Friday, November 20, 2009

อาณาจักรอยุธยา Ayutthaya

*retroactive post: Petra is catching up*
My one and only trip to Ayutthaya (pronounced: eye-YOU-tee-yah) perfectly illustrates the unfortunate truth that significant sightseeing destinations are less likely to be visited by locals – even temporary ones – than by tourists breezing through a country in one or two weeks. Given its proximity to Bangkok I should have been able to explore it much more thoroughly than ended up being the case.

Located only three hours from Bangkok by train, Ayutthaya is the old capital city of what is now Thailand. During its long period of prominence it fought many of wars, held numerous vassal states and maintained economic relationships with Indian, Persian, Chinese, Japanese, Vietnamese, Dutch, French, Spanish, and Portuguese traders. Ayutthaya was the central political power in the region from the mid 1300’s through the middle of the eighteenth century, at which point the Burmese seized and sacked the city and drove the centre of government south to its present location in Bangkok.

I went to Ayutthaya one Saturday in November 2009 with my good friend Maria, a fellow Australian Youth Ambassador who worked in Bangkok with Disabled Peoples International. We boarded one of the many vans making regular runs between Victory Monument (one of Bangkok’s main transportation hubs) and downtown Ayutthaya. Our fellow passengers – all working in Bangkok and returning to their hometowns for the weekend – were friendly and quiet, and most were asleep in fairly short order. The three hours we subsequently spent crawling North along the expressway in bumper-to-bumper traffic gave Maria and I a fantastic opportunity to catch up. We had a great time.

We arrived at the perfect time to grab a lunch of Ayutthaya’s most famous dish. This signature soup of meat, vegtables, and a particular type of noodle is traditionally prepared and served from small canoe-like boats (think floating market) on the river or moat. It is and therefore named, appropriately enough, Boat Noodles. Ayutthaya is also famous for the street snack Roti, a sweet and sticky fried pancake served with banana, egg, and condensed milk and bearing almost no resemblance to the savoury Indian bread for which it’s named.

After lunch we approached a group of tuk-tuk drivers. After some truly heroic haggling from both of us (lots of smiling, wheedling, teasing, and implacable refusals to consider overpriced offers), we managed to secure both a driver and vehicle at quite a reasonable price for the remainder of the afternoon. In the end, I think we only got such a good price because it was a pretty slow afternoon and because the divers thought our Thai was so cute.

We spent the afternoon touring picturesque ruins of temples, monasteries, tombs, and other monuments. They rest amongst well-tended lawns, spongy marshes, groves of deciduous trees I can’t identify but which are graced with the occasional Bodhi tree. On the day we visited, the majority of other tourists were Thai, followed by people from South Korea, Japan, and China. We also encountered a few people from Singapore, Malaysia, Australia, Britain, and Germany. While the sites are definitely well visited and we had to wait our turn to take pictures of the most famous spots, they were quiet enough that Maria and I often had the more out-of-the-way corners entirely to ourselves.

At the entrance and parking lot of every site (in the shade of the afore-described trees) is a collection of small shops and vendors selling refreshments like iced tea, ice cream, fruit, sticky rice with beans or coconut in bamboo stalks, soda, and of course the ever-present dishes of rice, noodles, or noodle soup. You can also buy all manner of tourist memorobelia mass produced in one of the many factories in the region (Thailand itself of course, but also China, Cambodia, and occasionally Vietnam). Local crafts are sometimes available too. At temples and the tombs of important religious and historical figures you can also buy incense, flower garlands, swaths of brightly-coloured fabric (usually yellow and orange, sometimes pink, blue, green, or white) to leave as offerings. Upon arriving at each new site, our driver would make his way to a shady spot to take a nap or gossip with the vendors and other drivers, while we strolled off with the other sightseers.

Ayutthaya is one of Thailand’s two most popular and historically significant World Heritage sites. The other site, the old capital of Sukothai, is reportedly even more extensive and beautiful. While I’m very sad that I didn’t make it to Sukothai during my year in Thailand, I suppose it is good to have left something so special unseen so that I can look forward to visiting it in the future.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

erika in the USA: NYC's not so bad

The last few days found me in New York City, that famed mecca of American ideals. I’ve never had much of a fondness for the city, what with it being huge and concrete and with rude people and stinkiness everywhere. But as I arched over the river on a tall green metal bridge and saw the classic glittering nighttime skyline stretched out before me, I realized afresh how beautiful New York can be.

