Thursday, November 23, 2017

The immersive(ish) theater I've seen in 2017

I have a not-so-new obsession that has intensified this year -- immersive theater (and, really, immersive everything).  I have long loved theater in general, and since I discovered the existence of Sleep No More, and the whole immersive genre, I've only gotten more and more into it.  In the past year, I've seen over a dozen shows that fall into that category in some way, and am planning to see at least 2 more before the year is out.  I figured now would be a good time to start compiling a list with some of my impressions.  I'm gonna try to avoid spoilers, though some shows are hard to describe without being at least a bit spoilery.  To start with, here are some of my absolute favorites. I think all the shows below are worth their own trip.

Amazing, well worth traveling for:

Sleep No More (NYC) -- the gateway drug. An immersive take on Macbeth (sort of), set in a fake hotel that has 5 floors of amazingness. The whole thing is a set, or, rather, an enormous amount of sets. Audience has near-total freedom to wander around at will, pick up things, rifle through drawers, etc. One can choose to try to follow actors and see scenes, or meander around, or some combo of the two.  The coveted part of the experience is a one-on-one with a performer, which has happened to me each time I've gone.  They're so good at what they do that I feel like I fall a little in love every time. I've now seen it 3 times and have had vastly different experiences each time. I think I've probably experienced about 30-40% of what it has to offer, and will definitely go again if I have time when I'm next in NYC.

Then She Fell (NYC) -- the second immersive show I ever saw. Based on Alice in Wonderland, as well as the life of Lewis Carroll and his relationship with the real Alice. Very different feel from Sleep No More -- 15 people per show (as opposed to 100+), no choice in where to go.  You are carefully guided through the show and each scene is intimate, with one or more performer with at most 4 audience members. You are in a one-on-one probably half the time. Sweet and haunting, and totally enchanting. I've seen it twice and have probably experienced 75% of it. I may go again but it's not as high of a priority.

Waking La Llorona (San Diego) -- a short but intense experience. Not currently running, I don't think, but entirely worth the trip if they remount it. To talk too much about this one is spoilery, but it is based on a Mexican ghost story of the weeping woman, La Llorona.  The show is created by several Sleep No More alums, and it's clear that they are amazing at what they do. You are alone with the actors through the whole thing, and the story is told through the interaction.  The sense of emotion and connection is pretty intense. I found myself questioning reality when I emerged! Although the experience is likely similar with repeat viewings, I would go again if I had the chance.

The Infernal Motel (SF) -- another small show (6 people per slot) with fantastic structure and story. I'm lucky that it's in SF, so I got to see it twice! You buy tickets for a "suite," since the premise is that you're checking into a motel, and the different suites have different story arcs, with all of them intersecting at certain points. I did 2 different suites on my 2 visits and probably had a 50% or so different experience. It is so well designed and thought through, and you spend most of your time either by yourself or with one other person, with an actor or several. It's extended a few times and I hope it sticks around!

That's all for now, I will write about more of the shows I've seen in the next few days/weeks.

Saturday, August 22, 2015

Burning Man FAQ

I know I didn't finish the Iceland blogging, but then we moved across the country, and then we started prepping for Burning Man, and things got really crazy.  Sorry!  However, I've gotten so many questions about preparing for and going to the burn that I thought I'd write a FAQ in my copious spare time, the night before we leave for two weeks.  Weeeeee!  So, here goes.  Any burner friends reading this, keep any comments family-friendly, please. :)

Q: What is Burning Man?

A: This is the most frequent question and the hardest to answer!  There have been many essays written on the topic, and I'm not going to replicate them here.  The answer I usually give goes something like this: it's partially an experiment in temporary community, partially an art festival, and mostly a place where people are free to be who they are and do what they'd like.  Everyone is encouraged to contribute in whatever way is most meaningful to them, through art, teaching, volunteering, etc.  It's also a gifting economy, sustainable only by virtue of the fact that most people who attend have money to spare in their "default" lives.

Q: OK, so what do you do all day?

A: There are pretty much endless options.  I like to say that everyone can curate their own burn -- you can have the experience you want to have.  There are classes in everything from yoga to building hexayurts to tango to coffee making to circus.  There are parties and parades day and night.  There are workshops/activities such as creating a franken-stuffed animal (I made Mu a monkey-bear last year!), screen-printing, making masks, and tie-dye.  There is art everywhere, both registered and random.  There are people giving out food and beverages of all varieties on every block.  There are talks about science, spirituality, and everything in-between.  You can literally spend all your waking hours at a scheduled activity.  Mu and I specifically tend to spend a lot of time wandering about looking at art out on the playa, though we do go to some talks and activities.  We also spend time hanging out in our camp lounge, chatting with our burner friends at camp.  Also, we both volunteer.  Mu does random sampling with census and I do on-call shifts with the crisis intervention team (CIT).  CIT takes up a good bit of my time, but I don't mind -- it's fun and really rewarding most of the time.

