cobilingual


Being local
September 29, 2013, 7:01 pm
Filed under: asia, cambodia, culture, food, thailand, travel | Tags: , , , ,

Angkor Wat

Originally uploaded by cobismith.

Recently I had a mental shift . The shift corresponded roughly with the six-month point of my living in Chiang Mai, but I’m not sure if the shift was caused by time or actions. The actions were several people I know coming to visit, as well as strangers asking for advice about the city. With seeming suddenness, I became a local rather than a traveller.

This was in reality a more gradual shift, from my asking people for advice about locations or activities to being asked. Actually that’s not quite true – I still ask people for advice, and people were asking me within my first weeks, to which I’d reply I didn’t know. Now it’s different. Now I know things.

Now I know without looking at a map where I am in relation to the four gates of the walled city. Now I know not to park my motorcycle in a certain quiet lane on Sunday afternoon, as it will be overwhelmed by a market when I return. Now I have a degree of confidence in predicting rain, as opposed to the total bewilderment I felt when monsoon season began.

I still know only scraps of what there is to know about Chiang Mai, about Thailand, about life – but it’s noticeably more than I did before the mental shift. This shift creates a sense of mental space and relaxation that I didn’t have before. It’s letting go of the moment-to-moment switched-on buzz that comes from travelling somewhere new. Relaxing instead into the expectations and assumptions that create a sense of security and homeliness.

The contrast was evident when I visited Cambodia recently. I had an unexpectedly wonderful time there. The picture with this post comes from Angkor Wat, a place worthy of its world heritage status. I was fortunate to have time for a three-day pass to Angkor, giving me the opportunity to visit other sites in the temple complex.

I visited Ta Prohm, made famous by Tomb Raider, which I found to be in fact a friendly and fruit-laden temple, complex enough to be like playing a real video game in the manner of Myst. There was a young Cambodian girl entertaining herself by swinging from a thick vine, who I imaged to be a real young Lara Croft.

Most memorable was the day I awoke before dawn to begin the day meditating alone among sounds of bats and birds inside the heart of Bayon temple. Some people have asked how I organized it. It wasn’t a group – Angkor is vast enough that getting a tuktuk there before dawn ensures it’s simple to find a quiet space to start the day by yourself within the ancient buildings. I was initially on guard with fears about what I would find in the darkness. Once I’d settled in meditation, the sense of oneness and peace I felt with daybreak and birdsong was profound.

I also had an unexpectedly wonderful time in Phnom Penh, thanks to locals who shared their lives and knowledge. Sharing knowledge as a local can make the difference between a newcomer having fantastic experiences, versus mediocre or downright unpleasant ones. I am so grateful to those who shared with me their favourite dishes to eat or places to go out.

Now I’m back in Chiang Mai, happy to give back. Happy to share my knowledge of places and foods with newcomers. Happy to give that which I’ve received. Happy to give knowing that my knowledge is little, but sharing it brings me access to new knowledge and experiences tenfold. Sometimes being open to sharing comes back to me in ways I don’t predict, but the unexpectedness is what makes it so delightful.

For example, some newly-arrived neighbours I’ve become friends with shared news that a fish and chip truck now frequents one of my favourite local bars on weekends around dinnertime. When I arrived in Chiang Mai, that bar served no food, so I would rarely go there until later. Last Friday, I experienced what’s reportedly Thailand’s first mobile fish and chip truck (run by a Thai returned from England) while enjoying a drink at my favourite local bar. This was a delightful change to an established expectation about what happens in my neighbourhood. I know to expect such innovation and cultural fusion in Chiang Mai, but how that manifests I can’t anticipate.

I’m delighting in becoming a local, with different surprises and rewards to being a traveller. Same same, but different.



learning to fall
June 12, 2013, 10:56 pm
Filed under: travel



Langkawi

Originally uploaded by cobismith.

I’ve now been living in Asia for three months. Living here has given me an appreciation for something I’d formerly taken for granted, I think. Or perhaps, given that I’m making a concerted effort to cultivate it here, I took it for precisely what it was in Australia and realise it’s more vital here, at least for the type of lifestyle I’m leading.

