Sunday, February 27, 2011

More observations from Bangkok

I've officially been in Bangkok for 24 days. Well, I haven't had as much time to write as I had hoped - this city can be rather overwhelming and my hotel where I was staying was on a loud, busy, and chaotic shopping street (Thanon Petchburi) and after negotiating traffic or walking through the streets, I was normally reluctant to head back out. I was also having trouble sleeping - what with the noise, the air conditioning, and the very high pillows that they had on offer. I also struggled a bit with the air quality here - there is a lot of smog and I had throat and chest problems for the first few weeks.

Finding an apartment here was much easier than it was in Amsterdam - there are estate agents who will find tons of places fro you and show you around - they are paid by the apartment buildings not you, so they are not as biased as the ones in Amsterdam (who wanted to charge you a month's rent to help you and therefore only wanted to show you the most expensive apartments around). So after about 4 days of apartment hunting - I narrowed it down to where I wanted to live. I wanted someplace quiet (that crazy street was getting to me) and I wanted someplace that was vibrant enough that I could walk outside and find street food, massages, bars, and grocery stores. Sukhumvit Soi 13 seems to be the place! I can take a tuk tuk or a motorcycle taxi or walk 15 minutes to the end of my street and there is the sky train (Nana stop) and everything you could want from Indian/Bangladeshi food, German beer halls, department stores, McDonald's, Starbucks, tailor shops, teak shops, Thai iced tea stands, fresh fruit vendors, Australian bars, the CHIC hotel, the Trendy hotel, Seven-Elevens, and an expat grocery store. Meanwhile at my end of the soi, the khlong goes past and I can cut through an abandonded building to the pier and catch the taxi up to the main shopping area where I used to live where I can also transfer to the boat to my office.

My apartment is huge - I'm going to install ceiling fans because although its temperate right now, it gets stuffy. I have humongous bedrooms with king sized beds and three bathrooms with showers and tubs all for less than my apartment in Amsterdam. I could have spent less but my job is reimbursing my housing so i won't pay anything for this apartment and I do love having houseguests.

So - some random things that have gone through my head since moving here:
  • The beautiful wats (temples) are sprinkled throughout the city - gold is everywhere.
  • It's surprisingly green but not green enough. The air quality would improve and the noise would improve if all of those skyscrapers and buildings were required to have green roofs. How lovely it would be.
  • The food is fantastic - but yet you can still find bad food. The backpacker's paradise - Khao San road has the worst food I've tried yet. Its also more expensive than even the giant shopping malls. 
  • Thai culture probably has more to it than shopping and eating but I haven't discovered it yet.
  • People are friendly and cheerful. It's a pleasant change from Amsterdam to walk down the street and greet and smile at people. Many of the working class people in Amsterdam were cheerful and friendly (all the market dudes and small shop keepers) but its hard to be cheerful and smile when you are cycling through hurricane force winds and rain to get to work in the dark. 
  • Tuk Tuks and motorcycle taxis tend to rip off foreigners - they are supposed to be cheaper than the air conditioned taxis but inevitably they end up quoting me much higher prices... so I take the taxis. But I'd rather take the motorcycle. That is until I remember my trip through Sri Lanka (see "A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again")
  • There are more english language books here than there were in Amsterdam... I am going to go to the Khao San Road tomorrow and stock up. The backpackers trade them in and I'm sure I can get some good deals. 
  • Its good to have friends visit you. I just had a fantastic Friday night and Sunday brunch with my friend Patrick and his partner. Awaiting my friend Olga to arrive at my apartment in an hour for dinner. I feel lonely sometimes but mostly happy to be still in touch with beautiful friends from around the world through the internet! 

