Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Fantasy Island to Personal Paradise - The Long Road Home

From the time we stepped off the boat, it was a blur of activity. We made our Phuket flight on time but didn’t get to spend a few hours street eating in Bangkok as we had planned to do during our layover[1]. The length of our layover in Bangkok consisted of a tasty soba bowl and the best dark chocolate gelato of my life. As most people in BKK are just passing through, there is a lot of diversity. The airport is a stopover for many flights that continue on to India or the Middle East. As such, the people watching was very interesting. The parade of saris was a tribute to jewel tones while the U.S. citizens could be identified by their sensible shoes. The stressed out look on backpacker’s faces made us thankful of our ability to travel the way we do.

A movie was being shot at the airport while we were there. Although it was interesting, it wasn’t nearly as interesting as the 30 or so Saudi Arabian men, women, and children that were getting on the escalators in front of us. The men split up into a pack of two, with one pack going down the escalator first. When they got to the bottom, they formed a circle around exit of the escalator. The men at the top then ushered all the burka-clad women down, their eyes briefly catching mine through the small slit of their burkas. After the women went down, the rest of the men followed. When all the women were herded at the bottom, the group left. Unfortunately, they left their seven children at the top of the escalator, still awaiting instruction from their fathers.

We stood there looking at the children, they stood there not saying a word but looking frightened. I had no idea what to do…Should I stay with the children while David tracked down the group? We opted for a second option…stay at the top of the escalator with the children until someone came back for them.

About five minutes later, a few men came back, clucking away at the kids. I wonder if they recognized that the same people that had stopped to let their group pass them on the escalator was the same couple that was keeping watch over their children when they finally realized they had forgotten them. Did it make no difference? Could they see past my exposed hair and skin?

With hours still remaining until our departure, we found an available bench. Actually, we found three. It seemed that no one wanted to sit near the elderly woman. With missing teeth, shoes with the soles barely hanging on, holes in her socks visible where her shoes had worn through, and all of her life possessions on her back, she stared at the passing world while they ignored her. For hours, not a single person would look at her although everyone seemed to look at us. When it came time to catch our flight, I pulled out a wad of baht. Walking over to the homeless woman, I greeted her in my limited Thai, respected her as an elder, and then handed her 5000 baht, about $150 US dollars. Her eyes welled up with tears. Reaching out, she grasped my hands between hers and spoke to me in a language that I couldn’t understand but with more gratitude than I have ever heard. I just wanted her to know that someone took the time to actually see her.

When we departed for Taiwan, we flew Hello Kitty Airlines (actually, it was Eva Airlines, the official airline of Hello Kitty. I’m not joking). In flight, we bought wonderful Eva Air Hello Kitty figurines from our stewardesses decked out in Hello Kitty aprons. All this while flying in a plane that was painted with Hello Kitty characters. I don’t think that I could provide you any better example of Asia.

I had been feeling better and better as I got further and further from my tropical illness. Both of us were worried about how good I really felt, though, when we departed the airplane in Taiwan. We were almost immediately greeted by government health officials decked out in masks and gloves. Due to Avian Bird Flu concerns, every passenger went through an infrared sensor. If you had a temperature above a certain point, the sensor would identify you and your next stop would be the quarantine office. David took one look at the officials and told me to hold all sneezes and coughs until we passed through the infrared. We were pretty certain my temperature was closer to the normal range now but didn’t want to draw any attention to ourselves otherwise. It was with great relief that we got through the health check without a second glance.

Free to explore the vast Taiwan airport, we immediately headed to the food shops. The food area was interesting…It was like all the street vendors came from outside, set up a big corral of skillets and left one person to man them all. When we came over, we were ushered to the only open cart. As we ordered things from the menu, we kept being told that they didn’t have it. She finally gave us two choices of what they did have, I picked one and David picked the other. Then she shouted to some woman who appeared from nowhere, looked back at us and said, “Only pork soup!”

Starving, we took two bowls of the only obtainable food, pork and bitter fuzzy melon soup. I don’t think that pork was actually in it, just bones that you could suck marrow from. My reflections of that meal are not fond…David tells me that I can’t judge a country by its airport food[2].

By this time, we had been traveling for over 13 hours. Desperate for any food during our long layover that didn’t involve questionable ingredients, we headed to duty free. Our eyes being much greedier than our stomachs, we ended up with $72 of chocolate. In our defense, David notes that it was at least British chocolate.

Cracked out on candy, we walked it off in an airport filled with government propaganda. Books are on display about how mighty Taiwan, Republic of China, is. Posters declare the superiority of Taiwan’s people, culture, food, and innovations. It was an odd airport all around, complete with reading glasses to borrow in case you didn’t have your pair handy.

By the time we got back to Los Angeles, we still had another 15 hours to go until we got home. With no flight until the next morning, we didn’t want to sleep in LAX like we had to when coming back from Guatemala. We picked up our luggage and caught the Hilton shuttle.

After checking into our room, we found that it was too late to grab a bite to eat in any of their restaurants. Instead, we ordered room service. The last thing we had eaten was candy 15 hours prior. Ordering nachos, two sandwiches, French onion soup, and two liters of Perrier, we were like two prisoners who had just gotten out of jail minus the cigarettes and cheap hookers.

We managed a measly four hours of sleep, managing to sleep less than seven hours over a 49 hour period. We staggered back into our home to find it looking like the day after our pre-wedding shindig. All the barbeque supplies were in the fridge and freezer, beer brimmed top to bottom from several shelves, and the leftover sides and salads had unfortunately broken away, formed their own unions, and declared voting rights. Sixteen fabulous days were over. It was time to get back to the real world and it started with cleaning the fridge.

