Everywhere But Home

News and musings from wherever my crazy life takes me. My body may be back in Illinois, but at least for now, my mind is still in Mongolia.


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Thailand Tuesdays: Lopburi, Land of Monkeys

This is Part IV of my Thailand Tuesdays series. If you’ve missed them, please check out the Introduction, Part I, Part II, and Part III.

There’s nothing quite like waking up to an unidentifiable sound in a place you hadn’t expected to be.

I grew up in midwestern America, where rooftop rustling is common heard and easy explained. The vast majority of the time, that scratching sound your window or above your head is the scrabbling of a squirrel–if you’re very unlucky, a raccoon. But after a year in Mongolia, I’d grown unaccustomed to the sound. I quickly placed my location, my bandaged hand reminding me how I’d landed in a hotel in Lopburi, but the noise still perplexed me.

Then I got up and looked around the room, and all was explained. I’ve seen plenty of warnings printed on the back of hotel doors, but this one was a first:

Please do not open the windows, or monkeys may steal your belongings.

I hadn’t done any research on Lopburi prior to arriving, and it wasn’t in my northern-focused guidebook, so I took to the internet. Lopburi, it turns out, is the kind of city where WikiTravel’s Sleep section is divided into two categories: “Places with lots of monkeys” and “Places with few monkeys.” The better hotels in Old Town, which plays host to most of the monkeys, are enclosed by cages that keep them at bay, allowing the guests to open their windows. Clearly, mine was not one of these.

After acquiring a map of the city, I purchased a ticket to a fenced-off brick ruin and found it to house hundreds of the things. An older Thai gentleman approached me once I entered the compound and offered to sell me a plastic bag of corn, saying that feeding the monkeys would keep them from biting. I declined, envisioning myself besieged by hungry, demanding simians. My fears proved well-founded: the next pair of tourists to enter the gate found themselves swarmed. The monkey sitting at your feet, reaching inquisitive fingers up to take a piece of corn from your hand, is cute; the one that climbs atop your backpack and refuses to be dislodged, not so much. The ones that jump you from behind when you try to back away, grabbing hold of your jeans and swinging themselves up towards your face, are downright terrifying. I came to the couple’s aid, swatting at the monkeys with my map and my water bottle, and we all beat a hasty retreat to the street.

Monkey and ChldEven there, we weren’t entirely safe. The fence was there to keep the tourists out; it did nothing whatsoever for the monkeys. They were everywhere in this part of the town: roaming the streets, lazing on the sidewalks, walking the power lines, even invading some of the ground-floor stores. I snapped a few pictures of the admittedly adorable babies but quickly discovered what the locals already know: they are clever, mischievous pests, made all the more pestilential by their intelligence and opposable thumbs. What I really wanted was a monkey stick, one of those long bamboo rods the shopkeepers used to to keep the macaques at bay without coming in range of their teeth. Lacking such a device, I tread amongst them with care. Never have I been so aware of my lack of a rabies vaccination as I was as I made my slow way through the monkey gauntlet, doing my utmost not step on anyone’s tail.

Monkeys everywhere!In all respects but one, though, I made my way through the city without incident. My bandaged hand drew a lot of attention throughout the day, and I found myself continually having to explain that it was not (thankfully!) from a monkey bite. The nurses at the clinic I visited in the afternoon were among those who asked the question. I’d been instructed to have the bandages on my hand rewrapped every day, and while that seemed like overkill, the sheer difficulty of keeping the gauze clean and neat convinced me to have it done at least on that first day.

Of course, it was after paying to have my hand rewrapped that I tripped on a curb and instinctively put out my hands to break my fall. Not a good instinct: the impact pulled at my stitches and, I could have sworn, every nerve ending in that hand. I had not cried once the previous evening, but at the blinding flash of agony that seared through my hand when it hit the ground, I sank to the curb and sobbed as the reopened wound quickly bled through my freshly wrapped bandages. When I reappeared at the clinic, tearstained and bloody, less than an hour after I’d left it, the nurse took pity on me and patched my hand up for free. After both flows had ebbed, I thanked her and resumed my explorations.

