Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Are You Ting Tong?

“Are you Ting Tong?” Whatever it was, I hoped not. The words were silly, like “tinkle” or “twaddle,” and every time I saw the question scrawled on a sign, a telephone pole, or a mirror, I was vaguely annoyed. Whoever the Ting Tong enthusiast was, he or she was graffiti-prolific in Pai.

During a night-on-the-town-without-parents, Casey and Karis discovered Ting Tong’s definition - crazy beautiful - and the marketing motive behind its ubiquitous expression. It was the name of a bar, a funky hangout where the girls settled in for some Singha beers and communion with the locals. They met Thanwa-Thayahan, a bearded fire staff dancer who went by the name “Bank,” and Maxie, a tall “model-gorgeous” New Yorker who came as a tourist and never left. Tutu, Ting Tong’s bell-bottomed owner, served up the Singhas and told the girls Pai needed pilates instructors. It was a tempting proposal as our two travelers loved the laid-back life in this tiny, soon-to-boom, mountain village, and had already decided they’d return for a longer stay.

Karis also met a guy who said he’d come to Pai to learn to love himself. Over breakfast, she mentioned the conversation, and I wondered if this was a self-conscious line to throw at a cute blond American girl in order to sound introspective. But upon reflection, I mused that for many, for me, it is easier to see one’s own flaws and failings than to recognize one’s worth. Had he achieved it? Did he love himself? How did one learn such a thing?

On our last night, we were finishing a tasty dinner of curry, fresh vegetables, and pasta at The Witching Well when Karis gave a hoot; she’d spotted Marcel, our young Brazilian friend from the jungle trek, passing by in the street. It is a surprisingly frequent aspect of travel to meet up with those encountered before. To see a familiar face and be hailed as an old friend in the mountains of Thailand made the world seem a kind and comfortable place.

Marcel pulled up a chair, ordered a Singha, and told us of the sights he’d seen. He whipped out his camera and thumbed through some pictures.

“Whoa, hold on,” I said. “Where is that?”

“About fifteen minutes away by motorbike,” he replied.

In the photograph, Marcel was a speck with his arms thrown wide, standing on a narrow precipice against a back drop of scrubby trees and red earth that dropped dead away. A canyon. A canyon! How had we not heard of this?

Well, we hadn’t. Nothing to be done. We had walked through rice paddies past thatched huts, a newly-constructed spa, and several hostels offering sheltered hammocks as accommodations. We had darted beneath a spectacular web strung across the road, the girls laughing anxiously as they photographed the impressive spider splayed in waiting. And we had climbed 375 steps to watch the sunset from a lofty temple, its entrance flanked by snarling blue-faced guardians armed with scimitars. But no one had mentioned the canyon.

So I awakened this morning wishing for one more day. Longing to see the canyon. Filled with regret that we would miss this Pai marvel. And then I thought, wait. The van leaves at noon. We’d strolled past the bike rental shop several times – it was maybe a five-minute walk. And rentals were cheap - $3.00 a day.

We could do this!

At home, I am a calendar queen, more at ease with plans made well in advance, but Thailand-Lea, traveler-Lea, is flexible, and oh, how I prefer her! It was 7:30 am when I woke my husband and made my suggestion. Dave is spontaneous by nature and needed no urging. Within an hour, we were showered, dressed, and motorbike-mounted, my arms tight around Dave’s waist, our helmets clunking together with each stop or turn.

Dave on a motorbike is a happy man. He called over his shoulder as we zipped along, “We’re on the opposite side of the world, Lea!” Yes! On the opposite side of the world!

We chugged past mountains wreathed in filmy mist, the scent of wood smoke in the air. Cameras poised, we captured a farmer herding goats, workers repairing an exotic red phone booth, a man in flowing robes, coolie hat, and staff, strolling serenely, alone. We stopped and started for shot after shot, for as is true in life, this jaunt was not just about the canyon, but also about doing it, about paying attention, about getting there.

The canyon was hidden from the road. We thought we’d missed it, doubled back, and asked directions of some road workers who spoke no English and had no idea what we wanted. They turned my tattered map of Pai round and round, scratched their heads and pointed. *Sigh* We allowed ourselves a little more time, but Connecticut-Lea was re-surfacing, tapping her watch, worried about hotel check-out, bike return and the van’s departure. We drove a mile further... and found the parking area.

A paved path wound uphill and opened to blue sky, pines and the erratic twists and cuts of the canyon as it snaked about the land. Sandy slender trails padded by daring feet led to the edge of promontories carved by some primeval rush of water, some cosmic slide of earth, or some giant hand slicing the red soils away like a potter at his craft. In his picture, Marcel stood on a spot, almost a pedestal, with space only for his feet. We found the location, but were not brave enough for the balancing act required to cross the tiny land bridge over.

