The Romantic Beach Dinner

Paul and I became those people tonight–the ones dining on the beach with a private valet, bushels of orchids perfuming the air, a lighted chandelier swaying over our heads, candles marking the edges of our dining area, and broiled lobsters bristling on our plates.  img_1853

Our travel company kindly treated us to a romantic, private dinner on the beach at the Tubkaak Resort in Krabi after an unfortunate experience in a Bangkok restaurant.

It was a beautiful setting and delicious food, but there was a story under all that glitz and glamour…

We’d been traveling for ten days by this time, and we’d done our laundry once. We bundled the hot, smelly mess into a bag and handed it to the staff. When later I opened the closet to change my clothes, it was empty. We had two choices–each of us wear the one pair of dirty underwear we had turned inside out twice already–or my idea–go commando.

“I’m not going without underwear.” Paul said, pulling back on the grey, rumpled pair of shorts that had already seen a waterfall hike and a particularly warm day at a temple.

“My dress is lined, so I don’t need underwear.” Together we held up the pale blue, strapless dress and inspected it. We had it made in Chang Mai, and the tailor was better at men’s clothing. Significantly better.

“Pretty sure you need that underwear,’ Paul said shaking his head.

So, just like the couple who planned the events of their Senior Prom, Paul and I prepared for the Romantic Beach Dinner.

Paul shaved. Then I shaved using his razor. He says they are ruined after that, but I don’t see the difference. Paul ironed his pants and shirt and buffed his shoes.

I needed help of a different kind.

“I lean over and drop them in and then you cinch me on the tightest clasps,” I instructed him while bending over at the waist. Paul stood frozen.

“How do you think a woman gets a strapless bra on?” I complained and snapped my fingers.

When we arrived at the beach, our valet, Chantra, waited for us. The sun was still bright over the water, and the humidity seeped into my hair. I had used a new organic mosquito repellent, Kaffir Lime, and the smell made Paul walk several feet behind me.

Chantra seated us at a table for two in the sand. Tinkling crystals bushed against each other overhead, stems of white and purple orchids spilled from the candelabras dug into the sand, and yards of tulle covered our chairs and the table. We were the cake topper engulfed in cream frosting.

What I didn’t expect, was the string of people who walked past our table a few feet away guessing why were having such a fancy dinner.

“Too old to be getting married,”

“Yeah, anniversary, maybe,”

“I don’t get it. Who are they?”

As we were the objects of scrutiny and discussion, we dined on Crab Salad Towers, Andaman Sea Soup, Passion Fruit Sorbet,  Broiled Lobster, and Tiramisu for dessert.  In between each course, Chantra dashed from the shadows and sprayed Bug Off on my legs (the organic stuff was a bust), and Paul and I took turns re-lighting the candles which was like playing Whack-a-Mole, because there were so many. We shooed away a cat who jumped on my lap determined to snare our lobster carcasses, and I helped Chantra find a fork when he dropped it in the sand. It took a village to keep that dinner on track.

“Coffee,” I called out to the darkness. “Please?” I cleared my throat. “Chantra?”

We picked up our things–phones, reading glasses, and sun glasses–the vitals, you know, and before we left, just for me, Paul faked one last dancing picture. img_1912

Upon returning to our room, we really celebrated. Our laundry was back. Paul counted his underwear pile twice, and I squealed when I saw my Ohio State Buckeyes nightgown starched and hung on a hanger. It looked better than the dress, and it did not require a bra of any kind.

Monk Chat

I told Paul I wanted to meet a monk in Thailand, and he responded that it was unlikely there was a Monk Chat tour. Maybe Karma will arrange a meeting, I sniffed.  Sure, he said. Go for it…

Well…on the last leg of our inbound flight to Bangkok, I saw a monk, swathed in a voluminous, tangerine-colored sheet  with a wool hat pulled over his ears, enter the plane and walk down our aisle. I offered to trade him my window seat for his middle seat, and he said yes. It felt odd to sit between my husband and a monk, but when I glanced at Paul with a bemused smile on my face, I did not know that Karma dislikes smugness.  monk chat

“Would you mind if I asked you about being a monk?” He nodded in agreement and I pondered my opening. In the back of my brain I remembered my feet had to point away from him, I couldn’t step on his shadow, and, with a thrill, I recalled there could be no skin to skin contact with a woman (even his mother and sisters) because females have a corrupting influence on monks. I raised the armrest between Paul and myself and mentally measured the distance between the monk and me. It appeared to be ample.  Karma also does not appreciate superciliousness.

“How long have you been a monk?”

“Since I was seven years old,,” he replied looking at me over the top of his glasses. “My parents sent me to the temple so I could get an education. I was a novice until I was twenty and then I accepted the robes for life.”

