Saturday, February 27, 2010

Trains, Trains and Boats

I had such a brilliant day last Thursday. C and A organised a day out to Mae Klong market. You might have seen it already on YouTube but if not you can watch my video below (edited to not show the mind numbingly stupid thing I did with my camera whilst filming.)

I met my friend at 7am at Asoke BTS station. We made our way over the Chao Phraya River to Wongwian Yai station where we met up with a group of twenty or so women. We all live in Thailand so squat loos are often the norm (but it doesn’t mean we have to like them) at the station most of us braved both the loos and the local coffee (sweet but drinkable which is way more than I can say for the men’s loos*.) If you factor in the swaying of a train, squats are even harder to manage. * Edited to note that I used the men's loos as directed by the loo attendent!

Our first train, bound for Mahachai, an old fishing port, was ‘local class’ which meant hard bench seats and no air con but the windows were open and ceiling fans whirred; it was hot but not intolerable. The journey was fine. Then we caught a ferry across the Chin River bound for Bahn Laem Railway Station. After a short wait, and some drinks in a plastic bag and a straw, we caught our second train, also local class, bound for Mae Klong. The scenery was fantastic; lots of it was salt marsh and you could see the fields of salt production from the train.

The end of this train trip was the point of our journey. The last couple of hundred yards of the tracks is through the town’s market. Every time a train comes through – several times a day – the market traders move their wares off the track, and pull up the awnings so that the train can come through. Then once it’s sitting in the station, they unpack their wares again. It’s quite one thing to be on the train for this, but to see it from the market was one of the most bonkers things I’ve ever seen.

Now, let's hope my first YouTube video works!

Friday, February 26, 2010

Friday Photo

Frogs on sticks, anyone?

I need the weekend to sort out my dim-wittedness that I referred to yesterday. So here instead is a delicacy.

Apologies to anyone with a weak constitution.

Thursday, February 25, 2010

Blog topics: famine to feast

Blimey I’m knackered.

I’ve had a very exciting day out today, which involved two train trips and a boat trip, some waiting, lots of sun and lovely company. But I’ve wanted to go to bed since about 7pm tonight and I can barely hold my head up… so I’m not going to tell you about that now. I’m going to save it for tomorrow (if I can work out how to edit the video footage (mpeg) on my camera. I did something VERY stupid while filming and I do not want to have to show you and confess my dim-wittedness.)

Rather, I’ve come to report that I had a brilliant time with CC Devine on Tuesday afternoon, evening and the Wednesday morning, during which we matched each other for talking. We started and didn’t stop. CC further endeared herself to me for taking a picture of me in which I had cheekbones: very definite ones. She either took them to London with her, or they were a trick of the light because they don't appear anywhere on my face today. I had to let her go eventually because she had a flight to catch and I had a date with Susan (who left Bangkok two and a half years ago already) at Starbucks. We didn’t stop talking either but luckily for my voice, we only had an hour and a half to talk.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Busy busy busy

Yesterday I was at a travel writing workshop at the library. It was helpful for one of my four commissions because I hadn't quite worked out how to tackle it. I feel a bit closer to sorting it out now. *Waves* at L and any of the other attendees who might drop by.

I'm typing this while I sit at the visa office. Our first visa lasted eighteen months and subsequent applications have been annual. Husband's company, like most corporations, have solicitors to do it for us. We sign all the paperwork and collect photographs, passports and Husband's work permit to send in for the application. All the papers are in Thai and filled in for us. I have no idea what they say. Finally the whole family have to show up at the visa office.

Our solicitor will queue up at fourteen different counters collecting stamps and possibly official signatures, run back to Husband who will have to sign things in triplicate. Finally we will be ushered in to see a colonel who may or may not make small talk (the children have been lectured as to the acceptable replies to queries made to them by the colonel.)

I've heard horror stories (probably apocryphal) from people who have to do this on their own. If you only manage to get nine queues and seven signatures achieved, and have to come back the following day to finish the process, I'm told you have to start right back at the beginning. It's enough to give me the heebie jeebies.

Every year I offer a prayer to the visa fairies for giving us the help.

After the visa I'll take the kids into school and then return home where fellow novel racer, CC Devine is coming on her way back to Bangkok from Koh Samed. We're going to go off somewhere to drink tea and talk writing which will be lovely. I can't wait.

