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.
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 décor, 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!