Friday, January 27, 2006

The Gibbon Experience

I am hundreds of feet above the ground, looking out from a perch on the branches of a massive tree, and the forest takes on a new perspective: the ragged lines of tree-lined mountains march into the horizon -- green fades to white in tinted bands, from dark to light -- I am so high up, only the distant atmosphere obstructs a view to infinity. Here and there the sun creates shadows and illuminates patches of leaves, creating, on my forest canvas, a palette of a million shades of green and even more textures. Only the symphony of a thousand birds competes with the woodland medley before me. I'd be happy enough to see this view of the rainforest for only several minutes, but lucky for me, this will be my home (and my view) for a few days. I am living in the forest canopy -- in a treehouse cradled in the protective embrace of a towering Strangler Fig -- in the Bokeo Forest in Laos. Welcome to the Gibbon Experience.

It's not an easy journey to the top of a tree. We left the border town of Huay Xai early in the morning and traveled along a rough dirt road in the back of a pickup for three hours. Everything on the sides of the road was painted brown from dust kicked up by passing vehicles. I licked my lips and tasted soil; grains of dirt crunched between my teeth; my skin turned the color of dark rouge worn by old women with poor eyesight. Our truck crossed a river and eventually dropped us in a clearing surrounded by the thatch huts of a village. From there, we walked through corn fields, waded through streams, and entered the shadowy darkness of the forest: huge palm leaves, dense bamboo groves, hanging vines. One hour later, at the summit of a steep climb, we came upon a small wooden structure and were handed harnesses for the final leg of our journey into the forest canopy... We made our grand entrance -- sailing in the air, suspended over the forest floor on a cable -- to our home, our treehouse. For the next 2-1/2 days, we will spend more time in the air than on the ground, cable gliding through the Bokeo Forest, sleeping in the boughs of its trees, watching and hearing the jungle below.

Despite how it sounds, the Gibbon Experience is not an adventure travel destination; it's not a tour or trek; it's not your typical ecotourism destination. It's a means to an end: a fresh approach to forest conservation dreamed up by local villagers with the help of a French man known, simply, as Jeff. Together, they created the Gibbon Experience as a way to combat poaching and illegal logging; the forest, their environment, was changing. Village life faces increased difficulty -- with lower rice revenue and higher living costs, people have turned to the forest and her inhabitants for profit. A diminishing population of wildlife alerted the locals that something must be done. While the Laos government protects the forest from the outside, it has no funds for protection from within and thus, the Gibbon Experience was born as a way to earn money to protect the forest where the government cannot. Funds from the project pay the salaries of forest guards who track and arrest poachers and loggers. More than that, the project provides locals with a self-reliant, sustainable way to earn a living while preserving their natural resources.

The Gibbon Experience is named for the Black-cheeked Crested Gibbons that live in the forest; they were once thought to be extinct and are considered the 4th most endangered gibbon species in the world. In fact, they are only found in northern Laos, southern China and northern Vietnam. They live in family groups and are famous for their singing, which can last up to 30 minutes; partners sing duets as carefully orchestrated as an operatic ballad. Within the first 1/2 hour of our arrival to the treehouse, Benjamin spotted several Gibbons playing in the distant trees. We were told it was a special moment; visitors to the Gibbon Experience don't often see the apes and are lucky just to hear them sing. Perhaps the name of the project is a misnomer in this regard, but nonetheless, the money earned by the project serves to protect them as well as the multitude of animals that live in the forest: tigers, hornbills, barking deer, wild boar, and hundreds of others. During a quiet day in the treehouse, Benjamin and I observed a Blue Throated Barbet -- a beauty of a bird unlike any I've ever seen -- with a red, purple, blue, and black pattern on its head and two-tone green body. We also saw a pair of giant squirrel-like animals with black fur on their backs and white underneath (they must have been 6 feet in length and sadly, their Western name is not known and I forget the Laos name for the creature).

