Thursday, January 10, 2019

Still missing Dixie

One year ago today, I got home from work and found our beloved Dixie had died peacefully in her sleep in her favorite sun puddle on the patio. This is the tribute post I wrote in her memory. I still miss her every day. She was much loved.

Not long after Dixie died, I came upon a book written by the playwright Eugene O'Neill in tribute to his much-loved dog, Blemie. It was written as Blemie's last will and testament. The book literally dropped off the shelf onto my foot when I was browsing at my favorite DC bookstore, Kramer Books.
This passage in the book gave me great comfort and allowed me to eventually open my heart to bringing a new dog into my life. For this I'm so grateful (and I hope Flossie is too:). I wrote this post back in August reflecting on this passage below.

"... I have heard my Mistress say, 'When Blemie dies we must never have another dog. I love him so much I could never love another one.' 

Now I would ask her, for the love of me, to have another. It would be a poor tribute to my memory never to have a dog again. What I would like to fell is that, having once had me in the family, now she cannot live without a dog!"

I know Dixie is keeping good company with my friends' dogs who joined her in the past year on the other side of the Rainbow Bridge. I hope they are all celebrating her today with treats and balls.









Thursday, January 3, 2019

Rookie Retiree: Figuring out what's next

Week One


Day 1 - January 3

Day one of retirement. New world order. Trying to start an exercise of writing 200 words daily. Maybe a theme of lessons learned today. Some may be too personal to publish here and they'll stay in my journal. Others will end up here.

It's ok not to have a plan. It's ok to sleep in a bit. It's ok not to get anything on the to do list done. It's ok to feel a little shaky about this new adventure. It’s ok to feel a sense of gratification from kind notes from people who say I’ve touched their lives. It's ok just to "be" for a while.

I did accomplish setting up the dual computer monitors and didn't flip out when I realized I've screwed up my google contacts. Nothing a trip to the Best Buy geek squad won't be able to fix, I feel certain.

An impromptu evening out with Harriet to the Still Hopes "new years eve" party is something I probably wouldn't have jumped on in my old world order at the last minute on a school night. Good for our parents and nice to have a little time in the car with my friend.

All in all, mission accomplished on day one - just be OK with what does - or doesn't  - come my way.

Day 2 - January 4
Several themes of the day - kindness, generosity, patience

Kindness - Three friends reinforced why I place such value on a handwritten thank you note. In one day, I received two notes from friends and one from a former co-worker sharing kind sentiments and words of grace. All were much needed and appreciated. Just reinforces that in giving to them I got so much more in return when least expected.

Patience - Patience was both mine and the "geeks" with the Best Buy Geek Squad who spent two hours with me trying to get my new email operation up and running. After 20+ years working in places with highly skilled (and even more patient) IT staff, I knew I'd be on my own in the IT wild west. Thinking I was somewhat intuitive in this area, I thought I'd be OK. To be on the safe side, I bought a year of "Geek Squad" membership with my computer. The three geeks who worked with me were patient and helpful - although they ultimately didn't solve my whole problem. I got home and worked on it some more and figured it out - I am woman hear me roar!

Generosity  - At a concert tonight, we went up to buy tickets only to be told we only needed to buy one because the gentleman in front of us didn't need his second ticket. Random act of kindness - my turn to pay it forward.

It was a second unstructured day - this part will definitely be a learning curve. Some of the Christmas decorations remain at the bottom of the stairs to be taken up, Flossie never got her long walk, and there's a pile of laundry (which I"d normally do a Sunday) unfolded in the bedroom. But I conquered the unanticipated email syncing monster and can tackle the rest tomorrow or the next day or next week. It will still be there.

Day 3 - January 5
I kept to my usual Saturday routine (yoga, Soda City, lunch errands). Will be interesting to see when the first Sunday rolls around tomorrow how that feels because I've already done my Sunday chores (grocery store, cooking, laundry).

My to-do list grows - or rather it's really my to-do of my previous life but I never wrote the items down - clean the bathroom cabinets, kitchen drawers, hall closet, etc. We'll see if I actually get to them. I'm feeling a desperate need to get the house straightened up - especially with the boxes of work stuff piled up in the dining room.

So today's first lesson - make time to walk the dog more than just around the block. Finally had a sunny day and there's nothing to say all the other stuff, chores etc won't still be there later. I forget how many neighbors I see only through dog walking.

Second lesson - don't just plop down at the computer to "quickly" check email or social accounts. Eventually I'll need to set  a discipline for this because I can already see it could be come a dangerous rabbit hole. Hopefully keeping the laptop mostly tethered to the dual monitors in the sunroom/office will keep me from taking quick looks like I did when I kept the laptop on the kitchen counter so I could easily keep up with work email.

Day 4 - January 6
I've always wondered if other people see days as having "personalities"? Sundays have been particularly mercurial for me depending on my spot in life. Sometimes they've been my day to just be and do what I wanted. Other times, they've been stressed filled days that were my only time during the week to get chores done - especially if I'd "treated" myself to a carefree Saturday then paid the price on Sunday.

In recent months, Sundays had become chore days, and typically I didn't enjoy them much finding myself at the end of the day tired out and dreading the week. An added Sunday "chore" usually ended up being trying to fit in a workout class to either get ahead of the next week's schedule or catch up from the last week's. Plus if Sunday was sunny, I wanted to be outside - biking, hiking, walking the dog - and not in the car doing errands or house doing chores.

Today, I had to give my Sunday attitude a very deliberate adjustment. I'd already done most of my weekly chores (grocery store, laundry, general house straightening etc) and didn't feel like I "owed" my workout schedule an additional day this week. Despite the first full day of sun in weeks, I didn't feel "obligated" to be outside since I can now "do outside" anytime I want to. So ... I went to a play - spent a perfectly lovely, warm Sunday in a dark theater and didn't fret over it in the least.

Attitude adjustment worked. I think the key is just staying aware of these patterns from my previous life and making changes where needed.

Day 5 - January 7

It was the first Monday of my new world order. Instead of stretching to remember all my "Monday things" to take to the office - gym bag, weekly snack supply, flowers for my desk, computer back in the bag after the weekend - I got up at the usual time, walked the dog and met a friend for coffee at Blue Flour. Learned a lot from this smart, successful woman who, too, is working on her next professional chapter.

After a lunchtime workout (where I knew almost no one in the class), the rest of day consisted of unpacking work boxes to set up my home office on the sun porch. I'm a huge fan of being organized. After cleaning the bathroom closet or the pantry, I'll make frequent visits back just to admire my handiwork. But I'm also a huge procrastinator, so this project was just perfect for my first week as a rookie retiree. No excuse to procrastinate getting organized.

About mid-afternoon, I talked to a friend who asked me if I was having fun working on this little project. My first reaction was "of course not, housework isn't fun." But I quickly realized, this was fun. And therapeutic. And somewhat mindless. And just a little creative in an odd sort of way.

In my new world order, I'm trying to recalibrate some habits that have become a little too rote - like dependence on my phone. When this friend called about 4 p.m., I realized the phone had been playing music for two hours, and I hadn't even sneaked a peek at email, social media or news feeds. Small steps.

Day 6 - January 8
Have you ever wondered who goes to Target in the middle of the morning on a Tuesday? On the rare occasion I made a Target run during the middle of day in my previous life, I was always silently wondering why these people are at Target at such an odd time (odd for me anyway).

Today was my first trip to Target as a rookie retiree. I'm a weekend Target shopper. One of those get 'em done types on the weekend who can find almost any "staple" I need from there. Of course, like anyone who strides through those double doors bypassing the big carts because I "just need a couple of items," I always answer the cashier with "I found more than I came for" when asked if I found everything. So I know my habits well enough not to attempt a Target run without a goal during this time of transition where I may be unusually vulnerable to purchasing random organizing containers or new lamps.

List in hand, I was focused. But I didn't expect the quiet I found in those aisles. Instead of frantic weekend grocery shoppers or moms trying to quiet toddlers screaming for the toy at the end of the display aisle, I found amazing calm. Most people were dressed like I was - stinky from a gym visit. The few young kids I saw were infants snoozing in baby buckets, rather than toddlers wiggling in  the cart seats (I'm guessing the moms knew how to time the Target run with infant naps). Target workers were pushing around inventory carts (something you never see on the weekend) methodically going about their work of scanning items and stocking shelves. At the checkout line, I consulted my list of items needed, and it matched exactly with what was in the conveyor belt to purchase. Surely a first.

Rather than leaving there dazed and overstimulated with more purchases than I'd intended, I left energized to try Lowe's for the special light bulbs for one of the bathrooms. I hate visiting Lowe's. Its merchandise intimidates me. The organization of the aisles confuses me. While I always leave Target with more than I'd meant to purchase, I typically leave Lowe's with less than what I needed because I get so overwhelmed.

After quickly finding the specialty light bulb I needed, I reluctantly took off for the nail and screw aisle dreading having to figure out what exactly I needed to hang pictures on the brick-walled sun porch. Clearly, I had the dazed look of Dorothy after she landed in Oz when a young man who somewhat resembled Garth from SNL asked me what I needed. I told him cement screws, but after a couple of questions he quickly figured out it was nails I needed. He explained how to use the nails on the mortar not the brick, and assessed the size I needed by asking a few questions.

