Monday, December 31, 2007

An Auspicious New Year!

Happy New Year! Ok, so that's about 10 hours early for most of you, but it's already been 2008 for two hours here in Bangkok. Trust me when I say that New Year's Eve is a big deal to the Thai people. They're not messing around, folks; they celebrate 3 separate new years: the Thai new year, the Buddhist new year, and the Western new year.

This year the biggest hoopla was at one of the largest shopping malls I've ever seen. It felt like Times Square but with more Thai people. Lizzi and I disavowed every piece of advice Eric gave us and decided to throw ourselves on the mercy of the crowds, thinking that where there is a will and plenty of beer, there is fun to be had. Except that there was no beer. Strike that. There WAS beer, but there was a minimum $100 bar tab just to be served. So we skipped it.

Then, there were the crowds. Oh my god, I have not been stuck in the middle of that many people in my life. I've now been groped six ways from Sunday, and not in that good way. Really. No one should be that close unless you're willing to buy them breakfast the next morning. And by my tally, one hundred drunken Thai boys owe me a Denver omelet.

the crowd

Despite the craziness and inappropriate touching, we rang in the new year the way we have for the past 8 years: with a kiss. Simple, yes. Sappy, you bet. But it's us, and what you really expect any less?

Happy New Year!!

happy new year

Lost in Lanta

Our original plan was to head to Ko Lanta for a few days then take the ferry back to mainland Thailand, then out again and spend a few days in Ko Samui. We reasoned that this way, we'd get a feel for the islands on both sides of Thailand, Lanta in the Andaman Sea and Samui in the Gulf of Thailand. Plus, there are whale sharks in Ko Samui. And Matt really wanted to see whale sharks. I'm not sure WHY he wanted to see them, since they look like THIS when they're eating. But whatever. He wanted to see them.

We had the best of intentions. We really did. But after our miserable four-hour ferry ride on the Ao Nang Princess I AND II (neither of which made us feel the least bit like royalty), we were exhausted. When we landed in Lanta, we were drastically overcharged to get to our resort. As we sipped those first beers at Funky Fish, we started to wonder whether or not we should just bag our trip to Samui and stay in Lanta.

Two days later, we were spending our Christmas at Coffee Asylum. And we just, well, we got stuck. It was the kind of day that lazed on forever. The kind of day that makes you think to yourself, "I went to school so that I could get a job where people have to dress up and jump up and down just to make a point? What is WRONG with me? I could have been anything! I could have owned a coffee shop on a beautiful tropical island!" It was the kind of day that I used to daydream a lot about when I was younger. See, a few years ago now, my brother took a trip to Europe with a few of his closest friends. If memory serves me correctly (note: I was about 12 when he went on this trip, so my memory MIGHT be a bit off) while he was in Greece, he changed his itinerary to spend a few extra days in the island of Corfu. He told my parents that he sort of got lost on Corfu. "Lost," I remember thinking, "how do you get LOST on an island? Didn't he know where he was?" But now I get it. I see how it's possible to get lost somewhere where you're perfectly content to be. It's a good feeling. It's a "come what may" feeling, a "free from school at last" feeling.

So we stayed in Lanta and never went to Ko Samui. We heard that we did the right thing, that the weather there is bad this time of year, that we wouldn't have wanted to waste an entire beach day sitting on a boat. We agreed. We spent six days losing ourselves in Ko Lanta. Six wonderful, sun-drenched, beer-soaked, careless days. We ate the best spring rolls I've ever eaten (thank you Thai Cat!), had some interesting political discussions, and really got to know our way around a large Chang Beer. But most of all, BEST of all, we actually relaxed. And since that was the purpose of going to the islands in the first place, I think we can safely say that our trip is off to a pretty good start.

Sunday, December 30, 2007

Seeking Asylum

When we first arrived on Ko Lanta, we had no idea where to go or what to do. We'd checked into our little bungalow on the beach, sighed with relief that the longest ferry ride ever was finally over, and wondered "What next?" We left our little hideaway and strolled down the beach, looking for a snack and a drink, because what else do you do at the beach? We finally found our way into the Funky Fish and whiled away a few hours (read: got hammered). Somehow we stumbled back to our room and promptly fell asleep at the unreasonable hour of 7PM. We didn't wake up until 9AM the next morning. Sheesh.

We liked the Funky Fish, we really did, until we discovered Coffee Asylum that morning. What started as just a quick breakfast and the use of free wi-fi lasted the entire day. We lounged about under a thatch roof, playing cards with a few other world travelers. We met Charlie and Anna from Sweden, Charlie's boyfriend Kent from Australia, and Dave from San Francisco. As the day lazily wore on, we met Michael and May, who own the coffee shop. And that's how we spent the whole day. Sitting, talking, and playing cards.

Coffee Asylum has this wonderful ability to create a community. After spending just one day there, we had people to talk to or just say "hi" to on the beach. It's also the kind of place that you want to keep coming back to. There's great food (May's muesli pancakes with fruit and honey are to die for), outstanding company, and good conversation. I hope that we have the good fortune to find more places along our way that make us feel as welcome and at home as Coffee Asylum.

Thanks to Michael, May, Charlie, Kent, Anna, and Dave for making us feel at home when we are very far from it.

Saturday, December 29, 2007

Pics: Ko Lanta

We had originally only meant to stay on Ko Lanta for a couple of nights and ended up staying a week. The island is beautiful and relaxing. There are still a couple of stories to tell, but for now the pictures will have to do. By the way, sunsets on Lanta are simply spectacular. As the sun goes down, the sky turns from blue to pink to red. We noticed that most people left the beach as soon as the sun dipped below the horizon, but they were missing the best part. As the sun sinks lower behind the earth, the clouds burst into flame until finally they cool down, turning a deep purple, and then the sun's light is completely extinguished and night arrives.

