うさぎ人形!Bunny Doll!

This is the ningyou that I made for myself, because next year–2011–is usagi doshi (the year of the rabbit!) and also my year! I’ll be 24. It’s funny the things that I always thought would happen by 24, and all the things that I never thought would happen by 24… Not going into detail, but I am not complaining either! I like where I am. Usagi doshi, bring it on!

Funny Japanese Cooking

One of the best parts about living anywhere is going to the grocery store. Japanese grocery stores look very similar to American ones at first glance, but if you look closer, you’ll realize (or at least I did) that you have NO IDEA what anything is.

I thought I was buying a bag of already cut bamboo. What I actually bought was a form of mochi (glutenous rice cakes) that are supposed to be micowaved or baked to mochirii perfection when dipped in soy sauce.

I thought bamboo would be good in a fried noodle dish, so I started to sauté them with the noodles and sauce. When everything started getting gooey I knew we had a problem…

I ate the noodles out of it because I had no time to make anything else before samba practice!

Kyoto Trip Cancelled, but for the Better!

I was supposed to be visiting some friends in Kyoto, Osaka, Tokyo, Himeji, and Kobe in the first week of April this year, but two omens presented themselves in the form of my first friend not being able to host me, and the second was a traffic accident.  Please don’t worry, I am JUST FINE!  私はほんとうにだいじょぶです!I wasn’t about to wait for the third omen to show up, BUT when my vice principal said that I shouldn’t go on the trip, because I had a doctor’s appointment to keep I didn’t make a fuss because I wasn’t waiting for the third omen to show up before or on my Kyoto trip. However, my Vice Principal made a fuss to the man who hit me and he ended up paying for my medical expenses (4 x-rays to my knees and thumb, emergency room attendance, and an abulance ride=about $100).  The man who hit me only stopped about 3 feet too late in a crosswalk and unexpectedly knocked me off my bike. 

It was scary more than painful.  I was dazed as I crawled around on my knees and looked at the few scratched/bleeding parts of me.  The people who saw the accident started to close me in and the only thing I could think to say in Japanese was one moment please.  I was very lucky that day, but I panicked as they asked me too many questions in Japanese that I couldn’t understand.  Someone was holding me up and I was suddenly very sleepy, so I closed my eyes and had the most realistic, colorful dream of my friend Tutor in my Japanese apartment telling me how nasty the bathroom was.  I could only agree, and then I was shaken awake again.  I didn’t immediately realize where I was and I started to cry.  Someone asked me who my friend was to call them, and I spoke as much Japanese as I could telling them to please call Kakujyo, and then someone called an ambulance.  It’s funny that this was the week that I had inbetween supervisors, and I had no one officially responsible for me, so it fell on my Vice Principal’s shoulders.  It took the kyukyusha (the ambulance) 2 minutes to get there, but by then I was trying to puke on the road.  They neckbraced me, strapped me into a very bare-looking ambulance (not like the ones I’ve seen on ER) and put my finger into a pulse-checking machine.  A sleu of Japanese questions ensued and I’d never been more thankful that this didn’t happen before I had studied Japanese for 8 months.  I also got my handy-dandy Gaikokujin/Alien Card out and relaxed until the doctor could see me. 

My Vice Principal intercepted me at the hospital, covered in sweat from worrying about me.  He took care of all the details with the hospital, set my follow-up appointment, we went upstairs to talk to my landlady to tell her what happened, talked to the police, and took me home.  He was a very scary man in the beginning, but I am thankful that he was there. 

The man who hit me was incredibly sorry and stayed the entire time, making sure that he called my school, held me up when I passed out, called an ambulance, and endured the toungue lashing that my Vice Principal gave him.  It turns out that he was a Kendo (Japanese martial art) teacher at the only public high school that I don’t teach at in Saiki, and I also accidentally ran into him at the Saiki Spring Festival at a Kendo demonstration that my students pulled me into.  He’s a very upstanding, nice man, and sent me a huge gift of senbe (Japanese crackers that cost a FORTUNE) the next day and came to the school to apologize formally the next week.  I was very embarrassed, but this is a Japanese formality that people, especially esteemed high school Kendo and English teachers, are subject to. 

The funny thing is that before it all started, the day was great.  I met my new teachers, it was sunny enough to want to walk to the train station and get my bike back after a week of walking in the rain, a friend spotted me and nicely offered to give me a ride to the station, and I was headed back on my bike to get some takoyaki (octopus dough balls–sounds yummy, huh!?) for my sick landlady in the same hospital that I was ambulanced to shortly afterwards.  What a day.

Before all of this, I had to decide when I was going to Kyoto, and the most convenient times were also during the Saiki Spring Festival (Haru Matsuri) which I decided not to go to in favor of seeing the beautiful sakura in Kyoto and Himeji Castle, staying with friends along the way.  So, instead on Saturday morning, I went to my friend Alexa’s house, we made a very nice late breakfast, went shopping where I found the PERFECT jean jacket and some shoes that I can not WAIT to wear and on our way back, we intercepted the parade heading to the Haru Matsuri.  Perfect timing, and two fun days of Japanese Matsuri ensued. 