With two specialty light bulbs, a box of $1.72 cement nails and a new bottle of Gorilla glue (my treat to myself) in hand, I confidently left Lowe's a new woman having survived Target and Lowe's in one day less stressed than when I started and guiltless for not buying unneeded random items.

And through it all, I managed to avoid checking email, social media or news feeds - using my phone only to consult my lists. More small steps.

Day 7- January 9
One of my personal goals during this transition time is learning to slow down and just "be." One challenge in this process is breaking my phone habit - that awful habit of picking up my phone just to mindlessly check email, texts, social posts, news feeds anytime I find myself at a stop.

Today, I made the conscious effort to put the phone in the back seat while I drove around doing errands. It made me feel off not to have it to pick up while I sat at a stop sign. During the day as I puttered around the house, I purposefully left the phone charging in the bedroom to keep me from checking it every few minutes as I walked through the kitchen.

There's nothing coming in on the phone that can't wait an hour at this point in my new world order. So to anyone emailing or texting me, don't worry if I don't respond immediately. I might be busy just "being."

WEEK TWO

Day 8 - January 10
Didn't realize how much I'd missed my Monday night band practice! We'd been off for the holidays since mid-December and hadn't played together in weeks. Despite missing our bass player and our vocalist/guitar player limping around with a broken foot, we jumped right back in tonight with our make-up lesson.

This band class (and its performance opportunities) has brought a real joy to my world - both from the amazing realization I can actually learn to play an instrument at this age and from the new friends I've made from this adventure. I'm sure I had a big grin on my face throughout the practice just from the sheer joy of being part of something bigger than me.

Day 9 - January 11
Two things on the "what I learned today" list
1 - Tire pressure can increase and decrease with the weather. Just because the warning light comes on, doesn't mean you necessarily have a problem.
2 - If you go to a 3:30 p.m. workout class, don't eat a big lunch at 1 p.m. - definitely something I never had to consider in my old world order.

Today was the second time I've met someone for coffee (well, tea for me). Last week it was Drip in Five Points and today was Indah in Cottontown. As with my mid-morning visit to Target and Lowe's earlier in the week, I wondered about who frequents coffee shops during the day. This was a work-related meeting but was also a nice personal visit with a professional friend. Most of the people in the shop seemed to be college-aged working on their computers. I can already tell I'll need to be out of the house to do any serious/focused writing. I'll definitely be back with my computer to give Indah a try.

Day 10 - January 12
Well, it's Saturday, but fortunately a baby shower scheduled during my usual workout time is forcing me to divert from my usual routine - that's a good thing. Need to keep things shaken up.

Flossie's training continues to improve thanks to last week's remediation training with the pinch collar. Lesson learned (or at least reinforced): it's all about practice, consistency and patience!

Day 11 - January 13
Bad weather stalled my plan to join my Friends of The Palmetto Trail group go to the Congaree Swamp to pick up trash. I happily continued my house purging quest. A rainy Sunday definitely encourages this kind of work.

Lesson learned today - the more I work on purging stuff the easier it becomes!

Tried to shake up my Sunday routine to avoid the downer Sunday mode I'd been experiencing toward the end of last year.

Enjoyed serving on a career panel at Hammond with fellow alums during a session for juniors and seniors. Continue to be amazed at how that place has changed. It was fun to think about one ofhte questions posed to the panelists - how did Hammond impact your career path? It brought back a couple of memories I hadn't really considered as answers to that questions. I'd forgotten I'd won an essay contest in the seventh grade (I found the plaque when cleaning out my parents' house several years ago). I'd also forgotten about a unsuccessful run for student council secretary in the 11th grade, but also helping a friend run and win a campaign for student council president the next year. I guess my interest in writing and elections started early!

Day 12 - January 14
Did a mental check-in on several of my informal goals. I've done pretty good in my efforts to avoid a routine/rut. Made good attempts to stop checking my phone so frequently but didn't succeed as well on that one (trying to remember to put my phone in the back seat when I'm driving so I don't automatically reach for it when I'm in the car). Working hard to shed the idea that everything has to be an accomplishment, check a box, or be a "to what end" effort - at least awareness of that is higher. Making progress toward decluttering files, closets and my head.

Day 13 - January 15
Rookie retiree goal fail today - I never got out of my gym clothes! I swore I wouldn't be one of "those people" who was going to the grocery store at 4 p.m. still in the gym clothes from a morning class. Not only did I do that, but also I didn't get out of the house until 3:30 to go to the gym. Then, it was Lowe's and Trader Joe's at peak traffic time. Since I don't have to do that anymore, I'll try to avoid Forest Drive at that hour.

That said, it was a very productive day of decluttering and purging, finding lots of treasures from jobs and lives past, laughing at the fact I still have bills from 1990s gas cards, and enjoying a 2-mile training walk with Flossie. She passed the squirrel test (stayed in her "sit" position while shaking to get at the squirrel) and we both got to enjoy a nice long walk with minimal pulling and tugging. It's all about the practice - as is most things in life.

So today's lessons learned:
1 - sometimes it's OK to spend the whole day in gym clothes (and it might even be OK at some point to stay in gym clothes and not be productive but it will take me a while to get to that one)
2 - it's still best to avoid Trader Joe's at Lowe's at 5:30 on a weekday afternoon.

Day 14 - January 16
Two weeks into this new world order. I went to my first volunteer committee meeting - the communications committee at church. I walked out with two assignments keeping my personal promise to myself not to overcommit to anything right now.

I'm finding it easier to leave the phone alone in the car - especially if I have good music or an interesting podcast playing. I didn't realize just how many emails I dealt with in a day until my email traffic slowed has slowed almost to a halt. I've finally figured out how to cull out the junk in my google account into a separate feed on my phone, and I can sometimes go hours without an email in my inbox. Best part is I don't miss it one bit.

What I learned today:
1 - it's possible to fit a good sized rolling desk chair into the back of my car as long as the top's down. It's also possible for me to maneuver the chair out by myself.
2 - there's a recording studio on Millwood next to Crave. Apparently it's Dick Goodwin's studio but it's also used by other organizations.
3 - it's only a myth that Trinity's communion silver was stolen during the Civil War when Rev. Shand was attacked by Union soldiers. The theft more likely happened when he was mugged by vagrants. I learned this at my committee meeting plus the fact that the silver was replaced by having members of the congregation donate various pieces of "odd" silver to the church and Gorham made them into several pieces of communion silver. These pieces were used until about 100 years ago when they were loaned to St. John's upon its founding. The pieces remain there today.

Monday, December 17, 2018

What’s next? Decide what I want to be when I grow up

This is what 35 years of professional
life looks like
Who knew that hundreds of papers in file folders, thousands of emails and digital documents, scads of photos, and boxes filled with old thank you notes could have conjured up the emotions I recently experienced as I started packing up 35 years of stuff as I prepare to retire on Jan. 2.

I wasn't expecting the rush of memories that came from opening a book of quotes from my first job writing speeches for a Congressman or skimming through files of planning documents that set out the vision for big projects that ultimately became successful.

As I sat on my office floor sorting through so much of this, I was overcome by the magnitude of gratitude I have for the crooked path of work experiences I’ve accumulated over the past 35 years and the countless co-workers, bosses, colleagues, professional friends and (yes, even) foes who have taught me so much.

I’ve attempted to sort out some of these lessons here:

Always be kind. There's almost always another side to why someone is behaving in a particular way. You never know what happened at home that morning or what someone is struggling with. Give people the benefit of the doubt by first being kind.

Work your passion. Something in your work should spark your passion. While you may not be able to go to work every day and love every minute, if it's not mostly engaging, fulfilling and (yes sometimes even) fun with people you enjoy, then it may be time to look elsewhere.

Plan the work before trying to work the plan. Rarely does something worth doing well come together well without a plan. The extra time it sometimes takes to research ideas and evaluate options always pays off.

Be clear on the “why” or “to what end” of a situation before making a decision. In both professional and personal decision making, I’ve found I can make a better informed choice by first understanding the “why” of the situation and making sure I know what the end result is I’m trying to accomplish.

Forget perfection and just do it (whatever "it" is). Seeking perfection for yourself or expecting it from others is a thankless, energy sucking proposition. Don’t wait until the house is perfectly tidy to entertain. Stop holding back from trying something new for fear of failing. Don't stand on the sidelines until you're perfectly rehearsed. Nobody's perfect. We all have failures. Celebrate learning from them and move on.

Do something every day that makes you (and others) smile. One of these things for me in recent years has been keeping fresh flowers on my desk and in my home. I've discovered I get a great joy in sharing my delight in fresh flowers with others. It's amazing to me how a few flowers from Trader Joe's simply arranged in a small mason jar with some greens cut from my yard can bring a smile to me or someone else.

Relationships matter. Who you know can get you in the door. What you know can get you the job. What you do makes you a success. In my 35 years of working, every job change was the result of a relationship I had with someone who thought I might be a good fit.

Some of the most long-standing friendships of my adult life have resulted from professional relationships. I've remained in contact with my first mentor from a college job at the State House. I'm still happily connected to many friends from my first job in DC. I still have very frequent contact with the dozens of friends I made during my ten years ETV.

