Sunday, December 23, 2007

Climbing ... Yeaahhh.

My momma has only ever made me promise her two things. The first one was to never join the military, and I've got that one on lock down. Definitely not planning on joining the military any time soon. The second one was to never get a motorcycle, and unfortunately I had to fib a little on that one. To get out to the climbing area here you can either catch a ride with the local climbing shop (in which case your arrival and departure time are scheduled and you are running around with a lot of people all the time) or you can rent mopeds and drive your own self out to the crag. Naturally we decided to drive our own selves out. Overall it wasn't too crazy, although I was normally in a healthy state of terror (just to keep things safe). They drive on the left side of the road here, so that took a little getting the hang of, but all the Thai drivers are pretty considerate, and I'm pretty sure they are used to stupid foreigners so they just kind of wait until you sort yourself out, then they go on their way.

Alonzo and I rode together and rotated most everything. One of us would rent, and the other would pay for gas, and usually I drove in the morning and he drove at night. Driving in the city was arguably more dangerous, but I think felt safer because we weren't going so fast. Mostly we didn't go to fast on the highway either, but one day we went to visit an elephant reserve, and we left Chaing Mai a little late, so we hauled ass on the way down there. I don't know if we were actually speeding or not because I couldn't read the street signs, and it hadn't even occurred to me until the second day that there might even be a speed limit, or that speed was something we should be concerned about. Mostly we just kept with the stream of traffic.

We ended up making really good time down to the elephant reserve, but it didn't matter too much because they had pretty regular elephant shows (we had thought they only had one). The show was pretty neat. They had the elephants do a sort of re-enactment of the work elephants used to do, which was logging. Then they had the elephants paint a picture. One painted a freestyle picture, and the other one painted some flowers (the people there had taught him how). We also went to see the elephant dung paper factory while we were there. Apparently they can not only make paper out of elephant dung, but they can also make bio-fuels if they ferment it right. So that was pretty neat to see. This was the only day Alonzo and I didn't share a moped, and on the way back we took it a lot slower. It was nice to be able to enjoy it, though it was still a little terrifying. We stopped at a roadside stand and got some strawberries, then turned off on a random road and happened to find a temple. So we stopped there and ate the strawberries. It was pretty cool. Needless to say it was some sort of a Buddhist temple. The statues were humanoid but had vague resemblances to a cat, and there was leopard print cloth draped around them. To top it off there was a cat living there by itself. I think it was the friendliest cat I've ever met. After we went polished off the strawberries we went up the hill and found a whole monastery. We only saw one monk, but he told us to show ourselves around. It was a pretty beautiful place.

Most of the other days we went climbing. The climbing here is all really good and not too crowded. There is a cave adjoining one of the cliffs and we saw in the guide book that there was a climb inside, so we went in to check it out. There was one or two short climbs near the entrance but the one we were interested in was farther back. It was a two pitch climb, roughly 5.11d in difficulty, which is out of my league, but a couple of the other guys we were with wanted to give it a try. Basically it was the kind of climb that makes me wish I was a better climber. It just takes a really cool line, looked amazing, and was really really exposed (which means that it is really obvious how far it is to the ground). The climb was fairly overhanging and was basically already 100' off the ground when it started, so as soon as you started climbing there was nothing between you and the ground but air. When I found the guys, they were already started. Conrad was sitting on a ledge 100' off the ground (the starting point) belaying Jessy, who was another 100' up, about 10' past his last bolt, standing in between two stalactites, staring down into the vast emptiness of the cave. After sitting for a minute I realized Jessy was looking for another bolt because he wasn't sure where the route went next. He ended up finding one right above his head (and after he clipped that one he found another down by his thigh). The second pitch traversed right out of the cave, then over the opening to the anchors. It wasn't quite as intense looking, but still made me wish I was a better climber.

Other highlights were finding a waterfall one day after climbing, and going to a Thai cooking school. The day we went to find the waterfall, we had originally planned to go to a hot spring, but we found out that there were about 3 different fees just to get into the area, and that there might be another fee to actually sit in the hot spring. We were also unsure about whether or not we'd physically be able to sit in hot spring because of the size of it. There was a lot of miscommunication going on. Our fall back plan was to go to the waterfall, so we set off. The drive was a lot more beautiful and got us back into the mountains. Alonzo was driving so I got to take in a lot of the view. After driving for a while we had to stop and ask for directions. A truck was driving past and Alonzo had the guidebook, so he spearheaded the initiative. While Alonzo asked directions, I commented to Conrad that they were pretty ballsy, trying to get information like that without any knowledge of the language. He laughed and said it was easy. All you have to do is point at the waterfall in the guidebook, then point down the road to the left and to the right. Touche. It really is that simple. The guy Alonzo asked even spoke some English, so he came away with more information than just a direction. We ended up finding the ranger station (really just a family's home, but they opened the gate for us and let us in) and the trailhead. The sun was setting as we walked in, which was beautiful, but also a little distressing because I hadn't brought my flashlight. At one point we came to a fork in the trail. We chose the left fork and kept our fingers crossed. The trail dropped steeply into a canyon and it seemed like we had chosen the right path. After a little further the creek crossed a stream, and right after that we found the waterfall. I had wanted to swim before, and there was a good pool at the bottom of the fall, and I could have swam but due to time constraints I didn't. It was a nice waterfall. We took a couple pictures and then hurried back.