Old Emails: 2006 in Northern Uganda

November 7, 2006
Kampala to Gulu

When RI visited Gulu in February 2006, it was too
dangerous to drive to Gulu. Due to attacks by the
Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) who were fighting with
the Uganda People’s Defense Forces (UPDF), NGOs
usually flew or went in military convoys. Since the
government of Uganda and LRA have begun peace talks in
Juba, South Sudan, a lot has changed. My colleague,
Madame X, and I drove to Gulu from Kampala on Tuesday.
While there was a lot of initial confusion about
whether or not we would have to leave at 5am (as many
of you know, I’m not a morning person), we eventually
decided that we would leave at 7am so we would reach a
key bridge before the military convoys and get to Gulu
around 1pm. It was raining and quite cool when we left
Kampala and made our way through the traffic clogged
rush hour listening to a local radio ‘morning show’
that specializes in calling up listeners and
pretending to be in love with them and encouraging
them to declare their love as well. About an hour
outside of the city, the scenary changed- the sun came
out, the countryside became very lush with banana
trees and mango trees and occasional monkeys running
up to our car as we swerved around potholes.

Our driver, Andrew (not his real name), started to
tell me about his childhood in Gulu. “Sometimes, I sit
with my wife and I ask her why I was born an Acholi”
he told me, “to be born an Acholi is to have nothing
but problems.” He elaborated later – “my brother was
abducted by the LRA when he was fourteen years old. We
do not even know where he is. We believe he is dead.
He is dead to us. You see – we cannot be living always
in the past. We have to try to survive. My family fled
to Kampala when the rebels came to fight. But it is
the UPDF who gives us the problems.”

When we drove up to the outskirts of Gulu town, we
began to see the immense government-controlled camps
where the displaced Acholis live. While the conflict
with the LRA has lasted for over 20 years, it wasn’t
until about 1996 when the government of Uganda
mandated that the bulk of the population had to move
into these camps where they could be ‘protected’ by
the UPDF. In order to protect the population, the UPDF
enforced a very strict curfew, beating or killing
anyone found outside the camps for suspected
collaboration with the LRA. Sadly, putting everyone in
the camps, allowed the LRA to attack the population
with ease. Many times the camps would be attacked at
night and children abducted and huts burned down.

Andrew became more visibly agitated the closer we came
to the town. “See that soldier there? All he has to do
is use his gun and steal someone’s bicycle. That
person would have to give it to him. We have no power
here in our own land.” We arrived at our guesthouse
and he was anxious to leave. Have a cold drink, we
offered. “No. I am not from here anymore. I want to go
home to Kampala.” He said and drove off back down the
Gulu-Kampala road.

Old Emails: 2005 in the Congo

Part Two of the Saga

We had quite an exciting day in Ituri on Wednesday of
last week when we finally got out of the town and
surrounding areas. We accompanied CESVI, an Italian
NGO, on a trip to a camp called Kafe on the shores of
Lake Albert. It was in a pretty remote area so we
drove for two hours down to the shore and then boarded
boats loaded up with NFI (Non-food Items - blankets,
soap, tarps) to distribute to the approximately 10,000
IDPs (refugees who are still in their own country) who
had fled recent fighting and moved to this area
trapped between the mountains and the lake. On top of
the area being fairly remote, they also had a big bout
of cholera going on because the lake is cholera -
endemic and people were refusing to drink the treated
water brought in by NGOs because it smelled of

After waiting about 30 minutes at the beginning of the
trip for two Italian journalists to finally get out of
bed and join us, we took off in a convoy of three
jeeps and our truck to head over the mountains down to
the lake. The countryside was so beautiful. I had
always heard how beautiful Congo was but it had never
really hit me until we were driving for hours without
really encountering a lot of people. The rolling hills
are covered in lush green grass with flowering
"flamboyant" trees and boulders dotted about. We did
get stopped twice by the Army at roadblocks but these
are the "Ituri First Brigade" who are trained by the
Belgians and South Africans and supposed to be
professional. As they didn't shake us down for money,
we were impressed. However, we had interviewed IDPs
and other community folk who said that there was a
problem with the brigade - they hadn't been paid for a
few weeks and were starting to "feed themselves by
their guns" and looting some communities.