Thursday, December 27, 2007

Pics: James Bond Island

Just before leaving Patong Beach, we decided to take a sea kayak tour to James Bond Island. This unique island was made famous because it is featured in The Man with the Golden Gun. Dad, I know you of all people will appreciate these pics. Also, our guide Ek told us that one of the islands we visited in the Phang Nga Bay was also the setting for Tomorrow Never Dies.

Explaining the Sleaze

After spending a night in Phuket Town, we decided that we needed to experience the manic insanity of Patong Beach. Let me say that Patong Beach certainly lives up to its reputation. The parties are loud, the drinks relatively cheap, and there are women everywhere. Imagine New Orleans at Mardi Gras mixed with Vegas glitz and a healthy portion of Atlantic City sleaze. But the first thing you notice about Patong Beach is how white it is. Apparently Germans and Scandinavians flock to Patong every year in droves. And the effect is readily evident: German biergartens, schnitzel on the menu, and lots of men in speedos -- *shudder*.

Unfortunately, what we couldn't get over was the obvious, in-your-face nature of the sex trade. Old, white men walking up and down the streets, in their hand was clamped the tiny hand of a Thai girl who could have been his granddaughter. In a word, it was revolting. Far be it from me to judge anyone, but let's just agree that if one can't get laid in one's own country, one should not fly to a different country and pay for sex. Good, now that we are all agreed on that we can move on.

Before summing up, I would be remiss if I didn't make some mention about the ladyboys of Thailand. These men are some of the most beautiful women Lizzi and I have ever seen. In fact, as we walked down an uncharacteristically sedated Bangla Road (Thailand holds dry elections, thus the night before it is illegal to serve alcohol, which is ironic, since it was the one night we planned to party, Patong-style), Lizzi noticed one exceptionally tall beauty, "He is WEARING that dress!" And he (she) was. Earlier that night, we had ventured in the Sphinx Theatre to see a cabaret show. In Thailand, a cabaret is an hour-long program of dancing and lip-synching to American pop hits. In short, it's wonderful and hilarious, and it was made even better by that the fact that we were the only two people in the theater. During the show, we would quietly ask each other which of the performers on stage actually had penises, and to be fair, we frequently couldn't tell, not that it mattered in the slightest, because the performance was phenomenal.

Patong Beach was just okay, although our hotel was outstanding, by far the best part about visiting Patong Beach. Like most beach towns, even in the States, everything is for sale, but the overaggressive touts for the restaurants, massage parlors, and taxis lost their appeal within minutes. Patong Beach was something we wanted to see for ourselves, and we did. I just wouldn't want to go back to see it again.

Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Clean Food, Good Taste

The first memory I have of eating Thai food occurred when I was a 18-year-old freshman in college. My best friend from high school, Becca (hi Becca!) came to visit me for my birthday and we went out to dinner at the Thai restaurant in Shadyside. (For those of you who are curious, it's where Shady Grove now lives.) Becca and I were adventurous eaters. When our peers were spending their babysitting money on whatever stupid shit they spent their money on, Becca and I were taking ourselves out to dinner at nice restaurants in Philadelphia, trying to see whether the waiters would serve us the wine we ordered, sheepishly, with our dinners (sometimes they did, sometimes they didn't). Many of my earliest and best food memories occurred with Becca in high school, not least because my behavior during these early restaurant forays caused Becca to giggle endlessly, and endless giggling is always one of my main goals in life.

I digress. So we're at this Thai restaurant in Pittsburgh, and we KNOW that we're adventurous eaters, Becca and me. We order something like a glass noodle salad, and the waiter asks us, on a scale of 1-10, how spicy we'd like it to be. "Nine," Becca says, with confidence. It's a bold choice, and we both know it, but we're bold 18-year-olds who have been served wine in some of Philadelphia's nicest restaurants. We can handle a nine from a Thai restaurant in Pittsburgh. Of course we can.

Of course, we are wrong. Terribly, mouth-wateringly, eyes-tearing, gulps-and-gulps-of-water-can't-cure-this WRONG. We realize that the source of the spice is mixed in with the glass noodles, and we avoid them, fishing around instead for the green papaya and the pieces of shrimp. It doesn't phase us, this spicy food disaster, and I remember our meal as amusing and fun, and that I made Becca laugh about something or other.

Fast forward 11 years (holy crap, Becca, did you realize that was 11 years ago?!) and I am actually in Thailand, eating actual Thai food. Since I first self-aggrandized myself as an adventurous eater, I have not slowed in my pursuit of interesting food. And yet, as we were preparing ourselves for this trip, even as I was writing that earlier post about Julie's food experiences in Barcelona, I was a bit nervous. I vividly recalled that Pittsburgh Thai food experience, and it was something I hadn't thought about in, um, 11 years.

So let me tell you a little bit about the Thai food we've encountered: it is, in a word, amazing. All of it. Excecpt maybe the Nescafe they serve you instead of the much-coveted Thai coffee. But other than that, it's amazing. There are spring rolls (better than spring rolls at home, though their contents are just as unidentifiable), soups (spicy-sweet Tom Yum soup meant to be eaten with rice, as well as noodle-based soup-like meals), rice dishes (pineapple fried rice is even BETTER here), many many wonderful noodle dishes (pad thai, fried noodles, wide and flat rice noodles), curries, yams (salads), and other things that I either can't pronounce or haven't yet tasted. There's lots of fish (fresh, delicious fish), lots of cilantro (I'm dealing with this), and every single thing we eat seems to have lemon grass and basil in it, which is okay by me, because I love lemon grass and basil. There is also plenty of beef and chicken and pork, and so far, we have not contracted the bird flu from eating the chicken. Thank god for that, right?

