly of the beast and never be heard from again.
I switched hostels, to a place closer to the ‘sights’ for the next few days, as I haven’t had a chance to see anything yet (as I was avoiding the wet-festival). Then Natasha, from London, and I decided to get massages at Wat Pho, a temple/Buddhist monastery and school, and also the premier massage school in all of Bangkok…if not Thailand. As I have only had one massage in my life, and never had a Thai massage, I was thoroughly excited. I got even more excited when I realized it was only $13 for a full hour. This may not be the only massage I get while here.
Each massage room was lined with at least 25 beds, roughly double-bed size, and all right up next to each other. The rooms air-conditioned and smelling sweetly of tea tree oil, I could have cared less that I was going to be lying a foot away from some old rotund man also getting a massage. After changing into the supplied pajamas (I mistakenly wore a dress), I clambered onto the bed, and things began.
The best way that I can think of to describe a Thai massage is a combination of deep tissue, chiropractics, and forced yoga. Basically, the masseuse just has at it. She gets all over ya. Using her body against yours most of the time, she pulls, pushes, and rotates your appendages into formations you didn’t even know were possible. She cracks your knuckles, she pops your back, and she sits on your shoulders. At one point she slowly pressed her thumbs into my ears until I felt a little lightheaded, and then she popped them. It was all very interesting. It is much like I would imagine a personal trainer would have you do to yourself, but she did it for you. Ah, it was fantastic. Plus, at the end they give you a little bottle of iced green tea!
After that we had a wander around Wat Pho, the home of the world’s largest reclining Buddha. He was huge. There were no signs in English telling us exactly how huge, but I’m sure you could look it up online if you were that interested. Though he was impressive, by big Buddha standards, it’s the outsides of these Wats that impresses me. There are buddhas everywhere, hundreds of them at ground level, and then above your head loom the temple and school spires, reaching to the sky in incredible mosaic and gold shimmeriness. I know that is not a word, but I can’t think of any other way to describe them. Being in Thailand makes me wonder a little more about Buddhism, as I was pretty sure the Lord Buddha taught non-attachement… and all these wats seem mortifyingly extravagant for such a humble dude. Not to mention counter-productive to what he was trying to accomplish. Either way, they are gorgeous works of architecture, and definitely require a second trip tomorrow morning to take some more photos.
After mowing down some buttery-delicious mangoes, Natasha and I headed to find the flower market and then hop a boat back to Chinatown, where we planned to have dinner. Completely lacking my normal intuition about cardinal directions in this city, we asked some police men where the flower market was, and got both a handshake and “welcome to our country” from the uniformed men. Possibly the best interaction with police that I have ever had, I am starting to believe all this stuff people say about the Thais being extremely hospitable. Even yesterday, I was just blankly staring at a map in the subway, for no reason at all, and had two people come up and ask me if I needed any help. And this is not like the help of Nepal, where they wanted money and/or something in return… it was genuine concern for my well being. Amazing.
We made it to the flower market, another sensory overload, where the scents of roses and carnations, orchids and marigolds mixed with fish sauce and veggies frying, as the market closed up and vendors began to make their dinners. There were more flowers in one place than I have ever seen in my life. Little old ladies were crouched around buds, sewing them into ornate offerings, and people scuttled about them with armloads of bouquets to take home.
We made it onto a river boat, quite a nice way to get out of the street and crowds of the city, and wound our way around the Chao Phraya to Chinatown. We intended to find a ‘street food market’ that I had read about, but I neither knew where it was nor had brought my book with me, so it was kind of a shot in the dark. We had been walking all day in flip-flops, and were thoroughly exhausted, sweaty, and in dire need of food. After about an hours worth of walking around what we thought was Chinatown, we were ready to give up. Nothing was open, we didn’t see any street vendors, and no one was out walking. Where in the world are Chinese restaurants not open all the time?? When we had almost given up hope and were about to go to the only soup shop we saw, we spotted a sign in English. The sign announced that we were entering “Yaowarat Road” one of the “busiest food hovels in all of Bangkok”. Fifty steps later and we were taken directly to China. Blazing lighted signs announcing restaurants, a street full of taxis, buses, and people, and street stalls- hundreds of them- lined the sidewalks. We wondered where it all had come from, as not a ½ block earlier we had seen no one around.
