Sad melty snowman.

THEY say that re-entry can be harder than culture shock in the first place, but I’m not hoping to stay here long enough to find out.  There are, however, a few things that have jumped out at us in the past few days (plus some random pictures of our new digs):

Americans are LOUD.  I used to think this meant that Americans are rude, or overbearing, but no.  They are just plain noisy.  After two years in the Caribbean, where people are such soft talkers I could rarely understand a word they said, and a year in Thailand, it’s a big shock to hear people SHOUTING in perfectly quiet situations for NO APPARENT REASON.

On an Amtrak train, I heard two men halfway across a train from each other conducting a conversation, of which, although I was another half a train car away, I could hear every word.  Later, snugged in my seat, desperately trying to hear the faint train announcements about a delay, I was thwarted by a lady 4 seats back describing how she ironed the nightgown she gave her daughter for Christmas before sending it (did I really need to know this??). After she hung up, she had the temerity to stand up and announce to everyone, “Did anyone catch those announcements?”

Fed up, I somewhat snippily said, “No, ma’am, I couldn’t hear a thing because you were talking so loudly,” then immediately apologized, because I felt like a total ass.

She said, “Oh, I’m sorry, you should  have interrupted me.”

I replied, “I tried, but you couldn’t HEAR me.”

She harrumphed and turned to another guy a few seats ahead, asking if he had heard the announcements.  I felt vastly better when he snapped, “No, ma’am, I couldn’t hear a thing because you were talking so loudly.” Ha!

The other day, Philip and I actually heard every word of a conversation two guys were having . . . across the street.

Seriously, volume, people.  In Thailand, you’ll be on a packed sky train, right next to someone on the phone, and they are discretely covering the mouthpiece with their hand and talking so quietly YOU CAN’T HEAR A THING THEY ARE SAYING.

Kittehs are not big. Kittehs are very small, because they are freezing.

Americans are BIG.  Not just fatter, but large in every dimension.  This one shouldn’t be surprising, but I find my self, at five-foot-two, frustrated to not be able to see anything in and roughly jostled by people twice my mass in crowds.

Americans are friendly, but… strangely hostile.  There’s a reason Thailand is known as the land of smiles – even if you just casually catch the eye of someone speeding past on a motorbike, you get a smile.  Every interaction starts with a smile, which I’ve been told is a way of establishing face.  It’s gentle, and very, very nice.

Needless to day, in the U.S., this does not happen.  While some people smile, mostly they just look at me with slight suspicion when I automatically smile on catching their eye.  That said, boy do they have the habit of cheerfully discussing the most intimate details of their lives with strangers, and genuinely asking how you are and — mostly — being interested in your answer.  It’s disconcerting after Thailand, where the interaction almost always ends with the smile (which may be cultural, but is probably also because of my utter, shameful, pathetic lack of Thai language skills).

Pika is THE JUDGE!! She’s saying, “Oh, it’s on of THOSE.”

But while you have a good chance of having a friendly conversation with your checkout lady, there’s a flip side, which is the outright hostility and frustration you get from so many other people, like they’re pissed you just exist.  My first night in DC, Philip and I were walking down the Friday-night-crowded street in Adams Morgan when I ended up doing that little dance with a woman approaching me, you know, the one where you’re trying to figure out who goes to which side.  She huffed, scowled, turned to her friend and said, “Oh, it’s one of THOSE.” Seriously?  In Thailand, that exchange would have involved nice mini-bows (kinda nods with a baby curtsy), big smiles and a little laugh.  Not an irritated implication that I was a total idiot for not being able to read her mind about which way she wanted to walk.

There’s also a sense in the U.S. that, at any point, someone could just snap, an underlying violence and hostility that we both find unsettling.  We’ve heard that in Thailand, the smile only goes so far, and that American dudes sometimes get in trouble because they start a bar fight and expect it to just be a bar fight, in the process insulting someone’s honor, and end up stabbed and dead because the other guy had lost so much face.  But, short of this kind of massive douchebaggery, in Thailand you never get the sense of hostility that is palpable among so many people here.

Our house, in the middle of our street...