Every single day I think to myself, "I am going to get sick of this food and want something American." But then we sit down at a rickety table surrounded by rickety chairs, and I page through the menu, past the items aimed at tourists (ham and cheese sandwich), and order another plate of noodles. Another plate of spicy, slippery, hot, and delightful noodles. See, I JUST finished breakfast and thinking about those noodles is making me hungry. Which is okay, because if I'd wanted to, I could have eaten those noodles FOR breakfast. Genius!

Most dishes come with slices of cucumber on the side of the plate, and a wee little piece of kaffir lime (the lime that might even rival key limes in flavor and deliciousness). You also get a condiment basket that's got sugar and salt, white pepper, vinegar, and a little container holding spicy chilis floating in fish sauce. There's also this bizarre little container of "napkins" which are actually just tissues. And tourists must be very dirty, for we are the only people who use them. For those of you who are worried about my consumption of raw vegetables, I can neither confirm nor deny whether I ate those slices of cucumber.

Contrary to popular opinion, Thai food is NOT eaten with chopsticks. Duh, Thai are not Chinese! So we eat with a spoon and a fork. Rather, we SHOVEL with a spoon and a fork, because the food is that good. After a week here, we've concluded that you're supposed to languish over a meal. We have come to this conclusion because this is the way the meal ordinarily transpires: we order food, a TON of food, and it comes out whenever it comes out, and we eat it (if you're us, you eat it rudely and quickly, through happy sounds of "mmmm" and "you HAVE to try this!"), and then the people who served you the food leave you alone. They're not in a rush, and they don't seem to think you should be in a rush either. When I think about it like this, I LIKE that they leave you alone, though for the first few days, it was unsettling not to see the smiling face of the server at my side every 10 mintes, asking me if I'd like anything else, refilling my water glass, urging me towards dessert I don't really want. The servers here seem to assume that if you want something else, you'll ask for it, and that you were clever enough to order enough food in the first go-round.

A word on the beer: there are three main kinds of beer here that we've seen so far, Singha (prounounced Singh), Chang (the highest alcohol content at 6.7%) and Archa. They are served in small, normal-sized bottles, or large, fantastic bottles. A large, fantastic bottle is about $3 if you time it right, and it's so economical to spend $3 on a large beer, that we do. Every day. Every day for a week, at least. There's a whisky that we haven't yet tried called Meh Kong, and our funny little bartender at the Funky Fish told us that it was too strong for him, which makes me hesitant to try it. But who am I kidding? Of COURSE I'll try it.

We haven't had proper dessert since we've been here, but I've been eating my weight in bananas, pineapple, coconut, and watermelon. The fruit alone is worth the 31-hour plane ride. I'm so not even kidding about that. Proper dessert is on the list of things to do in Bangkok.

The entire meal, from large beers down to artfully carved pineapple, comes to a whopping $10. Which means we are spending too much on food. But we can't help it because there's so much to try.

Oh, and in case you're wondering, I did have one more of those mouth-watering, eyes-bulging, what the HELL happened to that chili pepper? moment. It happened on Christmas Eve and the offensive chili was floating around in some curry that we'd ordered. I saw that it was there, noted that it was a huge chili, and bravely thought, "I'm an adventurous eater, I can handle that! I'm in Thailand! With real Thai food!" I was abruptly brought back to that moment in Pittsburgh, when, sputtering, I reached for any liquid within reach. Finding nothing to stop my tongue from falling off right there in my mouth, I quickly shoveled another mouthful of rice onto my tongue and held it there, all while making a face at Matt for laughing at me. "Ahhh," I sighed, when the burn finally subsided, "that was the hottest chili EVER!" And then, because I am a glutton for adventure, "can you spoon some of that sauce onto this rice?"

** The title of this post, "Clean Food, Good Taste" refers to the signs you see, EVERYWHERE, advertising resturants, both proper and impromptu. The title is for Eric, because I'm hoping that the reference made him smile.

Happy Birthday Elissa

Tomorrow is my sister-in-law's 30th birthday. I'm not sure if we're going to be able to get internet tomorrow, so she's going to have to accept our very early halfway-around-the-world birthday wishes.

She seems relatively nonplussed by the fact that she's turning 30, but we think birthdays are something worth celebrating, something worth getting excited over, even though we agree that age is just a number. So even if she's nonplussed, we're, uh, plussed, so we're sharing the good news with you.

For those of you who don't know her, Elissa has accomplished quite a lot in her 30 years. She's a doctor, for starters, and while she was in med school, she was so spectacular that she was inducted into the "smartest kids in med school" honor society and she spent a year healing sick kids in Bolivia. She's also married to my brother, which anyone (even Andy) will admit is no small feat for a modest 30 years.

What you might not know is that it was Elissa who initially helped Matt and I catch the travel bug. Back in spring of 2000, passing notes back and forth in that joke of a religion class that we took together, Elissa suggested that since Matt and I couldn't afford to do the backpack around Europe thing for longer than two weeks, that we should take a trip around the US instead. In Matt's truck. For 5 long weeks. And thus the spark for travel was ignited, and Matt and I DID take that trip, and miracle of miracles we did not kill each other, and we even got married, and are now on this other, bigger trip, saying happy birthday from halfway around the world. It may sound cliche to say it, but I love being able to look all the way back to the beginning of something, so for me it's a no-brainer: if Elissa had never suggested that first big trip, I might not be sitting here today, watching Matt read a book on Hinduism while the Andaman Sea quietly rolls around in the background.

So for all of those reasons and more, Happy (Early) Birthday, Liss! We wish you a wonderful next 30 years, and then another 30 after that, and then at that point, it's totally your call! May you have good health, big happinesses, and lots of journeys ahead of you.

