Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Running in Angkor

Last December I read about the Angkor Wat International Half Marathon, and I immediately thought, "Now that would be a cool t-shirt to earn!"   Combine that sentiment with cheap Air Asia flights from Bangkok to Phnom Penh, and voila!  Recipe for an adventure (I'll blog about what Mali and I did together later, after I've sorted through the pictures).

As you can see, everybody's smiling BEFORE the race

The Angkor Wat International Half Marathon is held, surprisingly enough, inside the Angkor Wat Archeological Park.  I figured I might never have another chance to run a race at such a totally cool venue, so I was glad to have the chance.  And it turned out, several people from the embassy here in Bangkok had also signed up for the race.  Several of them trained together, and it was great to be able to get together before and during the race to offer moral support.  And after the race we ate together, which was fantastic.  Oh, and we got to make really cool race t-shirts, which I designed.

This is my best side, and you can't see how slow I was running at the end of the race.  I have run one previous half marathon, so part of my brain understood what I was in for with this event.  Despite that foreknowledge, I failed to adequately train for this run; the longest training run I did before the race was 9.5 miles.  I know there are plenty of training programs for marathons and half marathons that say you don't have to run the full distance, that the last three to four miles or so are purely mental.

In my honest opinion, that is the kind of advice that leads to so many first-time marathoners--or half-marathoners, in this case--being sore (or worse, injured) for several days after a race.

Yes, those last few miles of a long distance race requires mental fortitude, but it also requires your body knowing that it can handle the abuse of those miles.  And that is why the next time I run a long event like this, I will have at least two training runs longer than the actual race distance under my belt.
This was about ten minutes after I finished, after I had stretched a little bit and re-hydrated a little--before the pain really set in.  Oh, and see how my race bib is tucked into my shirt?  You'll also notice that the safety pins are still in my shirt.  The numbers were printed on this felt-like paper that didn't stand up to my perspiration output.  I slowed down to re-pin my number.  Twice.  Eventually I just tucked it in my shorts.

I am also giving a thumbs up and a wink in recognition that I totally dodged the conjunctivitis bullet.  See, there were tons of Cambodian kids lining parts of the race course, and since I knew I wasn't going to even come close to winning the race, I gave high-fives to as many of them as I could.  I don't know about other folks, but when I run I don't carry hand sanitizer or wet-naps, and I for darn sure rubbed the sweat out of my eyes after slapping hands with those little kids.  So far, no pink-eye, but if I do come down with it, I'll at least have the grim satisfaction of knowing that I probably helped spread it to a couple hundred other kids, too.

I'm always grateful for Mali's support at these events.  She really likes the ones where they have bagels and yogurt as well as bananas afterwards, because being the good husband that I am, I grab them for her.  Sometimes she'll even pretend to hug me, even though I'm sweating in unholy proportions.  Seriously, ever since I got home from my mission, when I exercise I sweat so much that I can literally wring the water out of my clothes.  It's pretty nasty, and here in Southeast Asia with the constant high humidity, it seems to be even worse.  I am not kidding when I say I lost at least six pounds during this race.
After everybody gets some more water and a banana or two, they're all smiles.  The reason I am not smiling in this picture is because Erin is standing on my left foot, which had...


Now for those of you who haven't figured it out yet, I am a barefoot/nearly barefoot runner (I even created a logo for it!).  About three years ago I started running in Vibram FiveFingers to help overcome patellar tendinitis in both legs.  And since moving to Thailand, I have transitioned to doing most of my running completely barefoot, which is quite safe where we live because they sweep the streets here daily.  I ran my last 10K in the US in the FiveFingers and had my fastest time in 10 years, but I knew that with the half marathon my finish time this go-around would be much slower than my previous--I finished this one about 14 minutes slower than my other half, but I'm working on getting faster at the longer distance with my chosen (lack of) footwear.

Even though I feel comfortable running barefoot here in our neighborhood, I was not sure what the roads for the race would be like, so I brought my FiveFingers along.  Good thing I brought them, because the road surface was pretty nasty and would have made the soles of my feet into hamburger.  And I was one of at least three guys running in FiveFingers.  Okay, so add the surface to my already mentioned propensity for excessive perspiration, and you have a recipe for serious blisters when wearing the Vibrams.  Despite all the charms and advantages of the FiveFingers, the insoles when wet are slicker than snot, and in this humid environment the sweat runs down my legs and does not drain.  To help mitigate this, I also wore a pair of Injini toe socks, which kept me from getting even worse blisters than the one I had, but obviously didn't prevent that one.

All in all, pretty good experience.  I learned a lot about myself.  This is a race I would like to do again, given the opportunity, and I recommend it to anyone who has the time (and means) to get to Cambodia in early December.  But remember to get those long training runs in before race day!

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

China Travels, Part 3

Pretty much the ONLY family picture we took in Shanghai
(Apologies for the delay between posts--I have a really good excuse this time.  Mali and I spent five days in Cambodia.  Blog posts and pictures coming soon!)

When people have asked me what our China trip was like, have told them the difference between Beijing and Shanghai is this: Beijing was way cooler from a tourist perspective, but I wouldn't want to live there, while Shanghai wasn't so great as a tourist (with children), but I could totally see myself living there.  And since we really didn't go anywhere or see a whole lot in Shanghai (I'm not joking when I say that from the perspective a touring family it wasn't that great), I'll use the contrast with Beijing to highlight two of the more notable aspects of Chinese culture from my point-of-view.