Our house, in the middle of our street…

OMG HUGE PORTIONS AND WTF YOU CALL THAT FOOD???  You’ve heard it a million times, but it bears repeating: There’s a reason America is struggling with an obesity epidemic. Americans eat absolutely enormous portions, and total crap “food.”  Seriously, one Chipotle burrito or average meal at a restaurant is literally 2-3 times more than the serving size in Thailand.  Or anywhere else in the world, I suspect. And what IS that crap they are eating??

Recycling!  We totally forgot it existed.  Got through the first big bag of trash, took it out back to throw away, and realized there were recycling bins.  Score!

Sidewalks!!  Wide sidewalks, without street stalls, electricity poles and random electrical boxes blocking the whole thing!  No more walking in the gutter.  More importantly, I don’t have to listen to Pip bitch about walking in the gutter!

Stay tuned for more pithy or inane observations…

In the meantime, check out this awesome 10 Japanese Travel Tips for Visitors to America.

Absolutely EPIC Delta Failures, Somewhat Redeemed

SO, yeah, getting to DC was a massive pain, what with snowstorm “Pax” shutting down the entire East coast the day we arrived.  (Pax? PAX? Why does every storm need a name now?  Also, pax means peace in Latin.  Doesn’t anyone think these things through?) Here’s the FB post I wrote last Wednesday, following 30 hours of travel: 

P10606842/12/14: Philip, the cats and I are in the U.S. . . . barely. We made it to LA before our journey took a slight detour.

So, this happened:

Fail: Woke up at 1am, definitely sick. At the airport by 2:30 for the 5:30 flight, where I thankfully was able to get over the counter antibiotics, as this cold is notorious for turning into a chest infection.

Fail: Which was great, because I woke up from my first nap on the leg from Bangkok to Narita with green ooze in my left eye — clearly conjunctivitis. (Ed. note: or not – possibly a sinus infection.) SRSLY? Ugh. Started popping the antibiotics immediately, as there was no way I was going to get antibiotic eyedrops in the next 24 hours.

Dolphins!  First thing we saw at the beach -- and I'd never seen them in SoCal before, despite spending every summer of my childhood on the beaches there. A super-tanned, 60 something lifeguard with the whitest teeth I've ever seen explained that they showed up 15 years ago and have been around since.

Dolphins! First thing we saw at the beach — and I’d never seen them in SoCal before, despite spending every summer of my childhood on the beaches there. A super-tanned, 60 something lifeguard with the whitest teeth I’ve ever seen explained that they showed up 15 years ago and have been around since.

Win? On the flight from Narita to LA, Philip was so soundly asleep that he didn’t wake up after repeated face slaps and hard pinches, and I seriously wondered if he’d slipped into a coma, before grabbing his chin and shaking his head vigorously, whereupon he snorted awake with a loud, “Whaaa?”

Fail: One hour customs line at LAX because there were two customs officers for 400 passengers. Come ON!!

Delta Fail: After transiting a truly post-apocolyptic construction scene where the sounds of jackhammers made the already traumatized cats even crazier, we were directed outside and up a elevator to ticketing to re-check the cats, where three people gave us different instructions. Finally, frustrated and worried we would miss our connection, I interrupted a gate agent simply to ask if we were in the right lane, and he snapped at me that I was being very rude to the “very important man” he was currently helping (apparently the chauffeur of some 50s starlet – REALLY??? Good to know that my $2800 of tickets and two cats’ lives are less important than a Hollywood chauffeur), he told me I was in the right lane. Skeptical, I fretted and tried to ask another agent roving the line. She looked at the cat carriers and said, “Pets, yes this is the line,” and when I tried to ask again, repeated herself. Finally, I got her full attention and explained that we were just looking for the place to drop off the ALREADY CHECKED IN cats and make our connection, and she finally got us to the right place.

P1060681Delta Fail: Got to our gate and were pulled aside while boarding, where they handed us new boarding passes for another flight IN ANOTHER TERMINAL. After confirming the fact that they realized that there were FREAKING CATS accompanying us, we got over to the other terminal only to find that the alternative flight was cancelled and we had to go BACK to the first terminal to figure out what we’d do.

