Sunday, July 25, 2010

The demon's disease

Monday started off normally, and by normally I mean all the irregulars that constitute daily living in Thailand. Began by teaching four fifteen-year-old girls how to write the SAT essay (more the humorous as I detested everything to do with the SATs). In the afternoon: 101 presentation skits. -- I had high expectations, but also knew I should be practical – students here are not one to volunteer, to raise their hand, talk loudly in class, act. But my students did not let me down! The classroom was filled with talk show hosts, fairy godmothers, hotel managers, movie stars. We traveled from Japan to Korea to France to the local night bar in Chaing Mai complete with a crowd of boys in my class wearing light up glasses, stumbling around stage acting drunk exchanging phone numbers.

Then back to tutor one more student and it was here where things started getting interesting. A note: if anyone was in any doubt, it is hot in Chiang Mai. For school I wear a nice short sleeve shirt, skirt and sandals, on the weekends I switch to shorts. At night all I can bear is light capris and a tank top. However on Monday when I went to tutor I was freezing in long capris, a shirt and a sweater! I barely made it back to my room afterwards to find that my temperature had rocketed up to 103.4! I skyped mom, took advil and went to bed…or attempted to go to bed, which entailed tossing and turning, feeling miserable and waking up at some point in the middle of the night.

One thing our family is known for is enduring through sickness – that means if you can still go to school you go to school – otherwise you might miss something. Of course if you have a fever you are exempt because the school won’t take you, but otherwise there is an expectation that you will drag yourself to school. I have long since internalized this mentality and unsure whether CMU had a fever policy and without anyone to cover for me, I dutifully dragged myself to class.

Tuesday night was fever filled and I ended up waking up at 3 am, chatting with mom and getting interviewed by someone from my elementary school who was over at our house at the time.

Wednesday: Denali was wonderful and brought over a rice porridge with vinegar, ginger and chives for breakfast. By this point I had eaten little more than fruit since Monday and was still highly feverish. I dragged myself to Thai lessons and then to tutoring and then back home where I curled up attempting to sleep and watch a movie. By 6 pm I admitted defeat and decided it was time to make a hospital visit and get checked out. I was pretty sure I was plagued with a bad case of the flu. My symptoms: high sustained fever, sore throat, headache, light stomach ache, mild dizziness, achy joints, general sore muscles. The problem was that all of these symptoms could be flu, but they can just as likely be signs of one of those nice tropical diseases, like malaria, or dengue fever.

Denali came over and picked me up and we headed over to the well-oiled machine that is Ram Hospital where you get directed from station to station to station. I was weighed, fever checked (back up to 103), blood pressure taken, symptoms explained, blood given. After hearing my symptoms the doctor was convinced I had Dengue (I was not). While I waited for the blood test, I was severely chastised by a nurse for taking Advil to reduce my fever. “You can not take Advil if you have dengue” she kept telling me, of course I didn’t know I had dengue, and still didn’t think I had dengue so what was I supposed to do? (I later learned the Advil lowers platelets and stopped taking it immediately.) Instructed to return in an hour we headed out to get ice cream.

Back at the hospital I was ushered into a doctor’s room in the emergency area (the main offices were closed by this point). I sat down thinking ok nothing to be worried about I just have the flu – Denali says dengue isn’t that common -- and the doctor wastes no time in telling me: you have dengue fever. WHAT?!I have dengue?! How?! NOOOO! I look at the sheet of paper, it reads: “positive for dengue, negative for normal.” The doctor then proceeds to tell me that he thinks I should stay in the hospital for the next two days hooked up to an IV! At this point I sort of panic and my eyes grow really big and shocked. Almost immediately he amends his previous statement and says, “or you could stay at home drink lots of water and electrolytes and take Tylenol to bring your fever down.” I go with option B.

Dengue fever or “breakbone fever” (a fever so painful that it feels as if your bones are breaking) is prevalent in cities all over the world, mostly in Africa, South America, and South Asia. Interestingly the word dengue is Kiswahili in origin, from the word ka-dinga pepo – meaning a disease caused by an evil spirit. (I feel like this is a small consolation prize for me of sorts.)