Expectorating: The major difference between Shanghai and Beijing was the notable absence of human saliva on Shanghai sidewalks (remember, this comes from the perspective of a guy who likes to tool around barefoot).  Everybody in Beijing spits; men, women, and children.  I kid you not, I saw a lady walking down the street, dressed to the nines, who then snorted and hocked a loogie the proportions of which would make a Major League ballplayer blush.  I'll give Beijing the benefit of the doubt on this one, and say that maybe we just happened to stay in a part of the city that just wasn't as clean, while the section of Shanghai we stayed in was ridiculously immaculate.  I will end this section by saying that Shanghai is one of my favorite running cities--wide clean streets with minimal foot and bicycle traffic to interfere with a leisurely jog around the neighborhood.

The only playground we could find...and that's it.
Staring: Everywhere we walked in Beijing we got started at.  Let's get the obvious one out of the way--a family of seven anywhere in China is certain to attract attention.  Add to that Mali's physical features, and everybody in Beijing just assumed that she was Chinese and spoke to her in what I can only assume was Mandarin.  Walking around with her white husband and their five kids, there was no way to avoid that attention, especially in Beijing where mixed-race families appeared to be extremely rare.  I noticed there were more couples like us in Shanghai.  But even those families had only a few kids, so we still got stared at.

But nothing, NOTHING in Shanghai compared to what happened every time we sat down to eat at McDonalds in Beijing, especially at breakfast time.  It seems that every morning at that particular McDonalds about half of the people in the restaurant are not actually there to eat.  They are there to stay out of the cold until 08:50, at which point they all dutifully file out of the restaurant and go to work.  Just never-you-mind the family of seven--with four kids under the age of 10, no less--that just came in and is looking for a place to sit together to eat breakfast.  Don't bother moving to let them sit down.  No, seriously, you should really just sit and stare at them like they are animals in a petting zoo.  Just please don't spit at them.

Thank goodness for the ball-crawl...there are five in there, I counted
In sum, we really enjoyed our trip to the Middle Kingdom.  Maggie swam very well at the Shanghai swim meet (her team was one of only two that was not from China), while Anne and I stayed at the hotel with flu-like symptoms.  I was afraid the Chinese authorities would not let us leave, but they were happy to let us go because we didn't have any explosive residue on our bags.  I would love to go back to China again, maybe when it's warmer, though.  And when I'm not feeling sick.

Friday, November 26, 2010

China Travels, Part 2

So, intrepid readers, my last tome detailed our adventure getting to Beijing and then visiting the Great Wall of China.  It was indeed a grand adventure.

The next day, after another fabulous McDonalds breakfast, we walked from our hotel to the actual Forbidden City.  See, there's a reason our hotel was called the Forbidden City Days Inn.  It was literally a 10-minute walk from the Forbidden City.  Not that we could have taken a taxi even if we wanted to.  They don't have taxis in China large enough to transport our mob.  Our walk there took us through a very beautiful park complete with a pond of dazzling goldfish and a gorgeous red bridge.  Very serene, which was appreciated because...

...once we got close to the Forbidden City the crowds got thicker and thicker.  Oh, and all those stories about how Chinese don't know how to stand in line and take their turn?  Well, they are all TRUE.  Pushing shoving, cutting people off, blatantly pushing past people who have been waiting very patiently for their was nuts.  The bridge going through the very first gate was packed, and we felt fortunate to not lose any of the kids in the scrum.

There are words to describe the Forbidden City complex, but I'm not sure I can put those words together in any way that would do the place justice.  Every time we walked through one of the gates I said, "Hey, I think this is the one they used in that final fight scene in the Mulan."  And then we'd see another one, and I would say the same thing.  I'm still not sure which one it was that was in the movie.

As most of the Chinese visitors took the central route through the Forbidden City, we decided to go around the side entrances and pathways.  And we only went down the right-hand side, but given the symmetry of the place, I doubt the other side would vary too much in its layout.  It seemed to me that the side galleries and places just went on without end.  By the time we got to the emperor's garden in the middle, everyone was starting to get tired and hungry, so we made our way back out of the complex.
An American couple chillin' in the doorway.

It was within the confines of the Forbidden City that we ate our one--and ONLY--Chinese meal on this trip.  And between you and me, it wasn't that good.  Granted, our children are not as adventurous in culinary terms as Mali and I, but we've heard from a lot of people that, generally speaking, Chinese food just isn't that good.  I'm going to have to modify that statement, however, because I have had some Chinese food that is in fact quite delicious.  Of course that's all been outside of China, but I'll take a chance and say that Beijing Chinese food just isn't that good.  But their McDonald's and KFC are just like we get in the States or here in Bangkok.
That's right, my son knows how to use chopsticks!

Check out the guy to my right--based on how I eat noodles, apparently I might be part Chinese!

Beware the ravenous panda!

Mmm, noodles...and no, Mali is NOT Chinese!

Even Jane loves her noodles.

We also visited Tienanmen Square, but the kids weren't too impressed with any of that (no sense of history--kids these days!).  Okay, I'll be honest: Tienanmen Square really ain't all that, and they have no bowls of chips, just lots of Communist concrete structures.  So we'll just leave it that for dinner we went to McDonald's.  And at least this time there was some place for us to sit...

When I get around to it I will post about the rest of our China adventure.

Thursday, November 25, 2010

China Travels: Part 1

I thought about putting, "Hello, how are you?" in Chinese characters to start this blog entry, but realized that I just don't trust programs like Babelfish enough.  I'm afraid that it will actually give me characters that say something like, "I like to date squirrels"--not that there's anything wrong with that, but this is a family program.

The kids had the entire last week of October off from school, so we decided to go to China.  Our original itinerary included a couple of days in Hong Kong to visit old friends and, more importantly, inflict Hong Kong Disneyland with our presence.  Thanks to Typhoon Gigi, however, we were advised to cancel that portion of our trip and we did.  So naturally the typhoon changed direction at the last minute and we could have gone.  No big deal, except that I had to prepare and teach a Sunday lesson that I had originally intended to completely blow off.

