It was the thing Steve Jobs dreamed of: first graders in China Skyping a farmer in America. My friend Fran agreed to be my Show and Tell exhibit and answer questions about her farm in Indiana over eight thousand miles away. Thanks to the tech guys, Fran showed up Thursday morning without a VISA yet.
The first graders had written questions earlier in the week to ask Franny Farmer. I suggested asking about her donkey that eats candy, her llama named Obama, her horse, cats or even the kitten she once had that broke its tail.
“We think the donkey stepped on it.” Fran smiled.
Hi, I’m Pedro and I’m six and I’m from Brazil (he’s the kid who licks the glue sticks). How did your kitten break its tail?”
Fran smiled. “I just answered that.”
That was followed by ten other first graders who asked the same thing, except for Arthur. He wanted to know if Fran had a robot horse.
It’s funny the things that are so important for a first grader to know. How a kitten broke its tail. Who runs the fastest. Who’s the tallest. Who has seen a panda bear.
Questions from third graders are harder to answer.
Erika, a bubbly Russian version of Pippi Long-stocking is moving away. The rest of use made a surprise farewell movie. Here’s Steve the Oreo cookie (the class mascot) saying goodbye:
After watching the movie, Jared, the class’s top speller, had a question “Mrs. Mac, why did that movie make me so sad?”
A bit harder to answer.
Later that week, I was hit with another question. This time, a real doozy from David, a senior. When he was my student in 2011, David could barely understand how to make a peanut butter sandwich. Now he’s applying to Ivy League schools. I can’t look at him without imagining a bit of Skippy on his face.
“Mrs. Mac, can I ask you a question for my world view class?”
“What is the purpose of God?”
The question about how the kitten broke its tail was a lot easier. “I’ve never been asked that.” If God were to have a purpose means God is a creation, not a Creator. It fell in the category of questions such as: can God could create a mountain so big He can’t move it?
I tried rattling off a quick answer before the lunch bell rang.“You stumped me, David. But I do believe in God because to believe in God is to believe in the power of the imagination…that anything is possible…including a ten year old boy not knowing a lick of English now applying at Ivy League Schools.
“Thanks, Mrs. Mac.”
I went home feeling good. All of my students’ questions were answered yet I had a few of my own. Who decided the order of the alphabet? Can you cry underwater? Do penguins have knees? Why is the cereal called Grape Nuts if it contains neither grapes or nuts? Where does love go when it leaves a relationship? Does it turn into hate or is it recycled like glass bottles? The same with the fat that you lose: does someone else find it? And did Jesus ever learn how to swim and if so, why? Finally, the hardest question of all:
Where to find Jell-o in Kunming, China for Thanksgiving?
At Carrefour next to the Russian cheesecake mix and gluttonous noodles.
Questions are good, even if they can’t be answered.
The secret things belong to the Lord our God, but the things revealed belong to us and to our children forever, that we may follow all the words of this law. Deuteronomy 29:29
One of the perks of being a DaBiZi (big nosed American) in China is that you get to judge English Speaking Contests. But today? I didn’t even have to judge. I just had to hand out awards.
And one more thing: I had to pose for pictures.
Yes, English speaking competitions are a big deal. This contest was held in a government building on Lake Dianchi. Afterwards, the judges were treated to dinner to a Dai restaurant.
Bordering with Thailand, the Chinese Dai are the same ethnic group as the Thai. But the cuisine wasn’t satay and Pad See Ew. It was Peacock.
Not a real peacock. Jut imagine Edible Arrangements on Steroids. Items included purple sticky rice, fried ox skin, meal worms, roasted cashews, peanuts, corn on the cob, purple yams, fish, minced pork wrapped in banana leaves, green coconut pancakes, bean curd steamed inside bamboo stalks, roasted knuckles, bamboo tips and a few things that even grossed me out, mostly being root dishes with the texture of woody old asparagus.
