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Bhutan-tastic!

Both Alex and I have wanted to go to Bhutan for many years. I think we first heard about this little landlocked country in the foothills of the Himalayas while we were living in Munich, and it was back then that we decided we would have to go. Someday.

Amazingly enough, someday happened a whole lot quicker than I thought. Last year, when we moved to Bangkok, we learned that quite a few of our teaching colleagues have been to Bhutan because the school offers a “Week Without Walls” trip for the high school students every year through Rainbow Tours and Treks, based in Thimpu, Bhutan.

Given that the Bhutanese government requires all tourists who travel to Bhutan to use an authorized tour guide, this was the critical information we needed to make our trip happen. As odd as it sounds, working through a tour guide actually makes me totally uncomfortable – you’re basically surrendering your entire trip to one person (who knows full-well that this is probably going to be the only time you’ll ever deal with them, so if they mess it up, they’ve already got your money). For the cynical and hyper-anal traveler, such as myself, this is quite a frightening thought.

So, knowing that so many of my colleagues (and students) had such wonderful trips with Rainbow Tours, I willingly surrendered a wad of cash to the lovely Sonam (you have to pay in full, in advance), in the hopes that we, too, could have an amazing adventure in the Land of the Thunder Dragon.

And what an adventure it was!

First of all, the Bhutanese government requires that all tourists pay US$200/day/person to visit the country, thankfully this is all-inclusive so we basically didn’t pay anything else above and beyond that base fee (except for souvenirs which were equally overpriced and a tip for our guide and driver). So, once we arrived, we just sat back and enjoyed being led around like little children day-in and day-out for our 8-day visit.

We started our trip in Paro, home of Bhutan’s only airport, where we climbed up to the Tiger’s Nest Monastery. There was some misleading wording in our travel schedule, something about a 4-hour round-trip climb, which may have lead to some slight crankiness on one member of our two person party, but we made it all the way to the top, on our own, without the help of the horses stationed at the bottom of the mountain.

It was quite a hike, this is the view from the half-way point (where there is an adorable little cafeteria and they serve you piping hot tea and cookies – who says hiking isn’t civilized?!):

And here we are a little closer, the view from just before you start down into the gorge between the side of the mountain you hike up, and the side of the mountain the monastery is on, prayer flags fluttering in the wind:

Speaking of prayer flags, it was absolutely amazing to be walking through them all over the place in Bhutan:

Unfortunately, there were no pictures allowed inside the monastery, but here’s a look at the sweeping view we had of the Paro valley from the top of the mountain:

Little did I know it, but this was to be the first of many hikes in Bhutan. Day two had us driving up to Thimpu, the capital city, and exploring some of the cultural sites:

Of course, we also did a little hiking:

After a few days in Thimpu, we headed to Punakha and Wangdue, which was actually my favorite part of the trip. Both Thimpu and Paro were comparatively crowded and touristy once we saw the little villages on the other side of the Dochula Pass, look at those stunning Himalayas – you can see clear across to the board of Bhutan and Tibet:

We saw more temples:

Made a few friends:

Saw some beautiful Dzongs:

Some amazing views:

Entered some mysterious temples:

Visited a local school:

And, Alex wore his Bhutanese traditional dress pretty much the whole time:

All in all, it was pretty amazing. Apparently Bhutan has only around 13,000 tourists visit the country each year. It was easy to tell that many of them spend the majority of their visits trekking, so there were very few other tourists every where we went – most places were completely deserted except for the monks and locals in their lovely traditional dress.

I have a few too many pictures posted up on Flickr from just about every moment of our trip, please feel free to check them out!

Basically, for me and Alex, this was a trip of a lifetime. As much as we’d love to go back, we probably won’t (especially now that we’ve heard the price is rising to US$400/day/person next year!).

Have you ever taken a trip like that? Where did you go? What was it like?

What’s for dinner?

I have always been a little choosy about what food I eat. I was raised almost entirely on Italian cooking – few ingredients, simple dishes, eaten when foods are in season – but I am American, after all, so despite my mom’s best efforts, I still crave disgusting delights like Taco Bell or Burger King every now and again.

I’m not sure if it was my mom’s influence, or just my personality, but I have always been wary of meats. I only like certain types of meats and certain cuts. I definitely don’t like my meat to taste “gamey.” There’s just something about meat that kind of grosses me out. I’m not sure if it’s the animal rights issue (because I do purchase leather products, although I would never feel comfortable wearing a fur coat or leather jacket, I appreciate the superior quality of leather shoes and wallets, for example) but something about eating animals seems a bit odd to me.

