Tagged: culture

Wearing a sari is not as intimidating as you think it is, but putting ON a sari is as intimidating as you think it is. There are 3 distinct parts and a lot of safety pins that combine to make the illusion of an outfit. I’m not sure how this was accomplished in the world before safety pins: technology is an amazing thing.

I had a chance to experience this technology first hand at my roommate’s engagement in Baltimore this weekend. All of us in the house, plus other friends of the future bride and groom, drove down for the religious ceremony and to celebrate with the couple afterwards. Since I didn’t own any Indian clothes, the sari became a group effort. The future bride lent me her sari and jewelry, but the blouse and petticoat came from another roommate. And the final roommate helped me put it on, including draping, the all important safety pin placement, and continual assistance throughout the day.

Most of the, however, day was spent sitting in a sari: 3 hour car ride, 1 hour ceremony, post-buffet line eating and ceremony games totaling another 3 or 4 hours. Consequently, the most difficult part of wearing a sari was getting up after sitting down and not losing the sari to my chair. The car was particularly difficult because you had to duck down to get into the seat, and then not step on the sari as you scrabbled out of the backseat.

The other hard part was that saris are more or less one size fits all, so if there’s extra fabric you pleat it in front if you and tuck the pinned pleats into the petticoat. This means there’s a big pile of fabric directly in front of your feet. But you’re allowed to lift up the sari fabric, although not so much that your petticoat is showing, while walking. If you’re sari is put on well, not only will it look lovely in pictures, it will also stay in place while you move from a to b and chair to chair.

Hopefully all of these tips make up for the bad pun in the title.

The best advice I can give you, though, is to get a supportive entourage: this is something you’ll need help for throughout the entire dressing, wearing, and undressing process! And pack extra safety pins, of all sizes.

Sari from Engagement
Photo by and with the lovely Dhruti, provider of the bodice and petticoat, as well as the iron to make it much less wrinkly than it was initially

Sari for the Pun

Good morning from the balcony of my hotel room in Pompano Beach, just north of Fort Lauderdale, FL. I’ve got a gorgeous view of the parking lot and the inlet beyond, so it’s a shady West-facing balcony, and a peaceful morning of leftover turkey club and decaf coffee with sugar.

Somehow that description seems like an apt summary of my initial feelings about this part of the state: comfortable, pricy, and all together an American escapist fantasy. There are few full-time residences near the time share a friend’s parents are loaning to all of us, but plenty of shops catering to the tourist crowd. In fact, that’s mostly all I’ve seen:tourists.

Normally this would drive me insane because I like REAL PEOPLE with lives and roots, connections in a community that extends beyond my visit in all directions so that I can just dip in and see the essence of a place. Because when I’m traveling there are two questions that always come up: would I come back? Could I LIVE here?

The answer for Florida is “no,” I can’t live where the water is 80*F and relatively clear, with localized thunderstorms, strip malls containing actual strippers and neon lights, and long roads full of slow drivers all of which are looking for their turnoff because the GPS said it’s in .5 miles. There is too much happening, and not enough.

But maybe that’s the appeal of such tourist heavy places. There is a pop-up community of strangers that appears briefly during the high season when everyone comes off a plane or out of a car, pale and excited to lie about and drink the nights away. Instead of seeing a community that predates me, I get to be part of one that couldn’t exist without me.

So here’s to big floppy hats and unabashed tourist photos. Florida, your charm is unexpected, but I can dig it.

Tourist Sighted

After spending a week sweating through the south, we felt emotionally ready for that assault and were even a little excited for Bangkok because we were going to stay in the same place for THE ENTIRE TIME which is about as close as you can get to living while vacationing (vs. being a transient backpacker). Best of all, the apartment we were renting from AirBnB had a WASHER!!

(Traveling really helps you see how long you can go without doing laundry, and how big of a closet you really need. This particular trip it was: get more bathing suits in case they don’t dry, and clothes that let you sweat profusely.)

The most striking thing about Bangkok is that it is big in every single sense of that word. It spans space, time, even different standards of behavior from the strictly enforced dress code at the Royal Palace to unassuming middle-aged matrons asking if you want to see a ping-pong show while you’re souvenir shopping at the night market. The two main public transportation arteries of the city embody this chasm: ferry boats on the Chao Phraya River and the BTS, an above ground train. The ferry boats have engines, but are otherwise open-air longboats with conductors that walk around shaking tin canisters for the 15 baht fee (payable fully in change as bills don’t start until 20 in Thailand). The BTS, on the other hand, is almost completely automated from the touch screens used to purchase tokens to the turnstiles you tap to be let in and out. Trains are sleek, air-conditioned, and arrive in a very regular fashion from the greater Bangkok area.

We were staying in said “greater Bangkok area,” just across the river from the historical tourist attractions including the Palace and Khaosan/Backpacker’s Road, so we got to see Bangkok like a non-city-dwelling Thai (who doesn’t speak Thai) would have: taking the BTS in for the day and coming home at night away from the congestive madness.

