Welcome to the Baht Life: Day One/Two

Day One

Sunday was the first day of my eight day, ten dollar budget. I enjoyed having the house to myself, as Nick was out of town teaching an English camp. Yes, the kids here spend their weekends at camps where the goal is to learn English outside of their English classes and English private tutoring. I spent Sunday doing the things I always need to do but manage to put off. I cleaned my room, organized my ever-growing pile of student work, and took care of my laundry before that pile got any larger. My parents sent me an envelope full of newspaper articles from San Diego, so stretched out on my bed and caught up with some of the current events at home. I found the selection they chose to send me interesting, as much of it focused on ridiculous stories, such as “Man leaves infant with Pit-bull as babysitter.” Also included was a picture of them in the newspaper, from a dress-your-dog-up Christmas parade. And last but not least, the papers for my student loan; a reminder that although I am on the other side of the world, I have not be able to shake free of my responsibilities back home.

I finished the articles and attempted to continue reading a book I have been struggling to get through for the past two months. The book is “100 Years Of Solitude,” which has amazing reviews and won a Noble Peace Prize. I pick it up at least three nights a week, but somehow only manage to make it through maybe ten pages before falling asleep. This was the case for Sunday as well. I was only a half chapter in when I passed out, and spent the next two hours of my Sunday afternoon napping in my warm bedroom. When I awoke, the weather had cooled down and I figured I should try and get outside and enjoy the rest of my day. I rode my bike down to Koh Lampuh, a big park in Surat Thani. The park is located on a small island, surrounded by the river. It is a beautiful place to work out, take a walk, play music, read, enjoy the sunset or people watch. I have used it for all aforementioned reasons, except that rather than playing music I was entertained by Nick and some friends, when they decided to have a jam session one Friday evening.

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After spending a few hours in the park, I went to the Sunday night market to pick up dinner. For dinner I grabbed pad thai and chicken skewers (60 baht/$2).

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After the market I went back home and started a project for my preschool class. One of the biggest differences about my preschool classroom, and American classrooms I have worked in, is the lack of visual learning aids on the wall. I decided to make a giant counting chart for the kids, so that they could touch the numbers as I said them. After hanging out with Nick and his girlfriend Kay, I called it a day and went to sleep.

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Total- 60 baht ($2)

Day Two

The arrival of Monday meant the beginning of the workweek. I have to be at work by 8 am, I get an hour lunch break and an hour break to plan, and by 3:30 I am riding my bike home. It’s a quick workday that is over before you know it.  My school also provides me with free lunch, which helps with budgeting, as long as the meal doesn’t include eggs. Anyone who knows me, knows that the one thing I hate more than anything in the world is egg. The smell, the taste, the sight, and the fact that it is a liquid animal within a shell. I do not understand why I am one of the only people I have ever known that thinks there is something wrong with that.

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(Normal school lunch- Noodles with meat and veggies on a giant prison tray.)

Planning for classes this week was easy, because I decided to structure my lessons around “Red Fish, Blue Fish, One Fish, Two Fish,” by Dr. Seuss.  I read the book to my kinder class, and had them point at different pictures and explain to me why they were silly. I left work early because I had to go to the immigration office and get my passport stamped, for a thirty-day extension. (I will not be including this cost in my budget, as it is not a normal expense of my daily life). The immigration office is an official Thai government building, and I don’t know why, but I was surprised by the condition of it. From the outside the building is part of this giant complex in traditional Thai architecture, but the inside was old, worn out, with years of dirt on the walls, and damage to the ground and doors.

 

Of course, I was the only Westerner in the entire building, and all the other immigrants stared at me like I was from another planet. The immigration office was packed to capacity with Burmese and myself, all waiting to have our passports stamped. There was a service window, and rather than a single file line, there was a cluster of people all shoving one another to get access to it. As I waited at the back of the mob, I wondered if when I got to the front if people would shove up against me as well and crush me in the sea of bodies.

 

After about twenty minutes of standing there, debating if I should move up, I realized there were another room and a sign that said “one stop visa renewal.” I wiggled my way through the crowd and walked into the next office. There I sat at a desk and waited for the woman to simply stamp my passport. I watched the clock pass over an hour, as she continued to tell me, “just one moment please.” I was patient because by the looks of the leaning towers of paper and folders on her desk, she had a lot of other work she had to do, and was probably having a long day. I sat quietly and looked around the office. Seated next to me was a mother with a baby that was naked. I wondered why she would take a naked baby, especially with no diaper, to a government office to do immigration paperwork? There are things you see here, that you just wouldn’t in the States.

