Saturday, December 30, 2006

On being home

Finally I'm home, or the closest thing there is for me, and that's at Mom and Dad's in Tucson, the very house that I grew up in. No matter how far I wander, this will always be home and it will always be the place that I miss with the people I love.

View of the Catalina mountains from our back yard. Yes, that's snow on them.

But I return to a world in which I feel like more of an oddball than I think I am.
  • I don't own a cellphone.
  • I don't know how to send a text message.
  • The idea of gas costing more than $2 a gallon is simply shocking.
  • I keep turning on the windshield wipers when I want to signal a turn (last place I drove was Australia, where the controls are opposite).
  • I've never done a Sudoku and I don't know how to pronounce it.
  • My Dad had to explain to me what the Michael Richards outburst was all about.
  • I thought my sister was kidding when she said there was another Rocky movie out.

What does this mean? Not much really, just that I'm a communications neanderthal, it's been a while since I've driven here, and I'm culturally behind on a few things. I don't think it takes too long to slide back into reality as I used to know it, but sometimes, the more I see of everyday life here, the less I'm inclined to rejoin the masses. Is it just me or is it really, really annoying to have to listen to someone else's cellphone conversation at the checkout line?

But it's still home and seeing your family again after being away for 11 months is priceless. Really I'm more like your typical American 40-something adult than you might think...afterall, I'm back living with Mom and Dad!

View from the driveway - last night's sunset over the Tucson mountains.

Thursday, December 21, 2006

I'llll be hooome for Christmas...

It's been amusing to me to see so many signs of Christmas here in Thailand, a country that is 95% Buddhist and 4% Muslim. Back in Bangkok now, it's amazing to see the over-the-top holiday decorations in weird juxtapositions with every day Thai stuff.

There was a band just to the right banging out AC/DC's Highway to Hell when we took this photo.

Everywhere you look, there are gaudy Christmas trees decked out with color coordinated lights and, of all things, giant credit cards or simply the Star of Visa.

Of course, this just confirms for me that the idea of Christmas is not a religious celebration for the Thai people for the birth of Christ, but a brilliant retail phenomenon that they've discovered which will make people buy more, more! Oh wait, that's just like back home.

Anyway in the end, we were delighted to find that we couldn't really lose our way back to the ice too badly from Bangkok.

And yes, I'll indeed be home for Christmas. I leave Bangkok the morning of Dec 24, arrive at LAX the morning of Dec 24 (a very long day) and if all goes well, I'll be back in Tucson in time for lunch. Brien is going home to Oregon/Idaho and Renee is boldly pressing on to India then Europe.

Hope you've enjoyed the travel blog. I'll keep it going from Tucson and then I deploy back to South Pole on Jan 18 so as always, stay tuned.

Merry Christmas, Happy Hanukkah and a smashing Happy New Year to everyone!

Sunday, December 17, 2006

Life is a beach

We're spending a total of nine days on the island of Koh Lanta, getting our fill of beaches, snorkling, diving, eating and just plain relaxing.

A pleasant little place, Kantiang Bay was a wonderful discovery for us. Here we found a laid back beach bungalow resort without the crowds of other tourist destinations in Thailand (ours is in the center of the photo, hidden among the trees on the beach). We're at peace with the sand and mosquitoes and are quite happy spending hours reading on the beach and plunging into the warm waters when we get too hot.

It also has the coolest bar, the Why Not Bar.

It's run by a bunch of Thai guys who seem to have been transported back from the 60s. One young kid does an amazing fire show every night - not only is he spectacularly good, he's only been doing it for 5 months.

The staff is mostly long haired and tattooed and exude an exotic kind of testosterone that's hard to describe. One guy who looks like a Thai Jimi Hendrix walks around playing the tamborine when he's not serving up drinks.

Here's a sight that you won't see everyday, the island way to gas up your vehicle:

And more signs with creative English:

And one last shot - cheers from the island!

Wednesday, December 13, 2006

The Art of Unemployment

I thought I'd post some more miscellaneous shots from our travels in Thailand, just to give you an idea of how we've been enjoying our unemployment...