Having seen Bangkok in this way for about a week, I’ve got to say that Bangkok was nice but…maybe I’m jaded from growing up near New York City, or maybe there’s something too depressing about cities, especially in developing countries or heavily visited tourist locations. There are too many dreams, expectations, disappointments, fatigue, cynicism, optimism, commercialism, brutal capitalism, and people-people everywhere. It’s a jumbled, heady mix of potential that assaults you with sights, smells, sounds, and sensations foreign and familiar. Cities push you to dream big and speak in hyperboles; they’re giant living clichés were no one ever sleeps, and everyone is alone, but you can become anyone if you just try.

And there is an exhaustion in that constant deluge that made us so, so glad to go back to our apartment at the end of the day. We retreated to suburbs, air-conditioning, Chang from the quiet 7-11 in the side streets with a few street vendors selling longans by the kilo and fresh kebabs. Sometimes the best part of cities is not being in them, but seeing them from 30+ floors above ground-level and the madness.

Bangkok

Side note: There is also a sprawling network of bus routes, but the thing with Thai buses is that they tend to be either pickup trucks with benches and a tarp covering, or the white mini-buses favored by church groups and hotels in the US. In neither instance is there any indication of what the next stop is, or if the bus will even stop at the pre-listed stops. If you don’t speak Thai, you’re much better off taking the river ferry or BTS.

Bangkok

Sitting on the pier at Koh Phi Phi this time, Christine and Will had to catch a 9:00 am ferry to see Kaho Sok before they bus up north to Bangkok. Sarah and I are taking the 10:30 am ferry to Krabi before we fly up to Bangkok. And it was a sweaty walk to the pier so we are going to stay for a little to, um, dry off before we melt.

Phi Phi is a nice island, stunningly beautiful, but expensive, small, and overrun with tourists which drives prices up even more (no airport means there is only one way for goods to arrive and no cars means they’re all moved by hand) and makes it possible to buy all sorts of international foods, but not as much Thai.

And now I’m on a ferry, officially gone from Phi Phi. While leaving we saw some private beaches on the other sides of the island, away from the single pier. I recognized shanty huts that locals probably called home, but others may have been private getaways. Definitely would be something cool to check out if you were staying on the island and looking for something away from the congestion of the main drag. Just have a generous budget!

The main “city” area springing from the pier is where we spent the bulk of our time on the island. It is sometimes called “Tourist Village” in the guide books and no matter how lost you get, and we were pretty good at that, you were never more than 15 minutes from a landmark you’d recognize. So, although there are no cars, I can’t imagine it being too arduous to see or spend time at a more remote part of the island.

Upon reflection I don’t know if I would recommend Phi Phi. It is undeniably beautiful, and I promise to share pictures, but given the price and congestion… If you think there is value to seeing loud European tourists, or don’t stay too long, I think it could be all right. How you vacation says a lot about who you are, after all, and people-watching is a great and valid part of sight-seeing.

If, however, this is the only part of South Thailand you see, then you are doing both yourself and the area a disservice.

Koh Phi Phi

Making a list of observations while sitting on a log swing at the beach, because you can only get so much work done on vacation:

1. There are a lot of European tourists, especially Scandinavian, Russian, and German. Basically all the people you would expect to burn but are instead the color of dark mahogany wood. There is also a good chance the ladies will be topless on the smaller beaches like Kamala on Phuket.

2. In the tourist-heavy areas people will probably speak English and Chinese (also a lot of tourists from the Mainland), but in the residential areas…not so much.

3. If you stay in a quieter boutique hotel, it is probably in one of those aforementioned suburbs where English is not a given. But the people are nice and you’ll find food and drink on the street with the locals and it’ll be a delicious and super cheap leap of faith.

4. There are a lot of animals, pets and stray. More dogs in Phuket and more cats in Koh Phi Phi. Some are friendly, and all are hot. There wrote some long-haired cats and a stray boxer I felt particularly bad for when I saw them. Mostly it’s a lot of mutts and cats with small
Heads relative to their frames.

5. It’s pronounced “Koh Pee-Pee” or just “Pee-Pee.” I laugh a little every time I hear it.

6. Taxi rides are a vaguely terrifying, but air-conditioned!, adventure. The open-air bus is the same, minus the a/c and with an uncertain destination. They don’t announce the stops, or necessarily stop at every one. Through some miracle of the divine, we managed to take two buses from Phuket town to Kamala Beach. It took approximately 90 minutes and we literally went straight from the pink bus to the connecting blue after missing our stop and trying to ride to the end of the line. We decided not to push our luck on the way back and paid 6 times more to see sunset on the beach and be driven to dinner at the night market and back to the hotel after. In total came out to about US$13 round trip, so not bad at all!

7. A strong dollar doesn’t really make you feel that much better about being charged exorbitant tourist trap fees, although it does make it a l little more gentle on your wallet so I suppose that is some consolation.

8. There is sugar in all of your shakes, including watermelon and banana. There is a lot of sugar and white-white bread in general, and meat. It is definitely a miracle of nature that the Thai aren’t all obese, it constipated.

9. There are a lot of ex-pats running tours on Koh Phi Phi. You can definitely find someone to speak your native tongue.

10. And although Phi Phi and Phuket are both overrun with tourists, if you look a little of the main paths you can still find more private pieces of paradise.