2010- Entry 1: Here and There and All Around

I got to JFK and the atendant said, “I’m sorry, Mr. Paquette, but this flight is overbooked!” Before I could say, “And this affects me how?” she smiled and said, “So we have to upgrade you to business class.”
 
OHHHHHHHHHH! NOOOOOOOOOO!!!! 
 
It was terrific… You are in your own little world. Everything you want is either at your fingertips or at your beck-and-call! The ever-present attendant is there to satisfy your every need– within reason! If they had given me a bed-pan, I wouldn’t have had to get up even once during the 14-hour flight. The seat adjusted into every direction, including a bed. I was nearly in tears.. You even have your own overhead compartment.. Whatever could first class be like???? They nearly had to call security to get me out of my seat when we reached Tokyo! I didn’t want to leave!  ;))
Got on the plane from Tokyo to Bangkok… The cruelty of it all– having me pass through the business class section on my way to (groan) economy was almost too painful to bear. And there it was, that cramped, little seat…. Fortunately, the flight was only 75% full, so I was able to stretch out a bit.
Got here about 11:00 PM and on to the hotel quickly enough. Slept very well and now ready to face the day and the new adventures that this trip 2010 will give me!
 
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CROSS CULTURAL ALERT! (this is true, by the way)
I was watching TV the other day and there was a report on a slick new ‘reality” show from Malaysia called “Imam.” Four young contestants (male, of course) vying for the position of religious leader of a prosperous mosque by competing in their knowledge of Islamic culture, ritual and the Koran. An actual teaser for the show asks, Will Amir correctly answer the question on the proper way to prepare a body for funeral and move on to the next round? I held my breath, the excitement palpable or perhaps I was just aghast! When interviewed for the report, another contestant named Syed opined that one shouldn’t get too carried away by all this. It just wouldn’t be proper. I thought Syed won my vote then and there, but then I realized that he was THERE competing, wasn’t he? Still you can’t help but contrast this with American Idol or (Allah forbid) “The Batchelorette.” The formats are all very similar, but somehow I do not see Simon Cowel judging on “Imam” any time soon. (Certainly not Paula Abdul.. though the thought of that would be a hoot)! Hey, maybe the Vatican can get in on the action here and start “The Monsignor.” on cable— you never know, though I shutter thinking of what that might entail! Peace be with you!
 
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Arrived about a week ago and have been spending time just chilling out before the real trip starts with Indonesia on Monday. I have been slowly getting together with friends and just doing all the things that are now almost mundane for me here. Friends came to my hotel and spirited me away by car to Ayuthaya, the ancient capital. (See pix if they made it through!) I visited there again back in 2005, but it was a tour and we never did see all the great sections of the sprawling site. It was ungodly hot, but that couldn’t stop me from wanting to see as much as possible. One of the people I was with is about 78, so the heat really started to get to him. I had to race a little faster through certain parts, but it is not the place you want to do that anyway.
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Walked through the central part of Bangkok where all the trouble was recently. I was totally stunned looking at the burned out remains of the huge mall that was torched. Also several other buildings here and there. The Red Shirts were blamed for it, but there were also a bunch of radicals there inciting the crowds to do more. So glad that they didn’t. I can barely talk about the topic with friends as everyone is so polarized by the issues. There is a commission that is working on addressing some of the problems, but I do not hold out much hope of the elements that have been in power for centuries giving much in real terms. But with elections looming, you never know. There is so much passion on both sides, I hope they don’t drag things on too long. Real concessions have to be made, or it will explode again.
 
It is really affecting the tourist industry here. I can see much fewer tourists here this year. The hotel where I was staying in Bangkok was only 40% full, which is way down from the norm even though this is the “off season.”
 
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I have a framed picture of Cape Cod at home with the caption, “The cure for anything is salt water:sweat, tears or the sea.” It is always so wonderful to smell the fresh sea air. You can be anywhere in the world and speaking any language imaginable, but a whiff of that sea air can transport you to another place. I’m in Pattaya. It is a place I have written about before. The first time I came back here was in 2005 and was shocked and repelled by the transformation in 25 years. It went from a small fishing village near my Peace Corps site, to a Vietnam-era R&R hot spot to this city of 500,000. It carried over its wanton ways from the old days, but it is now quickly expanding with all sorts of activities and locales that cater to everyone’s taste. My friend, Hlo, took me to a new park just outside of town. It is humongous! There are tanks full of gigantic river fish; an elephant show; and traditional dancing and entertainments. The part I loved the most was wandering through the vast gardens, sculpted to the nines! We ended up at my favorite restaurant in town, the Bali Hi on the beach watching the sunset and enjoying some incredible Thai food- shrimp with stir-fried vegetables, my favorite fish dish “haw mohk”, and a terrific curry dish with cashews, pineapple and chicken. It is very important in Thai dining to order a variety of dishes that also vary in taste and texture…. It makes the experience all the more incredible.
 
And so it is Pattaya. From the serene we went to the bizarre. Only in Pattaya that takes you a mere ten-minute walk to accomplish! We found ourselves on Walking Street—- It is 10 pm but it is as bright as day, like being on the Vegas Strip. You can’t come to Thailand and not experience walking through this human zoo— People speaking every possible language. It is all here from tailors and vendors hawking their wares to the scantily clad ladies enticing you to enter their establishments. There are Thai boxing displays, free beer samples, and transvestites on parade. Homeless people sleep on the sidewalks here because, as strange as it may seem, it is actually the safest part of the city! The oddest thing, however, is that they can sleep at all.  It is many things but always sun bright, loud and somewhat disorienting! I love watching the card sharks set up their tables for their slights of hand– a small table that can collapse quickly for a speedy get away when the local police arrive on the scene! The beggars shaking their cups in hopeless competition with the deafening din for the tourists attention and money. They are all as much a part of the scene that is Thailand as the monks who take to the same streets in the morning with their begging bowls searching for offerings as the area is cleaned up after this nightly Mardi Gras.
 
As Hlo left to go home, I returned to my hotel room. I went out on my balcony, and there it was. That amazing feel you get when it is about to rain– and rain hard– heavy, dark and humid. I grabbed my umbrella and rushed out. I love the experience of walking in this weather. You see things so much more clearly. As I reached the front of the hotel, the sky tore open. I gave it the usual 5 minutes for the worst to pass and then with a pop of the umbrella, I was out in it– embracing the cleansing downpour more than fearing it. The rains pour down from the rooftops and cascade in arched waterfalls on to the streets and anything that happens to pass within 20 feet of its impact. The ever-present vendors know better and find shelter early. Tourists and bar-girls happily play in the rain, too wet to care. More serious folk with predetermined destinations hop, skip and jump between puddles and awnings to stay as dry as humanly possible– usually without much success. Even the cloth of my umbrella can barely handle the torrent beating down on it. Dogs, in no particular hurry,  find little niches along the byways to plop themselves down with some resignation to wait out the storm. People standing under sheltered spots looking up in anticipation as if they are waiting for something to arrive as much as depart. The light and water spreads across the paved streets turning them to polished onyx. All is quiet save the pounding rain. And then it is gone. Many sigh in relief and continue on their way. I feel like an old friend has left for parts unknown.
 
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