Monthly Archives: October 2011

It’s the suspense that’s killing me!

Photo of the day: waiting for the flood to pass through Bangkok so things can get back to normal. While several areas in the city are flooded, other parts are dry but no one knows for how long. The fact that the high tide is also due this weekend doesn’t make things easier. If I celebrated Halloween I might have gone for a mermaid costume. Or a fish.

Later on, I went out to meet a friend. During a visit to the ladies’ I saw this sign and it made me smile. I needed that.






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Day 2 – Elephant Camp

I love elephants, these gentle giants with their slow movements, the huge trunk, the rough skin, their apparent docility and impressive strength. I had been on an elephant before, on a sort of “chair” used to take tourists for a walk in the jungle. They were quite safe, those contraptions, and all you had to do was sit down and enjoy the view. At this elephant camp, however, we were about to learn how to ride without one.

Kaitlyn and I arrived at the camp after about an hour drive from our hotel. The camp leader, Mr Woody, gave us an introductory talk about the life of elephants and how they are trained. The two necessary objects for training are a machete (to cut the food for the elephant) and a wooden stick with a hook at one end, to direct the animal. We were eight people that day, and were supposed to ride two on each elephant.
The morning was spent rehearsing commands, in Thai, for the elephants. To get on the elephant we said: bend your leg; then using the leg as a ladder, we said higher so we could climb up onto the animal’s back; with the hook we pulled gently on the right ear for going to the right, and left ear for the opposite direction; backwards proved to be useful when the elephant got sidetracked in the jungle and had to be brought to the path; stop, go don’t really need any explanations while walk slowly we didn’t have to use, thank God. The last thing you want when riding an elephant is for the animal to start running. Open your mouth was a command we used when feeding them bananas, which they couldn’t get enough of. Rule number one is never get close to an elephant without a mahout around. The mahout is the person who takes care of the elephant and they know the animals quite well.
After we each had our turn in practicing the commands, it was time for photos. One of the elephants was pregnant. An elephant carries its baby for 22 months before giving birth and Christine, the biggest elephant at the camp, was more than halfway through her pregnancy. I had never seen a pregnant elephant before. There’s a first for everything.

Everybody got on the elephants and then my turn came. You, come on up, said one of the mahouts and even though I love elephants, I’m always wary of them at first – they look well trained but then elephants are BIG. And a bit scary.
Getting on the elephant was easier that I thought. Right hand grabbing the ear, and with the left pulling the skin at the back of the animal’s leg, then climbing up. One can sit right behind the animal’s head (which made me dizzy because of the swaying) or on its back (more comfortable). Getting down proved to be more difficult, at least for me, and I kept sliding clumsily instead of retracing my steps. Oh well.

After lunch the elephants took us for a ride through the jungle. Not far from the camp, gentle green hills surged forward, thick clumps of vegetation with walking paths going through. Halfway through the ride it started to rain and that slowed us down a little. We arrived at a wooden pavilion, a sort of house on stilts, without doors or windows. After a short break, in which we fed the elephants more bananas (and got our hands super sticky in the process), we climbed back on and made our way downhill. The rain had turned the path to mud and puddles made our trip slower than usual. Kaitlyn and I rode on Christine, and I would look at how she took her time when the terrain proved too slippery. I was a bit nervous but it was amazing to see how careful she chose her next step, her trunk swaying, the mahouts shouting encouragements while I tried not to slid forward too much (for the return trip I was sitting on the back of the animal).
Once we got out of the jungle the elephants made straight for a big pond where they were given a bath with big scrubbing brushes. They seemed to enjoy it, lying down on their side, the trunks submerged in the water, letting the people scrub away on their skin. Apparently they must have two baths a day to cool off and kill the parasites.
The weather had cooled down considerably and since it was raining again, I just sat under a huge umbrella and watched. And took pictures. It looked like everybody had fun.
After coming out of the water it was picture time again before walking the five minutes back to camp. We changed into our dry clothes (the camp had provided t-shirts and pants for the day) and hopped back into the car for the ride back to the hotel.
By this time next year Christine will have had her baby. I wonder what the little elephant would be like. Maybe I can go back next year and see. That would be something!
Double click on the photos for a larger size.

Chiang Mai – 2






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Traveling to the north: Bangkok – Chiang Mai – Mae Sai – Pai (October 2011)

Five wonderful days in which I saw how silk was made, learned how to ride and command an elephant, hiked to a waterfall, got licked by a cow, crossed the border into Laos, visited The Golden Triangle and fell in love with Pai, a small town with a very laid-back attitude.

Day 1 – Chiang Mai

I’ve heard only good things about this city. Everyone I talked to encouraged me to go there for a visit. It’s surprising that I didn’t get there sooner, considering the fact that I’ve been living in Thailand on and off for more than ten years but somehow the beach was always where I would end up on my holidays.

