Saturday, December 6, 2008


Did you know I have a barnacle beacon? Well, neither did I, until we went to Thailand. Yes, it was a case of Sarah swims in the ocean, Sarah sees cool fish, Sarah accidentally swallows some salt water, and just as the fun is starting, Sarah kicks a barnacle encrusted boulder with her bare foot.

Let's back up a little.

As I mentioned, we decided to take a week's vacation and travel to Thailand. As luck would have it, our original plan to go Thanksgiving week fell through because of David's work, so we went the week before all the protests went down in Bangkok. Whew. The stars really aligned on that one. So, after a 5 hour flight we were in the capital. We stayed the night there and left for Koh Samui in the morning. This is one of 3 islands in the Gulf of Thailand and the only one with an airport. Koh Samui is much more developed than the other two, and we were on a mission to take it easy and get away from all the hubbub, so we immediately boarded a boat bound for Koh Tao, the most northern of the islands and the smallest. And the farthest away, I might add, as I didn't thoroughly enjoy the long, choppy boat ride out there. I was having flashbacks of the diving boat incident in West Palm Beach last February, which was not pretty, believe me.

We arrived and were immediately solicited by every taxi driver on the island. We got away from the crowd and found our own taxi, which was a pick up truck with benches in the truck bed. Brilliant. Even though I kept a white knuckle grip on the bars the whole time, I enjoyed the unique view of the island as we made our way to our resort.

The town

It looked so prehistoric, like a dinosaur was about to waltz across the street.

Thailand is very affordable. We could have found a bungalow for 10 bucks a night. I would have been game. However, the cheap prices also mean that the really nice places, while expensive for Thailand, are quite a steal in comparison to most resorts found on tropical islands. I figured we should take advantage of this opportunity for at least a couple nights, so I booked our first two nights at a place called Thipwimarn. I was smitten the first time I looked it up and it didn't disappoint in person. Lovely little cottages on the side of a hill in the jungle, overlooking the sea. Relaxation personified. It turned out to be so nice, we stayed there the whole week. There were definitely other places that would have been fine, it was just easier to stay there. Plus, we were getting a fine work out going up and down all those stairs all the time...

View from our own little porch


So back to the barnacles. I have never snorkeled before. Gimme a break, I grew up in Ohio and I'm not the best swimmer. So we borrowed masks and those snorkel tube thingies from the resort and went down to the little bay directly below our room. We had the place to ourselves. So David gave me the basics and we went out. Koh Tao is quite popular for snorkeling and diving. Actually, the island is the number two place in the world to get certified to dive. There were tons of dive centers and tons of young people there to get certified. Myself, I have trouble with my ears, and I mentioned my poor swimming skills, so diving really doesn't appeal to me. Snorkeling is more my speed: float lazily on the surface and look at pretty things.

And what pretty things. It was so cool to swim in this clear, turquoise water and hang out with these brilliant fish. Yellow and bright blue, purple, orange. Real, live coral on the bottom with some urchins and wild colored animals that look like plants and suck themselves in when you try to touch them. Fantastic. I also enjoyed watching the little crabs above the water line on the rocks scurry in there little sideway manner away from David as he approached them. Actually, this is probably what I was preoccupied with when I sliced my foot open. Fantastic. Fantastic pain!

My first thought was,
If I see my own bone I'll pass out. After I actually looked at the damage, I thought How does one tell if one needs stitches? David came over, looked at it, and proclaimed that it didn't look too deep and I guess that was enough for me. I continued to swim around, wincing as the salt water swished through my cut. I cursed all the barnacles I passed, staying far away from all rocks.

Swimming turned out to be easier, because walking hurt quite a bit, especially on the sandy beach. The stairs were now a double challenge. But luckily for me, David had rented a motor scooter, so we were able to explore the island fairly easily while sparing my poor foot. I had to get over my irrational fear that two wheeled vehicles cannot possibly stay upright, but after that it was quite fun. Half the roads are dirt and thus a bit wild to drive on. (Evil Knievel, eat your heart out!) We spent a good deal of time just riding to different parts of the island, eating some really tasty food, getting strawberry smoothies whenever possible (this might have just been me...), and taking in the nice views of the beaches, jungle and ocean.

We got some fins at another resort and went snorkeling again. This was uneventful on the boulder bit, thankfully. A pleasant evening swim. The next day we traversed to the southern end of the island and spent a good deal of time trying to get to Freedom Beach, because it had the most potential for calm waters that day. Beautiful, secluded beach, with hardly any other people. More beautiful sights. David tried to teach me to dive to the bottom. It didn't go so well. Swallowed a bit too much water and then dog paddled too hard and wore myself out. And as we made our way back to shore, I kicked a rock. I couldn't believe it! I think I hit pure rock this time, so not so much slice and dice as just scrapes to my foot and my pride. I ordered a strawberry smoothie the first chance I got to make myself feel better.