EPIC Delta Fail: So we finally get to the “customer service” guy at the first terminal, who does not seem to understand that we can’t just hang out in the airport for the next two days with two cats who have been in crates for 28 hours at this point, without food or a chance to pee. “We can’t control the weather.” NO SHIT. But you can control how you act when I’m a little panicked about where my cats are and what will happen to us. I asked if they could fly us to Colorado or Arizona this evening, then I’d spend 2 days with my parents, and fly back to DC on Saturday (which is the first day flights from LA were available) but the CO flight was full and AZ was out because “that would constitute a stopover and that’s not permitted on your fare class.” ARE YOU F-ING KIDDING ME??? You make me spend two days in LA and it’s a “weather delay,” but stopping over in AZ is suddenly a stopover? When the ticket change won’t cost you any more? Nope, instead we’re going to book you on a flight at midnight through Minneapolis. Leaving out the fact that THE AIRPORTS IN DC WON’T BE OPEN TOMORROW, EITHER, the idiot didn’t seem to understand that just because it’s 24 degrees in Minneapolis right now, and that’s not too cold for the cats, at 3 am, it will be and the gate agent will not allow us to board that flight. So instead, he booked us through Atlanta, tomorrow, over my protestations, saying, “Well, at least you have something.” and no hotel — “We can’t control the weather” but he was nice enough to give us a “discount voucher” and suggest that we have the special services desk call for us and see if any of their hotels took cats. The special services desk agent told us she was too busy to call and we could use the pay phone, but, at least, in a last ditch effort to not be entirely as soulless as everyone else had been, booked us on a flight Friday so we wouldn’t have to go through the same rigamarole tomorrow.

P1060656Win? I found a hotel that takes cats a mile from the airport. A $19 cab ride and $400 for two days later (and that’s on top of the $90 a day we’re already paying for our short term apartment in DC), we have a hotel room. With no pool, but cable, so…

Win! Snuggled up with the cats on the bed, hoping to watch some Olympics at some point, having just enjoyed a classic SoCal burrito/soft taco takeout dinner. Only problem is that the antibiotics mean I can’t have that accompanying margarita, and DAMN could I use that right now.

Sometimes you just have to be grateful you and your loved ones are healthy (well, kind of) and safe, and just go with it.

It's been all downhill from there, what with the building site and oil rig next door.

It’s been all downhill from there, what with the building site and oil rig next door.

UPDATE, 2/19: Win: As it turns out, the hiatus in LA was a blessing in disguise, as we spent the day walking on the beach in unseasonably warm weather and watching the Olympics.  Of course, when we arrived at the airport on Friday and checked into our rebooked flight on Delta’s partner Alaska Airlines, we were informed that — despite the fact that we’d already paid $600 for the two cats and our checked luggage — we’d have to pay luggage and cat fees again.  HOWEVER, kudos to Alaska, because the agent, who’d been dealing with miserable people all day, got on the phone to her supervisor immediately about the cat transport fees.  I overheard her whisper, “It’s telling me that they will have to pay a thousand dollars for the cats, and that’s total crap!”  She got the cat fees, but not the baggage fees waived, which is a win in my book.  I actually got her name and wrote to Alaska to thank her for her great service.

Win:  Delta, unbelievably, has offered to refund not only the baggage fees charged by Alaska, but also the taxi and hotel costs, which blew my mind.  So, still an epic fail, but somewhat redeemed after the fact.


Meanwhile, Back at the Ranch…

thailand 2013AFTER a brief hiatus due to the need to take the blog offline while the boat was on the market (can you imagine anyone reading about our misadventures and then actually buying Picaroon??), we are officially back at this blogging thing, if only because certain of our relatives refuse to use Facebook and keep bugging us for actual emails, and it’s waaaayyy easier and more entertaining to broadcast our lives to the entire world.

The last time I updated the blog was in May after my visit to Myanmar; Philip was still on the boat getting it ready to go to the broker’s in the BVIs.  Turns out that there was an engine issue (which is not surprising after sitting for four months – perhaps a sea trial BEFORE getting someone to agree to take it to the BVIs might have been a good idea, n’est pas?) so after a few hours of panic, and with the agreement of our dear friend Jeanso that he’d look after the boat, we said, “Screw it!” and Philip got on the scheduled flight, just leaving the damn thing in Salinas.  Turns out that wasn’t such a bad idea — S.V. Picaroon sold in October, from Salinas, to a couple of first time suckers cruisers from the UK named Colin and Jackie, who fell in love with her at first sight and are slowly learning her systems and getting her ready to cruise again.  I read their blog occasionally and chuckle as they make many of the same mistakes we did, trying not to go too far down the rabbit hole of shadenfreude.