The day after Renee's birthday, we celebrated Michael's birthday (and hers too again) by taking a dinner cruise on the river Chao Phraya, that runs through Bangkok. It was total touristy schlock but we have to give in sometimes.

Our table was next to the Thai dancers who were putting on makeup, costumes and doing their hair. It was almost more entertaining watching them transform themselves into stunningly beautiful goddesses than the actual show.

And in the end, they recruited Renee into joining them for a traditional dance.

And what's a visit to Bangkok without a visit to the King's Grand Palace? Of course I took plenty of photos of gilded roofs and statues and murals and this pose that must be in every visitor's photo collection.

But how many people bother capturing the finer details of palace etiquette?

I think that last little image means don't wash your baby's butt in the sink, but I'm really not sure.

And the best taxi ride we had was in the Hello Kitty taxi which was hot pink on the outside and decked out with every piece of Kitty paraphernalia ever made.

Currently we're on island time and finishing up the trip by chilling out on Koh Lanta, an island in southern Thailand that is predominantly Muslim. Although it was hit by the tsunami with a 2 meter wave of water, there's virtually no evidence of any damage that we can see and it's just a gorgeous place with beaches, jungles, resorts and bungalows and some of the best pina coladas we've had in Thailand (and we've tried a few). We are no longer pale from the polar winter and are enjoying fresh fruit, long showers and endless heat and humidity. Unemployment isn't too terribly bad...for a short while, anyway.

Friday, December 08, 2006

Elephant Nature Park

Elephants have been an integral part of Thai culture for centuries. Unfortunately, there are few left in the wild and most of the remaining elephants were domesticated for use by humans, mostly laboring in logging camps. When logging was banned in Thailand in 1989, many elephants were out of jobs but with tourists soon filling the void, owners and mahouts (elephant handlers) found a lucrative market in selling elephant rides and shows or parading them on the streets of Bangkok selling bananas to tourists to feed to the cute elephants.

Most westerners and Thai's don't know that the training process to get the elephant to pull a log or dance or "play music" or some other ridiculously un-elephant activity involves a long period of incomprehensibly cruel torture and abuse. How else can they get the animal to "paint" a picture?

A refuge was set up in 1995 in northern Thailand, about an hour from Chiang Mai. Elephant Nature Park started out with one injured elephant , then grew one by one and today has 28 elephants. All of them have been rescued from logging camps, tourist shows and rides and many of them had been maimed by their owners or through their work.

One elephant was blinded in both eyes by her owner as punishment. Another had both rear legs broken by a falling log, then was made to continue working so that his legs healed crippled. Another had part of her foot blown off from stepping on a land mine. Another had his tusk sawed off by a chain saw. So many sad stories for these beautiful animals.

We wanted to experience elephants on this trip to Thailand and found the Elephant Nature Park online. We just came back from 3 incredible days learning about them through feeding, bathing, walking them and just watching their antics for hours of entertainment.

Feeding time!

Elephant Nature Park is located in a picturesque valley along a river where they are taken to bathe twice a day. We humans pay big bucks for spa treatments like this!

The setting is remote but we weren't roughing it too badly. Here's the view from our room, in a tree house-like complex:

And the ice cream man comes every afternoon!

One night, we went to an even more remote place, Elephant Haven, the original site for the park and a mountain retreat where they're let loose and allowed to forage freely in the jungle overnight. We had to cross a river by bamboo raft then hike another hour or so to get to the camp.

There was no electricity, only fire and candles to light our way at night.

The mahouts making toast for breakfast.

The elephants loved the opportunity to run free and we loved the chance to get more "natural".

Most of that is NOT tan!

The next morning, we had to go searching for the elephants then walk them back to the park.

Then it was time for us to go back to civilization. There's no doubt that we all feel changed for the experience and will feel only sadness when we see travel agents selling elephant treks or rides to thousands of tourists every year. I hope that the Elephant Nature Foundation can change the paradigm for human interactions with these gentle creatures and that more and more tourists will find more joy washing an elephant in a river than riding atop its back.