what i’ve gotten myself into

March 12, 2010

It has been just over one week since I was left on my own in the middle of rural Northern Thailand. For the next two months, my home is a beautiful little jungley plot of land about an hour south of Burma complete with banana trees and geckos where I’m cat-sitting for some friends of a friend. In addition to the two charming cats, I am also in charge of their house, four chickens, a vegetable garden, countless fruit trees and one very temperamental water well. (The geckos, my friends, are on their own.)

This is quite a change of pace for a girl who has only owned one house plant in the last three years. Okay, so there have been other house plants, but they don’t count if they don’t live past three days, right?! (Ha, ha, just kidding! To the couple I’m house-sitting for — I’ve never killed a house plant in my life and, if a house plant did die under my watch, it was one of those wussy Japanese house plants, not a nice, strong Thai house plant like all of yours… which are all doing just fine, by the way).

To say that my new life in Northern Thailand is drastically different from my life in Japan would be something of an understatement. In Kobe, I lived a short walk away from two train stations, three grocery stores and countless convenient stores peddling everything from melon bread to manga to concert tickets. Should you tire of sushi and udon, my neighborhood had a number of Western style restaurants and chains including a McDonald’s, a Starbucks, a KFC, a Baskin Robbins, a Haagen Daaz and a Mister Donut. My current neighborhood has a temple, a jungle and a pack of wild dogs. I’m a fifteen-minute bike ride away from a mini-mart where I can buy beer, instant noodles and, should the mood strike me, some skin-whitening cream (the mood has yet to strike). Across the street from the mini-mart is a day market where you can get local fruits and vegetables, various assorted animal parts and fresh fish (and by “fresh” I mean “still swimming”…. that is until you order it, at which point the kind woman with the big machete in her hand will happily beat it on the head for you).

In Japan, I lived a mere five-minute train ride away from the super chic, super sleek Sannomiya, Kobe’s downtown area. I was also a quick twenty-minute train ride from the bustling neon lights of Japan’s second largest city, Osaka with its population of 20 million.

Chiang Rai, the city that I live closest to now, has a population of 62,000. This means, Chiang Rai is less populated than cities with names like Gyzylarbat (in Turkemenistan), Molepolole (in Botswana) and Zalaegerszeg (in Hungary). Top tourist attractions in Chiang Rai include temples, trekking and the Princess Mother ’90 Museum which features “fine collections” of wooden pulleys (I know, I’m sure you’re hopping a plane right now to come check out those wooden pulleys, aren’t you?!).

In order to get to Chiang Rai, I must take a dusty 15-minute bike ride to the bus stop (making sure to avoid any potholes or packs of wild dogs) and then take a jolty, jam-packed 15-minute bus ride down the superhighway. Chiang Rai does not have any Starbucks or McDonalds (at least not from what I’ve seen), but it does have a number of Western food restaurants, coffee shops and (glory be!) a Mister Donut. So should I be in serious need of a maple dip donut, I can get myself one (or two… or twenty-five) in about thirty minutes (give or take ten minutes or so depending on the bus schedule and packs of wild dogs).

Living in Japan, I used to say that I couldn’t speak Japanese. I have since learned that this was false modesty. (I know, shocking, right?! If you know me, you know I am not the type of person prone to modesty… false or otherwise.) At least, I knew enough Japanese to be able to get myself wherever I needed to be and get myself dinner once I got there. I can also read simple Japanese characters, so more often then not I could read a few things on the menu even if what I read sounded like this: “pasta with something-sauce and something-something-green-salad.”

In Thai, I know the words for hello (sawatdii kha), thank you (khop khun kha) and pad thai (pad thai). Needless to say, I haven’t been having many in-depth conversations with my neighbors. I, also, haven’t exactly been able to read any signs or menus. Luckily for me, Thai people tend to be rather eager to speak English, even if they don’t have all that much English to speak (as opposed to Japan where most people tend to be quite shy about their English skills — even though their English skills were usually better than my own.)