Wherein I Talk About Traveling With Crohn's Disease

Many of you already know that when I was 19, a surly gastroenterologist with no bedside manner whatsoever diagnosed me with Crohn's disease. The diagnosis was actually welcome news to me, as I'd spent the previous four months or so eating a diet of white rice and water, as it seemed to be the only food that didn't, uh, move right through me. I'd lost about 15+ pounds in those four months, and for what was my then-quite thin frame, that was a lot of weight to lose. It was enough that people, my boyfriend at the time included, would try to entice me to eat that which I knew I could not digest. I didn't know WHAT was wrong with me exactly, but I knew for certain that something was wrong, and that I was not anorexic.

I have lived with Crohn's for 10 years now and have been very, very lucky. I have never had surgery, and I spent only the first two years after my diagnosis on and off the steroids that I would now refuse. (Boy did I gain that 15 pounds back, and then some! Have you SEEN these hips that I sport?!) While I still watch what I eat (absolutely no spinach or corn, avoid the spine of most lettuces, keep a low-fat diet, avoid fried things), I have been lucky that I have been ABLE to eat. I eat regular meals, I obviously enjoy food a great deal (there's those hips again), and I haven't, knock-on-wood, had a serious flare-up since my initial diagnosis. I have had bouts of uncomfortableness, but nothing that rendered me mute from pain, crouching on the floor of my dorm room, as I did night after night in 1998.

In November 2005, at the advice of my most favorite GI doctor, I went off all of my meds. This was a huge triumph for me, a total coup, as one of the most debilitating and annoying things about my diagnosis was the Pentasa -- a drug that helps control the inflammation, but requires an irritating 16 pills a day. The second most debilitating thing about my Crohn's diagnosis is that I still don't know how it will affect me when I try to get pregnant, a fact I think about too often. The research isn't good (surprise, surprise), in that there hasn't been a whole lot of research. Most of the information I've learned about it, both from my own physicians and the terrifying amount of information available online, gives the 30-30-30 rule for Crohn's patients who are also trying to conceive: 30% of patients will get better, 30% of patients will get worse, and 30% of patients will stay the same. Getting worse, obviously, is to be avoided, as Crohn's patients who are flaring during their pregnancy suffer an increased risk of miscarriage. Andy assures me that the 30-30-30 statistic is a doctor's way of telling me "we have no clue what will happen to you, so here's some information that's not really meant to be reassuring, but is simply meant to be information." Ah. It's so clear now. Riiight.

So I went off my meds in November 2005 because, as my doctor and I thoughtfully concluded, I was not pregnant, nor was I intending to become pregnant any time soon. We agreed that going off the meds would be a good experiment, since, if I could tolerate it, it would be nice to be off the meds when I was actually attempting to become pregnant.

For the first several months, I felt great. I wasn't taking any medications for Crohn's at all, and I was eating basically what I wanted to eat, still avoiding the high-fat foods and the ever-evil spinach. But a few months after we moved to Pittsburgh, I started to experience some symptoms. They were typical symptoms, nothing too awful, but they scared me enough to tell Matt. And Matt was scared enough to encourage me to find a GI in Pittsburgh. My GI (the first female GI I'd had!) wanted to put me on meds right away, but I told her that I'd rather know for sure that I was flaring before I took meds, and even though this meant yet another colonoscopy, I really wanted to know for sure before I went back on meds. (As an aside, I've had four colonoscopies in my short life! So if you're over 50 and you haven't yet been checked for polyps in your colon, you will get no sympathy from me. Go get yourself a goddamn colonoscopy and get checked for polyps, since colon cancer can be detected early!) I was also confident that the colonoscopy would show that I was simply overreacting, that my so-called symptoms were a manifestation of how much I hated Pittsburgh, and not a manifestation of how much my intestines hate me.

Of course, if you know me at all, or you know even a little bit about Crohn's disease, or even a little bit about mental health, then you know that sometimes, when you hate something in your life, your body decides it's not too thrilled with you either. In short, the colonoscopy showed angry and ferocious ulcerations in my terminal ileum. So the pain in my belly wasn't just caused by the pain in my psyche, but it did mean I'd have to go back on meds.

I was understandably sad. And also a lot more vocal about my discomfort. The final admission of the fact that I do, actually, suffer from Crohn's disease, always occurs when I tell my dad how I'm feeling. The mixture of sadness and concern in his voice is something I'd always like to avoid, so I put off telling him until I feel that I absolutely have to. I use my telling him as a measure of how strong I think I am. If I can tell my dad that I'm sick, then I can deal with the fact that I'm sick. So I started back on my meds (Pentasa now comes in a form where you only have to take 8 pills a day) and braced myself for that phone call. My dad, obviously concerned, said, "oh honey, I'm sorry." And then, almost without missing a beat, "what about your trip?"

It hadn't occurred to me that my Crohn's would affect our trip. That was probably partly because I didn't even want to stop to think about whether it would affect our trip, but mainly because I generally labor under the misbelief that my Crohn's will miraculously disappear just as quickly as the flare presented itself. Of course, this is never the case when you have a chronic illness. Otherwise they wouldn't call it an illness, or even better, chronic.

I talked it over with Matt. I didn't want the Crohn's to affect our trip.

"We're still GOING on this TRIP," I informed him, sounding like that 4-year-old brat he DIDN'T fall in love with.

"Yes, of course we're still going on this trip," he said. "We just need YOU to talk to your doctor about the fact that we're going on this trip. She can probably help us."