The trip was short – a little over an hour by plane. It was almost as if we hadn’t left Bangkok at all. Chiang Mai is in the north of the country and it’s one of the most visited cities in Thailand. Once there my friend Kaitlyn and I left our luggage at a hotel and went to visit the famous Doi Suthep temple.

It was a cool day, so very different from Bangkok days where the heat and humidity can make it challenging to survive without air conditioning. The temple was up on a hill and we had to climb a number of stairs before we reached the entrance. Proper attire is required: no short skirt or uncovered shoulders. Kaitlyn was offered a sarong to cover her legs, as she was wearing shorts.
We walked around for a couple of hours, took some pictures and admired the view from above. The temple is beautiful but nothing special, or maybe I’ve just gotten used to them along the years.

On the way back we stopped at a silk factory where we got to see the whole process of making silk, from the actual silkworm to the looms where the fabric was woven. Here a bamboo basket with worms eating, there another one with cocoons, then the cocoons being boiled and the silk thread being spun on a wheel and then bleached with natural dyes. I wanted to touch a worm and I did, gently. It was very smooth and soft. It lifted its head as if wondering what was that giant creature (me) and what did it want (just to see what it felt like). No silkworm was harmed. 🙂
I had never seen the whole process before and I found it interesting.

We arrived back at the hotel tired but not ready to sleep yet. A visit to the Sunday Market proved to be a great idea. I’m a big fan of handmade products and I bought a cloth-covered notebook, a bracelet and a…heck, I don’t know what it is but Kaitlyn found a very apt name: the bamboo jar. It’s light as a feather and I had never seen one before. The saleslady told me it can be used to store foods like boiled rice. I thought it would be great to use as a piggy bank or to keep my bills from buying books. Maybe someone can come up with a better idea. 🙂
For dinner we stopped at a local restaurant and tried Khao Soi, a special dish served in northern Thailand. A big bowl of yellow noodles in a rich coconut broth, slightly sweet and spicy and very delicious. I wondered how come I’ve never tasted that before.
Here are some pics. Next post, day 2: learning how to ride an elephant.
Double click on the photos for a larger size.

Chiang Mai – 1






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Gone Packpacking

The time has come, at last, to go on a little trip. After months of dreaming, days of planning, here I am, just hours away…if the weather doesn’t go crazy at the last minute (the floods are still expected to hit Bangkok these days and it’s raining as I’m typing this).
The bag is packed, my camera is ready. Being a fan of www.bookcrossing.com, I’m also taking two really amazing books to release along the way. Paulo Coelho’s “11 Minutes” will be my book to read on this trip, if I have enough energy left at the end of the day.
See you next weekend when I get back.






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The Winter Ghosts – Kate Mosse

I picked Winter Ghosts on an impulse. The title conjured up scary images in my mind and I do love a scary story. What I got, however, was something slightly different.

This is the story of a man, Freddie Watson, who is trying to come to terms with the death of his brother, declared missing in 1916, one day before the Battle of Somme. Freddie knows his brother was the favorite child in the family. As grief tears the family apart, it is clear that Freddie has to deal with the death of his brother by himself. Years later, after some time spent in sanatoriums following a nervous breakdown, Freddie started traveling around France in the hope that the cooler climate of the mountains will restore his frail nerves.

On one such day he gets caught up in a winter storm and comes close to losing his life. Dazed and bloodied, he makes his way to a nearby village where he is given help and a place to spend the night. That night the village celebrates “la fête de saint Étienne” and Freddie is invited to the party. The celebration, however, is stranger than he thought. The food, the people, the clothes, the atmosphere, everything makes Freddie feel as if he had stumbled back in time. At the party he meets a striking young woman, Fabrissa, and her story manages to shake Freddie from his lethargy. Determined to find out more about her, he asks the villagers but his inquiries are met with strange looks and not much more. Undeterred, Freddie continues to search for Fabrissa. What he finds is a way to face his grief and move on. He begins to understand that life is worth living, that loved ones die but are never forgotten, and in the end holding on to happy memories is all we have.

I liked the book for the easy pace, the stories within stories, and the bits of history it provided (I didn’t know much about the Cathars and their religion and this book made me want to find out more). The story however, became predictable after a point. Reading this book felt like taking a walk through a forest on a quiet afternoon: you can see the path winding up between the trees and you know the exercise will do you good, just like you know that the scariest thing you’re likely to encounter will be a squirrel or a rabbit. Despite the “ghost” element it wasn’t scary – there was a point where it seemed things could get more chilling but it passed quickly and the story went back to its even pace. An enjoyable quick read.

*Read in October 2011






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Pulse – Julian Barnes

A bit of an update:
I’ve been a bit lazy in the writing department these days. There are a few books sitting on my desk, waiting to be reviewed, and a few others that I can’t wait to start reading. Right now I’m enjoying a long awaited holiday and also keeping my fingers crossed that the rains will stop so I can go on a trip I’ve been dreaming about since last year. Until then, I’ll try to get back to writing and this is the first (overdue) review. Happy reading!

