IAN.Y.S.M. Entry 005 – Getting to know Bangkok, Exploring (with) Cecille: A True Love Travelogue Series – Part 3

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Waking up was surreal.  It was the morning after my arrival, and I’ve had far too little sleep.  Not that I’m complaining; it was a memorable night for sure, first with my arrival in Thailand, followed by the hours spent getting to know the woman I had grown so “virtually” close to in the flesh.  Not that only “the flesh” was involved in this process – sure, we had figured out pretty quickly how wonderfully natural it felt to kiss each other, but after 4 months of courtship with a whole planet between us, simply being in the same room as each other felt amazing.  After hours of cuddling and conversation, my exhaustion finally overtook my excitement, and we gave in to sleep….for a few hours, at least, until I woke up starving and in dire need of some breakfast.

And so, we headed down to eat at the breakfast buffet in the hotel restaurant.  As we ate, it became apparent to me that everything about this was surreal – the feeling I had upon waking wasn’t going away anytime soon; here I was, in the midst of what had only been a fantastical daydream just scant months prior.  I remember the mix of emotions: a sense of achievement, for turning a “what if” into reality, the pioneering excitement one feels when just discovering a new and unfamiliar land for the first time, and of course my feelings for Cecille, this larger-than-life woman who was in fact a little bit smaller than I had imagined her…but also, more beautiful than pictures or a webcam could convey.  I was excited: excited about the coming 2 weeks, the places I would discover and the sights I would see; but even more so, excited about the prospect of spending these 2 weeks with her, and what could develop as we got to know each other more.

Breakfast was quite satisfying, but I was nowhere near feeling well-rested…but this was OK, because Cecille and I had the foresight to keep our itinerary clear for this first day. We knew I’d be jetlagged, and that touring Bangkok and Thailand would be much more enjoyable if done with adequate rest to mitigate the jet-lag of my global traverse.  We headed back up to our room, only venturing out to acquire more take-out Chinese food from the restaurant around the corner when our bellies demanded the attention. Otherwise, it was a day of intimate relaxation, frequent cuddling, and simply getting used to the idea that we were actually in the same place at the same time. In short, we shut out the outside world and lived in one of our own creation as I recuperated.

We woke early the next morning, and I felt refreshed and ready for adventure. Our first stop? The quintessential tourist destination of any Bangkok tourist: The Grand Palace!  After another satisfying breakfast, we hopped into a taxi and headed to our destination.  This ride was my first opportunity to really see Bangkok, alive and in daylight.  Naturally, the first thing I noticed was the humid, sweltering heat! I was sweating instantly, but I wasn’t surprised – this was to be expected in a tropical location.  I was thankful for the A/C in the taxi, and while we rode, I held Cecille close as I gazed at the world outside of the window.  Traffic moved in some kind of barely controlled chaos, which can basically be described as everyone goes at once, with yielding done only at the last possible instant.  This approach remained consistent regardless of vehicle size or velocity – the large tour buses, motorbikes, Tuk-Tuks, Taxis, and tinted-window SUVs all vied for leverage, taking every inch of road afforded to them.

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Also, Bangkok is a colorful city, from the fabrics being sold street-side, the numerous Buddhist shrines located practically everywhere, the hot pink or green taxis, to the variety of fresh fruits displayed by cart-vendors on every street corner.   Bangkok is vibrant, bright, and alive….and it smells, too.   Admittedly, not as bad as most underground NYC subway stations…and any city with a population of several million has its own unique “parfum”, that’s for sure!

Our taxi dropped us off near the Palace gates, and so we headed to the closest visible entrance.  Although this particular gate was closed, there was a small crowd of people milling about the entrance.  We surely looked like tourists as we sauntered up to it, and a Thai man with a somewhat official looking outfit approached us.  He informed us in broken English that the Palace was not yet open to the public for another hour (1pm, we were told), but why don’t we just step into this waiting Tuk-Tuk for a tour of the area instead of standing around?  He must have sounded persuasive, because within seconds I was following my usually headstrong and city-smart Cecille into a small Tuk-Tuk, which wasted no time in speeding off away from the Palace.   Although I hadn’t really had time to react or question what was going on, as we were herded into the Tuk-Tuk I remembered something I had read online a few weeks before about a common scam at the Palace; men would dress in some semblance of “official looking uniform”, then lie to tourists about the Palace being closed for the sole purpose of sending them off on an overpriced half-hour “tour” in a waiting Tuk-Tuk.  As we were already approaching  the next intersection, it dawned on me that this is exactly what was happening to us. I turned to Cecille:

“Hey…why are we doing this?”

She shrugged her shoulders. “If the Palace isn’t open yet, then why not? You’ll get a chance to see some of the city while we wait.”

“I read on the internet that the Palace is open all day. I think these guys are lying to us.” The Tuk-Tuk stopped at a traffic light. “Can we just go? Let’s get out of here.”

Cecille didn’t argue or hesitate. Just like that, she just trusted me, even though this was now her city and I was the stranger; she grabbed my hand, and we jumped off from the Tuk-Tuk together, saying “No, sorry, we’re going now,” to the incredulous driver.  With this simple gesture, I immediately trusted her more, too.

Still holding hands, we walked the few blocks back to the Grand Palace.