If Ayutthaya had reminded me of The Jungle Book, the profusion of primates in Lopburi meant that the feeling was only intensified here. At any moment, I half-expected to encounter King Louie’s wonderfully danceable demands for fire. (Monkeys with fire, by the way, is a terrifying thought.)

Lopburi’s ruins were as plentiful as Ayutthaya’s, and often easier to access. Again and again, I found myself awed by the scale and intricacy of these ancient temples, not to mention the fact that I was actually allowed to enter them. I’m a total sucker for interesting places to sit and write, so I broke out my journal for a peaceful half an hour at one of the temples. With so many sites to see, it was hard to rationalize staying any longer, but if I had access to these kinds of ruins on a daily basis, I’m sure I’d visit regularly to write. How can you not be inspired by the majesty of an ancient yet still-standing chedi, or the mystery of a gallery of headless Buddha figures?

As the afternoon waned, however, my tour of Lopburi was cut short. I had intended to head across the tracks to the eat side of town, which I’d neglected in my wanderings, while I waited for my train to Phitsanulok, but a look at the skies was all it took me to scrap those plans. The clouds overhead meant business, reminding me that it was, after all, the rainy season. When the women at the night market stands started battening down the hatches against the strengthening wind, I decided that sticking close to the train station might be prudent.

The rain, when it came, was sudden and intense; not the most drenching downpour I’d seen that summer, but not one I’d want to face unprotected either. I took shelter under streetside awnings along with others caught in the deluge, slowly working my way as close to the train station as I could without getting completely soaked. Thankfully, it soon subsided to a gentle drizzle I was happy to brave, and a breeze and welcome cool followed in its wake. Sitting on the platform to finish recording the day’s experiences, I was comfortable outdoors for for the first time since arriving in Thailand.

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Lopburi: An Unexpected Arrival

Sorry for the delayed posting of Thailand Tuesdays these last two weeks! Grown-Up Life Stuff, it turns out, doesn’t care whether you have a blog post due, so Thailand posts should go up Tuesday and Thursday of next week.

Also, I should take this opportunity to warn you: if the implications of the phrase, “that’s definitely not pomegranate juice” alarms you, you might want to skip this post. Check out last week’s Adventures in Ayutthaya instead, or my attempt to break down the complicated rules of Mongolian card games.

As you may recall, I wrote very little in my journal on the train to Phitsanulok. Partially, this is because I was in no hurry to start writing once aboard, but mostly it’s because of my fateful decision to snack after only a paragraph of writing.

A pomegranate is a messy fruit under the best conditions, and difficult to eat under all of them. If there is no table on which to put it, I would not recommend holding one in your hand while you slice it open. I especially would not recommend doing this with a new knife you acquired at the black market earlier in the week (though, of course, most people don’t need to worry about their knives being confiscated during an accidental venture onto Mongolian presidential property).

Before I could get halfway through the fruit, the train jerked, the knife slipped, and the sticky red liquid dripping from my hand was definitely not pomegranate juice. “Sh*t,” I said, inspecting the damage. “I think that’s bone.”

I had gotten stitches on a different finger of the same hand barely three months earlier after an incident with a rotten carrot and a freshly sharpened (and previously very dull) knife; the most stressful part of that process had been debating whether I need to go to the hospital for stitches or not, since I didn’t want to brave Mongolia’s largely undeveloped health care system unless I absolutely needed to. This time, there was no cause for debate. The cut was deepest at the base of my left ring finger, right in the crease of the joint, and continued in a small crescent shape onto the lower-most segment of my pinky. There isn’t much flesh at the hinge of a joint, even on the inside, and I had clearly cut through all of it; whether it was tendon or bone, I don’t know, but seeing white at the bottom of the wound didn’t seem like a good sign.

Balling my left hand tightly, I fished around in my bag for a few napkins and used them to stem the flow of blood as I made my way to the train conductor. “Excuse me,” I said, calmer and more clear-headed than I would have thought possible. “I cut my hand, and I’m going to need to go to the hospital.”

Had this happened in Mongolia, I would have been completely SOL. Mongolian trains are impressively slow, and towns with hospitals are few and far between, so it would likely have been hours before I was able to reach one. Once there, the language barrier would have rendered me unable to communicate much beyond, “I’m hurt, please fix this” – both because my Mongolian is limited and because most Mongolians outside the capital speak so little English. Just asking the train conductor where the nearest hospital was and how to get there would have been an undertaking.

