Friday, July 29, 2016

Interior Designs – Erich

First, an apology. We have not been adding posts to the blog in some time. Sorry.

But, here is the reason for that: Germs. Yes, even if you take a couple years out of your life to see the world, the microbes don't leave you be. In fact, you get to meet microbes you've rarely, if ever, encountered before. And we have had a run of sickness go through the family.

It turns out that we have is called coxsackie virus. In plainer terms, we have been dealing with Hand, Foot, and Mouth disease. I know, it sounds like Hoof and Mouth disease found in livestock, but the two are unrelated.

Hand, Foot, and Mouth disease is most often found in very young children, younger than mine. But alas, mine got it. First it was Syarra, though we didn't know exactly what it was then. Just as she got better, Carver got sick. Then we discovered the tiny red spots on his hands and feet, and we knew what we were dealing with.

Now, the good news is that most adults have had some exposure to coxsackie virus or others similar enough that they have an immunity to it. The bad news, apparently that doesn't include me.

So it has gone from one to another to another, and we are very hopeful that it ends with me and spares Alrica the annoyance of it. Not just because we love Alrica, which is plenty of good reason. But next Monday, we have our next travel day. And being sick is bad enough. But being sick when you can't just lie in bed and you have no stable place to live, that's terrible.

This has been a mostly indoor series of days for us. But we have gotten to use the time for some other pursuits. The kids are getting a lot of work for homeschool done. We learned a new card game. And best of all, we finished a novel.

Yes, Carver and I have been collaborating on a novel in the fantasy genre for some time now. And just before I came down with the fever, we finished our first draft. I mean that literally, it was about an hour before I got feverish.

Of course, a first draft doesn't mean you're done. Writing is rewriting. But it feels great to finish a draft. Usually when I finish a project of creation I have a “King of World” feeling. This time coxsackie kind of knocked that out of me, but intellectually it was still pleasing.

For Carver it has been bittersweet. He is proud to have finished a novel. But he said, “I'm going to miss writing about Blat.” (Blat is one of the characters, of course.)

At this point, we are rereading the novel and making notes of things we want to rewrite. The kids have been great about this. While I have been stuck with barely any energy, they have sat in the bedroom with me and read chapters. And then when a note needs to be written, they have captured it.

Sickness is everywhere, at home and abroad. But when it strikes, you can still, sometimes, get some good things done.

Though apparently not blogging. Yeah, sorry again.

Sunday, July 17, 2016

The Wide Angle and the Closeup – Erich

As I mentioned in a previous post, I am attending weekly meetings of a group called Writers Without Borders. We read pieces of about 10 pages or fewer and get feedback. The pieces are all written in English, and there are members of the group who are American, British, Australian, and Thai.

These are people from many places who have come to Chiang Mai. Some of them are here for a short time, I am only staying a month. Some are here for a long time. There is a member who has lived in Chiang Mai since the 1970s. There are varied ages and interests and writing styles.

And yet, there are some things that unify us all both in their broad applicability and their narrowness of focus.

Many of the pieces being presented have as their settings places in South East Asia. After all, these writers know this area and want to write about it. There are some set in Thailand, others in Laos, in Cambodia, and in Vietnam. As such, sometimes a phrase in the local language is included in the stories.

Now, I am not a Thai speaker, so if a phrase in Thai is included, I basically gloss over the actual written words and, from context, figure out what it must more or less mean. But many of the people in this room do know Thai. And they get very heated about how you spell those words.

The easy answer is to just spell them correctly, but Thai is not written in the Latin alphabet. So there isn't one correct spelling when you are trying to transliterate the word. And among those present who know Thai, they all have strong opinions about how each word should be transliterated.

This is exactly like every writers group. Not that we always argue about changing a language into another alphabet, but there is always some narrow specific detail that becomes far larger and more important in critique than it will be in actual life. When those in the room say “Your readers who don't speak Thai will be mispronouncing it in their heads! You can't have that!” I keep quiet, but inside I shake my head.