Freedom Beach

We were pretty chill this trip, so not too much action to report. We did hang out at a beach bar one night and got to see some cool fire dancers. There's quite a hippie vibe here, perhaps because of the large number of backpackers here. I enjoyed it. Much different than the city vibe I've been surrounded with for months.

That's hot. ;)

Our last day, we took in some more sights, but mostly chilled on a beach for the afternoon. (Lemon shake this time!) David had burned his back earlier in the week, so he did not want to risk getting in the water. After a while I decided I needed to take advantage of my last chance to snorkel in this really lovely water, so I went in by myself. David watched from the shore. As I tried to make my way through the jostling waves, I promptly stepped on a rock...covered in...BARNACLES! More like I stepped on, slipped on, and then again, stepped on a rock covered in barnacles. Absolutely ridiculous. It was a small rock in really shallow water just feet from the strip of sandy beach, so I wasn't thinking rocks. I couldn't see it anyway since the water is cloudy at the shore.

I had a Why me?? moment, but then I went out anyway and I'm glad I did. Fairly shallow water meant that I could try diving amongst the parrot fish and such, this time successfully. Pretty awesome. Too bad I didn't have an underwater camera.When I came out, I discovered that I had at least six cuts on my foot, with one on the bottom running the length of my arch. Pathetic. I must have bad karma or something.

We weren't the only ones taking it easy...

Despite using an obscene number of band aids, I did enjoy the trip. We couldn't have asked for a more relaxing place. I know David needed it and I think it did him a lot of good. We both agreed that we would come back to Thailand if given the chance. Friendly people, beautiful place, good food. Get rid of those crusty devils of the sea, and I would be tempted to call it heaven.

For more photos, click here.

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

The Bag! Watch! Purse! Club

If you have ever lived in China or even visited, or heck, even been to a China town in America, you may well be acquainted with the experience of being viewed as a walking money tree. You hear English, but it is minimalistic, chucked at you in globs. "Bags!", "Watches!", "Hello!", "Hey Lady!" (my favorite), "Ok!", "Shoes!", and "Purses!" Sometimes you get more elaborate descriptions, like "Good price!" or "Come look!" or "Gucci!" They flash a laminated, folded sheet with pictures of goods, splaying it out for you to see and then quickly collapsing it back into their pocket, lest they be caught by the authorities, and then expect you to follow them to the secret shop. I am really, really good at saying "No" now. If I could figure out how to say, "Actually, I don't really care for purses much, thank you, " in Chinese, I might pull that on them. I figure it would stun them long enough to make my quick get-away.

Our friend, Gregg, is pretty much a genius because he came up with the most hysterical way to turn the tables on these guys. He decided it would be great if he could get a hold of one of the cards with all the pictures on it, so that when he goes to the high traffic areas, he can beat the sellers at their own game. As soon as you see a dude approaching you, you whip out the card. "Bags Watch Purse?!" The poor suckers wouldn't even know what hit em.

While I was walking along one of these shopping streets, waving my hand "No" at least two dozen times, I thought about Gregg's idea. It really was perfect. I found myself wishing I had one of those cards. Every non-materialistic, non-shopping crazy schmuck should have one of those cards, cause I know I'm not the only one who doesn't want that stuff. In fact, I will never want that stuff. I thought about getting a shirt made that says, in characters, "I'm Poor." But the card thing is both effective and potentially funny.

One night David and I met Kellie and Gregg on a corner to go to dinner. Gregg held out his hand and revealed one of the product cards. He smiled.

"You got one?" I asked, excited.
"Yup. Bought it for 5 kuai." We all laughed. This was excellent progress. He actually got one!

So after dinner, David and Gregg walked ahead of Kellie and I on the sidewalk. We were having our own conversations. Then Kellie and I realized that we were passing small groups of people who were laughing with a very surprised look on their faces. Then we noticed they were looking ahead of us, sometimes pointing. Gregg was whipping out the card any chance he got, leaving in his wake numbers of very shocked product pushers. It was comic gold. We quickly decided that very night that we needed to add to our army. We needed to get all the expats on board (or at least the 4 of us), each procure our own card and go out en mass. I decided we would have to video the action. Perhaps we would put it on YouTube. The possibilities are endless.

So this past Saturday, David and I went to Yuyuan Bizarre to attempt to do some shopping. The funny thing was, David needed to buy a couple fake watches for a friend back in the States. So before I knew it, we were actually following the bagwatchpurse guy. He took us to a side street and then a small little walkway amongst some old residences, still occupied. Then, Voila!, a secret room full of knockoffs. I couldn't believe we were actually doing this. It was interesting, but my patience with the ordeal was limited, as it is very, very hard sell in there. The price started at 1200 yuan for one watch and a half hour later, after thoroughly frustrating the salespeople, we got two watches for 700 yuan. I actually think we could've gone lower, but it came out to about $58 per watch, one being a "Rolex," so I think we did OK.

So even though we already bought some, Mr. Bagwatchpurse wants to take us to ANOTHER store. We follow just to see, but we're done. He then tries to drag us to "the best" store, but we managed to tell him we really were finished. He finally left us alone. But later, we ran into the same guy. I gotta hand it to Mr. B. He sure is a go getter, cause he tried to get us to look at some more stuff. Again. This is when David seized the opportunity.