We landed down by the lake to board the boats. The
boats that were transporting our goods were long "john
boats" (from those of you from South Carolina) with
small outboard motors. We climbed won on to them, made
ourselves comfortable on the tarp settled on top of
the bags of goodies, and settled in fro the two hour
boat ride. As some of you may know, I get seasick
pretty easily so I took the precaution of taking
dramamine and wearing some sea-sick arm bands that are
supposed to help. They helped but I slept for about an
hour on the boat trying to cover my feet with my
backpack and pull my bandana over my face. It wasn't
enough - I'm bright red and sunburned right now with a
lovely demarkation of my long sleeve, my seasickness
band, and my sunglasses outlining parts of my body.

About a half an hour before we reached the camp, we
encountered some pretty fierce winds and the lake got
really choppy. They had handed out lifejackets to the
"muzungos" (white people) so we felt okay about being
plunged into the choleric waters but one of our boats
accompanying us (from German Agro-Action) was not as
lucky. They capsized and lost their entire load of
food and we rescued their workers and continued to
head into Kafe camp. The waves were really choppy and
we got soaked as the water splashed up on us and by
the time we reached Kafe, where we could see the
people lined up on the shores waiting for us, we were
really wet. The Congolese rowed out in pretty
unseaworthy canoes to meet up with us. Those boats are
a three man operation - two to row and one to bail. As
the boats docked, the Congolese men ran out to them
and carried the cargo in to different distribution
points near the shore. It was reminiscent of old
movies about colonials and their African porters
lugging everything on their heads.

It was pretty awe-inspiring to see the non-food item
distribution. There were hundred of bags filled with
blankets,soap, and tarps, one for each family. the
first thing off the boat were ropes and stakes where
the humanitarian workers outlined intake and outtake
queues. The Italian agency, CESVI, had handed out
slips of paper to the head of households the day
before and they lined up to receive the distribution -
as there is very little to do in a refugee camp, the
rest of the people lined up to watch this. CESVI
selected women to pass out the bags because men are
notoriously corrupt in these matters - giving their
friends two or three bags. The tickets were checked
when they entered the queue and checked again as they
left to catch people without them. The women streamed
in with babies strapped to their backs, hoisted the
bags on their heads and then headed back to their
huts. It was a seamless procedure.

After documenting the distribution for a while, we
decided to walk around the IDP camp. The army is
camped out there but the population doesn't mind
because they feel safer. The fact that the army is
Congolese means that they suffer the same
socio-economic condition as the IDPs. In fact, three
soldiers died of cholera. They eat the same food as
the IDPs and most wear flip flops in lieu of boots.
The IDPs seemed to be in pretty good condition - there
was a small market set up where one could buy ladies
underwear, sugar from South Africa, or salt - a
luxury. Some IDPs have money but most have very
little. It's a common misconception that most IDPs and
refugees are completely destitute - the problem is
some of them have money but there is nothing to buy.

The storm on the lake had really begun to pick up so
we decided it would be too difficult to take the boats
back - espescially since they were so light now
without anything loaded into them. We negotiated our
way onto the MONUC (UN in Congo) helicopter piloted by
the Bangladeshi air force. Like any other military
men, they were reluctant to do anything they didn't
have paperwork authorizing them to do. Andrea, my
Italian colleague and the most skilled negotiator, got
them to call their base and get confirmation that we
were okay. After a few hectic uncertain minutes where
I began to worry that we were going to have to stay
overnight in the camp or face another few hours of
sunstroke on the boats, we were cleared.

We said "Au revoir" to the IDPS who all gathered
around the helicopter to wave us off and took off for
the return trip. As opposed to the five hours it took
us to get there, we were home in 30 minutes. So, off
we went to the "Hellenic" - the favorite restaurant
(of two) in Bunia for cold "Nile" beer, brochettes of
beef, pommes frites, and cucumber salads. As the
sunburn kicked in, I decided I need to go home so I
paid a 'moto taxi' (motorcycle) one dollar (way above
'le prix Congolaise') and roared off down the dusty
road to the amusement of all of the Congolaise women
around me.

More later about the convoluted trip routings of the
UN MOVCON (office in charge of transport)....

