Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Legendary Tennis!

Having watched many exciting tennis matches in the late 1970's and early 1980's involving Bjorn Borg and John McEnroe, Doris and I were thrilled to have the opportunity to see these two tennis legends play each other in an exhibition here in Bangkok last Saturday. Okay, so they aren't exactly in their prime anymore, but it was still neat. McEnroe, of course, protested several line calls by throwing his racket and berating the linesmen or chair umpire, but as most tennis fans know, maturity finally settled in some years ago, and McEnroe's tantrums now are really nothing more than tongue-in-cheek crowd pleasers. As for Bjorn Borg, his personality is still as subdued as it always was.

I'm inserting some photos from the match . . .

. . . including one showing the routine McEnroe hands-on-hips slouch, indicating that a "You cannot be serious!" tirade is about to erupt:

The best part, though, involved several tennis balls that Borg and McEnroe hit into the crowd before the match started. Both players had autographed these balls earlier. Borg hit one into the section where Doris and I were sitting, and the ball sailed over my head.style=""> Over the years I've watched many fans at baseball games bobble homerun balls hit into the stands, so I turned around and patiently waited while the ball bounced off the fingers of numerous people in the rows above us. The ball eventually worked its way down and ended up in mid-air right in front of me, and while holding my camera in my right hand, I simply reached out and grabbed the ball with my left!

Being a sentimental guy, I checked e-Bay listings the next day to see what a tennis ball autographed by these two tennis greats would fetch at auction. I figured maybe this could be the start of our new retirement savings. Sadly, it looks like I could sell the famous ball for an amount roughly equivalent to what I paid for the exhibition match tickets.

Monday, September 08, 2008

Pool in Progress

I just concluded two enjoyable weeks in Austin with Doris. We made some new friends, unpacked boxes of our belongings, selected new furnishings for the house, etc. One of the more interesting things we did was simply watch the construction of our in-ground swimming pool, which coincidentally began upon my arrival in Texas from Bangkok. The whole process is projected to take three months, but I suspect the first couple of weeks will constitute the most interesting phase, since I finally could begin to visualize in three dimensions what I previously had seen only in a drawing.

I'm inserting below a bunch of pictures of the pool construction taken over the course of my visit. The bags of limestone shown in several of the photos made me wonder whether the contractor was building a bomb shelter, rather than a pool, but I believe the bags are intended to form a solid foundation for the pool, in order to minimize the risk of settling and cracking.

Also, several trees at the back edge of our property needed trimming, and we held our breath while watching one of the workers gingerly pick his way through one tree's dead branches with a chain saw:

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

A Lone Star State of Mind

Doris and I sampled some music last night in Austin, Texas, which bills itself as the "live music capital of the world." We enjoyed listening to an unsigned recording artist, Suzanne Smith, accompanied by another guitarist and a fiddle player, at an Irish pub called B.D. Riley's on 6th Street, where many of the live music acts perform. I'm posting a couple of self-explanatory pictures:
We hope last night will be the first of many enjoyable evenings spent savoring the musical talent that is so prevalent in Austin. Suzanne graciously performed two songs I requested. We especially liked her band's rendition of a Nanci Griffith tune "Lone Star State of Mind," since the lyrics describe the song writer's affection for memories formed in the "Lone Star" State of Texas. With the recent completion of our new house in Austin, Texas is now Doris' home state, and we expect it eventually will be mine, too.

Yes, last night was entertaining, but it was also educational. On the way to the pub, we passed a site bearing the plaque pictured below, describing its historical significance:

Sunday, August 17, 2008

I've Been to the Bat Cave!

With Doris in Austin, I decided to take a trip by myself this weekend to Khao Yai National Park, Thailand's largest, which is located about a two-hour drive from Bangkok. I wasn't actually "by myself," since our driver, Khun Akkachai, took me there and was my friendly companion while touring the park. He proved to be an invaluable resource in many ways, including translating from Thai to English. One can get by speaking English (accompanied by plenty of arm waving to give charades-like clues) in the area in which I live in Bangkok, but in most other parts of Thailand, proficiency in Thai is essential to communication.

The highlight of the trip was a visit to the Bat Cave. I was skeptical that it would live up to its advance billing, but it actually far exceeded my expectations. We're not talking about the residence of the Caped Crusader here but a cave in which roughly 4 million bats reside and from which they emerge every evening at dusk. About an hour before sunset, I hired a guide and drove to the base of the mountain in which the cave is located. As you can see from the pictures, we parked in a farmer's sugar cane field and waited.