I am one of those readers. And the way it has been phoneticized is no more important to me than it was for me to figure out how to properly pronounce Elvish when I read the Lord of the Rings books. I won't be trying to pronounce it at all. And if someone is pronouncing it in their heads and they do it wrong, who cares? It isn't going to make any difference to their understanding of the story.

But there is also a big picture way we are all the same. I brought a piece this past week called No Picnic. It is a nine page play about political correctness gone to an extreme. I felt it was very topical, given what is going on in the United States, and it is based on an actual event that happened in the U.S. in the year 2000.

It was interesting to hear the reactions. Apparently this is not just an American issue. People told stories of political correctness gone overboard in Australia. Others talked about it happening in the United Kingdom. Others told stories of this happening in universities across the United States as well.

I was afraid it was a very American satire. And it turns out it was a very international satire. It may not be universal, but it was universal enough that many people enjoyed it, and more importantly, related to it.

Some many people in so many places experience the same emotions, manias, problems, and societies. It's amazing that we don't all relate better than we do.

But maybe an inability to relate is another thing we all have in common.

Saturday, July 16, 2016

Great or Great! - Syarra

Part 1

Wednesday, we had scheduled a cooking class, from Calm Cool cooking class. So we got picked up and driven to a local market. There we were told about everything from fruit to firm tofu.
These are types of noodles

We were taken to a local coconut shop, where the husk was hacked off, and the pieces shredded. We drove to the place for cooking and sat down, we drank strange juice, which I did not like. We were guided around the garden and picked leaves as we talked. We came back and soon the electricity went out. So we had to re-schedule, for Friday.

Part 2

Yesterday was Friday, we drove back to cook our three dishes, one rice, and one dessert.  We had decided to cook Pad Thai, Tom Kha Kai (a soup made of coconut milk, chicken, and Galangal, a vegetable), and Pork Satay Sticks. For our rice we did Riceberry. Our Thai dessert was sticky rice with mango.

We learned about spices and to our surprise the most common was fish sauce, this is surprising because the meats here are, pork, chicken, and duck, you never taste fish. Then we made a sauce for the pork.

We filled trays with vegetables, meats, tofu, and egg for the Pad Thai and Tom Kha Kai. The best part was the coconut, we were supposed to squeeze the coconut as if we were wringing a wet wash cloth.
So much fun

We cooked or grilled the dishes and they were all delicious. Dessert was even better.
These were our dishes

The only downside is while I was cutting pepper I got some on my hands and they burned for an hour and a half.

I definitely would recommend this place if you are going to Thailand.
Us and our instructors

Wednesday, July 13, 2016

Mall Adjusted – Erich

In the U.S., I was never a big fan of going to the mall. It was crowded, which I didn't like. It was shopping, which I didn't like. It was laid out in some crazy fashion in which I could never figure out which way I had to go to get to the shop that I wanted, which I didn't like. I was not a mall man.

But when traveling, the mall can be quite a fascinating place. And here, the mall near where we live in Chiang Mai, it is. All the ways it is the same as our malls at home are interesting, but far more interesting are the many ways it is different.

The mall is tall. And the water will fall. Okay, no more rhyming.
Is that magenta? Poor kids, they don't even get to see it because they have to pose for a picture.
Outside the mall is an intricate fountain with spouts that squirt at different angles and to varying heights. Plus, at night, there are color changing lights that give the water fun hues.

The mall, on the inside, is many floors tall. There are shops from the basement through the sixth floor. And the arrangement of the mall is interesting. They group the types of shops by floor.

For example, the second floor is the fashion floor. It is all clothing shops. Whereas the third floor is electronics and banking. There are banks and cell phone stores (and plenty of cell phone cases sold in kiosks.) It makes it much easier for me to find at least the type of store I want, if I actually wanted anything. Well often I do, but usually that is food.

No problem because the fourth floor is all restaurants. (And the basement, we'll get to that shortly.)

A lot of the signage is all in English, including the names of most of the stores. There are some in Thai, or some with both, but if you entered without knowing which country you were in, you could walk around some floors and be certain you were in an English speaking nation.

