Friday, January 25, 2008

Running Out of Weekend

When we moved to Guam, I assumed most of my time would be spent lazing at the beach, working on my blockbuster novel, and wearing sundresses with hats and heels (and, of course, work would figure in there as well). Boy, was I wrong. We tend to run out of weekend before we run out of activities.

This post is an effort to update everyone on what has occurred since we returned from Thailand.

Mary's New Year Resolutions
My resolution this year is to decrease my run time by five minutes. To do this, I'll need to increase the amount of running I do and increase my efficiency as well as improve my overall nutrition. I caught a severe cold the first week we got back (I would have sworn it was the flu except I never ran a fever) and I couldn't breathe through my nose. I was miserable. The second week I had duty and getting up at 0430 meant I would have to get up at 0400 to run (if someone didn't call in the middle of the night with questions or problems---which, of course, they did).

So, no more excuses starting Sunday. I WILL set the alarm for 0500 and get up and run. I have been doing yoga in the morning which has helped with the tight hamstrings and hips most runners get (and makes me feel better overall). I also bought a running watch to help with interval training. We will see if this changes anything. Here are my run times for the 5Ks run in January:
12 January: 30:15
19 January: 29:39 (I started counting the number of people I passed and the number who passed me---it was a pretty good ratio, then it went downhill. Once I was passed by two jogging strollers, I stopped keeping statistics)
26 January: 29:55 (and today I came in 44th in the female race; unfortunately, I was passed by FOUR jogging strollers)

I'm also keeping my uniform at work so I come home in PT gear. That means no excuses for not stopping at the gym for a quick weight-lifting session.

Incidentally, Drew turned in his best PR last week with 27:12. Not bad for 7 year-old stubby legs...

Anna and Drew
Anna is taking piano lessons and will re-start tennis lessons this afternoon. Drew has started piano lessons and will also be starting tennis lessons for the first time this afternoon. He also continues with judo and turned in a 3rd place performance this morning at the competition at Kontenda's Gym in Tamuning.

Gregg started judo lessons with me in the adult class and Drew was very happy. However, he is still not satisfied. "My whole family needs to take judo," Drew says. Gregg will probably be taking a break for a few weeks because he "popped" a rib during a throw and had troubles breathing afterwards. He was feeling fine the next day so he decided to lift weights because it was his "shoulders" day. This was probably not the best decision as he felt fine until he attempted the 5th set.

Random Conversations
We were listening to the car radio on the way to the competition this morning and the announcer was discussing the 2008 Presidential hopefuls.
Drew asked, "Is Hillary a girl?"
I replied, "Yes."
"Why are they talking about her?"
"Because she's running for President."
"She can't," Drew declared. "Anna's going to be the first girl President."

Wednesday, January 9, 2008

Sixth Day in Chiang Mai (Sunday)

Today we went to the Mae Sa Elephant Camp. We watched the elephants shower and their handlers scrub them in the river. One elephant tried to stand on his head, but he couldn’t get his hind feet completely in the air.

We walked to the elephant show where the elephants paraded around and performed many tricks. They danced, they kicked soccer balls, and they painted beautiful pictures. After the show, we fed them bunches of bananas and bundles of sugar cane. They hugged us with their trunks and we took many photos.

We were very impressed with the elephants’ artistic ability and bought one of the pictures they painted. We also stopped in the elephant souvenir shop where the profits were dedicated to caring for the elephants. Our guide, Kung, said some people feel guilty about the elephants in the camp. She said we shouldn’t feel this way because the elephants don’t have enough work to do with the loss of teak logging. Performing tricks is one way they can earn their keep.

We went to the Drew Cent---oops, the Monkey Centre, after that. We watched the monkeys count numbers, ride bicycles, and dive after a waterproof watch donated by a willing participant. Drew won a banana by finding the number “4” after the monkey was “tired” of the game.

After the show, we fed the monkeys tangerines and bananas. Anna and Drew played with two baby monkeys and Anna learned the wisdom of keeping her hair away from the monkey’s reach.

