home economics 100: relocation essentials

What to take when you’re moving to a new country and all you can take is two checked bags, two carry-ons and two personal items:

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On Saturdays and Sundays, this thing barely gets a break!
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We’ve already used our Ninja to make bruschetta, kimchi paste and papaya smoothies. And I’ve got so many more recipes I’m getting ready to try.
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Mean green smoothies for weekday breakfast: half a pineapple, 1 large bunch of kale, 1 large cucumber, 1 lime, and about half a thumb measure of ginger.
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Boils water in 90 seconds… Cup Ramen anyone?

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And something to plug them all into so they don’t burn out the first time you use them.

 

We decided for this move to bring the stuff that we thought was going to make us happy. We find that life is so much more bearable when you can have those little indulgences.

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home economics 101: domesticating Bangkok

I’m staring at one of my passport visa pages. It’s been over a month since we moved to Bangkok.

We’ve been busy. Literally 14 hours after our plane touched down at Suvarnabhumi Airport we signed a one-year lease and put money down on a townhouse in the area of the city where Jessie will be working. The house came with no furnishings. And in Thailand ‘no furnishings’ means exactly what it says.

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We started with walls, floors, sinks, toilets and a water pump. You can rent furnished apartments here, but they’re generally 2~3 times the cost so we thought we might as well just buy our own stuff. For weeks I sat on cold tile, writing code for my new website pictureperker.com. I’ve put in many 12-hour, no-time-to-stop-to-eat days. I’m pretty sure I’ve done long term damage to my already ridiculously poor posture.

But the more I think about it, the more I’m coming to see that the house sort of fits us. What I mean is that Jessie and I have been living a minimal, nomadic lifestyle for the past six years. We’ve lived happily (for the most part) on what we could fit into our backpacks and what we could scrounge together of castoffs on the street or from friends. We’ve enjoyed reusing this stuff and not feeling attached to it. We’ve loved the mental ease of having “ownership” for a brief time and then passing it on freely to the next person. We want to own and have around us only what is necessary and what gives us bliss. Part of living minimally is using our things for multiple purposes. I found that the most versatile things we owned for the first month were our sarongs. They quadrupled as shower towels, beach towels, bed sheets and curtains. I’m really starting to think that the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy could be a legitimate travel companion based on this experience alone. (If you didn’t understand the last sentence click here.)

Settling into Bangkok has been different. We’re intending to live here for awhile, and renting this barren townhouse has been a new experience. We’ve had some things graciously given or lent to us, but the simple fact is that dumpster diving in Bangkok is just not the same as in Seoul. Any couch you find on the street in Bangkok is most definitely not something you want to have in your home. Thus, the atmosphere in our place was, well, downright depressing. And then I bought a chair. Everyone, meet my new best friend: “Easy Chair Nice Orange.”

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Easy Chair was the first step in making this house feel human. I could sit with my feet up. I could put my laptop where it’s meant to go: on my lap. Together with the aid of an 80-cent pillow from the flea market down the road, Easy began to dissipate my routine neck stiffness. Both psychologically and physically, Easy Chair repaired me.

I’ve realized that I had some huge misconceptions about Bangkok, though, especially in the notion that everything is cheap here. It’s not. You have to figure out what is and what isn’t. Still, I’m continually dumbfounded by the range of costs. Why is it that we can take a taxi from one side of the city to the other  for $6, about a 45-minute drive in normal traffic conditions (which by the way only happens from about 1 until 4 in the morning), but to buy a fan that looks like it might even have a chance of holding up a year it runs at least $30? Why can we jump onto a songthaew (a truck with benches and an overhead cover added onto the bed) and take it to the mall or the supermarket 15 minutes away for 20 cents, but if we were to buy the most basic, flimsy, tacky drapes and window curtains to cover three windows and a sliding door it would cost us over $90? Why can we walk 50 paces to the market directly behind our house, choose several handfuls from the mounds of fresh vegetables that line the tables, and walk away with a giant bag full of produce for under $2, but a tiny refrigerator puts us out $150? We bought a queen-size mattress for only $70 but a 1/2-inch thick, no-frills mattress pad costs $65. We can sit at any restaurant around our house and get full for $1, but a cheap little plastic unit where we can store a couple articles of clothing would run us $30. I just find the disparity in pricing weird!

