Friday, February 26, 2016

Impressions of Chiang Mai

Our hotel room at the Boonthavon hotel was simple and clean. Every day the maids cleaned, changed the sheets, gave us new towels and two bottles of water. Our only complaint was the bed. It was big, but hard as a board. The pillows were big and hard as well. After the first night, Katie and I felt like we had spent the night on the rack. The next night we put the top blanket and the spare blanket from the closet under the bottom sheet and it helped, but wasn’t enough. We figured we needed more blankets so we asked a maid for another one which she kindly gave us.  After the third night we decided, one more blanket would do the trick.  A different hotel employee told us they had no more blankets to spare and gave us a look like we were the wimpiest people alive to need all those blankets. It did cool off in the evening, into the seventies, but a sheet on top was enough.  On the fifth day another blanket showed up in our room and we stuffed it under the sheet. I assume, one of the maids felt sorry for us.

 Motor scooters are everywhere in Chiang Mai. They are an affordable type of transportation, cars being too expensive for most Thais. Fathers and mothers take their children to school two or three at a time and old and young, women and men, carry all sorts of merchandise on these small Japanese motor scooters. There is no helmet law, so most people, including children, wear no protective gear. Katie and I toyed with the idea of renting one. They cost only six or seven dollars a day and all you needed to rent one is a physical body and a credit card. I'm an experienced motorcyclist and would have had no problem riding around on one, but in Thailand they drive on the left side of the road.

This posed a significant problem for Katie and me when crossing the busy streets. There are very few traffic lights and crosswalks. Pedestrians are on their own and drivers don't cut them any slack, so crossing the street is a challenging and risky activity. Invariably Katie or I would look the wrong way, step out into the road, and nearly get killed by a car or motorbike coming from the opposite direction. Old habits are hard to break. I feared that if we were riding on a motorbike and I needed to make a quick decision, I may instinctively swerve the bike into oncoming traffic, and that would be the end of us. So we walked a lot, or hailed a "red truck"(rod dang) or a "tuk tuk", those three wheeled vehicles that look like a motorcycle pulling a rickshaw.

Chiang Mai is filled with young travelers from all over the world. As I watched them, I knew they were having the time of their lives. I still feel that way about the trip I took with my friend Paul, backpacking through Europe when we were in our twenties. At times I felt envious of these young good looking travelers, with strong bodies and sharp minds. During the day they'd take off on motorbikes to bathe elephants or zip-line over the treetops and in the evening they'd gather at one of the many small cafes and talk and laugh with other young travelers. Usually I was thankful to be half of an older couple. I even started a list in my notebook under the title, "Advantages of Being Old". I had a lot of things in mind to put down, but when I finally got around to creating the list, I couldn't think of a thing.  Maybe one or two advantages will come to me in time.

Katie and I filled our days walking around town, touring temples, shopping,  going to museums and eating a lot of good, cheap and delicious Thai food. For dinner one evening at a small restaurant, we had Pad Si-iew and Pad Thai and each had a strawberry/banana smoothie, all for less than three American dollars. 
I don't think we missed a day without logging some time at one of the numerous coffee houses around town. Chiang Mai could rival Seattle or Portland for number of coffee shops. Many roast their own beans. For that late morning or early afternoon pick me up, we'd duck into one for a Thai iced coffee or Thai iced tea made with strong coffee or tea and sweetened condensed milk. 

Pictures of the King of Thailand are everywhere, in shops, in temples, on the outside of buildings and even on the money. I couldn't help but think, put a mustache on him and he’s the spitting image of Dickey Smothers.

I saw very few American made cars in Chiang Mai, several small Fords and a couple Chevys. Almost all the cars are Japanese. This little Nissan wins the cutest car in Thailand award 
Adequate napkins are hard to come by in southeast Asia. Many places have none at all or they are extremely small and frail, falling apart with one wipe. But this particular restaurant not only had good food, but wonderfully large napkins.

Thailand has the distinction of being the only southeast Asian country never to have been colonized by Europeans.  I know this has many advantages to the country and its people, but as they emerge into the modern era, some of their infrastructure is a little shaky, like no potable water, air and water pollution, electronic glitches etc.
Our visit to Thailand was overall a positive experience. The people were friendly, the food delicious and the country was beautiful. What I loved most was seeing the Thai culture, alive and well. Western influence has definitely happened, but it is being integrated in a uniquely Thai way.  

Monday, February 22, 2016

Chang Mai, A Very Buddhist City

Our hotel in Chang Mai, Thailand is in the “old city”, which is contained in a big square surrounded by a crumbling ancient wall and moat. The “old city” looks only slightly older than the newer parts outside the square. The biggest difference seems to be the size of the streets. Our van driver from the airport had to leave us at the corner because the van was too big to drive down the narrow lanes. We walked the rest of the way to our hotel, past small restaurants, tailor shops, tiny convenient stores, and guesthouses. It reminds me of the narrow alleyways on Mykonos, Greece, but not as white. Tourists are everywhere and always present in the old city, lots of Chinese, but also people from all over the world.

