Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Pub quiz

Today was a banner day.

As is regular on Wednesday nights, there was pub-quiz trivia-night at the Mitre Tavern, the oldest building in Melbourne (according to their website). Our team is called "Sheik Sheik Djibouti".

There are usually about seven or eight teams of four to six people each. There are six rounds of ten questions on topics such as entertainment, history, geography, sport. This week, I remarked that it was amazing that there wasn't a single question about royalty... However, I remembered that there was one question about which European country has had only female monarchs since 1890 (answer here).

There were also questions about which two (1, 2) european countries have flags that are blue and yellow. Actually there's a third.

I'm really lucky when there's questions where we need to name all the US states that border the Pacific Ocean. Or name the three US states that begin with "C". In the next round, the question was to spell Conneticuit. Ok, right the spell checker gets it now, but I was ready to go to my grave sure that it ended with cuit. I was wrong. Maybe that's why my mother (who lives in Hartford) never gets any of the letters I've sent. It's all terribly embarassing. Embarrassing even.

We had to name the five oceans and rank them by size.

The Australian actor that turned down the male lead role in the movie Ghost? This guy. Guess who else turned down the role?

Anyhow, we came in second place at the end! Or rather we were tied for second place. When there's a tie, there's a drink off. In Australia they call it "Skulling", which is something like the American "Chugging". Drink the beer as quick as you can and when it's finished you put the empty glass on your head.

Peta was elected to do the drink off for our team. She had to take down a pint. Her opponent was from england... Strangely enough, he visited last year and went to one pub quiz and had to do the drink off then and then this time it was his second time visit to the country.

It was an absolute dead heat and the room erupted. Many seasoned veterans had never seen a tie before so no one was quite sure what to do. So we had to elect a second person (Debi) from our team to drink a pot (a half pint... a jug is a double pint). Again, it was extremely close but sadly we lost by a hair.

For those of you who wondered where the guys were in all this, I'm not much of a drinker and had no clue what to expect. When I got home, I practiced on a tall glass of water and about two gulps from the bottom I spewed everywhere for what seemed like a half minute. I'm not even sure how long it's going to take to clean all this up.

So there it is, first time in the top 3 (prize was a $30 gift certificate) for team Sheik Sheik!

Friday, October 23, 2009

This and tat....

New 'to

I've thought of getting a tattoo for a long time. About 8 years ago, I did have a very light outline of permanent eyeliner put on. Talk about torture. But just think what I can now do with the 3.5 minutes I'll now save over the course of my lifetime, what with being able to skip that step in applying make-up everyday.

It would be hard to say that I've ever look at anyone else's tattoo and thought, "Hey, gee, wow. That looks really awesome. Wish I'd thought of that and had it forever emblazoned on my person." Never. Don't you more have the, "Now, with the pink dragon holding a skull and crossbones, shooting dice, on your neck, tell me about what you were thinking when you...". I've always been protected from myself, knowing that I'm fickle enough to eventually resent what I think is amusing today.

So who knows what Malaysian spirit moved me to get this today. A friend from my travel group took photographs through the process. If there's one thing I can't stress enough, particularly when getting a tattoo in a foreign country....scratch that....particularly when getting one that is visible to everyone you meet 24-7, on your neck, make sure you are really able to communicate with the tattoo artist. Like, say, speak the same language for example. There was some confusion on size (it came out about 4 times as big as I'd imagined), color (yellow with green outlines...wanted graduated shades of orange) and, well, shape. And I donno, the overall design?

At least I know no one else has one just like it.


Me with my "It's perfect. Just what I wanted" face and the artist.

I guess the only other piece of advice I have here is, like I did, get it done in henna. It should be washed off, or at least only resemble lightly smeared poo by the time I get home. It's been fun to watch people's reactions to it today, here in a highly Muslim country.

There was one lady at Penang Hill today, where we took a tram up that overlooked the city....she was eating Pringles, drinking a bottle of Pepsi and making videos with a really nice digital recorder from under her burka. I think we were both trying not to stare at each other.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

night frequencies

It seems that most cities with public transit have a program where poetry is displayed as a public service. Melbourne's program is called "Moving Galleries". Today I saw a poem on the train called Night Frequencies, included below. The opening line brought back some memories of how flying into large cities at night was one of my favorite things to do. Every city has a distinct color; Tucson Arizona was a dark bronze and I kind of remember Detroit being blue. One time I had a perfect window seat and flew down the side of Manhattan (obviously long ago). Incredible, really.