Alonzo drove the first half of the way back, then I took over. This was the most terrifying ride of the trip. Nothing really special happened, it was just pretty intense overall. When we finally made it back and I stepped off the moped for the last time (that day), I heaved my first ever true sigh of relief. The stress of the ride back didn't even compare to anything else I've experienced in my whole life. Hands down. Tests and school are nothing. Climbing isn't even very scary compared with the ride back.

Anywhoo, the cooking school was fun (and we didn't have to ride mopeds out to it, which was a bonus). The chef teaching us kept making terrible jokes, and then laughing really hard, which made his jokes funny. I guess it was a testament to how important a good delivery is. And I learned how to make mango sticky rice, a delicious concoction involving mango, sticky rice, sugar, coconut, and salt. Unbelievable.

I kind of wanted wrestle with the trunk of an elephant, but since I'm pretty sure the elephant could rip me in half like a phone book, this is as close as I got. And the elephant spit on me a little.

One other neat thing about Chaing Mai was the Frog Women. There are a few night markets in Chaing Mai, and they are all saturated with Frog Women. They sell little wooden frogs, that have been hollowed out in the middle, and carved ridges on their backs. You take a stick and rub it along the ridges on their backs and it makes the frogs 'ribbit'. And the Frog Women push these things like there weren't no tomorrow. They've got a good system too, the whole Frog Woman union, that is. They all wear fakey little outfits with a red on black design that I though looked a little Peruvian. They also wear very interesting hats. The hats look a little like the Pope's hat, but smaller. They have high fronts (similar to the Pope's hat), but square, with a color scheme to match their jackets, and little silver bangles hanging off. And all of the women are shorter than 5' 4". Actually it is a little odd, because they really all are really short. Anyway, when you first walk in you get attacked by a few of the older more experienced ones. If you make it past them, then there is another rank of younger pretty Frog Women waiting inside the gate. They attack next. And each individual attack isn't easy to fend off either because there are so many stages of it. They use the frogs to lure you in, but once you've told them you don't want a frog, they are ready with a horde of other trinkets to push on you. See, they all wear those little rack that hang off in front of them, like hot dog salesmen in baseball stadiums. The racks are full of more frogs, and other trinkets, and they've got necklaces and bracelets hanging off of both arms which they push at you and point to. I really do like the Frog Women though. They're constantly making the frogs go 'ribbit' so they create a sort of nice atmosphere, and they are so stalwart and determined. Almost none of them ever smile, or even speak. They just point to the frogs and necklaces and stare at you. It is fun to watch them haggle other people too, but sometimes they notice me and start walking towards me. I shake my head 'no', but I think that is a mistake because it just encourages them. If I shake my head then I've responded in some way, and they have an opening.

Thursday, December 20, 2007

Thailand ... Yeeaaaahh.

One of my roommates from school (Alonzo) is spending a few months in Thailand climbing, and, because my school gets a few weeks off for Christmas, I'm going to meet and climb and catch up. He was planning on meeting me in the airport, and we had formulated vague ideas about meeting next to any columns with 'A' or '1' on them, for lack of a better landmark. So when I made it through customs I was a little concerned about actually meeting up, but as I was walking past lines of people Alonzo stepped up beside me. Then commenced a festival of hugging. At first we hugged cause it was good to see each other. Then we hugged because Brian (another roommate) had asked me to give Alonzo a hug for him. Then we hugged again because Brian had also asked me to tell Alonzo to give me a hug for Brian. Then we hugged again, just for good meAsure. Then we headed to the hotel.

After breakfast the next day we caught a bus to the train station. Here is such a contrast from Taiwan. There you can scan a magnetic card to pay for the trip, and the buses have TV's on them, and doors that open and close. The buses here have wooden floors, and the no real doors and a woman that comes around to collect the change for the bus fare. And our bus driver was wearing a pair of really dirty flip flops and his toes were about 3-4 inches long.