Thailand is predominantly a Buddhist country and in Chang Mai temples or wats are everywhere. "Wat" means enclosure in the ancient Pali language and these religious enclaves are surrounded by walls that separate them from the secular world. Within the walls are temples, shrine halls, bells, Chedis or stupas(large cone structures often with gold leaf on the outside) and more. The temples and structures are elaborate and ornate, inside and out. They make the cathedrals of Europe seem plain. Almost all the temples are open and free to the public, but shoes must be left on the steps outside.  
Statues of Buddha are within each temple with the largest one being the center piece. There are no chairs or benches to sit on. To pray, one kneels on a rug which lays on the immaculate tile floor in front of the altar. Buddhist etiquette requires that one’s feet never point toward the altar. Some of the Chinese tourists kneeled at the altar to pray, but very few westerners did, perhaps they had trouble getting down on their knees and back up again.  

Where there are wats, there are monks. While visiting one large wat, two young monks
beckoned me to sit on a bench near them. When I did, they began asking me questions about myself, where I’m from, how long have I been in Thailand etc. One of the Monks spoke pretty good English, the other didn’t. They seemed happy talking with me and I assumed they called me over because they sensed a depth of understanding that I was somehow projecting. After all I’ve studied Buddhism since the 70s and have attended many Buddhist groups in the US including Vipassana groups that originated here in Thailand.  They asked if I had a question about Buddhism, and I did.

My question was: If Buddhism is a non-dualistic religion, who are they praying to? And isn’t it true that if one prays to any form of outside entity, whether it be a spiritual entity or physical entity, one is entering the dualistic world, the world of suffering, and wouldn’t that be defeating the purpose or to coin a Buddhist phrase, wouldn't one be  mistaking the finger pointing to the moon for the moon itself?

But before I had a chance to ask my question, another western couple came over and began talking with them and they seemed to lose interest in me.  So much for my, “I am special” theory, which probably was my Buddhist lesson of the day.

Buddhism here is complicated. I can’t begin to understand the meaning of all the ritualistic practices. Practitioners bow to statues and offer incense, pour oil, ring bells, get blessed by monks and walk around chedis chanting. There seems to be no end to it.  It’s definitely not the simple Buddhism I studied in the US--meditating, practicing mindfulness, compassion for all living things.  In a college class in the early 70s, the Buddhist Monk teacher told us that all of the teachings of Buddhism are contained in the placing of your shoes before entering the temple.  

We visited Wat Prathart Doi Suthep. It’s way up the mountain just outside the city. At the base of the mountain is Chang Mai University. Monks used to have to walk from there up the mountain path before getting to the steps. Tourists can chose to do this also or be driven right up to the base of the steps. We chose to be driven thinking that if we walked up the entire mountain, we may not be able to get up the 300+ steps.  The Wat grounds way up on the mountainside are spectacular and overlook the city. Katie and I wanted to enter into some spiritual aspect of the place, not just wander around gawking and taking pictures like everyone else, so we decided to walk three times around the giant golden chedi.  Laminated chant cards are in a basket at the entrance and one is supposed to read them and silently chant while circling the chedi. But the words were so foreign to us, we decided to mentally chant the universal Tibetan Buddhist mantra, Om Mani Padme Hum. As I began to slowly walk on the path, I became aware of people behind me. I felt like a slow moving
vehicle going up a steep hill followed by a line of cars. Each time the path widened, three or four people scurried past me, but I “religiously” maintained my slow pace.  Thoughts entered my mind What’s their hurry? Are they trying to get this over with quickly? One young man hurried past me listening to ear phones. It seems that everyone here is just going through the motions, evoking the magic formula that will take away all their troubles. I kept walking slowly and chanting, Om Mani Padme Hum and sensed a separation between my thoughts and my awareness.  By the time I was on my third circle, I was in the zone, peacefully putting one foot in front of the other, a part of but untouched by the whirling world around me.


Sunday, February 14, 2016

Corregidor: A Time of Peace and Healing

It took a couple of hours to ferry from Manila to Corregidor Island. The weather was balmy and the sea calm. We sat in assigned seats, in rows facing forward. Unlike on the Washington ferries, there was no getting up and wandering around to look at the view. A big screen TV hung from the ceiling in the front and a short film on safety and evacuation procedures played followed by an entire Bee Gees concert. It was an old concert, all the Bee Gees were still alive and well. I was feeling better, but still had some stomach and lower abdominal distress.