After several meltdowns (on both of our accounts), we found ourselves waist deep in the sickie, clean cut ornaments of cheap-Swedish renown. That’s right; Bangkok has an IKEA. We felt Tyler Durden‘s disdain as we followed the winding path through the labyrinth of office, bedroom, kitchen, dining room, bathroom, patio, electrical, wall covering and storage furnishings. Jessie kept musing over why so many people seem to revel in a stroll around IKEA while for us we were filled with anxiety. Still, after a month of living like squatters we weren’t leaving without some creature comforts. We aren’t crazy about having a home full of particle-board-manufactured-to-look-pretty chairs, but the reality is that $250 has really started to make this place into a home.

So if you’re wondering how I’m doing these days, let me tell you: I’m content as a Swede with a tube of caviar as I sit here on my ‘SOLSTA Ransta dark grey two-person sofa that readily converts into a bed’ with my feet propped up on our ‘LACK white 90x55cm easy to assemble light weight coffee table’ looking out the window past the ‘POÄNG rocking-chair frame birch effect veneer with Alme black armchair cushion’ and ‘Easy Chair Nice Orange.’

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home economics 201: acquiring new skills at Bamboo School

Well, another week at Bamboo School has come and gone and just like that we’ve left Thailand. It was hard saying goodbye to the children. Truly we know that it isn’t ideal to have people constantly going in and out of their lives like a convenience store. But we knew that we’d be coming back to stay for a long time in Thailand starting next year. It always makes goodbyes happier when there’s a plan to meet again.

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As always, it was an informative week. We joked with the director, MomoCat, about how every time we come to Bamboo School we learn several new skills! We talked about how we needed to make a list of all the skills we’ve acquired while living here. This week we learned three more: dentistry, taking care of a colicky baby, and surviving a Karen wedding (pronounced “Kah-ren”, a large Burmese hill tribe people group).

Jessie and I have been to Bamboo School enough times to know that the moment we arrive we’ll be pulled right into the busy atmosphere that 55 children create. The kids need to be driven to and picked up from school. Many things need to be repaired. There are volunteers and visitors coming and going on practically every day of the week. The little boys aren’t washing their clothes well enough so they need to be shown once again how to properly scrub. There are several work projects that are in full swing.

Fifteen minutes after we set our bags down in our bamboo hut, another set of volunteers, the Song family, arrived with a large case full of dental tools in order to do the children’s yearly check up. Jessie and I were recruited to digitize their past dental records and log the new ones from this year. I set up an Excel spreadsheet with all the children’s names and ages and teeth issues. Then, as each child was checked, we’d observe and write down any notes the dentists told us. Most of the kids had been treated last year so their teeth were in decent shape. But some of the kids who came from families with poor nutrition or not enough money to have their teeth checked while growing up had thick white layers of plaque that took twenty minutes to be completely scraped away from their gums.

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The kids took the cleaning bravely, especially Niti. Niti is 23 years old and had mouth pains for several years. Dr. Song took a quick look in his mouth and said, “Oh boy! All four wisdom teeth need to come out right now!” Five minutes later he was giving Niti numbing injections. Then we watched, somewhat horrified yet also mainly intrigued, as the doctor stuck surgical pliers into his mouth and twisted each tooth until it was loose enough to yank out. Niti had little pain, yet it was hard to watch because his legs and stomach flinched a few times, giving the illusion that he could feel it all. Later, he told us that he could feel the pulling but that it wasn’t painful; it was just the force of the tooth being ripped away that made him flinch.

Later on in the week MomoCat needed to go into Bangkok early in the morning, so she asked us to watch the new six week old baby girl, Soy Far, overnight so that she could get some rest before making that drive. We agreed to watch her and then nervously walked her up the dirt path to our hut. That night we learned a lot about how to make babies poo and how to soothe them when we have no clue why they’re crying. That night we got 4 hours of sleep. The next night we kept her overnight again. We felt more confident and we were determined that we had what it took to be baby whisperers. All I have to say is Jessie is a legend. I think since she helped her mom bring up four babies years ago something in her remembered how to swaddle like a pro. We still only got about 4 hours of sleep but this time Soy Far didn’t wake anybody. We’ve always had an appreciation for people who are taking care of babies, but this experience gave us a further taste of just how hard it can be.