[1] We actually got laughed at when we asked the airline reps if we could make it 20 miles in six hours in a cab.
[2] Really? Because those oysters we had at Sea-Tac were to die for. I’d fly there just to eat oysters.

Monday, September 29, 2008

Dinner Snapshot - Creamy Broccoli Soup

Instead of using actual cream, I created the creaminess by blending the soup and adding a cheese that has a high melting point, like Parmesan.

Natalie's Broccoli Soup

3 tbs butter

1 onion, chopped

5 cloves garlic, minced

2 lbs broccoli, stems peeled and chopped, florets set aside

1 head cauliflower, chopped

5 russet or golden potatoes, cut into medium chunks

6 cups vegetable broth

4 cups water

2 tsp salt

2 tsp cracked pepper

1 cup hard cheese, grated (Asiago, Parmesan, Romano, etc)

1. In a large soup pot over medium heat, melt the butter.

2. Add the onions and cook until soft and translucent, about 7 minutes.

3. Add the broccoli stems, potatoes, garlic, broth, water, salt, and pepper. Bring to a boil. Reduce heat to a simmer and cook for 8 minutes.

4. Add broccoli florets and cauliflower. Cook until all vegetables are soft, about 10 minutes more.

5. Working in cooled batches, blend the soup in a blender until smooth. Transfer blended portion to a large pot for reheating.

6. Heat soup back up over medium-low heat. Stir in 3/4 of the cheese until stringy. Top with remaining cheese and serve.

Friday, September 26, 2008

Koh Yao Island - Day Nine - Not Goodbye, Just See You Later

Five a.m. didn’t come as fast as I thought it would. We slept pretty soundly and both woke up exactly at five. At five fifteen, our wakeup call came in.

“Hello?” I said.
“Mr. David, your wakeup call is now. Wake up.”
“Thank you.” I said, used to them calling me Mr. David when they meant Mrs. David.

Five minutes later, the phone rings.

“Hello?” I said.
“You’re awake. Just checking.”
“Yes, we’re awake. Thank you.” I said.

Knowing that I had to start my day with a one hour long tail boat ride back to Phuket, I immediately filled myself with Dramamine and Imodium. I was taking no chances in my recovery from the Thai Virus Incident of ‘08[1].

With the clock down to two hours prior to departure, we did what any sensible couple would do…goof around on the beach and take a final swim.

We hopped in the shower together only to find out that there was no hot water. Or, pretty much, any water for that matter. Naked and shivering in the early morning air, we watched as the water trickled out of the shower head. Oh well, we were on an island. Who doesn’t have water issues on an island?[2] Conveniently, there was a large barrel of water right next to the shower head. It contained a coconut shell water scoop for rinsing your body. While cold, it got us cleaned up for our return trip to the States.

As we were finishing up the last of our packing, a knock came at the door.

“Yes?” I asked?
“Wake up call.”

At this point we giggled at their thoroughness. If we missed our flight, it sure wouldn’t be because they let us oversleep.

As we headed down to reception to pay the bill, I was filled with optimism. We met the finance manager who assured us that the previous night’s experience wouldn’t be a problem and that Visa Thailand would authorize the transaction if he called them directly. He called them, ran it through a few times, and was told that they couldn’t authorize it. Before I could have a meltdown knowing that all the money and more sat in our account to cover our invoice, the finance manager gave us a simple solution…Have our bank wire the funds when we got home on Tuesday. It was a very special arrangement, they said, due to us being return guests. It left us very grateful for the relationship that we have formed with the Paradise over the years. Their trust in us on this matter, allowing us to leave their resort and the country with a very large unpaid invoice, definitely ensured that we will continue to return to the Paradise.

Relieved knowing that we would make it home, we headed to the veranda to wait for our boat to leave. It was 6:30 and our boat was to depart at seven. Come seven, we are told that we are waiting on others. Come 7:15, Brethney and Keith arrive. They are handed their breakfast boxes and are told to join us as we are still waiting on one more couple. Although I enjoyed our last chance to chat with our Irish friends, I kept checking my watch. We had an hour ride back to Phuket plus a ½ hour ride from the dock to the airport. Then we needed to get checked in to begin the first leg of an international flight that departed at 10 a.m. I was feeling a bit cramped on time.

At 7:45, we were approached by an employee wanting to know if we could leave later as the missing couple was having troubles. I told him that it would be impossible to leave any later as we would miss our 10:00 flight. The only other flight was at 4:00 p.m. and our flight left from Bangkok at that time. It would cause us to miss all flights.

He hurriedly walked away. At 8:15, a breathless German couple arrives. No apologies for being over an hour late and putting our flight at risk. She just looked at us and said, “We had no hot water! We couldn’t get dressed!”

Really? You put my trip home in jeopardy because you had no hot water? Guess what, we had no water whatsoever and we still showed up on time!

We rushed to the dock. Instead of loading us into the long tail, they loaded us into the speed boat. I settled in to take one last look at my version of paradise.

[1] According to Monkipedia, the Thai Virus Incident of ’08 was a 24-hour period where Natalie, honeymooning on a remote Thai island, contracted a terrible tropical illness that left her begging for death while hallucinating in bed, hugging the toilet, and watching an extraordinary amount of BBC. Her husband, David, narrowly escaped the same fate.
[2] I remember visiting my aunt and uncle in the Virgin Islands. You could only shower for five minutes because of a lack of water. It taught me early on that fresh water is a precious commodity, especially when you are surrounded by the sea.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Koh Yao Island - Day Eight - The End of Lazy Days

After spending the previous day in tropical illness misery, I wasn’t sure if our final day would be spent curled up in the fetal position. I opened up one eyelid, assessed the results, opened the other, assessed those results, stretched my legs around and deemed that I was well enough to get out of bed. With it being the last day of our honeymoon, I was anxious not to miss another minute of it. While I did miss out on an awesome opportunity the previous day, I’d choose being sick on a beautiful island over being sick at home any day[1].