In between that conversation and talking to my doctor, I talked to everyone else. Julie was worried I'd get really sick, and confided that Cris was really worried too. Andy echoed Matt's advice about talking to my doctor, and other Crohnies (friends with Crohn's) expressed concern. The Internet told me that I could definitely travel with Crohn's. To France. My dad was convinced I'd probably literally crap my brains out, a concern I expressed to my physician when we met.

"You're not going to die," she told me. "But don't be an idiot."

Did I mention that I like this new doctor? She's matter-of-fact and interesting. She also likes to tell me all about the science behind Crohn's Disease and Crohn's treatment. It makes me feel like she thinks I understand what she's talking about. I appreciate this.

Don't be an idiot. This is good advice. Generally, but specifically here, where the food is different and the water is not potable. So what did I do to prepare for going on this trip? Well for starters, I got all the vaccines I'd need. I didn't get any live vaccines, since Crohn's can leave you somewhat immunosuppressed, and it seemed unwise to inject myself with something that was alive and crawling. I filled my Pentasa prescription so that I'll have enough Pentasa to last me for the entire time we're gone, with a little extra for good measure. I had a doctor I know write me prescriptions for things that could go wrong with my intestines, and I double-checked those prescriptions with my GI doctor. I had a long conversation with my GI doctor about the trip, and she reminded me that as a Crohn's patient, I will most likely be quick to assume that anything that goes wrong or hurts is related to my Crohn's. She reminded me that everyone who travels in a country where the water isn't potable has a belly ache from time to time. She reminded me not to be an idiot. She elaborated on this to mean that I shouldn't under any circumstances, drink the water. I can eat street food, but only if it's piping hot. In India, I can eat vegetarian street food but not meat, and in the rest of Southeast Asia, I can probably eat whatever. I should stay away from vegetables that would ordinarily look hard to digest, so basically, things that look like spinach. And I should try new foods, take my meds religiously, and be honest with myself about my body.

So far, so good. I have had a belly ache from time to time this week, but it hasn't been anything that's kept me in the bathroom for longer than usual. I've obviously been trying all kinds of new foods, but I'm staying away from things that look like they'll hurt me. I have only had bottled water to drink. Well, bottled water and beer, but whatever.

In the months to come, I hope to keep you guys updated on the progress of my tummy. Not because I think you're curious, but because I want other Crohnies out there to know that it IS possible to travel to Asia with Crohn's disease. It's possible to spend 31 hours on a plane with Crohn's disease. It's possible to carry around a heavy-ass backpack with Crohn's disease. It's possible to eat new and interesting food with Crohn's disease. And so far, it's possible to be diligent about taking your meds, and possible to find a bathroom when I need it, even when though I don't speak the language and no one in my host country has even heard of Crohn's disease. I don't expect my Crohn's not to be present here; it is, after all, a part of who I am, a chronic part. But I expect it to be as present as it usually is, which is to say that I live with it, and I respect it, but I respect the rest of myself just as much if not more, and I will do my best not to limit my experiences here because of my disease.

Monday, December 24, 2007

Happy Christmas From Thailand!!

We've spent other Christmases at the beach, but we've never spent a Christmas 12 hours ahead of everyone else. For those of you yet to experience Christmas, it's pretty great over here. It's turning into a beautiful day, and the weather's perfect for a dip in the ocean or working on your tan (read: sunburn).

So a week has already flown by and we've managed to post nothing. That's not because we have nothing to say, it's because we've been spending our time trying to experience this place that we're in, and generally adjusting to a life where Internet isn't ever-present. We spent the first few days in Phuket, and were totally overwhelmed by the sights and sounds and smells of the place. Not just because Patong Beach is dripping with sleaze, but also because we are, um, in a totally different country. We came to Ko Lanta a few days ago, and life here couldn't be more different than what we experienced in Phuket. Lanta Island, as it is also known, is a place of hippies and wood shacks. Beer is $2 for a large bottle, and you can eat lunch and dinner for less than $10. The food is amazing and the people are friendly and helpful. Basically, it's an easy life. It feels a lot like a Christmas present, in fact. We like it so much that we're thinking of skipping out on Ko Samui and staying here instead. Lanta is the kind of place that inspires that sort of lazing about. And after the 16 months we've had, we deserve some lazing about.

So for all of you out there who are using today as your one break from your very hectic lives, enjoy it! Take the relaxation for everything it's worth. Imagine yourself on a beach somewhere, Chang beer in hand, listening to the calm waves of the Andaman Sea. And if you can get yourself all the way there in your imagination, turn around and wave hello to us, because we're at the next beach mat, trying to decide whether we want noodles or rice for lunch.

Happy Christmas everyone!

Matt and Lizzi

christmas in thailand

Thursday, December 20, 2007

31 Hours Later...

...we've arrived safe and sound. Everything went off without a hitch. The flights were on time, and even after three different planes and three different countries, our bags somehow miraculously showed when we did.

Just before we left, the burning question had been: Which direction are you going to fly to get to Thailand? Prevailing wisdom (read: Google Maps) seemed to indicate that we would fly west from New York to Hong Kong. However, I can now say with authority that we flew neither West nor East, but North. Due North. We flew directly over Greenland, over the North Pole, over Russia and all of China to finally touch down in Hong Kong. So there you have it: we flew North.

In case, there are those who need to read these words before believing it: We arrived safe and sound. There I said it. Now, time to get some sleep.

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Go Out for Adventure...

We've said our good-byes. The cats have been outsourced. Our worldly possessions, aside from those on our backs, are safely tucked away in a secret Midwestern location. This is how our journey begins.