Like malaria, dengue is contracted by mosquito bites, but unlike malaria, dengue mosquitoes live in cities and primarily bite during the day. Across the globe 50-100 million cases occur each year. In Thailand the peak epidemic time is the start of the rainy season – June to July. Unfortunately there is very little that can be done for dengue. The issue is making sure one stays hydrated and keeps platelet and white blood cell counts high. For these reasons many people are hospitalized so they be assured of getting enough fluids into their system. For me this meant daily blood checks and mantras of “raising platelets, lowering fever, raising platelets, lowering fever,” in between continuing to teach my classes at CMU and going to bed at 8 pm.

I have since become well acquainted with the first floor of Ram and the nurses have become well acquainted with me to the point that they know my name and greet me when I walk resigned to the internal medicine station. They also are well aware now that I detest needles. I have had a whole collection of doctors, my favorite by far being a lovely young woman who has great English and answered all of the odd questions about dengue that I could think up. The other doctors were less inspiring. I wait fifteen minutes get led into their office, get read my platelet and white blood cell count from a sheet that I also have a copy of, am told to get another blood test and leave…I’m not sure why this is a necessary step. Indeed with the last doctor I saw I had to actually convince him to give me more electrolyte packets.

The completion of dengue is marked in many cases with a fully body itchy rash. A send off party if you will for the disease. Some people are lucky enough not to ever get the rash…I am not one of those people. Currently as I sit typing, my legs and arms are covered in hundreds of red spots. Yesterday was when the rash first appeared, my limbs changed chameleon like from normal, to splotchy, to rashy, to purple and pale and then back to relatively normal. Today they are determinedly angry red and very itchy. In addition I have edema – the swelling of the hands and feet, another lovely symptom of this disease!

The good news: The disease has almost (hopefully) run its course, I am now resistant to this form of dengue (there are four types in all), I can say that I had dengue – I should get some small amount of credit for that!

Friday, July 16, 2010

Craving Condensed Milk!

You know you are no longer a tourist and live in Thailand when....

1) You spend ten minutes trying to decide between the extra thin blue ballpoint pen with the smiling monkeys and rainbows ("my pocket monkey") and the one with the bears, bunnies and cups of cocoa ("Hello Mr. Sweet") and then decided that you should probably buy both.

2) You don't think twice about making a u-turn on the super highway on your motorbike.

3) You become highly attuned to small shifts in temperature, and when walking outside into 93 degree weather find yourself commenting: “aww, how lovely and cool it is today!”

4) You wonder why an ice cream sandwich isn’t a scoop of ice cream between two pieces of white bread everywhere in the world and not just in Thailand.

5) You begin to lose your grasp on your native English tongue and sadly are unaware until another friend repeats it back to you: “‘I a teacher at CMU’…you mean ‘I am a teacher at CMU?’”

6) You purse your lips at the twenty year old tourists walking around in beer shirts bouncing soccer balls across the road while you are trying to get to the climbing wall on your motorbike and they are in your way.

7) The smell of baby powder pervades your room as you have sprayed it all over your walls and floor in the vein hope of driving away hordes of small marauding ants. It is also not uncommon to find you yelling “die, die” and pouring copious amounts of powder on trails of ants that have found a molecule of food on your floor. You have also given up on completely eliminating ants from your room.

8) All names, not just Thai names or words start having Thai inflections. You pronounce Obama as - Obam-aaaa! and think nothing of it, indeed you think it sounds natural.

9) You have your special food stands you frequent mapped out across the city, where the owners all know you: Mango/dragon fruit/pineapple smoothies at the Chiang Mai Gate Market in the old city, grilled bananas on Suthep road, iced green milk tea at the coffee shop near the English Department, and large noodle soup at the Biology cafeteria.

10) You crave condensed milk, especially poured over your fried and slightly more than oily roti with bananas, chocolate and sugar - the same delicious dessert that you recall asking yourself why condensed milk was a necessary addition a month ago.

Saturday, July 10, 2010

Celebrations and Celery

First of all a happy (belated) Fourth of July! Despite being over twelve thousand miles away I still celebrated our country's independence, just in a slightly unorthodox manner.

Not wanting to waste any possible moments to celebrate - my 4th of July began officially at 3:00am! Yes that’s right, three in the morning. The afternoon prior Denali and I had hopped on my motorbike (she was driving) and sped off to visit her wonderful host family in Doi Saket.Saturday afternoon was spent helping to sell vegetables and (for me) learning an equivalent amount of Thai in four hours then I did in three weeks. That night we had an amazing Thai barbeque dinner with lots of meat, vegetables, noodles, seafood, egg past, etc.