As I was still recovering, I wasn’t up for our usual morning of swimming before breakfast. A gentle walk on the beach sounded just my speed. Oceanside, blue crowned hanging parrots called to each other from the tops of flowering gardenia trees. Juvenile great hornbills hopped from branch to branch, getting up the nerve every now and then to flap their wings in an attempt at flight while the adults pulled giant jungle snails from their shells. The best lazy mornings have you up with the birds and only the birds.

We didn’t stray far from our villa, taking it easy to increase the chances that I would travel well the following day. I said my goodbyes to the island by playing in its tide pools, swimming in the jade green water, and sleeping on its sandy shores.

I motivated us to pack prior to dinner, not wanting to come back to chores after an enjoyable evening. By the time the sky was dark, I was ready for some socialization. We headed down to the beach bar and found ourselves alone save the manager and two staff members. The other guests were already at dinner. We pulled up chairs seaside and sat side by side, my head resting on David’s shoulder. As the waves crashed we stored each one into memory…A crashing wave for every moment of enjoyment we shared during our first two weeks of married life.

As we got up to head for dinner, I noticed a bat hanging from the roof above an outdoor table. Being a bat lover, I got out the camera and started snapping away. It was as fascinated by me as I was of it, following me with its eyes. With a great photo of the bat on the screen, I headed over to show the staff. One man visibly recoiled, so very frightened of the thing. Minutes later, when I headed back over and tapped him on the shoulder, he actually screamed and jumped in the air certain that the bat was attacking him. The manager and I doubled over in laughter. I wonder what the local legends are to make a man so afraid of a harmless bug harvester.

After a light dinner, we pulled out the video camera for our walk back to the villa. The frogs were incredible, croaking at different octaves in various harmonies, probably fifteen in all. We wanted to remember the sound forever.

It was a wonderfully relaxing end to our trip but the journey home would start promptly at 7 a.m. the following day. As such, we headed to reception to pay our bill.

And so our nightmare began.

Reception presented us with the invoice. We went over it, assuring that all the laundry and mini-bar charges were correct. The meals and drinks seemed about in the range that we expected and so we handed over our debit card to settle the bill.

Swipe. Rejected. Swipe. Rejected. Swipe. Rejected.

“Do you have another card?”

“No, our debit card is all we use.”

Swipe. Rejected. Swipe. Rejected. Swipe. Rejected. At this point, I went to log onto the internet to check our checking and savings account balances and confirmed that we had six times the needed amount there. I reviewed the email from the bank confirming that my card is not blocked for use internationally (also confirmed by the many transactions we had already made on the trip).

Furious, I went to our room to call the bank. Of course, it was early in the morning in Utah and the bank was closed. Remembering that I had brought one credit card for emergencies, I headed back to the computers to check out the card’s limit. Natalie’s travel tip #1: when bringing an emergency credit card, make sure that the credit card can cover the highest expense that you pan on having. I furiously counted our remaining cash and traveler’s checks. Only $900. Between the cash and the credit card, we still didn’t have enough to cover the bill.

I had begun a full-fledged meltdown. While I sat silently crying at the computers, an Australian couple took pity on me and came up with every number possible for Visa or the bank that they could. Stack of numbers in hand, I headed back to the villa to make more phone calls.

Closed. Closed. Closed again. Yup, this one’s closed too. By this time, enough hours had passed that it was now nine a.m. back home. With a sinking feeling, I realized that my July 5th was July 4th in the States, a national holiday. No institution would be answering my calls.

With no way to pay, I had visions of us missing our flights and having to pay a gazillion more dollars for extra days and nights in Thailand and new airfare home[2]. Crying, I picked up the phone and called my mom and dad. I left a message full of sobs to the effect of, “Mom, dad, are you there? Please pick up the phone. We need help. We’re stuck in Thailand. Don’t worry, we’re not in trouble, we’re just stuck. We’re at the Paradise Koh Yao. I’ll call back.”

I headed back to the reception pavilion and found David awaiting the manager who had been roused out of bed to deal with this issue. By this time, we were old friends with Michael, having had many memorable conversations with him during our stay. I logged into our bank account and showed him the available funds in our two cash accounts. He noted to his staff that we were well above the means of paying our invoice and immediately put me at ease stating that it was no big deal; communications on the island were shoddy[3] and they would resolve the situation in the morning by having the finance manager call Visa Thailand. We were greatful that a path to resolution was in sight.

With a sigh of relief, we headed back to our villa to sleep. First, though, a call to my parents. My father answered the phone immediately, panicked. He had been on the phone calling the State Department, Homeland Security, and every other government agency he could think of. Low and behold, they were all closed for the holiday as well (to my relief). I asked him why he was doing that as my message said that we weren’t in trouble. “No it didn’t!” he said. “Yes it did!” I retorted, assured that I had made sure to clearly get that point across in the message so he wouldn’t do exactly what he did anyway. I guess that it is a rule of being a parent…panic now, listen later.

We were able to carry on some good catch-up conversation, excited at the opportunity to share some tales earlier than expected. I had been able to send out three emails, one of which had stated that I had fallen ill. I was able to report that I was feeling much better when, right at the end of our conversation, my stomach decided otherwise. A few hours of sleep were all I could ask for. The marathon home would begin at five a.m.

