Tuesday, April 27, 2010

The Bug and Bathroom Experience

The Gibbon Experience was many things. Sweeping views of the rain forest that seemed never ending. Lightening storms that turned the whole world purple. Zip lines that stretched for miles 25 feet over the canopy. A hike that was by no means the easy hour that was promised. (Proving that, the world over, from Horst Klemm to the average Laotion villager, hikers are all evil lying scum). Winds so fierce that we twice had to evacuate -- zip lining blind out into the pitch black night and dodging falling tree limbs in a mad dash through the jungle. But as I sit down to recount our story of playing George of the Jungle for 2 days nothing comes alive on the paper save the stories of giant insects and questionable trips to the toilet. So here you will find no gibbons (we didn't find any in the jungle either, though we woke each morning to their ambulance-like singing) for which I am sorry but my muses lead me only towards potty humor (at least I'm not the only one -- see here for one of our treehouse-mates more poetic account of his own adventures in the jungle loo).

I have never been able to sleep through the night. No matter how tired I am, no matter how many drinks I refuse after 9pm, I will invariably wake up in the wee hours having to wee. When my bladder rudely interrupted the dream I was having about a ring that played music, the jungle world was pitch black and noisy. Insects buzzed around and threw themselves in fits against the protective sheet hung like armour around the mats and blankets that made up our bed. Something of considerable heft was wiggling around in the palm leaves of the treehouse roof. I did not want to get up and make the long climb down 2 staircases into the open air bathroom where hornets congregated like the toilet was their office water cooler. I squeezed my eyes back closed, I crossed my legs and thought sleepy thoughts. But my bladder would not quiet: "Time to pee, time to pee, TIME TO PEE!" Left with no choice other than getting up or wetting the sheets (which I would have more seriously considered if I didn't think the urine smell would attract even more beasties bed-side) I crawled out of our cocoon and into the night.

I had to turn on my headlamp lest the boogie man get me, or I kill myself on the stairs but each flash of the light was a beacon alerting every bug in the jungle to attack my head. So I'd turn it on, quickly scan the ground for slippery steps, egg-sized beetles and monster paws, then plunge myself back into complete darkness, shuffle forward a few steps and repeat. I eventually reached the bathroom only to live out childhood nightmare #437.

I scanned the room with my headlamp shining it from the curtain that we called a door to the railing that we pretended was a wall and off the edge into the abyss of the jungle beyond. I entered after the all clear (or the mostly clear -- there were moths and other unidentifiable swarming around my head almost immediately but none seemed bigger than a quarter so I hoped that I could take them.). Before hitting the off button on the light and squatting I quickly illuminated the toilet where some leaf or twig was floating around in the bowl. Two or three thin black strands seemed to be reaching up from the depths to curl over the porcelain lip -- certainly animated only by the lapping of the water. Or, perhaps, more certainly a living creature intent on biting my behind. As I stood there with my light aimed into the pot and an army of insect friends installing a velvet rope in front of the dance club that had just opened on my forehead, the leaves or twigs in the toilet quickly came to life. Flicking up out of the water and trying to cling to the rim were at least 3 antenna or legs belonging to either a mutant lobster lost miles and miles from the ocean or a spider the size of my fist.

A brief aside: For a few years when I was in elementary school my family took off the month of April to go camping on the beach in Baja, Mexico. One year when I was 7 or 8 we rolled home from vacation after dark and as we pulled into our driveway my mom joked that we'd been gone so long that the house would be full of cobwebs and that (most hilarious of all) there might even be cobwebs IN THE TOILET! What the fuck was wrong with this woman I'll never know, but I easily made the leap from cobwebs to spiders to my naked butt and have been a little pee-shy ever since. I always check the pot for 8 legged friends before sitting down. I can't quite tell you what awful thing a spider might do to my butt but I'm certain it won't be inviting me into its home for fly wings and lemonade. My white ass descending on the spider's web would certainly be seen as an invasion and the spider would, almost understandably, retaliate in whatever way a spider can.