Then it was early to bed as we had agreed to help Mae Noi (because relatives that normally helped were away that weekend) to unload the vegetable truck. Mae Noi goes to the central market at midnight and stuffs the truck jigsaw like with veggies. Here is where the 3 am wake up call came in.

Bleary eyed we hopped back on to the motorbike and drove out into the early morning and back to the market where we: unloaded the truck – ferrying armfuls of leafy vegetables, bagging vegetables under Mae Noi’s guidance and even selling a few vegetables to buyers who would take them on to markets further still from Chiang Mai or some to restaurants and hotels for parties and events. As can be imagined we were somewhat of the morning attracting and spectacle.

A few hours of sleep was all we allowed ourselves before eating a delicious breakfast on the porch and taking what turned into a three hour stroll/adventure through the countryside and surrounding rice fields - at times in search of red roofs on hill tops, at other times with the goal of out walking territorial dogs and at still other times for the simple joy of being in clean fresh air and of course all the random conversations that such walks encourage.

Then it was a quick delicious noodle soup lunch, a quick good bye and the drive back to the city where we continued our celebration with mango ginger smoothies, before heading to a celebration of a more traditional ilk.

There being a goodly number of folks of the American persuasion living in the city, the American consulate holds a celebration every year. A 350 baht ticket buys you admission into a fair where you can find grills sizzeling with hamburgers, hot dogs, barbeque, quesadillas, corn on the cob, coleslaw, chocolate chip cookies - all for free! Then if you desire to open your wallets a little - fresh real lemonade, ice cream and American beer. To top it off – band, kid games, a wandering tug of war that meandered its way across the grounds over the course of the afternoon and finally fireworks! I love Thai food, but occasionally it is nice to be reminded of home – the chocolate chip cookies really got to me…they were real and amazing – not to say these were world famous cookies by any means, but try as they might Thais have yet to understand the complexities that goes into making a scrumptious cookie or cake, or even making a mediocre cookie or cake. For the most part I stick to coconut pancakes, black sticky rice, grilled bananas with coconut milk and mango sticky rice. But a cookies is occasionally a necessary reminder of home - take a big bite, chew, savor and then of course go back to eating tons of Thai food!

Monday, July 5, 2010

Never will I ever....

The first time I stepped off a plane in Thailand and was greeted by the one and only Denali Barron I was whisked into town on the back of her motorbike, harrowingly clutching my bag and her as we swerved in and out of traffic thinking: "Go Denali, but man will I never do this myself!"

Six months later I found myself back in Thailand and already the (proud or possible more fittingly trepidatious) owner of my own motorbike! Yes I realized it was probably a smart idea to get one so I could navigate around my new city and discover hidden Wats (temples) but still I would take my sweet time about getting on it ...maybe a month...maybe three...maybe I would buy a regular bike and drive that around the city first...maybe I would just end up selling the motorbike...This of course is the girl who waited to get her drivers license till she was 21.5 years old and who even then barely drives preferring horse or camel back (when available).

One and a half weeks in and thoroughly tiered of attempting to catch red trucks every morning, noon and night, and of being ripped off because I am a farang, I was already fervently waiting for Denali to get back from her trip to Vietnam so she could give me my first driving lesson.

Three weeks in and we finally got around to taking my bike to the CMU campus where I wobbled my way in small jerky patterns through the parking lot and then after a overly nervous half hour on to the main road for all of ten minutes, a trip that left me reaffirm my love of solid ground. By the end of the lesson I had made a number of resolutions to myself: I could do this, but I wouldn't: drive in the right lane (fast lane), and weave between the cars to get to the front of the line. I would use my bike just to get to and from work for a while and maybe after a week or two try going into the old city: requiring you to go on a four lane road, cross those four lanes of traffic, get on to the moat road in the old city and drive at a relatively fast but constant speed around the city with lots of other cars and bikes merging and tuning and parking and leaving parking spaces. The super highway, I assured myself, would not even cross my mind for a month.

Fourth week my bike sat squarely in a parking spot in front of my apartment and my building's cleaning lady shook her head and pondered why the silly farang was still walking and catching red trucks when she had this nice bike.

Friday of the Forth week, after some cajoling by Lauren I ventured out after her on my own bike to go search out dinner on Huay Kaew road where all the CMU students eat. The drive was all of seven minutes on one road, grant it, it was at night, but I made it, though still with a lot of nerves spent.