[1] I always say that I’d rather be sick on an island but what about when the day comes that I am so sick on an island that I need medical assistance? My old boss would assure you that this day will come. When it does, you find me wrapped around the toilet cursing whatever third-world country I am in at the time.
[2] Natalie’s Travel Tip #2: When purchasing airfare to and from halfway around the world, make sure that it is refundable or that it at least will let you change the date of your flight.
[3] It is a remote Thai island, after all.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

Koh Yao Island - Day Seven – Village Lunch Venture Sans Natalie

As Natalie posted previously, we had a horrible evening filled with chills and sweats. In the middle of the night I was saddened at the thought of missing our big opportunity to eat lunch at Man’s home. We were VERY honored to receive the invitation. I forced myself back to sleep each time my body awoke in hopes that I would feel better in the morning. Luckily for me, it worked. However, poor Natalie was forced to accept missing “Rex Manning Day” because she was too ill to travel to the other side of the island, much less eat.

I was instructed to be at the pier at 10:30 a.m. to catch the employee shuttle to western-extending Tha Khao Pier.
Man met me at the scuba diving hut and we boarded the longtail boat for the 30 minute voyage. Upon arrival at Ban Tha Khao I had some time to visit the local hut-stores that carry everything from hanging blowfish lamps (think Chinese paper lantern…then replace paper with petrified blowfish corpse) to virtually every item that can be carved from coconut. Our island friends handsome Gokce and beautiful Gokce had visited this village the day before and purchased a coconut carving of a Mangosteen, which is only Natalie and my favorite fruit in the whole world. Our jaws dropped when we saw their carving and we were sad we missed that shop during our sunset trip to the village a couple of days earlier. With a heavy heart, knowing my wife was violently ill on the island, I sought-out the Mangosteen artist and purchased the most detailed one as a surprise.

While I shopped, Man procured a rental car for the 30 minute drive from the pier to his family’s rice and fish farm. We hopped into the Suzuki Samurai, rolled down the windows and navigated the coastline to the southern tip of Koh Yao. After passing rubber plantations, another pier, and a scooter dealership we arrived at his family home. I was told that in Thai culture the groom moves to the bride’s family compound (Man showed me his old village and his boyhood home on the way back to the Paradise that evening). Each village is broken into family areas where cousins, mothers, nieces and nephews all build homes close to one another. Man’s area of the village consisted of five or six homes that ringed a large rice field less than 20 meters from the waters of the Andaman Sea.

When we arrived at the compound I was immediately excited as this was a REAL experience – not a paid tourist day trip. I had been invited as a friend to a Muslim home to enjoy seafood prepared by the “best cook on the Island.” I was conscientious to honor my hosts and express my gratitude while avoiding social gaffes.

I stepped out of the Suzuki and immediately sprang toward two trained monkeys that were on the property. They were coconut harvesters that can clear a tree much faster than any human.[1] Man drew my attention to the rice field that he works twice a year. Once to plant…then watch for months…then again to harvest. The rice is sold by the family at the local pier so they can purchase other goods.

At this point I noticed that the members of his family were coming out of their homes to catch a glimpse of the American. I felt like Gilbert Grape’s mother when she goes into town to bail Leo out of jail for climbing the water tower – all eyes were on me. My eyes were wide open to absorb my surroundings.

Moving closer to the water we passed an area where the daily fish catch is prepared for meals and market. There were two cats snacking on a fish head treat. Cats can be spotted throughout southern Thailand where upwards of 95% of the population is Muslim. You will probably not, however, see a dog in southern Thailand as I learned that Muslims consider dogs to be dirty and therefore cannot be touched or fed.

Man’s family, as he told me, is very fortunate.
They have the land to grow rice and they also purchased a fish farm. The farm is an investment that should return profits in a few years. For now, much of the money they get from selling their fish goes to the farm cost. We boarded another longtail boat in order to get out to the fish farm in an island-protected cove that was filled with 20 or 30 other floating fish farms. Man said that longtail was “authentic” because it smelled like fish with gills peppering the seats and a wet net in the center. He snapped a picture of me and his brother-in-law just before the water seeped into my pants.

The fish farm is a family affair and requires a lot of work.
[3] They purchase 10-12 different types of small, live fish, prawns and rainbow lobster at the pier and place them in separate holding areas in the fish farm grid. Each grid square has a cloth cover and a net on the bottom to stop the critters from escaping into the open water of the sea. After many months of daily feedings the fish are huge and ready to sell for a healthy profit. I learned that one of the reason rainbow lobsters are so expensive is that they will not eat fish, dead or alive.[4] The farm owner must gather muscles and clams from the sea floor and feed them live to the lobster. The other animals in the farm are fed small fish that are caught daily or purchased from the market. The two coolest things in the farm were fish that were nearly two feet long that look like small sharks (down to the appendage that resembled a dorsal fin) and the white snapper that grow to nearly 5 pounds.[5]

Lunch was served in an absolutely beautiful home built on pillars over the sea with a welcoming front patio area filled with potted plants and benches. It was long and narrow with wooden floors through which you can see the water below. There was one bedroom, a long hallway with a refrigerator and storage areas, kitchen with a small stove and rice cooker, bathroom, and back patio. Immediately after removing my shoes and crossing the threshold Man stopped me to share his excitement over a plaque awarded to his brother in law for being a champion Muay Thai fighter. I took a picture, which made Man very happy. I learned that all Thai boys must learn Muay Thai to defend themselves and their families - take that NRA!

His mother-in-law and wife were working furiously in the kitchen as they had been all morning. They caught the white snapper, grouper, prawns, clams, oysters, and blue crabs that morning and had been preparing for my arrival. All of the seafood was from the family farm – one that I could have hit from the table by tossing my plate Frisbee-style with the right tail wind. I was told that the family always eats on the floor of the home but that they found a table, chairs and colorful tablecloth for my visit. I was looking forward to a traditional meal but I was honored by their special efforts.