Old Emails: 2004 Liberia

Monrovia, Liberia
March 14, 2004

Please excuse the group format – I decided that it is much easier to write an email on my computer in my room at night than it is to start writing only to have the electricity go out on the computer right as I’m about to hit send. I’m currently in Monrovia , Liberia . I spent one week in Sierra Leone and landed in Monrovia yesterday. It was not as exciting as my previous trips to Sierra Leone . Sometimes I think its more fun to travel alone because then you get in more scrapes that make more interesting stories.

I did finally get to fly on a helicopter. If you remember from my previous Sierra Leone adventure, my biggest disappointment was that the helicopters were all grounded and I had to take the ferry. Well this time, I got on the helicopter. It was a little anticlimactic. It’s loud, smells like helicopter fuel, and the seats are basically bench seats along the sides of the helicopter so there are no backs. It’s not so bad for the 10-minute flight from the airport to the hotel but for the hour-long trip to the provinces, it’s not that great. They give you headphones to wear to block the noise so you can’t talk to any of your neighbors. I have discovered (something that Alec already knew) that I can pretty much sleep anywhere – on a helicopter, in a train station, in a bumping car on a back highway in Haiti. Closing your eyes and napping is a very useful alternative to nausea, which is my other option. On the last part of the helicopter trip there was a big to do as they loaded up the helicopter with fresh supplies for some of the troops. As our “onboard snack” we were able to help ourselves to the tomatoes, cucumbers, and cabbages that were stacked between our feet. As I was the only woman on the flight, I was also blessed with the only earplugs that they had.

We’ve been using the UN military helicopters and planes and in general, the Ukrainian and Russian pilots are very chivalrous and help me into and out of the helicopters. I felt sort of like a movie star on Friday. The Bangladeshi troops stationed at the Bo Airport asked if they could have their picture taken with me. It could be sweet and innocent but I know better of what those guys are capable of doing. There are probably disgusting things being done with my photo as we speak. That’s the flip side to the chivalry.

Colleague is teaching me to drink single malt scotch and I am teaching him how to hear the beat in music so he can eventually learn how to dance. We have argued a couple of times about gender issues -in criticizing anything about the military, are you ignoring the fact that the soldiers may die at some point fighting to protect the civilians.  I argue, the military are supposed to protect the citizens – particularly the women and children – not rape them. It’s so disturbing the things that you hear in this job. I heard about a gang of Bangladeshi soldiers gang raping a 10 year old. Some man also raped and gave an STI to a 3-½ month old baby. These people are usually never punished. They can often make monetary payments to the victim and get off scott free. Anyway, I’m trying to expose it all in the bulletins that we’re writing so maybe I can embarrass the UN more to take this stuff more seriously and punish these guys.

Surprisingly though, I am not opposed to the military or to the presence of UN peacekeepers. They are in general, very good. You see them playing with the kids in refugee camps, they organized volleyball games with the Sierra Leone kids out in the wilderness outside of Kenema. They are usually fathers who have young children at home and they keep the pictures of their children with them. I met a very nice and enthusiastic young Pakistani man who has three kids. He talks about them fondly and how overwhelmed his wife is and how he wants to go home so he can play with them and let her rest for a while. It’s sweet. Of course, I haven’t really met the Nigerians, Ghanaians, or other African troops. They are supposed to have thousands of girlfriends and leave behind lots of babies as they pull out of the country. This is no new revelation, this has been happening since the beginning of time but it’s scary and sad that absolutely no progress has happened on this issue.

We stayed in Bo at the house of one of the UNHCR staff one night. He was American and had satellite tv so we had a good time watching MTV and talking about Chris Rock, Dave Chapelle, and old Saturday Night Live skits (in particular the one about Strom Thurmond during the Clarence Thomas hearings). Unfortunately, there was no electricity after 11pm and it is the middle of the dry season. That means it’s hot as hell and there is no breeze at night. The next day was a relative paradise compared to that. We stayed with the Pakistani Battalion in the field near Kenema. They put me up in the VIP “container” – it’s a former shipping container that has a bathroom and an air conditioner. I even had my own “room attendant”. The food was out of this world! A huge buffet of several kinds of curry. The Pakistanis treated us like royalty.

