Gabriel's Romp around the Globe
***Disclaimer*** This may be an overly long, drawn out narrative. For those interested in avoiding the fluff I'll condense the gist into easily digestible material: I'm doing great--I feel very satisfied, mostly happy and exceedingly excited and optimistic for the future (& now). This part of the world (as the rest of it) is beautiful and amazing to see! Hello All, Sooooo, to put it simply...I am having an amazing and wonderful journey, adventure and experience (all in one!). To start with I'll go into some detail on something I've decided is reason enough to make a trek to Thailand for...Thai Massage! If any of you aren't familiar with Thai massage you should do what you can to experience it. The petite Thai women use their hands, feet, knees, elbows and body weight to massage, adjust and manipulate your body into a state of fantastic relaxation. Apparently, in Thai culture, massage is considered a regular and necessary part of a healthy body (makes sense, right?). You can find an inexpensive (between $4-7 US for an hour massage) massages in all of Thailand. I had my first Thai massage the morning I arrived in Chiang Mai (Wednesday). The women's prison in Chiang Mai has a small spa that trains and employs mothers nearing release (maximum 6 months until release) as massage therapists. The women get to keep all of the money earned to use for raising and educating their children--it's a really wonderful idea. Once the women are released they are employed in the booming massage business and can earn a decent wage that will hopefully keep them from falling prey to the temptation of breaking the law again. I was referred by a guard to a local place that only employs released women because the prison spa had a very long wait. My first massage was a sublime experience and I knew immediately that I was going to have to make massage a regular part of my travels. I ended up getting another massage in a small Shantee in the jungle on the second night of a three day trek in the hills and valley south of Chiang Mai. Although the one in the jungle wasn't as deep and intense, it was a magical experience to finish a day of hiking, swimming and splashing in waterfalls with a massage in a very small village with no electricity and no modern conveniences (except for the block-ice cooled ice box stocked with sodas, water and beer). My third massage was today, again at the Lana Spa (same as before), the day after arriving back from the trek (great way to unwind from a few days out in the woods, sleeping on bamboo floors with very thin mats...). These diminutive women have an amazing ability to use their slight frames to powerfully manipulate the body in a really great way. A few times they wound up getting flung down by my body weight during a manipulation--it was funny each time and all of the women and other folks getting massaged (it's clothed, and communal) giggled about it. Have I done enough to give you a sense that I really enjoy Thai Massage?? Oh, and for those of you out there with dirty minds---no, they don't offer happy endings... Okay, so I have a considerable amount to catch up on if I want this to be a good travel blog for any future reference (I'm trying to be good at keeping a journal and don't want to spend too much time repeating what I've written in either the journal or the blog) on my adventure. Here's the basic rundown on my Hawaii experience: My first few days in Oahu I spent with my "cousins", Chuck and Josie and my God-Daughter, Randi. Chuck, Josie and I had the incredible opportunity to go to the Kokua Festival at the Shell Stadium in Honolulu (THANKS AGAIN Chuck & Jo!!). We saw an amazing show with Jack Johnson, Dave Matthews and Tim Reynolds headlining the show. It was such an awesome show--we had a blast dancing and enjoying one of the best guitar solos I've ever experience (Tim Reynolds can make his guitar literally sing). Chuck, Randi and I had a great bike ride around the Honolulu area and enjoyed some swim-time on the always crazy Waikiki beach. After too few days with the family I went up to the North Shore to camp with, and be there for, my good friend Jenny's wedding. It was so great getting the opportunity to not only spend some real quality time with a few, great, old friends but also to camp at an amazing place (Malaekahana campground on the North-East of Oahu--simple but great). I had a blast warm-water surfing, swimming, boogie boarding and exploring the beach around the campground with my friends. The wedding was at Waimea Valley on a beautiful day--it was a very special experience (Thanks again Jenny & Brad for everything!). I had another day with Chuck, Jo and Randi and flew off to Thailand early in the morning last Friday. Hawaii was a great time and a fantastic launch pad for my coming adventure. After spending over four days in Bangkok I found myself ready to move on. Bangkok is a beautiful, dirty, fascinating city and a great example of the vast differences in Thai society. The extreme juxtaposition between rich and poor is readily apparent from one block to the next. I spent two solid (and blister forming) days (Sunday & Monday) wandering the streets of Bangkok. I was constantly amazed at how extreme the differences were from one block to the next. There are river shanties (tin shacks on sticks above the river) right next to beautifully maintained temples and hotels...strange to see such obvious contrast. As I wandered the streets I was often overwhelmed by both the immensity of the city as well as the very apparent kindness of the people of Bangkok. The small alleys