 

After immigration, I went to a coffee shop and had a smoothie (50 baht/ $1.67) and worked on some lesson plans. I stopped by my neighborhood night market and picked up dinner and some more fresh fruit (80 baht/ $2.68), and some candy as rewards for my students (100 baht/$3.35).

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That evening Nick had company over, and we had a few drinks as we talked and swapped music videos from America and Thailand. I had a half bottle of whisky in the freezer, and Nick picked me up mixers, so I didn’t need to spend any money on that.

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Total- 270 Baht ($9.04)

Release Me

It’s official. If I move anywhere in South East Asia it will be to Georgetown, Penang, in Malaysia. I have only seen a tiny part of the world in my twenty-five years of life, but from what I have seen and where I have been, Georgetown was my favorite place. It is truly a global city, and I am still glowing from the weekend I spent there. I met really interesting people, I ate some of the best food I have ever had, I spent half the weekend at the beach, and the other half exploring a gorgeous city.

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I followed Anthony Bourdain’s advice and tried a few different dishes that were featured on “No Reservations.”  Of everything he recommended, my favorite was Wan Tan Mee, an amazing meal that cost less than two dollars. It was a noodle dish that I bought on the side of the road and was made within minutes right before me. The contents of my bowl included ramen, pork dumplings, thinly sliced barbequed pork, a mix of vegetables and wan tans, all swimming together in a delicious broth.  As much as I wanted to try all the different foods that Penang had to offer, I have to admit that I had this multiple times.

The second dish that I tried was Penang Laksa, which ranked 7th in a 2011 list of the world’s 50 most delicious foods. I had been at the beach all day, and was walking back to the bus stop to catch a ride back to my hostel, when I saw a sign for Penang’s world famous Laksa. It said the food stand/outdoor restaurant was rated number one in the city, and I remembered that Bourdain had eaten it and loved it, so I followed the arrows, found the place, ordered a bowl and had a seat. While I am glad I gave it a try and broadened my horizons, I can say with certainty that it was the first and last time I will eat Laksa. I wasn’t too sure of what to expect, but what arrived was a soup in a clay pot, that was a combination of noodles, onions, cucumbers, mint, ginger and lettuce.

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It looked amazing until I took my first bite, and was instantly taken back by how fishy it was. The thick broth was a murky brown and got its flavor from mackerel that had  been stewed with lemon grass and chilies. Aside from the fish taste, I enjoyed the blend of spices, but not enough to eat it again.

Another must was Indian food. My first night in Penanag I had the banana leaf Indian dinner, and over the weekend I went for Indian again with a friend that I met. I had tandoori chicken that was roasted from a street vendor and served with garlic nan and multiple dipping sauces, my favorite being the mint cilantro chutney that had a spicier kick to it than I expected. For breakfast one morning I also went to Little India and ordered roti canai, an Indian-Muslim style flatbread that you dip in sauce or curry. I watched the man at the food cart knead the dough, toss it around in the air, and then throw it on a hot flat skillet where it was brushed with butter before being flipped over, folded up and wrapped up in paper for me to take away.

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And last but not least, I had a bagel for breakfast; A sesame seed, fresh bagel, stuffed with cucumber and bacon in the middle. Bagels were part of my every day diet during college, and I haven’t even seen one since arriving in Thailand. The bagel was quite possibly the most expense meal I ate while in Georgetown, but I cannot convey the bliss it brought to my morning, when paired with a coffee and a side of fresh fruit from a street vendor.

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World renown cuisine may be what Georgetown is well known for, but I did more than just eat while I was there. I spent the first day on my own, exploring the city by foot, and didn’t return to my hostel for six hours. It was never intended to be such a long adventure, but apparently my ability to read a map isn’t as good as I thought it was. I started on Love Lane, the area my hostel was located, and headed to the waterfront, which was about a ten-minute walk.

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Once I got to the water front I just followed it all around the edge of the city. After six hours of weaving though side streets, turning the map around again and again trying to figure out where I was, cutting down little alley ways with unmarked signs, I had completely circled the city and found myself right where I had left from that late morning.

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(The side of the city where I started)

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(When I got to the very end of it and looked back and how far I’d walked)

Although I was exhausted and had considered taking a taxi multiple times, I am pleased that I didn’t, because the only way to truly get to know a place is to explore it on foot. My Tom’s were a little more worn down, my skin flushed from the sun, but during my afternoon adventure I had randomly stumbled across creative street art by a famous Malaysia artist, as well as passed some of the best architecture I have ever seen.

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Georgetown first began as a British colony, so much of the architecture that still remains is left from the colonial era. Giant white mansions rest on street corners, with wrap around gardens bursting with tropical plants and towering palms.