We spent most of today packing our bags, finishing last minute errands to REI, and generally preparing ourselves for this adventure. Of course, because we are who we are, our well-made plans did not pan out as we expected. First, our clothes fit perfectly in our backpacks, but the mountain of sundry trip-related items quickly overwhelmed our meager budget of volume. Then, there was a minor major crisis when Lizzi couldn't find her vaccination record. And, we nearly locked ourselves out of my father-in-law's house. Finally, we met the rudest cabby in New York, who refused to take us to our hotel, and instead dropped us off at the airport, where we would have ended up had we continued on rail in the first place. Probably not the auspicious start we were looking for, but even Shackleton encountered a few bumps along his way on the Nimrod.

So here we are, sitting in a hotel near JFK, anxiously trying to sleep despite the excitement. We have a long day ahead of us tomorrow.

Friday, December 14, 2007

Like, Um, What Are You Wearing?

So do you ever have the Forest Through the Trees problem? I do. And it happens to me most often when I’m in the middle of planning something huge. I tend to get fixated on the wrong thing, and then there I am, stuck and fixated on this wrong thing, and I can’t get unstuck or un-fixate until I’ve dealt with whatever I’m stuck on.

Some of you may remember that this happened when I was planning my wedding. There I was, twenty-four years old, just finished my first year of law school, about to make the biggest commitment of my life, and the only thing I could think about was the fact that the chairs at our reception venue were ugly. And to be fair, I’m not talking run-of-the-mill ugly. I’m talking straight-up, flat-out, UGLY, ugly. Fugly. And even though Julie assured me that no one was going to be looking at the chairs, and my dad assured me that there was no way in hell that he was paying for chair covers, I couldn’t stop thinking about the fugliness of those chairs. They haunted me, those chairs. Ultimately, I managed to pull my head out of my ass and realized that chairs were low on my list of priorities next to such important things like, oh, the fact that I was getting married. But there was a time there, a shameful, egocentric time, when chair covers mattered a lot more than the vows I was about to take.

The chair covers incident became a marker for me. Whenever I find myself getting fixated on the wrong thing, I tell Matt that I’m being all "chair covers" about it. But now that I’m the one making most of the decisions in my life, I have the luxury of being all "chair covers" about something without having to worry that I’m going to screw up my dad’s idea of the perfect wedding by demanding that chairs be covered at the expense of feeding his guests, or something.

Lizzi, get to the point! Okay. Here it is: I’m coming clean about my chair covers incidents for the trip. There were two. Yes, I know, TWO. But these two particular chair covers incidents were enormous to me. So huge, in fact, that I dreamed about them, night after night. And here, in a moment of cathartic revelation, I am going to share them with you.

Chair cover # 1: Wedding Bands
Yes, Matt and I are already married. And yes, we have perfectly acceptable wedding bands that we wear every day. Except when we go to bars and take them off. Just kidding! Ha! Fooled you. Anyway, wedding rings. I love my wedding ring. But somewhere many, many months ago I read some stupid thing on some stupid website about the fact that we shouldn’t wear our actual wedding rings on this trip. And I got it into my head that we needed NEW wedding rings and that they needed to be gold wedding rings and that they needed to match. As if we don’t look enough like Americans already, right? Right. So I spent weeks, WEEKS people, looking online for wedding rings. Um, I found them. Online. They’re fine. And ever since we got them in the mail, I’ve totally and completely forgotten about my incessant obsession with wedding rings. Oddly, the space leftover in my brain did not immediately make room for physics equations as you might think it should. It moved onto obsession number 2.

Chair cover # 2: Like, um, what are YOU wearing?
Clever readers will notice that this is the very same title of this post. Clever readers will realize that this was the crux of my issue for several months of planning this trip. And even cleverer readers will realize that it took me THIS long just to make the point I set out to make in the beginning here. I have GOT to get better at sticking to my point.

So here’s the thing: when you’re leaving on a trip like this, you can only take a backpack. One backpack. And as the name implies, you carry the backpack on your, uh, back. So it has to be as light as possible. When you factor in the fact that you have to carry a pharmacy with you for all of the just-in-case illnesses you might acquire, as well as seven different Lonely Planet guides, a computer and two cameras, you quickly realize that you cannot, under any circumstances, take too many clothes. And even more disastrous, you must limit your choice of shoes. If you are me, and you get stuck on stupid shit like what you’re supposed to wear to a temple in Thailand, this clothing issue becomes a catastrophe. And the catastrophe mounts into a full-on chair covers incident. And then you find yourself staying up late revising your “List of Things to Pack” and telling Matt that if you only take one pair of yoga pants instead of two, you can take two pairs of shorts, even though you really don’t like shorts all that much anyway.

And then, if you’re lucky, help finds you. And it finds you in the form of one lovely world-traveler named Holly. Holly can be found at where she wittily writes about life and travel and love and The Bachelor. She’s a seriously gifted writer, and I don’t mind at all if you go over there and read her blog more than you read mine. I would if I was sitting on the other side of the computer.

So a little over a year ago, Holly and her partner went on a trip that was really similar to ours. You can read all about it in her archives, brilliantly titled “Travel—Or How I Lived on $10 A Day For Three Months.” I did. I read every single post she wrote about that trip. I read them so closely that I felt like I was EATING her posts. Because there she was, traveling about, enjoying it, and seemingly not at all worried about what she was wearing. And I knew right then and there that I HAD to email her. So I did. I emailed a perfect stranger and told her about my chair covers and asked her to please help me. Holly delivers, people. She delivers. She wrote me back within a few days and gave me a list of things I’d want to take with me, assured me that it was okay to take more than one pair of flip-flops, and generally just wrote my packing list for me.

These are my favorite excerpts from her email, which I printed out and ate, just in case that would help me:

Okay, as to what sort of clothes I brought with me, I'll tell you this: NOTHING WHITE. Seriously, you can't imagine it right now, but ANYTHING white that you bring will get dirty within three seconds of you putting it on.