Over the next six months, our adventures continued as we explored (follow the links for photos) Ayutthaya, Chiang Mai (twice), Vietnam, Malaysia and Cambodia on vacation, and my work took me to the Philippines and Laos.  While we love Thailand, Bangkok isn’t a great place to live if you like to spend your free time hiking/biking/sailing (no green space), holding dinner parties (worst kitchen ever in a tiny apartment) or, really, breathing (a clean dish left on the kitchen counter is covered in black, oily soot within a week – UGH).  So when it came time to decide whether to try to extend my contract with Unicef or move on, we opted for moving on.

Open to both the UK and the US, I started applying for jobs in both and headed to DC for a month in December to network, interview, and catch up with friends I hadn’t seen in three years.  While I had serious discussions with a couple of organizations in DC, and agonized over one particular opportunity in DC, ultimately I accepted a position with an NGO in London called Girls Not Brides: the Global Partnership to End Child Marriage, as their Senior Advisor for global advocacy.

However, before we can move to the UK, we have to go through the rigamarole of immigration, which is a total pain in the butt.  Those Brits REALLY don’t want poor people to immigrate. Despite the fact that we’ve been married for 13 years, and in addition to the $1,500 application fee, the UK government requires that we demonstrate that *Philip* have enough income (about $28,000 a year) to support me (stop snickering).  My salary, my job offer — irrelevant.  It’s ludicrous, and we squeak through on the income from the house rental in DC, but if we didn’t have that, we couldn’t move to the UK, which is pretty insane.

So, after an epic trip home that merits its own blog post, we’re back in DC for somewhere between a month and 3 months (hoping for as little as 6 weeks), which is awesomesauce, as we get to hang out more with our lovely, lovely friends and family!

I promise some more interesting blog posts soon – one of the reasons we started the blog again is because coming back to the U.S. after three years abroad is HI-larious and insane.  And I’m sure that moving to the UK will be equally insane.


Myanmar (Burma)! Piccies, Video and More!

LAST week, I traveled to Yangon, Myanmar (or Rangoon, Burma, if you prefer) to work with the UNICEF office there on developing fundraising and program plans and conduct a communications training on ensuring that government budgets meet children’s needs. Myanmar is a fascinating place. Most of you probably know about the recent decision of the military dictatorship to allow parliamentary elections and release the famous dissident Aung Sang Suu Kyi from years of house arrest, which led to the end of international sanctions. What you might not know — I certainly didn’t — is how rapidly things are changing there. The current President has embarked on a wholescale program of reform, moving from state control of the economy to a more open system, allowing some limited dissent to be voiced, and scheduling elections for 2015.

P1040661While there are still huge problems — civil war, human rights abuses – what I thought was really interesting was how flabbergasted everyone seemed by the rapid pace of the changes and the general perception that nobody really understood why the President was really making these moves and how likely they were to actually be implemented, despite the good rhetoric coming from the current government. The other big surprise was how foreign aid still seems to be in the 1960s model, with money pouring into the country, but government resources still very low as donors are more implementing projects than providing resources to the government directly to implement programs itself, an understandable situation given the fact that it’s not clear that the government has either the capacity, or in the long run, the will to actually implement the vast economic and social reforms it’s calling for, but one that people worry is creating a parallel system of service delivery and might undermine the reform agenda in the long run. I have probably done a miserable job summing up the situation; it’s impossible in four days to really get a grasp for what’s going on, but these were just a few of the impressions I got from talking to folks there.

P1040637You can see that Myanmar is one of the poorest countries in the region just walking around the capital. It’s such a different feeling from Bangkok, or even Phnom Penh. There’s not much sign of a local middle class — no western-style restaurants and bars outside of the few big hotels — and the infrastructure is a mess. Street life, like everywhere else I’ve been in SE Asia, is vibrant, with market stalls and tiny shops organized by street (e.g., a street of plumbing, a street of eyeglasses, a street of sign-makers — apparently I only walked down the REALLY boring merchant streets; I couldn’t find the art or fabrics or anything else for the life of me, even though I’d been told they’re there…).