Be in the arena not in the seats (a tip of the hat to the Theodore Roosevelt quote). I want to be around the people who are in the arena with me – those who are willing to take risks and get knocked down with me in pursuit of excellence. Read my farewell post on the Municipal Association's blog for more about this one.

Travel. A lot. With others. Alone. Make a travel bucket list but don’t be limited by it. Put money aside to travel. There’s no better way to get out of your comfort zone than traveling alone. There’s no better way to connect with others than traveling with them. Take time away from work to travel. That's why you have vacation days. The work will still be there when you get back, and no one is so indispensable they can't be off the grid to travel for a week or two.

Pay it forward. There were lots of people who, knowingly or not, mentored, guided, advised and paid it forward to me along the way. Now, I try to pay that back to young folks whenever I can. Plus, it's gotten so I learn more from listening to young folks than they can ever learn from me.

Spelling and grammar count
. In today’s world where emojis and gifs too often take the place of actual words, there’s still no excuse for bad grammar, incorrect spelling or sloppy punctuation. Following the rules shows an attention to detail and a respect for the reader.

Be yourself. No one can do that for you, and you can't be someone else. This has become much easier as I've gotten older and come to understand that no one is really paying that much attention to what I'm doing anyway.

Engaging in creative activities is a wise investment of your time. For far too long, I believed that doing something creative took me away from doing something constructive - whether that meant "day job" work, cleaning the house, doing yardwork or exercising. Creativity comes in many forms - it's not just drawing a picture, making pottery or taking photographs. For me, giving into creative endeavors has brought me new friends, deeper relationships with old friends, expanded perspectives, and a willingness to take risks and try new things.

Keep an open mind and keep learning. The older I get the more I realize I how much I don't know. Read, listen to podcasts, talk to people you may disagree with. I've found this helps me analyze a problem from all angles before making a decision. In today's social media world, it's so easy to get stuck in an echo chamber listening only to those people who share your views and perspective. Get out of that bubble.

Personal financial planning matters. When you're 25 and scraping every penny to write the check for the car payment or rent, don't forget it's just as important to sock away a few dollars for savings. When I paid off my first car, I kept paying myself that car payment each month. Not only has that account funded a new roof, new HVAC and any number of other "emergencies," but it also allowed me to travel and pay cash for a new car. I learned from a very wise person about the importance of retirement savings which is allowing me to retire at a relatively young age.

Move and exercise every day. It amazes me how much better I feel when I get in my steps, get a good sweat going and stretch. This could mean something as quick and simple as taking the steps instead of the elevator or parking in the most distant spot instead of the closest.

Fingerprints are often more valuable than shouting to get credit. I've always gotten a huge gratification from what we came to call the" fingerprint index" at one of my jobs. This is when you can see the fingerprints of your work reflected in the greater good of a project or someone else's success. This works only if you don’t care who gets the credit.

Laugh often and don't take yourself seriously.
There’s a reason people say “laughter is the best medicine.” Take it in large doses.

Say thank you. I'm a huge fan of handwritten notes
- whether they are to say thanks or just a quick hello. While I don't always meet my goal of sending one handwritten note a week, it's a good goal (shout out to a young friend who wrote a note a day several years ago), and I’ve found people really remember your thoughtfulness.

So what's next?

Now it's time to take what I've learned over all these years and put it to good use in a new way. For the immediate future, I'll spend some time enjoying my music, my dog, my bike, and some travel and writing.

Then maybe I'll figure out what I want to be when I grow up!

Sunday, November 18, 2018

Bangkok Big Adventure

Thailand. Not exactly on my travel bucket list. I’m more of a European travel bucket list kind of gal. But when my childhood friend Libby moved to Bangkok back in the spring, I said “I'm in.”
 
Going over Thanksgiving would minimize the amount of time I’d have to take off, but still allow me to be there long enough to justify the 24+ hour journey to get there.
 
I bought the ticket months ago almost on a whim. Normally, I’m a big travel planner. I like to research an itinerary, evaluate the options available of what to do, and have a sense of how things will play out before I ever leave home.

Knowing Libby would know the lay of the land, fortunately my inner planning genie agreed to take a little rest. It’s a good thing, because I got so overwhelmed by looking at options of what we could do, I kind of shut down… history, art, food, religion, outdoors, wildlife, beaches  … so much to consider.

But that’s the beauty of visiting someone who lives there. So here’s to Libby in advance for being my tour guide this week!

The planning for the trip took on another dimension when I made the decision back in September to retire at the end of the year. Work responsibilities took on a whole new feel  - away from the future planning we normally do at this time of the year and toward transition to making sure that 13 years worth of institutional memory gets brain dumped to the right person. That leaves me feeling far more unencumbered than I have in years when taking a big trip like this. Maybe that’s a sneak peek at what travel will feel like post-work!


I hope to do a little writing about our adventures throughout the week, so check back if you’re so inclined. Expect photos if I can get them to upload (check FB and Insta too), ramblings and typos - just trying to capture the experience and not worry so much about formatting, proofing and editing (and that’s saying a lot!)
 
Day one - Sunday
Started day one of my big travel adventure with a good Flossie walk and hearty breakfast at Egg's Up.

I flew to Atlanta, retrieved my bags, then made my way to the international terminal. I was quickly reminded of the fact you never pack more than you can handle by yourself. The huge Patagonia bag I’d borrowed from John meant I had more than enough room for my stuff and the variety of American provisions I was bringing Libby.

However, just because everything will fit, doesn’t mean it will come in under the weight limit (kind of reminded me of the huge duffle bag Irene and I schlepped around Ireland many years ago before the invention of roller bags).  My total 80+ pounds of bags almost got the best of me getting on and off the shuttle bus, but thanks to a couple of kind passengers, I made it to the international terminal.
 
Unfortunately my lack of planning did mean I hadn’t downloaded my boarding pass right so the check in was a convoluted process that could have been much easier. That said, I got there so early that I was the first in line to check in for the flight (probably the first time I’ve ever been first in line for anything!)

It’s been a couple of years since I’ve flown internationally, and I’ve gotten spoiled by the ease of TSA check-in - no issue with shoes, belts, jackets, computers etc. Got a little flustered at the international security line forgetting I had to unpack everything including the supply of saltines and nabs I’d packed at the last minute.
 
After a quick lunch, I just kept walking back and forth in the terminal until flight time. I figured if I got in 10,000 steps carrying my 15 pound backpack and pulling my 20 pound carry-on bag, I could count that as my workout for the day!

The boarding process was like nothing I’ve ever experienced before. Thanks to some luck and a few extra dollars, I was upgraded to business class, so that itself made boarding a breeze. Passengers were directed into three zones in addition to priority/business - one for families with children, one for the “infirm” (I counted more than 30 wheelchairs loading up) and one for everyone else. The everyone else line was by far the shortest. Seemed that at least 75 percent of the passengers were in the families with children zone. The youngest was a 3 month old infant. Brave mama flying alone with kind assistance from three Qatar airlines staff cheerfully strapping on her baby knapsack, dismantling her stroller and cooing to keep the baby calm.

I got settled in my personal “pod” in business class which consisted of a spacious seat that converted to a cot-like bed, considerable storage space, plenty of leg room for my short legs, and unlimited food and drink. I enjoyed a meal of “Texas-style” chili (which tasted amazingly like Cincinnati style chili from Hard Times in Alexandria), Godiva chocolates for dessert and a night cap of Perone tequila.

The airline attendants (in fact everyone i encountered working for Qatar) were highly professional, extremely attentive and quite personable. The steward in charge of the cabin took a real shine to my southern accent and the fact I ordered a tequila drink. It was interesting to hear his idealized views of the south.

I dozed my way through a movie I’d wanted to see - Goodbye Christoper Robin - and tucked myself in for what I figured would be a fitful few hours of sleep about 10:30 (way earlier than my normal bedtime). Next thing I knew the attendant was rousing me awake at 6:45 (body time) with my breakfast of porridge and English breakfast tea. Clearly the investment in the business class seat paid off in a great night’s sleep - only catch was it was 5pm local time on Monday when we arrived in Saudi Arabia.

Day 2 (or maybe it’s three depending on where you’re reading this)

The “short” leg of the trip (6 hours) from Doha, Saudi Arabia to Bangkok was made easier by the fact there was an empty seat next to me. Had to adjust my thinking back to economy class after the lap of luxury on the previous leg. Good news was I’d gotten a good night’s sleep on the first leg and wasn’t too concerned about sleeping on this leg.

Thanks to Libby’s advice about customs, I was well prepped for the arrival process, immigration and luggage retrieval. Once I got out of the baggage claim area, I was able to connect with Libby and David, who were easily the only two in the whole airport who could fit their descriptions – Libby in a floral sundress and David in a business suit.

Their driver met us and we started the rush hour trip into the city. I have no idea how long the trip would take without traffic, but we drove for at least an hour before dropping David off at work. One surprise is they drive on the “wrong side” of the road here. Having neglected to do any research, I wasn’t prepared for that.