After locating the correct entrance, we walked onto the Palace grounds. We entered through The Phimanchaisri Gate, the main entrance from the Outer to the Middle Court. The Outer Court or Khet Phra Racha Than Chan Na (เขตพระราชฐานชั้นหน้า) of the Grand Palace is situated to the northwest of the palace (the northeast being occupied by the Temple of the Emerald Buddha).   Not surprisingly, it was crowded with other tourists…just another day at one of the world’s most majestic Royal compounds.

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Also, according to the Palace’s dress code, one could not go sleeveless.  Thankfully, Palace staff operate a shirt rental for a nominal fee.  My collared shirt was deemed acceptable so we went to procure a shirt for Cecille:

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She wore it with style, of course!

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We made our way into the crowded area near the compound of giant golden temples where The Temple of the Emerald Buddha or Wat Phra Kaew (วัดพระแก้ว) is located and had a look around.  We sat for a moment to plan our next move, and I took a quick video as I glanced around.

(Isn’t she sweet? Already contemplating a gift for my mother. 🙂 )

The Royal Palace is amazing, truly opulent. Everywhere I turned, there was something else fascinating to look at.

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This one particular building was in the midst of undergoing some renovations:

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Next, we checked out the scale model of Angkor Wat, and a nice young lady took what was for us, our first photo together

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Then, Phra Thinang Boromphiman (living quarters for royalty) but the gates were being closed as we got there.

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We also took some time to sit in the Temple of the Emerald Buddha located in the compound where the giant golden temples are.  The interior of the Temple was even more ornate and glittering than what you can see in the other pics of the Palace, but unfortunately, there was no photography allowed inside.  We spent about 15 minutes in there, in silent meditative reverence, taking in all of the shiny and magnificent details of our surroundings.

Then we went to Phra Thinang Chakri Maha Prasat, which houses the throne room where the King receives ambassadors on the occasion of the presentation of their credentials.

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One of the ground floor sections housed an “Arms Room”, a gun museum which displayed many antique guns from different eras and nations.  Unfortunately, no photos were allowed inside, so I can’t show it off!

After checking out the guns for a little while, we headed over to the Queen Sirikit Museum of Textiles.  It’s located in the Ratsadakorn-bhibbhathana building, and is described as such:

“The museum’s mission is to collect, display, preserve, and serve as a centre for all who wish to learn about textiles, past and present, from Southeast Asia, South Asian, and East Asia, with a special emphasis on the textiles of, and related to, the royal court and Her Majesty Queen Sirikit.” – See more at: http://asemus.museum/museum/queen-sirikit-museum-of-textiles

Unlike Cecille, who basically gushed and wowed at every display of the exquisite Thai silk “haute couture”  (gowns and dresses worn by Thai royalty), the museum itself was only barely interesting to me – but the fun part came after the walkthrough: an opportunity to be dressed up in traditional Thai garb!

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I’m such a lucky guy…

Lastly , we checked out the Pavilion of Regalia, Royal Decorations and Coins which is a museum of….you guessed it: regalia, royal decorations, and coins.  Although it was interesting, by this time we were both getting hungry and I could tell that Cecille’s feet were starting to bother her again.  I told her that I would change the dressing on her wounds once we returned to the hotel, but for now, why don’t we give our feet a break and sit down for a late lunch?  We left the Palace grounds and headed across the street to eat at Au Bon Pain.  Once we stepped into the air conditioned restaurant, Cecille repeated the caring ritual that she had began earlier that day – she brought out a hand towel and mopped the sweat from my brow.  Since it’s always hot in Thailand, this is something that she would do more of numerous times, during this trip and the following ones as well.  Every time she does so, I am touched; it feels good to be doted on in this way! 🙂

It was already early evening once we finished our meal, so we decided to head to the bank of the Chao Praya River to watch the sunset while we waited for a river boat to ferry us to the other side so that we could visit the Wat Arun (Temple Of Dawn) across the way.

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After roaming the area around the Temple for a while, we sat together close by to relax, then plan our way back to the hotel.  The nearest BTS (Skytrain) station wasn’t very near, so we decided to catch a Tuk-Tuk to get there.  A minute or two before we got to the street, it started pouring..!  Naturally, this made the Tuk-Tuk ride into a splashy wet adventure, our driver unfazed by the slippery road conditions.  But still safe and sound, we made it to the BTS station, caught a train, and then a transfer to an MRT train (Bangkok’s subway) before arriving to the vicinity of our hotel.  Tired, wet, dirty, and hungry – but nevertheless very happy about our day of exploration.  Cecille often commented how lucky we were to have visited such a special and historical place, and having the chance to be able to get to know such an amazing country’s cultural heritage, artifacts and architecture up close.  After hours of walking about, our eyes were satiated and we were done sightseeing for the day. Our stomachs however were feeling the other way around and so we stopped at our new favorite Chinese restaurant Chok Dee and grabbed some take-out for the hotel room. However, once we finally returned to our “base”, showering and eating were temporarily postponed due to other priorities… 😉

It’s A New Yorker’s State of Mind is a periodic contribution from Ian, Cecille’s devoted fiancé, about the developing story of creating a life together with his Muse – and the journeys, trials, and triumphs that come with it. Born and raised in New York, Ian enjoys travel both domestically in the US and abroad to Europe (and now Asia!). An adventurous spirit, a music enthusiast, and an avid reader, he’s up for writing about places to go, things to do, music to listen to, and books to read. Unadulterated and direct, IAN.Y.S.M. is a refreshing peek on the male perspective, a companionate “side window” into Ian’s POV from New York, and a fitting rendering alongside the lovely msglobalfilipina’s riveting entries. \m/