The final touch on the peacock was dry ice. Martha Stewart would’ve been impressed. She also would’ve like how the peacock was served in our own private dining room, which is typical at Yunnan restaurants.
If you’re wondering what fried meal worms taste like? Not chicken. Like most bugs, worms are like the burnt crispins you find in a grease trap. They taste like other bugs–like roasted pumpkin seeds. The purple sticky rice, green coconut pancakes and coconut soup appetizer? They are worth their weight in sit-ups.
We didn’t eat the whole bird. We didn’t get a doggy bag for the leftover peacock, either.
I can only imagine what judges will be eating at the nationals.
The Facebook message found me on fringes of Southwest Thailand.
It was from John, first home-town boyfriend and now writer for the local paper.
“Lori Danneffel died.”
This can’t be right. I just saw her this summer.
She has a husband. Grandkids. A contagious laugh that still rings in my ears.
A pit forms in my stomach, the kind with the weight of a bowling ball.
I think of John’s job, having to proofread obituaries of people who will forever be a part of us. Parents who drove us to band practice, a favorite teacher.
And now, friends.
I read the message again and peck out a nonsensical six-letter reply:
But I’m really not thankful for news like this.
And just like that, Thailand disappears. I was in Mae Hong Son, a town nestled up to the Burma border, the end of a squiggly road with an infamous 1864 curves. The temples, the bird chirps, and mango trees are pushed aside as I make a trip to my past, exit 41 on I-94 in Southwestern Michigan. Thirteen time-zones and light years away from wherever I am.
Smoking cigarettes on the top of outhouses. Listening to Aerosmith while fluffing flowers for homecoming floats. Gasping at the latest comments posted on the walls of the stalls at the Standard gas station. Then pulling out a marker to write our retorts, dotting the “i”s with flowers.
And Lori’s plaid bell-bottoms.
A toothy tuk-tuk driver helps me find a room near the city center as the hotel i booked on Agoda was 200 km away from wherever I was and wherever it was supposed to be.
Eight bucks a night. An almost-hot shower, toilet with a seat, mattress on floor.
And right outside, there is a New Year’s celebration.
The sky dazzles with yellow stars and floating lanterns.
But inside, memories flood my mind.
Selling donuts before school. Getting locked in the instrument closet in the band room. The smell of valve oil. Chipped clarinet reeds. Toilet papering teacher’s houses.
I return to Mae Hong Son and my eight-dollar room.
New Year’s morning, I stumble out of my hotel for my juice fix, noticing something was odd. I wasn’t the only one up. Women dressed in their Easter best, carrying Easter baskets were everywhere. Fine Thai silk skirts and tailored jackets. But it wasn’t Easter. It was New Years.
And Thailand is a Buddhist country.
I decided to follow the women, me still with bed head and my thoughts running away with my past. Locker combinations. The smell of Cupani pizza. The seating arrangement in typing class. As I turn the corner, I see hundreds of Thai have lined the street, waiting for the sun to rise and give alms to the monks.
As the drums start, a saffron robes appear beneath the sun. Between every beat, I hear Lori’s laughter. Her cracking jokes in Mr. Bendnarowki’s class. Bragging about her grandkids. But never a complaint about her hip replacements. Ever. Had she had three? Yes, three.
Not grand kids. Hip replacements.
As people approach the monks, they remove their shoes and fill the baskets with gifts. Small bags of rice. Oranges. Milo chocolate drink packets. Flowers. Over-flowing baskets are poured into rice sacks carried by helpers. The elders slip gifts of money into the folds of their robes.
As the procession continued, my mind floats again back to Lori. In Mae Hong Son, the parade was paying homage to the monks. But in my mind, the parade was paying homage to Lori, and the memories that are a part of me.
The past is never dead. It is not even the past. William Faulkner
You can watch more of the Mae Hong Son Monk procession below.