Back to the treehouse. Thank god I had the paranoid good sense to check the toilet for arachnids but now that this nightmare had come true I certainly couldn't pee. And, according to my bladder, I certainly couldn't *not* pee. An impasse. But worry not! Your quick thinking intrepid heroine had a bucket and a plan. I stuck the flush bucket under the facet of the sink filling it to brimming while keeping my eye on Daddy Super Long Legs over there and then bravely leaned towards the pot and dumped all of the water, then filled the bucket a second time and doused again. The toilet had a hose that snaked its way 50 feet from the treehouse platform down into the jungle floor and I figured that if I could wash the spider at least to ground level and then pee as quickly as possible he couldn't climb back up the hose fast enough to launch a counter attack. The plan was executed perfectly and my still spider bite free toucas scurried back up the steps and practically dove into bed. Pulling the blankets tightly around my neck I lay my head back down and again listened to the chirp, rattle, peep of the forest -- this time with the assurance that I was safe in my own burrow until morning.

At dawn, after an unsuccessful Gibbon tracking hike through a jungle filled with mist and a breakfast experiment of tomato omelet and sticky rice (marginally successful), I sat perched on the edge of our treehouse with a mug of bitter over-steeped tea. My gazing out over the canopy was interrupted by a tickling on my right foot which I reached down to scratch as I slowly pulled my gaze from the distracting beauty of the forest -- so my eyes and my fingers met their nightmare together. Perched on the arch of my foot just right of center where my white flip flop tan line extends over the top of a juicy green vein a blob of gray snot the size of a lima bean was perched. Oh, but it was worse then it sounds because even more terrifying than the thought that someone had shot a huge booger onto my foot was the reality that a leech was clamped into my bloodline sucking away. My mug of tea crashed onto the floor and of course I screamed as I performed the most violent hokey pokey with my foot, managing to successfully dislodge Nature's Vampire. A river of bright red blood poured from my vein as Geoff and my treemates danced around me looking for the evil leech and eventually forcing his blood fattened body through a seam between two of the floorboards. For the duration of our trip I couldn't walk more than 25 feet without pausing for a thorough leach check.

Night two in the jungle and again I'm awakened by the call of nature (and also, again, surrounded by the many calls of actual nature). This is surprising as we spent day two hiking up hills that no human should ascend and zipping across the jungle at speeds previously known only to gibbons and NASCAR drivers. I admired brown and white butterflies too big for jam jars proving that not all gigantic insects are evil. I should be too tired to pee. As I lie in bed, willing my bladder to shut the fuck up I could only think that last night's midnight jaunt into hell's bathroom was horribly dangerous and ill advised. The number of ways I could have died (not to mention accidentally eaten a bug) were myriad. Never mind the aquatic spider attack -- I could have stepped on a poisonous snake, I could have been attacked by Rodents of Unusual Size, I could have startled by a moth, slipped on a damp board and fell over the side of the treehouse! I cursed my bladder over and over again but as usual mentally willing oneself to an empty bladder was wholly ineffective. I cannot blame PMS or mommy brain or any of the other easy excuses for the following embarrassing situation -- perhaps it was the bit of sleep still clinging to my mind but most likely I'm just a much much bigger baby then I'd like to admit. As I sat up in our bed mulling over my options (1. Use the cup we brought up to brush our teeth as a makeshift upstairs toilet, 2. Get up, make it half way down the stairs, be attacked by some unknown creature and die, 3. Will myself not to pee and eventually lose control and turn our boudoir into a makeshift diaper) I began... to cry. I KNOW. At this Geoff woke up and was thankfully too annoyed to actively mock me. I couldn't will myself to rise and face the haunted treehouse alone and so eventually Geoff was forced to slip onto his white horse and escort his princess to the loo. Oh romance, will you ever die?

So, again, I lived. Despite the obvious threat of death I cannot recommend The Gibbon Experience enough. I have never felt smaller, or more alone that I did huddled in the copula of the treehouse surrounded by creepy crawlies and trees the size of skyscrapers. I have never felt adrenaline pump through my veins or stared in awe as acutely as I did soaring between treehouses on a metal cable high above the jungle. I have never known love as big as a man willing to rise from bed, brave a world of dangerous beasties and escort me to the potty.