Currently the Gibbon Experience sleeps 12 in three treehouses that were built by three villages, but plans are in the works to expand to 10 treehouses, involving 10 villages and encompassing the entirety of the forest. "Zip lines are the most environmentally friendly way of getting around," we were told. In the mountainous forest, it's also the quickest and least tiring way of getting from one place to another. There are 12 cables up to 150 meters above the ground (that's almost 500 feet) that serve as the primary means of transport for people, supplies, and food. Cable gliding at these heights is a thrill hard to match as you propel yourself from a wooden platform and sail through the forest; the views are stupendous -- you can see for miles; the wind rushes against your cheek; the tallest treetops brush against your feet; the winding noise of the cable goes Zzwimmm....

Tree life was nothing but comfortable. We were provided with a cozy place to sleep, an endless supply of tea and coffee, and were encouraged to snack at will on nuts, sweets, and fruits stored in the treehouse. There was clean running water, supplied by an underground spring and a bathroom complete with a shower, albeit cold water only, and squat toilet. Everything about the treehouses was built with the environment in mind -- only biodegradable waste makes its way to the forest floor (read leftover food and human waste, no TP). At the base of 'Treehouse One' lives a pig that consumes anything and everything that makes its way out of the treehouse. We were dismayed to find out he had no name and lacking any sort of creativity, we called him 'pig pen'.

The people who run the project are a passionate bunch, consisting of local villagers and a small group of foreigners from France, Holland, and England. The goal is that in the future, the project will be entirely run by the locals, but for now foreign workers and volunteers are on hand to teach the Laos villagers English and to serve as 'translators' for visitors. Liz and Lara, two women who have been working with the project for a period of time, were quick to tell us that they do not run the show; rather, it is the villagers who do everything. They guide glides and hikes and cook the food -- it is their creativity with which the project is sustained.

Perhaps the most unusual aspect of the project is the freedom of purpose laid out to visitors. "This is your experience," Liz told us on arrival, "...use your time as you like." The options are unlimited and flexible and the guides are there to help, but not direct... and certainly not impose. There are no scheduled activities as such, unless we wanted it that way. There are no 'to-dos' or meetings or forced excursions. You can be lazy and quiet in the treehouse or you can cable glide around the forest or you can fetch a guide and take a hike: it's all up to you. Here, your time is truly yours... in any way you want to use it to experience the forest, the choice is completely up to you. It's a refreshing approach, built on respect for the people who visit the forest and on behalf of the forest itself: it has much to offer.

All who visit this place say they have reclaimed their childhood. Zip lines and treehouses and nothing but free time have 'childhood' written all over them. And besides all of that, in the quiet hours that come without electricity and radios and tvs, the joy of insects is rediscovered; we spent hours watching death battles between ants and gasping at the sight of giant spiders feeding on moths at night. "When was the last time you were content -- no, had the time -- to watch insects?" I asked a Swedish couple who were bunking in Treehouse One with us. At dusk, the bird calls increased, a fine musical backdrop for our evening meal by candle light. And in the darkness, when we went to bed, the hooting sounds of owls and the soft chatter of insects lulled us to sleep... Rockabye baby, on the treetop... This lullaby ran through my mind as I drifted into slumber, but I had no fear of wind and breaking boughs: our tree was mammoth.

As a tourist, it is an uncommon experience, a privilege to be part of the project. Witnessing the conservation efforts, creativity, and dedication of the local people is inspiring and I left the Gibbon Experience happy to have been a part of it and to have seen and lived so closely with the animals and the trees. And cable gliding was icing on the cake.

Saturday, January 21, 2006

Thai Massage

Benjamin and I finished our Thai massage course yesterday. The beauty of taking the course is that not only did we learn this ancient tradition, but we were massaged every day. Granted, our massages were given by our fellow students during practice hours, but 2 consecutive weeks of massage does something for the old bod. 60 hours and a lot of sore muscles later, we are now as flexible as pretzels and can give a traditional Thai massage -- in fact, the first 3 people in the Bay Area who write a poem about why they need a Thai massage will get one when we return home (write your poem in the comments section that follows this text). But be warned: Thai massage is not the gentle kneading of muscles we're used to in the West... read on...