I was in the city to visit my beloved cousin Corban and his charming girlfriend Adrienne, who were very gracious hosts in their sweet little Brooklyn apartment, and to check out a grad school program at NYU. Being in Brooklyn with such nice people and being able to see their comfortable lives made me realize that it’s not such an impossible thing to live in New York: I wouldn’t want to stay forever, but maybe I could do it for a while. This is a shocking consideration for me, as I have gone my entire life determinedly stating that I would never ever want to live in NYC. Thanks to Bangkok, though, I’ve become slightly immune to the rigors of big cities: at least in New York I can read the signs, ask passersby questions, know the laws, know the history, and pretty much know the system. I’m also to the point where the benefits available in the city, like the profusion of world-class institutions and opportunities and the conveniences of organized urban life, may outweigh my distaste for built environments and pee smell. I’m surprised to find that I’ve also changed enough that I now appreciate the fashion, food, and other cultural opportunities more than before. It’s like I’m growing up / becoming classier: who knew?!

NYU was hilarious. I’d been in their part of the city before, both as a gay tourist (it’s in the middle of Greenwich Village, the gayest neighbourhood in an already gay city, and just blocks from the Stonewall Inn, the site of a pivotal gay riot) and as a performer back in college. I’d never really slowed down and observed the student population, though: oh oh so trendy, fast-talking intelligent yet naive rhetoric, posturing and prancing and pretentions, gay boys, bourgeois angst, but delightfully energetic, alive, engaged, and very well-connected. Kindof an embodiment of the stereotypes of the city. I was impressed by the program I was checking out, and am looking forward to applying.

On my way out of town I had the chance to meet up with a friend and former colleague, Marissa, with whom I crammed about three years of catching up into an hour’s lunch break. She’s an inspiring woman, and it was refreshing to soak up some of her enthusiasm for international social justice work.

No photos, since (as you’ve probably gathered by now) I didn’t bring any cameras with me on this trip. Instead let me part with lingering images from the city: the Statue of Liberty as seen through the piers of the Brooklyn Bridge. The joyful smiles of five old black homeless men singing perfect barbershop do-wop quintet. Two baggy-pants’d bucket-drummer teen boys huddled with their buckets over their heads in a doorway trying to stay dry in a cold cloudburst. A dignified old white silver-haired man striding ramrod-straight with the skirts of his black woollen trench coat billowing out behind him. The canyons of a long straight skyscraper-lined street fading into mist miles away.

erika in the USA: beloved boston

This past weekend I enjoyed a two-part sojourn in the urban burbs of my former home city of Boston. First up were my dear dear dear dear friends Nathaniel and Sarah who I know from when I was tiny, and who I love more than food and water combined, and with whom I did and can always enjoy a return to my heart and myself. We cooked and ate and hugged and pig-piled and read and talked and watched documentaries and shared stupid websites and drank tea and coco and wine and played nerdy board games and generally basked in the excellent company.

I was delighted to meet their new-to-me housemate Lindsay, who is such good company that she held her own in my esteem even beside two of my favourite people in the whole wide world. And as if my visit wasn’t grand enough already, we upped the ante of awesomeness with an evening at the home of Sarah’s brother Jeff and his wife Vivian, and a host of their musical theatre friends, and a piano, and much singing of songs. Despite being too cold-ridden to sing much myself, I almost keeled over from the joy of music and intelligent kind likeminded people.

After such overstimulation, it was a blessing to be able to retreat to the soporific aquarium and later to Wakefield where my lovely college friend Sylvia and her wife Jane live in a cosy warren of a house. Because of said cold and being exhausted from too many travels I wasn’t particularly good company, but it was still nice to be able to nest and zone out with such kind and unjudgemental people, around whom I can totally relax and just sleep and blow my nose. Highlights of my stay included a nice walk in the woods, and another nice walk on the beach.

Photos are from Nathaniel’s phone.

erika in the USA: the lovely inlaws and burbs and apples

Last week found me in Concord MA, where Petra’s parents Dean and Vivienne live. I’ve seen them more recently than most of those I’m visiting, since they came to visit us in Australia last year, so in a way it felt like I’d never left. It’s always a treat to see them, and to stay in their gracious home and eat Vivienne’s deeeeeeelicious food. :)

Their home is also the resting place of the pile of Petra and my worldly possessions, so opening the closet and apprehensively staring at the basement pile was like Christmas: ooh, just the sweatshirt I'd been wishing for! What a perfect sweater! (Shouldn't have been a surprise, as they were mine from 3 years ago.) Shocking, though, the extent of our possessions: we are so lucky to have so much.

On another note: I was surprised to be reminded of the loveliness of the ancient suburbs, with their hunched creaking white houses and grey leafless trees and dry grasses and muddy brooks and cold stone walls. Is this a vista that only a daughter could love, though, grey, grey, grim, dim, tight, delicate, wet, rotting, or would others think it as beautiful as I do?