Thailand was an entirely different experience. My conductor spoke accented but entirely understandable English, though he wouldn’t believe I needed to go to the hospital until I showed him the wound. Reluctantly, I unclenched my fingers and removed the wad of napkins to show him, provoking a shudder and a grimace. It didn’t seem to bleed at all so long as I kept the area constricted, but as soon as I opened my hand, the flow was renewed, and I replaced the napkins quickly.

“Paper?” he said, and then, “no, bad,” tearing open a plastic-wrapped pillowcase for me to use instead. The next town the train was to stop at didn’t have a hospital, he said; it would be an hour before we reached the next one that did, but he’d make sure I got off the train there. He walked me back to my bunk and asked for my ticket and passport: he had an accident report to file and Lopburi to call, to make sure medical assistance would be waiting when I got there.

I lay back on my bunk, keeping my hand elevated, and waited.

Having done it twice now, I’ve observed that it’s remarkable how little a cut from a very sharp knife actually hurts; the primary sensation I felt at the time of both injuries was surprise rather than pain. The conductor, when he returned, seemed unnerved by how calm I was. If I really needed to go to the hospital, shouldn’t I be crying? But I didn’t that evening, not even while they stitched me up.

Mostly what I felt was embarrassment. Never having needed stitches once in my childhood of tree climbing and fort building, or even in my adolescence of camping and set construction, I was humiliated at having injured myself. Two rounds of stitches in three months, both from stupid knife handling, after twenty-four years without? I must have gotten awfully stupid this summer.

But the other thing I felt, funnily enough, was lucky. Lucky that of all the places where I could have cut my hand open, I picked a train car overseen by a conductor who spoke enough English for us to communicate. Lucky that said conductor did everything in his power to help me: calling ahead to the station at Lopburi, carrying my backpack off the train for me so I wouldn’t have to try to manage it one-handed, even writing a note on the back that allowed me to redeem it in Lopburi for the remaining portion of my journey to Phitsanulok, as long as I undertook it at the same time.

Lucky, also, to have done this in a country known for medical tourism. With my experiences in Mongolia fresh in my mind, I was very impressed with what I saw of Thailand’s medical system. The one doctor in the emergency room who spoke good English was called over repeatedly as the staff asked important questions like what I had cut myself on, whether I was allergic to iodine or penicillin, and whether my tetanus shots were up to date. The doctor who stitched me up said only three words to me – “I will suture” – but she was quick and thorough, and I didn’t have to worry about sliding off plastic stool as she worked.

I left the hospital that night with seven stitches, a Thai medical ID card, one packet of main meds, and one of penicillin. The entire visit, including the medication, cost me about 20 USD – less money than I would have spent on drinking in the week of antiobiotics when I now couldn’t. And less than it would cost me, even with insurance, to get a cortisone shot shot a year later in order to resolve the case of trigger finger that would result from the damage to my tendon.

And now I had a day to spend in Lopburi, a town I otherwise would have skipped.


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In Which I Make A Splash

“I can’t take my eyes off you for a second,” my mother sighed, reaching to turn up the heat in the car. “Are you sure we don’t need to stop at Sears on the way home?” she added teasingly, referring to the time I’d fallen into the fountain at the mall.

I grinned. “Nope, I think I’m good with just going home. Believe it or not, I’m not three years old anymore.”

The afternoon had started innocently enough. We’d driven down to Evanston for her to give a presentation on Lightroom, and after lunch, she’d asked if I wanted to drive over to the lake to take pictures. I agreed, since even on cloudy sixteen-degree (F) days, the snowdrifty ice sculptures are usually worth seeing. We parked the car and trudged across the oddly porous surface of the beach, whose sand-like color and texture belied the fact that it gave underfoot like week-old snow. We paused briefly to admire the marbling of colors that occurred where the wind had mixed snow and sand, and then she headed for the erosion wall while I made for the shoreline.