Sometimes I think I’m a solo traveler and other times I’m convinced I’m a roaming confessional. When people see me slurping noodles by myself, they are attracted to me like a guilty soul to a curtained booth. They spill their guts then board their next train with a clean conscious.
Take for instance, Travis the Fake ID courier. (It’s a fake name, too).
I met Travis on my the way to Chiang Mai. He’s a Hong Kong traveling with his arm candy, Athena. You know the type. She looks like an Avatar created for a music video with purple hair and a paper-doll figure, he just stepped out of a beer commercial.
Travis has the gig of a life time. He is paid to play with his cell phone. Honestly. A bona-fide professional Insta-grammer. He travels the world posting pictures of a trendy product in cool places. How did it happen? Travis travels a lot, takes photos a lot and bam! His personal Insta-gram account blew up with followers.
Travis lights cigarette after cigarette as we talk about what expats talk about, expat chat. Visas. Politics. Ticket prices. Consulate services. Embassy locations. Exchange rates. Where to stay in Bangkok. Where not to stay.
Slowly, the conversation moves to things expats don’t talk about. Things you can get in Bangkok but shouldn’t.
And I don’t mean STDs.
Travis whips out of his wallet.
“See this? It’s fake. You can get in one in a day in Bangkok or wait several weeks the legal way.” Travis tries to justify his purchase and flicks more ashes onto the ground. I take a look. The ID is professionally fake, not like the one I made in college, scratching out my birthdate with a bobby-pin. “I have one fake ID so good, even the barcode worked.”
Athena lights a cigarette and agrees.
I feel naive as Travis exposes to me a world I do not know. First, that you can get paid to play with your phone and then, there are expats who actually want to drive on this side of the world. I want to put my fingers in my ears but I keep on listening.
“I’m picking up more IDs for my friends. Spent most of our souvenir money.” He looks at Athena. “Sorry, babe.”
She rolls her eyes.
Why did Travis tell me this? So I can carry his guilt for him?
Next, I meet, Hulk, the Fugitive (his words, not mine).
The next day I get up monk early. Monks clad in orange robes carrying silver pots are gathering alms from local shops. Me? I’m hunting for an open 7/11 to get some OJ. No one else is carousing the aisles except a young, blurry-eyed westerner. Hulk like built, bursting out of a T-shirt. As I get my juice, the door jingles and he leaves.
As I walk back to my hotel, I see Hulk’s cap in this hole-in-a-wall noodle shop. Well, I almost see him. The place is a health department nightmare. Egg cartons stacked to the ceiling, silver kettles toppling over, wilted bunches of chives on the table, the owner chopping a chicken, his wife scrambling eggs in a monster wok, while a cat brushes up to her legs.
As I decide if I want to test my intestinal tracks, Hulk sees me then waves me in. “Come join me.”
“Is it safe?”
“Eat here all the time.”
He holds out his hand, “Hulk.”
I order Pad Thai, scoot over a plastic stool, causing the cat to scramble.
“So why are you up so early?” I ask.
As Hulk chases pork bones around in his broth, he spills his heart.
“I just left my wife. I found her in bed with a German. In a bed that I bought, in a house that I built.” His eyes are glossy. No sleep, too many tears, too many beers.
A pit forms in my stomach, knowing all too well the pain and isolation of being in a marriage that’s imploding. “Sorry about that.”
Hulk takes off his hat. “When I found out, I beat him up pretty bad. I’m a kickboxer and gave him a few good blows in the face. My foot still hurts. Now the cops are looking for me. I’m a fugitive.”
I start slurping my noodles faster.
Hulk shares how he wants to work it out with his wife, feeling worse about the beating than the cheating. “It’s only sex and to be quite honest, I haven’t been faithful either. I mean, if I see a sexy girl,” devious dimples form on his cheeks. “What am I supposed to do?”
You’re definitely not supposed to get busy with her. I didn’t tell Hulk that. He’ll figure it out on his own. But then I ask myself, why did he tell me this?