and roads that twist along the edge of the river are confusing and don't always follow the natural path of the river. During my excursions I was often assisted by a gentle Thai man, woman or child with a pinch of the arm to lead me back to the correct path. I was essentially wandering through the equivalent of peoples neighborhoods, and even yards, and was nearly always greeted with a kind smile and a gentle "Sawadee Krap or Kha" (Hello w/Masculine or Feminine). I wish that people in the west were as friendly and open as the people I have met here. As I mentioned in my last email, Bangkok is a rapidly developing (and very developed) city. I spent Monday using the mass transit systems of the city (the River Ferries, the new and ultra-modern Sky-train and Metro (underground)) to navigate through some of the more modern areas of town. I went to a mall in the Siam square area that was much more lavish and grand than anything I've seen in the States. Marble everywhere, crystal chandeliers, indoor koi ponds and streams cut into the floor and all of the top end retailers. There was even an amazing gourmet "food court" complete with a supermarket that would make the finest chef drool (I was in heaven). I also had a chance to see the victory monument (a giant obelisk with statues and steps leading to it) in the center of one of the craziest, and largest, round-abouts I've ever seen. The traffic is insane and I don't think it is even possible to actually get to the monument through the throngs of cars, buses, trucks, tuk-tuks, saengthaws, and motorbikes. It was quite a site and scene to behold. While in Bangkok, as everywhere else, I have met so many good and interesting people from around the world. I love the community of travelers and expats that are out enjoying the world--so far I've tremendously enjoyed the company of so many different, yet similar, people. Being an US citizen abroad is a bit odd, given the current political and social unrest related to our countries activities and choices. Most people that I have met are interested in the next election and are as eager as many of us to see the terror of the Bush years end. I am very hopeful with the potential of a new administration in the White House (hopefully led by Obama--my shameless political endorsement...;) ). I wound up taking a night train from Bangkok to Chiang Mai on Tuesday night. This was my first time using the rail system in Thailand (I used buses last time) and I was STOKED to have a great sleeping car that was clean, comfortable and relaxing for a 14 hour journey. I arrived in Chiang Mai in the morning and, after checking into my guesthouse, I wandered the streets of Chiang Mai after getting the aforementioned blissful massage. Chiang Mai is a very nice city in the north of Thailand. The city center (about 1.5 kilometers, squared) used to be walled and is still surrounded by a moat. Parts of the city wall remain and there are a large number of beautiful and ornate temples throughout the old town. I was supposed to meet with my trekking group at 6pm for a pre-trek brief but wound up nearly 15 minutes late because I repeatedly found myself lost and turned around in the windy city center. I ended up meeting my group and immediately made a good connection with a group of really great people from Norwich (sorry if the spelling's wrong guys...), England and somewhere in France. Kieran, Simon, Sam (the English blokes) and I wound up chatting extensively and ended up spending the entire evening hanging out. The next morning our group loaded up and headed off for our trekking adventure. The first part of the day we spent cruising around doing some sightseeing in the hills south of Chiang Mai (Giant Buddha wife, temple, market and smallish village). We then disembarked on a several hour trek (pretty easy) to a very small village for the night. We had a great time drinking, playing cards and getting to know each other. Sebastian (one of my French friends) was a great translator as we played poker with the French girls in the group (Margaret, Severine and Lydia). We had a great meal that accidentally included the extra protein from hundreds of flying termites that were determined to die in our food (we were able to pick most out, but surely ate a number of them--taste like chicken!). The next morning we all had breakfast together then the French contingency and two young Korean guys (nice, but didn't communicate with us much--they seemed shy) headed to do their final day stuff (they only signed up for a two day trek). Sam, Simon, Kieran, Birdy (our awesome guide---LLLLAAADDDYYBOYYY!) and I then spent the day hiking, swimming, splashing in waterfalls and lounging by the river. We wound up stopping at a very small village and spending some time with two older Thai women that showed me (actually had me working) how they make fine silk scarves on a hand loom---such slow and deliberate work. That night we hiked into a small farming valley in the lush jungle surrounded by banana trees and a multitude of other tropical fruit trees. We stayed in a simple hut and had a great time playing cards with just the "guys". Birdy made us another delicious, fresh meal (scrumptious green curry with meat and veggies and a warm cucumber and tomato dish that was quite delicious). The food on the trek was wonderful with the exception of the tour companies attempts at western breakfast (crappy white flour bread, eggs, jam and instant coffee or tea). The only saving grace of breakfast was the sweet and fresh pineapple or watermelon (have I mentioned how incredibly good the fruit and vegetable in