Saturday, March 29, 2014

Oh Brave New World. With Fingerprints.

I all on Hong Kong. It is the tablet center of the world and everyone, regardless of economic level, was chatting, snapping, and cavorting with their iPads, Galaxies, and other toys. Bangkok was almost as bad; I was lucky. It wasn't until I reached Korat that I needed to buy a new battery for my Nokia (circa 2008).

In the Northeast people are less affluent and more frugal. Nobody laughed or jeered at the sight of my  Stone Age mobile and I was grateful. But the weight of the bag I carried throughout my journey became a chore. In it was my netbook, my camera, a notebook, a newspaper, books, and magazines. It weighed a lot.

To make things worse, the battery case on my netbook was cracked and broken. Its battery life was short so I also carried its power cord for electric outlets. When I asked where I might find a replacement, that was when I faced public ridicule. Tablets had replaced my netbook, and Microsoft was retiring XP.

On my flight back to the states, I made a rapid dash through Incheon to catch my connecting flight, carrying my satchel of everything I needed for a trans-Pacific flight. As soon as I was functional at the end of my trip home, I took a baby step into the 21st century. I bought an iPad mini.

It is far from love at first sight. There's a learning curve involved and I'm slow at these things. It is however disgustingly convenient. I use it for my initial email check over morning coffee and I just caught up with the Bangkok Post. I was told I can edit PDFs on it and photos look marvelous on its screen. I know full well it's a gateway drug; I'm entertaining thoughts of making my next computer a Mac. And I'm writing this on my mini, thinking how much easier it might be to use a real iPad.

Now if Apple would only do something about the way the screen attracts fingerprints...

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Death Buses: Extreme Travel in Thailand

I didn't want to leave Nakhon Phanom for Bangkok, but decided since I had to do it, I'd take a VIP bus back to the capitol, with a window seat and a daytime departure so I could see the area that I love right up until I entered the central plains. The cost was almost as much as a budget air ticket but the weight of my bag, bulging with small presents and dirty clothes, would change that equation--plus my trip in general was cramming me into far too many economy plane seats.

At the bus station, I learned that the VIP buses left only at night. "But," the clerk told me, "there is an ordinary bus to Bangkok that leaves in the morning."

I've done inter-city travel on ordinary buses before, but never a long-distance trip. "Is there air conditioning?"

"Oh, yes," the clerk assured me, "but no bathroom."

"So I'm going to be on a bus for twelve hours with no bathroom?"

"Yes, but it makes many stops along the way."

On the morning of my departure, I looked for the small orange bus that I thought would take me through northeastern Thailand but was directed to a large double-decker where I was on the upper level. There had been many highway tragedies on double-decker buses but I consoled myself with the memory that my bus trips from neighboring Mukdahan to Bangkok had gone through terrain that was unmenacingly flat. As long as the driver was well rested, we should have a fighting chance for a placid, uneventful ride.

Which we did, until we passed Udon Thani--then the bus began to negotiate dramatic curves that snaked unmistakably upward. The road was a simple and narrow country lane and when we passed slower vehicles, speeding into the area for oncoming traffic, the process was a diverting one. The curves became more frequent as the climb went higher and through the roadside greenery I had a spectacular view onto the countryside below. This wasn't what I'd bargained for and as we passed temples, I swiftly asked every Buddha I could see to ensure that our brakes didn't fail and that no curves were taken in a precipitous manner. The national park on a small mountain that we traveled through was an attractive one but all that I paid attention to were the Buddhas.

The trip was actually more comfortable than many VIP buses had given me in the past. There was no inedible "free" food handed out by an attendant, the TV screens remained miraculously silent for the entire journey, and the stops provided the necessary bathroom breaks with a chance to buy water and snacks. Best of all, our driver erred on the side of caution, for which I was profoundly grateful. There was no time that  the bus tilted ominously as it rounded a corner. I'd experienced that on other trips and never wanted to repeat that sensation again.