Liberia looks a lot better than it did the last time I was here. The restaurant at the hotel we are staying in has instituted a delicious Lebanese style brunch that we indulged in this morning. It was a nice change from the nonstop diet of Barracuda that I had adopted in Sierra Leone . I’ve been trying to avoid dairy, salads, uncooked foods, and anything other than bottled water. So all I eat is barracuda and rice.

The air conditioners are working; we have running water with pretty good water pressure, and CNN. In fact, we were watching CNN yesterday afternoon talking about work and suddenly – Ken Bacon, our boss, appeared on the screen! He was being interviewed live about the Sudan . What a small world. There we sat in Liberia, watching our boss in Washington , talk about the Sudan . We were finally able to get on email today so I am feeling a little less cut off from the world. It looks like there is a lot of construction going on. I am looking forward to getting out of the city. We are going to try to ride along on a patrol of the UN peacekeepers. Perhaps I’ll get my picture on a tank a la Dukakis.

Anyway, nothing too exciting has come out the trip to Liberia yet. We did run into the waiter that was working here the last time I was here. He remembered me because we had a memorable evening doing fancy napkin folds and teaching each other different kinds. He bought me a drink. Unfortunately, it led us to open up the bottle of Scotch that we bought in the Paris duty-free and start drinking while listening to Johnny Cash on colleague's Ipod. I decided it would be fun to stay up to 2:30am and dance in my hotel room to Haitian music. Amazingly, Scotch doesn’t really give you a hangover like wine does! A monster may have been born. We’ve spent today just writing up bulletins and trying to outline a larger document we want to write and put out when we return. I get more work done here than I ever do in DC.

Old email: 2006 Lebanon

One of the things that I miss the most about my old job at Refugees International was how much freedom and creativity I had there. As I sit here now working at the UN and stewing under "travel authorization" forms and formal ccing of people and slaving over my email's tone - I miss my "cowboy" days. MSF for all its "cowboy" attitude had nothing on Refugees International. When you are picked up from the airport, shepherded around, and have a place to live, you are not free to meet the crazy and the wild and the wonderful from the world.

Here is an email I wrote to my friend Alec about getting my hair cut and colored in Beirut during the war there. I spent 6 weeks in Beirut during the Israeli bombing campaign against Hezbollah. While it was intense and scary, there were these weird moments of normality - I got my hair cut, I bought sunglasses, I went out for drinks. Here's one of them:

August 7, 2006
Beirut, Lebanon

Let me relate my latest scare. Was it a bomb? No. A terrorist? No. An anti-western demonstrator? No.

I got my hair cut in Lebanon and my roots touched up. Since my hair is fried out and platinum blonde right now from the Sudan/Beach/Mexico and I never had time to get it cut before I came, I decided to take Kristele up on her offer to find a hair dresser.

I am traumatized. The hairdresser, a very dapper very hip looking gorgeous (straight!) Lebanese man asked
me through my translator if I wanted to make my hair match the lighter or darker part of my hair. I said, I don't want it the same color as my ends and launched into an explanation of how it had become quite a bit blonder than I normally had it because it had been ages since it had been cut. He offered to put highlights in it and tone down the color a bit. Sounds good. I then explained how I wanted it cut so it's more curly and that I always just scrunch it with some product and he knodded.

Imagine my shock and horror when they took the bits of foil off and my hair was dark brown with white stripes in it. I started to panic but he tutted me. "It will look very natural." Then I started to remember what Lebanese women look like. They are all a size 2 with dark tans and they have severely highlighted hair that is either dark brown with chunky blonde highlights or red blond with white highlights. They wear designer jeans, stiletto heels, off the shoulder dresses and carry Fendi purses.

I had just spent three exceedingly hot hours in a parking garage interviewing refugees and was wearing a very wrinkled linen shirt, my RI vest, those orange shoes, and was sweaty, shiny, and feeling very bloated and fat. And nothing makes you feel worse than sitting in the chair, facing the mirror with your scagged back wet dark brown with white striped hair reflection looking back at you. I just stared at my lap. "I can wear a bandana until I get to Paris. Noone knows me here." I reassured myself.