The museum’s mission is to collect, display, preserve, and serve as a centre for all who wish to learn about textiles, past and present, from Southeast Asia, South Asia, and East Asia, with a special emphasis on the textiles of, and related to, the royal court and Her Majesty Queen Sirikit. – See more at: http://asemus.museum/museum/queen-sirikit-museum-of-textiles/#sthash.SyHUXcjM.dpuf
The museum’s mission is to collect, display, preserve, and serve as a centre for all who wish to learn about textiles, past and present, from Southeast Asia, South Asia, and East Asia, with a special emphasis on the textiles of, and related to, the royal court and Her Majesty Queen Sirikit. – See more at: http://asemus.museum/museum/queen-sirikit-museum-of-textiles/#sthash.SyHUXcjM.dpuf
The museum’s mission is to collect, display, preserve, and serve as a centre for all who wish to learn about textiles, past and present, from Southeast Asia, South Asia, and East Asia, with a special emphasis on the textiles of, and related to, the royal court and Her Majesty Queen Sirikit. – See more at: http://asemus.museum/museum/queen-sirikit-museum-of-textiles/#sthash.SyHUXcjM.dpuf
Ratsadakorn-bhibhathana Building
Queen Sirikit Museum of Textiles
Queen Sirikit Museum of Textiles
Queen Sirikit Museum of Textiles

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Prathet Thai Antarai (Dangerous Thailand): Accident Files in the Land of Smiles

Every morning, my company shuttles me and other employees between our dorm and the hospital in which we work. Today, the driver was burning up the road like crazy, as usual. So I fastened my seatbelt and upon the “click” sound, all eyes turned to me. It seemed they all found it weird that I didn’t want to die yet.

So I sent the fiancé a message: “They all chuckled when I wore my seatbelt”.

To that he replied: “Oh f*** them! If the van crashes you can laugh as you walk away and step over their corpses.”

Me: “Yes, in sky-high heels!”

Him: “That’s my girl!”

Don’t get us wrong. We are not really mean people and we don’t really wish any harm to anyone. Quite the contrary, we are both frustrated by the lack of precaution some people have…..

I’ll give you the gory facts straight up.

Up to 26,000 people are killed in road accidents every year in Thailand, which puts the country in the 6th rank worldwide in terms of road casualties.

Between October 2011 and September 2012, the total number of reported accidents in Thailand was a whopping…wait for it…54,384!!! (1)

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LIKE CRUMPLED PAPER.A distorted piece of metal that was once a commuter van

Between October 27th 2012 and January 2nd, 2013, in celebration of the New Year holiday, a total of 3,329 people were injured in 3,176 road accidents reported throughout the country. Meanwhile, 365 people were killed. I don’t know about you but this really creeps me out. That’s 365 bodies for 365 days of the year. What a morbid and unlucky way to start the year!

I am not very superstitious but I know death tolls as high as this can’t be good. While some say accidents are premonitions of things to come, to me, it’s rather the result of an action previously taken (or not taken). If I were to be so bold, I’d say it’s a reflection of the people’s attitudes towards personal safety and welfare.  On a macro level, it teaches us a lot about Thai society’s disregard for responsible road practices and also, how they value life.

Maybe it’s the “Mai bpen rai” attitude that the Thais embody so well…

The site “Things Asian: Experience Asia Through the Eyes of the Travelers” provides us with a clearer understanding on the matter:

mai bpen rai, mai mee bpunhaa

The first phrase roughly translates to “it doesn’t matter”, the second to “no problem.” Together, they typify the Thai approach to life: don’t get bogged down by small obstacles, don’t worry, take it easy. Much to the dismay of Westerners, Thais employ these phrases even in situations that are dangerous, even life-threatening. (Westerner: “The house is on fire!” Thai: “No problem.”) If a Westerner protests, he is swiftly reprimanded with “jai yen” (calm ).

I admit, I had a little bit of this careless attitude when Ian and I were planning our trips all over Thailand. We both agreed that we want to travel and see the sights outside of the Bangkok metropolis. Our incessant dilemma though was: How to get there? Warnings about the Thai public transportation did not escape our ears.

I was born and raised in the Philippines and I have ridden practically all of the means of transportation there is, horse and water buffalo (carabao) included.  So I wasn’t really scared.  But Ian had never been to Asia before and I was worried about him. If there’s one thing I like about America, it is their strict adherence to road safety.  That is what he is used to.

During our first trip to Koh Samed, I didn’t have a problem with taking a mini-van back to Bangkok. My idea was: hell, mini-vans cut the travel time by an hour. We’ll get to our destination faster than a bullet.

And fast it was. I didn’t realize how much of a terrifying experience it was for Ian because I was asleep and drooling on his shoulders by the time our half-crazy driver was playing “Catch Me If You Can” with his fellow motorists. Expressway Edition.

Halfway to Bangkok, I woke up to the sound of my fiance, calling on to Jesus like an old Catholic lady. My baby was sweating like a sun-burnt laborer, the small towel I put in his back was soaking wet…I realized, the passengers’ attitudes towards the drivers’ speeding is a very important factor in the perpetuation of this devil-may care behavior on the road. Inside the van, I looked around us and saw the locals were dozing off, even snoring, like it’s just another day.