"When any person is sick in Siam he begins with causing his whole body to be moulded by one who is skillful herein, who gets upon the body of the sick person and tramples him under his feet." ~Simon de la Loubere, French liaison to the Thai Royal Court, 1690

The roots of Thai massage actually lie in India -- the founder of the art, a doctor known as Jivaka Kumar Bhaccha, was a contemporary of the Buddha and personal physician to the Magadha King Bimbisara over 2,500 years ago. Although he is believed to be the father of Thai massage, the origins of the practice remain obscure: in the old days, knowledge was passed by oral tradition and that which was written down, on palm leaves in the Pali language, was destroyed when the Burmese invaded and plundered Thailand's ancient capital city, Ayutthia. What remained of the medical scriptures was collected and pieced together and carved in stones placed in the walls of Bangkok's famous Wat Pho. These carvings remain the only original depictions of the ancient theories behind Thai massage.

Thai massage is based on the belief that invisible energy lines and acupressure points influence the body and its functioning. There are thousands of 'sen', or energy lines, but Thai massage focuses primarily on 10. The background of this belief is Indian in origin, based on the yoga philosophy that life energy, or prana, is absorbed in the air we breath and food we ingest. The Prana Nadis, or network of energy lines, supplies humans with vital energy. Thai massage removes blockages from these lines and thus improves health. This may all sound like hogwash to the Western mind, but scientists have recognized, although with confusion, that the lines and acupressure points do have some validity. Get a Thai massage and you will feel energized and light... Benjamin always says he 'cannot feel his body'... you feel light and free from stress, heavy limbs, fatigue.

I'm not one who goes in for the heady and mystical rantings of those heavily into 'spirituality', and I'm not referring to religion when I use the term. I'm referring to people who say things like, "Experience and actualize your untapped potential, your horizons of awareness expanded to all levels of consciousness..." or use phrases like, 'harmonize your energy flow', 'find your purity balance', 'discover your True Being that exists beyond 3-dimensional reality'. No, I'm not into that stuff -- even if these things do exist, I'd be much more receptive if people just used common language. The color purple and images of crystals and light beams and women wearing colorful moo moos who dream of communion with dolphins is a big turn-off for me. Men who wear loose tunics and reek of patchouli and smile that too-sweet and silly smile of the 'ultra-blissed-out' and get off on holding hands and just 'relating' to others send me running for the hills. Fortunately, Thai massage is none of these things and while working with energy lines does stand on a narrow fence of the 'grounded' and the 'spiritual hippies', the practice is more about healing the body through stretching muscles and breaking blockades that lead to sickness and pain.

Thai massage is, by nature, hard and 'tough' -- the practitioner uses her feet, hands, elbows, thumbs, and body weight to work the muscles and energy lines of the receiver. Many people call Thai massage 'yoga massage' because of all the stretching involved -- many of the positions and exercises are similar to yoga positions. It's very physical work, takes place on the floor, and as a practitioners, Benjamin and I were constantly on our knees or squatting, flowing from one position to the next while balancing on our toes... Our teacher described the technique as a dance, moving from one position into the next with grace so that the receiver (or patient or victim) is barely aware of your presence. It was a lot of fun, and requires serious concentration (in fact, practitioners are supposed to be in a meditative mood while giving a massage). In total, we learned over 100 techniques to work the entire body... a typical Thai massage takes 2 hours.

In Thailand, you can pay 200 Baht (or around 5 bucks) for a 2-hour massage. In the States, we've looked it up, a similar massage will run $120.00. We can't legally practice Thai massage back home, not without training from Western massage schools and licensing by the city/state. We won't be making the big bucks by practicing massage at home -- but no matter, the two of us will have our own private masseur and anyway, according to the 'rules of a good Thai masseur', we are not to hope for 'any gains... material profit nor glory or fame.'

Monday, January 16, 2006

His Majesty, The King

The Thai people sure do love their King. Travelers are advised in guidebooks to not say anything negative or in jest about the King (and the royal family for that matter) -- it is deeply insulting. All over Thailand, in small towns and busy cities, there are larger-than-life framed portraits of the King and the Queen erected on the roadside and in the middle of traffic circles (in fact, I think the traffic circles were built specially for this purpose). Sometimes there are huge archways spanning roads and highways with a collage of royal people and royal acts of kindness, the backdrop for an oval-shaped portrait of a smiling (and young) Queen or a pensive (and young) King.