Kung took us back to our hotel and we had to decide what we were going to do with our afternoon. We ate sushi at Ikue and Drew and Gregg stayed in the hotel while Anna and I went walking around. I was in search of interesting textile shops and the one I was truly interested in, a wholesale silk factory outlet shop, was closed, which was probably a very good thing. We stopped at Naruk’s and I got my feet massaged for an hour while Anna got her very first pedicure and manicure.

We ate at the Walking Street Market which is held every Sunday from 4-10pm. Everyone, locals included, said this market was better than the Night Market. I have to agree, if only because I did not feel claustrophobic and the prices seemed a little better.

Anna and Drew ate fresh fruit for dinner---watermelon and cantaloupe. Strawberries are in season now and we got a cup. Drew took one bite and said, “Mom, they ruined the strawberries. They’re not supposed to have salt on them!” The strawberries were seasoned with salt and sugar---I’ve heard of freshly cracked pepper on strawberries, but never salt. I was the only one who finished eating them. Gregg ordered fried rice noodles with in an egg omelet---it was only 20 baht.

Anna and Drew chose a few "voodoo dolls" on key rings as mementos of their stay here in Chiang Mai. They finished up with cotton candy---a distinctively non-Thai tradition.

Third Day in Chiang Mai (Friday)

We met our driver, "Eddie Murphy," in the lobby and drove to the first temple, Wat Suan Dok, the oldest temple in Chiang Mai. There we met a disabled artist, Pong, who painted pictures of her childhood on paper she created from "Buddha leaves."

We drove to Doi Suthep which most tour guide books say, "You haven’t visited Chiang Mai if you haven’t been to Doi Suthep." We took the cable car up, thinking it was a really long steep climb to the top, but it was only 306 steps up (or down). Doi Suthep is the site of the holy relics of the Buddha carried to the mountain top by a white elephant that dropped dead at the top. We walked around the temple site, remembering to circle clockwise on Eddie’s advice.

I picked up a brochure on meditation which explained the basic principles of Buddha. It’s very easy to be holy when separated from the world; I am reminded of the book, Sacred Marriage that explains marriage is also a holy endeavor and probably much more difficult to accomplish for spiritual enlightenment (the book review suggests "God designed marriage to make us holy more than to make us happy").

When we got back to the hotel, we ate at a barbecue that displayed kabobs I saw on an earlier trek through the streets. Unfortunately, the kabobs did not live up to expectations. After the meal, we went to the Night Market and Drew got his beloved insects---with the provision that the mounted bugs stayed behind their glass that would be hung on his bedroom wall at home. If Drew couldn’t agree to that, Gregg wasn’t going to buy them. After much hand-wringing and bargaining, Drew finally agreed to Gregg’s conditions and the bugs joined our family.

In the meantime, my watch had hit the floor and the wristband broke for the third time. The first time it broke in Guam, I took it to a watch repair shop where they told me it couldn’t be fixed. I took it home and super-glued it. I dropped it another time and super-glued it again.

It fell on the floor while I was timing the kids’ fluoride rinse here in the hotel and that’s when I told Gregg I wanted a Rolex. So, I got one. Not a real one, but a nice fake one. Maybe someday I’ll want the real thing. Gregg bought a fake Submariner Rolex. What I found hilarious was the shop owner kept these "premium watches" locked away from the rest of his goods and we had to sit down in this large closet to view his selection. I also fell in love with the Rado (which I was not familiar with outside of Vogue magazine), but it did not have minute markings, so it was not very practical for work (which is why I wanted a new watch). However, even a fake Rolex is probably over-the-top for everyday wear…especially when blood and guts are involved.

Saturday, January 5, 2008

Chiang Mai Day 5 - The Hill Tribes

Mary K writes:

We woke up the earliest we’ve had to since leaving Guam to visit the Hill Tribes---a three-hour trip each way to a little village very close to the Thai-Burma border. We stopped at the Orchid Farm in Maerim where we learned about the life of orchids and butterflies. The orchid jewelry was exquisite---they took orchid flowers, covered them in resin to dry them out then coated them with lacquer. They edged the flowers with gold. So the flower jewelry really is flower jewelry, not an artistic interpretation. They also did the same thing with the butterflies.

