Sunday, May 19, 2013

Lost in Chiang Mai

Never have I been good with directions. Never.

Still, being on my own in this semi-large city of Chiang Mai, I've gotten to know my way around--or at least that's what I tell myself. Last night I successfully made it to an Italian restaurant--Girasole--where I met the Blumenstocks for dinner. 

The Blumenstocks--Mr. and Mrs. plus their lovely little daughter--are kind people. I felt as though I had known them a long time, we had the American culture and English language in common. 

After we ordered, we bowed our heads and Mr. Blumenstock said a short prayer. As I sat there with my head down and hands folded, I couldn't remember ever feeling so comforted by a simple prayer. To pray together as a group before a meal--it was such a beautiful thing to me. 

When the prayer was over, I felt at home in that restaurant, I felt at home with those people. Plus, we were eating Italian food, a novelty I had nearly forgotten. 

After the dinner, I went to the Saturday walking street (a local bazaar) and enjoyed being a tourist and buying merchandise sold at tourists prices. 

I decided to walk the four miles back, I wasn't in a hurry to be alone in my hotel room. Surrounded by city life--a five-lane highway next to a dark mote reflecting hundreds of streetlights, and the mesmerizing flow of traffic whirring by--I began thinking about things maybe only very lonely, deep thinkers think about.  

I had recently left China--home to millions--all with names, distinct identities, desires, and birthdays. I arrived here, in Thailand, where 95% of the population were devout Buddhists. I had seen literally hundreds of munks in their plain, mustard-yellow garb and bare feet, walking from place to place. And the temples! I think there are twice as many Buddhist temples in Chiang Mai as there are churches in Grandville, Michigan, which is really saying something. 

There are so many people in the world, so many. You really can't understand until you've gone out and experienced it. I thought I knew, but I really had no idea. These people (Chinese, Thai, random Europeans from countries I didn't remember learning about) were all so completely different than anything I had ever known.

As I walked along the mote, unnoticed by the rest of the world, I felt like a vagabond (a recurring theme). My concept of moral responsibility had been shattered. 

God doesn't need me to prove anything, I realized. I always knew this, I just finally felt the reality of it.

I could go anywhere, be anyone, and the world would keep on turning--with or without me--and God would be just as great. I could invest everything into this planet or I could lock myself away in a tiny room; history’s course wouldn’t be altered.

A friend put these reflections in better words in an email a while back: 
Know that you aren't expected to do everything. You're to do what you can with what you have and what lies before you. Start small, start humbly and let the spirit work. If things flow, it's his doing rather than something that you've brought about. We can work and strive and push and exhaust ourselves and achieve nothing, when what we most need to do is to let go of our own agendas, expectations and tasks, allow him to bring things together, and find ourselves in that peace and love that gives actual meaning to what we can offer to others.
Perhaps it is in the moments I feel so completely lost in the masses that I am able to find in myself what actually matters.

When I finally arrived at my hotel it was dark and my feet were covered in dirt. I was at peace though. There is a certain relief in knowing I'm not responsible for changing the world or standing out. I am merely a small cog in a very complex, massive machine. I am the extra in a much bigger drama. 

“To admit the existence of a need in God is to admit incompleteness in the divine Being. Need is a creature-word and cannot be spoken of the Creator. God has a voluntary relation to everything He has made, but He has no necessary relation to anything outside of Himself. His interest in His creatures arises from His sovereign good pleasure, not from any need those creatures can supply nor from any completeness they can bring to Him who is complete in himself.”  A.W. TozerThe Knowledge of the Holy

Wednesday, May 8, 2013

The Day I Had a Thai Massage

Massage businesses are often considered sketchy--especially where I'm from. I can't blame this generalization. In many cases, massage businesses aren't really massage businesses. And for me personally, apart from legitimacy, the mere concept of coming into close physical contact with a complete stranger, even a professional, is somewhat...perturbing.

So what drives a person to get a massage? Last Sunday, for me, it was sweet relief. My back was murdering me. Perhaps the pain was
repercussions of bad running form or too many hours spent on long bus and plane rides. Also, curiosity was quite motivating. What was a Thai massage like anyway?

I might only be in Thailand once...

I decided it was worth the experience. After a long, hot walk down a busy road, I finally found a place. The sign next to the door read: GOOD PRICE FOR GREAT QUALITY. I forced the high school part of my brain out of the gutter.

At the door, I was given pink silky slippers. I took off my shoes and entered the little shop. I was greeted by many smiles.

People in Thailand love to smile. I feel like the culturally incompetent American, dumbly returning smiles on a constant basis. I think there's an art to it; there are different types of smiles and different times to express them. Of course, this is strictly hypothesis based, but I think I'm on to something.

One of the Thai women approached me with an open menu. To my surprise, there was an English section. I pointed to the Traditional Thai Massage, 180 baht for one hour. The amount translates to $6.06 USD--for one hour.

"Can a man give you massage?" The woman asked. She had such a gentle, thickly accented voice. Noting the obvious apprehension on my face, she added, "It is very good massage. He is very good."

Reader, are you familiar with the expression "soft brown eyes"? I never understood how eyes could be soft. However, if you can just imagine it, hers fit the description. She looked to be in her forties, although it's so hard for me to tell, with long, shiny brown hair curled in at the ends. Her eyes were noticeably large, beautifully shaped, and...soft.

In the end, I agreed to it.