"I wanna buy THAT," he said, pointing to Mr. B's card. The guy figured it out quickly.
"50 kuai." Damn. This guy is on the ball. And so, the bargaining begins.
"My friend bought one for 5 kuai!" David says.
"You kidding me! 40 kuai!"
"Too much! It's just a card! 5 kuai! My friend bought one for 5 kuai!"

By this time there are two other card toters gathered around and now they are trying to get us to buy their cards! I kept trying to walk away. This was getting ridiculous.
"30 kuai!"
"5 kuai!"
"You must be joking! 20 kuai!"
"Buy this one! 10 kuai!"
"Too much! I'll buy yours! 5 kuai!" More laughter. Things are whipped up into a frenzy at this point. These guys couldn't be more thrilled that some goofball tourists are offering them money for their cards.
"10 kuai!"
"Ok, ok. 10 kuai, " David agrees. "Still too much." There's a pause. "Pinky? (my nickname), do you have 5 kuai on you?"
"I am not giving you 5 kuai for that thing." I start to walk away.
"Can I borrow 5 kuai? I only have 5 kuai!"

I turn. I look at David amongst this crowd of Chinese folks. They are still haggling him. I relent. I hand the original Mr. B 10 kuai, take the 5 kuai from David and then drag him away. The other sellers still want us to buy their cards. Complete madness!

But at least now there are two members of the BWP Club. As for my future role in these dealings, I am going to self appoint myself as head camera girl. It's a war zone out there. I'd rather not be in the front lines.

We're taking back the streets...

Monday, December 1, 2008

Pass It On

I ate dinner out tonight. Sometimes I just have to get myself out of the house even if I don't have someone to meet for dinner. So I went to Blue Frog, which is a very American-style restaurant. It's comfort food and it's close to our apartment. I took my notebook with me to make lists while I waited for my food, because no one likes to be alone at a restaurant AND be idle. One has to have a magazine or a laptop. I write. I'm sure I still look peculiar, but I don't mind.

I did look up from time to time to look out the window. Sitting on the second floor, I had a clear view of the street. I noticed a couple of men standing on the other side, not really doing anything. The thought crossed my mind that they may have been contemplating stealing one of the bikes in front of them, but they did not do this. They simply sat down on the sidewalk. I went back to making notes on all the things I want to eat when I go home. (This list makes me laugh, especially since it has WENDY'S on it!)

Throughout dinner, I gazed out the window a few more times. One of the men had gone, but the other was still there, milling about. He had a knit cap on and a red plastic bag in one hand. I couldn't help but wonder if that bag held all his worldly possessions. In the other hand, he held a small, white cup. I figured he was asking for spare change, although he didn't seem to be aggressively seeking out targets. He mostly squatted against the wall. I watched him approach a few people, but it was a meager attempt.

Something struck me about this scene. Now, since moving to a big city, in China no less, I am no stranger to people begging. Going to touristy areas is to agree to an absolute siege. "Hello! Money!" Then they shove a baby in your face. Not a good scene. But being able to observe this one man, far removed and for a decent period of time, I felt for him. I started wondering if I had some change on me. I normally do not do this, as sometimes you get yourself into more muck if you actually give to the clinking cup. But my gut said the guy needed it.

I watched him help a girl maybe my age or a little younger with her bike as she tried to lock it up. He held it upright for her as she fed the lock through the wheel and I was glad to see she smiled and said thank you. Then she made the universal sign for 'no money' by reaching in her pockets and shrugging, mouthing the words "sorry". I can't judge. I have done this. (Back in Columbus, it was usually actually true, as I used my debit card for most things and rarely carried cash. Perhaps a convenient circumstance for my conscience?) She then walked away with her friends to no doubt get some dinner. That decided it. I had watched him do a good deed.

I contemplated a 5, but then decided on a 10 RMB note, which is about $1.50 U.S. I knew he could get a good meal for this, two if he went to a simple noddle shop. I figured I shouldn't be stingy if I was to make the effort. I just couldn't stand the thought of that guy staring at all the rich people in the restaurants, paying for overpriced food, and then not getting dinner himself.

So I packed up and left the restaurant. My heart sank a little, as I couldn't see the man at first, but then I noticed he was sitting nestled behind the line of bikes across the street. With the bill in my gloved hand, I crossed the street. He definitely noticed and for a split second I think he thought about showing me his cup, but I was too fast. I put the bill into his hand and looked him in the eyes. I said the smallest little "Merry Christmas" for lack of anything else to say. The handshake quickly became a warm, four-handed embrace, the 10 kuai in the middle. He said "Xie xie!" which is Mandarin for "thank you."

His genuinely grateful eyes almost broke my heart, so with a quick final squeeze I turned and walked away, choking on the moment. I didn't look back. The cold night air felt good on my face as I walked home. I found myself wondering what his name might have been.