As we spoke on the patio I learned that Man’s wife was due to give birth to their first child the next morning. They were going to travel by boat to the Krabi hospital to be induced but for now she was busy keeping the family fed – what a trooper! We also discussed the land and home prices on the island. While all ocean-front property was sold, there were other beautiful places for “you and Natalie to raise your family” as Man put it. He must really like us to show me all of the available real estate nearby. The hill behind his home looks south over the Andaman Sea towards Indonesia “is only $150,000 and you can build a beautiful home for $80,000.” Don’t tempt me – if non-Thai’s could own land I may do it. As a bonus, the owner of the hill will receive numerous poisonous jungle cobras - free!

Meanwhile, the table was loaded with plate after plate of colorful dishes with delectable smells, hot chili dipping sauce, rice, and water. There was enough food for six with just two hungry men ready to eat. We did our best to consume as much as possible. I had an especially hard time because the illness the night before, boat ride and fish farm excursion made my stomach a bit touch-and-go. I did not want to insult Man or his family by eating too little or so much that I was ill. Needless to say we had a ton of leftovers that were all bagged-up for Natalie to enjoy if she felt better. THE FOOD WAS FANTASTIC!

Spicy Grouper Curry.
Wood BBQ White Snapper.
Spicy Seafood Salad.

After lunch, and before our miniature banana desert, Man and I called Natalie in our cabana. She sounded miserable – later she would tell me that my call came-in during one of the worst parts of her day in terms of illness. Based on her tone we decided to hurry and catch the next boat home after stopping at the pharmacy.

Thai’s love their king! The King provides cheap healthcare[6] and free education for his people. While some hospitals and doctors are better than others (i.e. the hospital on Koh Yao itself is regarded as a bit sketchy by the locals) the overall healthcare system is very accessible. The pharmacists of Thailand assist in minimizing the cost by filling a vital role in healthcare services by diagnosing minor issues and providing prescription medication. Man and I were able to describe Natalie’s illness and for less than $1 I was able to get Natalie three days worth of two medications, one for upset stomach (take before eating) and the other for nausea (take after eating). In the states the only non-prescription options available for her ailment would be Pepto-Bismol and Tylenol – a nausea prescription would require a primary care physician visit, $20-$30 co-pay, waiting days or weeks for the appointment, plus the prescription cost. You have to love capitalism’s grip on the US healthcare system.

With medication in hand we waited at the pier for our shuttle back to the Paradise. The sky was turning grey and a few rain drops hit my skin. Regardless, four of us rode on top of the boat roof to feel the wind in our hair and to enjoy the beautiful island and bay views.

When we reached our resort Man and I quickly walked to our cabana to visit Natalie. He waited outside while I went in to raise the dead. After a few minutes Natalie scraped herself out of bed to say hello and thank Man for his caring friendship, translation services at the pharmacy, and wonderful seafood leftovers. We were both relieved to see her up and moving around as we had been very worried about her all day. Remember, his wife is going to have a baby the next morning and he was at our cabana helping to care for Natalie – what a great friend!

Later that evening I went to the restaurant to get Natalie some bread and me some rice. She was so ill that I had to take the hot rice and cold lunch leftovers outside on the beach to enjoy (poor me!) in order to keep her nausea at bay. Poor Natalie was struggling to keep her bread down so she took an “after” nausea pill and zonked-out after we discussed my adventure and I shared photos.

I spent the remainder of the evening watching BBC and reading.

This was such a great day I wish that Natalie could have joined me. I love traveling for the adventure, food and people – not landmarks and pampering. This day was genuine and rewarding.

Special Note: One of the photos above of Man and his wife was from that day (see Natalie's leftovers on the bench). I have been e-mail pals with him since our departure. She gave birth to a healthy, beautiful baby boy on July 6th.

[1] We learned all about Coconut Monkeys during our first trip to Thailand when we visited “Monkey School.” It was a frightening experience because the adorable monkeys have three inch teeth and are incredibly strong. I had a monkey climb my body like a tree while my hands were bound together.
[2] The opposite is true in Bangkok where Thai’s are predominantly Buddhist. You will see packs of roaming street dogs everywhere in the city – often in heartbreaking situations.
[3] It could be said that “It takes an entire family compound to raise a lobster.”
[4] This is a fact I could not support with a Google search result but I trust the fish farmer over Wikipedia and the LobsterFacts blog.
[5] Wasabi and chopsticks anyone?
[6] I was told that regardless of the ailment, it costs Thai’s less than $2 to see a doctor and get all the required care.

Monday, September 15, 2008

Dinner Snapshot - Braised Halibut and Couscous

The way to my heart is definitely through fish. My father is currently on a fishing expedition in Alaska, fighting the bears for his share of the catch. His mad angler skills landed us 18 lbs of halibut filets flash frozen and delivered to our doorstep a full week before dad even gets back. We invited my mom over for dinner last night. I prepared a Mediterranian-style meal that took 15 minutes of prep and 10 minutes of actual cooking time before landing on our plates. David took a moment before our meal to give thanks to my father for sending us such a great catch.

Braised Fish with Artichoke Hearts and Red Peppers

1lb halibut or other firm fish
1 cup onions, thinly sliced
3 tbs olive oil
1 red bell pepper, thinly sliced
5 artichoke hearts, quartered
1 tsp paprika
1 tbs dill, chopped
2 tbs parsley, chopped
1/2 cup dry white wine
salt and pepper
1 tbs flour

1. Rinse fish, season with salt and pepper, set aside
2. In a large skillet over a medium flame, heat the olive oil and saute the onions for 3 minutes.
3. Add red peppers and saute for 3 more minutes.
4. Add artichoke hearts, paprika, dill, and parsley to skillet. Stir well and cook for 1 minute.
5. Add the wine and 1/2 cup of the artichoke brine (water will do as well).
6. Place the fish in the skillet, skin side down.
7. Cover and cook for 5-10 minutes or until the fish is flaky.
8. With a slotted spoon, remove the fish and vegetables and put on a warmed plate.
9. Turn up the heat to medium-high and whisk the flour into the remaining pan juices until thick.
10. Pour the sauce over the fish and serve.