In the basement there is a grocery store and many beauty supply and cosmetics shops. (And also other food, but we'll get to that shortly.) The grocery store is very accommodating to expats. Almost all of the products are labeled in English and Thai, some in English only, and very few in Thai only. They have some American products. There is peanut butter (in case you were worried about me.) Strangely though, there is only one brand of sliced bread, but bread isn't the same big deal here as it is in many Western countries.

But don't be fooled. There are still many products in the store that we would never see in the United States. Here's one.
You're reading that correctly.
Yes, that's uterus. It doesn't specify which animal it came from. Just uterus.

Like any mall, there are perfectly nice bathrooms, not much difference there. Except their signs for the men's room and the women's room, well, their icons are a bit more stylish than ours.
It's like the men are wearing wraps.
And I got a little too much flash on the picture of the women sign.
On the fifth floor (and part of the sixth floor) there is a movie theater. Why two floors? Well the box office and concessions are on the fifth floor. But once you have your ticket you go up an escalator to enter the theater from the top/back on the sixth floor. When the movie ends, you don't go back out the way you came in. Instead you leave through doors at the bottom/front of the theater meaning you are back on the fifth floor. And there is an employee who stands at the door and bows to each person as they leave.

As I mentioned, we are back on the fifth floor and let me tell you more about it. You know how sometimes at the movie theater there may be a screen near the box office that shows you previews of upcoming movies? Well, yeah, they have that. But that's just the beginning.

In addition to a big screen that shows all kinds of previews, there are stands, like tall kiosks, that have screens and below those a poster for one of the upcoming movies. But each stand is for a specific movie production company. There were four separate stands showing previews, spaced apart from each other so none of them would interfere with the other.
This screen only shows previews of Disney movies.

This one only shows previews of Paramount movies.

But Sony wouldn't want to be left out.
And hey, don't forget Universal.
And if that's not enough, in addition to the one big screen, the Disney kiosk, the Panasonic kiosk, the Sony kiosk, and the Universal kiosk, there is a touch screen preview station where you can select the movie preview you want to see. You just touch the thumbnail and drag it up to the center. Then a play button will appear and you hit that. This is major preview technology! (One downside, I tried to use the touchscreen preview station and it worked just fine. But everything it said was entirely in Thai, so while I got some good visual effects of upcoming movies, I'm not really sure what they were about. Except exploding things.)
Everything's written in English, but everything's spoken in Thai. I did not expect that.
I mentioned the fourth floor having restaurants. The entire fourth floor is about food. These restaurants include many that serve Thai cuisine, some that serve Japanese cuisine, and even one that serves American cuisine. (They even have A&W Root Beer. Root beer is not something we have seen a lot of in our travels.) Heck, there is even a KFC there.

But in addition to these restaurants, there is a section called the Food Lanni. Here you find these stations that serve various Thai foods for super low prices. You eat at a bench and sit on a stool and then return your plate and silverware to a collection station. Much of the writing here is in Thai, but some of the vendors speak English. And if they don't, you can always point.

It was in the Food Lanni that I bought a coconut. We just learned about coconuts. When they are young, the meat inside is very thin and not very good, but they have lots of coconut milk and coconut cream. I bought one and they cut the top open and insert a straw. And you drink the milk which is sweet, plenty of sugar and fat.
I didn't put a lime in it, so no need to call the doctor.
As the coconut gets older, however, the fat and sugar in the milk are used to grow the coconut meat. So when you have a ripe coconut, the milk is mostly watery and not very flavorful, but the flesh is thick and delicious.

In addition to the Food Lanni on the fourth floor, there is a similar area in the basement. This area they call Take Home. This is ironic for two reasons. First, you can, and we often do, eat there. There are high tables in the middle of this section with tall stools. You eat there and then just leave your plates and someone comes by and collects them. The other reason it is ironic is that if you want to take it home, which you can also do, you don't say “Take home” because no one seems to understand what you mean when you say that. You say “take away” which they all understand, even if they don't know much English aside from that.