As the sun began dipping towards the horizon and I was snapping photos of yet another sunset (I've surely taken enough of these over the years, but who can resist?), a stream of bats suddenly started pouring out of the mountainside. For those of you who have high-speed internet connections, I'm inserting a short video of this remarkable phenomenon. For those who don't, I'm posting a few still pictures. So, okay, I've taken too many sunset photos over the years, but these are the first showing swarms of bats in the foreground.

Incredibly, this river of bats kept pouring out of the cave, even as we were leaving the farmer's field in the dark about 45 minutes later. The guide told us that it takes about two hours for all 4 million bats to exit in an orderly manner. I'm not so sure about orderly . I can only imagine what it must be like in the cave itself, with all these creatures flapping and jockeying for position at the opening. Once they're out of the cave, the bats head off in search of their meals of insects and have been known to travel well over a hundred miles before returning one-by-one to the cave before sunrise. This assumes they aren't nabbed by hungry Thais. Our guide told us that residents in the area love to snack on bat meat roasted with garlic.

Other highlights of the trip:

-- encountering a huge lizard—about four feet long—on the road while driving through the park. Unfortunately, he moved so fast, despite his size, that all the photos I took of him before he scampered into the brush were blurry.

-- meeting a family of wild elephants by the side of the road (there are about 250 altogether in the park):

-- hiking to a large waterfall that required climbing up and down the steepest and narrowest stairs I've ever seen at a tourist attraction anywhere in the world:

-- finding a group of other tourists peering into the jungle at the side of the path to the waterfall and taking pictures. At first I couldn't see what they were photographing, so they had to point out the huge tarantula—the size of a man's hand—idling the time away in his web:

Before getting to the waterfall, we encountered yet another tarantula at a different location, likewise waiting patiently in his web, perhaps for an unsuspecting tourist to wander off the beaten path. These sightings only reinforced my reluctance to do more hiking in the park. Materials that I read in preparation for my visit recommended the wearing of "leech socks" to prevent leeches from securing themselves to one's ankles and sucking blood. I mentioned this to Khun Akkachai, who demonstrated a very relaxed attitude in reply. "Mister, I not scared. Leeches need blood, so I don't mind. I help them." Good for him, but I can’t fathom having the same attitude. Also, I have a friend in Bangkok who is recovering from dengue fever, a tropical disease that is transmitted by mosquitoes and can cause spasms so severe that a victim's bones sometimes break. With this in mind, I decided to stick to only the more well-developed paths in the park and avoid getting too adventurous.

One more thing: there's marble beneath the ground, and sometimes above the ground, in Khao Yai. Lots of it. Trucks haul enormous pieces of the stone, chewing up the roads and creating large potholes that we drove through. There is so much marble in the area that the owner of the hotel I stayed in went wild with the stuff. I'm posting a couple of pictures of my room, showing a marble floor, a marble counter in the living area (the bed’s mattress also rested on marble), and a bathroom made almost entirely of marble. The owner apparently drew the line at installing a marble toilet.

There’s so much marble in the area that the owner even arranged to have a square piece of art work hung on the wall, comprised entirely of—you guessed it—marble:

Saturday, August 09, 2008

The Beatles Revisited

Quite some time ago, I wrote about attending a performance by a Beatles tribute band in Bangkok called the Beaters. Last Friday night, I went with a friend of mine, Matt Totsky, to hear another Beatles tribute band, The Better. They were excellent, and Beatles songs have been playing in my head. Some pics of the band, as well as of Matt:

And where else but in Bangkok could you walk out of a pub and encounter an elephant on the street?

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

More Language Humor

I truly admire how hard people work at overcoming the language barriers that divide them, and how often their efforts succeed, despite the use of less-than-elegant communications. Two examples from Thailand that struck my funny bone:

While riding on the Bangkok sky train recently, I discreetly peered over the shoulder of a Thai woman to read the English dialogue she was studying and practicing intently. The lesson was entitled, "Discourse with an Old." Since the lesson was accompanied by a sketch of a Western-looking geezer, I surmised that the phrase "an Old" was intended to refer to an elderly person. The dialogue began with the Thai speaker asking, "How old you?" (English teachers in Thailand, as well as writers of English language texts, often are Thais with limited English skills themselves.) After the elderly man responded, the next question is the one that really got me giggling: "You have cataract on your eye globes, is that not right?" (Can you just imagine all the readers of the dialogue eagerly awaiting an opportunity to practice this exciting phrase on an unsuspecting Western man?!)

The second example comes from our Thai driver, who told me recently about another driver's attempt to explain to his boss that he needed time off from his driving duties in order to attend the cremation of his recently deceased father. The only problem was that the Thai didn't know the English word "cremation," so he told his boss he needed time off to "barbecue" his father. Despite this awkward phrasing, the boss quickly grasped what the driver was saying and agreed to the request.