Couscous with Sun-Dried Tomatoes

1 medium onion, finely chopped
2 tbs olive oil
8 sun dried tomatoes, chopped
1/4 tsp dried thyme
1 1/4 cups boiling water
1/4 tsp salt
1 cup whole wheat couscous

1. In a medium saucepan over a medium flame, saute the onions in the olive oil.
2. When the onions are getting soft, add the tomatoes and thyme. Saute for 5 mintues more.
3. When onions are translucent, add the boiling water and salt.
4. Bring mixture to a boil.
5. Stir in the couscous and simmer over a low flame for 5 minutes.
6. Stir with a fork to fluff and serve.

Dessert Snapshot - Peach Pie

It's peach season here in Utah and the local peaches are plump, juicy, and sweet. David's been begging me to make peach anything, preferably cobbler. However, I'm a pie crust master. If I am going to make anything, I'm going to make sure that it includes my crust. David ended up lucking out, though. You see, the neighborhood bishop lives behind us and his wife adores me. She talks to me over the fence for hours about gardening and about our common garden enemy, the raccoon. This translates into delicious baked goods. Not only did she give us a whole loaf of fresh baked whole wheat bread, she also gave David a big scoop of her peach cobbler right when it came out of the oven. Needless to say, David spent yesterday in dessert heaven. It was well deserved payment for all the hard work he put into prepping the yard for winter.

Friday, September 5, 2008

Koh Yao Island - Day Seven - Natalie Says "Kill Me Now"

The morning had come and our exciting lunch at Man’s was fast approaching. Only it was one thirty in the morning and the lunch was approaching just a little too fast. I laid there contemplating just exactly what was happening to me right at that moment. Did those Malibu pineapples pack more of a punch than I thought? My seventh sense (the husband sense) went off and I knew that David was awake as well even though neither of us had moved or made a noise. “I don’t feel good,” I said. “Me neither,” he replied. We both fell back asleep.

At five thirty, I woke up to a spinning room and considerable sweating. My seventh sense went off again and I knew that David was going through the same thing right next to me. (Graphic details ahead) “I don’t feel good!” he shouted while bolting to the bathroom. I laid there feeling the worst I ever felt and then the vomiting began. David didn’t get the vomiting but I was lucky enough to get both going on within five minutes of each other, twice an hour for two hours. We both headed back for some more sleep.

Waking up at nine, I felt terrible but wasn’t feeling as terrible as I expected to be. We had missed our breakfast with the Gokce’s and worried that we had missed our last chance to see them. I talked David into making an effort to see how we felt. I figured we were on the verge of an international incident if we didn’t go to Man’s for lunch. His family had put so much effort into having these foreigners come, something that they’ve never done before, and we fell ill the previous night. It would be an insult not to go. We pulled ourselves out of bed, got cleaned up, and headed down to the breakfast villa for some dry toast.

Right when we rounded the corner, we literally ran into Man. “David Copperfield!” Man yelled, using his favorite name for David. He then proceeded to tell us how they had gotten up very early to get all of the fish and that his mother-in-law had been cooking for hours. We gave each other looks that totally portrayed the necessity in our going. Then, the island started to spin. Oh, wait, that wasn’t the island…that was me right before I shouted, “I need to sit down” before bolting to the nearby restroom to begin another vomiting bout.

David managed to get me back to the room at which point I collapsed onto the lounger in misery. “You have to go,” I said. “You feel much better than I do. I can’t go anywhere.” Still sick himself, David agreed. It involved a 30 minute boat ride and a 30 minute jeep ride on winding, bumpy roads. Popping every single bit of Dramamine and Imodium in sight, David prepared like a trooper.

Meanwhile, I deteriorated quickly. The rotation of sickness that had begun at 5:30 had reared its ugly head once again, this time with frightening regularity. At some point, David left to go to lunch. I spent the next six hours between the bed, the bathroom, and the lounger. Unable to sleep from sickness, I watched BBC News all day and caught up on the rest of the world’s politics.

For three hours of those six, I was the most miserable I have ever been. My mind flashed back to a National Geographic special we had watched about a woman who was traveling alone on a Thai island, caught Dengue Fever, and spent the next two weeks with the world spinning and going through much of what I was going through right then. The story ended up with some man convincing her to smuggle heroin back to Britain and her being sent to Thai prison for the rest of her life.

As I laid there with the worst fever of my life, I realized that I was actually moaning in pain and misery. At one point, it didn’t make sense to leave the bathroom anymore and I spent a good portion of time just lying on the cold tile floor. The room gecko found himself trapped in there with me and entertained me while he tried to figure a way out of the room while avoiding me in every possible way. Maybe it was a hallucination.

Never in my life had I been so grateful to be alone when sick. David would have felt terrible, as he does when there is nothing he can do to make me feel better. I was so embarrassingly sick that I was thrilled he didn’t have to endure it with me. By one p.m., I had crawled back into bed and began to worry that maybe I did have Dengue Fever. I was in the right area and had been bitten by plenty of large jungle mosquitoes…mosquitoes so tough that bug spray just made you spicy. Was I going to be able to catch my flight Saturday morning? At this point, there was no way I could spend an hour on a boat to even get to the airport? Would I be stuck here, lose my job, and possibly end up being victimized by some random person using me as a drug mule? The hallucinations were getting out of control, the cold shower to make the fever go down didn’t work, but eventually I was able to fall asleep while wishing that this bug would just kill me already.

