Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Up north in Chiang Mai

Well, we've been in Thailand five full days now. Two in Bangkok, the rest up north here in Chiang Mai. There was a ridiculous thunder storm tonight but luckily the power didn't go out, though it threatened to, so we hunkered down in the guesthouse and I got my photos up.

We have two more days up here before heading down to the islands (three nights in Phuket, two on Koh Phi Phi). 

I've been mostly using my camera on manual, intending to get better at taking pictures. I plan to post a lot, provided I have Internet.

Khao San Road - Bangkok's tourist ghetto


In a temple

Outside a temple

Post-zip line adventure

Chiang Mai!

One more temple one for ya

Saturday, January 26, 2013

Day 1

I'm in Bangkok. I was so busy reading books and drinking coffee and taking my dog to the beach, I didn't do too much research when I was in Oregon. I had mild panic the night before my flight, which my dear friend Lily (who has been traveling the world for more than a year now) blessedly allayed. 

Me: Hey, I've done almost zero research for my trip, but that's fine right? You didn't do any research right?
Lily: Right.

Phew. I feel kind of guilty for not doing any real planning, but in reality planning is for people who are short on time. I have 3.5 months until I need to get on a train to Russia, so I have time to make it up as I go along.

I think I brought too much stuff, but then at the airport, looking at my fellow twenty-something white folks with fancy backpacks and requisite swishy cargo pants, it looks like we all brought about the same amount of too much stuff. So that's comforting.

I split a cab with a guy who is just like me. Not only did he have a huge backpack and the pants, he's also been bumping around the world since he graduated and works in writing and editing. He has a cool blog about his experiences, it's called Around the World in 80 Jobs, check it out.

I had my moments of doubt on the airplane. Why am I doing this? Honestly - I concluded - I'm doing it because it seems like the kind of thing I would do and because I want to have more stamps in my passport than you. My self esteem is strongly tied to me passport stamps. 

But it's nice to have the benefit of experience, by now I know I always get plane jitters. In 2008: Why am I moving to Taiwan to teach English? In 2010: Why am I moving to Shanghai by myself? And eight months ago: Why am I moving to Beijing by myself when all my best friends are galavanting in Vietnam? 

The other thing that happened on the plane: I listened to a 33-year-old man who works in information services explain to his seatmate that he was going to Thailand to meet a girl. Americans. We have a penchant for talking about ourselves loudly and earnestly such than people can't help but eavesdrop. I eavesdropped. Mr. Information Services said that his lady friend scolded him for extravagance when he mailed her a box of candy. The context of this anecdote was "so obviously she's not after my moneys." I wanted to turn around and say, "maybe she's playing the long con, dude!" 

I had a delicious and super spicy chicken salad over rice for breakfast and then cooled my palate with a big iced coffee with condensed milk - all for US$1.50. Thus far, two Thai people have walked up and offered unsolicited but extremely helpful directions/advice. I like it here.

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Their Lonely Betters

I subscribe to an email newsletter that sends out a poem a day. Today I received this one by W.H. Auden. I really like it so here it is:

Their Lonely Betters

As I listened from a beach-chair in the shade
To all the noises that my garden made,
It seemed to me only proper that words
Should be withheld from vegetables and birds.
A robin with no Christian name ran through
The Robin-Anthem which was all it knew,
And rustling flowers for some third party waited
To say which pairs, if any, should get mated.

Not one of them was capable of lying,
There was not one which knew that it was dying
Or could have with a rhythm or a rhyme
Assumed responsibility for time.

Let them leave language to their lonely betters
Who count some days and long for certain letters;
We, too, make noises when we laugh or weep:
Words are for those with promises to keep.

I leave tomorrow morning for Bangkok. I've already laid out my big girl pants (erm, the clothes I'm going to wear tomorrow) and most everything else is spread out on my floor waiting to be tucked into my backpack. Time to go travel the world!

Sunday, January 6, 2013

Box Bookstores

Barnes & Noble posted a big dip in holiday sales this year. I can still remember as a kid when Borders and Barnes & Noble came to Anchorage and my parents, being small business owners themselves, insisted we shop at the independent local alternative whenever possible.

I shopped in B&N before Christmas this year. I was in the store for about an hour and no one ever asked me if I needed help. Yes, it was days before Christmas and the lines were long, but still. At checkout, the clerk asked if I wanted to renew my membership. I weighed the fee against how much I was likely to spend there in a year and decided it wasn't worth it (i.e. the member discount wouldn't cover the fee). We had a short, friendly conversation and he conceded that he thought if the fee were a bit lower more people would bite, and then I admitted I mostly shop for books online. Then he said something about how when everyone does that, local jobs disappear. 