Sent via BlackBerry® from AIS

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Uhming and Ahhing

The first computer I ever had was an Amstrad. Boyfriend (now Husband) knew that buying the Amstrad was a mistake; he was using Apple Macs in the laboratories, but they weren't offering students interest free loans to buy Macs. I think lovingly of that Amstrad because I typed my dissertation on it. This was a lot less work for me than it was for my peers because I could type. I had learned to type in a gap year between school and university.

My Amstrad further endeared itself to me by having a primitive spell check. You couldn't add anything to its dictionary, but I didn't know other computers could do that so I was none the wiser. I forget the title, but my dissertation was about the Jason and Medea myth, so there were plenty of Greek names that got highlighted. Every time it checked my spelling it would pick up the word Argonauts and ask if I wanted it changed to Arsonists. Oh, I laughed every time.

I got a job using an Amstrad immediately after University but fairly swiftly moved onto PCs. I used them for years with word processing packages like Word Perfect, Microsoft Works and finally MS Word. At home we had a PC but it was boyfriend/Husband's since I couldn't see for the life of me what anyone would do with a computer.

Finally I went to work at a university where I discovered Macs. Reader, I fell in love. But we couldn't afford a Mac and anyway Boyf/Husb had a PC and they couldn't talk to each other in those days so it would have been daft. We stayed with PCs because they were cheaper and easy to build and upgrade. I'd kinda got used to them.

Until recently.

Both our January guests had Macs. In that mad 21st century way in the evenings we sat in our 'family room' with our laptops on our … well, our laps; and talked, showed each other youtube funnies, listened to inspiring TED talks, updated our blogs and facebook and emailed our friends. We saw the Apples in use. God, they are so sexy.

Husband and I began to think about buying a Mac. My current laptop was showing signs of wear and tear. We ahhmed and ahhed; I emailed my computer guru, Andrew, and to my surprise he said 'yes, but it must be a macbook pro' so I said 'let's do it' and then I'd look up some reviews on the internet, think of the reality and say 'No! Don't.' I went through that process over and over and then finally said, 'Oh FI, let's just do it.'

So here I am. I reckon this is how my mum feels every time we try to teach her to use a computer. I'm confused, cack-handed and struggling. I have two left feet and am all fingers and thumbs. I can hardly do anything. I had to buy a book 'Apple Macs for Very Slow People' which is helping a tiny bit.

I played with the Mac, whooshing my fingers up and down the tracker pad, watching those sexy icons do their dance but whenever I wanted to do something I had to use the PC. I had to think so hard about what I was doing on the Mac, that I hadn't got enough brain space left to think about the task I was trying to do. *Sigh* Eventually I realised I would never get comfortable with the Mac unless I actually started using it and now, step by infinitesimal step, I am getting there.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Half term

Is it half term every where this week? It is here for our school. Daughter has gone off on a school trip to London and Son and I have work to do. My work (on the travel articles) is being met with little resistance; after all this is what I want to be doing. Son's work... well not so much.

In order to make it as pain free as possible I've brought him to Chiang Mai, Thailand's second city. We're staying in the same hotel that we stayed in when we came here two years ago. It's orange so I'm very happy. It has criss crossed chips - fries - so Son is happy.

Yesterday I went down to breakfast before Son. I'd been up longer, was starving hungry and he was dragging his size 12 feet, hoping that the longer it took him to get to breakfast, the less likely work time would appear.

I was sitting in the restaurant; gazing around. There was a family on the table by the window with two small boys. They were around seven and nine, I'd guess. I began to think about how normal that is now... to fly longhaul as a family. When I was a kid I had a good friend whose Dad had his own travel agency and they went to exotic places and came back with suntans. I do remember being quite envious of her.

I watched these two boys, thinking how lucky kids are today. My family holidays had been camping to Somerset when we were that age. There were no suntans to be had there, though one year we did have a whirlwind that picked someone's tent up and placed it in the field next door with some cows. I certainly wasn't deprived: I went to Rouen in France on a school exchange. Then later, my Dad's job took him to Germany for work during the summer holidays, and we would go out to join him for a bit. I thought that was exotic.

After they'd finished eating the boys were allowed to play on some sort of computer console while Mum and Dad finished at leisure. I'd caught the Mum's eye a couple of times but eventually I looked at the Dad. I could only see him almost in profile, behind the Bangkok Post.

I wondered where my son had got to.

I looked back at the Dad: hmm, I thought.