Thailand are?). The last day of our trek (yesterday) it wound up raining almost constantly. Fortunately we only had a short and easy walk out to the vehicles for our day of Bamboo rafting and Elephant riding. I really didn't have much expectation for the rafting and Elephant part of the trek. We ended up going on the rafts (which are essentially 6 or 7 long, very large pieces of Bamboo bound together with rubber straps) in groups of three and a guide. They float at just above water level and you often find yourself ankle deep as the raft hits currents and rapids. We spent about 40-45 minutes cruising downstream splashing each other from raft to raft and attempting to navigate the, sometimes rough, river. It was a blast standing up front working hard with the guide to stay afloat through the current. I fell off once but had a great time jumping back on and taking the lead over the others---it was really great fun! The elephant riding was another story completely. I don't recommend it at all. Sam and I wound up getting on an uncomfortable seat mounted on a very small elephant (Simon and Kieran's was nearly twice the size) that wanted to do its own thing. It was genuinely frightening and disheartening at the same time. Our elephant wound up going off trail a few times, as well as turning around, before dashing to the front of the three elephants ahead of it--scary s***. Simon and Kieran's elephant wound up making a new trail completely. It just seemed like the elephants were not into it and the guides used these hooked sticks to steer the animals (poking or smacking the elephants to get them to go in the right direction). It just seemed sad--won't do it again and wouldn't recommend for anyone else---go for a second bamboo rafting trip instead! We wrapped up our trek by driving back to Chiang Mai. We all cleaned up and eventually met up with the French contingency for an amazing (& huge) meal at this scruptuous vegetarian Thai restaurant across the street from our hotel. We had Green & Red Curry, Som Tom (my favorite--green papaya salad), Pumpkin stir-fry, tangy sweet and sour noodles, a calamari noodle dish as well as tempura veggies, fruit salad, fresh mango pancake (mmmm...)fresh fruit smoothies, beer, water and Thai iced tea for roughly $5.00 each--an incredible meal!!! After the meal we wound up going out to meet Birdy at his brother's bar down the street from our guesthouse. We played pool, drank, danced, sang with the band to some reggae greats and enjoyed one last night together as a group. We had a great evening aside from my first (and hopefully one of few) brush with anti-Americanism. Towards the end of the evening we wound up talking with some nice women from England and Canada. There Thai tour guide was a bit too drunk and was lightly groping (touching and running his hand down the women's faces) two of the women. I had been hanging out with him as well as them and I thought we were cool with each other. The girls were upset when he touched their faces and I told him that it was inappropriate for him to do that. He proceeded to do the same thing to me and I gently, and in a friendly manner, told him that what he was doing wasn't cool. He proceeded to start badmouthing Americans. I asked him to please not judge me based on his prejudices (in lessor words) and attempted to go in for a hand shake. He moved back and said (not verbatim), "I would never shake and Americans hand". By this time Sam, Simon (who were already a bit drunk and angry with the way the guy was behaving) and Birdy were there and involved too. Birdy just told us to leave it alone and we basically dropped it with a plea to again not prejudge people in general. It was a disheartening experience and one that I don't believe should have to occur. We need to change the way America is perceived in the global community folks... All in all it was a great night and a fun time had by all. Today I spent the day with the English Trio. We enjoyed a delicious breakfast (big chunks of fruit-mango, pineapple, papaya, lychee, grapes, banana and others--mixed with home-made muesli and yogurt), an afternoon Thai massage and a good but rushed Thai/Tibetan lunch before they headed off to catch their train south to the islands. It was such a good three days with those guys---we just clicked immediately and by the end it felt as though we had known each other for years (weird how that can happen). They are less than two months into a year of traveling (they are going to Australia and New Zealand with work visas until next year) and will definitely be getting a hosted tour of California when they make it out next year. I spent this afternoon leisurely walking around the vicinity of my new hotel---I went for one with a pool (so nice!). I'm exhausted from a lack of sleep last night (weird security guard woke me up at god-knows-what-time) and writing this extended email that hopefully catches me up on my blog...I'm set to explore the Chiang Mai outskirts tomorrow by motorbike and will be heading up to Pai, Chiang Rai, then Laos in the coming week or so. I love hearing from all of you and will do my best to write back when I find time--I welcome anyone to get a hold of me if they like. Pom Racoon Mawk Krap (Spelling may be wrong but means: I love you very much!) Gabriel P.S.--Melissa or Evan: can one of you (or both) get me Rick's email...the one I have gets bounced back Lani: you never told me what the deal is with the Interval International Mail--please let me know if it is something I need to be aware of Ben: did the combo work? Everyone: I'll try to get some pictures up soon...