Sunday, November 27, 2011

We Gulp from the River of Shit and Visit the Marigold Strippers - Part II of the One Day Trek

(See Part I below)

It is raining. Of course. In the front seat of the van, Casey and Karis are white-knuckled as they press their fists to their mouths and then cover their eyes as we speed, skidding, over a slick red-mud road cut through the jungle. The mountainside rises immediately to our right; there is no shoulder to the left between the van and the drop to the river. The van fish-tails, wheels spinning, spewing a slurry of brown slush. “And they were never seen again,” someone intones. It is too easy to imagine that red earth, rain-loosened, sluicing down the slope and sweeping this creaky van with it.

But we make it to the raft loading area – an open-sided, roofed shelter – where we shed our clothes, but for our bathing suits, and don yellow life-vests and helmets. We hear our captains long before they drive into view, hanging off the side of their van, honking, hooting, exploding firecrackers, a wild yowling crew of yahoos eager to have some fun with the tourists. Wonderful.

Actually, we are pleased with the arrogant stance of the young man who props one foot on the raft we are assigned to, a paddle gripped upright by his side like a shepherd’s staff. He is cocky, lithe, and tattooed. He has almond eyes, cocoa skin, and black hair pulled tight into a short ponytail. Captain Don.

Don gives clipped instructions in pidgin English. He shows us how to wedge our feet under the inflated rubber seats of the raft to anchor us, how to paddle forward or backward on command, how to hold the rope and prop the paddle across a thigh when he says “stop.” How to leap to left or right to shift weight so the raft does not flip.

“No flipping!” I say sternly. “I am the mother! Keep us safe!”

“No woman, no cry,” Don says, grinning. Could mean anything.

“Okay! We Off!” Captain Don barks orders and we snap into action, shoving the raft into the tug of the current. We paddle like crazy people, clutching at the safety rope as the raft buckles and twists up and around hidden rocks, folding as it tumbles into troughs. Eyes bulging, mouths agape in screams or laughter, hard to say which, we ride, waves lashing our faces, drenching us. “Great!” Dave hollers. “I brush my teeth with bottled water at Sirilanna, but I’m swallowing gulps from the river of shit!” Oh yes. We’d seen the turds, big as bocci balls, that the elephants dumped in this river.

Don hoots with glee. We laugh – hysterically. Don shouts orders. Dave repeats every one. Casey yells at her father to shut up. “Forward! Stop! Back!” calls Don. “Forward! Stop! Back!” whoops Dave. Casey glares at him. Dave ignores her. The raft zips and careens as we leap to comply to rocket-fire demands. Our captain is amusing himself at our expense; still we dare not disobey.

And then, peace. The rapids are behind us. The water is calm, our paddles at rest across our thighs as instructed. We admire the scenery. And Don tells us to pull over.

Crude rafts of bamboo float along the bank. Don points and we clamber awkwardly out of our rubber craft - which looks pretty luxurious at this point - to crawl on hands and knees in water a foot deep, our fingernails scraping up wads of muck. We jabber about the possibility that resident worms and bacteria have easy orifice access. I assume someone will tell us how to distribute our weight evenly so the raft will float on top of the water as pictured in the brochure, but no. Once all eight of our original Panda Tour crew assembles, we set off, with Karis still on hands and knees, giggling, wide-eyed.

We drift downstream in water up to our waists as a man seated at the rear paddles listlessly. The raft rocks steeply left to right, right to left, left to right: why is it so unsteady? I picture the post-ride gathering of the captains as they exchange tales of idiotic clients and their own cleverness in ordering us about. I glare at the paddler in the back, sure he’s the cause of this shaky ride. He does not return my gaze.

* * *

The ride is blessedly short and when we dock, Ghee and the Panda Tour van wait among a cluster of guides and vehicles parked at a rough encampment. In open-air cinder-block shower stalls, we rinse-off in a warm dribble of water no doubt siphoned from the river, then pull on our damp clothes for the well-earned drive back to Sirilanna.

Except we don’t go back yet. After a brief drive, the van slows and pulls over. “You’re kidding, right?” Casey moans, her eyelids drooping. “What did we sign up for?”

A tour of the Mae Tang-Muang Khaud Area, is what. And today’s trek includes visits to several mountain villages. This one, our third, is surrounded by sweeping hillsides stained with orange, pumpkin orange, orange the color of monks’ robes, a brilliant wash of color in the dusky light. “Marigolds,” Ghee says, “used to make dye.”