Then he washed it and low and behold, it blended in. Then we sat at the chair and he cut the first piece of hair at my chin length. "I still want  it long!" i shrieked at my translator. He just chopped away without talking. I was scrutinizing the color and watching to see where the white parts were peaking out. I could still see them, I thought.

Then he turned me away from the mirror and made me bend over while he blow dried my hair. He turned me around to the mirror. 

It's ash blonde. It matches my roots and eyebrows. It's...... my natural color. And the longest part barely reaches my shoulders.

I don't know how I feel.  

I just came out of the shower after scrubbing myself clean. Put on fresh clothes. Put on some makeup and my earrings. I'm drinking a beer and preparing myself to go look back in the mirror again.

I don't know how I feel about being my natural color.

I'm going to be 39 tomorrow. I suppose after 15 years, it's about time.

Old emails: 2005 Sri Lanka

Old post I found from Sri Lanka which has a lot to do with my time in Bangkok so I thought I would re-post it:

September 8, 2005
Colombo, Sri Lanka

I did a (stupid? fun? adventuresome? foolish?) thing yesterday. I was a little tired of riding the buses
from town to town. While they are cheap, they are often crowded and I was afraid I wouldn't get a seat on this last bus. But first a little back story...

Sunday, after taking the bus and a tuk tuk to Sigiriya (about 3 hours from Kandy), I decied to go on safari. We took a jeep out to the national park and I saw three herds of wild elephants, some monkeys, wild peacocks, and tons of painted storks. It was really fun and a little expensive on my budget ($50). I then went to the posh $200/night hotel to have a drink and hang out and soak in the ambience rather than sit on the porch of my rather seedy run down rest house and drink lime and soda. The guesthouse workers told me that I need to "watch out for elephants in the road' at night so its not safe to walk (which is probably a lie - these guys would squeeze money out of a turnip)
so they gave me a taxi (not a tuk tuk for 80rupees but a taxi for $35 a day). The fancy hotel is about a 2 minute drive down the road from my rest house. "Pay what you like Madam", they said. I said "Okay, I'd like to pay nothing."

Anyway, the one gin and tonic I drank made me loopy. I blame not drinking for a week and the incredibly
intense ayurvedic massage I had which made me feel like a side of Kobe beef being tenderized for the

On the way back to my guest house, after almost running over a cobra, I agreed to take a motorbike to Polonarruwa yesterday. Thats' right, ride on the back of a dirtbike with my backpack on for two and a half hours. Now the reason why this is foolish is that the cars in sri lanka practice "trickle" style driving. If there is a hole in traffic, they trickle into it. Nature abhors a vaccuum and all that. So, as I clung to the back of my slightly fat Sri Lankan driver in a helmet that turns out to be made of styrofoam, we zoomed in and out of traffic with buses, 18 wheelers, tuk tuks, army jeeps, and cars alternatively passing us (while sometimes passing anothr truck simultaneously) on a two lane road  that winds up through the jungle. I was scared out of my mind (not to mention in pain from my backpack which has too many books in it and breathing exhaust). It was, in the words of Jonathan Coe or somebody "a supposedly fun thing I'll never do again". We also had to dodge people, dogs, a water monitor, cows, and a goat while driving along. I was also told to keep an eye out for elephants as we took a shortcut through a national park.

I'm lucky to be alive. all of this took place after I climbed Sigiriya rock fortress (which takes two hours) and climbed another mountain to look at some buddhist caves. My back, legs, and arms are dying but I'm too afraid to get another ayurvedic massage.

I wrote that yesterday, today I took the 5 hour bus from Polonnaruwa to Colombo. I think our driver might have actually been a demon from hell. He drove like a crazy person. I began laughing fiendishly whenever
some new unsuspecting soul got on the bus - GOOD LUCK SUCKER! We made it somehow and I'm now having culture shock as I sit in our luxury hotel that Joel reserved for us. 

Some photos from Thailand

 My new office, the United Nations building. I'm on the 3rd floor in the UNHCR Regional Office.