For a very brief time, I was a vegetarian. It was pretty easy to do while I was in university and the year afterward. I lived in Connecticut, tofu and other meatless products were easy to come by, and I never had to struggle to find what I wanted. Now I must admit, even during that time I was a very very lax vegetarian and would often “cheat” if there was something I really wanted.

However, all bets were off when we moved to Germany a year after I graduated from university. I tried my hardest to remain a vegetarian for about a month into life in our new home. Every time I ordered something from a menu I went through a complicated process of naming every sort of animal part that could be in, let’s say, my potato soup. “Is there ham? Pork? Bacon? Meat? Pig? Fat?”

Of course the answer was always no, and the soup always arrived with bits of fried pork skin (or something else I didn’t think to explicitly mention in my ten minutes of questioning prior to my order). So I finally gave in. I do have a weakness for pork products and I was living in the land of sausage.

Now, many years later, I have definitely given up any attempts to be vegetarian, but I still choose my food carefully. Unless I can clearly identify which part of the animal (and which animal) a certain dish is coming from, I opt for the vegetarian version. And I find myself choosing meatless products more and more lately.

Around two years ago I read Anthony Bourdain’s A Cook’s Tour, which describes his international search to find the perfect meal. Many of the stories he shares revolve around the closeness of most cultures to their food, specifically the actual life and death of the animals they eat. He talks a lot about the sterile food environment that most Americans are raised in – meat comes from a tightly sealed, vaccine-pumped, package in the US, not an animal.

Personally, I can totally relate to this concept. If I had to kill the animal I eat to make my meal, you can bet I’d be a vegetarian (which I do understand makes me somewhat hypocritical for eating meat in the first place, but I think we all know I’m not perfect). I do find it strange that we are so removed from our environment – I remember watching a Jamie Oliver show around the same time that I read Bourdain’s book (so obviously the same problem exists in the UK) about how British children don’t know what vegetables look like before they’re cooked or what animal is inside chicken nuggets. Scary.

Just before we left for our summer holidays this year I watched the movie Fast Food Nation (based on the book by Eric Schlosser, which I also own). Not surprisingly I had to close my eyes during the final scenes on the “kill floor.” The industrialization of food consumption in the US is so disgusting, it’s almost unbelievable that it can continue to exist. It freaks me out that I have been eating food that is produced in such a horrific way, and that somehow, our culture seems to have been convinced (myself included) that it tastes good. As you might expect, I steered well clear of any sort of chain restaurant (as well as meat in general) this summer.

Around the same time I started learning about the eastern garbage patch in the North Pacific Ocean. Our reliance on plastics, and their inability to biodegrade, is terrifying. And the fact that almost everyone I’ve talked to about the topic has never heard of it, is even more scary. I shared a few videos with my relatives and have started talking about it with my students when we learn about water.

Last year I watched The Story Of Stuff which got me thinking about how casually we throw things away, and to now see some of the direct results of this “disposable” plastic totally freaks me out. I mean who thinks about the plastic granules in their facial cleanser not being able to biodegrade and ending up eaten by fish who mistakenly think it’s food, and who are then, in turn, eaten by us. How much plastic have I consumed unknowingly? 

During our time in Oregon, my mother-in-law loaned me a book called My Year of Meats by Ruth Ozeki. It’s a work of fiction, but based in truth with tons of references and citations. The stories of hormone injected meat and the impact those drugs can have on human development (beginning puberty at 5 years old in some cases) got me thinking about what kinds of foods I may have been exposed to as a child – when we were less informed about what goes into the industrial food chain. I actually still feel scared, although considering I’ve made it this far, I must be reasonably OK.

Of course Eugene, Oregon is the perfect place to have these kinds of discussions. If there is one community in the US that has their heart in sustainability and healthy living, I think it’s those lucky folks that live in Eugene.

Unfortunately for me, I really do love living overseas, so even though I feel right at home in the Pacific Northwest, once we headed back to Bangkok I wasn’t quite sure what to do with myself – foodwise.

So I started reading The Omnivore’s Dilemma by Michael Pollan. And then, Animal, Vegetable, Miracle by Barbara Kingsolver. If I wasn’t already in a panic about making food choices before I started reading, then I certainly am now. 