At movie theaters, after the trailers and advertising but before the feature presentation, a similar collage springs to life in motion on the screen. The national anthem plays while still images of the King fade in and out in time. You see him visiting hill tribes and helping the handicapped... breaking ground and cutting ribbons... Most memorable is the scene of a dry, parched earth, the kind of earth that is so arid, there are cracks in the ground that look like a special glaze on a piece of fine china. Upon this thirsty land, a farmer stands in vain with hoe in hand, looking towards the sky in despondent hope. Cut to the King and back to the wilted landscape and you see, miraculously, a fine storm fill the skies... rain pours from the clouds... the land becomes fertile and the farmer raises his fist in the air in victory. The King, apparently, holds court with the gods of the sky. Back to the movie theater: the audience stands for this royal interlude. They put down their popcorn and softdrinks and rise in tribute to the King. Only then can the show go on... (and by the way, falang (foreigners) in Thailand are expected to do the same. Stand up or risk getting boo-d out of the theater).

There's a Sunday market held each week in Chiang Mai. It's ginormous. Imagine the busiest shopping day of the year in the States... at a mall... with thousands of distracted people purveying and purusing goods and edibles for sale. You know the confusion, the noise, the hustle and bustle of the crowd... That's what the Sunday market is like come early evening. And that's when the national anthem is played over loud speakers across the blocks upon blocks of city streets that have been closed to everything but pedestrians, shopping. Suddenly, everyone stops what they're doing and if they're sitting, they stand. No-one moves a muscle or utters a sound. Manic noise and motion dies to silence. The national anthem plays on in complete stillness. And when the last note of the anthem grows faint, there is a split second of absolute quiet before thousands of people -- all at once -- pick up where they left off a minute or so before. Like an orchestra going from a soundless pause to a full crescendo, bustle returns and the air is full of noise as if nothing happened. It's amazing -- a-m-a-z-i-n-g -- to still such a large amount of people, each individual doing his or her own thing... to still them all at the same time. I felt like I was in one of the movies where someone has acquired the ability to stop time and everyone around them freezes in place. It's like that, but it's the national anthem that freezes the people, not a super-hero talent.

Thailand changes when the King or Queen has a birthday, an event. On the King's birthday, everything closes, shuts down. People stay home. Right now, in Chiang Mai, they haved ripped up roads and are installing new ones to honor the King's 60th coronation. Every so often, the King grants amnesty to prisoners in jail, cutting their sentences in half -- maybe it's the Queen's birthday... or maybe he's just feeling generous.

He is King Bhumibol and he rose to the throne in 1946 at the age of 18 with no training for the job. His promise: to "reign with righteousness for the benefit and happiness of the Siamese people." And I'd say he's doing a damn fine job. People don't love their King without reason. And considering most of the countries that border Thailand are 20 -50 years behind in terms of development, the guy is obviously doing something right. According to a source on the internet, "the response he gets from his people in rural Thailand today is almost beyond the understanding of the Western mind: Thai villagers lay down handkerchiefs for him to walk on and then they save the scraps of cloth with his footprint in shrines at their homes."

According to Asiaweek magazine: "It is probably safe to say that no monarch in the world is as popular as King Bhumibol. Or so revered. Or so present. His portrait hangs in virtually every home and office in the land, a kind of benevolent father watching over his children. Every night all TV channels run footage of royal family members attending official functions. Some, such as visits by foreign heads of state, are clearly significant; others would make little television sense anywhere else. But, as former premier Anand Panyarachun says, over the years the King has earned the admiration of his people in a manner that cannot be fully comprehended by foreigners."