One visual that struck me on the way in was the hugenss of the billboards – not to mention some of topics. One admonished readers to make sure not to use the image of a Buddha for decoration. Definitely not the South of the Border boards we’re used to!

After a quick shower and the chance to see the dogs (Baby and Dhali) and meet Geeta the charming housekeeper, we were ready to head out. I was determined not to let a little 12 hour time difference deter me. In fact, once I got in  my head I’d just make myself adapt to where I was at the time and not worry about the fact I was eating breakfast at happy hour, I was OK. At least it seemed that way.

Their apartment is on the 20th floor of a high rise complex owned by the same family. It’s got balconies all around, spacious rooms and absolutely gorgeous hardwood floors. It came furnished but Libby has done a beautiful job with the lush plant on the balconies.

The dogs have their own room which they have graciously shared with me. Libby knows from years of experience that I don’t love small dogs but these two have welcomed me with open paws, and I think they’re accepting this big dog person as one of their tribe.

Libby made an interesting observation early on that you rarely hear horns honking in this city of 9 million…and that’s exactly right. I think we heard three all day.

We decided on an easy day so if I quickly plummeted from feeling like an 8+, we’d be close to home and I could nap. She’d bought me a “rabbit” ticket that is the Bangkok above ground metro. Even at 11 it was packed. Interestingly, it was built by the private sector less than 20 years ago to complement the government underground metro.

And speaking of infrastructure, wow! My friends in the utility and transportation world would go nuts. Cable lines hanging so low Libby could almost touch them – can’t imagine how they ever keep track of what’s strung where. It seems none of the power lines are buried and the poles would surely break every American regulation. Libby had also warned me about all the bad or nonexistent sidewalks. Plaintiff’s attorneys would have a field day here with the sidewalks and streets alone.

We spent the afternoon grabbing a nice lunch at a French café Libby and David frequent and walking around the high end shopping district to gaze at the gaudy Christmas decorations up in the 90 degree weather in a country where most people don’t celebrate Christmas.

I finally gave into the jet lag and we returned to the apartment for a quick swim (love the fact that it’s 90 degrees and very high humidity – my favorite kind of weather) and a bit of a nap.

Geeta had prepared us a nice Thai meal of chicken/broccoli/cauliflower/pumpkin over rice and sautéed morning glory greens which were delish and had a bit of a kick.

We headed out after dinner for a walk and dessert and a cocktail at one of Libby and David’s favorite Italian restaurants. Nice wind down on the balcony before trying to get back on a regular sleep pattern.
 
Day four - Wednesday
Libby was off early to a doctor appointment. Breakfast on the patio after a quick visit with Geeta and the dogs gave me a chance to enjoy a book, a call home and a leisurely morning.
Our plans for the day took a bit of a turn when Libby found out her appointment with Thai immigration was this afternoon to extend her visa. We adjusted our day to take a walk along one of the canals to a huge market area in a nearby neighborhood. I quickly observed this neighborhood was far less diverse than Libby’s. This was a traditional Thai neighborhood illustrated by the fact that most of the signs – especially those on the food stalls and trucks – didn’t include an English translation.

We made our way about 10 minutes from the apartment to a large open market that was clearly the center of the neighborhood catering to people on their lunch break. The space probably measured close to a city block and included vendors and stalls selling everything from shoes to baby clothes to cell phone chargers.

The most intriguing part, however, was the food vendors. They were scattered throughout the building and all around the perimeter. Again, the signs weren’t in English so it was hard to know exactly what they were serving. Libby convinced me to try a coconut smoothie when we first arrived (I’m not a big fan of coconut) and it was so good I ordered my own at a cost of about one dollar for a cup the size of a starbucks venti coffee. We wandered the aisles a good while before Libby wanted to try fish balls from a vendor who had a long line – she said she figured if the line was long people knew it was something good.

We grabbed seats at one of the dozens of tables were hundreds of local were lunching on soups, rice, chicken concoctions and any number of other delicacies e couldn’t identify. I must say the fish balls were good – especially the kick of the sauce with them. The vendor put 30 balls into a bag that we paid about a dollar for. We couldn’t finish the whole bag and set out to find a trash can. Never would have thought we’d have to walk several blocks back toward the apartment before we saw one. I take note of this because there’s so little trash on the streets.

Back at the apartment, we quickly regrouped in time for “Not,” the driver to pick us up to head to the hospital to pick up David then on to the immigration office. Libby had to get her tourist visa renewed before it expired on Monday. Thanks to help from David’s office, it was a pretty quick painless process.

The most interesting part to me, as someone just tagging along, was the informality and seeming slow pace that seemed to bother no one. I found the signage so interesting – one was a cartoon like drawing tell people not to bribe the officials. Another was a flow chart written in Thai – obviously I had no idea what it said but surely it was some well thought-out-process.

The rest of the afternoon was spent at the Jim Thompson house – he was a mid-20th century Delaware born architect. He was sent to Thailand in the military in WWI and later returned because he loved it so much. He devoted himself to reviving the dying art of weaving silk. His home and his silks made for a really interesting story.

Dinner on the 32nd floor Japanese/Peruvian restaurant on top of a nearby hotel building with two of Libby and David's friends from France and Bangkok, then an early night to be ready for our elephant excursion tomorrow.


Day 5 - Thursday
After a good nite’s sleep, we got ourselves up and out 8:30ish to meet Libby’s friend Charlene who has been living in Bangkok about 4 months. Her husband’s job with Michelin had brought them here. They had lived in Greenville with Michelin and in Columbia when he was in grad school in the mid-90s. So in typical southern style we started the “do you know” game,” and we quickly discovered had worked at Chernoff Silver during their Columbia stint! I never cease to marvel at a small world connection.

As has been the case since my arrival, I’ve put myself in Libby’s hands to navigate where we are going. This time is was the flower market that involved the above ground metro and a river ferry.

In the process of getting to the market we ran up on a Starbucks playing Xmas music.

Going to the flower market the day of a national observance called Loy Katong meant prep was well underway. During this celebration to commemorate the 12th full moon of the Thai lunar calendar. Flower wreathes with a candle and three incense sticks like this are put in rivers all over the country symbolizing honoring the water goddess and letting go of bad things. They use the pieces of the banana tree trunk as oasis to set the wreathes then shape banana leaves around the trunk.

The market was many blocks long with stalls inside and out. Any kind of flower you’d imagine and soooo inexpensive. My favorite 4.99 bunch of gerbers from TJ would sell for less than a dollar here. We made one quick stop at a bake shop where we had small eclairs shaped like a swan with thick creamy custard. Outside stalls included both flowers and veggies.

After enjoying the flower market, we had time to cross the river to Wat Arun which is Buddhist temple. Given time and the fact we weren’t appropriately dressed to enter a temple, we opted for a walk around the grounds, which were being prepped for the Loy Krathong celebration.

The temple derived its name from the Hindu god that personified as the radiations of the rising sun. It was completed before 1656 and translates to the temple of dawn. From here, we parted ways with Charlene to make our way to the train station. After a false start, we got it figured out, had plenty of time to buy our tickets and grab a water and quick bite at one of the food stalls across from the station. Visited with a nice couple from CA who live here now for her teaching job with the State Dept.

The 2.5 hour train ride gave us the chance to see the countryside in a way we wouldn’t in a car. The sites ranged from lush rice fields to horribly poor shacks. One common factor that we saw here and everywhere is the abundance of prayer houses. Libby said often the family’s prayer house is nicer than their own house.

At each stop, concession vendors came thru the train selling drinks and food. We weren’t too sure about what a lot of the food was, but Libby did grab a bag of pumpkin chips that resembled what we would call a pig rind - much tastier though.

Upton arrival in Kanchanaburi, Libby consulted GPS to get us the four blocks to our hotel. As would be true when arriving in any city, the route into town didn’t necessarily show off the best of the city. GPS led us down a dirt road off the main road toward what we hoped was the river. Fortunately GPS didn’t fail and we soon saw the tower of our hotel ahead. We could see street vendors setting up for the Loy Katanga celebration.

Libby hit the nail on the head again with her choice of hotel. It reminded me a bit of hotel in the Caribbean with a lobby open to the air. We got settled in after investigating the pool and enjoying the river view from our window. A happy hour drink on the deck overlooking the river was the perfect place to watch a gorgeous sunset over the River Kwai (the bridge was located about a mile upriver from us).

Libby googled the best restaurant in the area from trip advisor and fortunately it was just steps from the hotel - a vegan/vegetarian Thai place - seemed just perfect for our Thanksgiving feast. Our Pad Thai and papaya salad hit the spot!

Our entertainment during dinner was watching the motor scooters go by on the street and counting the number of people on each. The winner was the family of four with one child wedged between the father’s legs on the front and an infant stretched across the mother’s lap on the back.

Eating an early dinner meant we were too early to see much of the Loy Katong celebrations going on in the streets. Once nice amenity at the hotel was a Katong (wreath)  that was waiting for us when we arrived. Its base was made of bread (so it would decompose safely in the water) and included flowers, a candle and some incense.

We had our own celebration by putting our Katong into the river and called it a night.

Day 6 - Friday

After a very early night to bed following Thanksgiving dinner of Pad Thai, we enjoyed a lovely breakfast on the hotel patio  - much better than Black Friday!