***

Pulse

The book contains 14 stories (I wonder if the author was superstitious) about life, choices, love and marriage. I was attracted to this book by the title – it seemed like an interesting name for a book.
While at the bookstore I started reading the first story, East Wind, about Vernon, a late thirties divorcee, who falls in love with Andrea, an East European waitress. There was something funny and likable about Vernon, and I decided to take the book home and continue reading.

What I really liked about this book was the way the author managed to infuse the stories with humor but also with sadness at the same time, a notable accomplishment which is tricky to achieve within the same story. There’s also a bit of cynical witticism in the “At Phil and Joanna’s” stories (there were four), in which a group of friends gather for dinner and some verbal banter. The dialogue is entertaining and well written, the topics ranging from politics and grammar to sex and religion to name just a few.

Another story I particularly liked was The Limner. I must confess I had never heard the word before (and that is yet another reason why I liked this book – finding new words) and had to look it up in the dictionary. The limner, Mr. Wadsworth, is a traveling portrait artist. He can’t speak or hear, due to a childhood illness, but that doesn’t mean he’s dumb, as some of his customers seem to think. Attention to detail is observed not only when painting, but also when dealing with others and he manages to form an accurate opinion of the people he meets. This is one of my favorite passages from the story:

“The limner had shown the collector of customs some miniatures of children, hoping to change his mind, but Tuttle merely shook his head. Wadsworth was disappointed, partly for reasons of money, but more because his delight in painting children had increased as that in painting their progenitors had declined. Children were more mobile than adults, more deliquescent of shape, it was true. But they also looked him in the eye, and when you were deaf you heard with your eyes. Children held his gaze, and he thereby perceived their nature. Adults often looked away, whether from modesty or a desire for concealment; while some, like the collector, stared back challengingly, with a false honesty, as if to say, Of course my eyes are concealing things, but you lack the discernment to realise it. Such clients judged Wadsworth’s affinity with children proof that he was as deficient in understanding as the children were. Whereas Wadsworth found in their affinity with him proof that they saw as clearly as he did.”

In Carcassonne, the author explores the concept of marriage, how couples meet and what keeps them together over the years. Is it passion, like the type Garibaldi and his wife Anita felt the first time they laid eyes on each other, or is it something more subdued, like the man who had met his wife at an office party and when asked what did he feel when he saw her, said “I thought she was very nice”. Do couples without children have more chances of staying together, unencumbered by responsibilities and worn out by worries, and what about gay couples? Questions, musings, experiences shared. No miraculous recipe for a long, happy marriage, only doubt and various perspectives – it’s all a roll of the dice.

There were a couple of stories I didn’t care much about. While I had no complaints about the writing style, which by the way, seems to flow nicely enough, those stories in themselves fell short of interesting. But then it’s almost inevitable for this to happen in a book of short stories.
An entertaining read, quite different from the books I usually pick. I have to admit I was more excited about this book when I finished it but for some reason I postponed writing a review and in time my enthusiasm decreased considerably, which is a shame, really…

*Read in August 2011






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Men from the Boys – Tony Parsons

This book is the last in the trilogy which started with Man and Boy and continued with Man and Wife. When I read Man and Wife, I had no idea that it was part of a bigger story so I can safely say that I sort of started in the middle. The books however, can be read independently.

In this new chapter of Harry Silver’s life, Parsons delves deeper into the problems and challenges of a mixed family. Now married for the second time, to Cyd, who has a daughter, Peggy, from a previous marriage, himself the father of a teenage boy named Pat, from his first marriage, Harry finds himself yet again caught in the turmoil of everyday life. A new daughter, Joni, born into the mixed family, completes the picture.
Conflicts arise from every aspect of his life: the loss of his job, his son becoming a teenager, the return of his first wife, Gina, who decides she wants to play an active role in Pat’s life after years of being away, the arrival on his doorstep of one of his father’s comrades from the war, all this is enough to bring complications, misunderstanding and resentment but also new lessons in love, compassion and trust. There is a palpable undercurrent of anger which can be felt throughout the book, a feeling which seems hard to control for Harry.

The reason why I liked all of Tony Parsons’ books I’ve read so far is because he succeeds in telling this universal story of love and heartbreak, mistakes and forgiveness and the power to start all over again in such a compelling way. The characters feel real, the situations even more so, and even though sometimes I wanted to shake Harry and Cyd for almost giving up, in the end I could not help but like them.
There are also a few words from the author at the back of the book – about how his personal experiences have played an important role in the writing of the trilogy, about life, mistakes and the power to turn it all into a story that does not belong to one man only but to all of us.

*Read in September 2011






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