It’s clear that I should be buying local produce – not only do I know it will taste better and be fresher, more full of vitamins and nutrients – but it will also help support a more sustainable method of farming and feeding ourselves. Plus, I don’t want all my foods flown in from all over the world, using more fuel and spewing more carbon emissions into our already polluted environment, just to have a strawberry in December in Thailand.

But I’m also worried about safe food practices in my local environment. I routinely walk through a fog of pesticide spray designed to keep us free from insect invasion, and see that the poor person doing the spraying has no mask, the cloud of poisonous gas working its magic not only on the bugs, I’m sure.

A standard sign of life in the developing world, for sure, but what does this mean about how vegetables and fruits are grown in the countryside? Or how animals are raised? And what about the horrifying business practice of our political neighbors, like China. How do we even know where all of the local items are really coming from if the labels are written in Thai and so many international corporations have parent companies to mask their true origins?

So here I am, loving life in Thailand, but wondering what to eat. And how to make ethical choices in a developing country. To be honest, I don’t even know where to begin… Anyone have any advice?

 

Images From:
German Sausages & More from reiner.kraft
Veggie’s Splendor from suviko
Packaged Chicken Image
Garbage Patch Image
My Year of Meats Cover
The Omnivore’s Dilemma Cover
Animal, Vegetable, Miracle Cover

The Secret City

One of my favorite things about having visitors is doing all of the “touristy” things I never seem to find time to do on an average weekend in the city. One of the things I had really been wanting to do was take a boat tour of the canals in Thonburi (across the river from Bangkok). Despite all the visitors we had last year, I was never able to make it over to the other side of the city.

Theppaksi

So when Alex’s parents came for a visit a few weeks ago, and the fates aligned to allow us a day off work during their trip, I took my chance!

We enjoyed a relatively cool morning exploring the Grand Palace (I believe this was visit number 2 for me and visit number 5 for Alex) where I continue to tempt fate by bringing a pair of flip flops to change into once I skirt the security guards at the entrance. The rule apparently is was that all visitors must wear closed-toe and closed-heel shoes to enter the palace (along with covering shoulders and legs).

However, every time we go there I see dozens of people, foreigners and locals alike, wearing much more casual clothes than the “rules” stipulate (although I am familiar with the concept of simply ignoring the “rules” that rages quite rampant here in Thailand, I am such a rule-follower that I wouldn’t dare). But, this time I’m quite pleased to report that I was able to trade my closed-toe, formal wear, palace-appropriate shoes, for the far more comfortable flip flops.Offering

Despite my fear of the eventual embarrassment of being told by one of the security guards to put the other shoes back on, no one seemed to notice, and in fact, at the very end of our visit, my father-in-law spotted that the sign now says that flip flops are acceptable footwear for the palace. Hello comfort! And no more carrying around my decoy “real” shoes all day!

After the palace visit, we headed over to the pier for our canal tour. Amazingly, although Alex hadn’t been there in months, the guy at the little booth actually remembered Alex from his last visit, and off we went without having to negotiate an acceptable price.

The tour we took lasted about an hour and whizzed us through the canals on our own private long-tail boat. It was a bit overcast so most of the pictures are pretty gray, but living in a tropical climate definitely makes you appreciate the cloudy days. 

Boat View

Crossing from one side of the river to the other is like stepping back in time. All along the banks of the canals are traditional Thai houses on stilts, you can see where the water has eroded the banks of the river. We saw kids playing in the water, people bathing, and of course lots of little ladies selling treats from their own boats. 

I wish we could have taken a few detours down some of the smaller canals, but the standard route must be pretty clearly mapped out. We saw quite a few other boats speeding through in the opposite direction as well.

Porch

I love being able to see the contrast between the modern city we live in on a daily basis and the more traditional, peaceful, pace of life in Thonburi. It’s amazing to me that these places can co-exist only a few minutes from each other, yet be so totally different.

One of the things I love the most about Bangkok is how quickly things seem to change, yet how much of the traditional culture is retained. When we lived in Munich I really felt like I had explored all the nooks and crannies of the city within the first two years. To be honest, I’m not sure I’ll ever have the chance to know Bangkok as well as I knew Munich, and certainly not as quickly. And I have to admit, I love that feeling. I love the idea of all the undiscovered secrets waiting to be found, a new adventure around every corner. I think that’s my kind of city!

What do you like best about the place you live?