I used to hear people say that if you can drive in Manila, you can drive anywhere, pertaining to the “kaskasero” (speed maniac) attitude of Manila/Filipino drivers. Ha! They probably have never been to Thailand! If it were in my country, the Old Catholic ladies would have already cursed the delinquent driver to hell and back! Speeding and swerving Bangkok-bound, no one even bothered to call-out the kon kap’s (driver) maneuvering techniques. For them, the faster the better.

I made a mental note:  I would never put Ian through that kind of torment again.

Visit http://www.thingsasian.com/stories-photos/2489 for the full list.

On a more scientific approach, Ponboon et.al, of the Thailand Accident Research Center cited in “Contributing Factors of Road Crashes in Thailand: Evidence from an Accident In-Depth Study” reasons such as roadside hazards, cargo load, panic -like steering and driver age for the mounting accident rate.

For this article, I read the Land Traffic Act, B.E. 2522 (1979) proclaimed by His Majesty King Bhumibol Adulyadej himself.  I don’t really know how the traffic authorities actually enforces these regulations (do they go on patrol, do they install checkpoints, do they penalize non-seatbelt wearing drivers or overloading of passengers, etc.). But whichever way they are doing it, I am not impressed.

My first-hand observations on the traffic conditions here are unbelievable.

Take this photo, for example:

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This exhibits a simultaneous violation of:

Section 121 (500B). …………..The passenger shall ride at the back seat provided for the passenger, or in the side car.

Section 122 (500B). The rider and the passenger of a motorcycle shall wear a motorcycle helmet.

Section 43 (400-1000B)
No driver shall drive the vehicle:

* while being intoxicated by liquor or other alcoholic drinks

(I have no proof that Mr. Driver has been drinking but one must be surely drunk to make irrational decisions such as to carry 5 human beings, the 4 being children on a tiny two-wheel vehicle)

*with carelessness or recklessness which may cause danger to persons or property

* in a manner not normally practiced in driving a vehicle or while unable to see the way in front or at the back or either/both sides clearly enough for safety

*without thinking about the safety or suffering of other persons.

I am putting emphasis on that last line.

Safety issues which could potentially lead to suffering of persons should not be taken lightly.  I do think there is a limit to when “sabai sabai” (could be translated into English slang as “everything’s chill” or “not a care in the world”) is appropriate. Adherence to road regulation is clearly not something we should be “chill” about especially when it could mean the lives of our fellow human beings…

Perhaps in the third world countries plagued by poverty, the lives of our fellow human beings have become so cheap that we don’t care if we lose…what’s the statistics again? 26,000 people every year excluding the unreported cases!

Surely, I am not the first person to make these observations. While researching for this article, I have come across lots of blogs and websites who are expressing the same degree of frustration as I have. Check out some of them:

http://womenlearnthai.com/index.php/motorcycle-safety-campaign-in-thailand/

http://superenglishsurat.blog.com/2012/12/20/riding-on-your-motorbike-thai-style/

http://www.pattayadailynews.com/en/2012/01/13/dangerous-overloaded-sattahip-songthaews-carry-30-students/

http://amusingthailand.com/hell-on-wheels/thailand-bottled-water-truck/

http://www.globalish.com/forum/threads/when-three-isnt-a-crowd.294/

As I read and discover more about the traffic situation, I realize I need to learn more. It seems, there’s more to this story than what meets the eye. Most of the blogs I’ve read focused on the motorbike problem. Some discussed the issue of traffic violations in general, detailing statistics, charting values of road accidents per type of vehicle, overloading, etc. The list is endless.

The facts are appalling but what I am truly puzzled about is the motivation. Why would these people subject themselves to this amount of potential danger? My impression was that the story is more about a sheer disregard for rules or safety regulations, an overly relaxed or daredevil approach in life. I mean, I would understand if a passenger cab driver does a 100-120 (minimum is 80) in an almost empty toll way. But speeding and swerving when other vehicles are also speeding and swerving is unacceptable. Especially when I tell him I am not in a hurry!!! Maybe he doesn’t care about his life but I do care about mine.

Once again, I wonder if it is only a true mindlessness or unawareness of the possible tragedies that lurk in the sidelines. I am doubtful because mindlessness is not a very Buddhist attribute. But then again, I could be just generalizing. Besides, reckless drivers are everywhere, not only in Buddhist countries like Thailand.

Despite my annoyance, I am still concerned about those speeding private vehicle drivers- those who race to death as if they don’t have families to go home to. How many children each year lose their mothers or fathers to drunk driving?

More so, I am very worried about the future of those children whose parents take overloaded public transport commuting to and from their workplace.

Those parents — do they pause for a while and contemplate what could be the consequence of their actions? Do they think for a second…hey, maybe if I ride this overloaded vehicle and something bad happens, what’s going to happen to my kids? How will my loved ones feel?

Maybe they never think about it because the forms of transportation they take daily are the only ones they’ve known since the beginning of their lives. Maybe they learned from their parents that taking overloaded “song thaews” is okay. “Riding the motorbike taxi without a helmet is okay; ask mother, she does it too”. Don’t worry.  In turn, their kids learn from them and the cycle continues. It becomes a societal habit. It is integrated into the culture. It becomes a “normal” thing. That’s when it becomes a bigger problem-when we don’t realize the hazards plaguing us even when they’re already staring us in the eye.