Q: Does everyone stay at a camp?

A: No, though a lot of people do.  We stay with an Arizona-based camp that has 210 people this year, which is pretty massive.  Our camp has pretty amazing infrastructure thanks to the very talented organizer, and we like that we always have people to hang out with.  Others stay with smaller camps or just with groups of friends or even alone.  It's all a matter of personal preference.  Our camp does have the reputation of being the best-fed camp on the playa, though!

Q: Do you really have to bring everything you need with you?

A: Yes, you really do.  The only things for sale on playa are ice and coffee.  Porta potties are provided (and are, no lie, the cleanest porta potties I've ever experienced in my life.  They're far cleaner than a good proportion of the bathrooms in India, and you can always read further back in this blog if you need a reminder of what those were like).  You have to bring basically everything else: food, water, toilet paper, everything.  We tend to overpack and so we rent a U-haul van to take our stuff, though others don't bring as much as we do.  One benefit of staying with a camp like ours is we don't have to worry about food as much.  We still tend to bring a lot of backup food just in case, but meals are provided by the campers.  We commit to serving at least one meal (Mu and I usually do 3 -- 1 during early arrival and 2 during the week), and between everyone doing so, everyone gets fed.  But one of the 10 principles of Burning Man is radical self-reliance, so we have enough emergency food to last us a while. :)

Q: Where is Burning Man?  What's the city actually like?  How many people go?

A: The event takes place in the desert in Nevada.  It's actually a dried out lake bed, which is why it's called "the playa" -- that means a dried out desert.  The nearest big city is Reno, 2-3 hours away.  Black Rock City (BRC), which is what the city is officially called, is a huge pentagon.  The populated area is a semi-circle with the Man in the center.  The streets radiating out from the Man are named after clock times, since the layout is like a clock.  The circular streets are in alphabetical order and change names to fit the theme each year.  The population cap this year is 70,000 people, which is a huge city!  It gets pretty crowded -- even though the area itself is huge, the camping area is smaller and densely populated.

Q: How do you get around the city?

A: The city is designed for bikes and pedestrians and driving is not allowed except in licensed (through the BRC DMV) art cars.  Because of the large area, it's often nicer to bike than walk.  However, I prefer to walk if I'm meandering rather than trying to get somewhere specific, since it's easier to stop and interact with people or art if I'm not on a bike.  Also, biking can get tough later in the week when the dust develops ruts.

Q: What's the living situation?

A: People stay in a variety of enclosures, including tents, RVs, hexa-yurts, and others.  We stay in a large (10-person) tent, so even though we're not in an RV, it feels relatively luxurious.  We also set up a shade structure above our tent (a costco carport) to provide some protection from the sun.  It allows us to sleep in a little more without baking!

Q: What's the weather and the environment like?

A:  It can be pretty harsh.  The area is high desert, so there is a lot of temperature variation between day and night.  It can get up into the 100s during the day, though it's more often in the 90s, and it can get into the 40s and even 30s at night, though it's more often in the 50s.  You have to be prepared for anything!  It tends to be pretty dry, but it'll sometime rain, and it's frequently windy and sometimes hard to see because of the dust.  The dust really is everywhere!  It gets into every nook and cranny and covers you from head to toe!  It's also alkali, which means it can destroy things -- I try to keep my electronics either at home or hidden well away!  People tend to carry around goggles and dust masks for storms, which can help.

Q: How do you deal with having asthma and wearing contacts if the dust is so bad?

A: My asthma has actually been fine there -- it's usually worse the first couple of days, but that's the case whenever I go to a new climate, and then it's OK again.  I always have my emergency inhaler, as well as a backup inhaler (and sometimes yet another backup).  Contacts can be hard.  I bring extra pairs, eye drops, and glasses if it gets really bad.

Q: What do you like best about the event?

A: Like the first question, this last question is really hard to answer.  There's just so much!  I love the art, and the fact that people go to such great lengths to make stuff that lasts for just week.  I love wandering about and randomly stumbling upon amazing things.  I love feeling like I can just start walking and run into something fun or entertaining to be involved with.  I really love that Mu and I like so many of the same things and choose to do them together!  It feels like every time we go, we discover all new cool stuff and meet all new cool people!

OK, you all may have more questions, but those are the ones I can think of for now.  We are off tomorrow and are unlikely to have internet for a while, but if there are more questions, I'll try to answer them on our return.  I'll also be keeping a journal of highlights (I've done that each year), and maybe I'll even post some of them, though I make no promises.      

Wednesday, July 15, 2015

Days 3, 4, and 5: There are clouds in the sky...

Replica of an early Icelandic house
Well, these last 3 days have been packed full of stuff! Mu took a ton of pictures and I'll post some of them here, and then he'll have more on Facebook.