This is very authentic Thai food. Some of it is quite spicy. And it is all very inexpensive. I could get a plate of spicy chicken on rice for 40 Baht, which is about $1.20. In fact, you can more economically eat here or at various street vendors than you could buy groceries and cook at home.

Also in the basement are some shops that sell dessert. There is an ice cream stand. There is a Mister Donut (and in addition to sweet doughnuts, they sell savory ones, kind of like doughnut pizza.) One of the other stores is a bakery, and check out what they have. A favorite dessert in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, where I last lived: the whoopie pie. But somehow it got lost in translation.
Chewbacca approved
One very unusual aspect of the mall is the night market. On Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday evenings, from about 1600 (4 PM) to maybe 2200 (10 PM) there is a market outdoors, right in front of the mall. Little tents are set up. On the east side of the mall, you can buy leather goods, jewelry, soap carving which is very pretty but smells overwhelmingly of soap, shirts, pants, blouses, socks, and shoes. On the south side of the mall, there are two rows of street vendors selling food and drinks.

This is strange because all of this must directly compete with the businesses inside the mall. In the States, it is hard to believe that this could be a regular thing three times a week without the stores inside freaking out about it. But here, night markets are huge. And things are very inexpensive too.

After about a year on the road, one of my three shirts (yes, I only have three shirts) started wearing out. I got a new one for about $7.50. I needed a new belt too. That cost me around $4.50.

And the food on the south side is incredible. I have discovered a new passion for pineapple smoothies. One of the ingredients in a Thai smoothie is coconut milk. (We're back to those coconuts.) And it's good. Though, the strawberry smoothie preferred by my children is also pretty darn delicious.

Let me leave you with one more feature of the fifth floor. There is a beautiful balcony that you can walk out to and get a gorgeous view of the mountain Doi Suthep and the city between the mall and the mountain. Well, the view is less gorgeous when it's raining, but you could still walk out there if you wanted to.
Chiang Mai and Doi Suthep
Yeah, that's the mall. I just might be able to get past my disdain.

Saturday, July 9, 2016

Protected by Dragons – Erich

This morning we went to Doi Suthep. Technically we went to Wat Phra That Doi Suthep. Doi Suthep is a mountain and a national park in Thailand, just to the west of Chiang Mai. But on the mountain is a big and very important Buddhist Temple. "Wat" means Buddhist Temple in Thai. So the real name of the temple is Wat Phra That Doi Suthep, but everyone here just refers to the temple itself as Doi Suthep.

It's quite an amazing place. You climb this set of steps, probably close to two hundred of them. And on either side, instead of a traditional railing, you are protected by two long serpentine dragons. At the bottom of the stairs you have the dragon's heads, and out of their mouths come another dragon with five heads. (On each side of the staircase.) At the top, you have the ends of their tails.
Thai people can visit the Wat for free. Foreigners have to pay 30 Baht each (which is about 90 cents.)
The temple is impressive. There are Buddha statues all around. Some of them are gold, or probably gold leaf, and some of them are stone. We saw two that were green and possibly jade. I'm not sure. I know if you touch jade it will feel cold, but you are not allowed to touch the statues.
In the center there is a gigantic Chedi, which is a tower that is wide at the base and tapers as it goes higher. The entire thing was golden colored. And then there are side temples with more statues of Buddha and of various monks. People were praying in these. In one, a monk was available to pray with people. There were people walking the perimeter of the Chedi holding flowers and praying. There were people praying at a variety of the Buddha statues.
They leave donations in boxes or sometimes on the foot of a Buddha in the lotus position, or sometimes in the open hand of a Buddha.

The buildings have intricate roofs with colorful shingles and at the eaves, there are decorations, usually more serpentine dragons.
Back down at the street level there are many many shops where people sell cooked food or fruit or smoothies. And the prices are basically the same as the street vendors in the city, which is nice. In the States, at a site the vendors always cost more than they do in town.

I suspect the Thai wouldn't dream of increasing prices at a site like this one. After all, it's protected by dragons.

