Monday, March 22, 2010

Solitary Confinement

It was silly of me to assume that to pay more meant to get more. On an island as unregulated as Sri Lanka, a tourist excursion can be arranged by anyone with a phone and a pen. Fortunately for Mariana and I, the owner of our hotel in Hikkaduwa Beach had both and was more than willing to help us plan our trip to the "tea country" of Sri Lanka. I mentioned earlier that "driving under the assumption" is extremely dangerous, but "purchasing under the assumption" can be equally so. That's how Mariana and I spent twice as much per day to get half as much as any good tourist should. Thus, ten minutes into an 8-hour drive on the first day of a four day tour, panick began to set in for a person with an uncanny ability to worry about everything and nothing simultaneously. Now I have had panick attacks before, some lasting longer than others, but this was certainly my first 96-hour experience. Having some time to reflect on my worries, I have narrowed down the root of my problems to the following possible causes:

1. The fact that the driver immediately expressed his concern over the moronic state of our itinerary.


2. The fact that I realized that I had just placed myself, my wife, and all of our luggage into a van driven by a complete stranger that was headed to an unknown, isolated section of a volatile country.


3. The fact that I could not even say hello in either of the two main languages spoken by locals.


4. The fact that we had 15 hours of driving along narrow passageways on steep mountainside to wind around for the next 3 days.


5. The fact that incessant traffic made 100 km destinations into a 5 hour journey.


6. The fact that political posters of individuals resembling Sri Lankan versions of Pablo Escobar were plasteredon everything from buildings to buses all along the roadways.


7. The fact that people were sleeping half-naked on the sides of the road using the flat curbs as pillows.


8. The fact that our driver told us stories of violence and death associated to the civil war that had just ended 18 months prior to our arrival.


9. The fact that we were the only guests staying at our first hotel.


10. The fact that my senses were being constantly invaded by excessive heat, body odor, and fart smell in a non-airconditioned bus.


11. The fact that I had 20+ mosquito bites covering my body in a country where dengue and malaria are common problems.


12. The fact that the only English speaking channel on the first television that I had seen in weeks was broadcasting a snowy version of The O'Reilly Factor.

*I can't say why for sure, but somewhere in the solitary confinement of my mind, something just did not feel right. Oh well...we ended up having alot of fun!*

Driving Under the Assumption

In the States, one of the most dangerous scenarios in life involves a person who is driving under the influence of drugs or alcohol. I have no doubt that DUIs occur just as frequently in Sri Lanka, but my main concern on the drive from the airport to Hikkaduwa Beach had nothing to do with mind altering substances. Rather, the heightened sense of fear and the tightening in my chest was the direct result of witnessing what I have dubbed "Driving Under the Assumption" or DUA. What is DUA, you say? Please allow me to explain by offering you a comparable example: "The Lane Change".

Changing lanes in Texas is simple for the most part. You check your mirrors, turn on your blinker, and slowly veer in the direction that you need to go until you are in your desired lane. In Sri Lanka, and most of the developing World for that matter, the lanes that dot the highways are really just seen as a mere "suggestion" or perhaps a highly subjective "interpretation" drawn on the road by some non-authoritative artist. There is only one true right-of-way for traffic and that is the desired direction of travel for each individual driver. Rear-view mirrors are purely aesthetic features that allow their owners to check their hair and teeth. Blinkers are utilized as a warning system that does not ask for permission, but rather makes a direct declaration of the inevitable. Horns are diverse and used often. The frequency of the honking typically depends on the amount of imminent danger at hand or the current mood of the driver. Therefore, as you can see, there really is no protocol when it comes to changing lanes in Sri Lanka, so the drivers just simply "assume" that the lane is open. This poses a problem on many levels, but perhaps the most troubling aspect lies in the ever so harrowing lane change that occurs on roads with only two lanes (i.e. 98% of the roads in Asia). For some reason, there is absolutely no fear of what I like to call "on-coming traffic". When playing "chicken" in Sri Lanka, there is a hierarchy of automobiles that is roughly based on sheer size and the level of driver insanity. Buses use a deadly combination of both to secure the role as "king of the road" as they carelessly slash around streets on suicide missions. Depending on your love of literature and your appreciation of analogies, I can say that the buses and drivers resemble either the "Knight Bus" from Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban or "Lenny" from Of Mice and Men or both (without the magical ability to avoid crashes or the genuine love of pets).