Bright and early Monday morning we headed to the airport and somehow made it through check-in and customs everything and made our flight to Beijing.  Completely uneventful, until Jane decided that taxiing to the terminal in Beijing would be a perfect time to empty the contents of her stomach all over herself and her car seat.  Lovely.  I tip my hat to the flight crew of Thai Airways, who didn't even blink at the disgusting mess left behind (we really did try to clean it up, I promise!).

My impression of driving from the airport to our hotel in downtown Beijing was that this part of China reminded me an awful lot of Virginia--lots of trees with some rolling landscape.  The traffic was quite Virginia-esque as well, with lots of cars creeping along.  The only weird part is that in most of the groves of trees along the side of the road the trees were all planted in tidy little rows.  Kinda like driving through the corn fields of the Midwest, just a lot taller.

We stayed at the Forbidden City Days Inn in downtown Beijing.  Despite the fact that Mali made advance reservations and made it clear that we needed two adjacent rooms, that did not happen.  Yeah, there were THREE rooms between them.  Oh, and quite possible the hardest beds I've ever slept on--they felt like box springs, not mattresses.  And this is coming from a guy who slept on the floor for five years.  Ugh.

My first mission, after settling into the rooms, was to go out and find some food.  Maggie and Sarah, bless their little hearts, braved the cold (honestly, it was probably between 55 and 60 degrees, but after over a year in Bangkok, we were FREEZING!) and walked around with me until we found McDonalds.  We got back to the hotel in significantly less time than it took us to find the place.  This is important, however, because we ate at McDonalds every day we were in Beijing.  Thank goodness for picture menus, because even the employees with name tags that say they spoke English, didn't really speak English.  Still, the Big Mac has been fantastically consistent in every country in which Mali has had one (current tally: the United States, Canada, Japan, Thailand, and the People's Republic of China--I'll have to ask if she had one in Hong Kong, even though it's technically part of China).

Our first full day in China we went to the Great Wall of China.  We were able to book a driver and guide--the inimitable Sonic Wan, whom we highly recommend--to take us to the Mutianyu section of the wall.  Everyone told us that the closer section of the wall, Dalian, was more popular with Chinese tourists, while foreigners prefer Mutianyu.  I figure it's because of the alpine slide (which they call a toboggan course) that you can ride down from the wall to the entry point.  I know that our kids LOVED the toboggan, which was the best part of the day for many of them.

Anyway, the Great Wall was, in a word, cool.  They've done major rebuilding on the original foundation, according to Sonic, but I was mesmerized by the beautiful natural scenery.  This part of the Wall would have been absolutely horrible for the slaves that built it, as it is in some beautifully rugged mountains, and as anyone who has been to the Wall can attest, this ain't your average backyard wall to keep the neighbors dog out of your vegetable patch.  This is the keep-the-Mongols-out-of-China-of-proportions-the-likes-of-which-Tim-the-Toolman-Taylor-would-approve kind of barrier.

At this point I have to give my children their proper due, for being champs about traipsing all over Beijing with us and not complaining too much.  Jane, of course, was in the plumb position of sitting in the Kelty and riding on my back all over the Wall, including going all the way to Tower 14.  Maggie and Anne also went all the way up there with me--well, Anne opted out of the last set of stairs, but she went further than anyone but Maggie (and Jane), and I give her a lot of credit for hanging in with me.  She even admitted that the views were amazing and all that walking was worth it.  I think the cool temperatures helped, because a similar endeavor in warmer weather would have been much less pleasant for all of us.  Including Jane.

After getting down from the Wall and before heading back to Beijing, we grabbed a bite to eat.  At Subway.  That's right, there's a Subway at the Great Wall of China.  To be fair, Sonic said that the Chinese food stalls that lined the path heading to the chairlift that takes you up to the Wall itself were all horrible.  I think it's just that he likes Subway.

Next post: The Forbidden City and Shanghai...

Monday, November 15, 2010

An Open Letter to My Brother

Hey there big bro,

Are we going to make this the third year running for the hair-based wager on the outcome of the BYU-Utah football game?  As I understand it, you have been growing your hair out this year, at the behest of your lovely wife (and to her delight and the delight of our parents--at least that's the rumor I've heard), so you might not want to put those lovely locks on the line. To be honest, my wife asked that I let my hair grow out a little, too, but that was specifically for the Marine Ball, which was last weekend.  So I'm good.

Nevermind the fact that the outcome of this year's Big Game is 99% already determined.  Nevermind that my Cougs are stinking up the field in ways that should never be shown in front of small children, pregnant women, or those with a history of heart disease.  Forget the fact that your Utes have been a fine-tuned football machine (I'm conveniently leaving out the TCU and Notre Dame games for the sake of hyperbole).  Don't pay any attention to the fact that the game is at Utah this year.  Anything can happen with this game, so I'll understand if you back out of the wager this year for fear of having to face your wife with a fantasticly gorgeous Y shaved into your hair.  And Mali wouldn't cry too much about it if we didn't have the bet this year. My kids might, though...

Your younger (and taller) brother,

Saturday, August 21, 2010

An Ode to Rabbits*

DISCLAIMER: this is another blog post that centers on running.  I'm going to have to work much harder at balancing my running-related posts with more references to squat toilets.

I've blogged before about my running proclivities, including my preference for running on routes that minimize running circuits or repeating any part of a route on a single run.  Living where we do for the last year has been mentally taxing because I have very little choice but to run circuits, and it leads to random and otherwise odd thoughts (more so than I had when running in the United States, at least as far as I remember).

There is one advantage I've found to running loops around the Nichada lake, however, and that is the availability of unsuspecting rabbits.  If you are somewhat familiar with greyhound racing then you will understand my use of the term "rabbit."  In that particular form of "entertainment" (I use the term loosely, as I'm pretty sure those graceful dogs would actually rather do something else, like water a tree), the muzzled greyhounds race around a track chasing what in the sport is called a "lure," which traditionally is some form of rabbit.

