Monday, July 19, 2010

A brief meditation upon coming home from Japan

A beaming person: Here! You cannot possibly remember me/your stay in Japan without this awkwardly-shaped, heavy object! I bought it just for you!

Me: Why, thank you! It's beautiful! I'll treasure it forever!

My brain: Oh, lovely. Now I have to repack my suitcases for the eighth time.

Also, what the hell is this?

Family arrives: T-1 day!
I fly home: T-17 days!

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Happy Spring!

The art club occasionally provides artwork to decorate the hallway outside the staffroom. I was particularly charmed by their latest offering.

This basically says "Flower Women by the Art Club."



Dalia. (I believe this one was the work of one of my Special Needs students.)




I have asked several different people what this flower is, and forgotten every time...


Sakura, or cherry blossom.



Wednesday, March 31, 2010

A New Beginning

Because I'm so good at updating this blog, I decided it would be a good idea to start a new one. I was inspired by my friend Naomi, who posts one photograph every day... but that's all explained in the first post. Check it out!

Saturday, February 27, 2010


Last April, I applied for a six-month extension to file my taxes, so that when I did so I would have been here for a full year. One's first three years of foreign-earned income are not taxed, but I still have to fill out a form declaring how much I've earned and proving that it was in a foreign country. I have looked at the papers three times since August, and have never built up the courage to try to complete them. Tonight I am gritting my teeth and doing my best.

9.32 pm: Employer's Foreign Address. Hm... the Board of Education's address is remarkably hard to find in English...

9.43 pm: "List your tax home(s) during your tax year." WTF is a tax home??

9.43.30 pm: There are not too many pictures on the IRS website, but the people in them are far too smiley.

9.45 pm: "Your tax home is your regular or principal place of business, employment, or post of duty, regardless of where you maintain your family residence." Right. See Line 1.

9.50 pm: What is a bona fide resident? Why did I take French in high school and not Latin?

9.53 pm: "it may be difficult to decide whether you have established a bona fide residence."

9.53.30 pm: Fine. I'll pass the Physical Presence Test instead.

9.55 pm: "Exclude travel between foreign countries that did not involve travel on or over international waters, or in or over the United States, for 24 hours or more." I am starting to doubt the value of a college education...

9.56 pm: Still working on this... does that mean that only travel requiring more than 24 hours over international waters should be listed? That doesn't make any sense...

9.57 pm: Oh, whatever. Even with my trips, I have still been in Japan for over 330 days. I'll just write them down.

10.05 pm: Ah, Cambodia. Remember when I was there two more days than I intended? I never knew that taxes could make you nostalgic...

10.10 pm: Oh, wait. I'm reading "travel abroad" as meaning "outside Japan." Maybe I just need to write down that I've been in Japan?

10.16 pm: How many 24-hour periods have I been in Japan for? Hm... I guess I subtract the ones where I was elsewhere... 339. That sounds right.

10.17 pm: Page one of three completed

10.17.30 pm: NOW starts the real fun... writing down what I earned, in US dollars, according to the exchange rate at the time of earning.

10.18 pm: What is a cash basis taxpayer? Can I decide that I'm not one if doing so means that I don't have to also fill out Form 1040? What is Form 1040?

10.23 pm: According to the IRS' "Link & Learn," "most individuals are cash based taxpayers." Dammit!

10.26 pm: And I am off to find the orientation handout that will remind me how to read my paycheck slips.

10.28 pm: Gah, why is this so disorganized? And why do I seem to have at least five explanations of the stages of culture shock?

10.30 pm: I wonder if I should write down the amount before or after the various deductions?

10.31 pm: I'm going to use the pre-deduction amount because it's an even number.

10.36 pm: The IMF website has very detailed currency exchange rates for each day for the past five years! Yay!

10.41 pm: Trouble is, I have never been able to work the math. If 1 US dollar is 109 yen, then how much is 300,000 yen?

10.47 pm: I am writing down these calculations on a dollar-store memo pad with a cartoon turtle and the words "Stroll of turtle." I am not enough of an adult to handle taxes, clearly.

10.56 pm: I appear to have figured it out! That might be the first math problem I've solved since high school.

11.09 pm: That was very tedious, but my glee at figuring it out for myself carried me through...

11.11 pm: God, I earn a lot of money. Why did I not recontract again?

11.12 pm: Noncash income... does omiyage count??

