Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Welcome to Wonderland

“It’s a dangerous business, going out your door. You step onto the road, and if you don’t keep your feet, there’s no knowing where you might be swept off to.”
Looking back over the last five months, I finally see the truth in JRR Tolkien’s words. Despite having read Lord of the Rings more times than I care to reveal, I never realized the golden wisdom in this clever little phrase until my own road literally swept me away. In my last days at Yale, as I said goodbye to the familiar halls and faces which had become my home and family over the past few years, I thought life was going to be a cinch from there on out.  Diploma in hand, I thought I had the golden ticket to any job I wanted, especially as I planed to take the off beaten track, avoid New York, where I would be competing with all the other bright-eyed, bushy tailed golden ticket holders, and move to New Zealand. I intended to sweep Auckland off its feet with my resume and ambition and then settle in to the life of a well paying job, sunny beaches, and (I had secretly planned) hunting for the elusive Kiwi bird.

Had someone told me then that three months of endless rain, hundreds of resumes, and ten pounds later the only job I would be able to score fresh out of Yale was working at the Muffin Break, a coffee and pastry stand in the local Whangaparaoa (note, not Auckland. In fact, 40 minutes drive away from Auckland or anything remotely resembling a city) shopping plaza food court, I know I would have cried. Actually, I probably would have told my psychic friend to drop dead, because working in a food court is the last thing on earth I would be caught dead doing.  Yet when the time came, a mixture of desperation for money and severe boredom literally must have rewired my brain, because I actually felt nervous and excited to don my burnt orange synthetic polo, mesh cap and black apron and start my first day at “the break”. The worst part was, for the first few days, I was actually competing for the position, and I harbored a very real fear that New Zealand wouldn’t even want me for their food courts.

Needless to say, I got the job, and for a little while (read, a week) it wasn’t too bad. It was energizing to finally have something to do with my time, and it reminded me that normal, functioning human beings don’t sleep for twelve hours a day, seven days a week. My body had apparently forgotten this small little tidbit over the course of the past few months. I settled into the job and prayed I would soon be able to move up in the world. Just as I had never expected my first post-university job to be working at a food court, I never would have guessed at the next curve ball life threw my way.

Although I knew my mother despised the fact that I had moved to New Zealand right after graduation (although she will never admit to this and I know it is only because she misses me dearly), thankfully, it pained her even more to see me take up a job as a barista.  Being the wonderful woman that she is, rather than throw my decision back in my face, she discussed my predicament with family and friends alike, trying to find out how I could dig myself out of the grave of Muffin Break. My Uncle Ron came to the rescue.

My Uncle Ron lives in Bangkok, and has resided somewhere in Asia for the majority of my life. Until recently, I had never met his wife, my Thai Aunt Kulanit (An for short), or my little seven-year-old cousin Nicky.  As of Monday, I now live with them.

Of all the places I imagined working post-Yale, Bangkok was definitely not on the list. I envisioned the next few years of my life spent working and traveling through New Zealand and Australia, eventually moving back home to San Francisco where I would end up with a job which would occasionally take me back to my old stomping grounds in London. Asia never had more of a place in my plan than as an exotic travel location. But when an entry level consulting position opened up with the Kenan Institute Asia, a non-profit focused on the social and economic development of the Greater Mekong Sub-region, my uncle shot me over the job description and I figured it couldn’t hurt to apply. Anything had to beat working at the Muffin Break. The more I researched, the more I realized that KIAsia actually conducted exactly the type of work I was interested in, and the thought of finally moving back to a buzzing metropolitan area proved the final straw in setting my heart on getting the job. Approximately a month of emails, telephone interviews, and anxiety ridden waiting later, I found myself on a plan heading to the one continent I’d never been in order to start my new career and life as an expat in Thailand.

I had been warned that Bangkok was a dirty, crowded, and poverty ridden city. The real Bangkok is much more convoluted than that. While a layer of smog often clouds the hot and humid air, mostly a result of the insane amount of traffic, the city of Bangkok is actually cleaner than a lot of the American cities I’ve been to. The public transportation, in particular, is sparkling clean, air conditioned, incredibly efficient and surprisingly pleasant to ride on (note, I haven’t ventured as far as the bus system yet, so I can only speak for the metro and sky train). The roads are not built in the grid system that I am so used to, but rather are a mess of winding, narrow, and very confusing side streets which all connect with the several major motor ways running through the city. The traffic is insane, with hundreds of scooters weaving in and out of cars. With no zoning laws in place, the city is a sprawling hodgepodge of buildings with very little discernable order. Rather than a central downtown surrounded by residential neighborhoods, everything is mixed together. My uncle’s apartment, and my new home, is a perfect example of what I mean. Our building is a very nice, high-end apartment building with all the facilities imaginable. Directly across the street from us, surrounded by a concrete wall, is a giant swamp, home to luscious trees, flowering plants, and giant pythons (seriously, one crawled up the phone pole a few years ago and took a nap on the electrical box, knocking out all the televisions and electricity during Super Bowl Sunday). On the other side of the building are the backs of some lower-end apartment buildings and a giant construction site, where in no time flat surely another apartment building will stand. And through my bedroom window are some run down homes, a swampy field, and skyscrapers, hotels, and high rises as far as the eye can see.

Completely unbeknownst to me, I planned my arrival in Thailand perfectly. After a brief trip through Australia to visit some of my old friends from London, I touched down at Suvarnabhumi airport on the afternoon of November 2nd. Turns out that evening was the first full moon of November, when Thais celebrate Loi Krathong, or the festival of lights. It is one of the most recognized and celebrated Thai holidays, and probably one of the most beautiful rituals I have ever witnessed. Along every major waterway, thousands of Thais gather to release their krathong, or banana leaf boats elaborately decorated with flowers, candles and incense, and make wishes and pray for luck. My family bought one from a street vendor, each placed a clipping of our hair and nails onto it, and made our way to one of the parks in central Bangkok. I had walked by the park earlier that day, and was amazed by the transformation. All around the central lake, neon lights where hanging from the trees and flashing from structures. Giant pictures of the royal family bordered the lake, and a giant shrine had been erected on one end. Hundreds upon hundreds of people waited to release their boats onto the water. Just as we got there, beautiful music blared and a royal procession began – one of the Thai princesses had come to the lake to send off her krathong. Dressed in pink and escorted by the top military officials, I stared, amazed to be seeing royalty for the first time in my life, as the princess made her way to the water, lit the candle on her krathong, and pushed it out into the lake.  Moments later, hundreds of other floating boats with candles made their way out onto the water, slowly growing in number till the entire surface of the lake was covered with shimmering boats lit by candle light. A Buddhist chant rose into the air, and I looked up to see a half dozen monks chanting into the microphones set up on the platform where the Princess stood moments before.  As we made our way around the lake, I watched in amazement as the thousands of Thai people slowly migrated towards the chanting monks and shrine, praying with all their might for the health of their King.  It was a beautiful first night in Bangkok and perfect introduction to Thailand. I went to sleep that night with excitement pumping through me, amazed that of all the places my road could have swept me off to, I managed to end up in a country so fantastic as Thailand. I truly am living in wonderland.

1 comment:

  1. beautiful post, steph! miss you so much. glad you're having a great time so far. keep writing- you're keeping me entertained in my lil cubicle! xoxo