I think that seeing the sakura in Saiki was definitely more meaningful than seeing it in a famous place like Kyoto, having the tourist experience with everybody else.  Even though I was very unhappy in the beginning being in such a small place and not being able to dance as much as I had hoped, over the last 8 months I have been able to see what a unique and strengthening experience this has been.   I was able to enjoy the cherry blossoms and the sights, tastes, smells, sounds of Matsuri with my friends, my students, and even the man that I was in a traffic accident with.  I felt the pride my students exuded when I came to watch them at the kendo performance and my tea ceremony students were so excited that they could be seen in action by a pair of “sunflower” eyes unlike their own, and I truly appreciated Japan for the first time that weekend. 

Let’s enjoy Japan together for the next few months…  Saiki will always be my Japanese hometown.

Intercepting the Parade!

Samba with Sandra

The one thing that has been keeping me sane here is dancing samba with my lovely, amazing friend Sandra.  She’s originally from Brazil, was married to a Japanese man, and now has two beautiful “halfu” (half-Japanese, half-Brazilian) daughters to raise in Oita City.  She comes to Saiki every Tuesday and Thursday to teach an aerobics samba class to a handful of ladies, including myself and my good friends Alexa, Nori chan, Ai cho, Emi chan, Tomoko, and Yai chan.   The age range is from 4 years old to 84 years old, so it is quite a sight! 

This class is something I do whether I am happy, dead-tired, sad, natsukashii (homesick), or cho genki (HYPER) and I always come home feeling leveled.  Sandra always has a wonderful, warm effect on my mood, I can’t help but to go. 

Anyway, after 8 months of practicing, being secretely groomed for a position in the performance team, I debuted last weekend with Sandra, her daughter Camila, Hiro-chan, and Sayuri at an old folks’ home.  Needless to say they were very happy with our performance, and I was hooked.  It’s almost like ballroom dancing, costuming and makeup et. al, but of course it’s solo.  I am considering this a chance to work on my choreographobia, so that I can be a better-than-average ballroom dancer when I next get the chance.  Also, the costumes are quite elaborate and very fun to wear.  It requires the height of a woman’s confidence in her body, her sexuality, and her ability to deflect other’s bad mojo.  Honestly, I think every person (not just women!!) should have a Brazilian experience.  I mean, Michael Jackson had his, and through a chart-topping song, Brazil is still only a ghost on the map to many people.  Brazil is an amazing country that celebrates the body through dancing.   

So unless you’re going to be supportive, please don’t look at the picture below.  Thanks!

Sarah AKA Sakurako 桜子

So, on a very serendipitous note, I have a new name.  I’ve had a lot of Japanese nicknames, like Sarah chan, Rashomon, or Sticky Rice (Hiro–you brat!), but I have been officially given a new name by my students:  Sakurako.  This is where the serendipitous part comes in.  Before I left for Japan, I titled my blog “SarahSakura” and it’s really coincidental that I was only off by one kanji! 

 桜=さくら=sakura=cherry blossom 子=こ=ko=girl child

The name came to fruition because my students wanted English names one day, so I named them Amber, Betty, Brittany, and Jessica.  Three weeks later, they informed me that my new name was Sakurako, wrote it on all of my things, and a week after that was my birthday, so everybody adorned me with sakura items, including a spiffy new Sakura iPhone cover!  Now, it is Hanami time, and I am perfectly prepared!

I love March in Japan!  It’s still a little cold, but it’s comfortable and sunny most of the time!  I’m not looking foward to the rainy season though…

O HANAMI お花見

お花見はすごいたのしかた!
Hanami is a really good time! At the end of March, and through the beginning of April, the sakura (cherry blossoms) bloom in Kyushu. Starting in Southern Japan, the entire country watches on the news as the “Cherry Blossom Front” raids Nihon from Okinawa to Minami Kyushu to Hokkaido. It’s a fleetingly beautiful week and a half of bare branches full of white, pink, and almost magenta flowers.
However, the Japanese LOVE to drink and be merry, so they have Hanami (sakura viewing parties) where everybody gets together and barbeques, drinks, and generally has some good clean fun.

This year, I was lucky enough to know Go-chan and his wife, Ai-cho. They are great people who love to have parties, so they organized something like a singles party for all of their friends to mingle. “How romantic would it be to meet your future ball-and-chain under the cherry blossoms?” they joked.
We ate lots of barbequed meat and veggies, drank lots of beer and chuhai (a very sweet, fruit flavored alcohol, akin to Smirnoff Ice–also something I will NEVER drink again due to the massive headache that ensued WHILE I was drinking it. It didn’t even have the decency to wait until the next morning!) and we mingled, just as Go-chan and Ai-cho hoped.
When that party was finished, there was the nijukai–the afterparty! We stayed until 11PM on Sunday, drinking and eating delicious Chinese food, cooked by our wonderful Chinese friends.

Hokkaido Ice Cream

No I did not eat yellow snow… but I did eat crab, miso ramen, salmon, salmon roe, and lots of lamb, washing it all down with lots of refreshing Sapporo Brewery Beer (akin to yellow snow.) There’s just something about Hokkaido ice cream as well that is extra NOM. I don’t know, maybe it’s because the cream is extra fresh–or at least frozen as soon as it reaches the outside world–or I was still high on life  (thanks to my good friends Una, Rhianna, and Natalie) when I ate it, but that was the best ice cream ever.