Our wander through the burbs was presaged by a search for multitudes of apples, which as it turned out were no longer on the trees (early season!) but were solicitously and nose-temptingly piled into baskets for our immediate gratification. The smell of the apple barn (old wood, sweet musky apple skins, tangy spoiled apple juices, dry dirt, lingering old hay) inspired pangs of New England patriotism and hubris and sheer love that almost collapsed me. I decided on the spot to be an apple farmer for all time. (I later rationally decided there were better uses for my skills.) The variety of apple types new and heirloom that were unfamiliar to me was exciting as well, as it means I have a lot of apple tasting to do when I get back.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

erika in the USA: doppelgangers in Maine

Next on my itinerary was visiting in Limestone Maine, where my brother, his wife, and their twin 18-month-old boys Matthew and Thomas live. Since I’ve been away so long, I hadn’t yet met the bosy, so it was very exciting for me to meet these first members of the next generation of our immediate family. Matthew and Thomas are, of course, the sweetest, smartest, most handsome and charming children ever to exist (says she who is not biased at all).

And saying so, it’s of course not at all narcissistic to say that the two of them are remarkably similar to me and my twin sister when we were their age. :) Truly, though, the resemblances between Matthew and I, and Thomas and Lisa, are astounding: not just physical resemblance, but also similar personalities and preferences. Unsurprisingly, Matthew and I got on famously. Top activities: Legos (construction and destruction), dropping things and picking them up, throwing things, hiding, climbing up and down the mountain of soft things, and dancing. See photos for dance sequence: the little guy’s got moves! :)

It was of course also great to see my wonderful big brother Reed and his wife Sue, who are settling back into life in northern Maine after a many-years hiatus in North Carolina. Reed’s teaching criminal justice and doing police work both part time, and Sue’s kept her accounting job from North Carolina, working online. They’re both of course tired by new-parenting, but are doing well.

Reed and I got to have a day off from kid-watching and took the opportunity to ride some ATVs (four-wheelers) around in the woods and trails along the Maine/Canadian border (less than a mile from their house). I’d forgotten they’re SUCH fun, like really fast mountain biking with vroom-vroom motors. :) Of course my visit was too short, but I look forward to going back in the spring when we move back to the States for real.

erika in the USA: sister!

The second stop on my American adventure was to Chicago to visit my twin sister Lisa.

Chicago is a very new city, grid crazy. It’s cold and windy. The architecture is not all it’s cracked up to be. People wear fedoras and trenchcoats for real, and art school hipsters are like hipsterdom squared. I visited many museums: my favourite was the Chicago History Musuem. We drove to Wisconsin, which (who knew?) is very close to Chicago, and visited the Mars Cheese Castle. On the way back to the city, we stopped by the rural shore of Lake Michigan, which was even more ocean-like than its city shore.

The second-best thing about my visit to Chicago was getting to hang out with my sister’s friends from her college days at Mt. Holyoke. I hadn’t seen many of them since we graduated, and it was a delight to spend time with such intelligent and silly women. I had missed that kind of low-brow high-quality company. :)

The first best thing about my visit was of course seeing my sister, who I adore and who should never ever live so far away (says the pot calling the kettle black). Watching stupid movies, eating really good food (deep dish pizza! fresh tamales! pumpkin pie!), wandering around the city, helping with her art projects, all were infinitely more fun with her than such activities can ever be without the best of company.

Random thoughts while in Chicago: Being in America having been away helps me see how strangely messed up aspects of our culture are: nothing new, but strange reminders nonetheless. Fatness, for instance: one of my first thoughts off the plane was how fat Americans are. Really, inexcusably overweight. The food with so many chemicals, so much falseness, so many calories, sad to be thinking about limiting caloric intake when at my school we worry about the kids having enough calories… And people have so many possessions! It’s ridiculous! And the fanatical conservatives: so sadly brainwashed, so frustratingly ignorant, so blatantly untruthful! I’d pity them if they weren’t so frightening. Also, bad smells: why do American public bathrooms smell so bad? I can authoritatively say that many third-world infested sewage ditches and truck-stop piss canals smell better; similarly, reeking pee in doorways and streetcorners, and the smell of homeless people: so gross, so unnecessary! Come on, America, we can do better.

erika in the USA: home at last

At long last, I am visiting at home in the great old US of A. It’s strange to be a visitor in my own country: to be here temporarily, to not be able to have one house, city, state, have more of a pull on me than another, to not be able to accumulate anything since all I have for space is my suitcase, to act as a tourist, to have no place of my own to retreat.