(more stunning pictures here)

Friday, April 16, 2010

If You're not Soaking Wet, You're Full of Sin

One of the few specific plans made before leaving the USA was to attend the Thai New Year festival in Chiang Mai. For Songkran people traditionally visit family, visit the Buddha, and ask for blessings; in actuality they spend most of the holiday week pouring buckets of water over the heads of westerners and (despite the many "Alcohol Free Festival!" signs threatening jail time) drinking. I'm not usually a big party in the streets kind of girl but I *AM* a water fight kind of girl. The ritual shower is supposed to remove all bad karma and after 3 days of soaking wet shorts and prune-y palms, my soul must be spotless for the first time since baptism.

The festival is technically only 3 days long but the water seems to start flowing in Chiang Rai and Chiang Mai at least 3 days early, presumably so the natives could warm up their bucket throwing arm for challenging maneuvers like the "hooking water into the back of a passing pickup truck" or the "dousing to the face of a speeding motorbike driver." By the festival's official start on Monday everyone seemed to be in good form.

We arrived in Chiang Mai via a tuktuk that slowed to honk at each gaggle of Thai teens as if to say "Hey guys, Whities in the back! Get out the garden hose!" Our wet ride ended at the main gate into the old city of Chiang Mai leaving us to walk the water gauntlet to our guesthouse with our packs on our backs. Surprisingly, no one splashed us -- we must have oozed too much pathos.

On our first full day in town we decided to walk the around the entire Chiang Mai moat, which is lined on both sides with battalions of armed revelers. Starting near our guesthouse we picked up a couple of mini super soakers (so maybe just soakers?) to defend ourselves. Getting doused only really hurts for the first few bucketfulls -- after that, wet is wet and you can get no wetter. You can, however, get colder. The most ruthless hooligans fill their buckets with ice water so despite the 100 degree heat I believe I have frost bite of the backside. I also did spot one 5 year old ragamuffin perched against a tree, pants down, peeing in his bucket -- a scary prospect that I decided to believe was isolated strictly to this specific little devil.

Throwing buckets of water on girls is clearly the main form of flirting in Thailand. If you like a girl you go down to the river and fill a colorful plastic bucket with murky water and then use all of your upper body strength to propel a 90mph flying puddle in the direction of your crush's ass. My own ass has been blessed so many times that certainly it has no sin left on it and I may be married to 5 or 12 Thai men, it's hard to keep track.

It's difficult to articulate the insanity of this event, and it's hardly captured on film -- we would have better pictures but the streets seemed like a camera deathwish. I walked whole blocks completely blind, taking bucket after bucket to the face. Traffic stands still, the road begins to blend with the river, there's dancing and screaming girls and stand after stand of steamed buns, grilled corn, fried sausages and Chang beer. The lady boys come out in full makeup and heels soaking wet and looking more fabulous then the driest beauty queen. The festival really is embraced by all -- if only because there is no chance of going anywhere in town without your head being introduced to a waterfall. Even the Midwestern Mormon missionaries got involved, standing on the edge of the river in their dress shirt and tie bailing water onto the heads of Buddhists and probably calling it a Baptism. Most. Successful. Mission. EVER! It's loud and chaotic but all in good fun -- I don't think I looked up from a single dousing to see anything other than a grinning face.

There is one ugly side of Songkran: White on white crime. While the Thais are all about soaking with a smile, the trudge through backpacker-ville is a more violent affair. More high propulsion water guns, fewer buckets. More evil cackles, fewer slightly self conscious giggles. It might just be western culture -- Geoff and I joked that should this festival ever cross the globe and resurface in the USA it would take exactly 2 hours before someone (probably my brother) had hooked up a diesel engine to a hose and went all Water Festival X-Games. It might also be that I can hardly blame the locals for relishing in an opportunity for just a little payback against the tourists that seem to own many of their streets for the rest of the year. But what excuse do the whities have for pointing a stream of ice cold right in my eye?