“Did your parents come visit you?”

“Yes, but only once a year on my birthday. Chang Rai is very far from Bangkok,” he said pulling his robe tighter and settling into the gap between the seat and the window.

“Could they bring a birthday cake?” group monks

“No, monks can only eat what they are offered each morning.”

I raised my eyebrows. Karma does not like doubt.

“Monks take bowls out each morning and people who follow Buddha put money and food in the bowls. It’s called alms.” His sheet pulled away from his shoulder, and for a moment I saw a section of his smooth, hairless chest and bare arm. They looked delicate, unlined, and, I have to say it…naked.

“What do you do as a monk?” Karma does not like rudeness.

“I pray, chant, and meditate.”

“I can’t meditate,” I rushed in. “There are so many thoughts in my head, I can’t stop them.” Next to me I felt Paul’s back shake with laughter. Karma does’t like interruptions.

“Yes, you can. You can learn to meditate.” He pointed to my water bottle. “Look at it. See how it is shaped? The color? The amount of water? Focus on it.” monk unbrella

I tilted the bottle back and forth like a snow globe. “What does meditating do?” Karma does not like impatience.

“When you are a monk you can meditate alone or with others. It is about stilling your thoughts, carving a hole inside you, and letting it fill itself. I teach the novices to meditate using the full moon as their object.”

We chatted for a while longer, and then he put his headphones on and turned away to watch a movie. I stared at my water bottle and tried to do as he suggested. Still my thoughts, carve a hole, let it fill itself.  I looked at the water through the blue plastic. Maybe I could smell the water. Karma does not like disbelief.

I flipped open the top of the bottle and leaned in to smell. The bottle was filled to the edge, and I didn’t notice growing bubbles roiling and building in the bottom. Before I could figure out what was happening, the straw bulged and water surged to the top. The combination of the change in air pressure in the plane and my shaking the bottle during my monk chat had created a geyser of pressurized water. It shot out the bottle and straight into the ceiling above our heads. It rained all over the monk, Paul and me, and when the bottle was empty, drips from the ceiling rolled down the sides of our faces. The front of my shirt was soaked, and the monk’s robes were so water-logged, he could have wrung them out. Paul jumped up to get towels, and I held the empty water bottle in my hand. Karma got even.

“I’m so sorry,” I whispered. “I was meditating. Trying to.”

He took his glasses off and used a section of his cloth to rub his lenses dry.

“That’s good,” he said placing his glasses back on. “perhaps if you focus on a full moon, it is unlikely it will rain.”

I have never believed in Karma. I may have to rethink my position.  monk parade

I’ll Do It My Way (with the Help of 20 Dancing Thai Women)

I led a congo line of dancing middle-age women to Frank Sinatra’s I”’ll Do it My Way” tonight at the Night Market in Chang Mai, Thailand. Where’s the picture? There isn’t one. Paul was in the bathroom.

I’m glad—but not for the reasons you might think.

Our vacation to Thailand has come at a crossroads for me. Although we started planning it back in February, I didn’t know until a few months later that the legislature would eliminate my job. I was unaware that I would be facing medical issues that are more annoying than anything else–but still real.

I felt like I was waiting at a bus stop where every bus passed me by. When the funding was cut for my position, I was five months from my twenty-year anniversary which is the magic number for a complete retirement package. The state education agency agreed to keep me on for those extra five months and asked me to complete a few small projects. Five months is a long time to have very little to do. It is a long time to be an expert in what you do and yet no one needs you to do it. The few projects took me a few weeks, not months, and while I waited for the time to pass, I did a lot of thinking.

So, that brings me back to the Night Market dance. In Chang Mai, there is a day market that sells indigo clothes, smocked pants, and all things elephant. The night market sells all of the same things, but it takes place at night where pastel lamps swing in the breeze, the flames of the street food surge with the cooking meat, Las Vegas-style Thai Lady Boys pose for pictures for 100BHT (three dollars), and people get up and sing karaoke. Here’s the deal—Night Market in Chang Mai is huge. I’m talking enough vendors to fill a football field. I’m talking a booming audio system for the karaoke.

I sat down in a plastic chair in the middle of the third row in front of the karaoke stage. I clutched my purse in my lap. ‘Zip up your purse,’ Paul mouthed to me over his shoulder as he walked away.  I sat quietly, my leg bouncing to the rhythm of the music. A tiny, grey-haired Thai man on the stage was sweating, pacing back and forth, and pointing to the women in the crowd as he belted out Sinatra’s greatest hit. The woman sitting next to me reached over and tapped my arm. She tipped her head towards the stage and motioned for me to go up. I shook my head No. No way. Her friend reached over and patted my leg. Her eyes crinkled at the corners, and she laughed and pushed my arm. It was a friendly push.