As an expat, I’m constantly on the lookout for places to live when we’re ready to move on. As much as I’ve loved every place I’ve lived, I know there’s always another country to explore just over the horizon. So when we go on our vacations one of the first things I do when I get home is decide if I could live there for a few years.

For example, I could totally live in:

  • Laos
  • Dubai (but only for a few years)
  • Italy (of course!)
  • Denmark
  • Singapore
  • Taiwan
And, as of one week ago, I thought I could live in Shanghai, China. I had such a great time there last year and was so amazed at how vibrant and cosmopolitan the city is. Another great place to live in Asia, or so I thought.
I just went back again for the wonderful Learning 2.008 Conference (where I presented three formal sessions and two informal sessions) and boy did I get a eyeful. Or perhaps I should say a “lungful.”
We were only there for five days, but goodness, I really could not live there. The pollution was horrifying. So bad that when I got back to Bangkok and was walking on Lang Suan (a busy boulevard in the middle of the central business district) I was taking especially deep breaths to enjoy the “clean” air.
I don’t know exactly what was in the air in Shanghai (and I’m guessing the locals don’t know either), but it was disgusting. My throat and lungs actually burned for days afterward. It was like the “haze days” in Malaysia, but I guess it’s standard for Shanghai. The air was so fuzzy (for lack of a better word) that it was a cloudy white color. Yuck.
And then there’s the joys of the tainted food. I’m off milk now for a while just in case, but friends that lived in China last year were telling me that there are always tainted food scares (which of course is kept hidden by the government but eventually gets around to the expat population).
So there’s the bad air, the bad food, of course the restricted internet access, and the tightly controlled media. I guess I’m crossing that one (and a pretty big one at that) off my list….
Image from: http://picasaweb.google.com/johnjlynam/FirstWeekInChina#5059788477298388306

Laziness, Conquered

I may have mentioned my extreme laziness here in the past. Suffice it to say that I refuse to purchase or wear button down shirts because they require not only too much prep time (ironing? No thanks!) but all that buttoning on and off every day is just more than the amount of effort I choose to expend when donning and removing clothing.

Therefore, I was quite disappointed to realize that with our new fabulous apartment downtown, I would now need to wake up an hour earlier to make it to school on time. Thus leaving me with a 5 am wake-up alarm.

At some point in the last two months or so, I (shockingly) decided I wasn’t getting enough exercise. Perhaps it was my fear of being physically unable to climb up to the Tiger’s Nest monastery in Bhutan when we go in October.

So, having purchased an elliptical last year which I had, to that point, never used, I figured I should hop on that little contraption for a half hour everyday after school until I was no longer winded when climbing up the stairs to the BTS.

Of course, my excessive laziness prevailed. Exercise? After school? Totally not happening. After zoning out on the hour-long bus-ride home, there was no way I could muster up the energy to actually “run” (and I use the term quite loosely here) on that thing for any length of time. Basically it was all I could do to fall on the couch and chill out with a new episode of the best show ever, The Wire.

After a few days of trying to enthuse myself about afternoon exercising unsucessfully, I tried something entirely unheard of.

Getting up early.

Yes, that’s right. Earlier than 5 am.

Astonishingly, I seem to be able to wake up (quite angrily for the first 30 seconds or so) at 4:30 am, stumble over (in the pitch darkness) to the guest bedroom/game room/workout room and hop on the old elliptical.

Over the past month I’ve upped my morning jogs from 10 minutes to 30 minutes and now I’m at the point where I actually feel like I could run for ages (this must be that mystical “runner’s high” people have been confusing me with for the last three decades). But I probably won’t because that would mean I’d have to get up even earlier.

Either way, it’s quite an achievement for me (aka: the laziest person I know).

I’ve always know that if I can make something a routine, I’ll just keep doing it forever, I guess I just never thought about trading sleep for anything. Ever.

So, since I am apparently on some sort of health kick, does anyone have any other simple routines I can pick up and add to the agenda? Keep in mind that getting up before the first number on the clock is a 4 is a deal-breaker, though.

Tiger’s Nest image from: http://www.leopalmerphotography.co.uk/tiger.htm
Alarm Clock image from: http://flickr.com/photos/laffy4k/367822192/

I’ve Arrived!

I still remember the first time I enjoyed fresh strawberries in Germany – biting into a ripe, red berry, and finding a squirming beetle inside. Ew! But, I reasoned, at least that was because they don’t use dangerous pesticides, and really, isn’t all natural always better? 