Balance and dexterity are things I now appreciate my mother making efforts to imbue me with as a child. I was supported to do ballet, gymnastics, Taekwondo, sofcrosse and other athletic activities, my mother patiently shuttling me around after school, allowing me to drop out when I lost interest, to be replaced by another. Except for sofcrosse, which I remember participating in for season after season until adolescence forced its replacement with lacrosse, which I endured for only weeks before deciding getting hit in the face with a stick wasn’t worth it. That was replaced by volleyball, which I did consistently and relentlessly (to the detriment of my shoulder) throughout high school and sporadically since.

Trams in Melbourne require a certain amount of balance and dexterity, but the implications of having lapses of them mid-transport are less catastrophic than on a motorcycle. If you’d asked me when I was 21 what were the odds I would own a motorcycle when I was 30, I would have taken what I thought was a safe bet, and subsequently owed you money.

Learning to ride a motorcycle to get to work – along highways with trucks at high speeds in Asian traffic no less – has been terrifying. Probably the levels of fear and adrenaline it’s induced in me are a good thing, given I’ve managed to avoid disaster thus far. I’m thankful my dad bought me a fancy helmet for my 30th birthday before I left, because they’re few and far between here so it’s easy to slip into thinking you needn’t wear one, but because he bought it for me I feel obliged.

Now that I’m getting more comfortable with it, I concede that riding a motorcycle is fun. I particularly enjoy meandering along curving country roads. However my daily commute frequently has moments that are not fun. I had a particularly stressful ride home one day in a crosswind with a storm looming, where I was riding behind a guy carrying a gas bottle in one arm, balancing and steering with the other. I slowed down to distance myself from that potential fireball should a poorly timed car or truck decide to back out and collide with him.

So instead at the next set of lights I found myself behind a guy carrying a rooster underarm. The poor creature was completely limp, except for its head gazing around stopped at the lights. It wasn’t tied up or anything, it just limply flopped under the guys arm, as it floated along at 90 kilometres in midair along a highway, wings close to its body, feet dangling around the guy’s elbow behind, jowls flapping in front. Somehow I found the rooster comforting. I imagined the rooster accepted it was best just to let go. Surrender to the fact its life was in the hands, or arm, of this larger creature that was propelling them both on a noisy machine hurtling among other noisy machines. Struggling was unlikely to make the experience stop.

This is how I feel about the things that aren’t no great about living here. Why get upset about them? Accepting things I can’t change for the way they are, making the most of good things, and helping to make positive changes where I might have influence, like water trickling on a rock. Sometimes I’m the rooster. Sometimes I’m the motorbike rider. Every time I get on my bike to travel to and from work I say to myself “this is the time I am most likely to die today”. Recognising mortality isn’t depressing, it’s realistic.

On trams in Melbourne I would look at my phone or gaze out the window, people watch, or daydream. However here every moment I travel I’m present in that moment. This is a good thing. It’s conducive to happiness. Given all of this adrenaline though I need outlets for it. So I’m doing quite a lot of yoga. Chiang Mai’s great for yoga. Being the adrenaline junkie that I am though, I’ve also been doing acroyoga, which has given me a few moments of being caught unexpectedly in spine-threatening positions above the ground and defeats the purpose of yoga for relaxation.

Despite ample opportunities for injuries to happen, from motorcyles, acrobatics, scrambling around mountainous temples, on wet rocks or off bamboo rafts, the worst fall I’ve had came from basketball of all things. It was a Sunday afternoon and I was tired, but I’d met some friends for it and we had even numbers for teams, so I was playing halfheartedly. My mind was elsewhere and someone accidentally tripped me while I had the ball. The week earlier someone had broken a limb in the same circumstance. Thanks to my years of volleyball training, I fell into a skid rather than crunching. I slid rather spectacularly along the bitumen for what felt like several seconds, giving even distracted people at the other end of the court the chance to see. People gathered around. I stood up and pulled up my tshirt to survey the unpleasant gash and bruising along my left hip. My elbow and left hand had grazes too. It could have been much worse, I concluded, and reassured people I was all right, while I limped off to motorcycle home and dress my wounds.