Friday, January 13, 2006


For the first time in a long while, I am reminded of the glory, the satisfaction, the relief (O! the relief!), and the feelings of freedom and abandon that come with Fridays, the finest day of the week. Did you know the name 'Friday' comes from the Old English word 'frigedaeg', meaning the day of the 'Frige'... or the Norse god of beauty? And what a beautiful day it is. 'Thank God it's Friday!'

TGIF! -- oh how we love acronyms. We love this one so much, it's also used as shorthand for: 'Teen Girls in Faith', 'Thank God I'm Female', and for the mentally challenged, 'This Goes In Front' and 'Toes Go In First'. Can you imagine a pair of trousers with 'TGIF' printed on the crotch or a pair of socks labeled 'TGIF' as instructional aids? Just like plastic bags that are labeled to denounce their use as toys and proclaim the danger of asphyxiation if, say, someone put the bag on his head and closed off the open end... All of these things, stupid 'TGIF' acronyms included, should be outlawed. Mother nature intended that the 'fittest' should survive and the weak... well, the weak aren't good for the collective gene pool. If a person wants to tie a plastic bag onto his head, I say let him. Especially if it's a Friday; we could make up an acronym for him, 'That Guy Is Finished'.

But seriously...

Today it's Friday and right now that means 2 days of rest are to follow -- we've been taking a Thai massage course all week, 6 hours per day, and we begin another week on Monday. We have 2 days of rest! Thinking -- no, rejoicing -- in this, I was reminded of home. I haven't felt such elation for a Friday since we hit the road. Huh.

Not only that, having a schedule reminds me about how, at home, we chop our time up into bits -- bite sized bits, king sized bits -- morning and afternoon, evening and night; week days and weekends and months... semesters, quarters, years. I've completely forgotten how it is to live by this structure since I've been traveling. There are no bookends to the week, like Mondays and Fridays, and bookends to the weekends, like Friday afternoons and Sunday nights (and aren't Sunday nights depressing?). On the road I have no schedule -- often I don't even know what day of the week it is -- I have no structure. I have ditched the calendar. I have unshackeled myself from its little boxes and grids and numbers. Time does not 'march on'; it flows, it glides, it rolls. I feel free; like a collar has been removed from my neck, like a chain has been unlocked from my leg.

Now that I'm reminded of weeks and weekends, calendars and schedules... It gets me thinking about our return home, wondering how I'll cope with the Monday-through-Friday workaday life... it won't be ideal, but I know it will be OK. Humans can adapt to anything (a big lesson learned through traveling). And at least I'll have Fridays to look forward to. TGIF.

Monday, January 09, 2006

Potty Talk

Benjamin and I are taking a 2-week massage course here in Chiang Mai. I have plenty of time to tell you more about all of that, but first I must digress on a childish tangent because I have discovered the best, all-time, piece of trivia. In the bathroom. On the back of the stall's door, a sign told me that I was in the wrong bathroom. Yes, I was in the ladies' room, but I was in the stall with the western-style toilet. The sign was there to inform me on the virtues of using a squat toilet: it's better for the digestive organs, it's cleaner (you don't really need toilet paper), blahditty-blah-blah...

The most interesting information on the sign was in regards to the history of the western toilet -- this object of ridicule in the stall, at least according to all that blather about being the 'wrong' toilet. Apparently, a Mr. Thomas Crapper invented the toilet. I was sitting (ok -- hovering) about 3 feet away from the sign at the time and did a double-take to make sure I read correctly. Sometimes, in certain situations, I have a tendency to read a word wrong -- a comical error when, say, you're in Thailand and you see 'whole sale' and read 'whore sale'.

But back to Mr. Crapper: he certainly was a man with 'his work cut out for him' so to speak – with a name like Crapper, your options in life are pretty clear, are they not? You either have to sell diaper products or build toilets or possess an unfortunate problem with continence and henceforth be nicknamed as such. And besides... back in the day, Shoemakers made shoes; Smiths were blacksmiths; a Crapper invented crappers.