Because I run alone I have to find ways to push myself to run harder/faster, and one way I do that is by tagging someone as a "rabbit."  Around here that is usually someone running the opposite direction as I am who passes me somewhere near--but not too near--my turnaround point (I will run all the way around the lake, then turn around and retrace my steps in the opposite direction).  My goal is then to catch up with and pass the rabbit who doesn't know they are a rabbit before our paths diverge (either they get to their home or I go left to head home and they head right for another lap around the lake).  This works on the supposition that said rabbit is running laps around the lake and they don't live in one of the housing complexes on the route and will get home before I catch them.

I have found this method to be quite effective in pushing me to run faster, particularly on the final stretches of my runs where it is often easiest to start coasting ("I've already been running for xx minutes, I can slack a little here at the end!").  Because I am something of a geek, a couple of years ago I created a spreadsheet to help track my runs; it's allowed me to plot my progression, see where I'm stronger/weaker, when I'm feeling good, when I'm feeling really slow, etc.  Because of this tool I have proof that I am on average significantly faster on sections where I'm chasing a rabbit.  I'm still not getting to the ridiculous kind of splits I had when I first started running distance with my BYU roommate Rob back in 1995-95, but I'm getting much faster than I was even two years ago.  Not that it's anything to brag about, I'm still a horrendously slow white fella.

But the best rabbit I've ever chased, hands down, is Mali.  It's only happened once, because I can only think of two times where she's been out exercising at the same time that I've been out for a run (I typically run later in the evening, she tends to go out with her girlfriends earlier).  There was just something about chasing that woman down that was so, so...well, this is a family blog and I think I better not say anymore.

*Please don't confuse my reference to rabbits with the Lao/Thai phrase ໄປຍິງກະຕ່າຍ/ไปยิงกระต่าย, which literally translated is "go shoot a rabbit."  It's a quasi-polite/silly way to say that a man is going to urinate.  Women cannot shoot rabbits.  They get to ไปเก็บดอกไม้ or "go pick daisies."  There's your language lesson for the day.  Don't say I never taught you anything.

Friday, August 13, 2010

Commuting Like a Local

Since we got here a year ago I've wanted to get on one of these Bangkok Metropolitan Transportation Authority (BMTA) commuter vans to come home at least once.  I figured it would be fairly entertaining to squeeze myself into one of these with many Thais who use them every day as their principle form of transport to and from work.  You see them all over the expressway, so I figured that one day I would take advantage of their availability and ride one home.  A couple of weeks ago that day finally came.  Allow me to set the stage.

I worked late and I had missed the last shuttle van back home, so I walked down to the Skytrain station at Chit Lom.  I have learned that it is difficult, if not almost impossible, to get a taxi near the Embassy that is willing to take me all the way to where we live, so I usually hoof it to the train and get off further up the line.  Anyway, as I got close to the BTS station it started to rain.  My previous post described what it can be like in Bangkok during the monsoon season, so it was no surprise that the trains were very quickly full.  I couldn't get on a train at Chit Lom, so I waddled down the Skywalk to the Siam station--it's a transfer point between the two BTS lines, so a lot of people get off each train and a whole bunch get on.  I got into the scrum of humanity and still had to wait for FOUR trains before I got on board, and that was packed like sardines.

Per my usual practice I got off the Skytrain at Victory Monument and descended to the street level to catch a taxi.  Normally I can get a taxi in two minutes or less, but even though the rain wasn't coming down in buckets there were quite simply no taxis available.  I knew that my chance to ride the BMTA van had finally arrived!

Those of you who have seen Victory Monument, you know that it is a giant traffic circle, and all around are pick-up/drop-off spots for shuttle vans and buses that run all over the greater Bangkok metropolitan area.  It's simply a matter of finding the place for the line you want to catch.  So I started walking around the traffic circle, looking for the vans that said ปากเกร็ด (Pakkret, the district in which we live).

Did I mention that the vans do NOT have their destinations written in English?  Oh, wait a second--I can read Thai.  Problem.  Solved.

I only had to walk about halfway around the traffic circle to find the pick-up spot for our area.  I spotted a guy there who looked like he knew what was going on, and asked him first if the van was going where I wanted.  He said it was, so I asked how to get a ticket for this particular van.  He told me to pay after I got on.  Sweet.  Of the 17 people on the van, I was the only non-Thai.  That's right SEVENTEEN people (including the driver).  The shuttle vans that I normally ride are exactly the same on the outside, but our vans only seat 10 passengers, 11 in a pinch. Where our vans have three rows and seat three people in each row, the Thai commuter vans have four rows and two of them seat four people.  It helps that the average Thai is much narrower in body than the typical American embassy employee.  Now I'm no economist, but I believe that is maximizing profits and efficient use of resources.

Here's the best part.  After I sat down they passed a basket around for the fare, a paltry 25 baht.  TWENTY-FIVE BAHT.  Do you know how much it costs to get a taxi from Victory Monument to our place?  Including the expressway tolls it's about 250 baht.  Again, I'm no economist, but that's a difference of 10 times (right?).  So, tell me, why on earth would I ever pay 10 times as much for my commute?  I mean besides the fact that the van drops me off at Central Chaengwattana and I have to call Mali to come pick me up there (especially when it's raining), or the fact that the BMTA vans stop running sometime around 9 p.m.?  And that's only a problem if I work really, really late, at which point it's worth it for the taxi because they get me home so quickly.  Anyway, I only had 100 baht bills, so I had to take my change from the basket, and it honestly felt a little weird, but I forgot my guilt as soon as we got out of the traffic circle and on our way. 