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After two sleepless nights we were ready for a big rest, but a new opportunity presented itself. Several of the children had a relative that was getting married the next day and they needed somebody to drive them to the wedding. We quickly agreed, thinking it would be fun to see more of the countryside and experience this cultural event. The downside was that we would have to wake up at 2:30am in order to make it to the wedding, which was three hours away. Seriously, who schedules a wedding for 7am?!

So after another night of only a handful of hours of sleep, we jumped in the truck and headed down the road. The shortest and most direct route to the village required us to traverse a network of paved and dirt roads containing endless potholes and trenches formed from heavy monsoon rains carving paths across the road. Since it was pitch dark I couldn’t see any road issues until I was on top of them so after a few rough bumps I decided to take it slower. Most of the trip was done at a painstakingly slow 30km per hour. About 2/3 of the way through the journey the older Bamboo School student, Narget, told me to pull over. There were a couple guys on motorbikes that had been waiting for us to lead us to the wedding. Later we would learn that the guy who jumped in our truck was the groom! He had come an hour out of the way in the middle of the night before his wedding to show us the way.

We drove on a muddy path through the jungle. I was convinced that we would get stuck at some points, but thankfully the truck pushed on through. Just as I was thinking that this drive would never end, we went down a steep hill and then up another bump and the road ended. The sun had started rising about a half hour earlier and when I put the truck in park there was nothing in front of us but a lush, green, unadulterated valley closed in on all sides by beautiful sloping hills. I was glad to finally be there but realized as I stepped out of the car that it was going to be a major pain to turn the car around to go back.

We were a bit early so we got pulled into the bride’s family’s hut and were seated in the main room. The mother brought us huge bowls piled full of fresh watermelon, rambutan, longan, and other fruits, as well as French toast and Fanta. As we munched on some of the fruit, out of nowhere Jessie started laughing. At this point we knew we were both a little slap happy from sleep deprivation, but she told me that I had to check out the guy in the red shirt. I turned around and saw a hilarious sight. The father of the bride was busy making preparations for the wedding and he was wearing this giant bright red shirt that proclaimed: “Sex Instructor: First Lesson Free.” I busted up! It wasn’t too surprising because after living in Asia for several years I’ve noticed that they like to wear shirts with English writing on them but often are quite oblivious to what the shirt means. Still, the irony of the father wearing this extremely inappropriate shirt just minutes before the wedding kept me smiling for hours. Wish I would’ve gotten a picture of it!

The wedding started and we followed the bridal party to the church. When we got to the doors we saw that the church was packed full, so we decided to watch with some of the others from outside. But since we were possibly the only white people to have ever visited that village it was decided that we should be placed in the wedding party. We were gently forced along the side of the church to a side door where two chairs awaited us, right next to the parents of the bride! Embarrassed, we started to sit down but realized that there weren’t enough chairs. The mother was going to have to squat on the stage during her daughter’s wedding. I wouldn’t go for that, so I motioned for her to take my seat while Jessie and I half-cheeked the last chair. I don’t know whom they had ousted from the platform in order to make room for us…an uncle? A grandparent? The parents of the groom? We felt terrible but knew that in these situations you just have to surrender to culture. We sat there for what seemed like an hour, our legs falling asleep and our backs cramping up. I almost fell asleep from exhaustion during an especially long prayer, but a decorative balloon got too close to a halogen bulb and burst, which was enough to keep me awake for the rest of the service.

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The wedding was different. At no point did the bride and groom ever touch each other or even look in each other’s eyes. There were no ring or vow exchanges, no unity candles representing the merging of families. I got the feeling that with how close these people are, living closely together in open huts day after day, they didn’t need any overt promises. They could see every action and knew each one’s character already.

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After the wedding finished we sat down to a great feast in which the pastor paraded before us every person he knew of who could speak more than three words in English. Then after the meal we wished the bride and groom a happy marriage and went back out to the road.

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We waited an hour for someone to return with the groom’s motorbike. Then the groom jumped on the motorbike and led us back out to the main road, 45 minutes away. I couldn’t believe how much time of his wedding day he spent on helping us find our way!

Overall, it was a very informative week. We were sad to leave Thailand so soon but knew that we have months of exciting travel to look forward to! India, here we come!