We got back on the bus with our nine other new best friends (from Australia and Hong Kong) and continued to Chiang Dao Cave where a monk lived 100 years ago. The waters caused erosions in the rock that imaginative Thais saw as the animals of the jungle. We walked deep into the cave to view the Buddha statue. This Buddha was notable because he lay on his back "like a commoner," our tour guide, Maia, said. Most Buddhas lie on their sides.

You can tell the difference between the various Buddhas once you’ve been educated. Burma Buddhas are different from Thai Buddhas which are different from Chinese Buddhas. It’s all very interesting and we’ve decided to learn more about Buddhism so we can better understand the Asian culture.

We stopped at the best "truck stop" restaurant. The meal was served family-style: cashew chicken, sweet-and-sour-chicken, and mixed vegetables with steamed rice. We ate a chicken broth and tofu soup for starters and finished with sweet seasonal tangerines, probably from the local farms. Delicious! On the suggestion of our tour guide, we bought "healthy" snacks from the mini-mart to hand out to Hill children.

We made one more stop to view a giant Buddha and look out over a rustic northern Thai resort.

Finally, we drove up a rutted road and clambered out of the van. What an eye-opener. The various tribes are refugees from Burma and Laos: the Karen, the Palong, and the Akha.

Gregg writes:

Today we visited the Hill Tribes of northern Thailand. The Hill Tribes are the remaining members of three separate tribes from the Northern Thailand/Burma/Laos region. They are the Karen ("Longneck"), the Palong ("Black Teeth"), and the Akha.

The "Longneck" tribe got their nickname from the rings the women put around their necks starting at 5 years of age. In earlier times, the rings were used to protect the necks of females from tiger attacks in the woods, as the neck was where the tigers would attack. A second reason for the rings was to alter a woman's appearance to look like a swan, which was revered for its beauty by the tribe. And finally, the rings "protected" the soul, or spirit, of the wearer, which was thought to reside in the neck of the tribe members. Likely because that was where members were bitten by tigers when their spirits were lost at death.

There are significant downsides, of course, to wearing the rings. The life expectancy of the women who do so is between 45 and 55. And they suffer terrible back and neck pain throughout their lives. Not to mention the incredible discomfort they must experience on a daily basis.

Today, Longneck women are no longer forced to wear the rings - they are still forced to start at 5, but can decide to stop wearing them at 10. The decision is a difficult one, though, since those who choose not to wear the rings must leave the tribe and their family and go to another tribe that does not wear rings.

The second tribe we met was the Palong. The Palong are known for their extremely black teeth, which they get from chewing Betel nut. They chew the Betel nut for the "high" they get, which I'm told is something like that of nicotine but stronger. The chemicals in the Betel nut eventually turn their teeth completely black, as you can see in the picture below. The Palong also have extremely large ear lobes which they get from inserting increasingly large ear rings. Unlike the Longneck tribe described above, there are no underlying reasons for enlarging their earlobes, other than perceived beauty.
The final tribe we met was the Akha. They had no physically distinguishing characteristics, but they were consummate sales people. An unattractive trait they inadvertently picked up from the Thai sales people in the markets in the south. They specialized in selling Hill Tribe clothing for kids, as well as an annoying wood carving of a frog that makes a very loud noise when stroked with an included wooden peg. (Drew, of course, had to have one.)

Meeting these humble, extremely poor people was overwhelming. We already knew we were blessed with riches when we saw how poor the Thai people living in the cities of Bangkok and Chiang Mai were. But these proud people were poor even by their standards. Thatch homes with dirt floors covered by bamboo rods, a kitchen that was nothing more than a fire pit, and no running water to speak of. They had a communal shower that was a water pipe with a rubber hose attached, fed from the stream nearby. Yet they were too proud to beg for anything. (Not the Akha, who were quite adept at begging.)

We were all deeply moved by the experience and are looking for ways to make donations to help make their lives better. The guides who took us to visit them didn't have any suggestions on what we could do, so we are investigating on our own.