However, and sadly so, research on the internet has proven this to be an urban legend -- an unanswered question -- the fact that Thomas Crapper invented the toilet is, well, apparently full of crap. You might find it interesting to know that there are people out there in this big, busy world who have devoted much of their time standing up for the guy and his so-called invention. According to one site, these people have made it their life's work to prove Crapper was the man behind the machine. One of these guys is the historian of the 'International Thomas Crapper Society' (can you believe this?) and the other is writing a book on Crapper's life. Bathroom reading material, for sure.

Crapper was an English plumber born -- hey, guess what? -- the day after me (January 17), although a few years earlier (1836). The interesting thing about his birthday is that it's now known as 'Thomas Crapper Day' according to a book that's deemed, 'the authoritative book for listing special dates and events'. I know what I'll be doing with my hangover the day after my birthday this year: what do they call it? Praying to the porcelain god? How apropos, to honor Thomas Crapper on his birthday, on Thomas Crapper Day, by kneeling before the gleaming white bowl.

Aside from the ultimate question: did TC invent the toilet or not, Crapper's fans argue about things like the date of his death. In one book called, 'Flushed with Pride,' the author writes that he died on January 27, 1910. In fact, the correct date is presumed to be some 10 days off. Hmmm. Perhaps in regards to moving on, the 'ole Crapper was just constipated...

There's really no proof Crapper invented the commode; he held 9 patents for things like drains and manhole covers, but no patents for an actual toilet. Some feel Crapper was riding on the shirt-tail of a Mr. Giblin who did invent some useful toilet technology. They think Crapper got the credit because he bought the patent rights from Giblin and marketed the product. But we're not talking about the 'first toilet ever' in this scenario, we're talking about the "silent valveless water waste preventer" (patent no. 814), which basically just allowed a toilet to flush effectively when the cistern was only half full. Big deal.

The premiere toilet, the first ever, made its debut all the way back in 1596. Sir John Harington, godson to Queen Elizabeth, made what he called a 'necessary' -- one for her and one for him. Apparently he was ridiculed for the invention and never built any more. 200 years later, the idea took off and a series of inventors (who named their calling 'sanitary science') took on the toilet bowl and evolved the idea into what we know today. Along the way, there were some fun names assigned to what we (snore) call the toilet. My favorites: the pneumatic closet, the plunger closet, the three-pipe siphonic closet, and the jet siphon closet. But even more than those, I love the names given to technologies that were meant to improve the toilet -- pardon me, I mean the jet siphon closet -- technologies named: the backflow preventer, a blow-out arrangement, and reverse trap toilets.

Seems to me the 'backflow preventer' and the 'blow-out arrangement' are more suitable as technological improvements for the human body than the toilet, but we can't change the plumbing Mother Nature endowed us with... too bad because I've already got names picked out for my inventions: the 'sphincter-schminkter', the 'alimentary canal cork', the 'comfort station', and the 'waste not, want not' travel accessories.

Well, I guess that's about it for the history of toilets. I'm disappointed that I've been given false information in regards to the origins of said device (I'll make a note on the back of the bathroom door at the massage school)... Mostly, I am disappointed that a man named 'Crapper' did not come up with the invention after all... How beautiful a thing it would have been -- like stars and diseases named for the men who discovered them, why shouldn't the toilet be named after its inventor? Personally, I would be fine calling the toilet the 'Harington', named after the first human to invent such a fine device... And the name would work well at cocktail parties, too. "Excuse me, dahlink, but can you tell me where to find the Harington?" How civilized we would all sound!

Monday, January 02, 2006

2006, Day One: Recovery

I always loved (still do) the way Star Trek began with Captain Kirk saying, in a dispassionate yet earnest voice, something like, "Captain's log, stardate 6002.0. I have underestimated the power of a stiff Sangsom and Coke: toxic, potent, heavy... duty. We have all succumbed... to the... incredible, ferocious... and... inebriating forces of Thai... whiskey". And in faster, clipped -- more dramatic -- diction, "Today, we shall pay the price."

That's what Captain Kirk would say if he were me and he awoke, as I did, with a dull throbbing in his head, a scratch under his right eye, and exoskeletal matter in between his teeth.