Anyway, we made it to the train station OK and we got tickets on the next train to Chaing Mai. It didn't leave until 2:30 in the afternoon, so we killed some time and tried to find a place where I could withdraw some money. We didn't find one so we went back to the train station, and put our stuff down. I went to make some more rounds on different ATM's and when I came back Alonzo had made a new friend. Or a new friend had made Alonzo. A middle aged Thai woman (with poor English) was trying to communicate. She seemed like a scammer but, I wasn't quite sure what her scam was, so I talked to her some too. She also had a ticket on the 2:30 train to Chaing Mai, which was a little dubious, but after talking to her for a few minutes, we grabbed out bags and went to get on the train. After I put my backpack in the rack above the seats, I went to get out my book, and found out that my tube of toothpaste had busted open, and green apple toothpaste exploded everywhere. I was disappointed and I cleaned my book off, but decided to wait until later to clean up the rest of it. Alonzo and I had the seats at the beginning of the row, and just as we started to sit down a man came around, and turned our seats to face the ones behind us. I thought this might be a little awkward, because then we would be staring at the people in front of us for a lot of the 12 hour ride, but then the man turned those seats too, so now Alonzo and I were sitting in the back of the car instead of the front.

The train ride wasn't too fast and was a good opportunity to see the countryside. It also provided a good opportunity to try real Thai food because people were walking past pretty regularly. And they walked past about a dozen times, so you could really scope out what it was first, and decide whether or not you wanted any. We ended up getting something that I thought was noodles, in part because a middle eastern guy across the isle got some too giving Alonzo and I a good opportunity. So we got some. It looked like fiber glass, and was a little scary to eat, but it was made from sugar cane, and tasted like cotton candy. It was pretty good, and we talked with the middle eastern man some. Later on we saw the crazy woman coming towards us on the train, and we pretended to be asleep until she walked past, but she outsmarted us and came right back after we stopped pretending so, we had to talk to her.

It got a little weird when she started leaning on my knee to support her as she sat down in the isle. It still wasn't clear what she wanted, but I wasn't cool with her using my leg as a backrest, and my thigh as an armrest, so I started to ignore her and try to read. Then I made an ass out of myself. Because I was ignoring her the woman shifted her attention to the middle eastern man beside me, and started haranguing him. I thought I should offer some friendly advice, so I said maybe if he said something in Arabic she might get confused a leave. My assumption he spoke Arabic wasn't completely baseless. I had seen him reading a Lonely Planet guidebook earlier, and it looked like Arabic. He'd also been talking to the girl beside him in what sounded like Arabic. Even though my assumtion had some basis it proved to be completely false. After I gave him my little tidbit of advice, he smiled and said he didn't speak Arabic. So I felt like a jackass, but he was really friendly about it. I made some excuses, and went back to reading. The woman ended up leaving, and Alonzo introduced himself. The couple was actually from Israel, and they had been reading and speaking Hebrew. They were really nice, and gave us some fruit.

After a while it got dark, and we couldn't look at the scenery anymore, so we went to sleep. It got really cold on the train and I pulled out my blanket, and Alonzo and I huddled together for warmth. The train got in at a little after five in the morning, and Alonzo and I caught a 'tuk-tuk' to a guesthouse called 'Same-Same'. Thai people have their own sort of English, and one of the common expressions is 'same-same'. I don't know why they say it twice, but they almost always do. Anyway, we made it to the guesthouse ok, but it was still only 6 in the morning, so we just loitered around out front. I tried to clean the toothpaste out of my bag, but it didn't work to well.

Thursday, December 6, 2007

Well ...

I've been living here for over two months now, and I hate to say this, but I still think a lot of Asian people look a lot alike. I even thought I saw Jerries mom working at the grocery store the other day. At first I was surprised, then worried because I owed her money, and I didn't have any on me to pay her back, then I realized it wasn't her.

And another thing. Up until this week I thought all the restaurants I ate in were very clean with no problems, just like the states. But earlier this week I was eating lunch and saw a rat running across the floor. I'm pretty sure it wasn't a pet rat either, though it did seem pretty accostomed to having the run of the place. And just yesterday I got served a piece of honey toast with ants on it. While I was debating whether or not to take I could get my money back for it, or whether or not I could eat it and get my money back for it, one of the people at my table took all the ants off. Now that there were no ants on my toast my options were a lot more limited. I couldn't very well take a peice of toast up there with no ants on it, and say that there had been ants on it, and I wanted my money back. So I just ate the toast.

This afternoon I got an opportunity to try the Taiwanese version of chewing tobacco (I don't think it has as many negative side affects, but it does turn your mouth red temporarily). There is a nut (very similar to an acorn) wrapped in a small leaf. You bite the end off the 'acorn', spit that out, then put the rest in your mouth and start chewing. It wasn't bad really. I thought it tasted a little like meat. I had swallowed a couple mouthfulls of spit before I asked my teacher if that was ok or not. Apparently you can but most people don't. So I spat out the rest of the 'mouth water' (chinese for saliva). Overall it wasn't terrible, but I don't think I'll be buying it for myself any time soon.