Oh, and just like the shuttle vans I usually ride, most of the passengers fell asleep shortly after the van got onto the expressway.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Not-so-Random Thought While Running

In the spirit of my previous post (has it really been over a month?), I had another interesting experience while running tonight.  In fact, I have a couple more running-related posts percolating in my noggin, which I hopefully will put into the blog sooner rather than later.

But I digress.

It had been threatening to rain all evening, from the time that I dragged my disappointed carcass back from the school (nobody told me that there wouldn't be any soccer at ISB this week) all through my evening run, so it was no surprise to me when I felt a few drops of precipitation.  I still had about two miles left on my planned route, and there was no way I was going to curtail my exercise because of a little rain.

Those of you who have been to Thailand at this time of year know what I mean by "a little rain."  When I say, "a little rain" what I really mean is rain falling from the sky in such voluminous amounts as to make one think about looking up to see where the bucket is that is dumping out that much water, but you don't dare look up because you're afraid that if you do, you'll drown like those turkeys you've heard about.  Yeah, it rains that much here.  It's insane how much water can come out of the sky in so little time.

So anyway, I figured that even if it did start raining while I was running, it wouldn't be long before I would be so wet that I couldn't get any more wet.  It would be physically impossible to any more wet, absent immersing oneself in a body of water.  Remembering my Chemistry 103 class at BYU (so nice I took it twice, in 1992 and again in 1994--it helped convince me that I really needed a major that didn't involve hard science or math), I knew the term I was looking for was "saturated."  As I kept running I remembered also that certain chemical compounds could actually be super-saturated, and I wondered if a human could get super-saturated while running in the rain.  These are the genius thoughts that run through my head while running sometimes.  Scary, ain't it.

Being the trained analyst and naturally curious fella that I am, I started thinking about how I would actually go about seeing if a human body could get super-saturated.  One big factor is that I am not a chemical compound, but rather a highly complex carbon-based human organism, so I figured that first you'd have to figure out the rate of rainwater absorption for the largest organ of the human body, the skin.  Then you'd have to factor in the rate of perspiration and vapor loss from breathing during exercise for a 37-year old white male like myself running in an excessively humid tropical climate like the Bangkok suburbs.  I figured the next step would then be to find some mathematical formula that calculates the difference between those two, throw in a few fancy phrases like "tangent" and "multivariable analysis" and do something with one of those huge Texas Instrument graphing calculators, and...

...and then I remembered that I've been in water for some crazy amount of time like two hours (swimming pool, lake, ocean, etc.) and the only thing that happened was that the tips of my fingers and toes got wrinkled.  By then I was home, my run was over, so I forgot all about super-saturation of the human body, stretched with minimal mosquito interference, and went in and took a shower.

I will say this about running in the rain, though--the soles of my feet have never been so clean without soap.

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Random Thoughts While Running

One of the things I have always liked about running is that it allows me to be alone with my thoughts.  Aside from the obvious physical benefits, it has provided tremendous mental and emotional boosts for me, as it's my "me time."  When I was in graduate school it was while running, or walking between our apartment and campus, that I often worked out the most vexing questions related to my research papers.

Sometimes, however, the thoughts that go through my head as I run are purely random and scattershot.  Here, for example, are the smattering of thoughts that ran through my wee brain as I ran last night:
  • Man, it's hot.  Of course it's hot; this is Thailand...
  • Feeling pretty good on this run, I wonder when I'll hit the wall...
  • I wish my hair was long enough for a ponytail, that would be so cool...
  • Wow, I almost stepped on that frog--that would have felt really weird...
  • I'll bet Chuck Norris doesn't run barefoot.  Sissy...
  • I need to start upping my mileage for that half-marathon in Cambodia in December...
  • หัว ไหล่ ตูด...
  • If I don't lose at least six pounds on this run, the Wii is going to tell me I'm overweight.  Again...
  • New rule for watching World Cup at my house: every time the announcers says "โอ๊ะโห" (oh-ho) I have to do 10 push-ups...
  • What was that squishy thing I just stepped on?  I really hope everyone cleaned up after their dogs...
  • หัว ไหล่ ตูด ตูด ตูด ตูด...
  • I am so dead if Chuck Norris catches wind that I even thought about calling him a sissy...
  • My hair feels funny this long.  I want to shave it all off again...
  • Ten push-ups is a lot, and the announcers say โอ๊ะโห a lot.  Maybe I should go with five pushups...
  • I hate it when the Wii tells me I'm overweight...
  • Hey, I never hit the wall.  That was a great run!

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Overheard at Snack Time

Mali and I were sitting at our new kitchen table (love it!), working at our separate laptops.  Jane decided that she needed a little something to eat, so Mali started feeding her.  Have I mentioned that at two years and seven months old Jane is still not weaned?  Mali has said she wants to wean Jane, but hasn't brought herself to break that particular tie.

So, we're sitting here, the three of us, and Mali said, "I can't believe I'm nursing Jane."  Slight pause, then Mali said, in one of those voices intended to mimic my deep, manly tones, "But you probably can."

Naturally I replied, "I can."

Just as naturally and without missing a beat, Jane said, "I can."

Hasn't anyone told her it's not polite to talk with your mouth full?

Thursday, May 27, 2010

Bangkok (Sidewalk) Dangerous

Somebody should probably kick me in the shins just for using that title.  I've been told the original version of the movie (Thai made) is excellent, but I haven't seen it, so I can't comment authoritatively.  I have seen the recent Nicolas Cage version, and I can fully attest to it being a steaming pile of cinematic doo-doo.  But I digress...