I did eat the cockroach on New Year's Eve and I'm happy that it happened after enough alcohol was consumed to keep the memory of it blurry and fuzzy, like a dream. I have video evidence and as all videos of one's self are, it doesn't seem like it's "real". I mean, I remember doing it, yes I do. I remember sticking the huge, shiny, brown vermin in between my teeth for a photo. I remember tearing the legs and wings off the roach after that -- no need to mess about with the legs and wings -- John and I agreed that we would also tear off the head. Even with the removal of all those bits (should I call them bits? They were huge, afterall...) Even with the removal of all that stuff so necessary in life : legs, head... so necessary in life but no longer so when you've become a midnight snack. The roach was still gigantic, at least 3 inches in length. And when I tore off the head, I was so glad we decided to do so because it would have broken a tooth. The part of the roach where the head connects to the body is as strong as a nail - hard - almost unbreakable. I tossed the head into the gutter, 'toasted' John with my roach/snack, and then... down the hatch. It was chewy. I gagged. It was tough. I gagged again. But I got it down and throughout the night, I found bits of hard stuff, roach pieces, in my mouth -- you know how popcorn kernels get stuck in your teeth? It was like that, but more disturbing.

After that, a Thai woman stuck a grasshopper in my mouth. But that was nothing. That skinny little grasshopper... that vegetarian of an insect. That was nothing compared to eating an arthropod the dictionary describes as a 'scavenger', a 'pest', a 'beetle-like insect with long antennae and legs'.

In 2006, within the first hour, I achieved greatness in this way: the kind of greatness that comes with having done something out of the ordinary, something requiring guts (even if it means the ingestion of guts); the kind of greatness that comes with doing something repulsive and foul -- in short, the kind of greatness that 4th grade boys would honor and respect. I am their queen.

A friend suggested that perhaps the eating of a roach would somehow, in some twisted way of thinking and logic, put an end to the spate of bad luck I have written about in the past month or two. In a primitive and barbaric way, I would gain power from the roach: dominance over the bad things that happen like motorbike crashes and dog bites and visitation by ghosts. Like savages who eat the hearts of their battle victims, I would take on the powers of the roach: tough, formidable, able to survive anything, including nuclear attack. But it's not so. Later that night, I was a victim (as was Benjamin, John, and Nyla) of a bar fight; an unprovoked attack by a gang of English hooligans who complained that we were taking too long to play our game of pool. This is where Captain Kirk, in his opening remarks, would recount the story behind the scratch under his right eye.

We were coaxed into a bar with the promise of '2 for 1' drinks. It was late, 2:00 a.m. -- or should I say it was early? We entered the bar, ordered 4 beers, and debated the price with the bartender. It was not '2 for 1' except for a certain selection of drinks, and I'm pretty sure the list of those is determined after you've placed your order; a changing list, devised at whim, based upon things not ordered and not-to-be ordered. This is how it is, the way it goes -- I've gotten used to it. When you travel, especially in Asia, information does not play by the rules of science: physical properties (such as time, description of services, and -- in this case -- price) constantly change; information is flexible and unstable.

So we have our drinks and we decide to play a game of pool. There's one other pool table in the bar and its occupied by 4 Europeans (note that I do not wish to list the entire EU so will, to the consternation of a certain British girl, use the generalized term for people of that continent). Over in the corner by the door, a table of people... people I hadn't noticed before, seethe and simmer. They claim they'd been waiting for our pool table for an hour and are pissed that now they must sit through what looks-to-be an interminably long pool game played by incompetents.

We relate to them the story of our arrival: the pool table was empty, sitting there all alone under the illumination of billiard lights... no-one playing, no-one waiting to play, no-one even thinking about playing. In the time it took us to sort out the price of our '2 for 1' drinks with the barkeep, they certainly could have claimed the table if, in fact, they'd wanted it. There was no-one else around -- no-one in the bar but the 4 Europeans already playing. How could they have been waiting for the table for an hour, in an empty bar? And supposing the place was packed and had emptied entirely, just before we arrived, how come they didn't take the table in all the time -- 10 minutes -- it took us to even consider getting started? It was bull shit. They were just looking for tension.