Thursday, July 7, 2016

Not Yet Abbott and Costello – Erich

Syarra and I were working on a comedy routine that went something like this.

Erich: Where did you go today?
Syarra: Wat.
Erich: Where did you go today?
Syarra: Wat.
Erich: I said, “Where did you go today?”

And so on. I know, it still need a lot of work. But the joke is in the word Wat, which is the Thai word for a Buddhist Temple.

We visited the Wat Umong, which means the Temple of Caves. The temple was built several hundred years ago, and then at some point after that, a series of underground tunnels were built. Inside these tunnels there are many niches of about 8 inches in height and a depth of 6 inches or so. In these are tiny statues of Buddha or various Hindu gods and goddesses. But there are also places where the tunnels come to dead end alcoves about six feet wide and ten feet deep. Here, there are large Buddhas. In front of each is a mat on which one can kneel to pray. And there are often other decorations along with it.

Outsiders and tourists are welcome to visit Wats in Thailand, but you must wear pants or skirts. No shorts allowed. And when you get to certain parts, you have to take off your shoes. We were exploring the tunnels barefoot (or you can be in your socks if you prefer.)

Also at the Wat Umong, we saw many monks walking about, including an elderly man who nodded kindly to us and then took out his cell phone and made a call.

There is a gigantic Stupa or Chedi, which is a structure shaped somewhat like a giant teardrop, but with a much longer and higher top. You don't go inside the Stupa, but you can walk all the way around it.
Throughout the complex, there are little wooden plaques tied to trees with proverbs on them. Most of the sayings were in Thai, so I can't tell you what they said. But some were in English. One example is “Today is better than two tomorrows.”

There was also a variety of statuary about the place. One was the Black Starving Buddha. The detailed veins and the thinness of his limbs were impressive. Or disturbing. But that was probably the point.
The whole area is on the western edge of the city of Chiang Mai, though when it was built, it was out in the western forest, well outside of the city. Today, one can walk there, though as you near the place, the streets get narrow and windy.

Still, across the street from the main entrance, you can buy ice cream. So it is definitely no longer a lost in the forest temple.

Ice cream at the Wat?

Ice cream at the temple.

I know, the sketch still needs work.

Tuesday, July 5, 2016

The Pursuit of Happiness – Erich

I have certain inalienable rights: life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness being the foremost mentioned ones. But beyond my inalienable rights, I'm very lucky.

I'm lucky for many reasons. I enjoy freedoms that allow me to travel. I was born into a middle class family that pushed me to get a good education, enabling me to get a fun job in which I could save enough money to travel. And I have a wonderful family to share the travels with.

So I recognize that our ability to travel is in many ways, well, lucky. And Independence Day is a great day to reflect on this.

We are in Thailand, a beautiful country. The food is savory and delicious and frequently spicy. I am the only one in the family who generally enjoys spice, but there are plenty of other options here as well.

But yesterday was Independence Day in the United States, 240 years after the signing of the Declaration of Independence. And we decided to have as American a day as we could.

We set off on a long, exploratory walk. First, we had to find a hardware store to replace a doorstop that got broken. Oops. But that's okay. Even into the luckiest of lives a little doorstop must fall. Then we went to get burgers.

Yes, we decided that while we love Thai food, we were going to have a traditional American meal of hamburgers, fries, and milkshakes. We didn't go to a fast food restaurant, but to a Thai owned place that serves specifically American burgers. And they were good, not great, but good. Certainly I have enjoyed many a better burger in the States. And in other countries too. But these were certainly nothing to turn ones nose away from. The milkshakes were tasty and the fries were fries. A good lunch.

From there we visited the Muang Mai Market where there is tons of fresh produce. We even saw trucks delivering different types of lettuce, stacked high in their beds. I tried to get a picture of one truck, but on my first attempt, Carver walked right into the picture. On my second attempt a Thai passerby walked right in front of me. And on my third attempt, a motorbiker drove into my picture. After that, I decided maybe I wasn't meant to get that picture.