You will bring WAY more than you need. You just will. And I would encourage you to really, really, really try not to -- you'll end up wearing the same things over and over and over again anyway, so you really don't need that much variety.

I also brought a pashmina, which I found invaluable, since it doubled as a wrap when it was cold, a cover-up in temples, and a blanket on buses. (So I guess it tripled. But whatever.)

I mean, she’s a genius, right? I have never met this woman, and she lives all the way across the country in sunny California. But I’m so not even kidding when I tell you that she’s partly responsible for my sanity right now. Because I’m glancing over at my pack, filled with all of the things that she told me to take, all of which worked beautifully on their test-trip to Africa, and I’m feeling calm, and as though all of my chairs are covered. Now it’s just a matter of donning those new wedding bands, putting all of those clothes on my back, and reminding myself that the point behind all of the madness is actually way more exciting than the madness.


As I sit here typing this in our empty apartment, Matt is taking his very last final. In fact, he's taking the very last final, for the very last graduate school class, for the very end of BOTH of our graduate educations. How awesome is that? In just a few short months, we'll be able to FINALLY tally up the total amount of money we owe to Sallie Mae, who everyone knows is NOT getting a Christmas card this year.

Anyway. Matt's last final. Empty apartment. People, do you know what this means? It means that tomorrow, TOMORROW, we’re leaving Pittsburgh. We are LEAVING PITTSBURGH. This kind of news deserves all capital letters because that’s exactly how I feel about this fact.

Now Pittsburgh, don’t get your panties in a bunch. We still love that you put fries on everything, and we’re a fan of your football team and your bridges and rivers. We like that you can put on a show for winter, and that you have the best fireworks we’ve ever seen. But Pittsburgh, let’s be honest here: we are not friends. And tomorrow, we part ways amicably. You go your way, we go ours. And from the way I see it? Our way is SO much cooler.

Here’s how things have been since I got back from Africa: the weekend was surprisingly active, but we didn’t manage to get a whole lot done for the trip. Monday was spent avoiding the fact that we were supposed to be packing. Tuesday was spent actually packing. Wednesday we loaded up the UHaul, drove our stuff to Ohio, and unloaded the UHaul into a storage unit. Thursday we drove back to Pittsburgh from Ohio and Matt pretended to study for his final while I pretended to clean our empty apartment. And now it’s Friday. I’m really anxious for Matt to finish his final because then he can feel what I finally felt on Wednesday night after Matt and Tom squeezed the last item into the storage unit: excitement. I’m so not even kidding. After all of the worry and planning of the past few months, after feeling ambivalent about everyone and everything, after even wondering distractedly if we should even go on this trip, I found myself surprisingly excited on Wednesday night. I slept better on Wednesday than I have in weeks, and ever since Wednesday, I’ve been just itching for Matt to finish his final so that he can feel excited to. This is it! We’re SO doing this.

These are the people without whom this week wouldn’t have been possible:
Tom and Amanda – my rockstar in-laws who have been an immeasurable help to us ever since we started planning this trip. We can’t even think of ways to adequately thank them, because it’s really hard to thank people for just being the wonderful people that they are.

Saul and Ciera – our friends in Pittsburgh who are letting us stay in their apartment while ours is empty, and who are taking care of Tinker while we’re away.

That guardrail in Augusta, Maine – thank you for not hurting Dan. A seriously hurt Dan would have made this week a lot harder. (It’s okay if you don’t understand this one, the person to whom it is directed will get it.)
Lee and Char – because they gave us Starbucks giftcards for Christmas and even when it seemed like we just couldn’t pack another box, the sheer force of caffeine was bound to get us through.

FedEx – thank you for sending our packets of information through the mail to all of the people who needed them. We feel great comfort knowing that the people who need to know exactly where we are in the world will know exactly where we are in the world, and will be able to help us out if we need help from halfway around the globe. – thank you for having free shipping! I’m really psyched to try out my new flip-flops.

Those of you out there who read this blog – I can just tell, all the way in Pittsburgh, that you’re reading these posts and feeling excited for us. Some of you have emailed to tell us that you’re excited, others have called. But really, I can feel the power of the Internet working in our favor over here, and it’s really nice. Because just when it feels like I’m about to engage in the real-life equivalent of stepping off of a fast-moving train, you guys are there with mattresses and cushions all spread out on the ground, ready to cushion my fall. Thanks for that. It’s really cool.

In the next few days, I’m hoping to put up a few more blog posts. There are a few things we really want to write about before we leave, so we can address them again while we’re gone without giving you a long and unnecessary backstory. So look for such interesting topics as “holyshit we’re really doing this” and “traveling to far-flung lands with a chronic illness that hates your intestines” with a dose of “ohmygod we’re leaving tomorrow” and perhaps some “does Matt really think I’m only taking one pair of underwear with me?” thrown in for good measure. I know you’re excited. I sure am. And in exactly two hours and fifteen minutes, Matt is going to be right there with me!

Friday, December 7, 2007

Much Obliged, Old Man Winter

Lizzi and I will officially be leaving the country on December 18th, a scant few days before the official beginning of winter, and we will be returning in early April, a couple weeks after spring has sprung. That means that we miss ALL of the winter. For most people, skipping the coldest months of the year in one of the coldest parts of the country would be a dream come true. Even my parents hid out from Jack Frost in New Mexico for a few years.

But having been raised and lived most of my life in the Snow Belt, I actually enjoy winter. Sure, I've seen plenty of green Christmases, and Lizzi and I honeymooned in Hawaii for one of the them, but there's still something so special to me about seeing the snow gently blanket the ground. Every year I look forward to that first snowfall. Like one of my beloved Gilmore girls, there's just something magical about it for me. So knowing that we were going to miss ALL of winter, I was feeling a little down, because I was going to miss out on one of those precious few magical moments.