And it was time to go.

Once on the bike, I hugged Dave’s waist as we steered onto the road back to Pai. I imagined myself, like Marcel, fearless, arms wide, so different, so different from me. What does it take to loosen, to lighten up, in a lasting way?

Letting go has many meanings, and at times the literal and figurative merge. I sat back in the seat, released my hold, flung my hands out, batting the breeze. Emboldened, I can do this, I circled my shoulders, let my arms flow, laughed, and performed a swaying, sinuous Thai dance. Matronly and bulbous in my clumsy blue helmet on a motorbike on the opposite side of the world, I felt Ting Tong, crazy beautiful.

Sunday, December 4, 2011

"Do You Really Want to Hurt Me?"

Dave is sipping his Leo beer and I my Bacardi Breezer as we sit on the porch of our bungalow at the Pai River Corner Resort. Karis and Casey are snoozing in the bungalow next door. Multi-beaked flowers of brilliant scarlet sprout beneath the wide leaves of the palms that skirt the lawn before us. Across the way, the turquoise waters of an infinity pool sparkle in vivid contrast to the mud-brown river flowing just beyond. On the opposite bank, people squat, washing dishes. Yes, they are wearing coolie hats and washing dishes in the river as we sit on our porch with our drinks.

The dish-washers have a fire going, and it smells like autumn in New England as plumes of wood smoke rise above bamboo huts visible among the palms. From the hotel bar sound system, the ‘80s singer Boy George croons, “Do You Really Want to Hurt Me?”

I know. Crazy.

Pai is a clash of cultures: hippie-meets-island-meets-jungle-meets-up-and-coming-resort town. Strings of red lanterns criss-cross narrow streets of tiny storefronts interspersed with tangled vines, palms, and open-air restaurants beckoning with swings or resting platforms as seating. Thai silks and hand-woven scarves form colorful curtains and neat rainbow mounds in several shops, while right next door, an establishment sells kewpie dolls, dingy yellow rubber duckies, an E.T doll in a red sweatshirt, pink knitted pig heads, and retro wind-up streetcars, fire engines and satellites. Intriguing.

Signs for Thai massage are an omnipresent lure. Dave plans to partake and during this afternoon’s exploratory stroll, he peered into each parlor, hoping to spot a babe of a masseuse. So far, the women glimpsed have appeared sturdy and strong, but definitely not babes.

Lining the main walking road, vendors on blankets, in booths, and with pushcarts hawk their wares. Skinny, dread-locked jewelry merchants sit cross-legged, stringing beads, next to black-garbed Hmong women in colorful embroidered vests selling handmade purses, skirts and bags. Dumplings simmer in boiling oil, vegetables steam, eggs bake in wrought iron pans, and meats roast on skewers. Despite one hideous case of food-poisoning in Laos, Casey and Karis are bold about tastings. Dave and I, however, are wary of street food. Prior to our departure, many people warned us about gruesome diarrhea, parasites and stomach aches, so my backpack is heavy with a plethora of potions: Pepcid, Pepto-Bismol, Cipro, Maalox, cranberry lozenges, charcoal pills, Imodium, and Ex-Lax. We hope to avoid their use.

As it is, Dave and Thai food have not been a good mix. The coconut milk, soapy-flavored basil, and sour fermented fish (a real favorite) have made him bloated, uncomfortable and suspicious. The Witching Well, a cozy Pai eatery decorated with witches, orange walls and spooky black trees, served the best food we’ve had in Thailand: tofu, broccoli, mild curry, cauliflower, and cashews. Delicious.

Pai has been a lull in our quest for danger, for this morning, our driver, a man for whom brakes do not exist, did his best to kill us on the switchbacks in the mountains on the road to Pai, and yesterday, we snuggled with tigers.

Tigers are not in this world for people to pet, but Tiger Kingdom offered that opportunity with the assurance that “Tigers do not have to be drugged to be tamed.” Drugging aside, I’d prefer tigers free and wild, and elephants unchained. I don’t want farmers to lose crops to a stampede, nor their small children to a hungry orange and black striped beast, but how do we reconcile large animals and humans? The answer is not elephant rides and tiger temples, I know, but here, one can lie with tigers, and we did.