The only thing that was open on the street were the few restaurants, expensive places serving rare seafood, but street stalls filled nearly every inch of sidewalk and curb space, so that in order to see what they all were, you had to walk in the street with the traffic. Perhaps fortunately, not many of the stalls signs were in English. If they had been , we may never have decided what to eat. Instead, we got BBQ pork buns (bao) for about $0.50 as an appetizer, and then moved on the BBQ kebab section ($1), where each kebab had 4 huge pieces of chicken, two peppers, a pineapple piece, and a tomato. We wanted something to finalize the meal, like noodles or soup, but nothing of the sort was in English. Slightly scared that we would unknowingly be fed shark fin, we took the risk and went to a soup stall. Pointing to the one picture on their sign, we pantomimed that we would like what was photographed (a clear soup with some noodles, and some other little surprise balls, etc.). The man looked at us a little funny, shrugged, and pointed to the two prices- did we want the $1 or $1.50 option?
Well well. The time has come for some quips about the final two children at Harka, Ashish and Tulie. These two have been there nearly their entire lives (Ashish since he was about 1 1/2 years old, Tulie since the day after she was born, literally). The two have grown up knowing nothing other than what it is like to have 17 siblings- which means they are frequently bossed around, are sometimes bossy themselves, they never let anyone else touch the toy they are playing with, and when there is extra rice, they are the first kids in line for seconds. They have never experienced much traumatic change, as they have only really known Harka, and to them, that is just the way life is.
Wednesday, April 13, 2011
“The competence of Nepalese children is staggering; if all the adults were to die tomorrow they’d manage perfectly well on their own.”
I stumbled on this perfect quote while reading Christopher Pye-Smiths’s Travels in Nepal, that I picked up at a guest house in Pokhara. It definitely rings true with the children at Harka, perhaps more so than children with parents. I arrived at Harka unannounced (I lost Laxmi’s cell phone number) after my week in Sangachok, to a bunch of smiling children and…no adults. Though there was another volunteer there (Theeban, from London - who must have arrived just after I left for Pokhara), Parvati had gone to Kathmandu to aid her ailing father, and Laxmi was off working. The children, however, looked after me as though they were running their own guest house, and immediately showed me where I’d be sleeping and had tea on the burner. And while we wouldn’t ever let our 9 year olds near a kitchen knife, I am not the least bit alarmed when I see Manessa or the twins slicing up vegetables in their hands (for lack of a cutting board). I’m also not alarmed when I look out at the field and see a pint-sized child wielding a water buffalo to greener pastures, even though she is 1/8th it’s size. It’s all relative in this crazy world.
Manessa - 9 years old
Ahhh, Manessa. Manessa came to Harka late in our volunteer stint in 2008, as somewhat of an addition to mother-and-son duo Momma Samjana and Babu (otherwise known as Ganesh). For a while Rebecca and I were unclear as to whether Manessa actually had any connection to Samjana, who came to the orphan home with her young son because she had nowhere else to go (her husband died from drinking too much). It came to pass that Manessa actually had no connection with Samjana, but happened to arrive on the same day at the orphan home, so she kind of took her under her wing. Just a few weeks ago, when looking through photos from 2008, Manessa chirped in and announced ‘Mommy!’ when she saw a picture of Samjana, though the pair hasn’t been at Harka for at least a year. So there is definitely still a connection, even if they may never see each other again.
Good-hearted Manessa won’t let anything get her down, that’s for sure. Though her face is somewhat stern all the time, with a crumpled brow as though she is trying to remember the digits in the pi sequence, one cheerful look in her direction and she is all jaggedy-toothed smiles. Her tough exterior (she’s stronger looking than the waif-like other children her age) does not reveal that she is in fact a major cuddler, and would often burrow herself as deeply into my lap as humanly possible.