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While writing this, I asked various co-workers about what they think of the traffic problem in Thailand. More specifically, I asked whether they had an issue regarding speeding drivers in their country. 3/3 said “120kph is normal. In fact, that’s not too fast.” The nurse manager in the next department said “Oh! I’m not the only one doing that. XXXX does it too”.

I am no cultural psychology expert or road accident specialist, but I do have common sense. Most of the time, that is all that it takes to know that there is something wrong.

I believe the government of Thailand has recognized this issue too, long before I wrote this article.  The Thailand Accident Research Center is incessant in their efforts to promote safety awareness. Or so their website says. Despite its prevalence, the government tells us the accidents have been significantly reduced in the last few years. I don’t know about that but the numbers mentioned above still look big  to me.

A public problem becomes more relevant based on how it affects people across the socioeconomic spectrum. The Upper-class may not need to take public transport, their kids may not need to ride motorbike taxis to go to school. The rest rely on public transport drivers to take them to their destination. No matter the differences, tragedy can strike anybody. It is a great equalizer. Some motorists drive slow and steady. But a speeding car could hit them and cause damage to life and property. Little children crossing the pedestrian could get hit by drunk drivers. Even a careful driver who forgot to wear his seatbelt could die when he gets hit by a big delivery truck. What I’m saying: our individual actions affect not only ourselves but the world around us. Every little thing we do or not do impacts our lives in varying degrees.

Having said this, I conclude that in facing this dilemma, both government and people must do their share.

Individual motorists and even passengers can start by thinking about personal safety before turning on the ignition key. A perfect example is securing their seatbelts on. I often notice that public transportations such as taxis and mini-vans don’t have safety belts except for the passenger in the front. Tsk! Had Princess Diana worn hers, it’s possible she would be alive now. Who knows? Of course, regard for personal safety must be accompanied by a social conscience, a responsibility for one’s actions keeping in mind that a rapidly moving ton of metal could hurt or kill someone. Pedestrians must also be wary of what’s happening around them before they cross the street. They must use the right crossing or an overpass. Motor accidents also happen when pedestrians are careless and do not follow rules of the road.

On the government’s side, the solution, for Thailand, and likely also for the other developing Southeast Asian nations that have poor safety standards and practices, is a combination of boosting the existing  public awareness programs and  effective enforcement. Maybe the commercial campaigns, TV, radio, sopy and billboard ads depicting road responsibility as well as the horrible consequences of dangerous behavior messages aren’t coming across, eh?   And seriously, somebody has got to penalize those speeding drivers and drivers who don’t wear their goddamn seatbelts. Even harsher mandates are necessary for securing children safely in vehicles.

If the above suggestions could be effectively employed, the state will reap the windfall created by punitive fines for speeders and reckless drivers, the revenue paying for the public awareness campaign and – who knows? Maybe some funds left over to improve the roads! (Though honestly, Thailand’s road system is waaay better than most countries)

The eventual result would be a decrease in accidents over the coming years, which translates to more lives saved. Less injuries, less health care costs…the benefits go on.

IAN.Y.S.M. Entry 001- A haircut and a plane ticket: Now The Leap!

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Wow.

Looking in the mirror that day, the change seemed drastic. Almost a foot of hair, gone.  I felt like I had gone from metal to ’92 grunge with just a few snips of my mom’s scissors.  Yeah, that’s right – I’m 37 and my mother cuts my hair.  It’s a rare occasion, perhaps once every year or two.  She’s the only one I trust to do the simplest, most even cut.  My fear is that a hairdresser or barber would get scissor-happy at the sight of 15 inches of straight hair on a guy. But this cut was particularly drastic – probably the shortest my hair has been since I was about 17.  Typically, I’ll request a healthy length around my shoulder blades, but today was different: I had somebody to impress.

That “somebody”, Cecille, had impressed upon me that my abnormally long hair would really stand out in Thailand.  It would attract attention, potentially unwanted.  Here in New Paltz, New York, no one really gives me a second look; but I’ve had long hair throughout my life, so I’m well aware of the negative attention that it can garner.  Basically, I couldn’t care less; it’s something that I had accepted a long time ago.  However I wasn’t sure how that kind of negative attention would translate for a “stranger in a strange land”, as I felt I was about to be.  Of course, Bangkok is a metropolitan, international city, full of foreign tourists and western ex-pats.  But to me, it was different of course; I’d never been East of France before.  So the idea of attracting attention that wasn’t familiar to me, of being a foreigner AND a freak somehow, wasn’t appealing.  Even more importantly, the idea of Cecille feeling awkward around me was even less appealing.  So there goes most of my hair, and I look unfamiliar to myself.

So I tie my hair back, and then I look just the same as before.  No one will even notice. And, I was right about that – since I’ve been back from Thailand about 6 weeks ago, not one of my friends or coworkers noticed my missing foot of hair.

I was restless that night; staying at my parent’s place, because they’d drive me to the airport in the morning. Tomorrow was a big day…my mind was on overdrive. First, what would the trip be like? I’ve never travelled so far and for so long.  But mainly, it was my reason for going that kept my mind racing; Cecille. What would meeting her truly be like? Would our chemistry translate to spending actual time together?  What would become of us, and what adventures were in store for the next two weeks?  Yet even as my mind raced with these questions, there also a sense of calm, resolute empowerment; whatever this turned into, my choices over the next days and weeks amounted to me taking control of my own destiny with my eyes wide open, and in a way I had never attempted before.  Come what may, I was ready…and it felt amazing.