On the road
On Monday (Day 3), we spent the morning in Reykjavik before setting out for the longest single drive of our trip.  We got a pretty late start since we were still on US time, but made it to the National Museum, which was really well done and informative.  It had a ton of artifacts ranging from when Iceland was first settled to the modern day, as well as a really neat aside about DNA analysis of a Viking woman found at a dig.  It was especially interesting to see all the changing religious art as Iceland transitioned from following the Norse gods into Christianity.  There was a little figure whose plaque read, "Thor or Christ?"  There were features of it that could be interpreted either way, and carbon dating didn't help because the religions were already co-existing at the time.

Stephen Stephensson
Eventually, we got on the road for our long drive to Akureyri, Iceland's second biggest city (of about 17000 people).  There's not much there, but it was a good overnight stop on our way to other things.  The drive itself was beautiful, and a bit intense.  The whole day was pretty overcast, and we had a 30ish minute stretch during which we were in a fog bank with minimal visibility.  I was glad to not be driving!  There was also a shortcut suggested by our GPS which was, in fact, a shortcut, but took us on an unsealed road (the first of several over the last couple of days, as it turned out).  We also stopped at a random statue that was a tribute to an Icelandic poet who moved to the US? I don't really know.  Anyways, we made it to our lovely guesthouse, got Indian takeout for dinner, and crashed out for the night.

At Godafoss
Day 4 began with a short drive to a lovely waterfall, Godafoss (waterfall of the gods).  It was very beautiful, though not very large.  We got to walk around both sides of the fall and even get relatively close to the water above it.  It was a fair bit colder than anything thus far, so we also stopped by the gift shop/restaurant, where Mu and Michael got warm accessories and I ate a sandwich with smoked trout (a happy find).  After that, it was on to Lake Myvatn and the surrounding sites.

That one looks like a troll!
First of the lake-related sites on our agenda was Dimmuborgir, a lava field with incredible lava formations.  The whole landscape there is pretty nuts -- all rock and random vegetation, with strange-looking structures and cracks in the ground.  It was starting to mist by this time, but being tourists, we went on a 2.3km walk around the place anyways. On the loop, I played my favorite game -- deciding what the formations looked like.  There was a dragon and a bear and a person and a kitty, among other things.  The highlight of the walk was a cavern that they call the church, presumably due to its size and structure.  We got to climb around it a bit before moving on.

The Church
After the lava field, we drove to a little village at the northeast corner of the lake called Reykjalid.  The plan was to hike from there to a spring, then on to a crater, then back to the village to pick up our car.  This would've been a 10km round trip, and thus reasonably doable.  The beginning was pretty cool, with rocks and pools (that we couldn't go into but that were pretty) and generally cool surroundings.  However, as we went on, the rain picked up.  By the time we had reached the halfway point, it was starting to get a bit concerning.  We were also all more tired than expected, given the walking from before.

Crazy crater
We initially thought about going back for the car and driving to the crater, but eventually after some discussion, Mu offered to go back for the car and to meet Michael and I at the crater before all climbing up.  That worked out really well and made a shorter hike for all of us.  The crater itself was pretty nuts -- the "easy" path was not, but the view was really amazing.  We had the option of walking around the whole thing, but it was raining pretty hard and we were tired and hungry, so we didn't end up doing that.  Still, it was worth all the effort.

Our delicious dinner
Our delicious breakfast
By this point, all our stuff was pretty soaked through and we were really looking forward to being fed and warm.  We went to a restaurant recommended by all sources (and so popular that we had to wait 40 minutes on a Tuesday night for it), and it was amazing.  Super delicious fish and lamb, and a house specialty bread that I didn't care for (I didn't like the spices), but that Michael really enjoyed.  And then, as the crowning glory to this day, we went to the Myvatn Nature Baths!  These consist of some locker room and a humongous pool of thermal-spring-fed water!  The water was warm but not hot (though hotter in areas), and although it smelled very strongly of sulfur, it was super nice and relaxing.  Since we got there late, it wasn't very crowded.  We probably spent about an our and a half there, just soaking and relaxing after the long day.  We crashed out pretty soon upon going to our guesthouse, which is why I didn't blog.

Bubbling pool at Hverir
Then, this morning, we had a lovely breakfast (more smoked fish, yay! And waffles with homemade jam!) before setting out again.  First stop was Hverir, a mud/geyser field that we stumbled upon while actually on our way elsewhere.  It was a really odd landscape, with sulfurous-smelling bubbling pools,vents with rocks, and strange Martian-looking structures.  The ground was clay-like and annoying, and my shoes will probably never be the same, but it was really neat.