Our ride to the elephant sanctuary picked us up then made the rounds to several other hotels until the van was full - a group of four 20-something Germans, two sisters from Asheville and Seattle, and two other Austrian women.

Elephant World was about a 20 minute drive from our hotel. Upon arrival we got a nice souvenir water bottle carrier before we headed to meet our guide.

Navin was our delightful guide who spoke really good English and had a pretty wicked sense of humor. He explained the background of the organization and the history of elephants in Thailand. The elephants at Elephant World had been brought from logging or tourist situations. He told us about elephants were used for logging and treated very badly with little food and water. There were amphetamines in their water that served as stimulants until the elephants died from just being worn out.

Another source of their elephants was from tourism where the animals were ridden by 4 - 5 people all day and their backbones eventually broke or were disfigured.

Some of the elephants had holes in their faces where they had been hooked by their handlers. Others had very ragged ears. Elephants World is a sanctuary to care for the animals for their lives. There were also two baby elephants in the group along with the 25 adults.

Our first order of business was feeding the elephants from the porch of the building. We fed them over a rail from the side of an open shed. I thought this was pretty cool to be that close and be able to touch them = little did we know how up close and personal we’d be getting with them later in the day.
 
We fed them mini-bananas and yam bean that looked liked jicama. It was fascinating to watch how the elephants used their trunks to  pick up the food - kind of like you’d pick something up using a baseball glove. Up close, it was easy to see their very dry skin, long eyelashes and amazing trunks. The one Libby and i fed just happened to also be 58 years old – I think we’ve aged a little better with fewer wrinkles and much softer skin!

After the morning feeding, we walked up the hill to another large open shed to clean yam beans that are donated by farmers to the elephants. After moving all the yam beans into a big sink of water, we got a lesson from our guide about all the various vegetables that elephants eat. We then moved the yam beans from the water into a nearby shed, cleaned out the sink, and headed down to lunch.

With each “activity,” i continued to be more impressed with this operation. It was clean and well-run. The guides clearly cared about the elephants and they knew their stuff.
Lunch was a buffet that made it difficult to pass up anything so i sampled from every tray - chicken of several types, fish, Pad Thai, corn patties, veggies, fruit, rice, eggplant - quite a feast.

Before we fed the elephants again, our guide loaded us in an open truck for a 10 minute drive to another farm to pick corn  - definitely a once in a lifetime thing for Libby and me.

Between us, we picked a large basket that we would later feed to the baby elephants. Our route took us by more farmland of sugar cane, papaya, lemons and bananas.
We’d been looking forward to meeting the baby elephants, and they didn’t disappoint. The boy was 6 months and the girl was 8 months. Each was leashed to its mother.

For the babies, we took the husk off the corn and broke each ear into pieces. They were such fun to watch. They were also a lot stronger than they look. One’s trunk completely knocked me off my feet.

Not to leave out the aging elephants, we got to make grass balls for them to each. We mushed up bananas and some sort of pellets into a tray then added grass and shaped into balls. The two huge old elephants (62+ years old) joined us in the open shed area where we put the grass balls right in their mouths.

Then came the part we’d been waiting for - getting in the mud with the elephants. We waded into a shallow pool with a mom and baby we’d fed earlier and rubbed them down with mud. I will say had to just put out of my mind the state of the water we were in and just enjoyed the experience of “muddling” with the elephants.

But once they got dirty, the elephants had to be cleaned. So we moved into the big river to scrub them down. If you’re one who gets satisfaction from washing something really dirty, this would be for you! We used a scrub brush on a long mop handle to scrub them down.

The elephants moved on out of the water allowing the humans a little while to enjoy a swim in the river. Watching the kids on the rope swing got the best of me and i had to give it a try. Grace definitely wouldn’t be how I’d describe my three tries but considering i was the oldest one who did the swing, I did pretty good.

We wound day our amazing day with a quick thank you from our guides and (of course) a stop in the gift shop.

This place was quite a business - in addition to being an elephant rescue, it’s also a working farm growing sugar cane, corn, bananas and cassava that tapioca is made from, plus it has water buffalo and cows (not to mention a good supply of friendly “shop dogs”). There’s also the tourist side of the operation with a number of huts where guests can stay the night. Plus there’s kitchen staff who prepare the excellent food we ate and a gift shop.

Fortunately David’s driver was coming to get us so we showered (the sanctuary even provided each guest a towel and a clean shower).  As fun as it was to experience the train yesterday, it was really nice to get in the air conditioned van, enjoy an ice cream cone and relax our way back to Bangkok


Driving experiences in other countries always fascinate me - especially when i’m a passenger and not a driver. The route back to Bangkok seemed to parallel the train route from yesterday - more of a 378 secondary type road an I-26 type highway. Lots of traffic at 4 in the afternoon as you’d expect but that didn’t stop hawkers weaving in and out of the traffic selling bags contained 3 - 4 pieces of shucked corn. Our driver bought a bag but didn’t take Libby’s dare to drive and eat corn at the same time.

Unfortunately, we experienced Bangkok traffic at its worst during this trip back. A 90-minute trip ended up almost four hours. Fortunately, we were in good hands and just relaxed as “Not,” the driver darted in and out of standstill traffic.

I again observed what Libby has pointed out many times - no one honks horns here. Even in this gridlock, standstill traffic, we didn't hear a single horn the whole trip back.

Again, we played the “how many people can we sit on a single scooter” game – and tied with last night’s number of a family of four.

Once we arrived home, our 6:30 dinner reservation at the local French bistro had been moved several times to 8:30 – but it was worth the wait. It reminded me of a Paris restaurant where I’d eaten many years ago – and the food was definitely Paris-worthy.

After a shower to rid myself of the remaining grunge of elephant water, I was done for another great Bangkok day!



Thailand. Not exactly on my travel bucket list. I’m more of a European travel bucket list kind of gal. But when my childhood friend Libby moved to Bangkok back in the spring, I said “I'm in.”
 
Going over Thanksgiving would minimize the amount of time I’d have to take off, but still allow me to be there long enough to justify the 24+ hour journey to get there.
 
I bought the ticket months ago almost on a whim. Normally, I’m a big travel planner. I like to research an itinerary, evaluate the options available of what to do, and have a sense of how things will play out before I ever leave home.

Knowing Libby would know the lay of the land, fortunately my inner planning genie agreed to take a little rest. It’s a good thing, because I got so overwhelmed by looking at options of what we could do, I kind of shut down… history, art, food, religion, outdoors, wildlife, beaches  … so much to consider.

But that’s the beauty of visiting someone who lives there. So here’s to Libby in advance for being my tour guide this week!

The planning for the trip took on another dimension when I made the decision back in September to retire at the end of the year. Work responsibilities took on a whole new feel  - away from the future planning we normally do at this time of the year and toward transition to making sure that 13 years worth of institutional memory gets brain dumped to the right person. That leaves me feeling far more unencumbered than I have in years when taking a big trip like this. Maybe that’s a sneak peek at what travel will feel like post-work!


I hope to do a little writing about our adventures throughout the week, so check back if you’re so inclined. Expect photos if I can get them to upload (check FB and Insta too), ramblings and typos - just trying to capture the experience and not worry so much about formatting, proofing and editing (and that’s saying a lot!)
 
Day one - Sunday
Started day one of my big travel adventure with a good Flossie walk and hearty breakfast at Egg's Up.

I flew to Atlanta, retrieved my bags, then made my way to the international terminal. I was quickly reminded of the fact you never pack more than you can handle by yourself. The huge Patagonia bag I’d borrowed from John meant I had more than enough room for my stuff and the variety of American provisions I was bringing Libby.

However, just because everything will fit, doesn’t mean it will come in under the weight limit (kind of reminded me of the huge duffle bag Irene and I schlepped around Ireland many years ago before the invention of roller bags).  My total 80+ pounds of bags almost got the best of me getting on and off the shuttle bus, but thanks to a couple of kind passengers, I made it to the international terminal.
 
Unfortunately my lack of planning did mean I hadn’t downloaded my boarding pass right so the check in was a convoluted process that could have been much easier. That said, I got there so early that I was the first in line to check in for the flight (probably the first time I’ve ever been first in line for anything!)

It’s been a couple of years since I’ve flown internationally, and I’ve gotten spoiled by the ease of TSA check-in - no issue with shoes, belts, jackets, computers etc. Got a little flustered at the international security line forgetting I had to unpack everything including the supply of saltines and nabs I’d packed at the last minute.
 
After a quick lunch, I just kept walking back and forth in the terminal until flight time. I figured if I got in 10,000 steps carrying my 15 pound backpack and pulling my 20 pound carry-on bag, I could count that as my workout for the day!

The boarding process was like nothing I’ve ever experienced before. Thanks to some luck and a few extra dollars, I was upgraded to business class, so that itself made boarding a breeze. Passengers were directed into three zones in addition to priority/business - one for families with children, one for the “infirm” (I counted more than 30 wheelchairs loading up) and one for everyone else. The everyone else line was by far the shortest. Seemed that at least 75 percent of the passengers were in the families with children zone. The youngest was a 3 month old infant. Brave mama flying alone with kind assistance from three Qatar airlines staff cheerfully strapping on her baby knapsack, dismantling her stroller and cooing to keep the baby calm.