This obviously is not how things have always been. Back in the day the water was sprinkled lightly from a little silver bowl. There were no water guns, no break dancing in the street, no pickup trucks full of kids. I'm sure many a Thai grandma can't stop complaining about how the kids have taken the Buddha out of Songkran. But isn't this the same Buddah who adores alters full of beer and oreos? The same Buddha who ate so many servings of curry that his belly overflows his loin cloth? I can't imagine he'd be completely opposed to the revelry. But I'm an atheist, you can't go by me.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

50 Ways to Die in 'Nam

Shortly before we left on our South East Asia Adventure my dad remarked that it was difficult for him to relate to our plans since he "spent most of my 20s trying to avoid an all expense paid trip to South East Asia." Dad was afraid of meeting his maker in Vietnam and that's understandable because even without a war raging this country is a danger zone. I know that I have, perhaps, a lower bar than most for declaring my eminent demise (see: here, here...) but in just 2 days on Cat Ba island I almost died 10-400 times.

The problem can't be just inside my head, you must agree
This place is cursed as you will quickly see
You should stop reading now if you are my mom
There must be fifty ways to die in 'Nam

Cat Ba is located in northern Vietnam at the south end of Halong Bay. We visited in the lowest of low season when the bay was misty and the water cold and the hotel rooms with a balcony facing the sea were only $6 (which got you not only a bed and a shower but, inexplicitly, also a huge poster of a naked lady!). Most of our first full day in town was spent cruising around Halong Bay oohing and awwing at the limestone islands, and while I'm sure we could have fallen overboard and drown (esp after the lunch time beers) all felt fairly safe until we arrived at our last stop on Monkey Island.

When we wondered off of the boat and there were 5 primates on the beach surrounded by 10 or so people from another tour. The monkeys were rolling around in the sand and scurrying about which was 100% cute until we discovered that someone had given the smallest monkey some beer, then suddenly it was 90% sad and only about 10% hilarious. It soon became 30% sad, 5% hilarious and 65% life threatening when two monkeys suddenly charged Geoff grabbing him around the ankles and baring their teeth as he tried to kick them off while running towards the surf... Avoid the drunk primate, Kate...Thankfully, the monkeys seemed adverse to swimming in the chilly water (or maybe they just smartly wanted to avoid the beach ball sized jellyfish that patrol the bay... Don't get stung by a jelly, Kelly).

We started out our second day on Cat Ba island with bike rentals -- the national park where they keep the supposedly adorable ginger haired langers was only 12 or 18 kilometers away (depending on your source) which (mostly because I forgot how to convert miles to kilometers) sort of sounding like a distance that I could bike. Barely out of town my bike started making a weird clicking noise which was the perfect excuse to dismount and walk up the first punishing cliff... Could be a heart attack, Jack... The hills did not quit, 6% grade, 9%... and I was reduced over and over again walking the bike. Thank god Geoff and the new friends we had hooked up with were also huge wimps because if I'd had to watch Lance Armstrong breeze up and down the hills urging me to live strong I'd probably be rotting in a Vietnamese prison finding out if communists are pro death penalty (You could get the chair, Blair).

The national park is lush and misty and the steps up the hillside are covered in a slick coating of mud... Try not to slip and fall, Paul...It would be beautiful if I could spare any time from my "oh god the bees are going to eat me" dance. I have never been stung by a bee due primarily to a strict implementation of the brilliant "when you see a be run away" plan. But I can't run up or down or into the forest without risking a slip slide off of the mountain top so instead I stomp my feet and spin around and say things like "Oh god Geoff! They're coming for me!" Our new friends totally thought I was the coolest girl ever. As I gingerly climb hill number 4027 which involves a rusted out ladder precariously balanced over a sea of jagged boulders a pair of Aussie girls are descending. They mention that the top is not far off, that the view is fabulous and that, golly gee, the bees are in no way swarming like everyone said they would be. OH. MY. GOD...Just avoid the bee swarm, Norm...