This week I stopped at a small roadside restaurant for some lunch. When I pulled up on my bike, the owner of the restaurant was having lunch herself. She motioned for me to sit in the chair across from her, yelled my order to her husband in the kitchen and began grilling me in English. She wanted to know where I was from, what I was doing in Thailand, how long I had been in Thailand, how long I planned to stay in Thailand, how I liked Thailand, whether or not I was married and if I wouldn’t mind marrying her brother. (Here, I might have been a bit confused. She didn’t exactly have the best grasp of her English pronouns, so it’s possible that she was asking me if I’d like to marry her brother or she might have been asking me if my brother would like to marry her. Really not sure about that one). After about ten minutes, she had exhausted her repertoire of English questions so we started back at the beginning with where I was from. But, honestly, I didn’t mind. It was the first conversation in English I had had all week. Well, the first conversation I had had all week that didn’t start with the question, “Who’s the best kitty cat in the whole wide world?” and end with the answer, “Meow.”

Of course, I knew before I even showed up in Thailand that my life here would be quite a bit different from the hustle and bustle and big city of my life in Japan. The couple I am house-sitting for had been very honest about the rural setting and isolation and lack of English. (Although I don’t remember mention of the pack of wild dogs… just saying). But I was ready for a big change and a big challenge, and I figured this was it. I also figured this would be a great way for me to get a lot of writing done and start researching the next couple legs of my Asian adventure. (And I’m sure that will happen as soon as I get settled in… and finish off this huge collection of DVDs the couple very kindly lent me.  I don’t want to become a total recluse with absolutely no grasp of popular culture… and by “popular culture” I mean The Simpsons seasons four through six).

Before I came to Thailand, I was explaining my future house-sitting situation to a friend of mine in Japan. After hearing about the jungley location and the bike and bus rides required to get anywhere near civilization, she asked me the question almost everyone had asked me: “Do you know what you’re getting yourself into?”

“Ummm, sure, I’ll be fine,” I said. After all, I had grown up on a small farm in Western New York. I had lived in the Amazon region of Brazil for a year. I had survived a jungle safari in Nepal. I had every travel vaccination known to modern science and enough sanitary hand wipes to sanitize the hands of every man, woman and child in the Eastern Hemisphere. I was sure I’d be fine. I’m still sure I’ll be fine. I’ve survived one week of jungle bugs, wild dogs, temporary power outages and the temperamental water well; I’m sure I can survive eight more… (I think).

Did I know what I was getting myself into, though?! Heck, no.

Sure, I grew up on a farm, and I’ve fed a few chickens in my day. But I never had to do things like prime a pump. (Until last week, I thought that was just an idiom.) I’ve never had to manage a compost pile or be personally responsible for the well-being of an entire orchard full of trees. Sure, I lived in the Amazon for a year, but I lived in the part of the Amazon that had high-rise apartment buildings and an air-conditioned mall. I wasn’t exactly fighting off anacondas and wild tapirs just to get to work. And, yes, I’ve been in a number of jungles, but no one ever left me in the jungle by myself. (Although, I’m sure more than a few people have been tempted to.)

But when you think about it, history is full of a bunch of people who didn’t know what they were getting themselves into. I mean, have you ever looked at something like a potato and thought, “Who the heck first thought to eat this?” I bet you a million bucks, the first person who ever ate a potato, had absolutely no clue what he was getting himself into. But, here we are some ten thousand years later, enjoying our French fries and twice-bakeds because some guy had absolutely no idea what he was getting himself into. Sure, he might have died shortly thereafter while chomping down on some poison hemlock, but, you know, that potato thing worked out pretty well for him.

You know who also didn’t have any idea what he was getting himself into? Christopher Columbus. Yep, Mr. I’m-Going-To-Find-A-Route-to-India had absolutely no idea what he was doing when he set his sails in the westward direction. And things worked out pretty well for him, too. Well, aside from completely underestimating the circumference of the Earth, not actually finding India, getting stranded in Jamaica for a year, lingering in jail for a while and dying convinced he had still reached the East coast of Asia. (You would think a year in Jamaica would have enlightened him otherwise… but, not quite).

In addition to the potato guy and old Chris Columbus, history is full of people who didn’t know what they were getting themselves into: the Pilgrims, Benjamin Franklin with that whole key-on-a-kite-string-in-a-thunderstorm thing, that guy who discovered penicillin, Elvis Presley. And, you know, everything worked out for them (Well, maybe, not so much for Elvis… or the Pilgrims. But, uhh, Ben Franklin did alright by himself, right?! And that penicillin guy did okay, too.)

So, I’m sure everything will work out for me, too. Just as soon as I figure out how to distract the wild dogs from chewing off my feet every time I bicycle past them….

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