I got settled in my personal “pod” in business class which consisted of a spacious seat that converted to a cot-like bed, considerable storage space, plenty of leg room for my short legs, and unlimited food and drink. I enjoyed a meal of “Texas-style” chili (which tasted amazingly like Cincinnati style chili from Hard Times in Alexandria), Godiva chocolates for dessert and a night cap of Perone tequila.

The airline attendants (in fact everyone i encountered working for Qatar) were highly professional, extremely attentive and quite personable. The steward in charge of the cabin took a real shine to my southern accent and the fact I ordered a tequila drink. It was interesting to hear his idealized views of the south.

I dozed my way through a movie I’d wanted to see - Goodbye Christoper Robin - and tucked myself in for what I figured would be a fitful few hours of sleep about 10:30 (way earlier than my normal bedtime). Next thing I knew the attendant was rousing me awake at 6:45 (body time) with my breakfast of porridge and English breakfast tea. Clearly the investment in the business class seat paid off in a great night’s sleep - only catch was it was 5pm local time on Monday when we arrived in Saudi Arabia.

Day 2 (or maybe it’s three depending on where you’re reading this)

The “short” leg of the trip (6 hours) from Doha, Saudi Arabia to Bangkok was made easier by the fact there was an empty seat next to me. Had to adjust my thinking back to economy class after the lap of luxury on the previous leg. Good news was I’d gotten a good night’s sleep on the first leg and wasn’t too concerned about sleeping on this leg.

Thanks to Libby’s advice about customs, I was well prepped for the arrival process, immigration and luggage retrieval. Once I got out of the baggage claim area, I was able to connect with Libby and David, who were easily the only two in the whole airport who could fit their descriptions – Libby in a floral sundress and David in a business suit.

Their driver met us and we started the rush hour trip into the city. I have no idea how long the trip would take without traffic, but we drove for at least an hour before dropping David off at work. One surprise is they drive on the “wrong side” of the road here. Having neglected to do any research, I wasn’t prepared for that.

One visual that struck me on the way in was the hugenss of the billboards – not to mention some of topics. One admonished readers to make sure not to use the image of a Buddha for decoration. Definitely not the South of the Border boards we’re used to!

After a quick shower and the chance to see the dogs (Baby and Dhali) and meet Geeta the charming housekeeper, we were ready to head out. I was determined not to let a little 12 hour time difference deter me. In fact, once I got in  my head I’d just make myself adapt to where I was at the time and not worry about the fact I was eating breakfast at happy hour, I was OK. At least it seemed that way.

Their apartment is on the 20th floor of a high rise complex owned by the same family. It’s got balconies all around, spacious rooms and absolutely gorgeous hardwood floors. It came furnished but Libby has done a beautiful job with the lush plant on the balconies.

The dogs have their own room which they have graciously shared with me. Libby knows from years of experience that I don’t love small dogs but these two have welcomed me with open paws, and I think they’re accepting this big dog person as one of their tribe.

Libby made an interesting observation early on that you rarely hear horns honking in this city of 9 million…and that’s exactly right. I think we heard three all day.

We decided on an easy day so if I quickly plummeted from feeling like an 8+, we’d be close to home and I could nap. She’d bought me a “rabbit” ticket that is the Bangkok above ground metro. Even at 11 it was packed. Interestingly, it was built by the private sector less than 20 years ago to complement the government underground metro.

And speaking of infrastructure, wow! My friends in the utility and transportation world would go nuts. Cable lines hanging so low Libby could almost touch them – can’t imagine how they ever keep track of what’s strung where. It seems none of the power lines are buried and the poles would surely break every American regulation. Libby had also warned me about all the bad or nonexistent sidewalks. Plaintiff’s attorneys would have a field day here with the sidewalks and streets alone.

We spent the afternoon grabbing a nice lunch at a French café Libby and David frequent and walking around the high end shopping district to gaze at the gaudy Christmas decorations up in the 90 degree weather in a country where most people don’t celebrate Christmas.

I finally gave into the jet lag and we returned to the apartment for a quick swim (love the fact that it’s 90 degrees and very high humidity – my favorite kind of weather) and a bit of a nap.

Geeta had prepared us a nice Thai meal of chicken/broccoli/cauliflower/pumpkin over rice and sautéed morning glory greens which were delish and had a bit of a kick.

We headed out after dinner for a walk and dessert and a cocktail at one of Libby and David’s favorite Italian restaurants. Nice wind down on the balcony before trying to get back on a regular sleep pattern.
 
Day four - Wednesday
Libby was off early to a doctor appointment. Breakfast on the patio after a quick visit with Geeta and the dogs gave me a chance to enjoy a book, a call home and a leisurely morning.
Our plans for the day took a bit of a turn when Libby found out her appointment with Thai immigration was this afternoon to extend her visa. We adjusted our day to take a walk along one of the canals to a huge market area in a nearby neighborhood. I quickly observed this neighborhood was far less diverse than Libby’s. This was a traditional Thai neighborhood illustrated by the fact that most of the signs – especially those on the food stalls and trucks – didn’t include an English translation.

We made our way about 10 minutes from the apartment to a large open market that was clearly the center of the neighborhood catering to people on their lunch break. The space probably measured close to a city block and included vendors and stalls selling everything from shoes to baby clothes to cell phone chargers.

The most intriguing part, however, was the food vendors. They were scattered throughout the building and all around the perimeter. Again, the signs weren’t in English so it was hard to know exactly what they were serving. Libby convinced me to try a coconut smoothie when we first arrived (I’m not a big fan of coconut) and it was so good I ordered my own at a cost of about one dollar for a cup the size of a starbucks venti coffee. We wandered the aisles a good while before Libby wanted to try fish balls from a vendor who had a long line – she said she figured if the line was long people knew it was something good.

We grabbed seats at one of the dozens of tables were hundreds of local were lunching on soups, rice, chicken concoctions and any number of other delicacies e couldn’t identify. I must say the fish balls were good – especially the kick of the sauce with them. The vendor put 30 balls into a bag that we paid about a dollar for. We couldn’t finish the whole bag and set out to find a trash can. Never would have thought we’d have to walk several blocks back toward the apartment before we saw one. I take note of this because there’s so little trash on the streets.

Back at the apartment, we quickly regrouped in time for “Not,” the driver to pick us up to head to the hospital to pick up David then on to the immigration office. Libby had to get her tourist visa renewed before it expired on Monday. Thanks to help from David’s office, it was a pretty quick painless process.

The most interesting part to me, as someone just tagging along, was the informality and seeming slow pace that seemed to bother no one. I found the signage so interesting – one was a cartoon like drawing tell people not to bribe the officials. Another was a flow chart written in Thai – obviously I had no idea what it said but surely it was some well thought-out-process.

The rest of the afternoon was spent at the Jim Thompson house – he was a mid-20th century Delaware born architect. He was sent to Thailand in the military in WWI and later returned because he loved it so much. He devoted himself to reviving the dying art of weaving silk. His home and his silks made for a really interesting story.

Dinner on the 32nd floor Japanese/Peruvian restaurant on top of a nearby hotel building with two of Libby and David's friends from France and Bangkok, then an early night to be ready for our elephant excursion tomorrow.


Day 5 - Thursday
After a good nite’s sleep, we got ourselves up and out 8:30ish to meet Libby’s friend Charlene who has been living in Bangkok about 4 months. Her husband’s job with Michelin had brought them here. They had lived in Greenville with Michelin and in Columbia when he was in grad school in the mid-90s. So in typical southern style we started the “do you know” game,” and we quickly discovered Charlene had worked at Chernoff Silver during their Columbia stint! I never cease to marvel at a small world connection.

As has been the case since my arrival, I’ve put myself in Libby’s hands to navigate where we are going. This time is was the flower market that involved the above ground metro and a river ferry.

In the process of getting to the market we ran up on a Starbucks playing Xmas music.

Going to the flower market the day of a national observance called Loy Katong meant prep was well underway. During this celebration to commemorate the 12th full moon of the Thai lunar calendar. Flower wreathes with a candle and three incense sticks like this are put in rivers all over the country symbolizing honoring the water goddess and letting go of bad things. They use the pieces of the banana tree trunk as oasis to set the wreathes then shape banana leaves around the trunk.

The market was many blocks long with stalls inside and out. Any kind of flower you’d imagine and soooo inexpensive. My favorite 4.99 bunch of gerbers from TJ would sell for less than a dollar here. We made one quick stop at a bake shop where we had small eclairs shaped like a swan with thick creamy custard. Outside stalls included both flowers and veggies.

After enjoying the flower market, we had time to cross the river to Wat Arun which is Buddhist temple. Given time and the fact we weren’t appropriately dressed to enter a temple, we opted for a walk around the grounds, which were being prepped for the Loy Krathong celebration.

The temple derived its name from the Hindu god that personified as the radiations of the rising sun. It was completed before 1656 and translates to the temple of dawn. From here, we parted ways with Charlene to make our way to the train station. After a false start, we got it figured out, had plenty of time to buy our tickets and grab a water and quick bite at one of the food stalls across from the station. Visited with a nice couple from CA who live here now for her teaching job with the State Dept.

