Read every word, and no one gets hurt.

Tuesday, January 18, 2005

Chapter Two - Sunscreen, Shorts, and Elephants

I think I chose the wrong title. My title really should have the word "Bangkok" in it, or at least "Thailand," since that's where all this occurred. Oh well. Titles aren't exactly my specialty.

It's now Wednesday morning. Pastor Darin had us all meet in his room at some ungodly hour (like 8:30 a.m.) to discuss plans for the day. Our rigorous traveling schedule from the previous days should have left us just wanting another nap, but of course, we were on the other side of the world and ready to see all of it!

We hurried back to our rooms to get ready to hop on a couple vans, and here's where part of the title comes in. I don't know... There's just something significant about the first time you put on sunscreen when you're on a missions trip, at least for me. I never know how well it's going to work, because I've never been at exactly this latitude and longitude. So I lather it on until my face is shiny and beautiful.... well, just shiny. In contrast, my roommate for the trip and dear friend Shannon dabbed a miniscule amount on her nose and pronounced herself sunblocked. What can I say.... she wanted a tan, I wanted a burn-free trip!

The next significant pre-departure event was the donning of... SHORTS! We were treading on very thin ice here, despite the tropical heat, because we had been instructed by one of our leaders never to wear shorts in Vietnam. However, we weren't in Vietnam yet, and she wasn't there! So... the shorts went on, right over the sunscreen.

So, be-sunscreened and be-shorted, the 20 or so of us scrambled into two taxi vans and headed through Bangkok to the river.

Bangkok, what we saw of it anyway, is quite the city. It's enormous, buildings spreading out as far as you can see in every direction. But what struck me wasn't its size, but its variety. There were skyscrapers, factories, suburban-type homes, shacks, livestock, trains, you name it, we saw it in Bangkok. But most interesting was the way it was all laid-out, or rather, wasn't laid out. We didn't drive past a warehouse district, through a residential neighborhood, and into an inner city with skyscrapers and industrial buildings. No, as we watched the city rush past our van windows, we saw these things, literally in a row: a middle-class home, a garden, a skyscraper, a garbage dump, a factory, a big field with an elephant in it, train tracks, a car lot, and then we got to the river where we were heading all along.

Wait, did I say elephant? Yes, I did. It had us all scrambling for our cameras, not because we'd never seen one before, but because we'd never seen one casually meandering through someone's large backyard. Apparently he's kept by someone to help with the outside chores. I'm not sure if Mr. Long Nose plows fields or carries heavy loads, or what (but I'm pretty sure he wouldn't remember if I asked him! Isn't there some saying about elephants having short memories...?)

Anyway, once we got to the river (and I really should look on a map and see which river this is), we divided ourselves into three groups for 'klong rides.' I have no idea if I'm spelling that right, by the way. But, in my words, a 'klong' is a long, skinny, motorized tourist boat that took us out for an hour or so exploring the sights along the banks of the river.

And oh, what sights they were! But before we get to the sights, I must describe the smells. Or rather, the smell (singular.) Hmm... how can I make you understand.... Ok. Think of three smells you absolutely can't stand. For me, that would be a port-a-potty, a wet dog, and rotten eggs. Please imagine, if you can, a scent that combines all three of your least favorite smells. Now cut the intensity in half, so it's possible to breathe without gagging (although not without making a face)... and you've got something close to what this river smelled like!

And now for the sights. First of all, the river. The main drag was pretty wide, maybe a quarter mile across (?), but there were lots of little inlets (outlets? riverettes?) winding off on both sides, leading off in different directions. The water itself was the color of a cup of coffee mixed with about three creamers, but believe me, you wouldn't want this stuff near your mouth. In fact, every once in a while, the wind would splash a wave up over the edge of the klong into our faces, and my first thought (after clamping my mouth shut and grimacing) was how lovely it would be to douse myself in hand sanitizer.

In spite of the smell and the seemingly toxic water, I was taken with all I saw along this river. I was intrigued not because I loved what I saw, but because everything in sight was so utterly foreign - completely different from anything western. Along the "main drag" (which seems to be the easiest way to put it) were massive hotels, tourist-type stores, and ornate Buddhist and Hindu temples. The wind was up and the boats were moving fairly fast, so the ride was invigorating and refreshing. Then we slowed up and turned into what might be called a tributary. As we floated gently into the more sheltered, narrow stream, the smell made its presence rudely known again.

There were houses all along both sides of the narrow water, jutting out over the water and supported by wooden posts. I remember seeing pictures of dwellings like these in elementary school social studies books. It was strange to see them up close. Most homes were more like shacks, with glassless windows and dilapidated steps leading right down to the water. Several women we passed watched us cautiously as they washed their dishes in the river. In the river. I don't want know what else goes into that river, but I can imagine. In almost every home, we saw either a Buddha or a statue of some Hindu god. A few Hindu flags waved tall above the roofs. We also saw many smaller temples of some sort, probably Hindu.

Sometime during this eye-opening klong ride, our drivers turned off the motors to allow a few souvenir-selling women in pointy round hats (the kind you picture in a rice paddy) to approach us in some type of canoe-like boat. They offered us all sorts of goodies, none of which we wanted. Even if we had, we had no baht, or Thai currency. And towards the end of the trip, the three klongs actually docked by a reptile show of some sort, hoping to entice us in. Um... snakes? Enticing? I don't think so.

When we got back to our original place of departure, all of us of course needed to use the bathroom, but only Linda was brave enough to deal with what she expected to be a "squatty potty." Turns out it was actually a secluded dock with a crack between the planks. That made me feel oh-so-much worse about the women washing their dishes in the river...

When we were nearly back to our hotel, we spotted a McDonalds. Everyone, being famished, thought it would be a marvelous idea to dine there. Since we were so close to our hotel, as our fearless leader Justin promised, we all decided it would be fun to simply walk back after lunch. A little exercize, you know, after sitting in that klong a little too long. Catch a few rays, see some more of the city close up... sounds like a plan. I, for one, thought it was a fabulous idea.

Thirty minutes and a mile and a half later, I had changed my mind. Though I certainly appreciated my previously-applied sunscreen, my modest-but-cute T-shirt was soaking wet, and it wasn't raining. Next time you think you're lost, consider asking for directions in a country you've never visited, to people who speak a language you don't know. It's great fun. But long story short, we got there in a more or less straight line, amazingly enough. We simply weren't quite as close to our hotel as we thought. And none of us will ever trust Justin again...

We did finally get back to our hotel, and several of us felt like kissing the doorstep (and slapping Justin.) Let me tell you, I've never been so glad to be staying at a place that has a pool.

The rest of the afternoon was pretty uneventful. Just a sweaty dance practice in me and Shannon's room, and a session of re-packing before we left for the airport again. But now's where the story gets interesting, or at least more significant, so I better leave it for a later day!