©2011 by Debbie Goelz
Each and every member of my writing group is the type of world traveler you might see on the cover of Adventure magazine, wrestling alligators in a blizzard atop Aconcaqua in her underwear … or jumping out of rusty, ill-maintained seaplanes into shallow rivers to commune with piranha. At the end of an exhilarating day riding lions bareback, teaching quantum physics to aboriginal children in their native tongue, and riding over Iguazu Falls in a wine barrel, she might roast her alligator (of course the gator lost the wrestling match!) over the caldera of an active volcano. Upon her safe return (and so far all have returned), she writes a fascinating magazine article read by ordinary people like me. Well, maybe not read, but thoroughly skimmed with lots of attention paid to the glossy photographs where my super-tanned, super-human writer friend grins widely while splattered in mud. After carefully cutting out my friend’s article for my files before properly disposing of the magazine in the recycling bin, thus doing my bit for the good of the earth, I end up feeling bad about myself. What is wrong with me? Why can’t I want to do these things too? Vacation for me is a warm island, a comfortable lounge chair with a high quality Turkish cotton towel, a good book and an endless supply of tropical alcoholic beverages.
But suddenly I am in Chiang Mai, Thailand. I’m here because I’m an overprotective mother, and I’m accompanying my sixteen-year-old son, who is here teaching filmmaking to Burmese immigrants at a school called BEAM (Bridging Educational Access to Migrants). After that, he heads to Mae Sot near the Burma border where he will gain knowledge about the fight for freedom in Burma. Mae Sot is crawling with Burmese spies, and if I allow my paranoid mom imagination to get away from me, I picture my son in a room with a single bare light bulb dangling at the end of a cord being interrogated by some nervous guy in a military uniform. The guy has bad breath by the way. And he smokes. The room is filled with yellow smoke, and my boy is coughing and probably getting cancer. As I said, my imagination can be dark and active.
When I first arrived in Chiang Mai, I was greeted at the hotel with a glass of sweet rice drink from rice grown on the premises. I sat in the lobby, drinking my rice beverage and soon attracted a crowd … of mosquitoes. Word in the mosquito community got out quickly, and before I had a chance to apply my DEET, I was bitten numerous times. The mosquitoes are probably still talking about their great meal. I see them lurking around me, just waiting for me to forget my bug spray.
So what do I do when presented with sixteen days in Thailand by myself? Do I fight alligators? Of course not. Do I ride elephants? Nope. Do I completely throw caution to the winds and drink the tap water? No.
Most of the time I hang out in Siripanna, my beautiful hotel, and I work on my novel about a race of insecure aliens. Sixteen days of uninterrupted thought is a boon to a writer. The manager of my hotel, Nan, doesn’t buy this. She decides I should get out more. She sits me down in the bar with her iPad and makes many suggestions. I should plant rice in the paddy behind the hotel. I should take a Thai cooking class. I should visit the really beautiful temple on the mountain called Wat Phrathat Doi Suthep. I should go to the Saturday night walking street and the Sunday night one as well. Maybe I should cuddle tigers and ride elephants (yes, you can do both here). I begin to feel guilty every time I see her. So I venture out.
Some examples of my courageousness:
People get around Chiang Mai either on motor scooters or tuk-tuks. Tuk-tuks are named for the sound their engine makes and are basically motorized rickshaws. Riding in a tuk-tuk has the same degree of exhilaration and terror as riding a rollercoaster. As I sit, holding on to the armrest, white-knuckled, we weave in and out of traffic. There are no real lanes. It’s a free-for-all. Scooters carrying entire families, including babies (no one in a helmet) cut us off and we cut them off. I marvel that the streets aren’t littered with injured people and mangled vehicles. I have only one female tuk-tuk driver. Her name is Peet. She has a hot-pink tuk-tuk. She drives less frenetically than the men, and I proudly let go of the armrest and enjoy the ride. Some of the tuk-tuks are decorated with lights or plastic doodads. One has a sound system that blares Justin Bieber through the streets. They cost about $3 to $5 to go just about anywhere.
