Saturday, November 14, 2009

The Joy of Hotdogs

If I had a world of my own, everything would be nonsense. Nothing would be what it is, because everything would be what it isn't. 

If only Alice had managed to fall down a different rabbit hole and had ended up in Thailand rather than Wonderland. I’m pretty sure she would have been satisfied here. Waiting in line at the 7-11, I felt like I was in an alternate universe. The sign outside, the décor, the general layout, the slurpee dispensers - they were all the same as my local 7-11 in San Francisco. There was even the hotdog rolling machines near the cash register. Yet just like Alice’s world of nonsense, this convenience  store was anything but convenient, and everything seemed opposite from what it should have been. Unlike the 7-11 in San Francisco, people were actually buying the hotdogs, bags and bags of them, all cut up into little pieces by a small, elderly 7-11 employee (since when does 7-11 have employees there to serve you your food?), placed into a plastic carry bag along with an elongated toothpick and heated up till the hotdog pieces practically burst apart. I thought they looked disgusting, but unless Thai people have a heightened preference for synthetic tasting crap (which I highly doubt, considering the disgusting food Americans consume on a regular basis… spray cheese and twinkies, come on), I clearly was missing out on something - literally every person in line was waiting to purchase these unsavory looking logs. Apart from the hotdogs, the shelves of this 7-11 were filled with unfamiliar goods – hundreds of Asian versions of cup-a-noodles, buns, crisps, and snacks akin to those found only in the Chinatown or Clement Street shops back home (my sister, who I swear must somehow be secretly Asian, would have been in Heaven), and packaged meals of rice with an unidentifiable meat (mostly because I couldn't read the packaging). I stood in line sipping on my giant cup of iced coffee, becoming more and more flabbergasted by the complete lack of order taking place at the cash register. Somehow at least ten people had managed to get their hotdogs ordered, cut up and heated, but the one guy trying to pay for his 35 baht worth of snacks was still standing at the till. I stood there for literally 10 minutes, wondering what the hell was going on, and why the hell doesn’t any one else seem phased by this, and what happened to the whole concept of 7-11 being a convenient store, ie one you never spent more than 30 seconds in?! By the time it was my turn to pay, I was incredibly over the iced coffee I was drinking, realizing about four sips in that the sugar content was probably high enough to launch me directly into early onset of type two diabetes. I handed over my 20 baht and rushed from the air-conditioned store to my air-conditioned bus, which waited to take me and about 30 of my colleagues on our annual company retreat.

I was absolutely dripping in sweat by the time I completed the 10 meter walk to the bus, and I prayed that the glistening sheen on my face came across as that sought after dewy look as opposed to disgusting beads of perspiration… an achievement I seriously doubted as several sweaty drops rolled into my eye. My uncle Ron assures me that after a few weeks my body will adjust and I will stop being a sweaty, sticky beast every time I step outside of the house. While this is somewhat reassuring (if it proves to be true), unless I can also shrink three inches, loose 20kgs, grow black hair and learn to speak fluent Thai, I have a feeling I am always going to feel like I stick out like a sore thumb. As I took my seat on the bus, I felt a pang of jealousy towards all the girls around me, who looking perfectly comfortable in their long jeans, tee shirts, and sweaters. There wasn't a bead of perspiration or a sweat stain amongst them. Some how Thai's manage to wear the clothes I would normally associate with the start of fall in the most sweltering, humid weather imaginable, topping it all off with the occasional grumble about how cold it is with air conditioning. I'm pretty sure my attempt to fit in by wearing my long black leggings utterly failed (what I had been thinking when I got dressed that morning is absolutely beyond me), as I was now the only one on our bus mopping my face, chugging back water, and attempting to focus both seats' air vents directly on my face as our bus began our two hour journey to a hotel up north.