Slightly older than the twins and Shishir, Manessa has taken on her duties as an ‘older girl’ while maintaining her playfulness. Manessa is the one (sometimes with the help of Ganga) that makes everyone’s beds in the morning, sweeps the rooms, washes the dishes, and takes care of the animals. A natural shepardess, she can get those buffalos and goats moving in the blink of an eye- while I struggle getting the cow not to trample me.
Manessa just passed class 3 at the new local primary school with flying colors- she was 3rd in her class- and in one week’s time she will be moving on to class 4. When I attended the school award ceremony earlier this month, it was Manessa that showed me around, pointing out everyone’s classrooms and teachers. If Soniya is the caregiver, Manessa is following in rightful suit.
Shishir – 8 years old
A boy in all senses of the word, Shishir (who we inaccurately called Secil three years ago, and what it still sounds like to my non-Nepali ears) can be rough, silly, and creative- and is probably the most independent of the children at the home. In 2008 Rebecca and I noticed his independent nature immediately, as at the age of 5 he was always off on his own, exploring his surroundings. He can thoroughly entertain himself for hours, and I believe he prefers it that way. Sometimes the hectic atmosphere of having 16 brothers and sisters get the better of him, and he explodes in a whirlwind of emotion (generally resulting in hitting someone and yelling at them). As someone who thoroughly enjoys her alone time, I can identify. Sometimes you just want everyone to go away!
This past school year, Shishir and Ashish were sponsored to go to the local private school, Greenland. Private schools in Nepal usually have a school bus to pick children up, and have far less holidays than government schools, so the boys spent a lot of time together. If the two were to be in the same class in, say, the US, they would never be friends. While Shishir is independent and creative, Ashish is constantly seeking attention and approval. The 7 hours a day that they spend together at school and the 10 hours they sleep side by side at night leaves Shishir with little time apart from Ashish. This union results in a somewhat volatile relationship between the two, and rightfully so. They can play, but it usually ends in one punching the other, and Shishir is usually the culprit. That being said, there were few times when I could blame him, as I often wanted to punch Ashish myself!
Though he does keep to himself most of the time, there was a point in every day when he cozied up to my side and talked to me for a little bit. Whether it was bounding home from school to tell me about what he learned, or after dinner to fall asleep next to me with his head on my shoulder, Shishir is a thoroughly adorable child. He absolutely loves music, and his dance moves are to die for. It’s almost as if he has some estranged kinship to Justin Timberlake, with an equally ambiguous racial makeup. He could be from anywhere in the world (well, except Africa). His smile could melt the coldest of hearts, especially when he creeps up to show you something that he just discovered, as if you are the only person in the world worth showing.
Ganga – 8 years old
The more reserved twin, Ganga has become much more grown up in the past three years. The sisters couldn’t be more different, and usually don’t even associate with each other unless they are arguing. With her sharp features giving an air of distinction, Ganga keeps to herself much of the time. She helps out around the house, especially with cleaning, when she rides a fine line between anal and OCD. I had to laugh to myself the first night I was at Harka, putting away dishes with Ganga in the kitchen. There are two large shelves for all the plates, cups, and pots, and I had been putting the dishes away accordingly. However, when Ganga joined me, she made it very clear that I was not doing it correctly. She proceeded to stack each shelf meticulously, resulting in perfect pyramids of cups, plates organized by size, and utensils arranged by size and shape. Perhaps she just has a mathematical mind.