Dettifoss is amazing
The next stop was Dettifoss, a magnificent waterfall that's the biggest by volume in Europe.  It apparently dumps something like 193 cubic meters of water per second!  We got pretty damp with the spray, though, and it would've been nice to go to other side, but there wasn't a bridge and you could only drive to it with a 4WD.  Anyways, we took some photos and then decided to hike up to a smaller fall, Sellfoss, up the river.  The hike itself was pretty short and easy...and then we got there and decided to spend 2 hours pretending to be mountain goats and hopping across rocks in an attempt to get to a better view.  No one fell in the water, which I count as a success. :)

Having hopped across rocks at Sellfoss
At this point, we had another long drive ahead of us, this time to see puffins and a fjord!  We were told that we'd be getting more sunshine today, but that turned out to be a lie, so we drove for nearly 3 hours through mist and fog and over some concerning roads to Borgarfjordur Eystri, a tiny village (pop: 130) with a puffin breeding colony.  It was a little insane, but worth the drive.  Puffins are pretty awesome looking, we saw other birds including Eider geese and gulls of some kind with chicklets, and Slartibarfast would have approved of the fjords.  We also took a short detour to see Alfaborg, the house of the queen of the elves.  I don't know either, but it was awesome.

Dinner consisted of, among other things, delicious fish soup at one of 2 restaurants in town, and then we had another long drive along amazing and scary roads to our guesthouse, which is in the middle of nowhere.  I don't know how people live in this kind of isolation, but it's fun for a day or two as a vacation.  Tomorrow, we're off to see a glacier!

Random waterfall along the road

Sunday, July 12, 2015

Days 1 and 2: Museums, Vikings, and other adventures

It's a good name for a plane
We're here! And we've even slept, which was not the case yesterday.  The downside of a shorter flight (under 6 hours) is that it's really difficult to get any sleep.  As a result, we got to Iceland at 5:30ish am (1:30am my time, 10:30pm for the west coasters) and had to stumble around for half the day at the worst circadian time.  Ah, well.

Delicious Icelandic breakfast with the best sourdough bread
Anyways, to back up a bit, the flight itself was uneventful (our plane was named Odin, which I took to be a good sign), the passport control process was the quickest I've ever experienced (there was no line and the guy glanced at my picture and stamped, waving me on), the car rental process was annoying but manageable, and we were soon on our way into Reykjavik, through a totally surreal landscape of lava rock and greenery, looking like something from another planet.  We hoped to be able to check in to our AirBnB early and get a few hours of sleep, but that was apparently not to be -- first the keys were missing from the lockbox, then it turned out the cleaners hadn't gone through and changed the linens, then the cleaners still hadn't gotten there...oof.  In the meantime, we went exploring.

Super cool old book
Cathedral and statue
We started off with a wonderful Icelandic breakfast, with fruit and salad and an egg and skyr (a yogurt-like thing) and bread and butter and cheese.  Fortified, we meandered for a bit before trying to return to the AirBnB (to find that the cleaners hadn't arrived).  Michael decided to hang out and relax while Mu and I went off to see the Settlement Museum, which was on the site of an actual archaeological dig of a hall from the day of Iceland's initial settlements.  It was a really neat and informative museum, and my favorite part was that they had ancient scrolls and books!  Iceland is known for its literary output and the exhibit had a few of the original sagas, along with some more mundane (but still awesome) writings.  It's really too bad these were under glass -- I bet the old book smell would've been epic!

Great view from the tower
Context-free selfie (in the tower)
We made another attempt at the AirBnB after this, to find that the cleaners still hadn't arrived (they got there just as we were getting ready to head out again), and decided to check out the Hallgrimskirkja, the famous amazing cathedral that turned out to be a very short walk from our place.  It's super fancy and amazing!  There was a great statue of Leifur Ericsson outside (gifted to Iceland by the US, strangely), and the inside was really grand.  The coolest part was getting to go up to the top of the tower and seeing the amazing views of Reykjavik (and the fact that we didn't have to climb stairs to get there, we were worried).  The weather was pretty clear, so the visibility was really good.  There had been an organ concert just before we got there, but we were too late for it (and probably too tired to sit still without falling asleep).

Food from the street food festival
Third time was the charm for the AirBnB, so we settled in and napped briefly, then set back out to a street food festival that Mu and I had seen getting set up earlier in the day.  I don't know if this is a weekly thing or a special event, but it was a really great opportunity to have small bites of random stuff.  The thing that really stood out at me was how many ethnically diverse food options there were.  We had dim sum-ish buns, a pork "burger" (it looked like a pulled pork sandwich to me), and what turned out to be shrimp and crab balls (they were from a place called "Steakhouse," so I wasn't expecting seafood, but there we are), and other options included tapas, momos, tandoori, quinoa wraps, popcorn, and lamb.  So much goodness!  And then for entertainment, we went to a small lawn/park right next door that was having...a Viking festival? Something.  There were vendors and fighters and a bunch of people looking very Viking-ish, and we meandered and were generally amused.  It was like the SCA but a different culture.  People looked amazingly accurate, at least to my untrained eye.