One of the most fun parts about moving here is using the public transportation - in this case, the canal water taxis. Not many farang (white people) on it and it MOVES unlike Bangkok's auto traffic. Downside - toxic water splashing you in the face. These canals are not too clean.

 The view from my new apartment down into the pool. It's got a proper pool where you can swim laps. And yesterday, after a harrowing day shopping in grocery stores and department stores crowded with people, I relaxed by taking a swim and then floating for about half an hour, just looking at the sky. Now that's a way to come home.

 My new apartment - beautiful hard wood floors and balconies. I'm ITCHING to get to the plant shop and buy some jasmine, basil, tomatos, and chilis for the balcony. There's actually two balconies - one off my bedroom and one off the living room.

Everywhere you go in Bangkok, there are people selling and consuming food. Here's a snap from the street next to one of the big malls here - they sell giant prawns which they grill and the tables are set right there on the sidewalk next to the traffic.

 Here's a view from one of the overpasses on the canal or Khlong. The contrast between old Bangkok on the water and the modern crazy obsessed with new city is most marked here.

Jim Thompson's House. He was an entrepeneur (and probably a former spy for the US) and he built this gorgeous house from traditional thai houses. It is so lovely it made me want to cry. How can I live like that?

Tropical flowers....

 Here's the Erawan shrine. It's a very popular place with Thais waving joss sticks, buying garlands and garlands of marigolds and jasmine, and Thai dancers performing for those who are thankful that their needs were attended to. This shot is from the skywalk overhead that I was using as I transited from one shopping mall to another. Again -the contrast between the traditional and the modern really intrigues me. Cultural Hybridity indeed.

Cool tropical fruit drinks.... I am obsessed with Lime Sodas but this passion fruit, mint, cocktail was pretty impressive too. 

Tuesday, February 08, 2011

Saturday in Bangkok

Wednesday and Thursday: Days one and two – a blur of jetlag, air conditioned high rises, indecipherable UN jargon, taxi cabs, and room service.

Friday: Day three –I finally shook off the jet lag funk and decided to explore and have a thrilling adventure! I took a water taxi home with two Finnish ladies from my office who showed me the way – we paid 8 baht (the euro is currently at 1 = 41 baht so approximately 20 euro cents or a quarter in the US) and rode a speedy motorized canal boat under bridges and through the canals that hide inside Bangkok. I got off a short walk from my hotel, headed into a seven-eleven, bought some milk, beer and snacks and tried to see what was going on around me. I went into the mall across the street which was chock-a-block crowded with trendy little dress and t-shirt shops with names like Gin/Tonic, Vodka, and Buttermilk. Everything looked doll-sized. I felt like a tall Irish milkmaid awash on the shores of a manga cartoon.

On the Saturday morning, I got up, organized my crazed hotel room (big suitcases everywhere that spewed my belongings form where I had rifled through them trying to find things to wear in this tropical environment). After a dip in the pool, I headed to the sky train. There is a very efficient (although not very big) metro system here in Bangkok. The Sky train is an elevated train system that is incredibly easy to use – it cost about 20 baht to move from one part of town to the other. The stops are clearly marked in English and Thai and its air-conditioned and quick. I headed towards a part of town called Sukhamvit between the Nana and Asok stops to look at the neighborhoods in anticipation of moving to the area. It’s a very expat friendly area but also quite business-y. There were Au Bon Pains, Dunkin’ Donuts, McDonalds, and shopping malls everywhere but also street vendors selling squid on a stick, noodle soups, and sweets. It’s also the home of the infamous Soi Cowboy – a Vietnam war left-over strip of go-go bars, sleazy drinking establishments and yes – even a Dutch bar that sells bitterballen and Frikandel. I can’t get away from that food!