So as a visitor, you just sit in the back seat, stare at the seat belt dangling next to your head that NEVER works, and hold on tight as your driver passes car after car. There is someone coming directly towards you almost 75% of the time, which provides the uneasy tourist with a wreck-free survival rate of only 25%. Not very good odds by any means, but apparently the good citizens of Sri Lanka are compulsive gamblers when they get behind the wheel. The funny thing is that even though a large number of the population drives like certifiable maniacs, people act shocked and go absolutely BONKERS when they are actually involved in a wreck.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Just a Friendly Reminder...

...Euro-trash pick-up is every Thursday.

I Feel Like Such a Beach

I just spent the last 10 days of my life sitting on a scenic stretch of beach in southern Sri Lanka. Each morning's sunrise woke me to a world of relaxation and every sunset served as a natural exclamation point finishing another beautiful day of doing nothing in paradise. My time was mostly devoted to watching surfers and cricketers as I consumed copious amounts of rice, curry, and beer. Now don't get me wrong, decisions like whether to sit in a beach chair or lay in a bungalow had to be made and I did my best to carry out those tasks with supreme confidence and conviction. There were also times when I had to repeatedly turn down beach massages or shoo away the "hand-crafted" jewelry sales people, but all-in-all, life was good. By the way, I am convinced that there is a global ring of "hand-crafted" jewelry lords that manufacture loads of the same crap and conspire for them to be sold on every beach in the known World. I can only assume that they operate in a Mafia or Pyramid-scheme like fashion. Honestly, about the only constructive contribution that I made to society over the past week and a half was that I actually got out of the pool to pee for the first time in my life. This uncharacteristic action led me to ponder if this was a sign of maturity, a recognition of social awareness, or just simply the right thing to do.

Sunday, March 7, 2010

Could You Do Me a Favor and...

Welcome to the game "Could you do me a favor and..." (Asia Edition). The object of the game is to make a sentence using the phrase above and describe an event that could take place in Asia. I will start us off with some inspiring zingers and add to them from time to time, but I invite you the audience to add your own statements at will. Here we go...

1. Could you do me a favor and awkwardly stare at me in a seductive manner as you lay sprawled across the top of your motor scooter?

2. Could you do me a favor and casually lean on the ATM and talk loudly on your cell phone as I as I enter my SECRET pin code to withdraw money?

3. Could you do me a favor and kick that mangy dog on your way out of the kitchen to serve me my meal?

4. Could you do me a favor and add another pig intestine to the three that you have already diced up in to my soup?

5. Could you do me a favor and scream at me for no apparent reason?

6. Could you do me a favor and pass that truck full of propane tanks at the next blind turn around this mountain?

7. Could you do me a favor and physically irritate that family of wild monkeys gathered around me?

8. Could you do me a favor and sing karaoke in a booth by yourself, tape it, and then go home and play it for your family?

9. Could you do me a favor and ignore my clearly stated destination so that you can drop me off at a place that pays you a kick back?

10. Could you do me a favor and blatently stare at my wife's breasts as if I don't exist?


If you liked this game, then you will love our special "Euro-trash" edition with great statements like...

"Could you do me a favor and squeeze that hairy, smelly, 350 lb. Adonis of a body in to the tiniest speedo on Earth?"


"Could you do me a favor and chain-smoke cigarettes right next to me as I try to eat my dinner?"


"Could you do me a favor and travel all the way to Asia only to consume massive amounts of drugs and be absurdly obnoxious?

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

A Foreign Case of Nostalgia

Riding on the left side of the road in the passenger seat of a small Mazda truck that is not even available for purchase in the US is an odd locale in which to experience strong feelings of nostalgia. Mariana was crammed into the tiny back seat with Mae Od as I rode shotgun next to Pa Suti with my knees slammed against the glove compartment. I knew that we were heading into town, but our specific destination was still a mystery as usual. This tends to happen when you do not share a common language with your adopted family.

