Coming home at last

Goodbye slow walkers who block the sidewalk, sewer smell in the morning and stifling heat!

Well, for two weeks at least.

After 14 months away I am finally going home for a desperately needed visit. My travel arrangements are set, my souvenirs for folks at home are bought and my bags are packed _ with sweaters. Lots and lots of sweaters.

A year in 95 F/35 C temperatures means my blood has thinned _ a fact evidenced by my blanket-sized woolly sweater I wear in my over-air conditioned office. The temperatures in New York City, though not cold by any standard, will be celebrated with layers of sweaters and hats and pants. Nantucket promises to be even chillier with its ocean breezes and early morning fog. And you know what that means? Yeah you do. Long johns.

But more than my celebration of days without perspiration, it is a chance for me to see my nearest and dearest. For weeks I have imagined nothing but hugging my dad for the first time in over year, of laughing with my two sisters as we drive up to Nantucket, and drinking a beer with my mom while we battle over heath care in the U.S. I have been reading up Mom. Watch out.

It is a chance for me to hug my best friend for the first time since we parted in tears, spending a week in her apartment gossiping about all that we’ve missed and all that we have planned. And I get to spend a week in NYC properly catching up with my closest friends over BBQ dinners and bottles of wine.

(Incidentally I will be consuming a bottle a day to celebrate being able to buy $10 bottles and the departure from a country that charges $30 for a bottle of crap from Australia. No offense Australia.)

The trip to NYC is also an opportunity to revisit my most favorite of places, a city in which I feel infinitely comfortable and content. I will walk through Central Park, roam the city streets to see what has changed in this past year, and finally drink a well made cocktail. I anticipate these activities will take up about 20% of my day.

The other 80% you might wonder? I will be spending that in every brightly-lit, well-stocked and sale-sign-adorned shoe store I can find. I will try on every shoe they have. I will annoy and frustrate sales clerks. And I will love every minute. Because I have a primal need for this kind of shoe therapy; I have spent a year with the same old ratty, torn, unraveling shoes because of Asians’ miniature feet. (Well they’re not all mini. Ladyboys have huge feet. But I couldn’t bring myself to shop at their store. I’m already freakishly tall here. I don’t need to raise questions.)

So 12 hours out and one day of work to go I am antsy, distracted and more excited for this trip than any other I have taken. I wonder how much I have changed having spent a year immersed in another culture and another lifestyle. I wonder if my perception of the U.S. is different and if reverse culture shock will hit me square in the face. I wonder if being home will make me realize how much I’ve missed, or if it will reaffirm my choice to live overseas.

But for now I can think of only one thing: that first step on U.S. soil and seeing the NYC skyline _ the undeniable sign that I am finally home.

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Happy belated one year anniversary me!

On July 15, 2008 I woke up in a musty New York City hotel room, my bags packed, my eyes puffy from tears and a heavy rain falling outside. I had finished saying goodbye to family, friends and my favorite city. All that was left to do was board the plane for a new and foreign city without the slightest idea of what I would meet on the other side.

A year later, I still exit the airport with the feeling that someone has hit me in the face with a smelly, wet sock _ a sensation that was all too depressing when I first stepped into the thick, fetid Bangkok air. The language barrier continues to plague my everyday efforts to grocery shop, take a taxi, pay bills, etc. I am still annoyed by the lack of common sense, lack of awareness of others in public spaces and the unwillingness to deviate from the rules, no matter how ridiculous. I have a developed an immense hatred for cab drivers that threatens to put me in a rage at the very sight of them _ something I blame on the Thai tendency to try and rip off foreigners.

But many of the quirks and characteristics about this city that initially felt scary and insurmountable have now mostly become charming qualities _ the inordinately annoying ones listed above are exempted from this category. I have found a home here populated by great friends, exotic places to travel,  luxuries I couldn’t expect at home and a friendly and relaxed environment that on most days feels like vacation.

I see elephants on the street on my way to meet friends for dinner. My ride to work on the SkyTrain costs less than $1. I eat incredible  Thai food daily. And I have traveled to places I only ever dreamed of _ Hong Kong, Beijing, Ho Chi Minh City, Taipei, Singapore and the stunning beaches of Thailand.

