My Mom and sister said I needed to update about my general life for the people who care about me back home, so here goes.
The dust has settled in Chiang Mai. Our blue, grey, and black bachelor pad feels like home. We’ve started Thai classes, and I can almost order lunch and conduct myself in public in broken Thai that others sometimes understand. I know most of the Thai alphabet and can read simple signs, menus, and advertisements, though I might not know the meaning of the word I’m sounding out.
Life is easier here than I anticipated. Other than some moments of frustration with transportation communication, slow internet that frequently cuts out, unpotable tap water, uninteresting beer possibly contaminated with formaldehyde, and limitations with Google maps, day-to-day life has been a breeze. We eat delicious and inexpensive food, drink fresh juices, and zip around town on a scooter to find entertainment and run errands. In some miraculous geographic twist, we’re completely invisible to the Greenpeace clipboard people. I’m not scared at all for my personal safety.
While I’m not a particularly stressy person, if I do get wound up about something I tend to dwell and dwell and dwell, but seeing happy people manage their lives without tons of anxiety and stress over silly things like safety has rubbed off on me. Friends from college will probably happy to know that after about 6 weeks in Thailand, I’m no longer the person who throws a temper tantrum if there aren’t enough seat belts for a group. Nor am I the girl having a cow over bike helmets or throwing some disproportionate fit over something like wrist guards. I don’t even care that my beer is probably loaded with chemicals or that the DEET-filled lotion I’ve been rubbing on my face corrodes plastic.
Fixation on silly things like preserving one’s brain function melts away when you see a small child standing up on a motorbike, leaning back on driving Dad, ankles held by Mom, giggling gleefully and waving to others on a freeway. Yes, this behavior could be dangerous and fatal, but so could crossing the street or walking down the stairs. Most parents here can’t afford or simply don’t want cars with fire department-approved seats. They make do. Joyfully. I’m not willing to be the person frowning or judging or thinking about what I would do differently.
I always lock doors and count my change. If I’m at a crowded festival, I’ll wear my backpack on front, mostly to keep an eye on my passport, but aside from that? Not worried. I feel safe walking alone at night, more so than in the quiet neighborhoods in Austin or in a giant HEB parking lot.
My social itch gets scratched often, though it’s different living in a place where your friends generally stay put and live nearby. Here, we meet more travelers than residents, which certainly has its own dynamic. Rather than lamenting over having made few local friends, I’m beginning to treasure experiences with individuals who I may only see for a few days or weeks. I understand why farang stick together.
Even though I am a resident of Chiang Mai, I can’t expect locals to differentiate between me and a shorter-term visitor, or someone who has fully gone bamboo. I’m not sure they should. When visitors descend on my hometown, I’m certainly not compelled to befriend them. I’m generally not even curious about who they are and why Austin was their destination. Why should it be different here? I’m a guest in any right, and aside from the VAT, I’m not paying taxes. It’s okay for me to pay 10 baht more for a ride around town or for an order of delicious mango and sticky rice.
Andy and I have become active with the Couch Surfing project, going to meet-ups and hosting travelers on our couch. Couch Surfing is a wonderful online tool that connects residents who have space with travelers needing a place to crash. Before anyone starts clutching his or her pearls or bundling his or her panties, I must assure you that the website comes with a nice reference feature wherein each host and surfer must rate each other and leave a few words about the experience of living together. The three surfers we’ve had in Chiang Mai have been as wonderful as their references indicated. I had no reservations about providing them with a spare key to our apartment. The company, perspectives, and stories they shared more than compensated for the slightly higher toilet paper costs we’ve incurred.
The travelers who come through Chiang Mai are mostly not Americans. Many have seen nearly every inch of the earth and are full of thoughtful advice about where to go, and more importantly (to me), where NOT to go. As my mental list of “Places I Must See” grows and grows, it’s liberating to cross a few items off the list. Travelers toss around Jakarta, urban Malaysia, Saigon, Singapore, even Beijing, Rio de Janeiro, and London(!) as places that can be skipped altogether. I’ve learned the in’s and out’s of hitchhiking in Europe, what price to expect for a taxi in Melbourne, how to strike a deal with a tuk-tuk driver in India, and what to wear in Dubai.
A positive side effect of socializing with a fluid group of companions is that my level of social awkwardness has plummeted. Anyone who knows me well has probably forgotten that I’m reserved when I first meet new people. My observe before attacking strategy doesn’t work here, where I don’t have the luxury of waiting for any social unease to settle. I’ve got to jump right in, as most chronic travelers cut right through the small talk and get to more intense conversations fast. I’m also discovering that my brand of sarcasm is not global, and that only North Americans and few select Australians and South Africans understand my jokes. As a result I have to come up with things of SUBSTANCE to say. Such a struggle.
Chiang Mai is not Shagri-La or a place of miracles. It’s a laid-back, livable city where people work and vacation. While some folks find Chiang Mai boring, it suits Andy and I well and we’re happy to be here.
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