Fighting Vikings.  Note the beaten ones in the field.
After spending some time at the tourist center and getting a whole bunch of brochures, we went walking around and sort of accidentally stumbled onto the Harpa, a very new and shiny concert hall.  We were trying to kill time at this point before it was late enough to sleep, so we got tickets to a one-man show called, "How to Become 100% Icelandic in 60 Minutes."  It was...somewhat amusing, and we didn't fall asleep (or at least I didn't), and it was something to do.  We learned some random factoids/stereotypes about Icelanders, so there's that.

Mu with an engine that required the wall behind it to be torn down
After all that, we walked around a bit more, then got back to our place and crashed out.  It was still light out, which was confusing.  I woke up briefly at around 3:30am and had a moment of panic that I should be getting up because it was light enough to be 7 or 8am!  In the end, I actually ended up sleeping 'till after 9, which I guess makes sense, given the all-nighter the night before.

Wax Viking settlers
Today, Mu and I had a very efficient travel morning while Michael went on a whale and puffin watching tour (we didn't go because we really don't do well on boats).  Instead, we went to the Maritime museum (small but really informative, with cool exhibits and a little section about Icelandic Seawomen), the flea market (not as exciting as I had hoped, mostly due to the fact that all the bookstores had books in Icelandic and I had no urge to purchase scratchy woolen sweaters, and also we're right at our weight allowance to begin with), the Saga museum (with an interesting and informative audio tour and life-like exhibits of people settling Iceland), and delicious fish and chips for lunch.  I think we managed to walk 5 miles just in the course of the morning!  We then met back up with Michael for more walking (cool public art, yay!) and an excursion to the Icelandic Phalological Society, aka the Penis Museum.  It was about as entertaining and puzzling as you might expect, with lots of random art, objects, and different mammalian penises preserved in formalin.  Fun!  And now, we're back at our place, relaxing and getting ready for dinner.  Plan for the evening is to do a haunted walk after dinner, which will hopefully be at least entertaining.
Somewhat burner-looking art

Elaine and a poet


A very small portion of random penis-shaped items

Friday, July 10, 2015

On the road again

Time to dust off the travel blog, because we're about to go on a short adventure to Iceland!  Mu and I, along with our friend Michael, are about to head to the airport to take a relatively short flight (only 6 hours instead of the usual 12!) to Reykjavik.  We'll be there for a couple of days, and then we'll be driving around the country for a week before a final day in Reykjavik.  It's a shorter trip than our previous jaunts, but we're excited to take advantage of a good flight deal and a less intense trip.  Me, I'm excited that I won't have to be driving -- we rented a stick shift because it's cheaper, but I don't drive stick, so it'll be the boys taking turns.  I can do directions. :)

Some things we're looking forward to on the trip:
-No darkness!  Or, at least, no full dark.  The sun will be setting between 11 and midnight and rising between 3 and 4am, and while it'll get dark-ish, it'll never be really truly night.  I don't think it's the best thing for sleeping, but certainly nice for seeing all the things
-Cooler temperatures than the east coast! It should be in the 40s to 60s the entire time we're there, which I'm pretty excited about after the crazy heat and humidity of the last couple of weeks.
-Waterfalls and other beautiful nature.  Iceland is known for stunning views and we have a number of waterfalls on our agenda, along with an iceberg and volcano.
-Puffins!  Self-explanatory. :)
-Hot springs.  Iceland is also known for geothermal activity, resulting in many hot spring opportunities.  We're bringing swim suits.
-General relaxation.  It'll be nice to have a bit of time to chill and recharge, and to celebrate the fact that I'm done with school, hopefully forever!

The goal for the blog is to post daily, with photos, but that will depend on wifi. We shall see how it goes!

Saturday, February 22, 2014

There have been lots of things!

Sorry about the radio silence here, it's been a tiring and somewhat stressful few days, waiting for internship results.  In case you haven't already seen our posts, I matched!  Mu and I will be moving to Baltimore come summer.  In the meantime, we're still in Thailand for a few days, continuing to do fun things.  This will be a summary post without pictures, since we're a little behind on getting those up.

So, highlights!  On Wednesday, we went to the zoo, which was one of our favorite things from the last trip.  It was as big as we remembered, and just as great!  Of course, I had to feed hippos and giraffes again (as did Mu, but I had been looking forward to the hippos pretty much since last trip).  There were also adorable adolescent monkeys playing what I can only describe as tag -- they kept running after each other, taking turns chasing and being chased, and literally bouncing off walls in the process.  There was also a tiny baby monkey who was clearly still trying to get the hang of the game.  He'd chase the teenagers a bit, but when he got too close, he'd freak himself out and run away!  It was super cute and we hung out for a good 10 minutes, just watching them.  Monkeys doing cannonballs off their structure into the moat is especially amusing. :)  It was nice to visit again, especially since we came earlier in the day and were less hurried than the last time.  We got to take our time and be leisurely, and even visit the surprisingly pretty rose garden in the middle.  We also probably walked about 5 miles, which was a good thing, because we had a foodie tour in the evening!