The trip started on Wednesday night when my friend Al drove from the next town over to pick me up.  I made some spaghetti carbonara for us and we were on our way to Mie to eat mochi (nomalicious glutenous, green rice cakes stuffed with sweet bean paste) and watch Princess Mononoke, which is a very interesting Ghibli Studios Film–made by the same guy as Ponyo and Totoro.  Jeremy came over, we had a few beers and I dreamt about getting stung by mukade all night.  I was happy to wake up early.

We drove to Oita in rain, picked up Alex, and drove on to Fukuoka Airport in some amazing, and really frustrating fog.  I haven’t seen fog like that since my family and I drove out of the Smoky Mountains before the sun rose in the summer!  BUT we got to the airport, albeit a few minutes late.  The rest of the crew was waiting there for us, 25 in all. 

In a stroke of vanity I brought a prettier jacket in lieu of a warmer jacket, but I wore lots of leggings and layers, so I was fine, but the test was walking off of the airplaine for the first time with a cold BLAST of arctic air from the Russian ice tundras.  Delicious. 

The miso ramen that we had for lunch was also DELICIOUS!  I was so hungry and it looked so good that I forgot to take pictures until I had slurped almost all of the noodles!  We had to climb 10 flights of stairs–well at least Rhianna and Al did before I caught the elevator for the remaining 5 floors.  They must have legs of steel!!  The payback was enough… 2 steaming hot bowls of miso ramen to start our trip off with, as well as 2 cold slimy bowls of pickled noodles?  We will never eat that again.

  This video is short, but hopefully it intimates the grandiose feeling of being surrounded by statues of ice at a Weinachtsmarkt-looking festival with lots of hot food and drinks with AMAZING friends who are HOL.  (High on Life)

From there we met our tour guide, Mr. Nick Jones himself!  WHO?  Nick Jones!  During our Yuki Matsuri (Snow Festival) tour that he volunteered to take us on, he told us a very funny story about a little green man in Hokkaido, Mr. Marimokuri:

The rest of the tour was just as naughty—I MEAN good… and after the Yuki Matsuri, everyone was hungry again, so we went to the Ghengis Khan.  The Ghengis Khan is a dining hall in the Sapporo Brewery famous for the lamb that it serves.  Tabehodai (all-you-can-eat) lamb and vegetables with nomihodai (all-your-can-drink) draft beer.  Delicious!  The best part is that I cooked it myself, so it’s fresh and hot and dipped in just the right amount of sauce and in my mouth to be enjoyed.  I envision McDonalds turning toward this technique in the future ’cause I was lovin’ it!  The only slightly unnacceptable part was that we smelled like lamb for days–our coats and hats and the clothes that we stuffed back into our suitcases to mingle with the clean ones.  I guess it could be a good man-hunting technique: pretty girl + BBQ lamb and beer perfume=GOTCHA!   Luckily it was so cold on the slopes that nobody could smell anybody.  We drove for hours into the white wilderness to get to the Freedom Inn where Tom, Matt, Sam and the cute little beagle awaited.

On Friday morning everybody ate a delicious continental breakfast provided by the Inn and then hit the slopes as soon as they could.  I, on the other hand, do not wake up for anything (except food) so I ate breakfast and slept until about 11, got ready and met the group for lunch and then some extremely powdery snowboarding on Niseko.  The first run was the best, sunny and beautiful, but the second run, up to the very top of the mountain “Dynamic” run, was a little darker and windy.  But with Melissa and Alex by my sides, we froze on the way up to the top, and thawed out on the way down. 

After this jubilant picture, I found out that I have NO IDEA how to snowboard in powder.  I spent the first black diamond in the toilet position, facing the mountain, drifting towards Russia and then the Pacific, trying not to get in any senpai’s (someone who’s better) way.  Poor Melissa waited for me at intervals because she’s awesome, and I think she wanted to make sure that I didn’t kill myself in the perfect conditions.  Plus you should always play on mountains with a buddy.  The lifts closed a little early that day because it started to get dark and white-outey.  So we made the most out of it, threw a few snowballs at each other, Melissa tackled Al in slow motion into a snow drift, and we headed back to the Inn. 

That night we were on our own for dinner, so a bunch of us (the fearsome four! and some boys) went into Hirafu Village for some eats.  We were actually in search of Una and Rhianna’s snowboarding instructor who had told them to be at a hotel named “Vale around 8 for a free BBQ and tobbogoning…” which (as we found out from a very confused and sorry front desk man) had been cancelled the week before.  DOH!  Our consolation prize was an izakaya (restaraunt for big groups) down the street which allowed us to get pretty pissed (off of the whiskey that Una and Rhianna bought to doctor our sodas with) tolerated our silent disco turned karaoke, and served the testicular sack of a cod fish.  A delicacy… that almost  made the boys throw up.  Unfortunately, there were two old men who spoke English in the izakaya as well who thought we were being too rowdy.  “You know, this restaraunt is for everyone.” to which we could have replied, “Yeah, you know this restaraunt IS for everyone!”  So they dampened our fun a little, and we paid and left, but they got their just rewards later.  They stumbled into OUR ice bar and we made them stay and were nice to them.  One managed to apologize for his uptight friend, but that wasn’t enough, so we took our party elsewhere, leaving them in the empty ice building to buy expensive drinks. 

Our last stop of the night was “Little Australia”  or a bar called Yuki.  Niseko is bascially a place where lots of Australians come to play for weeks on end.  When they want to drink or shoot some pool, they go to Yuki.  It was nice hearing some Ozzie for a little bit, and we met some neat new friends, Julian and company.  The taxi took us home earlier than I’d hoped to stay out–but then again I had slept in until 10.  Everyone else was pooped.