The 2.5 hour train ride gave us the chance to see the countryside in a way we wouldn’t in a car. The sites ranged from lush rice fields to horribly poor shacks. One common factor that we saw here and everywhere is the abundance of prayer houses. Libby said often the family’s prayer house is nicer than their own house.

At each stop, concession vendors came thru the train selling drinks and food. We weren’t too sure about what a lot of the food was, but Libby did grab a bag of pumpkin chips that resembled what we would call a pig rind - much tastier though.

Upton arrival in Kanchanaburi, Libby consulted GPS to get us the four blocks to our hotel. As would be true when arriving in any city, the route into town didn’t necessarily show off the best of the city. GPS led us down a dirt road off the main road toward what we hoped was the river. Fortunately GPS didn’t fail and we soon saw the tower of our hotel ahead. We could see street vendors setting up for the Loy Katanga celebration.

Libby hit the nail on the head again with her choice of hotel. It reminded me a bit of hotel in the Caribbean with a lobby open to the air. We got settled in after investigating the pool and enjoying the river view from our window. A happy hour drink on the deck overlooking the river was the perfect place to watch a gorgeous sunset over the River Kwai (the bridge was located about a mile upriver from us).

Libby googled the best restaurant in the area from trip advisor and fortunately it was just steps from the hotel - a vegan/vegetarian Thai place - seemed just perfect for our Thanksgiving feast. Our Pad Thai and papaya salad hit the spot!

Our entertainment during dinner was watching the motor scooters go by on the street and counting the number of people on each. The winner was the family of four with one child wedged between the father’s legs on the front and an infant stretched across the mother’s lap on the back.

Eating an early dinner meant we were too early to see much of the Loy Katong celebrations going on in the streets. Once nice amenity at the hotel was a Katong (wreath)  that was waiting for us when we arrived. Its base was made of bread (so it would decompose safely in the water) and included flowers, a candle and some incense.

We had our own celebration by putting our Katong into the river and called it a night.

Day 6 - Friday

After a very early night to bed following Thanksgiving dinner of Pad Thai, we enjoyed a lovely breakfast on the hotel patio  - much better than Black Friday!

Our ride to the elephant sanctuary picked us up then made the rounds to several other hotels until the van was full - a group of four 20-something Germans, two sisters from Asheville and Seattle, and two other Austrian women.

Elephant World was about a 20 minute drive from our hotel. Upon arrival we got a nice souvenir water bottle carrier before we headed to meet our guide.

Navin was our delightful guide who spoke really good English and had a pretty wicked sense of humor. He explained the background of the organization and the history of elephants in Thailand. The elephants at Elephant World had been brought from logging or tourist situations. He told us about elephants were used for logging and treated very badly with little food and water. There were amphetamines in their water that served as stimulants until the elephants died from just being worn out.

Another source of their elephants was from tourism where the animals were ridden by 4 - 5 people all day and their backbones eventually broke or were disfigured.

Some of the elephants had holes in their faces where they had been hooked by their handlers. Others had very ragged ears. Elephants World is a sanctuary to care for the animals for their lives. There were also two baby elephants in the group along with the 25 adults.

Our first order of business was feeding the elephants from the porch of the building. We fed them over a rail from the side of an open shed. I thought this was pretty cool to be that close and be able to touch them = little did we know how up close and personal we’d be getting with them later in the day.
 
We fed them mini-bananas and yam bean that looked liked jicama. It was fascinating to watch how the elephants used their trunks to  pick up the food - kind of like you’d pick something up using a baseball glove. Up close, it was easy to see their very dry skin, long eyelashes and amazing trunks. The one Libby and i fed just happened to also be 58 years old – I think we’ve aged a little better with fewer wrinkles and much softer skin!

After the morning feeding, we walked up the hill to another large open shed to clean yam beans that are donated by farmers to the elephants. After moving all the yam beans into a big sink of water, we got a lesson from our guide about all the various vegetables that elephants eat. We then moved the yam beans from the water into a nearby shed, cleaned out the sink, and headed down to lunch.

With each “activity,” i continued to be more impressed with this operation. It was clean and well-run. The guides clearly cared about the elephants and they knew their stuff.
Lunch was a buffet that made it difficult to pass up anything so i sampled from every tray - chicken of several types, fish, Pad Thai, corn patties, veggies, fruit, rice, eggplant - quite a feast.

Before we fed the elephants again, our guide loaded us in an open truck for a 10 minute drive to another farm to pick corn  - definitely a once in a lifetime thing for Libby and me.

Between us, we picked a large basket that we would later feed to the baby elephants. Our route took us by more farmland of sugar cane, papaya, lemons and bananas.
We’d been looking forward to meeting the baby elephants, and they didn’t disappoint. The boy was 6 months and the girl was 8 months. Each was leashed to its mother.

For the babies, we took the husk off the corn and broke each ear into pieces. They were such fun to watch. They were also a lot stronger than they look. One’s trunk completely knocked me off my feet.

Not to leave out the aging elephants, we got to make grass balls for them to each. We mushed up bananas and some sort of pellets into a tray then added grass and shaped into balls. The two huge old elephants (62+ years old) joined us in the open shed area where we put the grass balls right in their mouths.

Then came the part we’d been waiting for - getting in the mud with the elephants. We waded into a shallow pool with a mom and baby we’d fed earlier and rubbed them down with mud. I will say had to just put out of my mind the state of the water we were in and just enjoyed the experience of “muddling” with the elephants.

But once they got dirty, the elephants had to be cleaned. So we moved into the big river to scrub them down. If you’re one who gets satisfaction from washing something really dirty, this would be for you! We used a scrub brush on a long mop handle to scrub them down.

The elephants moved on out of the water allowing the humans a little while to enjoy a swim in the river. Watching the kids on the rope swing got the best of me and i had to give it a try. Grace definitely wouldn’t be how I’d describe my three tries but considering i was the oldest one who did the swing, I did pretty good.

We wound day our amazing day with a quick thank you from our guides and (of course) a stop in the gift shop.

This place was quite a business - in addition to being an elephant rescue, it’s also a working farm growing sugar cane, corn, bananas and cassava that tapioca is made from, plus it has water buffalo and cows (not to mention a good supply of friendly “shop dogs”). There’s also the tourist side of the operation with a number of huts where guests can stay the night. Plus there’s kitchen staff who prepare the excellent food we ate and a gift shop.

Fortunately David’s driver was coming to get us so we showered (the sanctuary even provided each guest a towel and a clean shower).  As fun as it was to experience the train yesterday, it was really nice to get in the air conditioned van, enjoy an ice cream cone and relax our way back to Bangkok


Driving experiences in other countries always fascinate me - especially when i’m a passenger and not a driver. The route back to Bangkok seemed to parallel the train route from yesterday - more of a 378 secondary type road an I-26 type highway. Lots of traffic at 4 in the afternoon as you’d expect but that didn’t stop hawkers weaving in and out of the traffic selling bags contained 3 - 4 pieces of shucked corn. Our driver bought a bag but didn’t take Libby’s dare to drive and eat corn at the same time.

Unfortunately, we experienced Bangkok traffic at its worst during this trip back. A 90-minute trip ended up almost four hours. Fortunately, we were in good hands and just relaxed as “Not,” the driver darted in and out of standstill traffic.

I again observed what Libby has pointed out many times - no one honks horns here. Even in this gridlock, standstill traffic, we didn't hear a single horn the whole trip back.

Again, we played the “how many people can we sit on a single scooter” game – and tied with last night’s number of a family of four.

Once we arrived home, our 6:30 dinner reservation at the local French bistro had been moved several times to 8:30 – but it was worth the wait. It reminded me of a Paris restaurant where I’d eaten many years ago – and the food was definitely Paris-worthy.

After a shower to rid myself of the remaining grunge of elephant water, I was done for another great Bangkok day!

Day 6 – Saturday
We took out on Saturday after a leisurely morning at the apartment. First we made a quick stop at the hospital where David works. We probably could have stayed there all day touring around this incredible facility. When we walked in, my first thought was we were in the lobby of the UN – not only because of the huge diversity of nationalities represented but also the fact that the lobby looked like an office building and not a hospital.


There were a number of restaurants you’d expect to see in a major metro area office building lobby including Starbucks and Subway. Plus there were a number of other types of food – David said the Japanese restaurant has the best sushi he’s had yet in Bangkok.

David said that between the 1300 doctors plus other staff, patients and families, an easy 10,000 people stream thru the facility every day. All the clinics and doctor’s offices work seven days a week. There are more than 300 US board certified physicians.

In this complex there’s the actual hospital, plus the clinic and a separate office building where his office is located. We took the elevator to one of the patient floors and it almost felt like you were in a Marriott and not a hospital. David said that’s the whole idea of how it’s run. In Thailand, there’s no such things as health insurance – people who can pay for this best care do, and those who can’t, can’t. This facility caters to an international audience and uses a “medical tourism” marketing strategy to attract people worldwide to its high standard of care. David said that already this year, the hospital has served people from more than 189 countries.