Our bedraggled troop trudges down dirt roads, past rude shacks with roofs of corrugated metal, wood, or thatch. Dogs lounge against walls, and bare-chested men squat in doorways or snooze on hammocks suspended beneath platform-porches. The way opens to an area encircled by shelters, floors spread with blue striped cloths piled high with orange mounds. Men, women and children bend to the task of stripping petals from stems; they grin and nod when we hold up our cameras for permission.

I feel sheepish as I point and click, point and click at the marigold-strippers, at ancient women working their embroidery, at small children playing with puppies. What must they think about these sodden white people captivated by work and flowers, by baskets of corn, cooking fires, a cow in a rickety pen? Life here is utterly alien, a life I am grateful to visit, a life I want to capture on film, but a life I wouldn’t want.

On this day, this one day, I have lived many days. I am thrilled to be able to head back to Sirilanna’s Jacuzzi, pool, comfy beds and fresh fruit. But today, with my dear ones, I trod a slick red-mud jungle trail, bathed in a waterfall, and clung to a rope in a raft on a swirling river. Today I rode on an elephant.

Casey's blog

Saturday, November 19, 2011

Rumblings, Gunshots, and Hysteria in the Jungle - Part I of the One Day Trek

I know two Thai words and one is our elephant’s name, Sawasdee, or “hello.” Yes, Dave and I are seated on a metal bench resting on many layers of padding upon the shoulders of an elephant. Casey and Karis are similarly situated on an elephant behind us. The girls are laughing and indeed, there is a swell of such joy in my chest, such astonishment, that I am in Thailand, lurching and sloshing through a chocolate mud river on an elephant’s back, that my laughter spills and mingles with theirs. The sun is bright and hot. Dark, mysterious mountains, wreathed in mist, slope to meet an expanse of brilliant green rice paddy. Beneath my feet, leathery gray skin puckers as a great ear flaps and Sawasdee’s trunk stretches to probe the shrubs along the riverbank. How, how is this real?

At 8:30 this morning, our guide, Ghee, arrived with her driver in a tattered Panda Tour van to pick us up at Hotel Sirilanna for our “One Day Trek of the Mae Tang-Muang Khaud Area.” Ghee’s tiny pale face, bushy hair and over-sized glasses peeped from a beige wide-brimmed hat. She was fully swathed in a long-sleeved rain jacket, jeans, socks and sneakers. Doubtfully, she eyed my sleeveless shirt, striped Capri pants, and sandals, and said, “Walking shoes? You have walking shoes?”

I headed back to our room to change and met Casey and Karis on the stairs. Both were wearing camisoles, shorts and sandals. When I told them Ghee’s remark, they exchanged a look. “These were fine the last time we rode elephants, Mom,” my worldly girl commented. “It will be harder to clean mud off of sneakers.”

Oh. Well. “Ghee was adamant,” I said.

So, with sneakers on our feet, bathing suits under our clothes, and raincoats in our daypacks, we rejoined our guide outside the hotel and climbed into the van. Four others had signed on for the expedition: three girls about Casey’s age and Marcel, an engaging young man from Brazil.

After a brief stop at an orchid and butterfly preserve, we were off to the elephant camp, a compound of thatched huts, canopies and platforms at the toe of the mountain, at the edge of the ride paddies, in the curve of a river.


We were distracted, delighted, and amazed that we were in the presence of elephants, so Ghee had some difficulty corralling us to read a large sign, written in English, posted beside the platform where we mounted up. Frequently asked questions – or perhaps, accusations – were addressed, most of them related to the chains around the animals’ ankles and the prods used by the mahouts, their trainers. Elephants, the sign said, are not allowed in the jungles or paddies, and they are prone to disputes, or even stampedes, at mealtime. The chains minimize such problems. As far as the prods, they do not have points, and we saw that the mahouts were gentle and affectionate with their charges. Still, something is wrong in the world when elephants are banned from their jungle, and chains on ankles are the answer.

Two by two we were helped onto our elephants. Soo-Ree, the mahout, speaks no English, but turns to grin at us often and, open-handed, reaches for Dave’s camera to capture our ride upon Sawasdee.

In front of us cavorts James Bond, a two-year-old baby elephant the size of a VW Beetle, tethered to his mother’s leg by a length of chain. Despite the mahout’s calls and urging, young James lolls in the water, at times disappearing below the surface but for the tip of his trunk. He emerges, his mother tugging him along, but he pulls to the bank, flops in the mud, wallows, takes his time – he’s a little kid out for a stroll. There’s fun to be had and he is doing what he wants – at least, to the degree he can at the end of a chain.