One night I visit The Chaing Mai Writer’s Club and Wine Bar recommended by a friend of mine who knows the owners—Robert Tilley and his wife Tong. It is a place frequented by many journalists and writers. Robert is a veteran of the London Telegraph and the Sunday Telegraph and has a great, great, great, etc. uncle who came to America on the Mayflower. I sip an ice-cold Thai beer at the bar. People strike up conversations readily, and guess what? Although no one has any visible mud splatters, I can tell the people in the bar are of the alligator-wrestling variety. One man, Tom Fawthrop, directed a film called Killing of the Mekong Dam by Dam about how China is going to destroy the Mekong River by damming it for energy production. There are other filmmakers, news correspondents, and people saving the world in one way or another. And me.
I bring up a deep topic of conversation with Robert about the street dogs in Chiang Mai. For some reason I am fascinated by them. They are so different from the pampered Marin County dogs. They are generally shorthaired, long-legged and very thin—almost haggard. They have no collars. One day I am in Old Town (the original part of the city where remnants of the stone wall and moat that formerly surrounded the city are still there), and I see a street dog look both ways before it crosses the street. Robert tells me that at the 14th Century temple called Wat Chedi Luang, next to his restaurant, every night at five o’clock when they ring the gong, the dogs that live on the premises begin to howl. Soon, all the dogs in the area are howling. He says it’s like a weird dog orchestra. I miss my dog.
It is at the Writer’s Club that I pick up my stalker. In my defense, I only gave him my phone number because I thought I was being a “ready for adventure” kind of gal like my writer friends. He wants to introduce me to his English teacher, who though a layman, lives at a monastery. He likes practicing his English with me. The next day he calls while I eat breakfast and says, “I am picking you up at your hotel in one hour to take you to meet my teacher.” My instincts tells me this was strange, but then, am I just being paranoid again? I promise to call him back and go to the front desk to ask if this is normal Thai behavior. They say no. I call him back, and say I have to write that day. He says, “I will come to your hotel with a book for you written by my teacher.” When he arrives, he calls again and asks for my hotel room number. I do not give it to him. I meet him in the lobby, and he gives me a book about Buddhism. I tell him I have to get back to work. Before he leaves he says I should let him know when I want to see the monastery and he will take the day off from work. He also wants to show me his village in the country.
On Saturday, Nan signs me up to take the hotel tram into town for the walking street night market. There are about 10,000 other sweaty bodies there. It is around 100 degrees. The sides of the street are lined with food stands and tables of clothing, shoes and crafts. Makeshift massage parlors are set up with cushions on the side of the road. Down the center of the street, people in wheelchairs play instruments and blind people simply dressed and children wearing traditional Thai costume sing. The scents of a thousand cooking meats waft through the air. I find an entire food stand devoted to fried bugs. All kinds. I pass this table quickly. I eat a pack of Oreos for dinner because I am not sure it is okay to eat the food from any of the carts. I feel ashamed. The people in my class would eat from the carts; I am sure of it. I decide to go to the Sunday market to try to redeem myself, but opt out due to rain and lightening.
That’s it so far. I’ve procrastinated long enough. Back to my book … or maybe a Mai Tai poolside.
Am very proud. I swam for half an hour. One of the French guests laughed at me. I’m not sure why, but probably I deserved it. I ordered a Mojito as a reward for my exercise. As I sipped, the rain came down so hard it was as if someone had turned on the power washer. Bravely, I finished my drink alone at the pool. Everyone, even the Frenchman, had retreated to safety. *****
Debbie Goelz, a scifi fan, grew up thinking she might travel to strange new worlds like on Star Trek. Obviously, she would have been a terrible space explorer, refusing to eat food from the Replicator or try Romulan ale. A refugee from Hollywood where she served for ten years as a financial executive for such companies as Universal Pictures, Dino de Laurentiis and Jim Henson Productions. She is currently writing her first novel: Alien Invasion: A Love Story, about a misunderstood physician, a time-traveling strumpet and a race of very insecure yet exceedingly attractive aliens planning to take over the Earth and extricate its most valuable resource—an infinite supply of celebrity idol worship.
photos and story by Debbie Goelz
©2011 by Debbie Goelz