I decided to stick to yoga and dance and frisbee. I don’t need contact sports on top of motorcycle riding this year. The following week as my immune system was distracted knitting my flesh back together it let in a virus, resulting in a brief visit to hospital to ensure it wasn’t Dengue or malaria, which is was not. So I’ve gotten off lightly during my first few months living in Asia. I feel this is thanks in part to learning to fall. I spent hours in volleyball training learning to slide along the court, diving to pick up the ball spectacularly a second before it would otherwise hit the ground. Safely falling.

Not just physically, but mentally too. Every time I say something stupid, or worry what someone thinks of this out-of-place tall white person, or realise I forgot to do something I’d intended to do that day, I take it lightly. This is something I’ve learnt to do during my twenties, with the help of Buddhist philosophy. I’m consciously working to keep supple, not just through backbends but also mentally. Learning Thai script is a rewarding challenge, as is learning to listen longer and speak more slowly.

I’m three months into thirty. I can see why people say it’s a good decade.



In the moment
April 8, 2013, 11:33 pm
Filed under: travel



Sprinkling water on the temple

Originally uploaded by cobismith.

I had a plan for my Sunday morning. I was walking along a road towards the old city, where I had a certain yoga class in mind. Hearing music drifting from a laneway, I turned to see a brightly coloured temple with a golden Buddha smiling in the air.

I walked down the lane to take photos of brightly coloured flags against the sky. As I did so, I noticed wires running from the temple grounds to the top of the pagoda. There were people at the base, near the source of music. They were attaching something to the wires. A metal bird began its way tugged up the wires on a pulley system. How curious, I thought as I watched its ascent. As the bird contraption nudged the top of the building it opened, sprinkling water over the pagoda.

I took in this unexpected outcome with delight, and things fell into place. Ah! Songkran – the Buddhist new year celebration for which I receive three days off next week. Songkran, coinciding with the hottest, driest time of year, is a festival of cleansing water rituals. For Buddhist temples, this means many such ceremonies in which pagodas are sprinkled and Buddha statues are washed. For Chiang Mai city, it means the biggest celebration of the year, a five-day all-in cheeky water fight.

As I was rapt in the ritual, someone tugged at my shirt. I looked down.
“What are you doing here?” a familiar face asked. It was one of the children of fellow Australian volunteers I’ve befriended. I didn’t have a good answer, but the same question. In a city of two hundred thousand people of whom I know perhaps 30, it was beautiful happenstance.
“What are you doing here!?” I replied. The rest of the family appeared at the top of the lane, lugging large bags. They’re moving to Laos next fortnight and have been busy sorting and packing.
“We’re looking for Free Bird Cafe! Do you know where it is?”
In another stroke of fate, I did indeed. In my first few weeks I’ve become familiar with only a couple of places, but Free Bird Cafe – also a charity shop supporting Burmese refugee and Thai indigenous communities – is one of those places.
“Yes!” I walked over to lighten their load. Free Bird was only two street corners away.
It was approaching lunchtime; in my haste to get to the destination I’d originally had in mind I hadn’t though about eating. I was hungry. At the cafe the family donated bags of clothes destined for refugee camps on the border and we shared delicious Sunday brunch. I appreciated the brief chance to spend time with new friends busy with moving preparations.

I made it to a later yoga class, via serendipitous moments of rapt understanding and deepening friendship.

It’s worth living in the moment to notice the music.



Food, inside and out
March 12, 2013, 11:29 am
Filed under: travel



People dining outside the temple

Originally uploaded by cobismith.

My market food experience described in my last post isn’t typical of my Thai food experiences. Mostly when I try something that I don’t know what it is I’m rewarded with a culinary revelation. For example, banana flower salad! I love stuffed zucchini flowers in Italian food – I didn’t know that banana flowers could be equally as scrumptious.

I’m also enjoying a coconut curry soup with noodles like pretzels in it. They taste like pretzels but are shaped like lightning. They are crispy joy. Speaking of crispy joy – fried wild pepper leaves! Or betel leaves (there is controversy on the interwebs which is used) – either way, nom nom!