James’s mother urinates copiously, impressive amounts, gallons, into the river.

We hear a hollow thrumming, in this setting, a sound we know only from war movies. It would seem a helicopter is approaching. Sawasdee shoves past shiny green ferns as the grumbling grows so loud, we can feel it in our feet. In our feet! It is not a chopper, but Sawasdee, working up to a resounding trumpet! We are thrilled at her call. What is she saying? From behind us, Casey and Karis’s elephant rumbles a reply. We imagine the exchange between these two immense working girls, When do you go on break? My back is killing me.

I crane through the safety bar to caress tough skin bristling with wiry hairs. I take in the view down my leg: my sneakered foot, the mound of massive skull, the slap of a gray, wing-like ear. I want to soak in the scent of earth, manure, bug spray, sunscreen and elephant, the squelch of huge feet in mud and water, the shrieks of our two girls as a spider web sweeps their faces as they brush through overhanging foliage.

An hour passes and we circle back to the enclosure to dismount. Dave buys some bananas to thank Sawasdee and James Bond. Two snaking trunks eagerly probe for the yellow fruit and curl it away, gently, from our hands.

Ghee gathers our group and herds us to lunch at a wooden plank set on a platform beneath a thatched canopy. Two women garbed in black dresses swathed in pink fabric with multi-colored beads and ribbons serve bowls of yellow curry with tofu and potatoes, and a salty soup of broth, carrots and cucumbers. The food is delicious. After we eat, one of the women coaxes Casey, Karis and I to a booth draped with beaded necklaces, silver bracelets, woven goods and embroidered bags. “I make,” says the woman, and Casey and I pick out two beautiful scarves.

A little girl sits in the shade of the booth playing with a kitten. Near strangling the kitten. Tucking the kitten into a bag and zipping it shut. “That cat’s not going to last long,” Karis murmurs. We mime cradling, cooing and patting an imaginary cat, and for the time being, while we are there, the child heeds us.

“You ready to walk?” Ghee appears at our side. “We go down, down, down, then up, up, up.” She did not say, “is velly dangerous.” She saves that for later.

* * *

Gingerly, we seek solid footing on widely-spaced rocks at stream crossings and on the deep-red earth of the narrow path, stretching for a toe-hold where the trail has not washed away. We are grateful for our sneakers. Through much of the hike, we laugh hysterically – and I mean that literally. We are scared, but exhilarated. I wonder how we missed the part in the trek brochure that said “periodically perilous.”

NPR did a segment on laughter in one of their Radio Labs and concluded that it is not just a response to humor. Fear and anxiety are triggers as well. When Dave falls from the spine of a massive downed tree, when Karis slips on rocks beneath a pounding waterfall, when I tumble as the trail drops away, we are teary with laughter.

Always after one of us trips over roots or rocks, after one scrabbles to regain footing on a particularly tricky incline, or after the rickety bamboo handrail sways out of reach just when a clawing hand lunges for it, then Ghee shouts from the head of our wavering line, “Keh-ful! Slipp-a-leeee!” And it is. So very slippery. We crack up, weak with laughter and exertion, at the too-late warnings, the monstrous spiders, the holes by the track the girls insist are tarantula lairs, the gun shots cracking through the jungle. “This is where the sound track turns ominous and the drug lords appear and lead us, at gunpoint, to their compound…and we are never seen again,” I observe. Laughter. Hysterical.

“And they were never seen again,” becomes a regular refrain.

As we inch over a section where the trail used to be, Ghee sings back a minute too late, “Keh-ful! Landslide!” We glance up the slope of slick red earth at the jagged gap between the mountainside, the tiny trail on which we stand, and the dead drop through groves of bamboo, ferns and trees. Hysterical.

“We are in ‘National Geographic’,” says Dave, breathless.

After an hour and a half of sweating, muscle-twitching, weepy-with-laughter hiking, we hear the thunder of falling water – a promise, a beacon. Our skin is feverish, burning; cold water sounds heavenly.

“Strong water. Velly dangerous,” says Ghee. Ah yes. Danger. And we are howling again, laughing like lunatics.

A wild froth of water tumbles from an unseen source hidden in the foliage high above. Marcel, the young Brazilian, is first in and he disappears beneath the deluge. “It’s great!’ he shouts above the water’s din. “Come on!” Ghee slogs in, fully dressed, and submerges.

Casey and Karis have learned on this trip to turn no opportunity aside. They stagger into the churning foam, mouths wide, laughing. These girls have a spirit and courage I envy.