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After a somewhat restful sleep, and a nice breakfast with my parents, I’m upstairs and in a skype call with Cecille.  We’re both really excited, knowing that what we’ve been anticipating is just hours away.  I would be a liar if I said that it was easy to get to this point; after all, we were both carrying a lot of hopes and even fears into what we were about to do. ..and there is really no way to predict such results.  But we had grown to care for each other over these past months, and both very curious about what the next step could be – so this was enough to keep us happily excited, and very very ready despite how nervous we sometimes felt. Case in point, I show Cecille my new lack of hair.  Well, not the reaction I was hoping for.  She told me she felt like crying, I had cut too much off.  “But I did it for you,” I told her. “I didn’t want you to feel awkward around me – I want you to LIKE being around me!”  Her response was to tell me that I had ruined her fantasy about being with a rock star.

Damn.

I did spend some time attempting to convince her that my hair grows quickly, and that if things go well with us, she’ll see it in all its long rock star glory again eventually. I was at this until my Dad started yelling up the stairway that it was time for us to go if I didn’t want to miss my flight.

Soon after, we left to drive to the airport.  My parents were excited for me; I know that they liked to see me so happy and excited to embark on such an adventure.  They knew I hadn’t done anything new or fulfilling for myself in a couple of years.  A spontaneous voyage to the other side of the world, to be a tourist in an exotic land and spend time with a woman I was getting close to was a positive thing for me and they were certainly more supportive and excited than nervous or worried. But, they are parents, so being nervous and worried was an inevitable part of it.  However, aside from the usual “be aware, keep your wits about you” kind of stuff, I didn’t get any lectures – save for my father’s one piece of sage advice: “Don’t get her pregnant.” Ha.

The security procedures at JFK weren’t as bad as I had expected, after reading numerous accounts of TSA’s strictness and even misconduct in news stories online.  Finally, I get to my gate and find a place to charge my phone.  I also check out the plane through the window: an aging 747. I looked at the hulking thing, imagining its immense weight getting off the ground and carrying me over Canada, the Arctic, and the eventually Siberia and into China.  My thoughts were interrupted by a flurry of activity around the gate counter for our flight. What was going on?

As I approached, I noticed a sign, which seemed to be a hastily-typed page affixed to a small sign stand. It hadn’t been there just a few minutes before.  Basically, it stated that our plane would need to stop in Anchorage, Alaska due to some “technical issue” and that thus our flight would land in China at least 3 hours late. Shit!!!, I thought, as I snapped a pic of the sign with my phone.  I then went to the counter and explained that I have a connecting flight to Bangkok after Beijing.  The harried attendant explained to me that I would miss the connecting flight and would need to wait until the next day in China for the next one.

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What a mess! I hastily sent the pic to Cecille, but I knew she wouldn’t see it until she woke up some hours later.  After a few minutes I just tried to relax and accept it: this was beyond my control, and I will make it there eventually. Nothing will stop me.

Nothing will stop me.  -That’s really how it felt to me.  I had set the wheels in motion as soon as I felt welcomed by Cecille, and since they began to roll they haven’t stopped.  I had to get to the other side of the world to see what would become of this; I wouldn’t be deterred by inconvenience or even fear, and the last thing I would allow myself to do would be to carry around such a big “what if?” with me for the rest of my life. I was going to meet this beautiful and intriguing girl that made me smile (and sometimes drove me crazy) no matter what!

REWINDING TO THE WINDUP GIRL EPIPHANY

In July, Ian and I had just met. He started talking to me about a book he had read the previous year. Being the sci-fi fan that he is, he thought it was very interesting since it was set about two hundred years into the future in a world where bioengineering companies run the planet and calories are currency. The book, Windup Girl, is bio-punk fiction filled with social criticism and political parables. But it is also a love story between what seemed to be two different beings who found love at an unexpected place, time and circumstance. (Please read my book review at the end of this blog). The novel is set in Bangkok, and in the context of our relationship, Ian thought it was amazing to meet a girl living in Thailand. He admitted that before he knew me, he didn’t know a lot about the Land of Smiles. He has only read about it in Paolo Bacigalupi’s award-winning book, which in fact was his most recent favorite. Naturally, he was curious about what I would think of it so he encouraged me to read it. I said: “Okay, I will try to look for it over here”. A week later, he asked me whether I’ve read it and I told him that I was having difficulty finding the book. So he decided to send me a copy, and the book took only 12 days to arrive. You could imagine how I felt when I held the parcel in my hand: I have been talking to this mystery man from the other side of the world and despite the fact that I would see his face and hear his voice, something used to tell me that the online world is almost like a fantasy world, very enchanting –it almost felt like “Skype Ian” and “Skype Cecille” existed in a dream state.

“You sign your name here”. Snap! Back to reality!

I was called to attention by the voice of the lady from behind the counter. She was pointing the tip of her pen towards the line beside the word “Received”. I noticed she was getting impatient at me giving her that dazed expression. She repeated her instructions to me in accented broken English, offering the pen this time. That was P’ Na, the condominium staff who takes care of mail and bills.

So there, I tightened my grip around the parcel, hurriedly signed my name where P’ Na indicated it and ran as fast as I could to the elevator. I excitedly pressed my floor button and fumbled for my keys as I got to my door.

I can’t wait to tell Ian I got it.