I quickly realized that, unlike work, everyone was not going to be chatting away in English all day long. Why would they, when every single person in the company speaks Thai except for me? So I absorbed myself in a book while everyone around chatted, gossiped and laughed away in Thai, hoping that at least our retreat activities would be in English. When we finally arrived at the resort, obviously none of the staff spoke a work of English, so they just jabbered away at me in Thai as I mechanically repeated kob kun kaa (thank you), hoping they would get the point and lead me to my room. As the rest of my group slowly disappeared around me, I assumed I too should follow the man carrying my bags and find out where I was staying. Unfortunately, no one had my cell number, I had no idea what our schedule was, and I didn’t have a clue where anyone else had gone, so I headed back towards the front of the hotel in hopes that when I was supposed to be somewhere, I could just follow the crowd of people.  Several meters from my door, I ran into some of the girls I work with, camera in hand and clicking away already.  While many of you may laugh, thinking what stereotypical trigger happy Asians, I was overjoyed – finally I found something we all had in common, an insatiable desire to capture every single moment on film! They greeted me with a resounding chorus of “Steph!”, grabed my hand, and off I went on our photo adventure. We took pictures next to the decorative fountains, hugging the giant elephant statues, with the hotel sign in the background, with the mountains as a backdrop, in groups, solo, in twos and threes, waiting for lunch, at lunch… you name it, we took a picture of it. I even chucked a few peace signs in there for good measure.

I found the rest of the day exhausting – turns out all our retreat activities weren't all in english. Half the time I sat around trying not to blankly stare off into space as everyone around me spoke in a flourish of Thai; the other half of the time I was concentrating with all my might to figure out what people were trying to tell me in English. This was all complicated by the fact that our retreat’s main focus was to learn project development skills, meaning the majority of these conversations took place while trying to develop a very complicated project proposal. By the end of the day, I was exhausted. I sat around at dinner for a while, enjoying the gibber jabber of Thai flowing around me and actually quite happy I didn't have to contribute. Around 8pm everyone headed for their rooms in order to watch Thai soap operas for the remainder of the night, and I followed suit. Not really interested in watching TV dramas I couldn’t understand, I settled for watching on what I can only guess to be the Asian version of the Home Shopping Channel on mute. I settled in to watch an octopus displayed crawling across a tiled floor, another floating aimlessly in far too little water, and a third, the size of my hand at least, squeeze through a gap less than a centimeter wide. As I felt my eyes begin to droop, I pondered who in the world would want to buy an octopus on television, but accepted that perhaps, like the hotdogs at 7-11, this was just another anomaly of my new home that I had yet to truly understand.

The following day on the retreat wasn't much different from the previous, except for our closing party, 40's style vintage hat themed. They way the girls had been talking about it, I was expecting a fully stocked bar, rowdy drinking, all those incredibly embarrassing things that happen at staff parties which you barely remember but everyone else does and makes you want to never show your face at work again (for those of you who know him, think Bodie). I had to laugh when our crazy drunken staff party turned out to be a karaoke night. And we're not talking the karaoke you see in the states, where people are screeching like dying cats, piss drunk, into the microphone after they have been ungracefully shoved onto the stage and the microphone forced into their hand by their equally drunk group of friends who want to see someone make a complete fool of themselves. Oh no. If there is any shoving going on at all, it's to get onto the stage and fight for control of one of the two microphones. And then you sing. Not screech; not yell; not try to sing - you sing, because people are judging you, so you better sound damn good. Needless to say, I did not get up on stage, but just enjoyed from the sidelines as cameras flashed, peace signs were given, and karaoke was sung to everyone's heart's content (in other words, hours upon hours worth). Around 11 o'clock, when all the songs had progressed into solely well known Thai ones, I decided to pack it up and hit they hay.


Some of the sights I saw the next morning on the way back home made me feel like I was right back into nonsense world again. One thing that continues to baffle me is the Thai road systems. It seems that no matter where you are - in Bangkok, on the highway, on tiny side streets - in order to get anywhere you have to zig zag back and forth about fifteen times before you are heading in the direction you want to be going. Our bus must have turned around at least a dozen times on the way to the restaurant we were scheduled to eat lunch at, not because we were lost, simply because thats how the road system works. Now I normally have a pretty good sense of direction, but I was completely baffled when we managed to pass by a giant statue of an ear of corn twice during our trip. I knew it was the same one, because it was being painted, and I highly doubt that the country highways of Thailand are lined with statues of corn all being repainted at the same time. Buddhas, maybe, giant corn, I don't think so. Lunch was tasty, yet rather uneventful, minus the very important discovery I made. One of our dishes was a plate of hotdog slices, and I was honestly very excited to try them. I see people eating them EVERYWHERE, and if they were served even at this incredibly nice restaurant, there must be some Thai hotdog making secret that they are just not sharing with the rest of the world. I grabbed a piece, excited to finally try this culinary delicacy, and was shocked when I tasted your stock standard Oscar Mayer wiener in my mouth. Now don't get me wrong, I have nothing against hotdogs. My friend Crystal and I practically lived on them when we were staying together in London. But I thought we were an anomaly among people over the age of 7. Turns out, Thais do have an enhanced preference for synthetic tasting crap, at least in the hotdog department. I decided to leave the hotdog slices for my table mates, who quickly gobbled them up, and stick with the delicious green curry.