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These colonial buildings sit across the street from Buddhist temples, with sloping Asian style roofs, on properties that boast statues of dragons with multiple heads. The streets are lined with row houses that the British built, but are now occupied by Chinese, who hang red lanterns and birdcages outside their front doors and over their patios. If you turn the corner you will enter Little India, where you are instantly transported to an entirely different world. The smell of Indian spices and incense drifts through the streets, Indian music blares from open shops, mannequins dressed in traditional Indian fashion stand guard outside of clothing stores, and jewelry shops filled with sparkling brackets beckon you inside. There is also the modernization of Georgetown, and all the new architecture that wealth has brought with it. But there is no such thing as wealth, without poverty to compare it to.

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Beautiful high rises framed in glass raced toward the sky and were surrounded by manicured lawns and modern art sculptures that sometimes served as fountains and sometimes simply as art. Each street that I walked down became a representation of a different part of the world, and I saw more flags blowing in the warm winter air, than I was able to identify. My favorite part of the day was when I found the Chinese jetties. These jetties were first established over a hundred years ago, when Chinese families settled in Georgetown. Each jetty was built to act as a mini neighborhood for a family or clan of people. Over the years they have become homes to generations of Chinese families, and the inhabitants all live in wooden houses built over the water. The reason for building their neighbors over the water was to originally evade paying land property taxes. I wandered down the jetties, and stumbled across more art by the same famous artist.

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The most astonishing thing about Georgetown was how many people call it home. I have never been in a city that was comprised of people with every skin color, from every country, dressed in all different styles of traditional clothing, heard so many different languages around me, and tasted such a wide variety of foods. It was a collision of culture, yet all the pieces seemed to fit seamlessly together. There was harmony and cohesion and everyone was friendly and it seemed that people were accepting of all the differences around them. It seemed natural for such a global community to exist as it was doing in Georgetown, and it made it seem odd that in many places of the world we live in areas that are segregated into one type of culture or people. I left Penang hopeful that this is what the future will be like. Cultures will all learn to coexist in the same space, and rather than feeling like our neighbors are stepping on our toes with their differences, they are actually teaching and inviting us to dance.

The second day on my own I decided to explore one of the beaches I had over heard other travelers talking about. I jumped on a bus out front my hostel, which cost me around eighty cents, and took a half-hour ride along the edge of the city. From my window seat I watched as the winding snake-like coastline changed, and I finally buzzed the button that signaled the bus to stop when I saw a beach that looked like a good place to spend the day. The sun beat down on my shoulders that early December afternoon, as I threw my towel down in the sand. The weather was hotter than most San Diego summer days, and sunscreen was a must. The fact that I hadn’t brought a bathing suit with me on my trip did not stop me from swimming. The beach was almost deserted except for a few people, so when a family was near by I swam in a tank top, and when there was no one else in sign I swam in shorts and a bra. About twenty feet to my right were giant boulders that started at the sand and were scattered throughout the water, I climbed on some and swam out to others, and spent the afternoon jumping off of them, into the salty sea.

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The most surprising thing about the coastline in Georgetown was how similar it looked to certain parts of Lake Tahoe. As I rode the bus, a flood of memories washed over me as I looked at scenery that was too familiar. I was reminded of the time I spent with him, and the afternoons we spent climbing on giant rocks and admiring the frigid lake water, surrounded by a ring of snowy mountains. Its been a year since we lived together in Tahoe, and it was depressing to realize that he should have been here by my side, spending this weekend with me. At the same time, I found beauty in the fact that I was alone, comfort in my own company, and the security of knowing that I had come so far in a year, and I had taken a giant step to completely change my life, and I was doing it on my own. In Tahoe there were days that I was truly unhappy and wanted to change my situation, but couldn’t bring myself to leave his side, despite how badly I had wanted to. Now a year later, there was nothing that could make me sacrifice my own happiness for another person, and riding on the bus, I realized how much stronger I have become in taking control of my life.

I had an unforgettable weekend away, and the entire time I was in the city I was dreading the Monday afternoon when I would be forced back onto a minivan to return to Thailand. But as I rode back to the country I am temporarily calling home, I watched the city behind me growing smaller as Caribou pulsed through my head from the headphones wedged in my ears, and I knew even though I was leaving, I was so fortunate to have spent the last four days there. Georgetown was like a cup of perfectly brewed tea that included spices that had been traded all over the world and shared between many people. After generations and generations of trying different blends, the perfect cup was produced, and everyone was enjoying and sharing it. And all I wanted was a sip, a taste of something my own country has never been able to offer me.