We bought a bag of mixed vegetables including carrots, what we think are yellow carrots, and various greens which I do not know the name of. We also got a bag of these long mushrooms which were slightly sour when they were cooked. We bought a red dragon fruit. All dragon fruit are red on the outside, but some have white flesh with black seeds inside and others have red flesh with black seeds inside. We also bought two mangoes. But the mangoes are not red and green on the outside like the ones at home. These are thinner, longer, and a light yellow in color.

I admit, that part wasn't particularly American.

We went swimming after we got home (and after we replaced the doorstop.) Here we met and played with two young girls from China. Again, that doesn't always happen in America either, but swimming on the fourth of July often does.

And we went to see an American movie, in English (with Thai subtitles.) But it did have its differences. First we saw previews of soon to come movies, same as in the States. Then we saw ads for cars and other things. The ads were in Thai, but that makes sense because we were in Thailand. Then there was one more coming attraction. And then, before the movie you have paid to see begins, the screen said in both Thai and English “Please rise for the King's Anthem.”

We stood up, and the King's Anthem played. On the screen they showed a variety of images, including several of patients and nurses in hospitals. But they also showed pictures of New Years cards featuring the King of Thailand from year after year, from him as a young man to him as an old man. There were words on the screen, but all in Thai, so I'm not sure what the linking theme was. But it was a fascinating experience.

After the movie, we ate Thai food for dinner. Yeah, not as American. But delicious.

Now you are probably thinking, aw, no fireworks. But wait!

This morning, or morning to us, July 5th, we got to see fireworks. Uncle Kevin (Alrica's brother) and one of his friends put on a fireworks show of their own each year. And Aunt Mandy (Uncle Kevin's wife) was filming it and live-streaming it. Our 8 AM on July 5 was 9 PM on July 4 for the East Coast. So we got to see Uncle Kevin's fireworks show live, though over a screen.

Even that tradition was met, albeit late from our point of view.

So as I said before, I am very lucky. I am getting every chance to exercise those rights enumerated in the Declaration of Independence. I'm alive, I'm at liberty, and watch out happiness, cause I am right on your tail.

Saturday, July 2, 2016

Writing Abroad – Erich

I had an adventure on my own, but it was an adventure to remind me that I am not alone.

Chiang Mai has a large expat community. We actually see evidence of this all over. The shopping centers and grocery stores have tons of English. This makes it much easier to shop, of course. Plus, there are many products we are used to.

As an example, in Osaka, one could barely find breakfast cereal. In Chiang Mai, there are many choices of breakfast cereal, and three American brands of peanut butter (plus some brands we don't have in the States), and they sell blocks of cheese including cheddar in what is for the most part a not heavy into dairy country.

But back to my solo adventure. Alrica discovered in doing her research that there was a group in Chiang Mai called Writers Without Borders. It is a group of expat writers who meet weekly to read their work and get critique from each other. So one night I went out, found a tuk tuk (a kind of motorcycle taxi) to bring me to their meeting place, and attended a meeting.

Most of the writers there were originally from the United States, though at least one was Canadian. But everything was done in English. I heard three people read their work. All three were writing things that took place in Southeast Asia. But you write what you know, right?

It was a great night. But not specifically because of what was read or the comments made. It was great because it was a night that I wasn't the father of a family that was traveling, I was a writer. I had a night to be a writer in the midst of writers.

In the States I have been lucky to be part of some great writing groups. In New York, New York I was part of the Lehman Engel Musical Theatre Workshop. In Des Moines, Iowa I joined the Iowa Scriptwriters Alliance. In Appleton, Wisconsin I worked together with my friend and colleague Erin to start The Dying Pen. And in Lancaster, Pennsylvania I was thrilled to be a part of the Lancaster Dramatists' Platform.

It is energizing to see writers who are writing and to be part of a community that understands the desire to write. Plus, they were all so friendly.

I love being on this adventure with my family. It wouldn't be nearly as fun without them. But sometimes it is nice to not be one out of four. Sometimes it is great to just be one. To just be writer.

And it's also great to know that in that, I am not alone.