The top of the mountain is indeed breathtaking and capped with a rickety set of stairs climbing even higher into the atmosphere. The copula at the tippy top is all cracked boards and rusted metal but my god the view was somehow enough to distract me from peeing my pants (but not enough to keep the "I am about to fall through the floor and into the forest" look out of my pictures.). ... Don't fall to your death, Beth....

Down we climb. Back to the bikes and a new route that the park ranger swears is all flat and easy. Liar Liar Liar. The buses squeak by us forcing me to hug my bike up against the edge of each limestone cliff... Don't get run over, Grover... My legs, oh my legs. I start to wonder what will happen if I physically cannot continue to propel my body over the hills. Will I sleep here on the gravel? Will one of these large construction trucks pick me up? Will Geoff be able to carry me and my bike on his back while peddling?

Somehow I make it back to town sore but alive and after much beer drinking and a $3 massage I head to bed hopeful that my aching muscles won't render me paralyzed come morning.

If I'm lucky I won't die in my sleep tonight
And I hope in the morning my legs will work alright
And then I passed out and I thought, as usual I was right
There must be fifty ways to die in 'Nam
Fifty ways to die in 'Nam

Thursday, April 01, 2010

Cinderella Goes to Vietnam

Like all women, I sort of believe that if I could just find the right dress the boy would fall in love with me, I'd be crowned queen, and everyone I went to junior high with would be forced to sign an affidavit affirming that, despite what they may have said in 1991, I am actually very very cute. So when I found out that in Vietnam custom tailored clothing was as pleantiful as noodles in my soup, as four year old girls selling ugly soviener fans, as plastic bags floating like sad jellyfish in the Mekong River, I was thrilled for 30 seconds before I became terrified. What no one ever tells Cinderella is that no amount of tulle will make her thighs smaller. And Cindy is never expected to design her own dress -- the birds do all of the hard work!

Of course, I arrived in Hoi An with a plan. While I'd googled my netbook to death looking for advice on tailors and fantasized for weeks about the outfits I'd create what I actually really needed was a new suit. I figured the most practical thing to do was to have something made at a couple of different tailors and pick the one I liked best to help me suit up. Hoi An has (for once I am not exagerating) over 200 tailor shops and they mostly seem like duplicates of each other with the same double breasted jackets, flowy sundresses and business trousers hanging in the entry way. There are a couple of higher end places that are working harder than most to cater to Western tastes with uniformed staff and free bottles of water. This forced me to struggle over the battle of best price vs. possibly better quality. The fancy pants store was charging $45 for a pair of fancy pants and $15-$50 for a dress shirt -- basically JCrew sale prices. The smaller shop with just the owner hanging around in jeans to serve you charged $25 for trousers and $10 for shirts -- not quite yard sale cheap but a reasonable improvement. Ordering pants and shirts was fairly simple -- I started with what they had hanging in the windows and modified to match the vision of the Bannana Republic Martin Fit pants that make my thighs seem less thunderous than usual. Happily, save the very cute custom tag and buttons, the cheapie prototype pants are just as good as the fancies and I place my order for pinstripes at $75 cheaper than expected.

It's after the practical shopping is done that things fall apart. This shopping is fun and I love clothing; so why not get some dresses? Some shirts? Some casual tops? Do I need a sequined formal gown with a mile long train? Cause they have those! ROYAL BALL HERE I COME! I suppose I didn't really need anything other than a suit, but the thing is -- I have not been shopping in over 2 months. This is probably the longest I've gone without a new shirt since high school when the mall was a 4 hour drive. Add to this the fact that I have worn the same shoes everyday since February 8th. Add to that the fact that in Vietnam I am a millionaire and you have the recipe for my new wardrobe.

If only I had even a smidge of Project Runway in my DNA (or magical little birdies in my hotel room) things might have been easier. But instead I stand in front of bolts of beautiful fabric completely perplexed. How can I look at 65 pages of dreams and dollars and diagrams and see a technological wonder but be unable to translate yards of silk into anything more complicated than a table cloth?