In the week before I left Bangkok, there was a horrific bus tragedy that killed children on a school trip from the northeast to the coast. Since I returned to the States, there have been at least two more. I'm willing to bet that these accidents all involved double-decker buses.

I'll travel in Thailand again but never on one of those buses. They're designed for within-city stop and go travel, not long journeys overland on country roads and certainly not for mountain roadtrips. Trains are slow and dirty but their safety record is far better than the more comfortable buses. I'll take that...I hope you will too.

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Small Familiar Pleasures

After being away for ten weeks, coming home to my apartment in Chinatown has its charms.

I'd forgotten the dazzling light that comes from having big windows at either end of my living room. When I first arrived on a cloudy Saturday afternoon, I felt like a mole who emerged into full sunshine. The brightness almost hurt my eyes.

For almost 70 mornings, I drank my first cups of coffee either sitting on my bed or on a straight chair. Although I propped myself against a pillow or two, it still lacked the luxurious comfort of drinking it while nestled into a couch. (Thank you, Ikea.)

Showers are invigorating and I was lucky to have hot water in every room I inhabited. However nothing matches the luxury and joy of a hot bath before bed. Beyond bliss, I tell you.

And when I leave my apartment, it's not unusual to run into friends on the street and stop for a quick chat. Seattle is still the sort of city where this happens often; in Hong Kong or Bangkok it's a minor miracle. After weeks of depending on Facebook for random encounters, the delight of real-time chats is nourishing.

I love to travel and hope to do much more of it, but in the end, the best part is coming home.

Monday, March 3, 2014

Stepping In, Stepping Out

I've lived a lot of my life on Soi Chokchai Ruammit. I've made good friends here, most of whom are now gone from this place. I fell in love here, I worked here, ate here, and at one point starved here when the baht plunged and the economy dissolved.

It's a place I lived in, thoroughly and wholeheartedly; it is not a place that is easy for me to visit. Bumping into memories at every little shophouse corner, it doesn't take long for me to think of getting an apartment or even a house and settling back into the newest version of this small world.

There are people I remember and who still remember me. Like any small town, the inhabitants have become interknit and I am a tiny, idiosyncratic thread in that fabric.

Tonight the friendliest songtao driver pulled over and invited me to sit with him in the cab of his pickup for the short jaunt to the other end of the road. We passed a little dark shop where I used to buy my drinking water in huge bottles; a man who is the thinnest guy in the world and has lived across from my latest dwelling place for years was inflicting Thai boxing kicks on a man who works in a repair shop. They both looked deadly serious.

The sun was setting bright red at the end of the soi when I picked up my newly repaired handbag that had lost its stitching in a crucial place two weeks after I'd bought it. "No charge," the shop owner said, even though he had to rush the repair much more quickly than he wanted to. He's new to Chokchai Ruammit. His shop has huge glass windows filled with leather handbags in brilliant colors. It's the only pretty storefront in the neighborhood.

I stopped at the Tesco Lotus opposite the small street where I've lived off and on for years--Maew Daeng--Red Cat soi. On my last two trips I refused to walk down that lane--it's a minefield of memory. But I forgot how dangerous revisiting a small supermarket can be. This is where I bought catfood for Smeegle, where I picked up tonic water for cocktail hour on the roof with my brother Rod, where I spent a lot of time since it first opened during my last Thai incarnation. As I grabbed a beer and some corn chips, my life folded in on itself and I was ready to walk down Maew Daeng to the house where Smeegle and Rod and I used to live.

I got in another songtao instead and saw familiar faces--the grandfather who owns a little hardware store whose grandson is school age by now, the man whose wife has always been so sweet when I've gone to her store for necessities of life like brooms and coffee cups, the stern soup sister who stopped frowning at me oh...ten years ago?

I made it back to my apartment before I began to cry, missing people I have loved, missing the kinder person I am when I live here, missing my life on a soi that just doesn't change. I really can't live here and there are things about it that make me scream silently when I come to visit, but it is the part of this country that has claimed me and I will always love it.