In the past two and a half weeks of house-sitting in Northern Thailand, I will admit that I haven’t exactly been getting out and about much. Aside from a weekly bus trip into nearby Chiang Rai for provisions (read: bread, milk, CAKE) I’ve mostly been sticking close to home. There are two restaurants where I regularly eat lunch, a couple coffee shops where I stop for iced lattes, the mini-mart I visit for beer and the occasional package of cookies, and the local country market where I shop for fruit, vegetables and the occasional dead chicken.
This may not sound very adventurous to those of you sitting at home (particularly if your home is not surrounded by a jungle like my new home is), but I assure you I’ve been defying death right here in my own backyard… quite literally. Why, just this weekend, millions of black ants descended on the backyard and house, overtaking everything from the stone walkways to the bedroom walls to my beloved MacBook. I spent two days stalking ants and using this special ant-killing chalk to mark up the bricks lining the walks as well as the windowsills and door stoops on the house. While I’ve never seen this kind of chalk in the States (not like I’m in the business of ant-killing back home, really), I have to say, it works wonders! All you do is swipe it across the path of the ants, and within minutes all those ants are goners! (And, then, you get to spend the rest of the day sweeping up ant casualties… good times never stop here in the jungle!)
Now, this may not sound death-defying to you, but, according to the fine people at Google, I barely escaped this experience alive. You see, there’s a reason why I’ve never seen this ant-killing chalk before; it’s because it’s illegal in the United States. After doing a little web research, I discovered the chalk is manufactured in China (where it goes by the name of “Miraculous Insecticide Chalk” or, my personal favorite, “Pretty Baby Chalk”). And, while the Chinese manufacturers assure consumers that this chalk is “harmless to human beings and animals;” it is, in fact, toxic (well, duh, I can’t say that was a huge shocker… I mean it’s chalk that kills ants; there has to be some kind of poison involved… or maybe magic?! Yes, fantastic ant-killing magic!).
One website said that exposure to the chalk can lead to “convulsions, tremors, coma and death.” Seeing as I spent about thirty-two hours of my weekend wielding this death chalk, I’d say I was practically thumbing my nose at death. And I’ll be thumbing it some more over the next couple months. As much as I’d rather not go into convulsions; I’d also rather not find myself (or my beloved MacBook) covered in ants.
After all my adventures in ant-killing this weekend, I decided I was up for even more death-defying adventure when I woke up yesterday. I was going to wander further afield on my bike than I had ever done before… all the way to the post office. The post office is only about three miles from the house, but at least two of those miles are on the superhighway. Again, this may not sound adventurous to you, but I have a feeling you have never ridden your bike for two miles on a superhighway in rural Thailand (and, if you have, well, then, maybe you’d like to come live here with me for a couple months and do all my errands?! Doesn’t that sound like a fun adventure for you?!).
You see, the superhighway is maybe not the safest place to ride a bike. On the side of the highway there’s a nice wide lane designated for small vehicles including bikes, scooters, tuk-tuks and, quite possibly, cows. But this doesn’t necessarily mean that all the small vehicles are going in the same direction. This also doesn’t mean that the lane is only occupied by small vehicles; it may also be occupied by parked cars or pineapple stands. So riding your bike on the superhighway means that you are regularly dodging other small vehicles coming right at you as well as the odd fruit stand or two. And, that’s just the stuff you can see in front of you! Should you make the mistake of actually turning your head to look behind you, you will also see all the speeding scooters, motorcycles, cars and trucks barreling right towards you… of course, you will also see your life flashing before your eyes, too. So, while venturing to the post office a mere three miles away may not seem like an adventure to you, it was about as much excitement as my poor little heart could take.
In fact, I was so excited (and possibly distracted by all the pineapple stands) that I rode clean past the post office and didn’t realize my mistake for about half a mile. How I managed this, I’m not exactly sure. The post office is a big, two-story, white building with the words “Post Office” written in English on the front. Aside from the few car dealerships, most of the other buildings on the superhighway are tiny one-story cafes or low-slung concrete affairs surrounded by fields of mud. The post office is not exactly a needle in the haystack… it is the haystack.