Dave and I make our way slowly and cautiously into the pool and toward the waterfall, but I can’t bring myself to take on the full force. Karis slides on a rock and goes down, wincing as she smacks her shoulder. It hurts, clearly it hurts, but she smiles, rolls it back to test it, and says she’s okay. Reassured, Casey yells, “Someone take pictures! Awkward family photos!” a phrase she and Karis use for the goofy stances they’ve observed other tourists assuming. Marcel climbs from the water to oblige. So, there, in the jungle, beneath a waterfall, after an elephant ride, we point our toes, grimace and primp for the camera. Hysterical.

“Next, back to the river,” says Ghee. What? More? “White water rafting,” she adds.

“No way,” says Casey. “Was that in the brochure?”

Ghee nods and says, “And bamboo rafts after that.”

Casey's blog

Friday, November 11, 2011

Chiang Mai - From Wat to Wat

At her desk, Sophia, Sirilanna’s concierge, patiently removes tiny flowers from a stem as we eat our breakfast of yogurt, muesli, Asian rice, fresh fruit and fried eggs. When we leave the hotel, we see that she’s created new arrangements in the water-filled pots lining the stairway: green palm fingers spread wide on the water’s surface, white blossoms floating between each one. Simple. Beautiful. A quiet task that took some time and, with gentle color and grace, sends guests into the clogged, busy street.

For the road outside Sirilanna, indeed every road we walk in Chiang Mai, is a sensory assault of clamoring street vendors, ropy black tangles of overhead electrical wires, roaming dogs, dingy facades, bright red Tiger Temple vans, careening, beeping, tuk tuks (open-air rickshaw/taxis propelled by drivers on motorbikes) and… apparitions. In the midst of a neighborhood scrabbling with modern life, we’d come upon a wat, or temple, with sweeping red-tiled roofs tipped with graceful finials, soaring towers, stone elephants, and gaudy, snaking dragons with gold teeth and flashing, multi-colored glass scales.

We are in Thailand. Foolish as it sounds, we say it often. It is like a pinch, a needed pinch, to process our surroundings, so alien are they from anything we’ve known. It is with this sense of near-disbelief that we slip off our shoes and don the shapeless blue robes offered to cover shoulders and knees to enter Wat Chedi Luang to stand in the presence of a towering golden Buddha.

He is thirty feet tall, smiling, serene. I can’t avoid the contrast to a Christian church in which one is met by images of a tortured, bleeding man on a cross. In this spacious, dimly lit hall, I am enveloped by peace. Thailand is known as the Land of a Thousand Smiles and I reflect that it would be easier to beam if, instead of sin and the struggle for redemption, your culture were grounded in a religious philosophy of wisdom and harmony.

A cluster of life-sized Buddha statues surrounds the base of the Golden One. Each smiles, each sits in the lotus position, inviting me to fold my fifty-eight-year-old body into a similar pose. Instead, I take pictures.

Moving on, we visit several other wats in which wax monks meditate in glass cases. They are eerily real and I walk around and around them, examining fingernails, wiry eyebrows, and creased skin for hints of life. With their orange robes, shaven heads and lean bodies, might they be monks of the highest order, those who have reached nirvana? How long could one go without food or water if truly enlightened? They are immobile, unblinking, but so real. As with the many monks we’ve seen in passing, the robe and shaved head virtually eliminate individuality. But for the arch of a nose, the angle of cheekbones, each is one of all.

Karis says she’s heard that education is the motivation for many boys to become monks. We notice signs for a “monk chat” and when we stop in a few days later, the monk, Jikmy, confirms that 50% take the robe for that purpose. We sit on stone benches around a table beneath a large leafed palm. Four mongrels snooze at our feet, occasionally lifting scarred muzzles to scratch an ear or lick a paw. Scrappy as they are, they seem well-fed and content. Jikmy tells us that each temple has a pack of dogs. “They do not cross the line from wat to wat. Very territorial.” At 6:00 pm, the air is loud with ringing bells…and barking, howling dogs. “It hurts their ears,” the monk explains. “They bark to balance the sound.”

Jikmy is good-humored, educated, and enjoys practicing his English. He makes it clear that monks are not to touch women. He confesses that, as a twelve-year old novice, he would hug his mother during weekend visits even though that was not kosher. He is happy to pose for a picture, although he reiterates that Karis, Casey and I must remain hands-off. When he requests a pen to write his email address in order to get a copy of the photo, he recoils when I offer mine. I have to give the pen to Dave to hand to Jikmy. Please. This is not my favorite Buddhist tenet.