11.14 pm: Page two of three completed.

11.15 pm: Housing deductions... I can deduct not only my rent but also my utilities and furniture. That seems generous...

11.16 pm: I can't remember how much I pay for rent... or what my utilities usually come to... the dangers of automatic deduction.

11.25 pm: I really, really do not want to go through a year's worth of utility receipts. Perhaps I will simply not claim the Housing Deduction.

11:36 pm: I just misread some directions and tried to exclude negative 50,000 dollars. It is time to stop this and eat some cinnamon toast instead.

Monday, February 15, 2010

Yuki Matsuri = Snow Festival

S = Susukino, the mob-controlled nightlife district.

We ventured into Susukino twice. The first time was on the first night, in search of nightlife after the all-you-can-drink-and-eat extravaganza of the Sapporo Beer Garden. The second time was in search of Ramen Alley and the branch of the Snow Festival featuring about four city blocks, off-limits to traffic, lined down the middle with two rows of delicate, colorfully-lit ice sculptures. Bit of a juxtaposition of purposes.

Also, when I came home and re-read the guidebook entry for Sapporo, I learned that Susukino has come under criticism for the heavier-than-usual involvement of the yakuza (Japanese mob).

A = All-You-Can-Drink.

In Japanese, nomihodai means literally "drink without limits." They are standard fare at your usual fancy and overpriced work party, less-fancy pub, and ALT-hosted fundraiser. It is the first word of Japanese most new arrivals learn.

The Sapporo trip flowed with alcohol from one end to the other. The several hours we spent at the Sapporo Beer Garden (or Bier Garten, as the signs on the wall proclaimed, or Biiiru Gaahden, if you prefer the Japanese) count as among the most alcoholic of my time in Japan. The drink menu was limited: it was basically beer, or another kind of beer. The food menu was limited: it was basically lamb to be grilled on your own little brazier, or some carrots and onions if you insist. The cavernous room was filled with smoke and ever-more-drunk salarymen. There was so much grease that we were each issued a paper apron and a plastic bag for anything we didn't want to get splattered and smelly.

It doesn't sound like it would be a good time. But it really was! Chaos of eating and drinking ensued. The organizer of the trip told me that because I wasn't eating lamb, I could order off the menu. The beer was locally-made, cold, and delicious. The service was unbelievably fast: sometimes restaurants will try to save money by bringing drinks slowly, thus limiting the amount you can drink during the time period you've paid for, but the Sapporo staff was nothing like that. I had no idea a person could carry ten mugs of beer in each hand, but now I have been educated.

We stayed, cheerfully drunk, for a good hour and a half after our party was over, playing icebreaker games around the long-cold braziers. We even got the wait staff involved, until they had to throw us out so that they could clean up.

P = Port, of which Sendai has one and from which we departed.

The email from the Miyagi JET Association, who organized the trip, told us that we would be taking a ferry from Sendai to Sapporo, and back. Being from America, my experience with ferries is that they cross rivers, and usually involve a couple of benches and a vending machine. I really had no idea what to expect from a boat that we would ride for over ten hours.

So I was quite surprised to find a ship waiting for us that I would more comfortably call a "cruise ship" than a "ferry." It had "tourist class" rooms lined with bunk beds where we slept, a full restaurant where we ate a free breakfast buffet, indoor and outdoor promenades, a full Japanese-style bath through whose windows you could watch the ocean falling away behind us, a karaoke room where we sang until we were thrown out on the way back, and a lobby where we sat up talking after they took away the karaoke.

P = Potatoes.

Locally-produced is usually very good. Locally-produced food in an area famous for producing it is usually fantastic. And such is the case for potatoes in Sapporo.

A pattern developed: I went with my friends for the company to a restaurant, found nothing vegetarian on the menu, and stopped at a festival street stall to buy a steamed potato with butter. Eating a whole potato (or, if I got lucky in my choice of street vendors), two whole potatoes with chopsticks, while walking, is not an easy task. But very much worth the effort.

In fact, come to think of it, Sapporo rates high on street food in general. The main site of the festival had a row of stalls selling various international cuisines. And almost every stall sold hot spiced wine, which was as welcome and delicious as it was unusual: most festivals make their money off beer... but then, most of Japan has their festivals in the summer.

O = Oyuki, the Japanese word for blizzard, literally meaning "big snow."