When I realized my mistake, I had no way of crossing the street (at least not alive), so I had to turn my bike around and head back in the direction of traffic. If I thought glancing speeding traffic coming at me out of the corner of my eye was scary, facing it full on was definitely scarier. By the time I reached the post office, I was entirely drenched in sweat; I wasn’t sure if this was from the heat, the bike ride or the exertion of having three heart attacks in a row while riding into oncoming traffic. Unfortunately, when I went into the post office, I discovered the mail I was expecting was not there and the only things waiting for me in the post office box were two circulars for the local big box grocery store. Yes, I risked death by speeding traffic and pineapple stands for the chance to find out that fish sauce and frozen whole ducks were on sale this week.
After my rather disappointing stop at the post office, I realized I had worked up quite the appetite (not to mention a stench that could have rivaled a small pig farm). While the pad thai restaurant that I regularly visit wasn’t too far from the post office, I figured I might as well continue the adventure and go someplace new. Unfortunately, my knowledge of the Thai language is not really up to ordering off a menu; in fact, my knowledge of the Thai language is not really up to much, aside from saying “pad thai” and “thank you.”
But, if anything, I have mastered ordering food by pointing at it like no one’s business (after all, I certainly didn’t gain ten pounds in Japan by ordering off of menus… heck no! Those were ten hard-earned food-pointing pounds!). I headed to a restaurant I had seen near the bus stop that very conveniently has a big glass case of roasted chicken outside… perfect for pointing at.
And, while it may not seem the best idea to eat food that’s been sitting around in a glass case all day, I was assured this chicken was quite fresh. A mere five meters away from the glass case of roasted chicken were cages full of the soon-to-be-roasted chicken. Now, that, my friends, is fresh.
I pulled up to the restaurant, parked my bike and stood with my nose pressed up against the glass case full of chicken (this, in case you’re wondering, is the universal way of saying “Excuse me, I’d like to place an order” should you not know how to say that in the native tongue of the country you’re visiting). Hoping I could get either a quarter of a chicken or maybe just a nice meaty drumstick for lunch, I asked the woman who came up to help me for a chicken that was “not too big.” I’m pretty sure she only understood the “big” part, as she grabbed the hugest chicken she could, slapped it on a cutting board, and whacked it apart with a cleaver in about five seconds and threw the whole lot into a plastic bag.
I was impressed.
Last week, it took me practically two hours to debone a chicken. I wouldn’t be surprised if this woman could debone an entire dinosaur in less time than it takes me to brush my teeth.
After the main course of my meal (err, meals… that was one big chicken) was taken care of, I then managed to point my way into getting a green papaya salad. The woman whipped the salad up in front of me, mashing together garlic, green beans, tomatoes and chili peppers into a huge mortar. She then added the shredded green papaya and dried shrimp, and put it all together into another plastic bag. She totaled up my purchases and the entire meal (err, meals) came to less than five dollars. I vowed to never debone another chicken in my life; instead I’d be getting any future chicken fixes right there at that restaurant.
I pedaled my poultry and papaya salad back home desperately hoping the pack of wild dogs who usually roam the dirt road outside of the house would be off-duty. While the dogs had yet to attack me, I’d also never had a bike basket full of roasted chicken before. And that chicken smelled good. Plus, it really, really smelled… I mean, it smelled more than me (and, by this time, my stench had definitely reached medium-sized pig farm level).
I was in luck; there were no dogs, and I made it safely back to the house without any more adventures. At home, I cooked up some sticky rice, and piled that on to my plate with a portion of the chicken and half of the papaya salad. The meal was amazing: the chicken was moist and tender, the papaya salad was tangy and spicy, and the sticky rice was, well, sticky.
After lunch, I settled into the deck chair on the porch to peruse the grocery store circulars. In addition to the whole ducks and fish sauce, it appears they’re also having a sale on frozen deer meat, frog mash, mixed pork offal and something called “processed cheddar cheese naked slices.” With fun items like that on sale, maybe my next big superhighway adventure would be a trip to the supermarket…