Some observations from my visit: I was struck by how open and friendly the people in Yangon were; tourism, while growing, is still tiny, and everywhere I went people greeted me with loud “Hello!”s and broad smiles, or shy smiles that got wider and wider as I grinned at them like an idiot.

More random Myanmar observations:

  • I nearly died on an AM run crossing the street because they drive on the RIGHT hand side here! Oops — used to looking the other way by now! Also, the cars are left hand drive, which is hysterical.
  • NO MOTORCYCLES allowed in Yangon — totally different from every other Asian city I’ve visited. Therefore, despite my looking the wrong way, it felt so much safer to cross the road without crazy motorcycles and scooters ignoring traffic lights.
  • While waiting for my cab one morning, I was flirting with an adorable, chubby 5-month old, making him giggle, so his mom just handed him to me and started snapping pictures with her phone, getting me to kiss him and tickle him so he giggled. Diddums!
  • Yangon is so green and the air is so clean compared to BKK. Trees and flowers everywhere, and loads of chattering birds. Lovely.
  • Many men wear skirts, called longyis, and I have actually seen men holding hands on the street, just friends. LOVE it!
  • After BKK at 41 (106.8 degrees), I was absolutely freezing in the hotel, despite cranking the AC all the way to 30 (86) degrees. I ended up sleeping under both blankets and woke up freezing.
  • Ran past about 100 people in front of the pagoda one morning, doing some sort of group aerobics (NOT Tai Chi, definitely bouncier!) to that awful Beethoven’s Fifth electronic version. Giggled so hard I had to walk.
  • Dragonflys! Dragonflys everywhere! No wonder there are so many birds!
  • Green tea salad — pickled green tea leaves, with various other things like crisp fried garlic, peas and peanuts, toasted sesame, crushed dried shrimp, preserved shredded ginger and fried shredded coconut, is absolutely delicious.
  • My new favorite thing EVER is the crosswalk signals, with a little man jive-walking until the last couple of seconds when he realizes he’s about to get flattened and rushes to complete his crossing. I laughed and laughed every time I saw one — watch the video to see.

P1040557I was fortunate to actually have a whole day to be a tourist (!!) because Friday was a Buddhist holiday and the UN offices were closed. Of course, my first stop was the iconic Shewedagon Pagoda, just around the corner from my hotel. Because it was a major Buddhist holiday, the pagoda was HEAVING. I only saw two other foreigners in the massive crowds, though — everyone else was Burmese, just out enjoying their day off and observing the religious holiday. Perhaps the most interesting thing, that is, the thing that was different from pretty much every other pagoda or temple visit I’ve done, was the actual entrance to the pagoda itself, which was a long, covered set of three escalators, with people on each landing handing out free drinks with big smiles — not sure why, assume it has something to do with the holiday. The funniest part was how the crowds didn’t seem to know how to use the escalator – everyone was stopping before stepping on VERY hesitantly, then giggling as they lurched ahead. Inside, the impressive gold stupa towering over everything, crowds heaved and people meditated, lunched, lit incense, banged on big gongs, and showered stupas and Buddha images with water, as loudspeakers blared, monks received devotions and sunlight glittered off all the gold and mirrors.

Naptime with rooster.

Naptime with rooster.

Afterwards, I wandered around the downtown area, where the market and many stores were closed because of the holiday but I still got to see little glimpses of everyday life: a man sharpening a knife with a pedal-powered contraption, a couple taking their afternoon siesta at their food stall with a rooster standing watch, people cooking on the street, women wearing traditional sunscreen face paint and everyone just going about everyday life. After the morning of walking, I had (another) amazing green-tea salad in the swank, old, colonial Strand Hotel then headed to a spa for a much-needed massage and mani-pedi. I was exhausted after the long week and morning of walking, and actually fell asleep despite the fact that the massage, manicure and pedicure were all occurring at the same time, awaking with a start and sitting bolt upright, snorting with with confusion when the masseuse turned on the light to get me to flip over. It was slightly embarrassing, to say the least.