We arrived in Sapporo on Sunday at around noon and decided to take a look around. We stumbled quite by accident onto the main site for the festival, just as the skies opened and dumped snow on everything. Within minutes, the festival staff were trying to clear the sculptures with brooms. Within a half-hour, it didn't much matter anyway since visibility was about ten yards.

R = Ramen.

Ramen in Japan is nothing like instant ramen noodles that starving college students eat. Japanese ramen consists of noodles in a carefully-prepared, usually pork-based, broth, studded with pieces of meat and vegetables. The ingredients are prepared separately and combined in front of you to be served steaming in a huge bowl. Ramen is Sapporo's signature food, quite fittingly when you consider the length of an average winter there.

I can't, of course, eat a giant bowl of pork soup, so I have never been to a ramen shop. But one night my friends wanted to find the famous Ramen Alley, and I went with them. The Alley is indeed a small alley lined with a dozen or so tiny shops that can seat about twelve people each. We chose one based mainly on available seats, owned by an elderly couple. The man acted as cook; his wife was the waitress. The counter for diners wrapped around the three-meters-square preparation area, where the noodles were kept in a saran-wrap-lined drawer, and a giant vat of pork broth was kept at a constant boil.

After they ate, I acquired a potato from a street vendor.

O = Odori Park, the main festival site.

Odori actually means "big street," and it is the name of the main road running east-west through Sapporo. The park runs between the directions of traffic like a really big, really decorative median.

During Yuki Matsuri, Odori Park is used as the festival site showcasing the enormous snow sculptures that have made the festival famous, as well as the less well-known smaller sculptures commissioned by local businesses and organizations.

One square plays host to the International Competition, where artist teams sent from about twelve different countries create their sculptures during the first few days. We went once during the day and watched the artists. The pair from Norway were cheerfully cutting apart their block of snow and giving away the pieces, as a statement about global warming and the scarcity of natural resources; the Thais labored busily and silently next to them. We went back that night to see who won: Thailand. Note to anyone planning to enter a Japanese-run competition: technical prowess trumps creativity.

(Although the Thai sculpture really was spectacular.)

Y = Youth Hostel, where we stayed ten to a room.

I just hope they didn't have anyone else staying...

...given our penchant for late-night iPhone light saber battles.

U = Uncool Canadian, the first I have ever met.

On our way back from the ramen shop in Susukino, we engaged in an epic snowball fight that wound its way through the entire city of Sapporo. Along the way, we met a Canadian and his Australian couch-surfer. The Australian was cool; the Canadian started throwing ice. Canada, you have never failed me before...

K = Kawaii, the relative lack of.

At different times, we all remarked on how un-Japanese the city felt. It helped that it was built on a grid: most Japanese cities are haphazardly composed of twisting streets, loosely-defined neighborhoods, and numbered buildings that are utterly meaningless in that 34 may be closer to 67 or 219 than to 35. When you can still get lost in your own part of town after a year, an easily-navigated city feels very welcoming and friendly.

But we also noticed distinctly fewer cute characters on billboards, printed on people's clothing, or dangling on keychains. Everyone, even the schoolgirls, wore sensible footwear and heavy coats. It was rather refreshing.

I = Inverted Panda.

This one somewhat contradicts what I just said. Apparently, Hokkaido felt cheated by their lack of a cute local animal to become their mascot and be sold in stuffed forms to tourists. Sendai has the onigiri version of Date Masamune; Tono has their water monster-turned-cute green elf -- but poor Hokkaido has not much but snow.

So, they invented one. The Japanese spelling of panda breaks it into syllables: pa-n-da. Hokkaido reversed this to da-n-pa. Then they took a regular panda and reversed all its black-and-white coloring. Now they have a way to make money off tourists! Yay!

M = Museum of Beer.

We went to the Sapporo Beer Factory on the first night, and continued enjoying Sapporo Beer throughout the trip. So on the final day, we took the trip to see the factory museum. There is actually a special bus that runs from the central train station to the museum site and back, every fifteen minutes, with no stops in between.

The Factory Museum was an interesting mishmash of factory equipment, black-and-white photographs of various beer-making entrepreneurs, old advertisements, and an absolutely priceless set of dioramas explaining the full process of beer-production as conducted in a magical sparkly world inhabited by cat-like figures ruled by a wizard living on a cloud above their heads.

I feel educated, don't you?

A = Asahiyama Zoo.