After I passed out on the floor in the restaurant in Manila, Morgan, the scout Master, fired off a text message to Peter, my stepson, which read: Grandpa Yeager had a fainting spell, he refuses to go to the hospital, but is conscious and talking. Don’t get me wrong, I love being a Grandpa, especially because of my relationship with my three grandsons, but his text message bothered me. It sounded like Morgan was referring to some doddering, pain in the ass, feeble old man, and that’s definitely not how I see myself.  When I was first introduced to Peter and Nani’s maid, an attractive Filipino woman, she asked me if she should call me Grandpa, I suppose because Chris calls me Grandpa. She calls Peter, Sir, and Nani and my wife Katie, Ma'm. I told her I preferred to be called “Stud”, but I don’t think she got the humor and she continues to call me Grandpa. My dad was a grandpa to our son Ben for just over a year. He once said, “I don’t mind being called Grandpa, I just don’t want people to know I’m sleeping with Grandma.”

Corregidor proved to be an excellent place of healing for me. I didn’t take any electronic devices on the journey, no cell phone, tablet or computer, just reading and writing material. I went on one tour of the middle part of the island with the boy scouts, and an independent tour of the tunnel and lower part of the island. But most of the time, when the boy scouts were off doing various activities, I was alone to wander the lush forested island or lie on my bed in the hotel room and read, while the cool tropical breeze wafted over me. I also spent some time sitting up on the veranda, sipping iced tea and talking with various travelers who were visiting the island.

Corregidor is a small island, 3.5 miles long and 1.5 miles wide, shaped like a tadpole. Strategically located at the entrance of Manila bay, it was used in defense of Manila harbor first by the Spanish, who conquered the Philippines in 1570, and then by the Americans, who took possession of the islands in 1898 after the Spanish American war. In the early 1900s, the Army Corps of Engineers transformed Corregidor into a major military reservation.  It was incorporated into the harbor defense system of the area and Fort Mills Army Post was established there.

In 1942 the Japanese flew 614 bombing missions over the island and dropped 1,701 bombs. After fierce fighting, they took possession of the Philippines until 1945, when the American Military took the islands back. In 1946 the Philippines was finally granted their independence.

My grandson, Christopher, told me that he heard the island was haunted. I didn’t see
any ghosts as I walked from one end to the other. I did see a lot of lush tropical plants, insects, birds, monkeys and goats. I thought about all the people who lost their lives on the island. Our tendency is to romanticize past wars. Having been in one, I can say that at times it brings out the best and worst in human nature, but there is nothing romantic about it. Hopefully over time humanity will collectively raise its consciousness so that war becomes obsolete, a horrible and stupid thing of the past.

The ferry ride back to Manilla was delayed because of stormy weather. When we finally got underway, the waves tossed the boat up and down with great force, the water rhythmically washing over the bow. A Mr. Bean movie played on the big screen TV. While many of the passengers got sick, the scout sitting next to me and I laughed ourselves silly all the way to Manila.   

Thursday, February 11, 2016

Corregidor: Off to a Rocky Start

I accompanied my twelve year old grandson, Christopher, on a four day Boy Scout Troop outing to Corregidor Island, Philippines. It was a camping trip for the boys and the adults could choose either to camp or stay in the hotel on the island. I chose the hotel. But the trip got off to a rocky start.

The adventure started at 04:30am, when we met at the Singapore airport. It was a three and a half hour flight to Manila where we would spend the first night in a downtown hotel and then ferry to Corregidor the next morning.
When we arrived at the Manila airport, Customs wouldn’t let Christopher pass through. I was told by the officer that a child under fourteen must be accompanied by a relative or have a signed waiver from the parents. I told him that Chris was my grandson, but that wasn’t enough. My being Caucasian and Chris being Asian and our having different last names, might have had something to do with it. The woman in charge told me I needed to fill out a form, but then had a terrible time locating one. She consulted several other officials and finally found it, I filled it out and gave it back to her. Another woman escorted me through customs and over to a cash machine where I withdrew 3,200 pesos, about $67 US, the fee for the waiver and in the meantime, the woman in charge had somehow misplaced the form I had just given her. She asked me to fill out another one, but before I finished, she located the first one.  The Customs officials spent an inordinate amount of time talking the situation over with each other and meanwhile the entire troop and accompanying adults waited. On the positive side, all the people we dealt with were very gracious and kind throughout the whole extremely inefficient process.  