In the meantime, the one thing we all took away from our visit was how incredibly blessed we are compared to most other people in the world. I knew before going that there was abject poverty in the world. I've seen it in the Philippines and, of course, on TV. But I've never seen anything like this up close. It will stick with me and give me perspective when I hear others, particularly those living in the United States, complain about how little they have. Believe me when I say that the poorest people living in the US are unimaginably rich compared to the Hill tribes.

Wednesday, January 2, 2008

New Year's Day in Thailand

We weren't sure what would be open on New Year's Day in Bangkok, but we knew no one would start early. We hired a taxi to take us to Chinatown. The driver suggested he drive through the main artery in Chinatown and if we saw something interesting, he would stop and wait.

I mentioned the Bangkok Doll Factory to him and he pointed us in the direction of the toy section of the market. We spent 30 minutes (we could easily have spent more, but that's how much time we budgeted before having him return for us). Anna fell in love with a yarn bird marionette and Drew snagged a multi-pack of Lego-type cars.

Our next stop was Vimanmek Mansion. However, the guard told us it was closed. The zoo was next door and it looked busy, but no one really wanted to go. Our driver asked if we wanted to go to the aquarium. This turned out to be an inspired choice as Siam Ocean World was a terrific treat! While more expensive than we had budgeted, it featured a theme close to the hearts of all school-age boys: Monsters of the Deep.

We were familiar with Underwater World in Guam and have annual passes. At Siam Ocean World, we received a free drink with a souvenir squeaky squid lid, rode on a glass-bottom boat and watched the sharks feed, and ate some of the best popcorn we've had in southeast Asia. We also viewed a 4D short movie as part of our entry package.

On our trip to the Floating Market, we watched a video in the van. Drew fell in love with Pingu. We traipsed through the Siam Paragon Mall trying to find a copy of the DVD without success. For consolation, we let Drew pick the restaurant for lunch; he chose Hard Rock Cafe Bangkok. After eating, we returned to the hotel to wait for our ride to the airport to travel to Chiang Mai. Fortunately, we didn't wait long.

Our First Full Day in Chiang Mai

Arts & Handicrafts Tour
As part of our tour package, we chose to tour the tourist industries in Chiang Mai. Our first stop was Jolie Femme, a silk factory where we learned how much time it takes to weave the more elaborate silk brocades and how much the typical weaver makes in a month. Then, we had the opportunity to view and buy products made from silk.

Our next stop was the Gemstone Showroom which achieved ISO 9001 status. I turned to Gregg and told him I didn’t know artistic endeavors could aspire to this award. You learn something new everyday.

We visited a teak wood furniture store where Gregg searched for an elusive wood carving to hang on our wall. He couldn't find anything that fit his ideas and our budget. They had some exquisite pieces there, but we had just purchased a teak outdoor set from Bali. After that, we went to a rug showroom but there wasn’t much that caught our attention. Our last stop was the umbrella factory, Bor Sang. We were intrigued with the artistic abilities of the painters there and Drew had an artist paint a design on his shorts.

We came back home to eat lunch at Duke's.

Gregg was tired and the kids just wanted some downtime with their Nintendo’s, so I hired a tuk tuk and walked around Sbun Nga Textile Museum at Old Chiang Mai Cultural Arts Center. They didn’t allow photos so I spent over 500 baht on postcards and brochures depicting the historical costumes.

This was the only mix-up in our entire schedule. We waited from 1910 till 1940 for our driver who never showed. We hired a tuk tuk to take us to Old Chiang Mai Cultural Arts Center where we were so late we were shoved into a corner far from the stage. Fortunately, our friends were seated close to the stage so once we finished eating, we moved to their table. We couldn’t believe there were people who left in the middle of the dance program, but they did. So we snagged their seats on the floor (along with their pillows) for a real up-close-and-personal view of the dancers. Anna and Drew got into the spirit of the show by dressing in their Hill Tribe costumes (which we later discovered were representative of the Akha tribe).

The dance program consisted of two parts: the first part took place in the center stage where they did the “fingernail dance,” the sword dance, and the circle dance (where participants were recruited from the audience). The second part took place outside. The Hill Tribes were actual hill tribesmen (and women), not city people. We enjoyed it all and caught a lift back with our friends.