Walking on Bangkok's sidewalks can be hazardous to one's health.  They are often uneven with some interesting choices for paving options.  Why on earth would you pave a sidewalk with blocks that have 3/4 inch high ridges running parallel to the walking direction?  Do you honesly want people to sprain their ankles?  There are also frequently chunks missing from the sections that are designed to allow access to the underground utilities (and by "underground utilities" I usually mean "the sewers" although sometimes there are phone lines down there, according to the imprint on the concrete covers that are all busted up).  At best you scuff a shoe, maybe twist an ankle, but you could potentially lose a small child to some of the gaps in the sidewalk here.  Needless to say, Bangkok is not very wheelchair-friendly.  For a more fulsome treatment of the joys of sidewalk travel in Bangkok, see this article.

Today's rant, however, comes courtesy of those numerous motorcycle operators in general who feel the compelling need to drive on the sidewalk, but specifically for the guy--driving against the flow of traffic no less--who barked at me today because I didn't move out of the way fast enough while I was walking to get my lunch.  These are the same folks who snake their way in and around traffic with shockingly little regard for their safety or the safety of other drivers on the road (see this post from another blogger for an excellent take on motorcycles in Thailand).  I find it shocking that, given how well motorcyclists here often utilize the open spaces on the road, they still feel the need to endanger pedestrians on the sidewalk.

(That's one of the nicest sidewalks I've ever seeen here)

It's a side-WALK, not a side-SPACE-FOR-MOTORCYLCES.  Even in Thai the two most common words for sidewalk (ทางเดิน and ทางเท้า) translate to "walking path" or "foot path."  Let me check that again real quick...nope, don't see anything in either of those words that says "motorcycles."  Am I missing something here?

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

The Siege of Bangkok

This will probably be one of the most serious blog posts I ever write--and those who know me well know just how difficult that can be for me5.  This past month has been a profound experience, to say the least, and the last week in particular has been one of the most eventful I've ever had in my professional life.  I will not try and capture the entire political scene or give the background that led Thailand to this point in history, because that would take too long.  I do, however, want to get into writing my personal experience during what might well be, as my boss has said, the most significant political change in Thailand since 1932.  I've found two articles that summarize it pretty well, one from The New York Times, the other from Britain's The Guardian, if you are interested in the background.

For background I will say that the anti-government protesters (formally called the United Front for Democracy Against Democracy, but known colloquially as the "red-shirts") formally started this demonstration on March 14.  They raised the stakes in the game when they occupied an intersection right in the heart of Bangkok's shopping district.  Over the course of the following weeks they built up barricades and set up camp spreading out in all four directions from the intersection.  I had spent a lot of time walking through the protest site, examining the barricades, talking with both the guards and the protesters, and trying to understand their motivation for being there, their feeling, and the general mood.  Until the evening of May 13 not once was I afraid of being there or concerned about my safety and/or well-being.

On May 13, a Thursday, the government moved troops into place around the protest site, making clear their intent to seal off the demonstration.  That night I walked around the perimeter of the protest, talking with the guards at four of the major barricades and getting a sense from them about how they felt.  The mood was grim, and they were anticipating seeing the security forces approaching, but that did not happen that night.  I walked that same route the following morning, and saw that the government had indeed accomplished their goal--vehicle traffic was cut off, with only the random motorcycle being allowed through the roadblocks.  Even though it was tense, at this point I still did not feel frightened or threatened.

Some of the protesters did not appreciate the government's action, and during the day there was sporadic gunfire, some of it less than half a mile from the Embassy.  That evening I had to again walk to get a taxi home, and none of the drivers just around the corner from the Embassy were willing to take me home.  I tried walking north, skirting the protest site, but couldn't cut across to where I wanted to go because of fighting between protesters and security forces--I could hear the gunfire at the police checkpoint and decided to turn around and find another place to catch a taxi.  Eventually I did make it home, but I will admit, I was getting nervous for awhile that I wouldn't be able to get home that night.  Worse, my fear was that if I had to hole up in a hotel that I might not be able to get home at all on Saturday.

Sunday afternoon, per instructions from my boss, I packed a bag with four days of clothes and, along with several other folks from the Embassy who live in our neighborhood, checked into a hotel just down the street from the Embassy.  For the next four days we went from the Embassy to the hotel and back, nothing else.  Now the hotel was amazing (before we leave I'll have to take Mali down there for a night on the town), and the executive lounge and breakfast buffet were fantastic, but just the experience of being in downtown Bangkok in those conditions was a bit surreal.  In the Embassy we could hear gunfire and explosions, and we followed reports of new barricades and skirmishes, trying to stay on top of the developing situation.  All this stuff was going on just to the south of us and around from there up to the northwest, less than a mile, but the way we were shuttered up, at times it seemed as if it might as well have been taking place on another continent.

The morning of Wednesday, May 19, we knew something big was happening because there were a lot of soldiers massed in the parking lot of the hotel.  We were told to stay in place and not try and get to the Embassy until one of our security folks could come by with a car and take us.  The action started just down the street from the Embassy as the security forces took down one of the red-shirt barricades and started to clear out an area near Lumpini Park.  The action picked up during the day, and even though I was safe inside the Embassy, I felt a huge knot in my stomach all day.

At around 2 o'clock that afternoon, right around the time the main red-shirt leaders surrendered to the police at the main rally stage, I heard two really big "booms" and shortly thereafter a huge cloud of black smoke started to rise.  From my office window I could see it, and in about five minutes there was smoke rising all along that street--the protesters had lit the tires at their barricades on fire.  Those fires seemed to die out pretty quickly, but less than 20 minutes later even more smoke was billowing up from the main barricade at Chitlom, and this time it did not die out quickly.  Not long after this we heard the first reports that the protesters had set fire to Central World, the massive shopping mall down where the protesters were camped.  The smoke from that fire, and the others in that district, were visible the rest of the afternoon and into the next morning.  The reports of burning and looting were frightening and very sobering.