Where is Son? Whatever is he doing?

It was a slow dawning. I was tired and it was out of context.

I texted Son 'Are you there?' No answer.

'SON' I texted next. 'You won't believe this...' Still no answer.

'Son, don't freak out, but your headmaster and his family are having breakfast next to me.'

I'm surprised Son came down at all to that news.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Chinese New Year; the final episode

Here are some tigers I've spotted out and about in Bangkok over the last week or ten days. The four heads are gigantic - about seven feet high and there's one missing.

This post ends the Chinese New Year series!

Friday, February 12, 2010

Friday Photo

I doubt there's any method to the madness in Pants-tip Computer Mall.

I was in Panthip (silent h) earlier in the week.

It can make you want to leap from the top balcony or make you fall in love with Bangkok all over again, dependent on your mood. Luckily for me, I fell in love.
Get to Panthip from Ratchathewi sky train or the river taxi if you're brave. If you can't quite face this madness, Fortune IT Mall (Rama IX on the MRT), is a teeny weeny bit more civilised.

Photo montage รก la Rachel at When the Dogs Bite.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

The Leotard Lady

I’ve been wondering of late whether I’d finally got used to here; had I become jaded and inured to delights of Bangkok?

And then… last week I got an email informing me that ‘the leotard lady’ will be in the gym at school on x date between these times. The letter invited parents to come along.

Crikey; this could mean anything in Bangkok. I thought for a minute about what this ‘leotard lady’ might be doing and then I realise it probably won’t have anything to do with ping pong balls, will it? Not if it’s in school?

I read further down the email, and all was explained.

So yesterday, I went to school to meet the leotard lady. I bumped into my friend’s husband and told him why I was in school. “Really? Bespoke leotards?” He said.

‘The Leotard Lady’ was sitting on one of the benches at the edge of the gymnasium. She spoke no English. She had a pile of leotard catalogues and a bag full of stretchy, glitzy lycra type material.

I had a little worry (as is my way) that this was an outrageous thing to let Daughter do – made to measure leotards? Will she ever recover from such extravagance? Then I heard the price (it was fair.) I thought about the cheap ones we’d bought here that had fallen apart after a few washes. And I considered the outrageous expense of the ones I’d seen on the internet when I’d gone looking for better quality leotards than the ones we'd got here.

Daughter and I rummaged around the swatches and we picked out a dazzling array of ‘see me, here I come’ twinkly fabrics and two leotard designs with ‘go faster’ stripes on them.

In two weeks the leotard lady will be back to deliver the garments. I can hardly wait.

Monday, February 08, 2010

Not the Boomtown Rats

I am feeling very jolly today.

I like Mondays. I think it might be a hangover from my art college days when I attended part time on Mondays and Tuesdays. How I loved the end of the weekend so I could get into college and make things.

It’s still utter selfishness that I like the start of the week. (Shhh, it’s because I can go back to writing and not thinking about family again until the end of the day.)

I’m also cheerful because the Computer Studies coursework was done. At least I think it was. I am told it was. I refuse to chase it up and look at every piece of paper. I have to remind myself it is NOT my homework. I will help and support; answer questions, ask my friends and family for specialist knowledge but I will not make myself sick with worry.

I am excited because another Novel Racer is coming to Bangkok and I hope to meet up for coffee. I love the Novel Racers… what a wonderful community (and wider community) we’ve created.

I'm cheerful because Daughter's gym went really well yesterday; and because GAP is coming to Thailand in March. I'm a fickle one - that makes me really happy.

I have been sorting out the travel pieces and one of the troublesome pieces is coming together in my head. I am seeing the shape so I'm off now to begin writing it.

Friday, February 05, 2010

Funny from Daughter

Daughter was off school last Monday with a bug that has been doing the rounds.

I emailed her form teacher, cancelled her bus place and let her gym coach know because she’s having extra training for a competition on Sunday. On my way out of the house for my meeting, I said to Daughter – "which drama teacher is taking the after school activity? Can you write and let her know that you won’t be there as you’re off sick?" And with that I left.

This was the email that Daughter sent.

Names and addresses have been changed to protect the guilty.

I haven’t stopped laughing yet.