Day two of the slopes, starting for me at 10AM, starting for everyone else at 7.  Rhianna and I had a nice morning at the hotel and headed to Niseko village to pick Una up off the family slope for lunch and to buy some omiyage to bring back to our coworkers.  Instead we found yoparai ojisan (an old, drunk man) struggling to walk down the road.  He spoke English!  Rhianna and I were so suprised that we walked him down the icy hill (one on each side) and he told us about the war and the best ramen in town and how he lived in the USA once and that if we ate ramen and drank beer that we could stay young forever!  I mean, just look at him!  88 years old!  He may have been a drunk, but he sure was funny.

Hokkaido is famous for a few things, judging by the omiyage in the gift shop.  In between the ninja or geisha shot glasses, hashi (chopstick) sets, laquerware, and keitai (cellphone) straps were lavender goods and dark chocolate, the perfect things (for me–my two favorite things in the world) for Hokkaido to be famous for.  Apparently in the summer, Hokkaido has fields upon fields of lavender and supplies most of the world with my favorite smell.  I indulged myself with a little pot of lavender lip gloss and then remembered that I still have my stock at home.  I bought Royce “nama” choco (“raw” dark and bittersweet) for my coworkers and it was gone in two days–unlike my weird spicy cookie omiyage from Thailand that took weeks to be half eaten and then I finally threw it out. 

Rhianna had an appointment to ride a snow mobile, so we headed back to Hanazono (kanji for flower and garden) where we met everybody else who was too hungover to slide down the mountain for the second day.  This is when I ate kani (crab) miso ramen and enjoyed the warmth of the ski lodge and watching the little kids play in the snow while everybody else outside was cold. 

It was fun peeling the crab out of the shell with chopsticks.  They are too handy to poke the meat out of the other side with. 

Around 4, when the snow was the heaviest, and the lifts closed, everyone came back to the lodge for an “otusekare” or a drink after a hard day of playing.  The lodge was fully prepared for this mentality and there was a “yard-of-beer” option for about $40 (4,000 yen).  We split it between 6 people and had enough for two beers each, and when we were silly from the dehydration, some pictures were taken through the eyes of the beer.

Determined not to have a blowout in our last night in Niseko, we took naps, relaxed, ate pizza and had a wonderful outside onsen with a snowy view and good friends. 

At 10 o’ clock Hells Bells sounded and Rhianna, Una, Natalie, and I (the fearsome four henceforth) dragged ol Tom and somehow convinced Sam, (both employees of the hotel) to come and party in the city with us.  We started at Wild Bills, one of the best bars in Niseko, with an impeccable mojito for me and lots of Aussies for us!  Tom and Sam were right in the middle of the fun, too!  At one point there was a man climbing up the framework of the building and they shut the music off until he came down, but it was all in good fun!  Wild Bills shuts down at midnight for some stupid reason, so we all went to get our stuff and leave–but Una’s purse had been stolen and my grandma sweater had been nicked as well.  We weren’t in Japan anymore, we were in Little Oz.  Una was a trooper though, and kept her party going for the rest of us. 

Next stop: Splash bar.  Lame.  Next stop: nameless karaoke bar with pool upstairs and a whole lotta Japanese!  SWEET!  We sang karaoke until Rhianna could sing like Louis Armstrong and then headed back to the Inn after a successful night.  Even at 4AM nobody could stop us, and we drank some more and played scrabble–an interesting, sloppy version of scrabble!  I stayed up long enough to take a shower and sleep for 2 hours before we had to pack up and leave on Valentine’s day/Chinese New Year, also known as Sunday, the day before Monday, which most of us would have to work. 

I would like to say that the trip was uneventful from there, but there was a little snafu with our group boarding tickets at the airport.  I was too tired to do anything but what I was told, so I sat there, dozing in the airport.  I zombied to the gate after everything was figured out and Cheryl’s blood pressure went down 20 points.  I woke up for 5 minutes to eat the best ice cream cone I’ve had in my life (thanks Rhiri! I ❤ U! ) and then I woke up to Al telling me to get out of his car.  I’m sure that from the Inn to Aso apato in Saiki was at least 17 hours of travel on a bus, subway, airplane, shuttle, and then a car.  TAI HEN DESU, NE!?  I will never live in the inaka of Japan AGAIN!  But I will go back to Hokkaido.

Outtakes: THE ELUSIVE RHIANNA IN HER NATURAL HABITAT http://www.youtube.com/user/sarahchan7#p/a/u/2/FiFhv0ZQ5BA

THE SARAH CHAN http://www.youtube.com/user/sarahchan7#p/a/u/0/7dHwbK7mSn0

Thai: Mai Pen Rai

No, no, it’s not a boy… Thai is a true romantic sensory overload.  The lights, movement, smells, and ENERGY couldn’t even be captured in this photo of Kaosan Road! 

Our affair began at the airport, blinded by the combination of golden buddhas and the sun setting in the walkway, bombarded by the smell of curry and dusty rain after the jaunty taxi ride with Malc to his uncle’s Thai mansion.  To be honest, I really wanted to hear the deafening trumpet of an elephant while simultaneously stepping off the plane, as my sound track intro to Thailand, but alas… ’tis not what happened. 