When my friend Siobhan and I told people we were going to Sapporo, often the first response we got was a recommendation to go to this zoo, even though it's 90 minutes by bullet train outside the city proper. A group of four of us ended up going.

The zoo has made its name by taking advantage of the animals' natural preferences to create enclosures that are fun for them to play in and fun for visitors to watch. Their most famous feature is a huge glass tube for the seals who like to swim vertically. All over the zoo, you can walk beside, above, and under the animals.

Winter is the most popular time to go to the zoo: although several of the exhibits are closed, the trade-off is the ability to see animals like giraffes and lions frolicking... in the snow.

I feel the need to insert a disclaimer: the Japanese as a whole have not embraced environmentalism with the sense of empathy common in the West, and their zoos often leave quite a bit to be desired. Like their people, the animals' homes are often depressingly too small. And one must question the educational value of a zoo when at least half the visitors were wearing fur-trimmed coats.

T = Twenty-five, the number of people in the group.

We pretty quickly split, however, into a group of ten from Sendai and a group of fifteen from the prefectural towns. And by "pretty quickly," I mean, "on the boat on the way up." This is the way it always goes when Miyagi and Sendai JETs do things together.

S = Shiroi Koibito, meaning "White Lovers."

Shiroi Koibito specifically refers to the most famous omiyage (obligatory present for coworkers when you travel) from Sapporo: a slice of white chocolate sandwiched between two thin vanilla wafers.

To make it worth the trek into the northeastern suburbs of Sapporo, the company created an entire complex. The factory floor is there, and fascinating to view (or perhaps it's just that I like factory tours), but somewhat drowns under the combined weight of several floors of chocolate-making historical artifacts, a very random toy museum, a rose garden complete with miniature cottages, a snow slide, an animatronic clock tower, and the Tudor-style buildings that house the whole thing.

Incidentally, I did not bring back Shiroi Koibito for my coworkers. I opted for much less expensive wafer-less white chocolate that I bought at the train station. I suspect they feel jilted.

U = Unexpected warmth.

The week before we arrived, temperatures in Sapporo hit -12 C. We arrived on the heels of a warm spell, however, and spent the week basking in temperatures of 2-5 C.

Well, sort of basking. Once the snow had no reason to stay frozen, it amused itself soaking our feet instead. My friend Caye, from Minnesota, and I -- both hardened snow veterans -- ended up having to buy new shoes, because the ones we'd brought were fuzzy and thus totally suitable for walking on top of snow, but did not hold up well at all to stomping through slush.

R = Racy storytime.

Our friend Matt, from Scotland, is serially publishing, in the local ALT newsletter, a "romance" novel about a nineteen-year-old girl who... sleeps with nearly everyone working at her father's manor.

I would give you the link, but to be truly enjoyed the piece must be read aloud by its author -- preferably in heavy, undefinable accent -- and even more preferably on a bus full of people who did not ask to listen to it.

I = "If life gives you lemons, make lemonade."

It was really very nice to spend a few days marvelling at the weather instead of complaining about it.