The foodie tour was through the same company that the morning tour was with last week.  This time, there was another couple on the tour, from England, and a different guide, Montri.  We visited two different markets and tried a huge variety of things!  There was stir fry with squid (cooked very nicely), preserved egg (a strange ingredient and one I wouldn't choose on my own), and frog (to make the most cliched statement ever, it really did taste like chicken).  There was also stewed pork leg and garlicky chicken and spicy fish soup and spicy pork salad, all in close succession.  We then had dessert, mochi and egg in coconut milk.  We thought this meant the end of the tour, but it was only a break before moving to the next market.  There, we had the smoothest green curry I've ever had (yum!), more Chiang Mai sausage, some very strange jelly dessert, mango and sticky rice, and a coconut flour pancake thing.  It was super tasty, but we thought we were gonna explode by then!  It's a good thing we prepared for this and only had a small meal earlier in the day. :)

The next day, Thursday, was very relaxing, as we went tubing down the Ping river with Chiang Mai Tubing, a very well-run operation.  We were driven (along with about 16 others) for about an hour up the river, to the Chiang Mai Beach Club, which had cabana-like things with hammocks and cushions, as well as a volleyball net and other games.  After selecting what drinks we wanted to have on the river with us, we were driven another ways up and dropped off with our tubes at a convenient entrance.  Everyone got their own tube, and each group also got a tube with a cooler with ice and their drinks, as well as an oar.  You then strapped your tubes together so you wouldn't get separated and went floating down the river at a leisurely pace -- it took us about 2.5 hours to float the 8km (or so).  It was really great -- quiet, not too hot since you're on the water, and utterly relaxing.  Upon our return, we camped out in the hammocks, barbecued skewers (it was a choice between DIY skewers or American-style burgers, and we had no desire for the latter), and generally relaxed some more with our books before returning to Chiang Mai in the evening.

We knew that yesterday (Friday) was going to be a stressful day due to waiting for internship results, so we booked a tour for early in the morning, since we were unlikely to sleep well in any event.  It started at 6am (!) with a visit to a morning market to buy food to give to monks.  Monks have to rely on the community to feed them, so every morning, they go walking with their bowls, dispensing blessings in exchange for food.  They go barefoot, so when you approach them, you have to take off your shoes as well.  You put food in their basket, then kneel/squat and they recite a blessing.  We gave food to novices (a monk under 20, we've been privately calling them baby monks) who looked like they couldn't have been more than 10!   They recited the blessing in unison, very precisely.  We also got to visit Wat U-Mong, a temple in the forest, and hear some monks chanting, as well as another wat (I don't remember the name) where we attended a talk by one of the monks.  He had great English and was actually quite funny and engaging, and of course the message of letting go of attachments was quite timely, given the internship nonsense.  We were super sleepy by the end of this, but it was very worth it.

Today, we've been taking it easy.  We stayed up late with excitement of the match, so we've been resting and wandering.  We did get some things at Warorot market, and will probably go to the Saturday walking street (another night market) tonight, mostly with the goal of eating more yummy street food.  I can't believe that we leave in 2 days!

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

"Do not stick anything into tiger cages, especially fingers and hands"

Ready to go!
Bye bye, Mu!
I'm blogging later in the day than I normally do (it's about 6:45pm here, and I tend to blog during our afternoon break, around 3pm).  As a result, there are more people in the lounge area, and in addition to the marching band practice from before, we're serenaded by frogs.  These guys are super loud all evening.  We've taken to saying hello and goodbye to them when we're coming and going after dark.  Oh, and I learned today that we've been unfairly blaming the neighborhood wat for waking us up with its loud-speaker -- it turns out to have been the school (the one with the marching band) all along.  Sorry, wat!  Also, sorry that the pictures are formatted so weirdly.  Blogger is not cooperating, so I'm just giving up.

Incoming!  And a guide in the foreground
The last 2 days have been repeat-ish activities from the last trip.  We still took a bunch of pictures, especially today at the Tiger Kingdom, but many of them are pretty similar to pictures from last year. They will still go up on Facebook, though. :)  Anyways, yesterday we went ziplining, and today we went to play with tigers!
Gibbon mom and baby

Ziplining was really very similar to last year, especially since we went with the same company.  There are many others that have sprung up over the last 2 years (and even before that), but Flight of the Gibbon is the original, best known, and most extensive.  There are 32 platforms (not all are ziplines -- some are rope bridges and such -- but most are) and about 5km of zipline total.  The longest is 800m and there are 2 300m ones that are pretty awesome, too.  Our guides (Hobbit and Shy, apparently) were ridiculous and enthusiastic, just like the guides last time.  I think it's a job requirement. 