I couldn’t stop staring out of the taxi window, closing my mouth when consciousness prompted. There were dogs and cats and people and motorbikes and food stalls EVERYWHERE seemingly in chaotic movement.  I swear I almost saw three accidents involving all of the aforementioned during our two-U-turn drive back and before the taxi driver stopped and demanded 150 Baht–about three US dollars.  We tipped him a little bit, and he went away happy.  Normally, taxi drivers like to drive foreigners to the city, to Kaosan Road (later in the blog), which is at least 700 Baht.

Malc’s Uncle Kevin is a hell of a nice guy.  Ex-pat of almost a decade now and a successful businessman in Thailand, he has a Thai partner, Gup, and her daughter, Pat, both of whom I was glad to meet.  They were so sweet to us the entire time.  Gup had just “caught religion” as Kevin coined it.  She was practicing a very strict sect of Buddhism, and had just gone to India to be a monk, where she chose to shave her head–no small feat for a woman who runs a hair salon in Bangkok.  Kevin warned me that I should not use my honed mosquito killing skills in front of her, and luckily I had brought enough bug spray that without killing them, I was only bitten once in the entire 11 days in Thailand.  I think it could have been karma, but I’m pretty sure it was the brain-damaging DEET in the Japanese “sara sara” bug spray.  (“sara sara” means smooth in Japanese ><)

My first night in Thailand, after dropping my stuff at Kevin’s was my introduction to the Thai chili–oh and ladyboys.  It would interest you to know that chilies are not indigenous to Thai cuisine, but were brought by Latin American explorers some hundreds of years ago.  Ladyboys, however, seem to be indigenous and just as prevalent as the chili in the Thai cuisine.  Our waiter-ess was a very beautiful, red-lipped ladyboy and he brought us delicious curried crab (NOM! soooo much better than  it sounds, I have dreams about it to this day) ostridge meat with chilies, prawns with sweet chili sauce and a whole fish steeped in chili goodness.  I was curious as to just how hot these chilies were (and Malc and Kevin dared me**) so I ate a sliver of a green chili and a red chili about 15 minutes and two beers apart.  They’re both delicious, but the red chili has a quick onset, while the green chili kicks in after the red chili subsides.  Beer is also not the best liquid to try to ease the capsacin burn, as it only provides temporary relief by re-dispersing the chili oil instead of absorbing it like rolling some rice in your mouth would do.  Malc accidentally got a chili that was hiding in the fish.  I don’t mean to ruin anyones perception of him, but he literally cried.  **This experiment is not reccommended for people who don’t enjoy spicy food.  DUH. 

A very generous thank you to Uncle Kevin for opening his beautiful residence in the outskirts of Bangkok, very close to the airport, to me and Malc, and eventually Joe and Laura too.  (We all know Malc, Joe, and Laura don’t have any manners! 😉

I woke up with a jolt of electricity on Christmas Day… no seriously, I did.  During the night I had accidentally ripped my iPhone out of the wall, and I bought such a cheap Thai adapter that the plastic part enclosing the circuit flung itself across the room.  I brushed my thumb against unenclosed circuit in the dark and dimly felt a nitrogen cold burning.  Lucky for me, I was only half-awake and not committed to unplugging it. 

After my electricity escapades, Kevin, Malc, and I ate jackfruit yogurt and Wheetabix (something I haven’t seen since NZ in 2004) on the patio for breakfast.  Although the jackfruit yogurt was delicious, we couldn’t eat too much because we were scheduled, by Kevin, to eat Christmas dinner at an English Pub in the heart of Bangkok.  So Malc got all pretty while Kevin and I waited for Gup and Pat to get home.  Malc’s mum called and it was nice to talk to her and Adele, Malc’s sister, but I wasn’t able to talk to Heids because she had just “popped out” for a dinner with her friends.  Heidi, if you’re reading this, this is my public dig at you for not getting Skype!~~~>  ::Public DIG!::

The ride was about 1.5 hours long, but it was in an air-conditioned, quiet car, instead of a taxi that believes in the 4/50 method of a/c subjecting us to the world of noise that Thailand, Bangkok in particular, is famous for.  The noise is rumored to be like a slighty spicy dish: it is ambient at first, but it builds on itself until it is painfully unbearable.  Luckily, I never had that experience because we were only in Bangkok for a few days at a time, but I believe it. 

We ate a delicious, traditional English Christmas dinner with many other Ex-pat men and their Thai wives.  It was a six-course meal, the most impressive being the plate with roast ham, turkey and CRANBERRY SAUCE!  It was like eating Thanksgiving dinner for the first time that year… however, unfortunately, it was.  It is unspeakably easy to skip holidays in countries that don’t celebrate them, like Thanksgiving in Japan.  Christmas dinner was a bittersweet mix of chocolate, Thanksgiving memories, and …  Then, there was billiards! 

I gave those old men a scare for sure.  Thanks to my Dad and the rest of the males in the Snyder family, I am an *almost* pool shark.  Being two shots per shot and knowing the rules better than the men was a new situation for them.  I chose to lose at the end so that they could keep their man cards on Christmas.  Consider that my Christmas present to them. 