After lunch, we were finally on our way back to Bangkok (passing that damn giant ear of corn again), when we made one more unexpected stop. Snapped out of my iPod induced daze by the bus slowing to a stop, I looked out my window to see several wooden buildings with the letters Farm Chokchai plastered across their exterior and signs for fresh milk littered everywhere. I had seen hundreds of withered, starved looking cows along the side of the road, sometimes even tied to a tree by a piece of rope leash like a pet dog, but nothing which would have suggested a giant (and clearly prospering) milk farm / tourist location. We were told we had 10 minutes to get out and buy whatever souvenirs we wanted, which I thought was a little strange, since souvenirs were normally reserved for places you had actually visited, but I figured there was no harm in having a look around. After blundering my way through ordering a scoop of fresh milk ice cream (cookies and cream flavored, and it was pretty damn good) I headed to the gift shop to look around. Had I not been surrounded by Thais, I would have sworn I had somehow been teleported back to the American West. Leather clothes, boots, and wallets lined the shelves. Cow print bags, slippers, and toys were everywhere. They even had a glass cabinet to display their giant silver belt buckles. It was exactly the type of store I would expect to find on a Texan cattle ranch, not an hour outside of Bangkok. Of all the crazy, seemingly backwards things I had seen, this by far took the cake - this place was the last thing I expected to see in Thailand, and while we can probably chalk that up to my complete ignorance, it was still an incredibly weird, nonsensical experience.

As our bus pulled into Bangkok, I witnessed my first rainstorm. I had heard rumors of how the streets completely flooded, and I got a good look around as we were still on a highway about 10 meters above the ground. Sure enough, the roads had begun to flood as only a very serious storm could accomplish in San Francisco. It had stopped raining by the time I had taken public transportation to a point about a 15 minute walk from home, and I didn't quite trust the idea of ridding a scooter taxi through 6 inches of water, so I decided to get a little exercise and head home on foot. The street I was on looked relatively dry and there were sidewalks, so I figured I was fine. This was the case up to about a block and a half from my house. The sidewalks all but disappeared, and the sides of the road were completely flooded, so I hopped my way through the puddles into the middle of the street (while an entire construction site of locals laughed and pointed at me) and tried to walk where there was an inch or less of water while avoiding the constant flow of traffic (a very difficult feat when you are walking, literally, in the middle of the road). About half way down the street I noticed that the three-inch-wide edge which bordered the shrubbery along the side of the road was actually raised above the waterline, so I did my best to leap the five feet over there, and proceeded to tightrope walk my way home. I managed to keep somewhat dry until the last eight meters or so of the road. I was about five seconds from my front door, and nothing but six inches of water and absolutely no sidewalk or dry ground was separating us. Taxi drivers honked and laughed when they drove by to witness my predicament, but I refused to pay 20 baht just to drive a couple of feet. So I leaped, soaking myself from the knees down, and ran for the lobby of our apartment building. God knows what is in that water, and I'd just as happily never find out. All I know is that by the time I had reached my front door, my feet were beginning to itch (never a good sign), so I hopped in the shower and scrubbed them till they were raw.

Free from sweat, grim, and whatever else might have been lurking in the water, I curled up next to my little cousin to watch some cartoons, something which is always one of the best parts of my day. Not only do I get some bonding time, but lets be honest, I love Sponge-Bob Square Pants and Fairly Odd Parents, and finally I have a good excuse to watch them on a regular basis (i.e. no boyfriend around reminding me that I'm 22 years old and should have grown out of my cartoon stage over a decade ago; I am free to watch all the cartoons I want till he gets here in January). Despite all the things I see which seem completely crazy to me, I have to admit that I couldn't be happier living in Bangkok. My nonsense world is what makes me love this city so much.

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