I checked on my Skype and saw Ian wasn’t back yet from walking the dogs. I had been talking to him earlier before he took his 30-minute break to take the dogs out, and I had just returned from buying yogurt from the store.

I set the parcel on the bed, looking intently at it. Tempted as I was, I didn’t wanna open it yet because I wanted to do so in front of him as if we were performing a ritual. Lub-dub lub-dub. My heart was beating loudly out of excitement and curiosity. I checked the time. He should be back in a couple of minutes.

“Hi”. I’m back”,  Ian Weinstein wrote, just in time.

I clicked video call as quickly as I could. “Oh my God! You are real! You are real!” There:  I blurted out hysterically as soon as he answered my call.  That’s what I’ve been thinking the whole time.  Just returning from outside, he looked confused. I was trying to tell him how unbelievable it seemed to me that I got a package from him.

He still looked like he didn’t understand what I was saying so I said “Hey, guess what I got in the mail today.” Before he could utter a word I took the book out from behind my back and said “Ta-daa! It’s in my hands. I’m holding it right now. This came from YOU.”  He nodded in agreement. Being polite, I kept saying my thank yous. He told me to read it first, and If I like it, that’s when I should say Thank You. I wanted to devour the book immediately after I opened the parcel.

The cover art was captivating, the details incredibly eye-catching: a mammoth elephant looking like it was being pulled by tiny men, an aircraft that resembled a flying submarine, towering structures, etc. Oh! My eyes glistened in child-like wonder upon seeing a new toy. I have always been an avid reader and getting books as presents has always brought me joy.  Getting a new book, especially coming from this person I was sure I was already crushing on felt like a combo of two powerful emotions.

But more importantly, it was in that moment when I first thought that if there was any possibility that these constant Skype sessions could ever lead to anything, the Universe just gave me the first sign.

An Epiphany.

In this instant I truly realized that I, Cecille C. and him, Ian W. were real people existing in this world. It was in that time when I first knew that while we were separated by seas and divided by continents, we were not really alienated; we could reach each other. We were capable of connecting if we willed it. What appeared to be a simple gesture at that time had a power in itself but we weren’t yet fully aware of it.

A few days before I got my mail, Ian went online to buy me a book. Little did he know, a   few months after that blessed day, he would go online again and buy a plane ticket to see his own Emiko in a country he never thought he would set foot in. He thought of sending me a book and when I got it, for me Ian became someone real and tangible, proof that I wasn’t just dreaming of this man that had only existed on my computer screen.  Little did I know that a few months later, I would actually get to experience the touch of his hand, the feel of his skin against mine, the warmth of his arms around me, and the head-spinning feeling he is all-so-capable of giving me: like an explosion of emotions, a blast of sensations, an orgasm of the soul. Because just like what Emiko found in Anderson Lake, my soul has found the one she has been looking for. ♥

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msglobalfilipina’s review (August 2012)
The Wind-up Girl is a ruthless rendering of a horrid possible future wherein man struggles to cling to his humanity amidst hunger, despair and societal collapse in an era plagued with treachery, abuse, corruption, selfish manipulations and power play.
Politically-charged, heart-wrenching, evocative (characters), (TWG is) a real cliff-hanger, a definite page-turner. You hurry to the end and realize you never want to leave the compelling Dystopian world Paolo Bacigalupi has so intricately created.

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Plot summary by Amazon:
‘Anderson Lake is a company man, AgriGen’s Calorie Man in Thailand. Under cover as a factory manager, Anderson combs Bangkok’s street markets in search of foodstuffs thought to be extinct, hoping to reap the bounty of history’s lost calories. There, he encounters Emiko. Emiko is the Windup Girl, a strange and beautiful creature. One of the New People, Emiko is not human; instead, she is an engineered being, creche-grown and programmed to satisfy the decadent whims of a Kyoto businessman, but now abandoned to the streets of Bangkok. Regarded as soulless beings by some, devils by others, New People are slaves, soldiers, and toys of the rich. What Happens when calories become currency? What happens when bio-terrorism becomes a tool for corporate profits, when said bio-terrorism’s genetic drift forces mankind to the cusp of post-human evolution?’

PAUNANG SALITA (Foreword)

We often hear our fellow Pinoys say things like “Uy, alam mo ba ang balita? Ang kumare nati’ng si Shirley ay American citizen na” (Hey, did you hear about our friend, Shirley? She’s already an American citizen!)” Most often, this news is either squealed in delight or excitement as if it’s that huge a deal or disclosed in hushed tones as if there’s intrigue attached to it.  Sometimes, depending on the tone of voice of the news source, you could tell whether she’s genuinely happy for the person or jealous of her new status. I say sometimes, because people are not really transparent all of the time. They could say one thing but mean another. I don’t have a problem with that. That’s their opinion. What would not escape my scrutiny though is the usual end-phrase “Buti pa siya” (Oh, she’s better off!) as if being a citizen of another country (in this case, let’s say, the United States of America) is an upgrade for a Filipino citizen. I find it heartbreaking how some of our kababayans can take more pride in carrying the name of another country than our own Motherland. Sure, there are so many ways that we can complain about Pilipinas, but is that reason enough for one to actually write “American, Canadian, British, etc.” in the space provided for Nationality in their information sheets? A Filipino can acquire citizenship from various countries (and hell he can write whatever he wants in the citizenship section) but can never change his nationality. Is it then a sheer ignorance in identifying the difference between Nationality and Citizenship? Well, one can Wiki everything these days!