Beautiful waterfall
Although the experience wasn't new, we had a great time!  It's pretty exhilarating to be flying through the jungle, and the view all around was spectacular!  We were in a group of 6, which was nice because there was less waiting.  Overall, the course was less crowded than last year.  We saw other groups (and got to see other people zooming by on neighboring ziplines), but we didn't bump up against other groups, which was nice.  We were definitely in better shape this year, too -- the hike up was still not very gentle (the company's description of the trail), but much less tiring.  At the end, though, we went to see a waterfall that we didn't see last time, and that hike was a killer!  There was a hugely steep and long climb, about 35 floors according to my fitbit.  The view was pretty glorious, but I'm not completely convinced it was worth it.  The climb back down was almost worse!  Needless to say, we got massages upon our return to Chiang Mai. :) Oh, and we also saw an actual gibbon family, which was adorable.  Unlike last time, they didn't take pictures with our cameras (though they had some photographers along, taking photos for purchase, which we declined to do).  Perhaps to make up for this change, we got free t-shirts.  Heh.

Us and a medium tiger
Kitty is sleepy

Belly rubs!
Today, we went to the Tiger Kingdom.  Although the name is similar to the place we went to last year, it's actually a different place, in a totally different part of Thailand.  I had done some research ahead of time, and it seemed like this place didn't have complaints against it about tigers being drugged or mistreated (sadly, the Tiger Temple, where we went last year, has.  I wish we'd known this before).  They do sleep a lot, but that's because they're cats!  They sleep 18ish hours a day just naturally!  Anyways, we weren't convinced that the space was super great for the tigers -- some of the areas were quite big and had activities, but others were smaller and seemed boring.  The people who worked there were mostly pretty good with them, though there was some poking and prodding.  To us, though, it seemed more like familiarity than meanness.  The way the guides interacted with the tigers was kind of like how we play with our cats at home -- you pick them up and move them around if you want, but most of the time, they do their own thing.  The tigers also seemed pretty playful and content.  So, leaving aside the general issue to animals in any zoo-type environment, I think this was a decently good place. 
Us with a grooming small tiger

Playful babies
The Tiger Kingdom allows you to choose which cages you want to visit.  We decided to do 4 out of 5 -- smallest, small, medium, and big (the 5th is another small cage, with different tigers).  The rules said not to pet the tigers' head or paws, since that would seem like playing or attacking, but we could sit behind them, pet their backs and bellies, and snuggle up to them.  Although the sign said guides wouldn't take pictures of you, ours offered to themselves, so we were able to get a few pictures together. 

Taking a nap
Overall, we had such a great time!  The tigers were mostly chill and snuggly (they love having their bellies rubbed, apparently), with some of the younger ones roughhousing with each other in a very familiar cat way.  There was so much cuteness!  They also romped in the water as we watched, and just were generally ridiculous and adorable.  I think I actually liked the small ones the best -- they were the most fun to watch.  The very little ones spent most of our visit sleeping.  The only downside was that I think I'm allergic to tigers!  After laying on the big one, I developed a rash on my chin and arm!  It went down after I washed off, but was a little unpleasant.  I guess it's not super surprising, given that I'm slightly allergic to cats, but still.
Not a tiger, but this little girl was waiting in front of our door

Anyways, tomorrow will be another repeat activity (the Chiang Mai Zoo) and an evening foodie tour, and the day after that, we're going tubing!  And in 3 days at this time, we should know our fate for next year -- it'll be internship match day.  Wish us luck! 

Sunday, February 16, 2014

Elephants, wats, and museums

Look at the baby elephant!
There are 30 wats in the old city, and another 300 or so in the rest of Chiang Mai.  In the last 2 days, we had ourselves a wat weekend and saw 17 wats within the moat and one outside of it, bringing our total to 22 wats so far this trip!  We also saw 2 of 3 history museums in the old city (we plan to see the third one the day after tomorrow) and took a trip to the Elephant Nature Park to feed and bathe and generally interact with adorable elephants!  Also, given that there are elephant figures at almost all the wats, and in the museums, I really could've just titled this post "Elephants."  As with the last post, we took a ton of pictures and I'm only including a few, so if you want to see more, head over to Mu's Facebook where many more are posted.
So many bananas, and it's only a day's worth

Us hanging out with Dani
Mu is feeding Lucky, a blind elephant
So, 2 days ago, we went to the Elephant Nature Park.  We wanted to see elephants, but we also wanted to make sure we weren't supporting animal abuse, so we researched ahead of time and found this place.  They focus on rescue and conservation -- all of their elephants (except the ones born there) are rescued from bad circumstances, such as logging, circus, trekking, or street begging.  At the nature park, they are taken care of -- fed, given medical attention as needed, allowed to socialize with each other, and generally made pretty happy.  They don't have to work at all, and their interactions with visitors are voluntary (the fact that food is involved probably helps).  If an elephant doesn't want to participate, it doesn't have to.  All the elephants we saw, including the one in the sick area (she had a skin abscess that was being treated), seemed pretty content.  There were also several adorable elephant babies!  Basically, this place is elephant heaven.  They have 37 elephants, mostly females (the males are more aggressive and difficult to keep around humans).  It costs a lot of money to care for an elephant, so while they're expanding, they're doing so cautiously.  They also have a large number of rescued dogs, cats, cows, and water buffalo.