Dec 26, 2009

Malc and I lounged in the pool soaking up the smoggy Thai sun all day talking about what we were going to do when Laura and Joe got there.  Joe and Laura are an unlikely team of recent exes and are hilarious together.  Joe was rumored to want to go straight to Bangkok and party for the first night, and I was definitely ready, but the 14-hour plane ride from New Zealand was a bit more than they expected.  Back at the batcave, Kevin offered J&L a beer straight away and they were both ready for bed soon after arriving.  ::End most boring day in Thailand::

Dec 27, 2009

Kevin took us out of his residence on his way to pick up Gup from the hair salon, and we caught a taxi the rest of the way to the center of Bangkok.  EVERYTHING IS SO CHEAP IN THAILAND–AND WE WERE IN THE CITY!  Japan really is one of the most expensive places in the world.  If I wanted a Coke or a bottle of green tea, it would cost 175 Yen=a little more than $1.75, but in Thailand, it’s 22 Baht=about $.55!!  When I came back from Japan I was amazed… I am like my Mother!  I can pinch a penny until it cries!  Thailand is so cheap, therefore more gratifying!

The taxi dopped us off at Kaosan Road, the tourist Mecca of Bangkok, and we were immediately accosted by Thais telling us where to stay.  I almost regretted going there–almost.  We rolled up to the D&D Inn, which is where our imposed tour-guide told us where to go and at the front desk we met Kat.  All we wanted was a locked room to leave our stuff in for the day, and we would be out by 10PM to catch our overnight train to the South of Thailand.  She said once that in order to have a room we must give all of our passports up, and we all just looked at each other and knew that this was our official welcome to tourist-Thailand.  After a few minutes of tense debate, we saw another group handing their leather-bound tickets home over to a much nicer, smiling receptionist.  We decided that Kat must just have been having a bad day, so we got our passports out and she pried them out of our fingers.  We went up to the room and ditched our stuff off and cooled off before heading out for lunch–I was STARVING!

Immediately  as we walked out of the cavern of tailors and internet cafes in between our hotel and Kaosan Road, it started to rain.  Kevin had told us earlier that day that December through March is the dry-season, but as nice as he is, he LIES!  But not all was lost!  We ducked for cover in a small restaraunt and I found my first Pad Thai and coconut of the trip.  NOM!  It was also the most expensive pad thai ringing in about 120 Baht–the next 7 were all less than 80 Baht.  We walked around Bangkok’s palaces and through a politically-charged festival in the rain-cleaned Thai air while our feet became wet and black from all the sludge.  Bangkok is beautiful, but the smog was unavoidable. 

As we were walking we noticed a lot of Thai people in pink t-shirts, and they were all congregating in a dirt lot that was quickly turning into a festival area.  Everyone was wearing pink shirts! 

While we were distracted by the pink shirt-clan, we walked through a metric ton of pidgeons.  A Thai lady came up to me, thrusted an open bag of pidgeon feed into my hand, shook my hand so it all fell out and then, in the middle of the chaotic pidgeon feast, demanded payment!  This was the first scam of the trip, and after scaredly scrambling for all the loose Baht in my pocket, we ran across the street to get away from the pidgeon lady. 

After the pidgeon lady incident, Malc and I split off to see the Democrazy–sorry Freudian type!–the Democracy monument and a castle, which we happened to catch at sunset.  Malc was molested by a Thai man explaining to us about the monument and the castle.  You will notice him staring at his nipples in the following video!  Mai pen rai!

Then we took the one and only Tuktuk ride of the entire trip.

Koh Phangan 12/27-1/4 AKA: The Blur

Mai pen rai is the motto in Thailand: Don’t worry about it!  Don’t worry about the crazy traffic or the slightly overbearing vendors… Don’t worry about  how you’ll get home!  It’ll happen somehow.  The same day that we were on Kaosan Road was the same night that we were supposed to get on a 9-hour overnight train to start our journey to Koh Phangan.  Let’s just say that if you don’t already, you will learn to love the travelling process in Thailand.  We started that day around 10AM, got dropped off on Kaosan Road, spent until 9PM walking around there, buying, eating, seeing things, and then we got on the 9-hour train to the 2-hour bus to the 2.5-hour ferry to the 45 minute taxi on the island to our own little strip of paradise, the Bounty Hotel.  On hour 38 of vagabonding-it without food and minimal sleep, we were finally on the hotel’s private beach with sustinance and alcohol.  Later that night, after naps and our second dinner, we saw the most beautiful Thai sunset.  Almost a rival to the Arizona sunset, the Thai sunset reflects the cardamom, papaya flesh, and ginger that is evanescent of Thai culture.

The next day was spent louging on the beach, with a Thai massage for Joe and Laura, and Haad Rin for a party that night.  Stating that Haad Rin is the party beach of Koh Phangan is a gross understatement.  It is the party beach of South East Asia!!!  The reason that we (and 90,000 other people in the world) chose Thailand and more specifically Koh Phangan for New Years was the famous Full Moon Party in Haad Rin.  Normally, each Full Moon Party culls about 20-50,000 people, but since this Full Moon Party was coupled with New Year’s 2010, a new decade and other such titles, there was a record 90,000 people on the 109 square KM island. 

Among the millions of ridiculously fun drunken things to do at the warm-up party (not even the real shebang) was to jump a flaming jump rope.  Malc tried… So did a few other wasted people. I thought it might not be a good idea with a purse and my signature long, completely flammable, dress.  It was funny as Hell to watch though.  That night was somewhat subdued, catching a taxi back around 3AM. 