Passing through a jankity sliding door, she took me up a tiny, narrow staircase in the back of the building. The steps made that hallow, squeaky noise associated with old, rotting wood and the lights grew dimmer as we ascended. I forced myself not to panic. She led me into an airconditioned room. One door, no windows. Mattresses lined one wall with curtains dividing them into tiny rooms. My apprehensive American mind buzzed with images from Taken and random human trafficking documentaries I've seen.

The woman produced a pair of pink and red pajamas and placed them on one of the beds. She motioned with an open hand toward the mattress. I obediently walked over and she closed the curtains around me.

The pajamas were huge, far exceeding any appropriate human proportion. I wrapped the draw strings around my waist twice and securely tied them with a double knot.

I didn't have to wait long before the masseur appeared. He looked a bit older, maybe in his forties. I noticed he was wearing pajamas too, except his were offwhite. Skipping all formalities, he indicated that I lay down on my back. I looked at him blankly for a second. This was all happening so unceremoniously.

As I stood there hesitating, my back suddenly didn't hurt so badly. If they didn't have my shoes and I only their pajamas, I might've made a run for it.

Like a scared little kid, I eventually laid down. He began with my feet, cleaning them with a wet, cool towel first. I couldn't decide what to do with my hands. I finally left them resting on my stomach in stiff mummy fashion. Should I close my eyes? Keep them open? The ceiling boards were painted a creamy white frosting color.

What happened next is difficult to explain since I'm actually not completely sure myself.

However, first, reader, you should know that in the States I went to a chiropractor on a fairly regular basis. After my first visit, he explained I have the flexibility of a fifty-year-old man.

That being said...

I endured a traditional Thai, full-body massage.

I don't know what I was initially expecting. When I thought of "a massage" I thought of strong hands kneading out tight backs.

However, if you look up Google Images of "Traditional Thai massage," you'll find pictures like this:

And this: 

And this: 


To say the least, my understanding of "massage" has been redefined. That's not to say the experience was bad, it was a painful sort of way. It was like getting a massage by a monkey. He used his arms and legs in ways I had never seen arms and legs be used.

When the hour was finished, he got up and went as unceremoniously as he came. I was left in a pile on the mattress, dazed, yet surprisingly okay.

After a little recuperation, I stood up, shook my arms and legs a few times, changed, and found a cup of tea waiting for me downstairs. The Thai woman greeted me with a smile. "Was it good?" She asked. I lifted my eyebrows and nodded my head, " was really good." I winced a little from how awkwardly dirty that sounded, but she looked pleased. I wondered if my masseur was her husband. I didn't want to ask. The soft-eyed woman spoke English well. She asked me about myself and my thoughts of Thailand and introduced her daughters. When the conversation eventually lulled, I paid and went to retrieve my shoes.

I exited the shop victorious. Even though I was really only manipulated deadweight during the course of the hour, I felt like I had accomplished something extraordinary. In retrospect, it was actually quite a good massage. I might even do it again.


Wednesday, May 1, 2013

Getting Settled: Classrooms and Mountaintop Experiences

I'm over half way through the first week of the TEFL training course. Tomorrow my classmates and I will be teaching already! I am in charge of a group of ten-year-olds...this should be interesting.

There's thirteen soon-to-be English teachers all together. So far the group seems solid; the people come from all over the world. Two are from China. I have enjoyed getting to know these two young ladies, showing off my broken Chinese, and talking with them about China. Simply listening to them communicate in Mandarin, even when I don't usually understand what they're saying, is comforting. Mandarin is a language I'm familiar with; Thai, on the other hand, is a whole different animal--eight tones.

Outside of class, I've been doing a bit of exploring. I've noticed tourists are very much a part of the daily scene here in Chiang Mai. Generally speaking, there are two types of tourists. The first type are the hardcore, completely outfitted, athletic, road bikers with their camelbacks, fine-wheeled bicycles, aerodynamic sunglasses and helmets, and short, friendly nods of the head. The second type are the slightly overweight, loud, lotion-lathered, camera holding, aimlessly wondering money spenders out to experience Thailand in their flip-flops and tank tops.

I aspire to fall inline with the former category, although I don't own a bike. Perhaps I am in a division of my own as nobody chooses to run in this 100 degree weather. At least it gets down in the 80s at 6:30 am.

As much as I could complain about running in the miserable temperature, it really has opened up perfect opportunities to see more of Chiang Mai. Since I'm on a tight budget, my feet are the best way to get around. After running up the winding mountain road for a while, I discovered some rocky trails. Being careful not to get lost, I followed the pathway farther up the mountain. Eventually, I came to a clearing that overlooked the city. I really should go back there with my camera, the view was worth capturing.

It's at moments like those, when I am allowed to detach myself from the roaring city noise and look from a distance, that something inside of me feels more connected than ever. The structure of the city has no rhyme or reason, it's simply growing outward. Yet, from a distance, the scene has order to it and makes sense as a whole. The streets, the buildings, the colors, the textures--everything looks better from far away. The visual of the city is like an Instagram filter with the morning dew and early sunrise.

I later realized the clearing was designated to Buddha. Behind me, I noticed a large pile of dirt with tiny, colorful statues of Buddha placed at random and monks' cloak material tied to surrounding trees. The location really was an ideal place of worship. There's something about mountains, and feeling of being isolated yet so completely surrounded by nature, that prompts the human soul to reflect on realities beyond himself.

Another highlight of the run was, of course, the descent. I felt like I was flying. Although the pounding probably wasn't ideal for my knees and shins, I soaked in the feeling of going fast so effortlessly. I didn't realize how long I had been running up until I was able to go down.

You might say I was high on endorphines that day. It's experiences like this that make me thankful to be a runner.

Until next time,