The elephants have a routine that they're pretty familiar with and we got to participate in.  They are fed at 10:30 and we got to hand them food -- watermelon, pineapple, and sugar cane.  Each elephant gets a basket (though they would probably eat more if allowed to, the park tries to spread out their food over the course of the day).  On average, an elephant will eat 250-300kg of food each day!  That's a big part of the costs, along with staff -- each elephant has its own caretaker (mahout), plus vets and others.

This elephant had 4 hip/leg breaks in the past.  She's not very steady on her feet now, but seemed to be doing pretty well despite that
About to throw water at this very happy elephant.
Baby, mom, and family after a bath!
After the feeding, we wandered around and saw some elephants who were hanging out and not participating in anything organized.  Some of them were waiting for their pedicures (they get their toes cleaned every day), while others were eating away from the crowds.  There was a group of 4 elephants, mom, mom's friends, and baby, who were hanging out and munching in a field a little ways away.  We got to take photos with them and generally ooh at the baby.  He's only 5 months old and tiny compared to the adults!  They were totally chill about humans being around, though of course we didn't come very close.  We also got to pet Dani, a friendly elephant who was waiting for her turn at the pedicure station.

After lunch, a group of elephants went to the river to bathe and we joined in.  It was pretty great -- the elephant stood in the water and ate watermelon while we tossed buckets of water over her.  I think if this elephant were a cat, she'd be purring!  As it was, she had her eyes closed and ears and tail swishing (signs of happiness).  We all got a little damp in the process, but given the heat, it was rather welcome.

Super grand wat with a huge outdoor Buddha
In addition to bathing, we got to meet more elephants (including a large family group with another baby, some blind elephants who were injured or abused in the past, and the oldest elephant in the park, who's in her 80s), feed another elephant, and take lots of photos.  By the time we were ready to head back, everyone was exhausted and conked out in the van!  Mu and I had originally wanted to do an overnight at this park and couldn't due to lack of spots, but I think it turned out to be a good thing -- we felt like we got a good amount of elephants for the day, and more might have been overkill. :)
Surprisingly, this wat had horses rather than elephants

Mu in front of a stupa
Donation boxes based on day of birth.  Mu's is Thursday and mine is Friday.  Note the cool wall decorations.
Mu and a whole lot of Buddhas!
After several days with pre-planned things, we decided to spend the weekend wandering around and seeing wats and museums.  As I mentioned, we saw a lot of them!  Yesterday, we saw 9 wats all on our way from our guest house to a vegetarian restaurant that we really like!  Today, with a few detours, we saw 9 more.  Some (many, actually) were under construction so we couldn't always go inside, but we walked around where we could.  It's interesting how different they are, despite basic similarities.  There are always Buddha figures, but the number, size, and what they're made of varies a lot.  Some wats have stupas in the back (a mound in which a Buddha or respected monk relic is buried).  All have monk housing, but the size and elaborate-ness varies.  Inside the main structure, some have paintings and murals, others have carvings, and others just have blank walls.  Painting styles vary, as well.  One wat had what looked like enlarged photos instead! We saw several grand wats that are clearly rich and famous, but I think my favorites were the smaller ones that were more peaceful. 

Paintings depicting hell
As a way to cool down in AC, yesterday and today we went to a museum each after our day of wats.  Yesterday, it was the Lanna Folk Life Museum (the Lanna are the ethnic group who lived here before it became Thailand and who still are a large group today) and today it was the Chiang Mai Cultural Arts Center.  They were both really well done and rather informative.  We didn't take many photos because it just didn't make sense to, but we did rather enjoy ourselves.  We still have one more museum in the series, the Chiang Mai Historical Museum, which we will go to probably on Tuesday.

Elaine and a fake elephant. :)
I know I haven't mentioned any more food, but that's because we haven't had anything really new.  We did end up in a super adorable cafe today called "Into the Woods," like the musical!  It had a mural, books, and a general fairy tale theme.  The best part?  The doors to the bathroom looked like a wardrobe!  Mu and I want to do that in our future house now. :)  Oh, and the food was pretty good, too, and surprisingly decently priced, considering it was a touristy place.

Into the Woods!
Anyways, tonight we're going back to the Sunday market to eat more street food and maybe get souvenirs, and tomorrow is the repeat of Flight of the Gibbon, the ziplining adventure.  I can't wait!