Fashion is too much like dancing. One minute you're smiling at the mirror or in the arms of the prince shaking whatever you've decided might be your groove thing; the next you're wondering -- Why are my hands in the air? Why does this neckline have five layers of ruffles? Why has my foot been taken over by epyleptic seizers? Why does this dress have a huge bow over my butt? When you think things through you start to worry that you look ridiculous. And you DO! We all look ridiculous constantly -- the only reasonable outfit is brown sweats and a baggy tshirt but nobody (save the occasional C# programmer) would ever actually wear such a thing.

As I try to design casual seperates the thoughts that fly through my head are suddenly imbicile -- "I LIKE DRESSES!" "RED IS A NICE COLOR!" There are a lot of red dresses in the world and the tailor wants more from me than "can you make me look pretty?" What I would have given for one of the hundreds of JCrew catalouges that are right now overflowing the basket where my neighbor is trying desperately to stuff all of my mail. As I try to mentally construct a dress that is pretty but interesting, unique but likely to look good on my bottom heavy hourglass the tailor hovers over me. "They are very nice here," she says, holding a tape measure around my boobs. She is the third Hoi An tailor to comment on my very western breasts which almost makes up for the free flowing comments about how enormous my thighs. With all the pressure to make myself into Cinderella and no Fairy Godmother in sight I'll take whatever compliments I can get.

Despite the trepidation over fashion design I still get completely out of control.

For roughly $325 I bought:

  • 2 pairs of dress pants
  • 1 3 piece suit
  • 3 button down shirts
  • 4 dresses
  • 2 pairs of shoes

The speed that the tailors in this town work is a project management dream. An order for a suit placed at 7pm results in a fitting at 3pm the next day. I'm starting to doubt The Mythical Man Month -- if you need a baby in 4 weeks you should at least look into getting 9 Vietnamease tailors to attempt to put one together (but beware, rush order will incure additional fees and at the last minute they may have to substitute a polyester blend for actual fingernails).

The tailors custom fit each piece of clothing at least twice which is great except that they want you to have an educated opinion on things like fit and cut and how to fix them. This is hard for someone whose fashion vocabulary is as limited as my own. The moment of terror arrived when I'm standing in front of a mirror thinking "RED ALERT! The prince will never ask me to dance in this!" but have no ability to explain the problem. The tailor made exactly what was designed by Klemm Concepts, a sort of awkward shirt that despite its bright yellow polkadots manages to scream 54 year old woman who became a grandma much too early in life. How to translate such a problem into something a seamstress can act on seems impossible so I'm left hoping someone at the factory has a wand and a spare can of Bibbidi Bobbidi Boo.

The second dress I pick up is a jersey number that I figure will make a good beach cover up for our last couple of weeks in Thailand and a decent brunch outfit for summer 2010 once we return to mimosas in Park Slope. After two fittings I take it home only to find that when I shake and shimmy my ample bosoms my bra peeks out the top. Geoff thinks this is no problem but you can't go by him -- he's constantly trying to convience me that a bra alone is evening wear and if you'd like a sweeping view of Crackville you can stop by his ass anytime. But the lesson learned is that I need to figure out what I want and how to vocalize it before I take anything else out of the shop. So, despite fears that the tailor will hate me and that I don't actually know what I'm talking about anyway I muster up the courage to have sleeves redone, waistlines moved and jackets lined in electric blue.

And I look good! I can't promise that I'll be queen by July (the clothing has been shipped by sea and will not ride the tide into Brooklyn until sometime in June) but I'm at least hoping to retain the prince that I've got (who had some new shorts designed and for now is crackville free) and return to the real world looking like the prettiest thing in the boardroom and if anyone from Home Street Middle School wants to eat some crow, please, drop me and email. Cinderella never had to design her own ball gowns or find her own glass slipper, or figure out why the website has been down since 3am. Cinderella never wore pinstripes. Maybe I could teach her a thing or two.