Food is everywhere in Chiang Mai’s old city. You can hardly go ten metres without having options of street food or restaurants. During the Sunday walking market, the grounds of a Buddhist temple (pictured) is converted into a massive food court with hundreds of food stalls – as well as, I’m pleased to say, two different types of bins for recycling (shame on any so-called ‘developed’ countries where that’s not yet typical practice).

With such a diversity of options available, it’s silly to try and eat Western food. That said, there’s plenty around for three reasons. The first being lame, unadventurous tourists. The second being locals wanting to try Western food. The third being expats with cravings.

I am not yet the latter, but in preparation for the eventuality I was escorted to the big fancy shopping centre supermarket where I was encouraged to buy things I couldn’t get other places. I felt indignant that I should need such a trip. I’m a traveller, not a tourist! I don’t need anything the locals don’t need! But it’s standard practice with orientation. A fellow expat who’s been here 11 months, but with a family in tow, described her experience of being taken to the big Tesco in her first week and wheeling her trolley around in a daze, torn between feeling the trip was unnecessary, but also mild panic about choosing the right things, with dazed-until-crazed kids running around making the situation worse.

I came away from my supermarket experience with dark rye bread and an avocado. There were no knives at the supermarket, despite a bewildering array of kitchen devices. There was no knives or forks or spoons, despite large barbecuing forks and ladles. This is one of those baffling things it’s better not to question (unless someone from Tesco is reading this – sell cutlery in your Chiang Mai Central Airport Plaza store!).

So in my little bar fridge I’ve had rye bread and an avocado waiting. This morning I decided I should use the avocado before it goes off. The bread is beyond fresh eating – it’s toast or bust.

So I took my rye bread and avocado to breakfast with me, since they have cutlery there. Like most guests here I’ve been eating the fresher and tastier-looking Thai breakfast options and fresh salad, rather than the less appetising UHT milk or sweet breads and marmalades.

I feel it’s important to emphasise here that I was put in the position of wanting to use this avocado and rye bread because I felt compelled to buy things at the supermarket because I was shuttled there for that purpose. I didn’t mean to make a fuss at breakfast this morning.

I entered the breakfast room with my own bread and fruit in hand. The staff looked a little disconcerted. I told them my room number, making it clear I still intended to pay for breakfast. There were a pile of butter knives along with the usual array of cutlery and crockery at the entrance. I picked up a butter knife and gestured a cutting motion into my rye bread with it. They understood, then three staff proceeded to discuss the matter. Eventually a lady who spoke English was called out from the kitchen, who said “you need a sharper knife?” to which I replied “that would be fantastic, thank you”.

In such cross-cultural situations I should probably just say “yes” so make life simpler for everyone. I can’t seem to help but make things more complicated, misguidedly gushing thanks and praise when in awkward situations like being the lady who brings her own breakfast to the breakfast buffet.

Four people were chattering in Thai about the bread-cutting situation, before the lady disappeared into the kitchen again. I stood around awkwardly for a minute until the staff dissipated. So I went to get some salad and breakfast from the buffet as normal. I’ve been advised that in Thailand if something awkward happens often the appropriate response is to pretend nothing happened. One of the first phrases I learnt was ‘mai bpen rai’ – ‘no worries’ – which is useful for this.

I at down and proceeded to eat my normal breakfast and pretended to ignore my loaf of rye bread and avocado sitting on the table next to my bag.

Eventually – voila! The lady reappeared with a sharp knife! I thanked her in Thai and gave her a big smile. I’d advanced to the next level of my ‘being the strange lady who brings her own breakfast’ game. I cut two slices of bread. I do love good dark rye, so this was satisfying. Then I approached the toasting machine, which was turned off, because no-one else was silly enough to want to use it when there were lovely, healthier Thai breakfast options available.

Two staff buzzed over and examined the machine, discussing it in Thai. I waited (trying to be polite now) before pointing to the knob that said ‘off’, ‘toast’, ‘buns’. They nodded so I set it to toast. The light went on and the conveyer started whirring along, so the staff retreated and I put in my bread slices. It was one of those slow conveyer belt things often found at breakfast buffets, so I went to get a plate while I waited for my toast.