By the afternoon of Thursday, May 20 things were getting better, and the general mood downtown and in the Embassy was lighter.  By Friday it seemed like life was returning to normal--there was more traffic on the road in front of the Embassy, but the barbed wire and armed soldiers blocking the way south of the Embassy were grim reminders that things were still not back to 100 percent normal.  The latest images and reports as of now are that most of the protest site has been cleaned up and the roads are all open except for the one by Central World.  I haven't had a chance to go down there myself and see it.  I think it will be a little weird, because I'll remember what it looked like the last time I was there, and I've forgotten what it looked like without the tents, porta-potties, and graffiti.  And for the last few nights the long-awaited monsoon rains have finally come to Bangkok--I wonder sometimes if that might have changed things, kept it from getting so bad.  We'll never know.

I was so happy to return home to Mali and the kids on Friday evening.  Our phone conversations while I was gone were interesting, because life for Mali and the kids went on as normal in our neighborhood.  In fact, if your only exposure to the last two weeks or so was our area, you could be excused for not knowing that there was major political unrest in Bangkok.  Things are not settled, this is at least a cooling down period.  Nobody knows, of course (that's what I consider job security for yours truly), but I'm hoping that both sides will be able to work things out without the need to threaten any more lives or cause disruptions to people's livelihoods.  Stay tuned, it should be interesting.

Sunday, April 25, 2010

Laos, at Last

For those of you who do not already know--probably because she speaks perfect California English--my dear wife Mali was not born in the United States (don't bother protesting, honey, you do speak perfect English).  She was born in the small, landlocked country of Laos, and she and her family left their homeland when Mali was eight years old.  And for those of you who aren't so good with geography, Laos shares a long common border with Thailand, our current country of residence.  Just last week Mali made her first ever trip back to the land and city of her birth, Vientiane, Laos.

We decided that for Songkran/New Year this year we would go to Laos.  We flew up to Udorn Thani in Thailand's northeast, then took a shuttle van to the Friendship Bridge, caught another bus to cross the Mekong River to the Lao side, where Mali's cousin Kae met us.  Her cousin drove us all over the place for the time we were there, for which we will be ever grateful.

First, a little background/culture lesson.  In Thailand and Laos (and Burma/Myanmar and Cambodia, too, but we have no ties to either of those countries) the middle of April is the traditional New Year.  It marks the end of the dry season, right before the rice crops are planted in anticipation of the coming monsoon.  In Thailand they call it Songkran, but in Laos it's simply called New Year.  For both countries it is a huge holiday, with three or four days off, and it's a time for people to go traveling to see family and friends.  And get in massive waterfights, which is good because April and May are the hottest months of the year here.  Kids enjoyed the waterfight we had at one of the relative's house--all of them but Ben got into completely dousing each other.  We didn't participate in the crazy street celebrations, where people were throwing water at passing cars and motorcycles and dancing all over.  In fact, we were glad to be safely ensconced in the van while driving through those groups, because in addition to throwing regular water, they toss colored water and talcum powder.  I don't think the kids would have liked that too much.

I personally found some significance in the fact that Mali returned to Laos in a similar manner to her departure 29 years ago, by crossing the river, not flying.  Granted, they left under the cover of complete darkness in overloaded boats that threatened to swamp and send the entire family into the Mekong.  We also crossed at night, but we went over a modern bridge in a semi-modern bus and we didn't have to worry about anyone from either side of the river shooting at or arresting us.  For some crazy reason, Mali was not as enthusiastic about this significant aspect of her first time going back to Laos as I was.

One of Mali's first observations as we drove from the bridge to our hotel was that there were not soi dogs like we see in Thailand.  Her cousin's response, without missing a beat, was, "That's because there are so many Vietnamese here."  And before anyone says anything about stereotypes or racism or anything like that, you have to know that her cousin speaks fluent Vietnamese, did his university studies in Hanoi, and according to his oldest brother, has a Vietnamese girlfriend (we haven't confirmed that last one, but I suspect it is true).  And he has eaten dog.

This was my fourth time going to Laos, and I was very curious to see how Mali would respond to what she saw, and see if it would trigger any memories from her childhood.  Alas, all of the places that she might have remembered no longer exist, having fallen victim to progress and modernization (those terms being relative to Laos, of course).  The house she grew up in was torn down long ago, so we didn't even try to go visit.  We, did however, visit two of her great-aunts (her paternal grandfather's sisters); one is 90-something years old, the other is 104.  One-hundred and four.  Man, that's old.

Mali said that Laos appears to be about 20 years behind Thailand in terms of economic development.  I don't think I'd dispute that statement.  There are a lot of dirt roads, the ones that are paved ain't all that great, and there aren't any really tall buildings (not that that's a bad thing).  All that said, I love the laid-back pace of life there, and Mali and I agree that we could live there.  For a time, at least.

We had fun, seeing relatives and friends, going up to Vang Vieng (caves and a river, what more could a kid as for?), and eating lots of good food (sticky rice, barbecue meat, and cold soda, what more could an adult ask for?).  I have to commend our children for their patience as we tooled all over the place.  We even found some food that they were willing and able to eat--but Mali and I were really loving all the Lao food.  Awesome.  Especially since we didn't have to prepare it ourselves or do the dishes after.

I think the only complaint I have about the trip is that Laos is not as kid-friendly as where we live in Thailand, but our hotel had a swimming pool and that was a HUGE plus for the kids.  And thanks to our friends the Roses for getting us into the Ambassador's playground so the kids could work out a lot of their energy in a non-destructive manner.

I also have to commend Mali for being able to communicate with her relatives in her original language.  Mali, for those of you who don't know, can speak wonderful, amazing, beautiful Lao--when she has to.  With her cousins in Laos, there really wasn't much of an option, because they speak very little English.  And the longer we were there, the more fluidly and easily the words came back to her.  It was really fun to observe.  As for me, when we got back to Thailand I was speaking almost all Lao instead of Thai, and the Thais just looked at me like I was some sort of freak.  I get that a lot here.