How do I describe the Manila traffic? Once in Vietnam, my friends and I were at the enlisted men’s club watching a Korean song and dance troop when some joker popped a tear gas grenade. We all tried to get out into the fresh air as quickly as possible through the one and only door.  That is sort of what the Manila traffic is like. There are streets with lines to signify lanes just like we have at home, but no one seems to pay any attention to them. Our driver straddled the line like he didn’t want to commit to any particular lane, keeping his options open. Every street was in the process of being worked on and there were barriers and cones all over the place. Our driver tooted the horn a lot and was constantly jockeying for position and attempting to nose other drivers out. All the other cars, trucks, buses and Jeepneys were doing the same thing and added to the mix were motorcyclists weaving in and out, pedestrians crossing six lanes of traffic and even children wandering around on the sides of the street. I closed my eyes for part of the ride, certain that we were going to crash. We didn’t and we managed to arrive at the Aloha Hotel safe and sound. After returning home from the trip, I told my step son Peter about the traffic and he said, “If you think the traffic’s bad in Manila, you should see Jakarta in Indonesia, it's worse.” I can’t imagine traffic being any worse, but I trust he knows what he’s talking about.

 It was lunch time when we arrived and the Scout Master, Morgan, told us to deposit our bags in our rooms and meet down in the hotel dining room for lunch.  I had a queasy feeling in my stomach and decided I probably needed to get some food into it.  I ordered some soup. Sitting at the table with the others, waiting for my soup to arrive, the pain in my stomach became more intense. I felt like I was going to pass out and not wanting to pass out in the restaurant and make a scene, I got up and started toward the door. I took several steps and realized I wasn’t going to make it, so I eased myself down toward the floor and the next thing I knew I was flat on my back with a bunch of concerned restaurant employees looking down at me.

They tried to hoist me up and into a chair and one of the men said, “I’ll call the hospital.”

“No.” I said, “I don’t need to go to the hospital.”

Luckily, one of the other adults with the troop, George, was a practicing physician. He advised the staff to lay me down on a row of chairs. He took my pulse and asked me some questions. George was another grandfather accompanying his grandson.  I owe him a huge debt of gratitude. He correctly diagnosed that I was having a vasovagal response, probably brought on by a stomach bug.  

I tried to get up several times, but had to lie back down. One of the scouts came over and told me I was trying to get up too fast and described the physiology of why that was. I remember wondering if he had gotten a merit badge for learning about that. They have merit badges for just about everything.

I finally made it up to my room, where Dr. George told me to drink fluids, including Gatorade, and to continue to rest. The others went to the zoo while I stayed back, close to the toilet. It was a rough day and night, but by the next morning, I was ready to board the ferry for Corregidor.

Thursday, February 4, 2016

Did I mention, it's hot in Singapore?

It’s hot here in Singapore, all the time. And we are told that this is the cooler time of
the year. Today’s high is 88 degrees, which sounds bad enough, but the humidity is 84%, and that makes it feel bloody hot. When you go outside and move around a little, you sweat. Katie and I try to get out and go somewhere every day. We live about a mile from the MRT station and we’re sticky hot and dripping by the time we walk over there. The MRT is air conditioned, in fact most public and private places are.  When we’re all jammed in you’d think it would smell like a gym locker, but it doesn’t. We’re told we will get used to the heat, but after being here three weeks, we still seem to be in the “put on a brave face and tolerate the heat” mode.

This is the 2nd most densely populated sovereign country in the world. There are 5.5
million people living here, and when Katie and I are out amongst them, we seem to be the only ones bothered by the heat, and many of the women are wearing head scarves.  The land area is 239 square miles and growing. The government is in a constant state of land reclamation, creating land where there used to be water. The smallest and one of America's densest states, Delaware, is 1,212 square miles with a population of 1 million 50 thousand people. I don’t suppose Delaware people smell too bad either, but I’m just guessing.

Raffles Hotel opened in 1887
Modern Singapore was founded in 1819 when Sir Stamford Raffles established a trading post here for the East Indian Company. In 1942 the Japanese defeated the British and took over the island until the end of the war in 1945 and Singapore went back to being under British rule. In 1963 Singapore merged with Malaysia, but broke away and gained independence in 1965.

Chinatown all decked out for Chinese New Year
80% of the people here are Chinese, 13% are Malays, 9% are East Indians. The dominant Caucasian presence here is from Australia. People are friendly and if I start talking to someone on the street, they usually ask me if I’m from Australia. America’s presence here seems minimal but McDonalds, Burger King, Kentucky Fried Chicken and Starbucks are quite popular and there are quite a few American brand stores in the malls.    

Standing in line for a kopi
One would be hard pressed to get a good bagel here, in fact, I haven’t even found a bad bagel. I had to go to a pharmacy to find Splenda. Singaporeans like sugary drinks.  I’m quite fond of their iced coffees. In Singlish, coffee is called “kopi”. It’s made with sweetened condensed milk and it’s delicious.  My favorite kopi place is Toast Box. There’s one at the mall near us and when I’m sipping on an iced kopi in their air conditioning, I can almost forget about the oppressive heat outside.