Still, one young man, as orange-robed, austere, and clean-shaven as the rest, asks Casey where she is from and tells her she is beautiful. That raises a sparkle from my girl at being irresistible even to a monk.

Doves coo as we stroll the bricked compound, fragrant with sweet jasmine. Small boys gleefully heft wooden mallets to whack heavy bronze bells suspended on racks setting off a solemn, resounding echo.

A beautiful, wizened, woman shaded by a coolie hat squats by the corner of a shrine. She wears a long flowing skirt and loose jacket and smiles widely to show off perfect white teeth. She gestures at her tray of peeping, woven, covered baskets, each holding fluttering wrens. “100 baht – set a family free.” She makes a sweeping motion and wiggles her fingers to the sky. Flight. Freedom. Lofty blessings to be had for roughly three dollars.

I know freedom will be temporary. I know it is probably a bad idea to encourage this practice. I think I read in one of the guide books that this is a Buddhist version of a Catholic indulgence – a mercenary act of compassion to buy a token toward heaven, although that doesn’t mesh with Jikmy’s explanations of his religion. Still, I am drawn.

The woman smiles at her success in sucking me in as I fumble in my bag for bahts. She hands me a trembling parcel of chirping, pooping (yes, on my fingers) life. I flip the latch and hold the basket aloft to watch as the birds perch on the rim, stretch their wings…and fly away.

Saturday, November 5, 2011

Flying Dreams and Happy Landings

October 13, 2011 9:00 AM

Cathay – Marco Polo’s destination. The word whispers of ancient cultures and kingdoms. Silks, incense, temples and elephants. And we are going there, borne by Cathay Pacific Airways. For two anxious months we’ve wrestled with doubts: should we go or not? Can we take the time from work? Does Casey want us or will we impose on her free-wheeling journey? Will it be an incredible experience or an opportunity to contract malaria, polio or typhoid fever? The path scattered with those decisions and fears is behind us, and we are waiting among our carry-on bags and fellow passengers at Gate 22. I am afloat with elation. I feel daring. This is not just a trip, it’s an adventure.

Dave and I have been rendered disease-immune machines by a multitude of inoculations. To-do lists are done, discarded in the recycling bin. Research and recommendations have reaped a hotel in Chiang Mai for five nights, and a few sights to shoot for, but for the most part, we fly to Karis' and Casey’s guidance… and chance…as well as floods and monsoons.

When we made our plans, the dates dictated by when we could leave work and where the girls would be during that brief window, we knew we’d be hitting the rainy season: we have our EMS raincoats in our backpacks. Casey called two mornings ago to alert us to possible travel glitches due to flooding in Thailand. Trains are no longer running, but she assures us that they will get to us… somehow.

Control is an issue for me, yet today, I feel giddy at letting go.


We are off to the other side of the world! My personal display screen and entertainment center (yippee!) flashes the time in New York and Hong Kong (Hong Kong!) in English and Chinese characters. Dave and I will be aloft for twenty some hours. Unclaimed hours! Hours without phones or email! Hours to read, write and watch movies! Twenty hours might not be enough. I want to watch movies that Dave would hate – Green Lantern, Bridesmaids, Pirates of the Caribbean, and Thor. I want to read Paul Theroux’s Ghost Train to the Eastern Star. I want to read magazines and write. I want to sleep a little.

I have time and choices. Bliss.

* * *

When we boarded, lovely Asian women with serene smiles directed us to our seats in Economy. We passed the private cubicles of business class, each with its cozy quilt, individual monitor, stretch-out seating and decorative purple orchid sprig, but even our steerage seats are roomy compared to the cramped quarters offered by Delta, Continental and their ilk. Our meals have been delicious, and during the quiet lights-off hours, a whiff of something soothing and salty led us to a woman stirring noodles with chopsticks. She grinned and nodded and waved toward the rear of the plane. Apparently, we can lurch back to the galley any time we wish to order noodles…or tea, or peanuts or crackers. Dave clambers from his seat and returns with two steaming bowls, a glass of light, fruity white wine for me, and a beer for him. Bless you Cathay Pacific!

Brunch is served a few hours later – a noodle dish and a cup of fresh fruit. Soon after, a pleasant attendant distributes drawstring bags of water, oat bars, apples and refreshing towelettes for our comfort. Heaven forbid we be hungry for even a moment. Fed! Entertained! Rested! May I recommend Cathay Pacific for your traveling pleasure?