It was a fun, and exhausting trip, and we were glad to return to our home in Thailand.  Most everyone slept on the car ride from Vientiane to Udorn where we caught our flight back to Bangkok.  Be it ever so humble, and hot, there's no place like home.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

It's about time...

...that this showed up on a diaper.

The only thing that could possibly make it better would be for the words to show up after a deposit has been made.

Friday, March 26, 2010

Soderblogger, Aging Fashion Curmudgeon, Part Two

Nobody has nor probably ever will accuse me of being on the cutting edge of fashion.  Heck, I'm usually not even in the same time zone.  That said, since coming to Bangkok I've seen some clothing choices that have boggled even my chic-deficient sensibilities.  Things like running shorts--you know, the really short kind that marathoners wear, with the side vents that go waaaaaaay up--with a short-sleeve button-down, dark socks, and loafers.  I'll go out on a limb and say that dude was European.  And since I saw him at the Skytrain station my first question was, "Where does he keep his train pass?"  And then I stopped thinking about it because I had just eaten lunch.

By the way, what's with the backpackers wandering around Bangkok unshaven, wearing those thin, tight t-shirts with all sorts of gaudy screenprinting, manpris, and flip-flops?  Seriously...

I must tread very carefully on this next topic, because next thing I know I might be running from an assembled group of Thai women with pitchforks and machetes.  But let me just say that I have seen some truly...unique...ensembles for women here.  I have to confess that I find some personal enjoyment walking along the elevated path between the Chitlom and Siam Skytrain stations  because I see some very interesting clothing choices.  Skirts come in various lengths, most of which begin at the knee and migrate north from there--I'm willing to give something of a pass on the length, though, because it's really hot here.  And I think they're called bubble skirts, but I see a lot more of those here than I ever saw in America.  In my opinion, not very flattering look, but I'm a man, so what do I know.  Ruffled blouses are far more common than in the States, too.  Sometimes the ruffles are big enough that I'm afraid a strong gust of wind might pick some poor woman up and spirit her away to environs unknown.  Oh, and high-waisted skirts/pants with pleats apparently never went out of style in Bangkok.  Same goes for MC Hammer pants.  For women.  I'm not kidding.

I really shouldn't complain.  The variety is far preferable to the cookie-cutter dark business suit fashions that I was inundated with working in San Francisco and Washington, DC.

For all the adventure in female fashion, men here trend towards conservative business-style attire--I should probably note at this point that it seems most professionals here have custom-tailored clothes that fit very nicely.  It's quite affordable to do here--even a caveman like me has two custom-made suits.  Increasingly common here (for men and women) are polo shirts that are a uniform for the company; banks and travel agencies seem to be the most common, but that might just be my observation based on the business district I frequent.  Most men wear plain, dark slacks, usually with a white button-down shirt.  But most Thais are smart enough to wear the collar open and leave the necktie at home.  Oh how I envy them!

Shoulder pads for women might be making a comeback, though.  You read it here first.

Soderblogger, Aging Fashion Curmudgeon, Part One

So the other day I was out getting my lunch at the complex down the street from our embassy that houses several other embassies, and this non-Thai guy in front of me was wearing suspenders.  Now there is absolutely nothing wrong with wearing suspenders.  They are, in fact, an effective way to keep ones trousers from falling down around ones ankles.  But suddenly I was transported back to my junior high school years, when suspenders were cool.  But you didn't actually wear them over your shoulders--you wore them hanging down off the waist of your pants.  Yes, I fell victim to this fashion tragedy.

And that got me thinking about how patient my parents where with my various grooming and style choices as a teenager--remember the bleached bangs and long hair shaved up and under, Mom and Dad?  I'm pretty sure the last haircut that my mom actually approved of (aside from my missionary years) was the flat-top I rocked in eighth grade.  I am proud to say that I've never sported a mullet, however, so that should count for something (by the way, thanks to my parents--and Mali--for letting me do all sorts of silly things with my hair and still loving me).  There were also plaid shirts (sleeves rolled up, of course), pegged pants, and white socks with Teva sandals (honestly, I should be flogged for that one, but wool socks with sandals would still be acceptable).

But what really scared me was thinking that I am just a heartbeat away from where my parents were--watching my children make clothing and hairstyle choices with which I might personally disagree, but that are not matters of life or death or eternal salvation.  Our oldest is 12, and fortunately for us, up until now she has not been particularly interested in the latest fashion trends.  But that can change in an instant, and I think I'll have to learn to hold my tongue as well as my parents did.  It might be a challenge, but I think I can do it.

Monday, March 8, 2010

Granting a Birthday Wish

How many of you, as parents, want to do everything you can to make your children happy?  Of course we all do, that's part of being a parent.  And when it comes to their birthdays, we try to fulfill as many of those as we can, right?

Well, our second child Maggie had her birthday today.  As we approached her birthday I asked her what she wanted.  She said she wanted me to shave my head.  Actually, more correctly, she said SHE wanted to shave my head.

Those who have known me over the last four or five years will know that this was not a difficult request to fulfill.  Much to Mali's chagrin, I have kept my hair very short for the better part of that time.  I've forgotten what I really look like with hair any longer than an inch.  In fact, I'm pretty sure I couldn't wield a comb properly if my life depended on it at this point.

Anyway, after we had dinner and all the presents were unwrapped, Maggie and I went to the back porch so she could give me a haircut.

She is obviously enjoying what she is doing...

And for the record, she have me a mohawk first.

Maggie's final verdict, and I quote: "That was the best birthday present, EVER!"
It's hard to argue with a statement like that.  So I won't.