All in all, like most of my work trips, I felt that I’d just begun to glimpse the place when it was time to leave. After my friend Julie’s rave reviews of her trip to Myanmar this spring, I encourage everyone to think about getting there while it’s still just opening up – it’s been a world apart for years, and feels so different, so much less globalized, than the other places I’ve been — and I didn’t even make it out of the capital!

Update on the Picaroon

Just a quick update on the Picaroon — Philip has found a crew to take her to the BVIs, where she’ll be hauled, tied down for hurricane season and put on the market.  The crew is a young German cruising couple with experience of heavy boats who are basically doing the trip in return for a bunch of gear they needed, and we needed to get rid of anyway, so WIN all around.

Philip flies from Puerto Rico on Wednesday morning and arrives here in BKK close to midnight on Thursday.  I. Can. Not. Wait.

Oh, and I turn 40 tomorrow.  Not a bad (late) birthday present for me!!

Mongolia + Work + Moving Stress = Sick Girl

Genghis Kahn himself.

Genghis Kahn himself.

At least this time I have a really good excuse for not blogging more frequently: I’ve been down with a nasty cold for the past three weeks, and in that time travelled to Cambodia and Mongolia, written 2 proposals, worked all but a couple of days, and got my cats shipped from Puerto Rico to Thailand — for *only* about $3,500!  Pshew!

So, Mongolia was cold.  It was rather nice during the day, up in the 40s, but freezing overnight; it actually snowed one night.  First snow I’ve seen in three years, aksh. Ulaanbaatar was strangely open and barren-seeming, after the crowded cities of Kuala Lumpur, Ha Noi and Phnom Penh.  The people were very round, not very cheerful (but quite nice) and very direct compared to SE Asia – they say that it’s the Russian influence.  It was actually refreshing: ask a question, get an answer.   My hotel was right in the heart of town, on Sukhbaatar square off the Parliament building, but that’s about all I saw because of the aforementioned working constantly.  I didn’t get the chance to try much Mongolian food, because the Mongolian restaurants didn’t have English menus, or even picture menus, but the one thing I did try was “Mongolian soup,” which was a plain, slightly vinegary beef broth with lots of beef.  That’s it.  Not appetizing. And I’m assuming it was beef.  And the western food: similarly underwhelming.  It was a good visit nonetheless, largely because it’s a fantastic County Office and I was able to get my work done — 3 external interviews, 7 internal interviews, a day-long communications workshop and report, and a full proposal — done in four days, and was very, very satisfied to go home without a shit ton of work to do.  And, despite all predictions to the contrary, Air China didn’t leave me stranded in Beijing for an extra day.

The kittehs arrived on Monday, quite heat-stressed after sitting on the tarmac in 100-degree heat for hours.  Sigh.  But I got them cooled down by soaking them down in the shower, putting wet towels in the freezer then wrapping them around the cats.  At one point I had a bottle of gin from the freezer wrapped up with Pooks; he looked like a little, wet, homeless alcoholic kitty.

I’d forgotten how noisy Pika is; she talks ALL THE TIME.  DAMN, cat, srsly. Take it down a notch!

And they’re so dirty!  Ten minutes and my cream tile floors were covered in cat hair and grubby little paw prints.  Today I finally made it to the local C-Mart to buy a vacuum: the sweetest, tiniest little lavender flower-colored diddums of a thing.  Just perfect for my tiny apartment.  My tiny apartment that gets smaller by the second, what with the addition of two cats.  I was sure it would seem big after the boat, which it did for about five seconds; we’ll see how it goes when Philip comes!   (MAY 30!!! We has ticket!!!!) I think I’d rather stay here than try to find another, larger place that takes cats (NOT easy in BKK) and have to move said cats, just for 9 months… I might be eating those words in a few months, but there’s always hope. Anyway, I’m hardly in the apartment, what with the crazy travel and work.

One piece of good news is that my mission to Burma was delayed for two weeks, which gives me a good chunk of time — 3 whole weeks — between missions, then another 3 weeks afterwards before travel.  Of course, then it’s back-to-back missions to the Philippines and Indonesia in July; should be interesting.  I’ll try not to catch a cold on each one this time around.