The lights in the street
are gold or white or blue.

The primitive grass says nothing
of what’s to come.

Distant cars whisper rumours
of other people’s lives.

A bird starts up then breaks off,
leaving communiqués to the darkness.

Inside, everything is tidied up,
as after a birthday.

The kitchen hums, while pictures
sleep upon the walls.

The dog is dreaming, silently barking
at the rabbit of morning.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Project Koh Samui

Trigger fish - Moray Eel - Me in lower left, with dolphin-esque steamlined form - Me making water angels

There's a funny bit in the movie "Meet the Fockers" where Ben Stiller accuses his new father-in-law, Robert DeNiro, of continuing his career as a special agent. He has overheard something about "Project Koh Samui" and seen DeNiro exchanging passports with a stranger. It turns out the new in-laws are sending the bride and groom to a resort island south of the Thai mainland for their honeymoon. This is the first most people have heard of the island, Koh Samui.

There's also a funny bit about Stiller accidentally killing DeNiro's cat, Mr. Jinx, then painting a stripe on a look alike and trying to pass it off as Mr. Jinx. Tom doesn't laugh quite as much as I'd hope at that part, but that's a long story about a cat he used to have and it doesn't end well.

I went diving at three different sites yesterday, mostly just hoping to meet a whale shark. We didn't, but we saw a lot of other good sea life and the visibility was great. This whale shark image was taken previously by our dive photographer. They served real American-style BACON on board the boat. Tom and I have been lamenting the loss of bacon since the moment we entered Australia. We can only seem to find something that resembles fatty parboiled ham ***cough cough***.

No equipment problems and my breathing and buoyancy control are improving. I went head to head with an aggressive trigger fish, not realizing what was going on until my dive companions pointed it out later. Does it count as declaring war if I meant to come in peace? Apparently you are never to swim over them or they will attack. It was a long (11 hour) day on the boat and we played backgammon and listened to island-quintessential Bob Marley on the cruise home.

Whale Shark I didn't see - Buddha on the Mountain from ferry to Koh Samui - Important to keep up caloric intake for the day - BACON!!!! BACON!!!! BACON!!!!

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Travel is all about discovery and personal growth.

It's about trying new things you didn't even know possible. And I think I'm really sucking the marrow from the bones of this amazing trip...branching out...taking risks, doing things I never thought possible. As a spa client, particularly.

Today I had a vat of Garra Rufa (miniature carp, really) nibble off my dead skin cells. My feet are so clean you could eat off them, though I'm reminded that the custom is for the soles of your feet to face downward in Thailand.

To think, only a few days ago, I was having kittens over the leaches we all got swimming under a waterfall. Maybe tomorrow I'll flush out some nice fly larva to clean up the puss filled scabs from my bed bug attacks. (Note the attractive Thai massage bruises on my right arm. Not sure what animal helper to enlist there.)

Friday, October 16, 2009

The desert is patient

The desert is patient
yet knows what to do
when it rains.
The seed under soil
knows to grow through to light.
Birds know where to fly
to the place they've never been.
May I know what to do
now that I have found you.

Thai Cooking School and Royal Palace of Thailand


"The Grand Palace complex was established in 1782 and it houses the royal residence and throne halls..." snore..... It's conspicuous, sparkly, and hot. At least they sell Thai Iced Tea in the gift shop. That's: 1 part rich tea, 5 parts sweetened condensed milk, pour over ice. (I'm estimating 2000 calories each...I had three yesterday). Here's me on one of those tours where a tour guide leads you around, drops a lot of dates and names of kings and says, "Okay?" after every fact to see if you're following him. I was too beat up from the 12 hour train ride last night to feign interest by nodding appreciatively. Safe to say I'm templed out.

What's a monarchy without royal guards in full regalia + 105 degree heat.

This is a organic cooking school cat. He is the happiest cat I've met so far. He undoubtedly eats all organic...(note to self...maybe there's a connection here?).