When I returned a minute later my bread had vanished. I looked around the breakfast buffet room. Had someone else found my toast irresistible? I considered it unlikely someone else would want to implicate themselves in my spectacle of weirdness.

On closer inspection I discovered that the tray that slides the toast back to the front of the machine upon toasting wasn’t installed properly, so the toast fell off the back of the conveyor belt, behind the table onto the carpet floor.

I picked my toast off the floor. It was beyond the three second rule, but it was clean carpet. Also the machine was so slow it would need at least two goes through to be toasted. I adjusted the catching tray and wedged my plate on top of the gap to the floor for safe measure.

After another two runs through the machine my two sliced of rye bread were toasted. I put avocado on them. It was tasty.

So is banana blossom salad and fresh coconuts though – and they’re less of an ordeal. Now I have two-thirds of a chunk of rye-bread back in my bar fridge that I feel compelled to use up. It was probably more expensive than the entire breakfast buffet.

I blame Tesco for selling dark rye bread and nothing to cut it with.

But whatever. I am strange – there’s no scapegoat for that. YOLO. Mai bpen rai.



Sunday morning
March 10, 2013, 12:48 pm
Filed under: asia, food, language, thailand, travel | Tags: ,

Market by the old wall

I spent my first Sunday morning getting a pedicure and perusing a market alongside Chiang Mai’s old city wall.

That might sound like a typical tourist thing to do, but like with most things, I tried to imbue it with more cultural and moral significance.

I was the first customer of the day in a nail salon where several people were working, or at least sitting around in work clothes. I prefer to do this at the start of the day so there are less chemicals from nail polish and remover in the air. Arguably, I should avoid them altogether since I don’t think it’s great that women spend all day in such environments, but it’s a guilty pleasure. Once I was sitting in the window getting my toes done other foreigners started to enquire about their services – appearing busy with a customer is a good way to kickstart more business.

I like going to cheap nail salons when I’m in a foreign city, whether it’s New York or Beijing. Like travelling on buses (but more luxurious), nail salons gives an experience of how local people interact. This is a perk of cheap nail salons over spas, where quiet privacy is the norm. I deliberately chose somewhere with several people sitting around, so that I could immerse myself in Thai conversation.

I don’t expect to understand anything yet (though I did pick up ‘farang’ – ‘foreigner’ – a few times). But it’s good for me to be able to absorb Thai people talking to each other in a laid-back joking way, as opposed to the slower, indulgent way people would speak to me. Because Thai is a tonal language, I’m going to need to listen a lot before I have any chance of getting how the language works – it’s so different to English (or French, Spanish or Italian for that matter. They’re all useless to me here).

I was lucky in that the woman doing my toes spoke enough English that I could ask her to teach me some Thai. I had a free Thai lesson with my pedicure. I maxed out my learning capacity for Sunday morning as she taught me with laughter and gestures (when the pedicure process permitted). She taught me how to say ‘dai’ and ‘mai-dai’ (‘yes, you can’ and ‘no, you can’t) as well as ‘dee’ and ‘mai-dee’ (good and bad). I learnt some phrases such as ‘my name is…’ and ‘what do you call…’, but they’ve not yet cemented themselves in my memory. I know it will take two or three times before I remember them – though I might just recognise if someone is asking me my name now.

After my pedicure/Thai lesson, I went to the market. I avoided the stalls selling hill tribe-inspired handicrafts (like in this picture), because I want to buy such things in places where I can be confident my money is supporting hill tribe communities. Perhaps that market was an okay place to buy such things, but I don’t have enough knowledge yet to know either way.

There was a stall selling food that had a banner saying ‘local’ and ‘organic’ in English. The products had Thai labels only. I couldn’t communicate with the people at the stall besides pointing at things. I bought something that looked like some papadums as a pre-lunch snack. I attempted to communicate that I didn’t need a plastic bag, which not surprisingly they didn’t understand, so I took my snack in two layers of plastic, feeling eco-guilt.