Emboldened, they began to talk to me in Thai. Their voices got higher and more insistent. Their friends came over curious to see why the crazy American lady wouldn’t sing karaoke. Finally, I dropped my purse and stood up. They roared and shook their fists in the air.  There was no way I was going to sing, but I could dance. Seconds later there was a pile of purses knee deep, and twenty Thai women and one crazy red head were pressed against the stage and waving their arms like they were at a concert.

The singer motioned for the music to start again. I lined the little ladies up, their worn ballet flats facing forward, and patted each of them as I ran down the row putting their hands on the shoulders of the woman in front of them. I took the lead at the front of the line, and we took off. We snaked through the stalls, pausing to wave our hands like flags when it came to Sinatra’s big line. People were filming us with their I Phones, and I am afraid to check YouTube.

I was astounded by the joy and freedom I felt. It didn’t matter if I looked ridiculous. The Thai ladies and I were having the time of our lives. I kicked my foot to the left with my friends, and we belted out the chorus better than the big New Yorker himself.

All those months of waiting are done. Twenty years was a long time to wait for the congo-line moment of my life, but it is here, and I don’t need a picture to prove to myself that I can do it. For the rest of the night, every time I passed one of those lovely ladies in the market, we’d put our heads together and sing, “I’ll do it my way.”

Chopsticks Not Required

There’s something about Autumn that causes Paul and I to glance at one another with renewed interest. We feel an itch that needs to be scratched. We stare at each other with raised eyebrows. We pace the house while the rain falls outside. Finally, one of us says, ‘Do you want to go on a trip?’ and the other one sighs, ‘Yes.’

We’re going to Thailand.

Paul spreads travel guides across the dining table, studying maps until he has them memorized. I practice my wai greeting—bowing my head and pressing my palms together.  I say the feminine ‘Sawasdee kha’ and Paul answers with the masculine ‘Sawasdee krap,’ the Thai greeting for hello. We watch Netflix shows on street food, buy mosquito repellant for the jungle hikes, ponder appropriate footwear for longtail boats, and read numerous New York Times articles on the ethics of elephant and human interaction.

Paul is relaxed during the days of planning, but my gut churns with something other than acid reflux. Finally, one evening, I lean over on the couch and whisper in his ear, ‘I can’t use chopsticks.”

In the summer of 1987, two of my male friends talked me into going on a blind date with one of their buddies. Don’t ask me his name, I don’t remember. All I know is on that night I went from being a chopstick virgin to a chopstick failure.

He took me to a Chinese restaurant in downtown Seattle, and as our food arrived, he grabbed the fork out of my hand and slapped a set of thin, wooden sticks into my palm.

‘I won’t let you use a fork.’ I still remember his smarmy grin. He must have thought I was the kind of girl who would find it funny. I didn’t. I was steaming.

I bent my stiff fingers around the slim sticks and tried to twirl the noodles like spaghetti. They slid down and pooled on the plate. I chased the chicken trying to get one stick under the meat, but it just kept circling the rim. I attempted to stab a vegetable. No luck. I contemplated stabbing the back of his hand laying on the table between us, but then I remembered I was a lady. I heard him giggle, and I raised my eyes in time to see rubbery rings of calamari speeding towards my mouth.

“Open,” he demanded. “You’ll love it.”

“I want a fork,” I bellowed over my shoulder. The waiter ran between the tables and placed it next to me. He took the offending chopsticks and scurried back to the kitchen.

“The guys didn’t tell me you were so feisty,” Blind date guy said slurping noodles between his lips.

So, I’ve never recovered from chopsticks failure. I’ve tried over the years, but as soon as something flies over the booth, falls on the floor, or zings across the table, I toss the sticks into my purse and embrace the fork.  Paul, of course, clicks chopsticks in the air like an insect during mating season and swoops, shovels, and gulps without dropping them or flicking sauce on himself.  I watch unmoved.

I remind Paul of the possible benefit of my inability to use chopsticks in Thailand—weight loss. ‘Time on task,’ he chides. ‘You have to practice.’ Easy for him to say. I agree to try again.  I retrieve Paul’s personal chopsticks and plop a scoop of ice cream in a bowl. Then my phone rings. It is Natasha, our guide, from Audley Travel.

I confess my fears to her. She laughs and says, “You’ll be fine. People use spoons, forks and chopsticks all over the country.”

Triumph in my eyes, I hang up the phone and announce to Paul, “Good news. Natasha says I don’t have to smuggle a fork into Thailand.”

Paul, knowing there is no topic too insignificant to discuss, nods carefully and replies, “I am happy. Any time we can avoid an international incident over table utensils is a good day.”