At two thirty, Man called. Everyone in the family was terribly worried about me and he wanted to see how I was doing. He put David on the phone. It was nice to hear from him. I barely remember our conversation and was asleep again before I knew it.

At four, David was gently shaking me awake. He had returned with a giant bag of food that Man’s family had packed up for me (enough to feed ten!) as well as two prescriptions for the fever and the nausea. Man took him to a local pharmacist and translated what was wrong with me. It was as simple as that and David scored what became my miracle pills for less than a dollar. He had also come with Man himself, who was waiting outside to see me. I couldn’t imagine myself getting out of bed but managed to do so before he left. He was so worried about me yet his wife was giving birth the following day!

Back inside, David fed me some orange powder in water that was supposed to help my stomach. He then gave me a pill that I was to take prior to eating. I couldn’t even contemplate eating what he was sent home with (blue crabs, squid, lobster, and all the other tasty stuff that I would normally fight to the last bite over). David headed off to the restaurant to procure bread for me. The Paradise makes about six different kinds of bread every day. When he told them that I was sick and needed bread, they asked him what kind of sickness I had and then brought out two appropriate bread types.

I managed to get through two pieces of bread. David had tried to eat the leftovers from lunch inside but I had to ask him to take it outside. The smell made my stomach do flips. Unable to keep the remaining leftovers inside as the smell from the fridge would kill me; he had to resort to the garbage on the beach. So sad that I couldn’t even try a bite.

After I was done eating, he fed me the “after” pill which helped me fall asleep. We did manage to discuss his day before I fell asleep, but that is an adventure for him to blog about.

Thursday, September 4, 2008

Dinner Snapshot - Cedar Planked Salmon with Honey Sesame Sauce

Cedar-Planked Salmon with Honey Sesame Sauce
on a bed of Peperonata
served alongside Wild Rice
Cedar-Planked Salmon with Honey Sesame Sauce
Soak the cedar plank for three hours prior to use (you can go an hour if your pressed for time but any less than that and you will have flaming salmon).
6oz wild salmon filets (my favorite is Coho)
one cedar plank
1/4 cup honey
1 tablespoon sesame seeds (toasted)
Heat bbq to 400F. Place plank on grill for two minutes and then flip over. Place salmon on plank, skin side down and grill until done (about ten minutes). There is no need to flip the fish. In the meantime, combine honey and sesame seeds. When salmon is done, serve on individual plates and pour honey mixture over fish.

A combination of tomatoes, peppers, and onions. We just use whatever is on hand, be it any color of bell pepper or any of the varieties of hot pepper that we have growing out back. This receipe is good for any peppers, tomatoes, or onions that are nearing the end of their edible life. All amounts can be made larger to accomodate more than two people.
1/8 to 1/4 cup olive oil - we use about 1/8 but you may need more depending on how many ingredients you are using
1 cup onion (any color), thinly sliced
2 cloves of garlic, thinly sliced
2 cups of peppers, seeded, and thinly sliced
1 1/2 cups of tomatoes, any kind, chopped
1/4 cup fresh basil, chopped
In a large skillet, head oil over medium heat. Add the onion and saute until tender but not brown (5-8 minutes). Add garlic and cook until fragrant (30 to 60 seconds). Add peppers and cook until browning (10 minutes). Add tomatoes and cook until peppers are tender (about 20 minutes...everything should be a bit cooked down now). Remove from heat. Stir in basil and season with salt and pepper. Serve.

Wednesday, September 3, 2008

Koh Yao Island - Day Six - A Day Away from "Kill Me Now"

Having been guests of the Paradise previously, we planned our activities while on Koh Yao accordingly. The kayaking trip through the sea caves? Did it in 2004. Rock climbing in Krabi? Save it for the next trip. With our history on the island and the probability of us returning a third time already being sorted out in detail[1], we made the bold decision to do absolutely nothing all day.

Doing absolutely nothing sounds leisurely but takes a lot of sudden planning. It starts with the question of getting out of bed. Do we or don’t we? The desire to get early morning photos got our butts hustling by seven. Swimming followed, breakfast was had (coconut jam, oh glorious coconut jam) and we were back to our villa by nine. The next question we encountered was, “How many provisions do we truly need when our villa is just 40 meters away?” We decided on a lot and packed the beach bag full with four different sunscreens, two ipods, four books, one dominoes set, two headbands, four towels, one beach blanket, two travel journals and pens, Cubans, a pit viper and an array of fruit. You can never be too prepared.

Once set up on the beach, perfectly situated under a flowering frangipani tree, we headed off to the other side of the cove for some beach exploration. From the boat, we had spotted a nice beach and were determined to bushwhack our way over there. After climbing over painful limestone, we decided to have a go in the deep tide waters. As we were standing there, talking about our game plan, a large blue crab[2] found interest in David’s exposed toes. Waggling in his flip flop, his big toe looked to be a tasty meal to the crab and he started to sneak closer and closer. My instinct, of course, was to pick up the camera. I told David to waggle his toe a bit more. He said, “But the crab will attack me!” By this time, the crab wasn’t just scoping out his toe…he had his arms stretched wide ready to wield his claws. Being the loving wife, I answered “Don’t be ridiculous! The crab won’t attack you!” while I positioned myself with my finger on the camera trigger to catch the attack going down. Ever trusting of me, David waggled his toes. Sure enough, the crab made a sudden fast movement toward David who was, fortunately, a millisecond quicker than the crab. He had yanked his foot out of his flip flop, leaving the crab with nothing but a clawful of rubber. We shook the crab off of his shoe and watched it immediately attack a sea snail. After watching in awe while the crab devoured the snail, we decided that it was just too dangerous to continue on. This turf belonged to the crabs.