I made yellow curry (from scratch, not with curry powder), coconut milk soup, chicken with basil, pad thai and mango with sticky rice. I so cannot wait to get home and start using my wicked new Thai cooking skills on Tom and our friends. We have a great market down the street from our flat for ingredients. Tom's mom would say, "You couldn't pay to be that close to such a great market", to which we both reflect on Melbourne rent and think, "Uh, yeah we can.". We just renewed our lease through next July, by the way.

It was a huge thrill to have everything exactly how I like it when I cooked it myself - extra garlicky but not too spicy. I even learned how to say "extra garlic please" in Thai. It's been funny to see what I've got so far when I've tried this in English at Thai restaurants. Sometimes a whole different (second) dish that has garlic, often no garlic at all, when I do get some it's usually raw...and here they have us sleeping three to a room. Not a good way to make or keep friends whilst traveling in a group.

When my brother did this kind of trip several years ago, he had to have a laminated card made up with "Please do not feed me peanuts. I am allergic and I will die." typed out in several different languages. He is still with us, thankfully.

Cooking school is a lot like watching home improvement shows on TV. No food "dust". Veritable 'shooting fish in a barrel'. The staff does all the prep work and clean up. You just fling your spatula around your smoking wok, thinking what a culinary genius you are.

We went to the market to talk about ingredients before class. These are lotus flowers.

I love sauce. We had a long talk about MSG (food crack cocaine, basically). Apparently it's in EVERYTHING here. Like even if you order your meals with non MSG, it's still in soup, curry, and sauce bases. This just might explain why I've been devouring every food item with such voracity. MSG was outlawed in Australia some time ago. And that may explain why I haven't liked a lot of the food we've had since we immigrated?

I'm starting to find my stride with a few of the older people (old being round about 30-35) in the group and and feeling more comfortable with everybody. There is one couple here together (about 10 years young than us) who are a bitter reminder of how much I miss Tom. Nothing seems entirely real when he's not here to experience it.

There is a story about someone saying to the the Thai king that she will be the water to his forest. Kind of like marriage, yes?

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Kitty is an Apprentice Mahout

Yesterday we arrived in Chiang Mai (Mid Thailand). It's a big city with a Thai massage place on every corner (don't ask, okay fine, I go every day). I'm covered in bruises from all the hard core massages, but they have a nice blue hue to them, what with all the body scrubs and moisturizing treatments. I've done the math and it costs us money not to. Also, I've colleted a series of strange sunburns. Like just 4" rings around my ankles from the all day speedboat ride up the river from Lao to Thailand yesterday.

There is a lot to do outside of town: rafting, rock climbing, ATV rentals, cooking classes, etc. I'm taking a cooking class tomorrow and had planned to jump off a waterfall today but (thank god) woke up with a cold from the air conditioners in the hotels. I'm calling them hotels for my own morale's sake. They are just a click or two above caves with electricity. I woke up (meh, got up, didn't actually sleep much) to see the bin of my used kleenex's teaming with ants. My own little bedside ant farm. Neato.

Anyway, my first instinct was, activity wise, to do the thing that Tom would like the least (riding in on a caravan of four wheelers into a Hmong village where they make you lunch). Though offensive, I could probably find something nearly as annoying in Australia - they have fossil fuels AND Aborignal people, so I went with Mahout training.

A Mahout is the trainer, companion and caretaker of the Asian elephant. Asian elephants are smaller and smarter than African elephants. They aren't like horses, who can sense you are terrified. Mine was a 10 year old male, kind of the golden retriever of the pachyderms. It had no desire to manipulate all my's all about the banana and sugar cane treat with these guys.

My Swiss friend, MarieLouise and I were the only two to sign up for the program. We learned how to mount them from five different stations. The first three were easy enough (elephant lies down, we scramble aboard). The last ones though were the "do not try this at home" sorts. So of course we insisted on learning those. Sorry to report I didn't capture being catapulted by SuBong's (that was my guy) rear left leg onto his butt or thrown up onto his neck by his trunk. There were a lot of professional Mahouts involved in spotting (shoving) me for those two maneuvers. Probably best kept as memories of accomplishment than visual documents.

First they give you a Mahout uniform. Built for comfort, not for flattery. Clearly.
This little guy was high up in the forest where we had pad thai and chicken rice made in banana leaves. YUM. He is four days old. Mom was a bit protective.