It was a Thai girl who started the whole argument, unusual in that Thai people (women especially) aren't generally aggressive -- Thai people, like many Asians, don't express emotion or even argue in public (or private)... Perhaps it's all the 'bottling up' of aggravation and frustration and anger that got this girl going. Once a Thai let's it go, puts the concept of 'face' to the side, they can be violent. They'll kick the shit out of you -- years of pent up emotions do that to people -- it's kind of like 'going postal'. But its unusual. For some reason, this girl was hanging out with a bunch of British fucks, the type who get into fights all the time back home... not just soccer-hooligan-mother-f'ers... but people who fight for fun. One of them was almost 7 feet tall. He took a swing at Benjamin for no reason. They approached us angrily, unprovoked by nothing more than our inept and lengthy pool playing and started throwing punches. The giant guy was so tall that his punches were almost inconsequential, almost completely clearing the top of Benjamin's head...

After the first punch was thrown, everything gets chaotic and nothing makes sense. "What the fuck is happening?" the question streaked through my mind in terror and disbelief. I couldn't believe people could be so stupid as they -- but it doesn't make sense to try understanding low-lifes who get their kicks out of... well, kicking people.

Benjamin is on the ground now and there must be at least 10 of these fuckers. I use my pool cue as a lance: poking, jabbing, daring the fuckers to come closer. They do, so I use it as a shield, a barricade... staving off a group of sneering, raging... someone has climbed onto the table and taken my pool cue away. I turn around. Benjamin is covered with people as if he were a crumb at a picnic laid out on an anthill. I see the Thai bitch going for his eyes. She is trying to claw out his eyes. I cannot even see Benjamin with all the people on top of him. I must be yelling... "What the f--..." I punch the back of her head. Holy shit, I've never hit anyone before in my life... I put my arm around her neck from behind her back... I squeeze at my elbow and lift her up... just like Uma Thurman in 'Kill Bill' (volume 1)... I want to squeeze the evil air out of her throat and leave her gasping in the gutter... like the roach head... I want to snap her head off and toss it into the gutter where it belongs. Someone behind me strikes my spine with the pool cue or was it their fist? It hurts... the wind is knocked out of me... I can't believe someone did that, the mother.... people are piled on top of each other... suddenly we are walking to the door... how did Benjamin get up and away from the mob? Someone must have come to help us... they came to even the numbers out so they're fair... now we are close to the exit and I am really pissed... the giant 7-foot asshole is there, trying to get in more punches as we leave... fucker! I grab his crotch... I will squeeze his testicles until they pop... but wait, there's nothing there... I keep trying... reaching in between people who seem to be blocking them from us... I keep trying -- who cares if I'm jostled and elbowed and hit in the head... I want to make this jerk pay... but... I'm out the door... on the sidewalk... we're all outside now and they're all inside... we're safe but angry... no-one cares.... "Hey you, are you the owner? What the fuck kind of place is this?" we yell... He ignores us. Ignores us! The bastard. He doesn't care. He doesn't care that we are the victims and he's favoring the perpetrators. We look for police. There are no police. We ask other people to call the police. No-one will call the police. They tell us the police will not care. They won't come.

So that was it. We went home shortly thereafter. I promised to smear the name of the bar where the owners don't care about people victimized and attacked on their premises. I know the English thugs who attacked us are the ones who are really to blame, but they are probably on their way back to their blue collar jobs in English slums, dreaming of future fights at pubs in their own neighborhood. Apparently, in Thailand, problems with violence are all due to foreigners, not Thais. A sad state of affairs...

The bar: Sharkey's (or Sharky's or Sharkies)... on Moon Muang Road, Chiang Mai.

It's time to wrap this thing up... there was harsh language used... there was violence... there was scary content for parental eyes. I apologize. We are fine so don't worry mom(s) and dad(s). And though it may sound tactless, at least our new year, 2006, got off with a 'bang' -- and as I said to Benjamin when we got home that night, the worst part about the whole thing is that my moment of greatness, the eating of the roach, was overshadowed by the brawl. This feat, this moment of ultimate distinction, was lost in the shuffle of feet and swinging of fists.