Thursday, February 04, 2010

It's a mystery

I sometimes wonder whether my need to write has increased since I’ve been surrounded by a foreign tongue. Although I can speak some Thai, it’s strictly practical – getting around in a taxi because only about 5% of the city’s taxis know where they’re going; ordering food, finding out where the loo is. I can hold a conversation with a Thai about why we’re here, how long we’ve been here, where we’re from, how many children I have. Those are the things – along side food – that they make small talk about.

With, from memory, some 44 consonants and 26 vowels, I found it bloomin’ difficult to learn Thai but then I’ve never been a natural at learning languages. To start with most beginners are learning from phonetics and not from the Thai alphabet so what you see written is down to interpretation. Then there are the sounds that we don’t make at all, like NG at the start of a word. D and T can sound interchangeable, as can P and B. L turns into an N (don’t ask!) R turns into an L… that old Asian joke. There are many more foibles but it’s a nightmare.

Once I decided I wanted to write a novel, I found my excuse as to why I wasn’t going to learn more than a smattering of Thai. Nothing to do with laziness! Still I’m ashamed after nearly five years to be so pitifully equipped for life here.

There are some words, when written in phonetic that simply don’t or can’t convey the way you’re meant to say them. U Chu Liang, a building in Silom I frequent, tripped me right up in the early days. “You Chu Liang” I said to the taxi driver. “Grunt?” he said. “You Chu Liang…” I said more hopefully… I’ll spare you the details of our exchange but this went on for some time. Thank god I was outside the apartment because my friend L’s driver came to the rescue. I repeated the exchange, then handed him the address that was written in phonetics. (No point, therefore handing it to a Thai who couldn’t read English.) He looked at the card and light dawned on his face and he made a noise like a man pushing a melon out of his backside: “Eurrrrrw Chu Liang.” If you can conjure distaste while you say it, you’re much more likely to be understood.

There’s remained, for the best part of four years, another destination I couldn’t communicate to a Thai. It was the name of the hospital we go to: Bumrungrad. (I’ll hang on a minute while you giggle.) So obviously, I’d say Bum-run-grad: simple. Except I’d get the grunt and total failure to communicate face. After too many embarrassing exchanges with this word, and thinking that one day I might need it urgently, I laminated a card from the hospital with the name written in Thai and I’ve still got it in my handbag. I’ve since worked out that if I say Barm-ruun-graad I stand an 80% chance of being understood.

I still get a frisson of anxiety before I announce "Barm-ruun-graad" to a taxi… as I had to this morning as I had check up there. But hurrah, I didn’t need my laminated card. It was a small triumph and I felt pretty pleased with myself until I went to check in at the counter for my blood test, where I was informed that my appointment wasn’t today at all, but tomorrow.

Tomorrow is going to be something of a Groundhog Day...

Monday, February 01, 2010

Jack Spratt and his wife

We had a bit of a drama this morning. Yesterday Husband’d been out shopping with a colleague at one of the computer malls, Panthip Plaza – affectionately called Pants-tip by me. It’s a mad place, full of touts and vendors, offering ‘sexy movies’ and hooky computer software.

But this morning Husband couldn’t find his bank card. Eek.

Julia was asleep in the spare room which is where he’d unpacked the various goodies. So having checked the contents of his pockets, wallet etc he had to go off to work without checking the obvious place that it would be. I’d got his bank book, work permit and passport out of the safe so that he could go and fill in, in triplicate, the paperwork to declare it missing. Once he got to work he could check online if his bank account had been emptied. Then this, which precisely illustrates our differing personalities, was our MSN conversation:

Jenny says:
  Have you been to the bank?
Husband says:
  Not open yet,
  B [secretary] is on the phone now
  I am just gonna check the acc
  I’ll let you know if it has been used
Jenny says:
[Some time passes]
Jenny says:
  Bea? [what I call him]
Husband says:
Jenny says:
  Have you logged on to the account yet?
Husband says:
Jenny says:
Husband says:
  All ok
  Not been used
Jenny says:
  Thank god.
Husband says:
  My 2 withdrawals yesterday
  and my purchase
Jenny says:
  If it's not in Julia’s room, will you get a new card anyway?
Husband says:
  Have to
  It’s cancelled now
Jenny says:
  Oh good. Panic over then?
Husband says:
  Who was panicking?
Jenny says:
  I was
  I panic for both of us!
Husband says:
  There was just a logical sequence of actions…
Jenny says:
  Yes, you undertake the logical sequence of actions and I panic.

*Sigh*  Anyone got any tips for changing behaviour?