Sunday, January 17, 2010

100 Things I Learned in 2009

  1. In Japan, if at first you don’t succeed in your New Year’s countdown, try try again.
  2. You’ll get to six before the Christmas-lighted trees turn on.
  3. Those same trees got turned off and back on once per hour for the preceding fourteen days. Happy New Year!
  4. On Coming of Age day, twenty-year-old girls (and some boys) participate in the ceremony for the sake of the kimonos their parents buy for them.
  5. My Japanese teacher borrowed her sister’s kimono and used the same amount of money to go on a trip to Europe instead.
  6. I never appreciated insulation when I had it.
  7. Central heating, too.
  8. Although kerosene is neither as smelly or as dangerous as you might be led to believe.
  9. A round-trip bullet train ticket to the airport costs more than a round-trip ticket to Korea.
  10. I take night buses now.
  11. You forget about the impossible cleanliness of Japan until you leave.
  12. Seoul is huge and dirty and none too easy to navigate.
  13. But it is also filled with genuinely Western products (French bread! Dunkin Donuts!) and English-speakers who will give directions (Yes, I am holding a guidebook; yes, I am lost.).
  14. Displays about the Japanese invasions into Korea take up an entire wing of the War Museum.
  15. The Korean War takes up two floors.
  16. Both are taught as little more than footnotes in the respective invaders’ history classes.
  17. The third-year junior-high English textbook is intentionally made short enough to not require the entire year to teach.
  18. You use the remaining time to “prepare” the students for high-school entrance exams.
  19. This mostly entails giving them last year’s tests and watching them fill in answers.
  20. Occasionally you do a listening test, which entails putting in a CD and trying not to throw the player out the window in frustration at the terrible acting and terrible English.
  21. If I never hear the words “entrance exam” again, it will be too soon.
  22. Junior high school graduation requires several three hour-long practice sessions in how to proceed up to the stage, take one’s diploma, and bow to the correct degree.
  23. It also requires a three-hour-long set-up of the gym by the first- and second-years.
  24. And a $2400!! flower arrangement on the stage.
  25. The underclassmen sing a goodbye song to the graduates, and the graduates sing a goodbye song to the teachers, parents, and other students.
  26. By the end of both songs, everyone involved will be crying too hard to sing.
  27. The Japanese usually do not emote; when they do, they really let go.
  28. There are actually five elementary schools that can request my presence in their English classes.
  29. Five elementary schools is too many.
  30. Teachers are reassigned after about six years at one school.
  31. The rearrangement of desks in the staffroom is an all-day, all-staff project.
  32. Spring break is only two weeks long.
  33. But the excitement of starting a new school year is still a huge energy boost for everyone.
  34. The kids actually like English -- and me -- again!
  35. Japanese college kids are more like what I’m used to than Japanese anything-else.
  36. Apparently, once they’ve gone through hell to get into high school, and then more hell to get into college, they are pretty much home-free.
  37. They laugh, and they’re loud, and they stay out until 3 am, and they sleep through their classes the next day.
  38. Sakura (cherry blossoms) last for two weeks at the outside.
  39. If there is a sunny weekend day in that time, take advantage.
  40. Because next weekend it will be cold and rainy. Guaranteed.
  41. Toilets do not require running water.
  42. Neither do showers.
  43. Habitat for Humanity require prospective homeowners to spend 400 “sweat equity” hours working on someone else’s house.
  44. For comparison, we were there for five days and put in about 30 hours each.
  45. I am capable of manual labour.
  46. Not as capable as some, but capable nonetheless.
  47. If you go somewhere usually visited only by tour buses and use public transportation instead, you will be much better-received.
  48. “By the age of 23, most Filipina ladies are married with three kids!” ~man on a bus in Bohol
  49. Manila is dirty, dangerous, and filled with beggars of all ages.
  50. The H4H village is definitely a better place to grow up.
  51. At “pick your own fruit” farms in Japan, you pay a flat fee to eat as much as you can for as long as you want -- but you can’t take any out with you.
  52. In July, high up on a mountain, there will be one patch of dirty, slushy snow that the sun hasn’t reached yet.
  53. Japanese people will stand in line to ski down it.
  54. Cambodia is intoxicating and heartbreaking and addictive and inspiring, all at the same time.
  55. Angkor Wat is not the best temple that Angkor has to offer.
  56. Everything that a temple seller has costs a dollar. Bottled water, postcards, bananas, photographs.
  57. Unless you appear to not want it; then it costs 2 for a dollar.
  58. If your friend bought your ticket with a credit card, get a copy of the credit card.
  59. Thank god for parents and Western Union and perpetually-underbooked Vietnam Airlines flights.
  60. Sometimes, if you were treated badly enough and you write an angry enough letter, Thai Airways will pay you back for the new ticket.
  61. Helping nine 15-year-old boys write and perform an English play was a better idea in my head than in actuality.
  62. Don’t let boys use paint if you can’t read the label.
  63. Oil paint does not, in fact, come off anything.
  64. I can coach a student for a speech contest without a translator.
  65. But I might have to drag her down to the bathrooms and point in order to communicate the idea of “mirror.”
  66. Speech contest judges are stupid.
  67. The water in northern Japan is apparently perfect for making whisky.
  68. I would not have had the courage to leave Japan in 1918 to move to Scotland and learn to make whisky.
  69. Japan can make anything cute.
  70. Even water monsters that drag disobedient children to their deaths by drowning.
  71. I can teach a class of forty non-English-speakers, without a translator, on 30 minutes’ notice.
  72. But I’d rather not.
  73. I can teach a class of thirty very small non-English-speakers, whose translator has chosen not to show up, on no notice.
  74. But I’d really rather not.
  75. Typhoons sound like a worse idea than they really are.
  76. Who needs to be able to read Japanese when your health-check report comes adorned with little blue smiley faces?
  77. Do not spill miso soup onto a laptop keyboard.
  78. Apple does not cover spills.
  79. Knitting on subways is a really good way to draw a LOT of stares.
  80. There’s nothing like being home for your birthday.
  81. But an elementary school, a junior high school, a cake buffet with friends, and a big parcel from home will do in a pinch.
  82. Japan does have juvenile delinquents.
  83. I’m glad I only had to teach them for one day. Good luck, Ken-sensei!
  84. Laos is quiet and safe and friendly.
  85. Basically, not at all like Southeast Asia...
  86. It is possible to trigger pro-American feelings in me.
  87. Why you would choose to be biased enough to be able to do so is beyond me.
  88. If they are going to make things ornate, the Japanese like detailed carving and many colors of paint.
  89. The Southeast Asians like gold.
  90. Tiles are also acceptable, for contrast.
  91. Vietnam is not user-friendly.
  92. Vietnamese coffee is very, very user-friendly.
  93. Bangkok is everything that everyone proclaims it to be.
  94. Good, bad, ugly, beautiful, friendly, full of scams...
  95. The Thais claim they built Angkor Wat.
  96. It is a lie, and they should be ashamed of themselves.
  97. Tokyo airport has the most wonderful showers.
  98. Do not expect to eat after 7.30 pm in Tokyo on New Year’s Eve.
  99. My life is wild and weird and wonderful.
  100. Thank you, Asia.