Old Man Winter must have heard my sighs of disappointment, because he delivered this week in a big way. Over the past few days, it has snowed lightly, leaving a couple of inches of fluffy, white powder on the ground. Sure, it brought traffic to a halt, made walking home in dress shoes a bit tough, but I can live with all of that knowing that I did not miss my winter.

Tuesday, December 4, 2007

A Long Hello From Africa

Tonight as we were driving through the game reserve ("game reserve" being a euphemism for "the bush" which is what it's really called around here, but I can't write "driving through the bush" without overwhelming my inner fifteen-year-old), bugs came flying out the ground. The bugs were flying termites (yes, I said flying termites) and they were fleeing their underground homes because it was too hot and humid under there. Or at least, that's what our guide explained to us. Why they were flying out of the ground towards the owls that eat them is beyond me, but I'm not really one to talk, as I've spent the better part of this week driving TOWARDS things like lions and rhinos myself.

Anyway, the termites. They came flying out of the ground in swarms. Hundreds, thousands, millions of bugs, all flying around. We were sitting atop an open-air Jeep, driving towards them. At least, it certainly felt like they were driving towards them, because they were definitely flying towards us. In an open-air Jeep, there's obviously no windshield. Unless you count the three of us: me, my dad, and my brother, sitting shoulder to shoulder, acting as a human windshield. Those of you who have driven through the south in the middle of a summer night know how disgusting a prospect this is. That smack, smack, smack of bugs hitting your windshield? That sound was made by my body as I frantically tried to swat them away.

It sounds gross, and I guess it was, but, mouth closed to avoid swallowing any of the termites, I was laughing.

"They're going to nest in my hair!" I declared, through clenched teeth. My dad and brother laughed. My hair, for all of my attempts to calm it down, has been out of control here. Truly wild and chaotic. I look like a crazed woman.

"THIS is one of the ten plagues!" I said. "This is what the bible meant by locusts. It wasn't locusts. It was flying termites!"

More laughter from my peanut gallery.

"This is God smiting us," I continued, as I bent myself in half, and swatted away the termites from my head, neck, and shoulders.

"It's slowing down," Andy said, and he was right. I looked up into an impossibly dark sky full of stars that I'd never seen before and smiled, open-mouthed. But while my head was still taking in the enormity of the night sky, my dad pointed towards the beams of light that our jeep threw onto the road.

"Frogs!" he said. And we all laughed, another plague upon us.

Of course, it wasn't a plague. But I'll be honest here for a moment and tell you that God is somewhere around here. I don't talk much about God, particularly because my own opinions on the subject are pretty unconventional. But I believe in something, and whatever that something is, it's here and I can feel it. Which I didn't expect at all, but it's actually pretty great. I think it has something to do with seeing nature in action, all up close and personal like. Whatever the reason, some kind of holy work is playing itself out on large and small scales here in the bush. There. I said it!

If I'd had the chance to write a post while we were still in Cape Town, I would have dwelled on entirely different things. I certainly wouldn't have talked about God. I would have written about the beautiful city and the lovely people. I would have written a lot about how cool it was to be at the Cape of Good Hope, standing high above two oceans and countless shipwrecks. I would have told you about the penguins we saw (yes, penguins) and about the fact that while other tourists stood around remarking that this was the closest they'd get to the South Pole, I closed my eyes and sent a silent message to Matt, thinking "not me. This isn't the closest I'll get to the South Pole."

But now that I'm here in the middle of nowhere, I'm thinking about other, loftier things. Or something. I'm thinking about different things, that's for sure.

A few days ago I remarked to my dad that whenever I visit a new place, I'm torn between thoughts that I could move there and thoughts that there are so many other places in the world I want to see. But here in this part of the world, I know that I can't live here and I don't want to. I also know that for the next few days, this is the part of the world that I want to be seeing. It's the part with a measurable amount of divinity, and it's pretty spectacular.

I'm sure you're all looking forward to the many pictures (all 634 of them! You know you can't wait to see them.) but because I don't have a way to get them to you, I'll leave you with a sleep-deprived Haiku written by my brother:

Water buffalo
Mauled by six lionesses;
it rots silently.

People, this is what happens when you wake up at 5am every day to get in an open-air Jeep and chase after lions. Haikus. About dead water buffalo. Of course, those of you who know Andy know that he could make up something like that when he's nowhere near Africa, but it's definitely more amusing in these parts.

Pictures to follow in a few days! Happy trails.

Monday, December 3, 2007

Anywhere but Home for the Holidays

Less than 20 days till we leave for Thailand. I can't believe it's so close already. Luckily, everything is pretty much taken care of; everything except where we are going to be staying in Thailand. According to the guidebooks and the blogs, not knowing exactly where we're going to be staying is completely normal. However, what the guidebooks don't tell you is what to expect when you are traveling over the winter holidays: Christmas and New Year's. And that's precisely when we are going to be in Thailand. Specifically, we plan to be on Ko Phi-Phi for Christmas and Ko Samui for the New Year.

To make planning a little less stressful, we divided up the holiday stays: Lizzi planned Ko Samui, and I got the other one. Diligently, she booked our New Year's stay over a month ago. Thinking that seaside bungalows grow on trees in Thailand, I dragged my heels and just now started looking at where to stay. Surprise, surprise! Everything on Ko Phi-Phi is booked solid until after the first of the year. So Ko Phi Phi is a bust. Whoops. Never fear, I've got a back-up plan in mind, and I hope by the end of the week, we'll be all set for our Christmas stay in the islands.

The moral of the story is this: the holidays are a wonderful time to travel; you know this, and so does everybody else. Book your stay ahead of time.

As for our stay over Christmas, I'll keep you posted.