Monday of the Fifth week. I finally decided that this was absurd that I needed to get on the bike and ride it and so I did just that, leaving a whole hour for what is normally a 10-minute drive just in case I wanted to go turtle speed. And guess what...I made it! I even made it with many minutes to spare.

Tuesday of the Fifth week. Driving to school felt like a breeze, a rather frisky one at that…only one day on the bike and I found myself already impatiently waiting for lights and cars to move along…what did that mean…well of course take the right lane (fast lane), possibly even do a little bit of moving between lanes to bypass slower vehicles (of course always safely) and then there is those pesky lights where you have to wait in traffic with tons of exhaust blowing at you (the worst part about driving a bike for sure), so to speed that process along I of course found myself inching up between cars riding in all that space they leave between them and feeling much like the night bus in Harry Potter!

Wednesday of the Fifth week. Well after class I really wanted to go climbing and by this point really didn’t want to pay another 20 baht for a red truck…so that meant of course only one thing…brave the old city. Of course first I needed to get more gas – an interesting adventure in itself with a few illegal u turns to get to the gas station. Some how I made it through the four lanes of traffic – not exactly taking it slowly but calmly and then on to the moat road that runs along the old crumbling yet beautiful wall of the city and…well of course…the moat. Denali has described the moat road like a river of its own – you drive like the flow of water calmly reacting to the bikes carrying entire families side-saddle that swerve in front of you or the SUV’s that voom past you on your right. It is best to have eyes in a circumference around your head – you need them all at times! But I did make it and when I pulled into the climbing wall to park – everyone cheered! Then of course there was the after dinner night market dinner – a shared feast of goodies – rice and noodles, meats, chilies, mango shakes, etc…and then of course driving back to my room…only of course it being the monsoon season, the sky chose the same ten minutes to pour buckets on my helmeted head. First drive in monsoon – check!

Thursday of the Fifth week – more driving! Drove out to a lovely set of food stalls right outside CMU on Suthep road that I had been meaning to try since week one – they were delicious and we ended up getting a ton – lots of random fried foods that we are not really sure what they all were. The only aggravating thing as (also slightly hilarious) was that I got my first parking ticket! Actually my first ticket ever – in any country (I guess it at least makes for a good story…right?) It would of course be helpful to read the Thai sign that says I can’t park certain places, but it’s a learning experience…I guess…

Friday of the Fifth week - I spent almost the entire day on the bike. After classes in the morning I drove over to the other side of town in search of a particular road – which I failed to find for 30 minutes due to a lot of one way streets – but I treated it as just extra bike practice – driving through markets, stalls mounded with yellow mangoes and hairy rambutan, street vendors, empty caged stalls that would be festooned with clothes come night time when the night bazaar is in full swing. Then after lunch it was back into the old city to stop by an organic market before tutoring. My night was supposedly going to end with a relaxing warm down and hangout session with all my friends at the climbing wall, but or course what would the fifth day or driving be with out conquering that one last great trial – the super highway! Yes that is what I did, though unknowingly at first. 8:30 I found myself hoping back on my bike in the wake of Denali off to a funeral (the mother of one of the climbers) and low and behold it is out past the highway…

To top the week off I drove Denali into the city on Sunday after a wonderful weekend with her host family (a story of its own and worthy of its own post soon) which is a whole other challenge in itself – bikes become much more interesting to balance with multiple people astride them.

So with a week of biking under me, a couple of notes on the driving situation in Chiang Mai (if it was not already evident): Traffic lights are for the majority of the time abided by, but if the other lane has turned red and yours has yet to, still feel free to gun your engine and ride through the intersection. Driving lanes are more like decorations on the asphalt, yes they sort of give you a sense to where you should and shouldn’t drive, but these are suggestions only. If you need to get to the front of a line of traffic it is perfectly practical for you to ride the yellow line to the front, or even ride to the right of the line if its necessary (driving is on the opposite side of the road than the US). And while on the subject of lanes and directions – if it happens that the place you want to go is a ways down the opposite side of the road you are welcome to cross the road and drive in the wrong direction along the side until you reach your turn off – this applies to small city roads as well as the highway.

Monday of the Sixth week: I love my bike, I love the freedom, the wind on my shoulders (if not in my hair as I am wearing my helmet), the speed, the flexibility, and of course the fact that I went from hating the idea, to pronouncing over and over how I would not to do this, not do that and then promptly running over them all at 40 mph.

The only thing left is for me to name it…suggestions are welcome!