These material benefits have enriched my life, not only providing a comfort I didn’t expect to enjoy before the age of 30, but helping me to mature, relax my attitude and find happiness. This year has given me confidence to know I will find success no matter the challenge. To discover just how much I love and care for the people closest to me. To find my way out of the maze and confusion of my early 20s and come out the other end (in Bangkok of all places) with a surer sense of self and a confidence in my choices. And to find love _ in the unlikeliest of places, on a staircase in Hong Kong.

Bangkok was the best decision I never made. The idea of moving to a region of the world I had never seen and knew nothing about terrified me. But there was never a doubt that I was going to come here. It was one of those opportunities you don’t pass up. And despite the difficulty of overcoming those first hard months, I have developed a love and respect for this city and for every place I have visited. Asia and I now have a bond _ we fight sometimes but deep down we love each other.

I love this city, its charms and its irritating idiosyncrasies.  And when I leave it will be with a heavy heart and a hope that I get to come back some day.

The saying goes that if you can make it in New York City, you can make it anywhere. It’s a lie. It’s Bangkok that has given me the biggest and most rewarding challenge. One that has changed me, reshaped me and ultimately made my life.

So far anyway…

Suicide Mission: Mekong Delta on a Motorbike

I’ve seen the YouTube videos. You know, the myriad ones depicting the hellish motorbike traffic in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam. I was horrified, nervous about their lack of deference to traffic signals and wondering if they got their driver’s licenses out of a cereal box. So on a recent trip to HCMC what did my boyfriend and I do? We rented a motorbike and drove through it. Stoplight, shmoplight.

Our idea was brilliant, off the beaten track and adventurous. We planned to rent the motorbike in HCMC and drive the two hours down Highway 1 to the Mekong Delta. More specifically to a small town called My Tho, the gateway to the delta and right on the river. Easy cheesy.

OK, I wasn’t that naive. We had spent the day before playing chicken with the traffic at crosswalks and knew that if we were risking death on foot, being on a motorbike wouldn’t improve our chances of survival. Still, we were intrepid, negotiating with the small Vietnamese man for the softest-seated motorbike we could find. Then we put on our baby blue and hot pink helmets, stuffed the bag between us and took off.

We arrived in My Tho after three hours of sore asses, potholed highways and filthy faces. The town is small, the market nasty and the buildings crumbling. But we found ourselves in a beautiful hotel with a view of the Mekong, and just down the street from a night food market. Dinner was spent feebly trying to communicate to our waiters with hand signals, but our frustration was short-lived. Turns out, not being able to speak the language at a food market in Vietnam means you get over your preconceived notions of what tastes good and you are served the best of what they offer.

And the best happened to be the most succulent, juiciest and perfectly cooked pork of my life. Love songs and Hallmark cards should be written about this pork. A national day of celebration like July 4 should be created to commemorate this pork. We loved the pork, talked about it all night, tried to decipher the secret to its perfection. In fact, this post will likely spur another hour-long diatribe on our love for the pork. I will spare you a recounting of that though.

The next day we experienced the Mekong and the delta, passing fisherman’s houses anchored into the water, eating fresh fruit while listening to headache-inducing traditional music. And we became practiced at the most valuable skill in Vietnam _ avoiding the pushy sales pitches of every tout in our path. Would you like a pair of authentic Vietnamese sandals? No. Bee pollen that will cure your every ailment and make you look 15 years younger? No. Coconut candy handmade and fired in our very special kiln? No. No. No.

It was actually the last refusal that turned our previously friendly and jovial relationship with our tour guide to shit. Refusing the coconut candy was our undoing. You don’t like the candy??! Why you no buy!? We were ignored, glared at and treated like stupid tourists. I don’t really blame her though. We looked like stupid tourists. A torrential downpour had relegated us to pastel colored ponchos that made us look like cheap condoms. Flattering.

Despite our falling out, the tour was fantastic. We got in a small boat paddled by Vietnamese women down one of the deltas. We reveled in seeing such a remote corner of the world and its lush vegetation, charming tradition and raw beauty. Our battles with a busted headlight, a butt that refused to regain feeling and a maze of traffic in HCMC that inspired frantic prayers for our survival only made it better in the end. Because if you can say that you were were able to enjoy experiencing the charm and exoticism of a small Vietnamese town in spite of looking like a wet condom, you’ve done alright.