Here is a video of a professional fire juggler.

While some woke up with hangovers, others woke up wanting to get motorbikes and search the island for waterfalls, go elephant trekking, learn how to cook Thai, and of course, eat more Thai food!  Here’s what actually happened:

We also had fantastically interesting conversations like this one:

So I gave them shit about it.  I had 11 days, while Malc had a month and Joe and Laura were planning on 3 months in South East Asia!!  I spent the next two days on the beach relaxing with them anyway, meeting new people from everywhere, and speaking English to almost everyone.  If there was ever a time when I believed that English was truly the lingua franca (the international language) it would be there on Had Yao beach.  I was amazed by, and treated to all of the different Englishes in the world all converging in Thailand for New Years.  I’m sure it happens in many other places, but it was special for me!

There was one very interesting phenomenon that happened the entire time I was on Koh Phangan–nobody believed that I was American!  Everybody’s opening line was “So where are you from?” and the political debate that endured after the first time I said I was American was too painful to replay as many times as the question was asked, so I would normally let the three Kiwis I was with declare their nationalities and hope for an interesting conversation to be started about Maori culture, how delicious kiwi fruit is, or the All Blacks, before I was looked at with anticipation.  Sometimes I waited too long and our acquaintances would start guessing my nationality.  Brazilian, Spanish, Swedish–but definitely not American!!  Some Latinos claimed I danced too well to be from anywhere but Latin America, others claimed me as a Northern European just by my looks.  It was too fun to tell them that I was actually American and watch them swallow their disdain for stereotypical American culture.  ><  I likewise, didn’t meet any other Americans on the entire island.  Okashii, ne? (Weird, don’t you think?)  I swear that the island nation of New Zealand rose a few centimeters because half of its population was on Koh Phangan!  We also met a few thousand Swedes, Dutchies, and Australians galore.

New Year’s Eve’s Day and The Full Moon Party 12/31

WHAT A DAY!  After giving Malc so much crap about not doing anything on Koh Phangan, we decided to take a day trip and overload ourselves with the smell of elephants, more Thai food, waterfalls, and snorkeling.  The entire tour cost about 1,200 Baht (roughly $40) and picked us up at 9AM and dropped us off at 4PM–just enough time to nap and get ready for the Full Moon Party that night.

First we stopped at the Elephant trekking corral.  The ladies were allowed to ride in the saddles, but the men were the preferred riders on the elephants themselves.  We slowly trekked for about 100 zigzagged meters, turned around and went back to be refreshed by water that nobody wanted to drink because we didn’t know if it had come from the tap or not.  Luckily, there was a monkey who was cute enough to entertain us while we got to know some British dudes, a family of Israelis, and some Aussies before our next stop.  Good thing we got to know them then or the subsequent, crowded, sweaty truck ride would have been a little bit awkward. 

Next was the Chinese Temple that was built by someone… for lack of English reading materials and a surplus of Thai people we couldn’t understand, that’s the best I can do.  It was pretty!  The Temple had a bell that anyone could ring for good fortune.  However, if you only rang it once that meant you were selfish; twice for you and your loved ones; if you rang it three times, that was for everybody and their good fortune.  There was also a mermaid in the fountain. 

When we were confused enough about the history of the Temple, they corraled us back on to the truck for another sweaty sitting session, and carted us back to the pier where we waded onto a stereotypical Thai motor boat: colorful, long, and LOUD.  The Thai guide passed out some very well-used snorkeling gear, and before I could object,  threw some bread crumbs in the water to attract the fish.  This is when we realized that we only paid about $60 for the entire day–honestly, what could we expect?  Undaunted, I strapped on my snorkeling gear and fell backward into the ocean with my camera on my wrist.  A lot of people started freaking out thinking that I had just doomed an expensive piece of machinery, but my camera is awesomely waterproof.  I took some amazing snorkeling videos with it of a parrot fish, the smoggy tourist-infested coral, and a really bright, red-striped fish.  Some of the Israeli women did not want to actually go snorkeling, so I showed them the video afterwards.  My OLYMPUS Stylus 1050 SW is the best camera I’ve ever owned, except for night photos.  For some reason, all of my night photos have a lot of noise in them.  I like to tell people that the noise is a ghost in the photo… HAHA >

After snorkeling, everybody put another layer of sunblock on and we ate lunch on Bottle Beach–also pronounced as “butthole beach.”  I had the pleasure of eating with two men from Sweden, making them guess my nationality.  Not surprisingly, it took them the entire lunch time to guess correctly (or they were just humoring me and making small talk for the time they were stuck with me) after wandering through Latin America and Western Europe’s nationalities.  Then we decided that we wanted ice cream and beach volleyball. 

“Beck on sa boot!”  any kind of English would do by this time.  I’d actually given up listening and picked up more on verbal cues then if anything.  I understood his hand flailing, motioning towards our boat.  It was time to head to the waterfall!  The people we were playing volleyball with decided that they wanted to go to the waterfall too and hopped on.  We boated for another 20 minutes to the East side of the island and hiked through the jungle to one of the only sources of fresh water on Koh Phangan.  While hiking, my new, salsa-dancing, Israeli friends taught me how to count in Hebrew (which I have already forgotten) and flaunted themselves while hiking barefoot in nothing but their black speedos.  We arrived at the waterfall, admired the waterfall, and then it was time to play.  The Thai guide showed us where it was safe to jump, and then Malc did!  Unfortunately, he didn’t warn me the first time he was going to jump, so he had to do it twice.  Poor thing–it was a big, scary one!