Thursday, January 7, 2010

Christmas 09 con't: Bangkok, Thailand

Lots of people who travel to Southeast Asia hate Bangkok; I've heard more than once that "I promised myself I would never go back there." Lonely Planet rather poetically calls it "a monster that feeds on concrete, shopping malls and diesel exhaust," a description that somewhat calls into question how much they like it.

Love it or hate it, Bangkok does seem to me to be Southeast Asia in microcosm. It offers up a slice -- if not two of three -- of all the good and all the bad. Except, because this is Bangkok, it's bigger and shinier and grittier than anywhere else.

Of the many reasons for my love affair with the region is the prevalence and unfailing character of...

Markets. We landed around 10 and found a hotel by about 12; after lunch, we decided to head out to Chatuchak Weekend Market. As the name suggests, it is only open on the weekends and so we had to go that day in order to go at all, but it was perhaps a bit overwhelming as an introduction to Bangkok.

It is the truest kind of market: not a tourist-funded collection of stalls with cheap souvenirs, but a madhouse where tourists are welcome but are treated mostly the same as the locals buying everything from clothing to school supplies, heavy machinery to dining room sets, cookware to animals (alive and dead) to put in the cookware or keep as pets.

We were there for about two hours; we saw the smallest fraction of what was available. The place is immense, bigger by far than the average American mall. When we crossed the road via a raised pedestrian footbridge, the tin roofs stretched so far that I couldn't fit them into my camera's viewfinder to get a decent photo.

However, should you prefer that your t-shirt come with a recognizable label, you can head to one of the...

Enormous glitzy shopping malls. We found them in Manila too, and there as well I found unsettling the sharp contrast between the people buying overpriced designer clothing and the people living in poverty on the streets.

Incidentally, we spent one afternoon seeing Avatar. Before all movies in Thailand, everyone stands for the national anthem (which is long!) -- and they play a saccharine movie about the wonder that is the Thai royal family. These movies are also shown on public transportation, and are often not actually about the royals but about how the public (should) take courage from their example and buckle down to any number of unpleasant tasks/life crises.

Speaking of unpleasant tasks, I'm sure you've heard that Bangkok has more than it's fair share of a...

Red light district. One day, we decided to try to find a neighborhood called Little Arabia. We took a wrong turn. Five minutes later, Kaleb called us all to a halt. "So... we are in prostitute land. We need to get out of here before we have to sell Jenn."

In some ways, I was glad it was mid-afternoon. I don’t do well with situations of latent danger. But it was certainly a depressing time to be there, with the women lined up at discreet distances along the sidewalks, eyeing everyone for potential interest.

And interest they found, thanks to Thailand’s stream of...

Really disgusting foreign tourists. The sex tourists are the worst, of course. As we wandered the streets, I kept thinking that I was seeing the same guy over and over. It was not the same guy, but it might as well have been. For future reference, sex tourists have: a sunburn, a beer belly, a thick gold necklace, a probably-offensive t-shirt, and one hand on their conquest at all times as though afraid that she/he will run away given half the chance.