But oh, oh, oh, is it good to be home. I LOVE this country. It is glorious and tremblingly lovely and HUGE and full of such spirit and creativity. It (generally) smells good: I practically hyperventilated sniffing at the wooded parking lot on Rt 6 on the way from Boston to CT as the smells of the fallen leaves and adjacent brook and snow in the air and wet dirt filled my hungry soul-belly.

Of course the best thing about this country is that it’s full of people I love. Firstly, my mother, who picked me up at the airport and brought me to the house in Connecticut which has been my home since I was 12. It was so good to be with her again: she’s so practical, so loving, so appreciative of the joys in life, one of my best friends.

After a day of recovering from my 50 hour trip from Bangkok and gorging myself on the delights in her fridge (chevre! cranberries! cider! bitty toasting bread!) we were joined by two of my other favourite people: two of my mother’s siblings, my aunt Pippy and uncle Ross, come in from Berlin and Ohio respectively. Together we spent the next week sorting through the possessions of my grandfather, who passed away last Christmas. We made great progress, and the family talking and stories and pictures and bad jokes and reminiscences and support and shared grief and loving not just for my grandfather but also my long-deceased grandmother and other ancestors was a real blessing. I wish we could have all stayed longer, since we are so rarely together, and so rarely step beyond the barriers of holiday rituals and entertainment and niceties to talk about these precious things and really lean back on the family bonds. I’m not being eloquent enough to do the days justice…

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Loy Krathong ลอยกระทง

This past Monday was Loy Krathong, which is – I’d heard – one of the most beautiful and photogenic holidays in the Thai calendar. Loy Krathong – the Thai festival of lights – is held every year at the first full moon in November. People release beautiful lanterns into the air and onto the water where, in floating away, they carry away bad luck, bad experiences, and other attachments of which their releasers wish to be free.*

These lanterns dot the sky and drift in luminous processions down rivers and canals throughout the country and even (in Bangkok) across apartment swimming pools. The floating lanterns – called krathong – are beautifully made to evoke lotus flowers and, inexplicably, turtles (possibly in reference to a popular incarnation of Vishnu, possibly a modern innovation - possibly just another example of the inexhaustible popularity of all things cute). They are all brightly-coloured and circular, and come in a variety of sizes and degrees of embellishment: some are the size of your fist, others enormous and as elaborately tiered as a classic western wedding cake. They carry candles, fresh flowers, and sticks of incense. Krathong are traditionally made of banana leaves or a special kind of bread. In today’s ecologically conscious climate, they are often made of styrofoam (sigh).

I was very excited for this festival. I even remembered to take a tripod with me when I went out, to be as prepared as possible for breathtaking nighttime photo opportunities. In vain.

Sadly, Loy Krathong was a bit of a bust for me: I went to the wrong neighborhood. I went out with friends, and it was absolutely lovely to see them, and we ate absolutely delicious vegetarian food. The gathering along on the banks of the Chao Phraya River in Banglampoo, however, was noisy, tacky, and basically boring. To top it all off, I forgot to bring that one little essential screw that attaches the camera to the tripod, so I couldn’t even use it.

It was fun to see the krathong, and even more interesting to see the amazing cottage industries that spring up around them: hundreds of street stalls selling them of course, but also whole families sitting on the street surrounded by piles of banana leaves, Styrofoam plates, flowers, and incense – making krathong as fast as they can sell them. Industrious entrepreneurs also provided a variety services to assist people in releasing their krathong. From the sculpted avenues at the top of the park, your krathong can be gently lowered into the waves with a pulley or a specially designed long-handled basket. For the budget option, you can go around the corner and one of the street kids will hop in an inner tub and paddle your krathong through the stagnant inlet out to the main river.**

It was also fun to be in the midst of throngs of people all enjoying the night out: adoring parents taking hundreds of pictures of their little angel floating his/her very first lantern, teenagers chasing each other with sparklers . . . and crowds of stolid looking firemen and emergency response people keeping an eye on everyone. At one point a boat went down the river by carrying an enormous float modeled after an unfolding lotus blossom. The flower alone was the size of a small house, brilliantly lit up and glowing an eye-blinding shade of hot pink. I took some pictures despite my lack of tripod, and here they are, but if you’re really interested in Loy Krathon I’m sure you’re better off with a Google Image search. Better luck next festival, hey?

*“Loy” is “float,” and “krathong” is what the lanterns are called: hence the name of the holiday.
** yeah, I know – kids swimming in the Chao Pharay river in Bangkok.