At home, organizations and agencies seek to save us from folly and unhealthy leanings. Regulations, red-barred circles, barricades and fences remind or coerce us to caution. Not so in Thailand. As we took a tuk tuk (a motorized rickshaw/taxi) to Tiger Kingdom, motorbikes zipped past us, laden with entire families. Without helmets or safety devices, three-to-four people clung to each vehicle. In the back of pick-up trucks, aged crones and tiny grandchildren made the ride to home or market. And at Tiger Kingdom, a signature on a waiver gave daring, or possibly stupid, tourists full responsibility for whatever mauling or mutilation they might incur as a result of their choice to cuddle an impressively clawed and toothed 700 pound animal.

Casey and Karis were the impetus behind this tiger encounter. They were also the ones with a healthy fear. I, who suffer from anxious butterflies for days at the thought of a few minutes of public speaking, had no qualms. Perhaps I still unconsciously adhere to my naive childhood belief in the protection and concern of beneficent governments, confident “they” wouldn’t let us do this if it were dangerous.

A quaint notion.

After reading the rules, a list of “Do Nots” - Do not approach the tigers from the front, do not touch their paws, do not engage in provocative behavior - we removed our shoes and donned slippers to enter the cage with the baby tigers. Seventeen months old, and the size of a hefty beagle, they were precious – big kittens! Most were napping, although some batted littermates’ ears, climbed up on the low table in the middle of the enclosure, or ambled about checking the visitors.

Casey and Karis were charmed. They cooed and beamed as they stroked orange fur, rubbed tiger tummies, and lay against warm bodies. What a moment: our dear, intrepid travelers, faces blissful, curled up like children with beloved and trusted pets.

Trainers bearing sticks the size of pencils – the means used to train the cubs from the time they were tiny, a quick rap on the snout enough to halt iffy actions – accompanied each tourist group, ever repeating rules and cautions. I’m an intelligent person. I read the rules. I heard the trainers. Still, when a cub honored me with his attention, established eye contact, roused himself from the floor to begin a slow, purposeful saunter my way, I looked him in the eye and made “awww, you are the cutest little guy” type-sounds. Three trainers sprang between us, pencil-sticks at the ready, firmly hissing, “Avoid eye contact! He thinks you want to play! Dangerous!” The tiger backed off and I was flush with embarrassment. I had provoked a tiger.

After that success, it was time to see the big cats.

Again, foolishly – I seemed to have an instinct malfunction - I was not afraid. Dave wore a bright smile; I noticed nothing out of the ordinary. Casey and Karis wisely stifled their default mode of raucous laughter. They approached this encounter with wide eyes and hesitant, should-we-really-be-doing-this smiles of awe, respect and again, healthy fear.

As suggested by a pencil-armed trainer, we took turns draping ourselves across the broad muscled backs of four different animals and running our hands along their sides. I hoped the tigers, who gnawed coconuts, licked their paws, yawned, and shot the occasional bored glance at whomever was lounging on their flank, would not reach the point of annoyance and cuff the offender. Headlines ran through my head, a ticker tape of unnerving possibilities, all a variation on the theme, “Tourist Loses Face in Tiger Incident.”

For these tigers were alert. When not subjected to our ministrations, they paced the enclosure, grumbling. Huge paws placed one before the other, they padded back and forth along the fence of the enclosure. At one point Karis knelt by a tiger, patting and smiling, patting and smiling, her smile stretching too tight, blue eyes widening as I cheerfully video-ed her tiger time. “Um, Lea? It’s probably okay, but there’s this tiger? Right behind you? Don’t make any sudden moves…”

Wishing only to make a sudden move, I kept the camera running, continued narrating in a singsong voice, turned s-l-o-w-l-y, and reflected that while I didn’t want the tigers drugged, I’d thought, had hoped, they’d be, maybe, drowsy...

But the tiger was far more interested in the tussling of his fellows in a nearby enclosure than he was in me. After Dave, Karis, Casey and I immortalized each other with our tiger companions in a variety of self-conscious poses with four separate cameras, our time was up.

As we headed to the exit, Dave’s grin relaxed and his eyes widened as he said, “You won’t believe what happened to me!”

What? What could have happened? We were all in there together.

Before we went in. I was strolling over there,” he indicated the slip of a path between two cages and the animals within. “I took a few pictures, and as I walked away, I heard thudding. When I turned to look, that tiger had a bead on me and was loping after me. As I scurried away, the tiger on the left was coming at me too! Might need to change my pants after that one!”

He provoked the tigers too!

Turned out, Karis had an unnerving experience as well, when the one lion in the place turned nasty as she lined him up for a portrait. He lunged at her, but crashed into the chain link fence. Whoa. Provoked again. What set them off? Maybe Dave and Karis smelled…tasty. Good thing we had pencil-waving trainers to protect us when we walked into the cage with the tigers.