Maybe I am being too emotional. Maybe my patriotism is frivolous and getting in the way of logical reasoning. Maybe I have to be more forgiving to people who have less than excellent vocabulary.  I can’t help it. It has been deeply ingrained in me since I was a developing fetus. I floated in my mother’s womb to the tune of 70’s and 80’s socio-political tracks  from Asin, Noel Cabangon and Freddie Aguilar. The first full-length song I learned at the age of three (3) is Ako ay Pilipino by Kuh Ledesma.

Ako ay Pilipino
Ang dugo’y maharlika
Likas sa aking puso
Adhikaing kay ganda
Sa Pilipinas na aking bayan
Lantay na Perlas ng Silanganan
Wari’y natipon ang kayamanan ng Maykapal

Bigay sa ‘king talino
Sa mabuti lang laan
Sa aki’y katutubo
Ang maging mapagmahal

CHORUS:
Ako ay Pilipino,
Ako ay Pilipino
Isang bansa isang diwa
Ang minimithi ko
Sa Bayan ko’t Bandila
Laan Buhay ko’t Diwa
Ako ay Pilipino,
Pilipinong totoo
Ako ay Pilipino,
Ako ay Pilipino
Taas noo kahit kanino
Ang Pilipino ay Ako!

The first stanza alone is enough to stir waves of emotions in me. So yes, maybe I don’t have an unbiased perspective on this. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t have anything against other countries. I’m not even saying that I don’t want to go and live outside of the Philippines. I love travelling and I certainly dream of a European vacation one day. Besides, right now I am working abroad. I will continue living abroad if and when I have to. Six months ago, I had to leave the Philippines. I had my heart broken, and instead of bringing it with me and attempting to mend it, I left it there. No use in carrying extra baggage. What would I need it for anyway? I was determined to set aside matters of the heart. I would focus on myself and get my ducks in a row: Job, career, graduate school. True, the recent events have caused some setbacks in my timeline but I promised I would get it back in order very soon.

A few days before my flight, my friend Myrell told me over lunch: “Don’t worry. There are so many fishes in the sea. And in a very lively city like Bangkok, who knows? You might even meet a foreign guy and marry him some day!”  I remember laughing it off with her but at the back of my mind I really just dismissed it: “I will not go looking for love in Thailand. But if love finds me there, I will welcome it with open arms”, I replied with conviction. Back then, I honestly paid her no mind. With hindsight, wow, was she prophetic!

I met my now fiancé Ian exactly one month after I arrived in Thailand. Six months later, Ian petitioned his government so that he can marry me and be with me forever. Six months from now, I would hopefully be on my way to my future new home-The Land of Milk and Honey, The Land of the Free-The United States of America!

Wow! Younger Cecille would definitely be kicking me in the butt now. A heated confrontation would ensue:

13C (13-year old Cecille): Whoa dude, hold up! What about the things you said in your 9/11 editorial? What about your conspiracy theory?

AC (Adult Cecille): Sure! I still believe that.

18C (Placard-donning, sun-baked, street protesting 18-year old Cecille):  “Itigil ang pagtataksil sa sambayanang Pilipino at pagkapapet sa imperyalistang Amerikano!  (End the betrayal of the Filipino people and the country’s puppet days from the American imperialist!)

AC: Hmmm…maybe we should leave the politics out of this?!

3C (3-year old tiny songstress Cecille):  Ako ay Pilipino, Ako ay Pilipino, Ako Ay Pilipino, Taas-noo kahit kanino, Ang Pilipino ay Ako!  (I am a Filipino, I am a Filipino, I am a Filipino. Head held up high for everyone to see. The Filipino is me)

AC: Of course, I’m a Filipino through and through!

I am tormented by my nationalist conscience. My British colleague Joanna’s voice is ringing loudly in my ears. “How can you say you’re patriotic when you are marrying an American—he who hails from the land of your colonizer!”

And in what could have been my speechless, most shameful moment, I found my voice and managed a reply: “That’s exactly what Ian and I talked about. We don’t see each other as foreigners.  I don’t see him as American and he doesn’t see me mainly as Filipina. Those are just names, labels to promulgate division among the human race. We both wish that there weren’t any countries.  Right now, this BS bureaucracy is what’s stopping me and Ian from being together.  Without it, we would all be free to love whoever we want to love”.

I’m sure I did not say it as eloquently as that. But you see my point and I just want to stress it again: Leaving for the US doesn’t mean I am betraying my country. I promised myself that wherever I may be, I will never lose my identity and strive hard to raise my country’s banner.

Besides, at this point, it doesn’t seem like I have a choice. As I said earlier, when I left for Thailand, I left my heart in the Philippines. Then, Ian came to Thailand to give his heart to me. Now we share one heart. So, I have to be where he is and he has to be where I am.  For just as Siamese twins live with one heart, neither of us can survive without the other.

Let me tell you now: This blog is really a chronicle of love. But, it also tells the story of the Filipina woman—her passion, her hunger, her strengths, her weaknesses, her dreams and her heart. Each entry will be filled with her adventures and adversities, her travels and trials, her journey to conquer the world. We will watch her stand up after every fall, and recover from each little stumble: for she is of the noble blood of her ancestors. Dugong Maharlika. She is the Global Filipina. And she is You and Me.