My 9th grade language learners started reading Ernest Hemingway’s, “The Old Man and The Sea” for one simple reason: I found a free downloadable bilingual copy online, thanks to China not really caring about America’s copyright rule.
Actually, I’m intrigued by Hemingway as many Michiganders are, as he hung out where I do in the summers, near Charlevoix. Plus, Hemingway has a writing style that, according to Faulkner, “Has never been known to use a word that might send a reader to the dictionary.” AKA: easy for language learners.
And finally– as if writing this blog post was in the style of a three point essay–I wanted to read the short story because of my personal affinity with the long snouted fish: I was bequeathed a seven foot marlin caught by my aunt who was barely five feet tall.
If you haven’t read the classic, let me condense it into a tweet: an old man is obsessed with catching a huge marlin after going 84 days without getting a nibble.
If you haven’t read about my marlin, click here.
When I told my students that I had a marlin, they put down their cell phones.
“Did you bring it to China?”
“No. It didn’t have a Visa.”
“Did you eat it?”
“Where is it?”
“Hanging on the wall of a Mexican restaurant in Northern Wisconsin.” I didn’t go into the details on how it migrated north of Chicago because of a divorce that’s getting as ridiculous as the final season of LOST. Their questions continued:
“Is there meat in it?”
“No. the meat is gone.”
“Did you catch it?”
“No,” I paused, savoring the teaching moment, “It was caught by a woman about the size of a fourth grader but almost my age.”
After I stopped blubbering, I asked my students about what was their marlin, in other words, what was the big fish or problem they were trying to overcome. Students wrote:
“Biology is the fish I am trying to tackle.”
“Speech class isn’t a marlin, it’s a whale!”
“Pressure from my parents.”
As we started talking about dreams and perseverance, I realized the story wasn’t just for my students, it was for me.
As I’ve been forced to reinvent myself at midlife with not much more than a wok and Chinese translator, I wonder if some of my dreams have past their expiration date. Publish that manuscript? Go back to school? Find the “other fish in the sea” that my dad promised was out there in the part of the world where Westerners flock for young Asian wives?
Yeah, right. And while you’re at it Ginger, reel in world peace and clean Chinese public johns.
Then I thought of the seven foot marlin that my four foot aunt reeled in.
Or the old ladies carrying washers on their backs.
Nothing is impossible unless of course, you don’t try.
A fellow teacher knows a lady in a village outside of Kunming with breast cancer, The cancer spread throughout her body. This poor woman couldn’t afford a doctor and hospitals don’t have palliative care. After her brittle arm turned sour with gangrene, the woman amputated her own arm.
OK. I understand if this brave woman just wants to go for a boat ride for the rest of her days. But the rest of us? We should give it our all just because we can.
Keep on casting out that line.
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.
It’s that time of year again. The China Daily English Speaking Competition .
In 八 (eight) hours, I break or make the day of over 150 六 (six) – 十二 (ttwelve)-year-olds, many whom are dressed to the 久s (nines), and have memorized speeches that they have no clue of what they are saying.
Take for instance, this princess who’s speech theme was “No Pain, No Gain”. She mispronounced it, “No Pants, No Gants”.
The competition is a bizarre hybrid of the Scripps Spelling Bee and an off-Broadway play, starring kids not being kids, but puppets of their parents. Their body language is stiff, their movements a beat too slow as their eyes gaze into space, trying to recall the next line of the speech that their English tutor wrote.
The topic for the six-year-olds was, “A Favorite Memory”. There wasn’t one birthday story, one kid recalling how they jumped off a roof and broke their arm, not one teary-eyed kid sharing how their puppy got hit by a car. Just lofty stories full of how they enjoy spending hours studying, using vocabulary from SAT test study lists.
Asking questions was a nightmare as students have no clue of what they just read. (Remember, it’s an English Speaking, not Comprehension contest). One student, who rambled about pandas had difficulty answering the question, “What is your favorite animal? “
“My favorite animal is vegetables and Jesus.”
One contestant, dressed head to toe in Nike, shared how he ran a marathon with his dad, punctuating his performance with a fist in the air while shouting, I will make “make our motherland proud.”
So I asked him, in language learner slo -mo and over pronunciation, “What is a marathon?”
His answer? “A marathon is a foreigner at a river.”
As the Master Dà bí zi 大鼻子, Big Nose Foreigner judge, I consulted with the Chinese judges, many who taught English at Chinese public schools. They told me what sentence structures to use to form my sentences. Forming a question such as, “What is your favorite candy?” would leave a contestant paralyzed. Instead, they advised, ask, “What candy do you like?”
Since my Chinese is limited to, yoga poses, prices for fruit and requests to taxi drivers not to drive in the bike lane, I gave them all four stars.