I went to get a massage at a lovely spa called Divana – a small garden house at the end of one of a soi (Soi means alley or lane). It was so luxurious – I chose which massage oil I wanted to have and the ladies lead me to the room where I was asked to change into mandatory provided disposable underwear (size XL for the large American posterior, of course). After 70 minutes of being climbed on, prodded, kneaded, and tugged – the knots and tension from the moving process dissolved. I felt completely zoned out. That blissful feeling was quickly undone by my next stop – the Consumerist paradise known as the Siam Paragon mall (Siam Paragon Food Hall.) It was overwhelming!

I had so much to choose from that I had to be really strict with myself and force myself to choose the first thing I saw that I wanted. Otherwise, I would have been crippled with indecision! So I had Hainanese Chicken and Rice (which I discovered in Singapore) which was delicious. Its so simple but so good that I learned how to make it at home just so I could have it again! I washed it down with some Thai Iced Tea (so sweet it made my teeth hurt) and to counter balance the sweetness of the Thai Iced Tea, for dessert I decided to have Green Papaya Salad which they prepared right in front of me.

After I fed the beast within, I wandered through the food court looking at everything for offer just for future reference. Next time - I can choose between the Pad Thai stand, the noodle soup stand, the curry stand, the sushi bar, the satay bar or if I want to wander away from Thai food, I can have noodles from Vietnam, Japan, China, Singapore, or even Italy! And for the more discerning palate, there is McDonalds, Burger King, and Dunkin Donuts!

I love food and I love choices in food and I love trying things that I have never had before. This is the sad thing about traveling alone.

I had big intentions of going to a movie that night. Since Thailand has a thriving bootleg DVD business, I had read that all the big movies air here at the same time as Hollywood releases them so as to cut down on having them bootlegged. The Fighter, an Oscar nominated film, was playing at the posh theatre but the air conditioning ws so cold that I didn’t think I could hack 2 hours sitting in a sundress. Just like Holland, I’m going to have to learn to carry a sweater with me everywhere I go! So I skipped the movie and headed home to the hotel to watch a mawkish Richard Gere and his dog movie while chatting with friends in the US over the internet. The good thing about this move is that it has made it easier to communicate with my friends from the US but now I’m 6 hours ahead of Europe and can’t seem to get in sync with anyone there. Hello- friends from Europe! Email me when you are up so I can call you!

Next up – a Sunday at the weekend market….

Thursday, February 03, 2011

First impressions: Bangkok

Yesterday, I arrived at the incredibly beautiful and efficient airport - took a taxi into town - lots of highways but decent non crazy driving - not like India. The city is huge and filled with skyscrapers but also lots of mango trees and the river!
I'm staying in a super mod studio apartment on the 26th floor. There's a pool. I overlook a mall. I watched Shaka Zulu and the BBC coverage of Egypt while falling asleep, ordering room service (Chicken with green curry), reading, checking facebook, and falling asleep some more.
UNHCR picked me up in a sleek town car this morning - I passed a monk in saffron robes crossing the highway, a bunch of riot police eating breakfast and getting ready to go to a demonstration fo the red and yellow shirts, women in traditional thai clothes cooking over a charcoal briquet, and several old white men backpackers who were up to no good, I'm sure.
In the office, I am back in cubicle land. I have a big cubicle next to the office fridge, microwave, and copy machine. Hmmm - promotion? Demotion? Hard to tell -people share offices here and the secretaries sit in the cubicles but I still feel like I have more privacy than I did in the open arrangement of MSF. Turns out I know one of the women in the office here - we met and had drinks in Juba, South Sudan. Small world!
I went to lunch after a round of "how do you do?"s and sat outside in the courtyard filled with beautiful tropical trees and cats (!) and ate some dim sum dumplings and larb gai that was made freshly for me and a thai lime soda - cost 3 euros, approximately. For the condiments table in the cafeteria, there are four giant bowls of chilis - chilis in vinegar, chilis in fish sauce, dry chilis, and raw fresh chilis. I sunned my pathetically pale arms in the sun and listened to my stomach scramble around to try to deal with the chili peppers in my larb gai. 
After flagging a taxi home (not that easy of a job!), I've returned to the modern skyscraper in the sky where I hear Chinese New Year going on down on the ground but I fade in and out of jet lagged dreams filled with Egyptian riots and Dutch snowstorms....