He wasn't antagonistic about it, just stating a fact, and while what he said is assuredly true - why should I shop at B&N? I got less out of my B&N experience than I do out of regular Amazon shopping. Since I'm a bit of a book fiend, I appreciate that Amazon tracks my purchases and then makes suggestions for similar books. I like that I get a monthly mailer with editor's picks and all the best new releases. And when no one in B&N even asked if I needed help, they're clearly not competing on the "customer experience" front. Further, now that I have a phone with 3G, I whipped it out and saw that the Kindle price for a certain book was $4 less than the version sitting on a B&N display table. That was an easy decision.

Even more confusingly, the first thing that greets you when you walk into this particular B&N is a giant display area for the Nook, their e-reader. And I think there was floor staff dedicated to hawking it, as opposed to helping me. Yeah, things are going the way of the e-reader, but you still need to shore up the base!

The whole business model seems fraught. I don't really like walking the aisles at B&N. I find it overwhelming and most the end displays seem to be geared toward a consumer who isn't me. 

Conversely, I still love a good used/indie bookstore, a place with a shelf full of employee recommendations where you can get store credit for bringing old stuff in. After B&N, my mom and I went over the University of Oregon bookstore and I really enjoyed it. So much so, I wound up buying three books that I hadn't intended to. 

B&N, you're doing it wrong.

Friday, January 4, 2013

Three more weeks...

Today I paid a visit to the great and glorious REI, the only clubhouse every upstanding Northwesterner ought to be a member of. Everyone else may as well just expatriate to New England, which is basically what I told my Seattle-born, Dartmouth-prof cousin who tagged along before we dropped him at the Eugene airport to fly back east.

I don't like travel shopping, there's an infinite amount of "preparedness" one can buy and the difference between necessary, nice-to-have and utterly superfluous can be difficult to discern. I like this kind of shopping slightly better when mummy dearest pays (here's lookin' at you, oh venerable matriarch). And I especially like it now that it's over and I have all this nifty gear laying on the garage floor. I love the anticipation that comes with packing.

It's high time I actually actually start making a game plan for this trip. Yesterday I sent off for a Russian tourist visa, and really a lot depends on if that comes through or not. I've also made hostel reservations for my first two nights in Bangkok. So I haven't dropped the ball entirely. Mostly, I'm procrastinating because I hate the idea of crossing anything off my list of things I want to see, and, inevitably, I can't see everything.

What I'm Reading

Just finished

In Praise of Messy Lives by Katie Roiphe 

This is a collection of essays by Roiphe, who is a Salon columnist and culture critic. She's best known (and in some circles, reviled) for a book she wrote in the nineties that took a critical look at "date rape." More recently, she's written a lot in defense of single motherhood. Like most interesting opinion leaders, she makes a lot of excellent points that are sometimes subsumed by a larger, less solid broad statement. Still, her most strident detractors thrive on making a straw man out of her arguments. I really enjoyed a lot of what she had to say and the book as a whole.

Wild by Cheryl Strayed

I read it! December was the month of mid-career, feminist lady writers for me. Strayed hiked the Pacific Crest Trail alone when she was 26. I really liked the details on the physical aspect of the journey and her introspections were fairly interesting too, though I lost interest in the last 20 pages. That's not necessarily the book's fault. Introspective journeys are interesting when they're fraught, not when they're resolved ("I'm happy and at peace with myself now!" ...zzzzzz). What most surprised me about this book was how little Strayed wrote about loneliness. I doubt I could spend so much time on my own, but props to her.

Currently reading 

The Pushcart Prize XXXVII: Best of the Small Presses

An anthology of the best poetry, fiction and essays from lit mags. It's a monster book so I try to read one or two things per night before I go to sleepy sleep. So far, I've read some good poems. I finished one and thought to myself, "Wow. This is kind of dark. And abstract. I don't really get it, but I like it," figuring it was some cerebral, meta poem that only people with master's degrees can properly understand. Then I looked in the back of the book and saw that it was written by a fourth grader. Fourth graders with Pushcart prizes. Man...

I'm still working my way through the 2008 travel writing anthology and deciding what's the next thing I should plow through. I can probably get through two more books before it's time to leave.

Also: This is an excellent profile of George Saunders. I've only read a tiny bit of his short fiction, but now I think I'll buy his new book, Tenth of December.