Our on-screen flight information display tells us we have 8 hours, 55 minutes and 4386 miles to go. We are content and cared for, our circumstances clear, while all is uncertain once we land.

October 14

I had set my expectations low. In fact, I’d aimed for no expectations. With reports of hundreds dead in the flood, the potential for Karis' and Casey’s delayed arrival, and the possibility that we’d be stranded in the airport, it seemed a wise mindset. My aim was a Zen sense of calm even if our bags were lost, no one showed to meet us, and rain poured.

But ours was a joyous welcome.

First, triumph, as we spotted and retrieved our backpacks from the tumble of duffles and suitcases rattling by on the conveyor belt at baggage claim. As I slipped my arms into the straps, bent to take the weight in my knees, and straightened, I pondered that an exercise-aversive 58-year-old woman had no business carrying a forty-pound backpack. But I liked the image – the connection to the twenty-one year old Lea who traveled Europe in the seventies.

Like wistful children hoping their parents have not forgotten to pick them up after school, we pushed through the double doors into the pick-up area and scanned the crowd. An Asian couple, a young man in a coral uniform jacket and a woman in a white blouse and black pants, held a sign bearing our name. As we approached them, they beamed and bowed, hands pressed together as if in prayer. They seemed as overjoyed to see us as we were to see them.

Outside, the hotel’s van was a silver mirage of sumptuous seats, ornate mirrored d├ęcor, and frosted water bottles in cupholders. We were in THAILAND!

During the brief drive we learned that, yes, Casey and Karis had arrived earlier in the day. Karis, a petite, spirited blond with expressive blue eyes, was Casey’s roommate in New York for three years. She has been my daughter’s companion on this journey, experiencing the extraordinary, as well as sharing the anxieties of the utterly unfamiliar and the terror of the seemingly dangerous. They have also peed together in the dark of a rice paddy and shared a bathroom in weathering the hideous aftermath of a tainted chicken sandwich. As Casey says, “We were close. Now we’re closer.”

Borne in comfort by our silver van, we passed tented street stalls, lighted store-fronts and the swooping red-tiled roofs of temples. As we took a turn, the woman said, “And now down this road, a beautiful hotel.” I craned to see, and she giggled. “It is our hotel! Sirilanna!” And we pulled to a stop before a stairway flanked by two snarling white plaster lion-guardians and water-filled pots arranged with palms and flowers.

Our hosts would not let us tire ourselves with our backpacks. Those were whisked away up a flight of stairs as we were invited to sit, sip a chilled glass of guava juice and wipe our faces and hands with a damp, warm towel. Happiness! But where were Casey and Karis?

Hospitality is not to be rushed. Once assured that we were indeed refreshed, we all pressed our hands at chin level in that prayer-like gesture and Bow-ee, a slender girl in a white silk top and black pants, led us to our room. With as much delight as if she’d crafted them herself, she showed us the massive carved wooden armoire, a chair of sinuous dragons, the throne of a bed with its carved head and footboards. She gestured toward the floor-to-ceiling sliding glass doors to the balcony overlooking the pool. She pushed through saloon doors to the expansive bathroom to point out the double Jacuzzi, tiled shower and folding stained glass windows with jeweled handles of amber, emerald and turquoise that opened to the bedroom. Spotless, beautiful, luxurious! Thank you Sirilanna! All for eighty-five dollars a night!

On the desk, a wooden bowl borne on the backs of elephants was heaped with pomegranates, pineapple, and what looked like a plump pink blowfish. A baggie of…hmm…yes… large stewed crickets - perhaps a daughter’s touch? - was tucked beside some bananas. An aromatic lei of jasmine blossoms twined across the arrangement. All lovely, but I could wait no longer. Where were the girls? Bow-ee smiled and said, “Right next door…”

I peeked out into the hall just as a face appeared. Casey! We hugged and danced and clapped and grinned. And then Dave and Karis trotted into the hall and we babbled and hugged and danced some more while Dave and I took in these two travelers, heroines of our favorite blog, dauntless voyagers of the Mekong River, Great Wall, and Angkor Wat, survivors of Viet Nam thefts, piddles in paddies, creepy boatmen, and tubing in Vang Vieng. Dressed in blousy Asian pants, wrists wreathed with beads and string bracelets, hair wispy in the heat, faces alight, here they were before us, in the flesh, themselves still. It seemed weirdly natural and normal to be together, but we kept shrieking, “Here you ARE!”

And for two weeks, we will be together, part of their adventure, In THAILAND!