Lake Michigan is too wide to see across, deep enough for tallships to sail through, and located in area where winter temperatures hover close to freezing, so the ever-present wind has plenty of chances to toss up large waves before the surface alongshore glazes over with a thin coating of ice. The twenty feet of beach nearest the waterline had disappeared beneath irregularly-shaped hills of ice. Have you ever let wet sand dribble between your fingers to form coral-like castles? Beneath their patchy coating of new-fallen snow, these ten-foot hills had the same knobbly texture.

I made my careful way to the top, climbing at an oblique angle to avoid losing my footing and wishing I hadn’t left my new phone in the car; to my right, the wind and water had created an overhung cavern bedecked with icicles, and I wanted to take pictures of it. But I wasn’t going to go back and get it, so I turned my back to the wind and contemplated the surface of the lake before me as I waited for mother – who is, after all, the photographer – to catch up. The steely grey water near the horizon was in motion, but everything I could see clearly had frozen over. Twenty feet out, I could see faint inklings of the tide in the in-and-out swirling of the bubble just below the ice, but the ten feet closest to shore were opaque and lighter in color; clearly the ice there was thicker.

Photo credit: Jan Burke

When Mom reached me, I pointed out the cavern, and as she lay across the crest of the icy hill to get a few pictures of it, I picked my way down to the waterline. There was a reasonably flat spot that looked like a good seat, so I eased into it and swung my feet over the edge so that they dangled a few inches above the ice. I found good handholds to either side of my hips, settled my weight into my hands, and scooted my right foot down.

The ice held firm upon light contact, and so I made to tap it to test its strength. It gave almost immediately, shifting my weight beyond the point where I could support my weight with my arms, and then sh!tsh!tsh!t I was going down.

My left hand lost its grip as my left foot foot broke the ice, but I hung on with my right and found myself turning as I went in, so that I ended up dangling one-handed facing the wall of ice, waist deep in the half-frozen lake. My frantically-kicking feet did not touch the bottom, so I’d gone in somewhere more than waist-deep.

I was not inclined to test how much more. Yanking my left arm out of the water, I seized a likely-looking knob of ice, to which my wet glove clung helpfully, and hauled.

You know the moment in the first Pirates of the Caribbean when Jack, catapulted into the rafters of Will’s forge, hangs from both arms for only an instant before flying fluidly to his feet? (At 3:18 in the clip below; the link is cued, the embed isn’t.)

That doesn’t happen in real life; they had to use wires to make it happen on-screen. In real life, that maneuver involves pulling yourself up to chin-up height, awkwardly repositioning one elbow at a time until both are above the surface in question, and then pushing down with all your might until you can swing a leg up and over, all the while flailing your feet in a frantic and unconscious manner that leaves you with scrapes and multi-colored bruises you don’t remember getting.

The water was probably cold, but I didn’t notice the temperature any more than the beating my knees were taking; I was too focused on getting out of it. I didn’t make it up on the first try, or the second, but I didn’t fall in either. And so eventually I clambered out of Lake Michigan and made my soggy way up to my mother, who was still taking pictures.

“Mom, I did something stupid,” I said. “So it’s time to go back to the car.”

I hadn’t said anything during the mishap, nor fallen quickly enough to make an audible splash, so I had to explain to her that I was now soaked from the waist down. “Well, sh!t!” she said, tossing me the keys. “What’d you do that for? I haven’t hardly gotten any pictures!”

“Sorry,” I said, and began sloshing my way back to the car, abandoning the circuitous route I’d taken to the shoreline in favor of something more direct. But high school geometry, I remembered when  the snowdrift through which I’d been wading suddenly topped my kneecaps, tells but half the story. A straight line may be the shortest path between two points, but rarely is it the easiest. So by the time I made it back to the car, my left hand was no longer cooperating enough to unlock it, and creases on my pants and left sleeve had frozen stiff.

I turned on the heat and leaned out the window to wring the water out of my yak-wool socks while I waited for Mom to join me. “I guess it’s a good thing I left my phone in the car!” I said as she buckled up. She just shook her head.

“You want to go to Homer’s?” she asked on the way home, referring to the old-fashioned ice cream parlor we’d pass en route.

“Sure!” I said.

Alas, it was not to be. Apparently she felt I’d had enough ice today already.

Photo credit to Jan Burke for both pictures.