Walking from the market to where I’m staying I pierced the plastic and started eating a papadum-like object. It tasted like what fish food smells like. It had a similar texture. I ate half of one, and then wondered if in fact it was fish food. What if I had bought and was eating pet food?

My pedicure/Thai lesson was an excellent start to the day. My market experience didn’t go quite to plan. I’ve left the papadum-like objects in their packet to ask someone who speaks Thai what the label says. I returned to my room and to get the fishfood taste out of my mouth I drank what was labelled as 100% pomegranate juice, which I bought from a minimart yesterday. It tasted like lollies. While that label included English, I’m skeptical of its veracity.

Pedicure/Thai lesson: dee.

Using labels to make good purchasing decisions: mai-dai.



it’s time for a name change
March 8, 2013, 1:35 pm
Filed under: travel



Yarnbombed sculpture in honour of Adelaide Fringe 2013

Originally uploaded by cobismith.

This blog was called “twenties are for travelling”. But I turned thirty last weekend. As it so happens, I’m also moving overseas again today. In honour of my third decade, I’ve changed the name of the blog to a domain name I’ve been hoarding.

I think it’s fair to say I’m only ever bilingual, not really a polyglot (as my Twitter bio implies), given I can only ever seem to keep two languages in my head at a time. If I start using my Spanish, it seems my French overflows from my working memory into some deep reserve of mind, accessible only with a return to French immersion, or red wine.

Anyhow, I’ve been living in Melbourne lately – but I’ve been back in Adelaide to perform in a bunch of comedy shows at the Adelaide Fringe Festival. That’s right – this year I started doing comedy. Perhaps I’ve always done comedy – it would be better to say I’ve started performing comedy. On stages. Where people pay to come and see me be silly for fun. I’m still somewhat baffled and in awe that I could get paid to do this. Though given the expenses of putting on shows, people paying to watch and performers getting paid to perform do not equate in all cases.

Regardless, I’m leaving that behind to be a human rights activist in Southeast Asia for a while. More about that in future posts.

I spent my 18th birthday in Italy; my 21st in Canada. My 30th has been the first big adult celebration I’ve had in my hometown. It was lovely to celebrate with dear old friends and family for a change. Though my Italian and Canadian housemates were excellent at organising parties for their newfound friend, there’s nothing like people who’ve known you for a long time to put things in perspective.

The sculpture pictured puts things in perspective for me. I remember playing on this sculpture, when it was just metal, as a child. I remember sitting on it watching new years’ eve fireworks as a tween, before my first year abroad. It seems fitting, given my recent hipster and comic endeavours, that this sculpture was yarnbombed in honour of the Fringe festival.

I was sitting on this sculpture with one of my friends from ANU, visiting Adelaide for my birthday. We were enjoying its texture and colour. One of the things I’ve (re)learnt in recent years is how to play, as an adult.

I’ve moved beyond that awkward teenage angst about childish things, and come to delight in the world again, like I did as a child. Maybe this is something that’s finally emerged from nearly 15 years of being Buddhist, or travelling, or simply being wiser and more confident about what’s important in life.

Whatever the reason, simple things like hugging a sculpture I played on as a child brings me joy.



Return to Florence
April 23, 2012, 9:42 pm
Filed under: travel



The Tribune of Galileo

Originally uploaded by cobismith.

For the last week I’ve been in Italy for work.

A decade ago I came to Florence during my gap year in Italy – a poor student. Coming back as a presenter at a conference has made me reflect on ten years of travelling and how my life in general has unfolded.

Italy is the ideal place for such philosophizing.

Embracing my philosophy of science geekiness that brought me to Florence this time, I’ve visited La Specola (pictured) and Museo Galileo.

I’ve stayed away from the art galleries, given I’ve been here before. There are people lining up for hours who I assume are really into it – why make them wait longer by competing in the queue?

I didn’t have fond memories of Florence – I’ve referred to it as the Disneyland of Italy – but this trip has given me a new appreciation for it.

The churchbells. The cobblestones. The food. The architecture.

If someone sends me back here for work I certainly won’t complain… maybe I’d even come back voluntarily as a tourist. If only all the other tourists would go away.




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