The small two lane roads lined with palm trees reminded of the Rio Grande Valley of my youth and Pa Suti’s extra cautious driving style was oddly similar to that of my Grandpa Seitz’s. Instead of farms dotted with citrus trees, the landscape was smothered with groves of rubber trees. We drove past truck upon truck filled with day laborers that strangely resembled the migrant workers who have longed served as the true foundation for the Valley’s economy. I asked Pa Suti where they were headed and he simply stated “rubber”. I later discovered that the small town known as Yan Ta Kaow was primarily made up of hard working, impoverished rubber harvesters who slave away on plantations for $1 to $2 a day.

Upon arrival in to town, Pa Suti slowly brought the truck to a halt and said “okay” pointing for me to open the door and get out. My slight hesitation prompted Mae Od to excitedly shout “Yan Ta Kaow Market!” The stares from the locals were immediate and obvious, but they held no sort of ill-will or mistrust. Rather, they were simply curious onlookers probably wondering how two farangs could get so lost that they would end up in Yan Ta Kaow. I remember as a child growing up that old women used to approach my sister and I in the supermarkets of Mission and McAllen to offer us a warm smile and a kind word in Spanish. I think they were blessings of some sort, but they may have simply been statements of welcome. These memories overcame me as I listened to small town Thai citizens murmur words about Mariana and I in an even stranger tongue. Some people were even brave enough to shout out what little English they knew, giggling while Mariana responded with a flawless “Sawasdee Ka” and a bow.

I soon found out that Pa Suti and Mae Od were extremely popular and they seemed to run into people they knew everywhere they went. As teachers in a small town, there was hardly anyone who hadn’t been touched in some positive way by the generosity of time and genuine concern that Mariana’s adopted parents provided for their students. Pa Suti never passed up a chance to sit and talk with people he ran into to offer sage words of advice or simply catch up. As the proud grandson of a valley doctor and a valley grocer, witnessing these sorts of continual socializing felt like coming home. In many ways, Pa Suti and Mae Od represented all that was good and wonderful about my grandparents. Additionally, Yan Ta Kaow could have easily been mistaken for Mission, McAllen, or any number of small towns located within the Rio Grande Valley. People from these towns are primarily blue collar, hard working individuals who hold men and women like my grandparents and adopted parents in a high regard. This could easily be because of their fairness or their generosity, but I personally believe that their respect existed because it was reciprocated. Every visit to Mission and McAllen was accompanied with social visits and invaluable lessons on how to treat people from all walks of life with gentle kindness and humility. Yan Ta Kaow was no different as I witnessed my adopted parents repeatedly speak to the “person” not the “occupation”. Social stratas do not exist for people like Pa Suti and Mae Od, nor did they play a role in the life of my grandparents. I must say that this is tremendously inspiring.

Oh…Nana Talk Thai, Nana Talk Thai Real Good

Mariana and I were able to make a much needed detour to visit her host family in Southern Thailand on our way to Malaysia. For the first time in our two months of travel, we were able to put down our own cameras and become the main attraction. Farang is a Thai word that translates to foreigner and you really only hear it upon entering a town that is not used to seeing them. Trang is one of those towns. Our host family picked us up at the airport which is slightly larger than Luang Prabang’s and took us almost directly to the school where Mariana taught two years ago. Mariana may take a back seat to my obnoxious ability to attract mostly negative attention back home, but here in Southern Thailand, I am the lame Robin to her whip ass Batman. The people here know her as NanAAA! and she is loved and revered by everyone who I have come across so far. Thailand is known as the Land of Smiles because it is filled with wonderfully friendly people, but honestly, no smile shines brighter than hers. She has an uncanny ability to attract complete strangers into her presence and make them feel as if they are old friends. People want to see her, meet her, and learn from her. We have been married for nearly seven years and we have known each other since we were 16, so I can completely understand and appreciate their infatuation. I have discovered that language is simply a vocal barrier that can easily be overcome by an honest display of emotion, and nobody pulls this off better than NanAAA!