After all the fun was had at the waterfall, the Israelis and I hiked back to the boat talking about salsa dancing the entire way.  We threatened to dance on the beach, but the guide was in a hurry to get back as we were already late.  I was surprised and inspired to hear that salsa dancing was so popular in Israel!  Ikitaiii!  (I want to go!!!)  On the boat ride back, the Israelis sang their gambit of army songs together (which I was surprised to know that both men and women have to serve) and I chimed in when I knew one, like Nagila Hava (sorry if that was blatantly wrong.)  At that particular moment I was very proud of my heritage, having been able to appreciate the Israelis and their merrymaking.  All of the Aussies, Kiwis, and Brits kept to their own during this vibrant display of culture. 

Back to Bangkok 1/4-1/5

We tried to see the public techno aerobics in Lumphini Park, but we ended up being too late (not an uncommon thing with Kiwis) so we shopped and ate at the Bangkok Night Bazaar instead:

The Night Bazaar had a field of a food court, and I only felt like drinking coconut and guava icees.  They were SO NOM.  I took my chances with the water and the ice that the lady (who may have been a boy) made them with, and luckily I didn’t lose.  With a stomach full of potential hurt, we took our chances and walked around the Night Market for one last time.  We saw lots of things that looked like they had been owned before. 

Greetted by a nonchalant glance from the poodles in the front room, we went back up to our rooms, and while Laura took a cat nap, I dolled myself up for my first, and only, night of salsa in Bangkok.  Thanks to Malc and Joe who were ready for an adventure–or may have just felt really bad about missing the aerobics in Lumphini park–I had chaperones to go to Nana station, a somewhat infamous part of town for ladyboys, harlets, and the more old-fashioned kind of fun (and when I say old-fashioned, I mean 1800’s when prostitution was a respectable profession.)

The taxi there was eventful.  We got hassled big time.  The taxi driver took EIGHT lefts… and a half hour later, we were at the earlier guestimated 15-minute drive’s destination.  We overpaid the weasle, but nobody could take my salsa night!  With Malc and Joe in tow, I looked for some flash of salsa, while they dodged propositions a plenty. 

Bangkok’s salsa scene is amazing, with warm people, and as soon as they know that you know what they know, they’re all over you like flies on mango with sticky rice (another culinary delight I forgot to mention.)  I met a lot of superstars in the world salsa scene that night, like Kaydee Namgyal, who was recently awarded by an Indian State for  introducing salsa culture to India, and Anup Thomas, who has his own business procuring salsa vacations.  I also met an interesting man from France, who was highly regarded by everyone else, however, he kept telling me to stay “in my slot” which of course I didn’t understand.  Told Larry about that, he giggled.  

They LOVE bachata almost as much as I do…

We came home late, and the next morning I said goodbye to Laura, walked next door, said goodbye to Sam, and Malc rode with me in the taxi to the airport and walked me in.  It was an almost excruciating time.  I knew  I was leaving the curries, fruits, and the adventure that every day in Thailand provoked, I knew the cold and the bland food I was coming back to, and I also knew that I might not see my dear friends for a very long time after I boarded the plane.  So, we sat outside and reminisced with a little bit of Thai Iced Tea gelatto, while my skin soaked in the last bit of warm, tropical, polluted moisture it could, and then I was asleep on the plane.  Somewhere in between the warm cement curb and my nightmare of going back to the cold, I smelled my last bit of lemongrass, and that warm, yellowy smell kept me in the moment.

JAPANAJAMAS!

One of the best things about Japan is their sense of style. Confusing and scary to some, and just outright silly at first, most gaijin embrace Japanese style by the end of their stay here, and come back wishing they could shop in Tokyo every weekend. I didn’t get this gem in Tokyo–actually in Saiki–but it was too good to pass up. Introducing: JAPANAJAMAS! They’re coming home with me 🙂

Salsa in Saiki with Sarah!

After leaving Arizona, I immediately missed salsa dancing.  Around August I was completely fed up with the lack of salsa dancing in Saiki.  So, with the help of my lovely friend Alexa, we were able to set up a Salsa Party at an amazing jazz bar called BirdLand owned by a very nice man named Kimura-san.  Kimura-san is so nice, in fact, that he allowed me to have no cover charge for the entire night!  I provided the music, lessons (ahaha) and snacks for the night, and he made sure the bar was well stocked beforehand.  

I picked up about 12 people at the train station before the event started, and we all went back to my place.  It is customary to take your shoes off when you enter someone’s home, and I don’t know this for sure, but I bet that they have a saying along the lines of, “Many shoes in the doorway means a happy home!” because it SURE DOES.  I had 10 people stay at my place that night… we were all so cozy sleeping on a futon-covered floor.  We were also so loud and hyper that I thought I was going to be evicted!  

Although we were a little bit nervous that the night might not be so successful, it was a great time!  I have to mention, though, that the ratio was in favor of the men that night… we had almost 40 girls and 5 boys!  Needless to say, they all got a workout.  Here are some great pictures of a great night!  Thanks to all who came!

An even bigger thank you to Alexa and Kimura-san (the very tall man in the black shirt) for helping the Salsa in Saiki with Sarah cause!