Hulk screws his baseball cap back on his head and stands up. He tries to smile. “Thanks me for listening.”
Me: The Penitent
Remember the show with John Boy, Grandpa and Jim-Bob? Well, the Aussie-Waltons had gathered from different corners of the world for a holiday in Thailand. All redheads. All slathered with sunblock. All with reserve bunks on a night train. But for some reason, I got the bunk where Mary-Ellen should be.
The clan included a set of fraternal twins, one with a steel-wool beard, the other as clean-cut as Ward Clever. And a daughter. A son-in-law. His new wife. Their new baby which was passed around to bounce on all of their knees.
The parents, with deep-set laugh lines and leathery skin, were nestled up in the bunks across from me, just beamed. They had won the lottery. All of the hours they poured into their family had paid off. I wondered how they met. What Mr. Walton did for a living. Did they fight? If so, what about? Was he faithful or did he have another wife in Perth? Did they ever go to counseling? Did they ever need to? They looked like they had nothing to confess to me. Not at all. Not a darn thing.
This time, I had to confess. I coveted their marriage-or at least the marriage I imagined. I forgot how the curve balls in my life have turned into one amazing adventure.
Now, I’m Chiang Rai the city in Northern Thailand. It the name sounds familiar, it’s because it’s near where “the cave boys” were trapped this summer and saved by British divers. Don’t worry, I’m not going cave exploring. But if I meet their soccer coach, I’d like to hear what he has to say.
It’s the faces, not the places that make memories when traveling. Put down your selfie stick. Get a real picture of what’s around you instead.
Who have you met on your travels?
My gut is immune to most bugs in Asia, those I eat as well as those that are festering in a piece of pork. But I did get a bladder infection on the road. Or off the beaten path Actually, in the middle of nowhere, Ayutthaya, Thailand, the ancient capital of Thailand.
If I had been in Bangkok, things would have been simpler: just stop by the local world class hospital of your choice as medical tourism is a big of a draw in Thailand as the beaches of Phucket.
Or, If it had been a kidney stone, I could have done what a good did a few weeks back: ride a tuk-tuk around the city and jiggle it out.
But what do you do if you’re in the middle of nowhere peeing razorblades?
Go to the market.
In Thailand, China and Vietnam, penicillin is available over the counter at most drug stores. A course of kick-bug antibiotics set me back 20 baht, less than a piece of guava fruit, (about eighty US cents).
But Penicillin isn’t the best thing to experience in a Thai market. Since the weather is more extreme than China, colored tarps hangover the market area, keeping the sun out…
and the smells in.
Freshly crushed spices and sauces can take your breath away.
You can purchase everything from fresh fish….
to bulk rice..
to whatever this guy isn’t selling because he’s too busy checking his phone.
Sorry, the little girl isn’t for sale.
But like markets on the beaten path in Asia, tourists can be taken advantage of. They’ll charge you fifteen cents instead of ten. So if you’re budgeting your baht, follow a Monk. You are less likely to get ripped off.
Unless of course, he rummages through this…
Speaking of Monks, I have never seen on wear a bike helmet. Do they know something I don’t?
Also, watch for critters. Not just cats licking themselves or rats the size of Thumper the rabbit but dogs. Packs of wild dogs are usually sniffing around the garbage “cans”. The dogs will be of assorted breeds and sizes, some showing their fangs, others growling. Getting bit by one will cost more than a round of antibiotics.
Travel is not about selfies, but seeing faces that tell interesting stories. I wish I could hear hers.
My bladder is feeling better. Now, to test my gut on whatever this is.
Next stop? Chiang Mai.
What to do in Ayutthaya
A 30 Baht train ride from Bangkok brings you back thousands of years. Along with the seeing ruins, borrow a bike from your hostel and ride around the “island”. It’s about the size of Mackinac Island but without the fudge. Just beware of elephants in the bike lane.