We took them deep into the forest where there was a mud pit that they loved bathing in. My elephant would happily rub itself against MarieLouise's while the Mahouts flung buckets of warm mud at them. Kind of like marriage really.
Watch me put my arm in this elephant's mouth.


It was a long, tiring, dirty day. I skipped dinner and went straight to the closest spa.

Thursday, October 8, 2009

One night in Bangkok and a couple in Laos

Would you believe, I actually did make it to the sunrise ritual where the monks recieve food offerings this morning. Can't say that I was particularly spiritually moved by it all though. Lao children average 3 years of school, so a boy's best shot at an education is being turned over to the care (and feeding, to be pragmatic) of a monestary.

Much like we experienced in India, any hired drive seems to involve many stops at specific venues that sell food and/or souveners. Gives you a chance to take photos.

Sunset from my room in Vangleng.

There is a seriousness about the Loatians. They seem to enjoy being parents though - lots of playing with kids.

Getting impossible to find a temple you can light up at these days. Go figure.


Kids love to sign "peace" and get their photo taken. Note the koala shirt. I don't know what this sign means...."You look American, do you have any guns?" perhaps.

I loves me the welders.

Oh, and this. This still confuses me. On a number of levels.
Overall, the trip is very much what I expected, both in terms of the positives and negatives. Of course I’m deeply moved by the people of Thailand and Laos. The food is unbelievably good, though I’ve eaten quite a few bugs. Just today I’ve fished a few dozen ants out of my tea and soup. The cockroaches, bedbugs, lizards and leeches are actually more manageable than I would have thought. Would have thought I would just come completely unglued with each one, but still holding it together….building character. The landscapes, temples, architecture and climate are all fabulous.

More than anything, I’m loving the logistics of traveling with one of these low-budget tours. We get to see a lot of different areas, have a guide who bears the brunt of all the major decisions and solves all the big problems, and I had to do almost no prior planning. I hadn’t expected however, that 10 out of the 12 people in my group would have already been travelling together as a group through Vietnam for last few months and have made quite a close family to break into. The average age is also about 25, so staying out late, tickle fights and drama abound.

Do you ever wonder what you would do differently if you got to go back to high school?

Friday, October 2, 2009

Wat? Women have to kneel to give alms?

So I'm not packed. I'm packing mentally. What I'm really doing is watching a lot of Youtube videos on the places I'm going and thinking about what to bring. Or not bring, since I can only take 10 kilograms. I've eaten snacks that weigh more than 10 kilograms, I'm certain. And so much for thinking of Asia as an adventurous fat camp... everything I watch refers to all the amazing food everywhere I'm going.

In Laos, I'll go to Luang Prabang, which is known for all of its temples, called wats. One of the rich cultural experiences there involves getting up before sunrise to take food donations to the monks. They eat only one meal a day, primarily the rice they receive in alms during this dawn ceremony.

I'm thinking "sounds fun" and remember that I need to pack a tea-length skirt. Nothing above the knee for wat visiting. I'm down with the whole women's travel skirt situation - fine. They're cool and comfy and look better than shorts anyway. Because I lost weight and don't work out enough, I have the thighs of a flying squirrel. Overshare.

But then I hear that, if I want to participate in the alms offering, as a woman, I'll need to kneel. Men are welcome to stand and greet the monks at eye level.

Now we all know that I'm lazy enough that if I do manage to drag-ass out to the ceremony before dawn, I'm certainly going to be in a relaxed / reclined / at-minimum seated position. It's not like watching Aussie's monks walking by. It's chill.

If I'd had a job in the last year and actually made the money to buy the rice to offer to the monks, I would be riddled with riotous indignation over this patriarchy. Misogyny.

Though I am constantly humbled by how fortunate I am in so many ways. Kneeling is certainly a physical manifestation of gratitude. Gak. What to do.

I should probably just start packing.

Robots with lasers

Here's my first attempt to email a picture from my phone camera. Success!

This is a sign on the door of the lab next to my building at work. It reads "Robots & lasers operate in this laboratory". I could see something like "Danger: lasers. Caution: Robots." But "Warning: Robots and lasers"? Is it the combination that's the problem? Tom