Saturday, June 14, 2008

Hello Bali!

Doris and I have just returned from a glorious week at a resort in Bali. We now know a lot more about this tropical paradise, which is one of roughly 13,000 islands comprising Indonesia. We spent a good deal of time just lounging on the beach or around the pool at the resort, sipping tropical drinks:

. . . but we also hired a car and driver and took some excursions. Some of the more interesting things we learned during our visit:

-- It's difficult to adjust to Indonesian currency. It felt truly weird to give, as a tip, a piece of paper currency with "10,000" written on it, despite continually reminding ourselves that this equated to a little more than one US dollar.

-- Bali is 90% Hindu and 10% Muslim, resulting in a very tolerant environment, which is in considerable contrast to some other parts of Indonesia, where religious violence instigated by Islamic fundamentalists is a recurring problem.

-- Kite flying is a routine source of entertainment for the locals. The wind blows almost continuously in Bali, so we often would see one or more kites somewhere in the sky.

We also learned that the Balinese consider monkeys to be sacred. In fact, we visited a "sacred monkey forest," populated by more than 400 wild monkeys of all sizes. At one point during our tour of the forest, as I was fiddling with my camera, an adult monkey leapt onto my shoulders.

Doris kept her cool and snapped some photos (these could have come in handy when filing a life insurance claim), while I tried to remain calm, pretending I didn't mind having an animal on my back. I had read the sign at the entrance to the forest, warning against touching or playing with the monkeys, as they might react in an unpredictable manner and could pose a health risk. My biggest worry was getting bitten. Fortunately, I avoided this fate, although I had to spend the rest of the day touring with a lot of dirty paw prints all over my t-shirt.

Pictured below is a graveyard in the monkey forest. No, this doesn't contain the bodies of rabies-infested tourists. It does include the grave of our tour guide's mother, however:

Our guide explained that people are buried only temporarily, until the town's next cremation ceremony is scheduled, at which point the bodies are exhumed and burned. I'm inserting a photo showing the temple area in which the bodies are prepared for cremation.

A stone statue next to the entrance shows an evil spirit devouring a child. Now, how inviting is that?!

We passed many rice fields on our tour and watched some people harvesting rice:

We also visited a stone sculpting shop:

Pictured below is a beautifully carved piece depicting the Indonesian version of Romeo and Juliet:

We also stumbled upon an open-air performance by elementary school children. The little girl dancers were amazingly talented, and we enjoyed seeing the non-performing children just as much.

Speaking of little girls, it's really difficult to differentiate between very young girls and adult women in Indonesia. Man, these people are just so tiny compared to Americans! Here's a photo of Doris standing next to the sales lady in a Crocs shoe store:

We enjoyed watching women balance things on their heads—sometimes baskets and, in one surprising case, a load of lumber:

Near the end of the day, we toured a Hindu temple overlooking beautiful scenery:

The temple grounds, again, were populated by monkeys, including this blissfully incontinent mama:

These particular monkeys, though, had evolved beyond the simple pleasure of startling tourists by leaping on their backs and had engineered a profitable scam involving the Balinese grounds keepers. As one enters the temple grounds, a sign warns against wearing eyeglasses, jewelry, hats, etc. I suspect most tourists think these rules are designed to avoid offending the religious sensibilities of the Balinese people. As our tour guide explained, however, the warnings are aimed at the practice of monkeys in stealing these items from visitors. We saw this happen to a Japanese man. Before the man knew what was going on, the thieving monkey was sitting in a nearby tree, bending and chewing on the man's eyeglasses.

A grounds keeper quickly appeared and tossed a bag of peanuts to the monkey. The monkey took the peanuts in exchange for the glasses, and the grounds keeper then offered the glasses (broken lens and all) to the Japanese man in exchange for a monetary "reward," which the man readily paid.

We ended our day of touring by watching a Balinese play and fire dance. This lengthy, culturally significant performance by a large number of local men, involved a lot of rhythmic chanting, singing and yelling in Balinese and is difficult to describe. The best summary I can come up with is men's glee club meets high school marching band on acid:

The final scene in the play involves a Balinese man stomping out brush fires with his feet (see earlier reference to acid).

We felt reasonably safe throughout our trip, despite driving past "ground zero" at one point, marking the spot where, in 2002, an al-Qaeda-affiliated terrorist group detonated a car bomb and killed more than 200 people—many of them tourists. As our tour guide reminded us, when we avoid places because of past terrorist activities, the terrorists win, so I felt that, in some small way, we thumbed our noses at those whose aim is to instill fear.