The hospital provides a shuttle van to the nearly BTS (sky train) stop so we hopped on and headed to the Chatachuk market- an outdoor market of more than 8K vendors. Talk about overwhelmed. Fortunately, Libby had been before and a good sense of the lay of the land. Our first stop was getting David a coconut drink – served right out of a coconut shell. We wandered stalls, checked out wares and I got a little sense of what was available while also getting overwhelmed. Libby guided us to the art and clothes sections, and I made a few personal and gift purchases.

On the way back to the stand to get our lunch of paella, Libby and David ran into a couple they knew from England – a couple from London who they had met in an airport recently. There’s that small world thing again.

Delicious lunch of paella stirred up in a giant pan by an Italian looking guy in full chef regalia. It was absolutely delicious – mussels, shrimp and chicken mixed with the paella that was perfectly seasoned. Who’d have thunk we’d get that kind of meal in this place for less than $2 a plate.
We ventured on thru the market into an area with higher end clothes where I found my favorite purchase of the trip – red leather converse-style tennies!! So cute and so reasonable, along with everything else here!

A couple more stops and we headed for the BTS for the trip back to make our 4 pm massage appointments. The spa was just a couple of blocks from the apartment and very nice. We started with foot baths and then on to our individual rooms. I’ll admit I was concerned I couldn’t stay still for a full two-hour massage.

Once I was on the table though, all worries of not being able to stay still evaporated. The lovely smells, the relaxing rhythm of the massage, and the knowledge I had nothing else I had to be doing at that moment meant I was actually surprised when the massage therapist told me I was done.
We walked the short distance back to the apartment and decided on dinner at the Italian restaurant around the corner where we were joined by “the girls” who sat patiently in their stroller while we enjoyed a great lasagne and pizza.


Sunday
Slept in a bit while David went to an emergency dentist appointment. Fortunately, as I learned when we visited the hospital yesterday, the clinic was open on Sunday. We enjoyed a great brunch at a French cafe one BTS stop down.  Libby said it was kind of their go-to Gourmet Shop type spot. My egg and avocado tartine was great dotted with sunflower seeds and walnuts – something I’d love to think I could replicate once I get home.


On our way back to the apartment, we stopped at one of the big malls for Libby to get her mani/pedi and I wandered the mall. It was like mall heaven for some who is a petite size. If I’d been looking for something to wear to a wedding I’d have really been in luck! Instead I made several small purchases plus a holiday themed item that Libby found that just made me laugh.

Once David returned, Naat picked us up for a 45 minute drive out to a park area called the Ancient Village. The best way to describe it may be something like a giant Williamsburg – it was a mixture of restored, renovated and “creative” (their word not mine) new construction that illustrates the entire history of the country. It was established in 1963 with the goal of making sure the Thai people didn’t forget their heritage. With more than 100 stops on this huge 300+ acre park, it would have been impossible to see it all in one day. We opted for a tram and headphones to hit as many as possible.

The grounds mimic the precise shape of Thailand, featuring replicas of the country's most historically significant structures, albeit usually down-scaled in size. Each of the 116+ monuments are in their proper geographic position, and include palaces, bell towers, pavilions, temples, halls, floating markets, Buddha images and shrines. Many buildings are reconstructions of sites that no longer exist, others originals rescued for their historical significance. Our two hour tour fled by and Naat was there to take us back into the city.

Before getting back on the road, however, we attempted a stop at Big C, which would be our version of WalMart. Libby has been to one in the city many times for what she called her “big shopping” (vs the daily type of shopping she does at the local market down the street), but this one was definitely more geared toward “real” Thais. We were looking for a cool triangle shaped pillow I’d seen on one of our tours that she said we could find there. After some hand gestures that could have won charades, Libby determined this Big C didn’t carry what we wanted. Oh well, just another piece of local tourism I would have missed if I hadn’t been with a local.

After a quick pit stop back at the apartment to let the girls out, we went across the street to an Indian restaurant for dinner. I can’t say it was the best meal I’ve had because all have been perfect, but this one was really good. It was an Indian version of shepard’s pie with lamb – perfectly seasoned for my taste and out of this world!

David had an early flight out to Dubai and Libby and I made plans to get up early for a walk in the nearby Bangkok version of Central Park so we called it an early night before my last day in the city.
 
Monday
Last day in Bangkok didn’t disappoint! We made our way to a cooking school where Libby had taken a class before. I saw the menu online but had no idea what to expect. It ended up being quite an experience.

We took the BMT (skytrain) several stops and changed lines. It kind of amazed me that after just a week in Bangkok i could kind of make sense of how things worked. American transport could take some lessons here. Lines are very orderly. There are even arrows that show people where to que up to get on the train that allows departing passengers to get off first. Between all of our train rides (and we did at least a couple each day), I think i saw two people really rushing.

Once we reached our destination stop, we had been instructed to wait for someone from the school who would take us to the building. Must admit it felt a little sketchy getting shuffled into a pickup truck with four strangers but i figured since Libby didn’t seem concerned about getting kidnapped by drug dealers, i was OK with it.

Our first stop was a neighborhood market where we were led thru the aisles and given descriptions of various herbs, veggies and meats. I must say i had to put aside my queasiness thinking about the fact a dog was slurping water from a coffee cup while sitting on a pie pan next to a woman peeling shrimp. We heard the squawks of chickens being killed and watched the process of separating coconut water.

The instructor taught us about the varieties of ginger, basil, peppers, and lots of other interesting spices I’d never heard of. She showed us tiny eggplants the size of a golf ball, lemongrass and how to cut up coriander (cilantro) root. Everything she showed us ended up being part of our menu items we cooked.

Once we got to the school, Libby and i were paired with a nice young couple from Singapore. Always fun to talk to people in situations like this. Libby will very easily talk to people and it’s been fun listening to the conversations when she can make a connection to a visit she has made to their city or country. Their travels, especially since arriving in Bangkok, have taken them to many countries so there’s always a good chance she’s either visited on planned to.

Our menu had five courses and the whole class ended up lasting about three hours which just flew by. Our instructor was knowledgeable, witty and patient. In addition to teaching us about Thai foods and traditions, she also spent a lot of time on technique when working with a knife, mortar and postal, and spices.

I’ve always been pretty intimidated by Thai food - or Asian food of any kind for that matter. The spices intrigue me but i never know what should go with what. After our class, i feel pretty confident i could cook a decent Thai meal and maybe even pull off the amazing pumpkin custard we made.

In all, we made two chicken dishes using a gas stove, a very spicy fruit salad (that included learning how to make a rose from a tomato skin), scratch green curry paste, and two kinds of pumpkin custard desserts. Unfortunately the photos i took of the pumpkin custard don’t come close to describing its cool presentation and delicious taste.

We made the custard by mixing eggs by hand with the stalks of an herb. The flavor of the herb remains but you throw out the stalks. We poured the custard into small pumpkins we had hollowed out and used the extra to pour into small ramekins and sprinkled with tiny pieces of chopped pumpkin. Both were put in large steamers to bake (Thai food typically isn’t cooked using an oven). Bottom line is they cut the pumpkin into fourths like a small cake and you could eat the whole think, rind and all. While pumpkin ins’t a flavor i normally seek out, this was out of this world.

After class, we had several errands to attend to. I went with Libby to a mall phone store to pay her phone bill - using an ATM-like machine where she pays the bill by cash. They live so much more by cash than we do at home. We also stopped in a grocery story fro me to pick up a couple of the spices we worked with and some products available over the counter that we normally have to get by prescription in the US.

The lunch left us both food-drunk, but we had one last adventure to check off the list - a vigorous walk around a beautiful urban park a short walk from Libby’s apartment. Libby said the people running/walking/biking in the mornings are the older people, while the afternoon crowd tends to be younger. That was definitely the case. Darkness crept up on us while we made our way back but i never felt unsafe (other than still not remembering to look right first when crossing the street to avoid the motorscooters).

I finished up my packing (made much easier by the fact that Geeta, Libby’s housekeeper, had washed and ironed all of my dirty clothes), showered and ate a nice meal Geeta had prepared for us.

David’s driver picked us up at 8 pm for the 45 minute drive to the airport (surprisingly easy trip considering some of the traffic I’d seen over the week). My new best friends, Dahli and Baby, accompanied us, and i was really sad to say good bye to them and Libby.

I write this now sitting in the Doha airport in the UAE so time addled i don’t know if i should be eating breakfast or ordering a happy hour wine. In addition to enjoying a trip of a lifetime with a lifelong friend, I was able to check a bucket list item I didn’t even know I had. I’m sure I’ll arrive home Tuesday night exhausted and get pulled back into my routine, but travel like this reminds me we’re all a very tiny part of a much bigger world - I’m really grateful I have the chance to be reminded of that!
 
I left Bangkok with huge gratitude to Libby for encouraging me to come, hosting me, taking COMPLETE control of our plans and sharing her new life with me. Also a shout out to David who put up with me in the house for a whole week! In addition to doing some pretty cool tourist things (elephants!), I also got a peek at how they live day to day. It's quite a different exitance from what we know in Columbia, and I have huge admiration for their adventurous spirits for taking the plunge to follow their dreams on this.

I’m signing off now for the journal blog posts. I feel some post-trip reflections coming on but will share those later.