However, our lodgings deep in the backpackers’/cheap-hotel enclave provided plenty of other opportunities to observe the way frat boys behave when they go on vacation. And I just want to say that it is not only the Americans. I have also met thoroughly unpleasant Brits, Australians, Greeks, Koreans, and French. (However, I never met a Canadian I didn’t like until Sapporo -- but that’s a different story.)

Most of the truly revolting specimens spend their nights drinking themselves into a stupor requiring the next fourteen hours to sleep off in order to begin again. Unfortunately, some do feel obligated to make their way to...

Big shiny things. And does Bangkok have a lot of them. Perhaps the most spectacular is the Grand Palace, which also houses the Temple of the Emerald Buddha. For reasons of respect, they demand at the entrance that you be properly dressed: if your pants are deemed to be too short, they will lend you a long skirt to put over them.

But it's worth wearing layers in 90-degree heat. It's worth spending the equivalent of a night's lodging on admission fees. It's even worth battling the crowds. It defies description. I didn’t even know that places like this still existed. I certainly didn’t know that they exist with this level of maintenance. I can’t imagine that it was any more impressive, or more visually exhausting, on the day it was built in 1782.

There is good reason for keeping it in working (and shiny) order: although the royal family no longer lives here, it is still used multiple times per year for various ceremonies, celebrations, and functions. Much like Buddhist temples and monasteries throughout Asia (Japan included) they very sensibly make their money off the tourists (Thais get in for free, probably because they are still paying for its construction, let alone its upkeep), while barring certain other areas from all but those involved in the rituals and ceremonies.

The other famous Big Shiny Thing is the Reclining Buddha in Wat Pho. The travel guides tout it as the biggest in the world, at 46 meters long and 15 meters tall at the highest point. And of course it's all plated in very shiny gold, although my favorite part was the mother-of-pearl inlay showing scenes from the life of the Buddha -- on the bottoms of the feet!

Along the back side (the boring side), both Thais and clearly-clueless foreigners were buying cups of small metal discs that they dropped one by one into a row of metal buckets along the wall. I am not sure what the religious significance of such an act would be, but whatever it was, I must say it was lessened somewhat when I noticed a wat employee about midway through the lineup of worshippers removing all the coins to sell them to the next person!

The rest of the Wat, largely ignored by the bus tour groups, is quiet and lovely and filled with stupas. It feels like a monastery, not a tourist site. I'm told their massage school is quite famous.

Presumably, a massage parlor on the grounds of a Wat would be safe; however, it is well known to watch yourself in Bangkok. The streets teem with...

Scams. There was a sign in our guesthouse urging us to ignore any tuk-tuk drivers claiming that X tourist site was closed today, and/or offering to take us to any kind of gem sale or other limited-time opportunity. Similar signs were posted in various restaurants, as well as Lonely Planet. And yet, as we walked down the main street towards the Royal Palace, not one but three guys appeared to inform us that "It's closed, it's closed!" Dudes, find a new scam. Seriously, if anyone falls for it anymore, I feel they deserve what they get.

We managed to avoid all such offers. We did, however, take advantage of the...

Unusual modes of transportation. Of course, Thailand is the "Land of a Thousand Elephants." You can ride them if you go out closer to the jungles; there are even ways to do so that are ethical and elephant-friendly. [Really, who would get on the back of an elephant that they could see was being mistreated? It just seems like too big a risk that it would choose the fifteen minutes of your ride to decide it'd had enough.]

We also turned down the multitudes of tuk-tuk drivers (who usually want about US$5-10 to ferry you about) in favor of taking the local buses (about 7 cents, or 18 if you want air-conditioning).

I did, however, insist upon taking a ride on the River Taxi. (Which is called that only by tourists.) According to Lonely Planet, Bangkok used to be nicknamed "The Venice of the East" because of its reliance on the various rivers and canals that criss-cross the old heart of the city: the Royal Palace, for example, as well as Wat Pho, are actually on a small island. As the city has spread away from the rivers, water transportation has become less and less a part of daily life.

But the city does still run a public boat that operates like a bus, with scheduled stops at various points. It is cheap (about 25 cents), cooler than the buses, and [this would probably be mostly a tourist's incentive] offers completely alternative views of Bangkok.