This was around 9 years ago now, and I must admit I’m increasingly impressed with my ability to turn off my highly tuned gag reflex. 

This week put me to the test, though.

On Monday, I went to my favorite local grocery store – totally overpriced and specially for expats, but I still like it since it’s just down the street and everything is so easy to find. I was making one of my favorite quick meals – cous cous with zucchini, asparagus and broccoli. As I was chopping up my nice, round zucchini, I noticed it looked a little off – a brown tinge and a bit hollow. Figuring it was rotten, I tossed it away (thankfull that I had purchased two).

When I went to cut up the second one I noticed a little squirming friend on the cutting board. A tiny maggot. Delicious.

Managing to amaze even myself, I simply threw the maggot in the trash, washed off the knife and cutting board, and chopped up the second zucchini.

Hmmm. Perhaps I have adapted to my less-than-sterile environment here in Southeast Asia?

Today I got another chance to test my tolerance levels. We went to my absolute favorite pizza place in Central World Plaza (just a five minute walk from our house) with some friends who were visiting from out of town. I may have mentioned how much I like this pizza on one or two previous occasions to these very friends, so I was quite excited to bring them there for lunch.

Sadly, as I was about to bite into my second to last slice, what do I notice resting next to a tasty, salty black olive? A crunchy, leggy little cockroach. Nice and toasty, all baked into my beloved pizza.

Ug.

Despondently I called the waitress over (she knows us so well, we don’t even have to order when we come in we just get “the usual”). Thankfully she was quite horrified (and removed the charge for the pizza from our bill) and had I not already eaten 95% of the pizza, I probably would have finished the rest.

Plus, I didn’t panic, didn’t declare that I was never coming back, and I definitely didn’t gag. It’s all part of the experience, right? The little daily adventures that make living abroad so exciting.

I consider this my personal “arrival” to the world of expat living. I may have been out of my anti-bacterial-obsessed-country for the last nine years, but being able to ignore a cockroach pizza, and simply toss away a maggot has to be a sign of adaptation, right?

No more hand sanitizer for me!

Back in Bangkok

As usual, it’s hard to believe the summer is over… You won’t hear me complaining, though, I know a good thing when I see one. Eight weeks off every year is a pretty sweet deal, that’s for sure. Even though it went by at lightening speed, we had a great summer (as we always do!).

Our first two weeks in Munich were fabulous. It’s hard to believe we’ve been away from the city for three years already. It felt like we were living there only yesterday as soon as we stepped out of the airport. So many things have changed, but thankfully, most of our old favorite spots are still just the same:

We had some spectacular schnitzel at Steinheil:

Steinheil Schnitzel

Enjoyed the lovely, long summer twilight in the city’s many parks:

Frauenkirche

Got to see the highly protected, secret, back courtyard of the Augustiner Keller on Landsbergerstr:

Augustiner Keller

And, of course spend tons of quality time with our fabulous friends we miss so much:

Neil and Sabine

Sabine and Neil (check out the guy in full Bayern wear in the seat behind us – just a regular Saturday in Munich).

Martine and Chris

Martine and Chris (who flew down from London to see us!)

Mithra and Frank

Mithra and Frank (our steadfast lunching companions)

Trish and Martin

Martin and Trish

Once we got back to the States, we spent two weeks relaxing with my family in Connecticut:

Spent a few good days at the pool:

Lisa, Kim and Jay

Reconnected with one side of my family that I haven’t seen for 15 years (a post is soon to come on that story):

The Cofino Family

Enjoyed some fantastic meals, and just enjoyed being home.

For the last part of our vacation, we headed out west to Eugene, Oregon for two weeks, where we spent some quality time with Alex’s family and got to:

Experience the Oregon Country Fair:

Crowds

Go whitewater rafting on the MacKenzie River:

On the raft

Taste some delicious Oregon wine at the Kings Estate Winery outside Eugene:

Hills

Enjoy the stunning Oregon coast:

Crash

And hang out with our old friends, Annaliese and Jeremy, that now live in Portland:

Reading with Ken Kesey

Aside from some airline related travel snags (Hello, domestic travel in the US sucks big time!) It was a pretty sweet trip, I must say. Even so, it feels great to be back home in Bangkok – especially being able to hop in a taxi from the airport and find ourselves home, downtown, in under 40 minutes!

So, now that we live downtown, and we’re going to be here for more than a month (which was about the amount of time we had in our new place before we left for the summer holidays), what should we do that’s off the usual tourist/expat path?