Back at our beach post, we read, we swam, we read, we swam and we were looking for something better to do by 11:30. I was able to schedule a Thai massage for four but needed a change of pace in the meantime. When in doubt, eat. We headed off to the beachside restaurant for a light lunch...fresh ahi sashimi and two orders of prawn caesar salad. The sashimi was perfect, the salads were tasty, but it was all upstaged by the appearance of Man, our dear island friend. He presented us with a baggie of yam thale rod ded, a spicy salad made with prawns, mussels, crab, and squid. His mother-in-law, known as the best cook on the island, had heard that we were looking for some truly spicy food and sent Man off with her famous salad and an invitation to come over to lunch the following day. Lunch at Man’s house? We couldn’t believe our luck. What a cultural opportunity this would be.

While we entertained ideas of the food we’d be served the next day, we dug into our initial sampling. The ingredients had been pulled out of the water that morning from Man’s very own fish farm. As we were eating it, staff members kept coming over to make yummy noises and to ask if it came from Man’s mom. When we would affirm, they would respond with “pet chin chin”, the ultimate in spiciness. We agreed. Covered in a green chili sauce with liberal additions of red chilis, the salad was definitely pet chin chin. Every single last bit of it went into our stomachs. If we had been alone, I would have licked the plate.

Back at the beach, it was time to head in for a swim before tide went out. A half hour later and it was gone, leaving some very fresh tide pools to explore. While David went back to the villa to grab the camera, I headed into the murky sand to find starfish. Boy, did I ever find them! By the time that David came back to the tide pools, he found me reclining on my elbows with starfish lined up from my belly to my toes. Big ones, little tiny baby ones, ones missing a leg, ones missing two legs, all difficult models. Those things can move. Frankly, that was half the fun, lying there while starfish crawled off my body. It’s like feeling all the legs of a millipede only way less grody. We crowned me “Natalie, Queen of Starfish”.

When the afternoon rolled around, we moved our operation to our pool. With no tide, we wanted to be able to take a quick dip. Both of us plopped into our recliners with books to enjoy some peace and quiet. Right then, two German women encroached on our turf. They started walking up our private beach with inquisitive looks on their faces. Once I spotted what they were looking at, I yelled “Grab the camera!” to David as I went to check out the monitor lizard that had walked onto our property. He was a beauty at about three feet long. The property manager had informed us that a five meter one lived in the next bay over…the way the little one looked at me did not make me want to venture over for a look at the large one. His eyes said, “I’m calm now, but one wrong move and I’ll thrash your leg with my tail and make you cry like a little girl.”

Just as I was about to hop in the pool, I realized that I had a Thai massage appointment to go to. I ran down to the spa pavilion and changed into my sarong in record time. I had spent the day mentally prepared myself for a dismal Thai massage experience. In 2004, I had the worst Thai massage of my life at this very location. It was like a terrible Swedish massage with clothes on, not the tugging, stretching, kneading experience that it should be. Brethney had tried it the previous day and stated that she kept having to tell the girl “harder” but finally got what she was looking for. As Brethney’s previous Thai massage experience had been done by a Russian woman in a Slovakian spa retreat, I quickly ascertained that she didn’t have any idea what Thai massage was supposed to be like. No matter how many times I asked “harder”, “firmer”, or “deeper”, it just didn’t come through and I found myself thinking about balancing my checkbook. You know that it is a terrible massage when you find contemplating finances more relaxing. Her actions were slightly redeemed by a proper Thai back-cracking at the end but I was ever so happy to come back to the villa to find David poolside with two pineapple juices with coconut rum awaiting my return. As we had picked up pineapple juice and Malibu rum in town a few days previous, he kept them coming, complete with pineapple wedges and orchids. Note - do not leave a fruity drink at ground level. The next sip you take may be filled with ants.

We headed over to dinner later than usual; the place was packed when we arrived. It was seafood buffet night. Or, in Natalie’s world, everything right in the world on a plate. Give me seafood for any meal every day and I will be eternally happy. A large boat sat at the very end. It contained quite the arrangement of seafood. Entire fish, some measuring three feet long, were laid out on the ice with rainbow lobsters, giant oysters larger than my fist, huge tiger prawns, blue crab, squid and other assorted sea creatures. Ma laughed when we put in our order: two giant oysters, one rainbow lobster, squid, and one entire fish. We snacked on steamed mussels, sucked down the oysters for hordes oeuvres, devoured every last bit of the fish and sucked the lobster dry. After we finished that round, we ordered another lobster. All of that for less than dinner for two at Bambara.

We visited with the Gokce’s afterward, getting tips from them on how to dress for lunch with a Muslim family the next day. I settled on a long skirt and a wispy long sleeved shirt. David opted for linen pants and a short sleeved linen shirt. With our hosts being Thai Muslims, we didn’t need to worry too much about modesty but erred on the side of caution anyway in a desire to be respectful to their home. Back in our villa, we couldn’t fall asleep. It was like we were going to Disneyland the following day. What was it like in a Thai home? What sort of deliciousness would we be served? What is Man’s wife like? Most of all, we were thinking, “Wow. What an honor this will be.” We couldn’t wait for the following day.

[1] Probability of Return: A wise Swedish woman on our trip gave us the wicked idea of giving birth in Krabi. The company would basically pay you to take a post-partum holiday. They say that it takes a village to raise a child…with a large network of support on Koh Yao, we would feel comfortable handing over our newborn to Ma or her family, Man’s family, or any of the staff members for a few hours while we could recover from baby. Babies are most precious in Thailand…Islands seem to have strong baby communities as well. While it’s a splendid thought, I figure that we will go back multiple times in our life anyway. Plus, that just may be to Brangelina.
[2] Large Blue Crab: There really are no large blue crabs. They’re all just so adorable…yet so aggressive!