Though Ganga’s English is not as good as Jamuna’s (because Jamuna rambles constantly), Ganga was first in her class (2) this term. She loves playing the caregiver for little Tenzin, and keeps track of his general whereabouts. Like most of the children, she loves to dance, but for her it is an art. Some of the kids dance crazy-like and goofy, but when you watch Ganga dance you know she has memorized her moves. She and Manessa will often perform Nepali dances together, working out the moves before they reveal the final product to me in a carefully performed routine. Ganga is reserved, but that doesn’t stop her sweetness from popping onto my lap every so often for some affection. I think all of these kids have gotten used to physical affection through volunteers and each other, which is a fantastic change from the doe-eyed alarm that many of them expressed when we bombarded them with hugs during our stay in 2008. Physical affection goes a long way in child development, and I believe it has had a great affect on the well-adjusted children that all the children at Harka have become.
Jamuna – 8 years old
The polar opposite of Ganga, Jamuna is a bubbly chatterbox that pops around like a fart in a bottle. Three years ago, Rebecca and I had a hard time figuring out the twins, especially Jamuna. She cried about practically everything, and most of the children mocked her for it. We spent the greater part of three months trying to toughen up her sensitivity, which today seems to be practically non-existent! These days Jamuna only throws a fit as often as the next kid, and usually for good reason. Instead, she reminds me of a jolly old woman that is perfectly content talking to herself and bossing others around. Upon first arrival, I couldn’t understand a word she was saying, as she talked a mile a minute and apparently to everything- human and inanimate objects alike. I started to wonder whether she was a bit batty, actually.
However, a few days getting to know the kids’ accents, and I realized that Jamuna was actually using quite a bit of English in her ramblings, and was significantly more adept at expressing herself to me than many of the other young children. The kids don’t mock her anymore, but I definitely found myself laughing at her completely random ramblings. One night, while Jamuna and I were tending to the cook fire, a man came into the yard from the road and asked her a question. He directed the question at her, as he assumed I didn’t know Nepali (good assumption), and she responded with a curt answer. He turned to walk away, and she started chattering at him. He turned around and smirked, and her rambling continued at an increasing crescendo as he continued his walk down the road. After he was out of sight, she continued talking to herself in a low voice for some minutes, before announcing to me, “Miss, come. Water for vegetables, please.” Lord only knows what she was talking about to the man or to herself, but whatever it was ceased to be of importance when she needed to complete her task at hand. And so it is, hanging out with Jamuna.
Between her chattering and cook fire duties (she is usually in charge keeping the fire going, when all the other children are watching TV- she doesn’t mind), Jamuna can often be seen staring off into space with a look on her face somewhat similar to what I feel when I’ve been awake for more than 15 hours. Not completely blank, but unable to process complete thoughts. When I caught her with such a look, I’d just shout, “Jamuna!” and her gaze would snap to me, she’d smile an explosive smile, and run over into my arms. Perhaps she’s just a dreamer. Aren’t all the geniuses in the world a little bit loopy?
Suman – 7 years old
I was reading through the journal I have been keeping throughout my travels, and I fell upon a section written during my first few days at the orphan home in which I found Suman a test of my patience. I now have no recollection as to why I felt that way, as my perception of him upon leaving is the exact opposite. For as much as Jamuna and Ganga are dislike, Suman and Sujan are alike. Though three years apart, the brothers are very much tied to each other in everything they do. Suman looks up to Sujan, and Sujan sets a very good example. Suman is still young though, and plays the baby card a lot. He whines when he doesn’t get his way, and he seeks comfort in my lap early in the morning (when he hasn’t quite woken up yet) and at night when he is sleepy.
That being said, if Sujan can help with chores, Suman will be right behind him. The boys aren’t that different in height, and it is a sight to see them struggling with a load of buffalo grass 10 times their size (“Miss! Help?”). Suman likes to read stories, and he is usually the only one left listening at the end of a book I’m reading. He also loves to tell me stories based solely on the pictures of a book, which requires an impressive grasp of English for a 7 year old.
The cutest image of Suman is one I forgot to catch on film, which ritualistically happened every morning and evening, despite the rising temperature, when he would put on his rainproof Quecha parka, pull up the hood, and cinch the toggles so that his little chubby face was the only thing showing. It reminded me of my brother Alex, who at the same age religiously rolled up his pants, despite the weather, as if he were expecting a flash flood.