Tuesday, January 1, 2013

2012 Reviewed

This may be my favorite kind of blog post, and now I'm doing it for a fifth time  (see 20112010, 2009, 2008).

Shanghai - just shy of 5 months
Cambodia - 1 day (end of last Christmas break)
Wuxi/Tai Hu - two nights
Yangshou - 2 nights
Guilin - 1 night (Billy and I had our flight back to Shanghai delayed)
Beijing - 6 months
Taiwan - 1 week
Chicago - 2 days
Oregon - 5 weeks
Seattle airport - a few hours, a few times

Most of the things I thought would happen this year didn't, but in a good way. Instead of spending the second half of the year traveling, I went up to Beijing to be a chief editor and I got all the power and the money, money and the power, minute after minute, hour after hour. Not really. But sorta. (By the way guys, that's a Coolio reference.)

In May, all my plans changed so quickly. I'd already dropped my passport off at the Vietnamese embassy - all ready for my extended beach stay - and then I wound up speeding in the opposite direction. To an urban desert. To work my ass off for six months. Hmm.  It was stressful, but it was great too. 

Despite the added responsibility, I wrote a cover story I feel good about. I spent a few fun weeks catching up with my good friend Lily. I savored my final months in Shanghai. I showed my brother what expat life is like over spring break. For a second time, I moved alone to a foreign city. And by making a life in Beijing - a basically unpleasant place - I proved to myself I could probably be reasonably comfortable anywhere. I met wonderful new people through my roommates and through work. I probably ate Peking duck six times in the space of my first month up there (lots of lunch meetings, and all the hotels want you to try theirs...). I took an online course in sociology and half a course in modern poetry (which I need to finish). I was in my college girlfriend Elizabeth's wedding and saw my best friend Ashley for the first time in four years. I caught the bouquet, and Tebowed it. There wasn't much competition because all my other girlfriends waved their hands 
limply at shoulder level, kind of like "please don't let it hit me!", which seems to be the post-feminist college woman's requisite bouquet-catch behavior. Too bad, because I was ready to throw some 'bows... ironically. 

 Now it's almost time to revisit last year's resolutions, which I have mixed feelings about, because everything just went so differently than I planned. I got into zero grad schools, which, with the last year in perspective, seems like a good thing. I may apply again, but I don't have a sense of urgency about it. Though I had less time to write this year, I still made improvement. The things I learned both about editing and about myself in Beijing are invaluable. As I prepared to leave Shanghai, before I knew I was moving to Beijing, I had a lot of anxiety about "what's next." I don't have that anymore. Partly because an extra six months at the magazine affirmed that I'd rather write than edit, partly because it's a confidence boost to be hired to manage something. I am good for a task that's tangible, that has dollar signs attached to it. Sometimes you don't get that sense  when you're just writing articles. When I think back on 2012, I'll remember that was the year I moved to Beijing with only three weeks' notice. And that makes me happy, that life is surprising like that. 
Enough stalling! On to the resolution revisiting:

2012 Resolutions
1. Be less busy/prioritize time with the people I care about most (Nope. Basically, I did the opposite of this.)
2. Eat and cook more quality, nutritious food, eat less crap (Kind of. I ate well when it wasn't deadline week. When it was deadline week I drank too much coffee, then got ravenous and sucked down a lot of McDonald's. I also did a fair amount of therapeutic baking. This is probably a wash.)
3. Prioritize exercise (I exercised regularly in Beijing, except during deadline week, and I always walked or biked to work)
4. Make meaningful progress in writing fiction (Nah, not really)
5. Travel more (I saw Chicago, Tai Lake and Yangshuo over a couple weekends...)
6. Journal every day-ish (briefly) and keep track of books I read, movies I watch and people I meet (ugh, I tried to do this for about three days and it was hard and boring. I journal when the mood strikes, which is about quarterly.)

2013 Resolutions
1. Lose 10 pounds. There's no deadline week when you're fun-employed, so no excuses.
2. Read a lot of good modern things and a lot of classics.
3. Write a novel
4. Write 3-4 non-fiction essays
5. Pay my respects to Lenin and Ho Chi Minh, cuz I love me some embalmed Communists

Five seems like enough. I feel nervous typing them since I batted one-ish for six last year, but then having zero jobs  takes out a major variability factor. Anything I don't accomplish will be my own deciding. Now I am the master. (That's a Star Wars reference, guys.) Happy New Year!