Always Stirring, Always Smiley…

People in Thailand are generally accommodating and cheerful, but I may have met the happiest man in all of Thailand. Mariana and I obviously love to cook, so we jumped on the opportunity to take a Thai cooking class that prepared a number of traditional dishes using organically farmed ingredients. I assumed that the highlight of my experience would be the preparation of my all-time favorite (Pad See Ew), but boy was I wrong. We had the funniest, happiest, and as he put it, smiliest teaching Chef in the World. Aside from the incredibly fresh, homegrown ingredients that we were using to produce culinary masterpieces, our teacher emphasized that the key to creating any good meal was smiling. So now, when I am cooking in the privacy of my own kitchen, I will remember to “always be stirring and always be smiley”.

Honor Thy Ancestors

It’s not every day that you get to go to a sacred temple on the highest point in all of Thailand and receive blessings of good fortune from a Monk, but for some reason my mind was elsewhere. While Mariana and I were in Vietnam, we had become friends with a man from Thailand who was slightly younger than us. We had a number of good discussions and he informed us that he was engaged to be married soon to a young woman from Northern Thailand. After a few days of travel together, we politely exchanged emails and went our separate ways. Little did we know that he and his fiancĂ© would be picking us up at our guesthouse in Chiang Mai three weeks later to show us a more local experience. They were kind enough to treat us to a lunch that was composed entirely of authentic Northern Thai cuisine and then take us to a temple nestled in the mountains overlooking all of Chiang Mai. Once at the pinnacle of Wat Prathat Doi SuThep, our new friends invited us to join them in a traditional ritual that honors loved ones who have passed and allows the faithful to solicit the blessings of Buddha. Mariana and I have prayed for our ancestors and asked for blessings at many Buddhist temples all across Southeast Asia, but today was special because for the first time, we were practicing true ritual.

Mariana and I removed our shoes at the steps leading up to the temple and then made a humble offering to its proprietors at the entrance. In return, we were each given a flower, a candle, and three sticks of incense. At the highest point of the center of the temple there was a towering golden spire, which the prayerful must walk around three times as they reflect on their thoughts and desires. So we did and my thoughts were consumed by those who were close to me that I had lost in recent years: my Grandma Kuhl, my Grandma Seitz and my Grandpa Seitz who lived long and rich lives, my good friend William “JR” Berry who was taken from this World far too early, and a kind man named Scooter Robison who richly deserved more time with his family and friends. As I followed Mariana and our friends around the temple, I could not help but think about the sheer number of simultaneous thoughts and prayers that must have been filling the complex at that very moment. I thought about life and death, family and friends, and the delicate balance of joy and sorrow. I realized that the only fairness found in death is its certainty, which ironically causes an unequivocal amount of uncertainty for those who take time to dwell on its meaning. Days before my Grandmother Kuhl passed away, she wisely stated that her only concern with dying was that she had “never done this sort of thing before”. I prayed for the same graceful ability to surrender to powers beyond my control.

After walking around the spire three times, the prayerful quietly light their candle and incense and then place their flower in a water-filled vessel. The candles are placed in neat rows of simple metallic holders and left to burn. The incense is held above your head in a cleansing fashion as you kneel, prostrated before a sacred shrine and you begin to pray. Our friends requested blessings for their upcoming marriage, some students nearby were no doubt sincerely asking for help with their studies, and I was appealing to a higher power somewhere to sanctify my desire for my loved ones to rest peacefully. When the prayers are finished, each person places their three sticks of incense into a large vase filled with ash to burn and proceeds into the temple. Once inside the temple it is imperative that you remain lower than Buddha and any monks who may be inside. We were lucky today, because a monk was offering tidings of good fortune and prayerful blessings to those who wished to receive them. Not being one to turn down any opportunity to gain some GOOD Karma, I waited my turn to be blessed and sprinkled with purifying water. Bright white strands of string are then tied around your wrist, which are supposed to be worn for at least three days by its bearer. Call me superstitious, but I am going to wear mine until it falls off. Finally, to end our day at the temple, I left a prayer card at a sacred tree honoring the deceased for my Grandma Kuhl who passed away recently and is sorely missed.

I truthfully felt as though I was leaving hallowed ground as I placed my sandals back on my feet and headed back out into the hurried streets of Chiang Mai. Maybe it was because of the honorable Subjects of my thoughts that day, but for the first time in a long time, I felt as though my prayers were heard.