December 19, 2018

Playing with elephants

Dateline: Chiang Mai and Mae Taeng, Thailand-

Woke up this morning and headed to breakfast where cultures again complimented each other on my plate. Some sort of chicken curry noodles with French toast. Who said breakfast can’t be ecumenical? And it’s a free buffet with my hotel. Hampton Inn needs to take a lesson or two in terms of quality and taste. No time for exploring before the shuttle van arrived to carry me off to a day with the elephants.

Bath time

Being a good UU ecotourist type, I had elected a day with the elephants at a sanctuary for those who have become injured or aged or abused and where they are allowed to live out their natural lives. No riding or mahouts with goads, but plenty of opportunity to watch them at play and to feed them (bananas are a favorite) and wander among the herd families dodging elephant dung and random water buffalo.

Meeting the tourists

The van contained me, a young couple from Finland, a Vietnamese couple from Orange County, an older Australian couple and a couple of Brits from close to the other Birmingham and we had an hour and a half drive out of town to get acquainted. One of the things I like about international travel is getting thrown together with odd assortments of people and learning about them. It gets even more interesting when none of you has a common language, but even then, the human family usually makes itself understood. It’s something that we miss out on a lot in the USA and our culture is the poorer for us not having to deal with multiple sociologic and linguistic differences on a daily basis. The van, fortunately air conditioned, chugged along the highway out of town, then turned down another narrow mountain highway, which apparently was paved by the same contractors responsibly for the roads of Walker and Marshall counties.

Fields, mountain, river… what else does an elephant need?

We arrived at the Elephant Nature Park ( in one piece, molars only slightly loosened. Feeding time and bunches of bananas quickly disappeared into inquisitive trunks. Then a walk through the grounds to meet the elephants, the water buffalo and a couple of zillion dogs and cats (they rescue those as well. I declined to adopt one on my way out the door.). After lunch, over to the river to watch them gambol about at bathtime. In the usual tropical temperatures of northern Thailand, it would have been a sticky and uncomfortable day but I lucked out with the weather and it was in the 70s, cool with high overcast and a light breeze making it all a very pleasant experience.

We repeated the trip back along the river road (dodging a couple of water buffalo drawn carts that had traffic slowed to a crawl) and into town. Time for a quick dip in the pool, then one more walk through the old city to take in the sights, sounds and smells of Chiang Mai street life. I get to sleep in a bit tomorrow as I don’t have to leave for the airport until 10 for my flight to Bangkok.

Elephants aren’t reminding me of any particular stories. Neither Steve nor Tommy would have been particularly keen on a day at an elephant rescue park. Tommy liked his nature at a distance from an air conditioned vehicle. Steve would have spent the day complaining about the weather, teasing the elephants, trying to violate the safety rules, and wondering why the guides kept getting mad at him. (‘I didn’t know any better’ was one of his favorite phrases after some particularly egregious misbehavior).

December 18, 2018

Temples in Chiang Mai

Dateline: Chiang Mai and Doi Pui Thailand-

My body still hasn’t quite figured out what time it is. I fell asleep exhausted last night around midnight local time and then boom wide awake at 4:30 AM. I’m seeing what two Singha beers with dinner and a double dose of melatonin do tonight after I finish writing this up. As it’s the tropics, there was no lingering dawn or anything, just sudden light around 6:30 AM so there wan’t much point in doing anything until then. Temperate climes are much more conducive to early morning site seeing. I arrived in Rome once around 2 am and the sky started to lighten around 4:30. I went out of the train station, where I had tried unsuccessfully to catnap on a marble floor and walked down to the forum. At that hour, there was no one else around and I had the forum and the Colosseum to myself as the birds woke up and shouted their greetings to the new day. It was magical.

Cross cultural breakfast

Anyway, I had some breakfast – a blend of cultures with curried fried pork, dragon fruit and a croissant with orange marmalade, and then started to get my bearings. My hotel is right on the edge of the old city. The old city was surrounded, in ages past by a wall (pieces of which remain) and a large moat. Most of the moat has been filled in for modern transportation needs but there is still a central canal in the middle of the wide road. I’m on the west side of the old city on the ring road. It’s heavily trafficked but my room is towards the back and quite peaceful. I poked up and down some of the side streets for an hour until it was time to meet my tour guide.

Hmong village

I ended up having a private tour as it seems to be off season and the tourist crowd is light. Nini, my English speaking guide (whose English, while not fabulous, is far better than my Thai) loaded me up in the van and we headed up the mountain road outside of town to Doi Pui and Doi Suthep National Park. The highway was, at first quite good, if windy, then we got to the point where we had to leave the van for the open air truck and ended up bouncing along a little snake of a highway very reminiscent of the Hana Road on Maui. It felt like it had last been paved in the reign of Rama IV but we eventually made it in one piece to a Hmong village inside the National Park. The Hmong are a Laotian hill tribal people (I took care of a lot of them during my time in Sacramento – it was one of the places a lot of them settled when they were allowed to emigrate to the US in the 70s and 80s for assisting during the Vietnam conflict) whose community predates the National Park so they are still allowed to live there and sell their handcrafts to the tourists. I must confess I bought a pillow sham.

Doi Suthep

Then off to the Wat Phra That Doi Suthep temple on the top of the mountain, reachable by three hundred some stairs. I took the cable car. Gorgeous design, architecture and gilding everywhere you look. I was taught some of the intricacies of religious observance in the temples and Nini introduced me to a nice young monk who chatted a bit about how he came to choose Buddhist monastic life. After all that, back down the mountain and into the city itself for more temples. (There were four and they’ve all started to run together but they were all lovely) and some time in the market where I declined to eat either the insect larva or some sort of unidentifiable fish that looked like it had been sitting out for a week.

Chiang Mai – Old and Modern

Chiang Mai sits in the Ping river valley hemmed in by steep mountains (the climb up to Doi Suthep was something over three thousand feet in less than ten miles). The old city, as I said, is surrounded by a wall/canal system and the rest of the city sprawls out from there. The old city reminds me very much of the working towns in Mexico. The same sort of small shops sitting cheek by jowl with business offices, small hotels, residences and the occasional centuries old cultural site. Outside of the historic area, the city appears prosperous. It seems to be the Birmingham of Thailand as every time I turned around , there was another hospital or medical facility.

Pool Time

After many hours of touring, I returned to the hotel, took a dip in the pool (which was much too cold) and booked a massage appointment with their spa services to get the last of the kinks of the long flight out. I don’t usually do massage but when in Rome… Then off to dinner and a look at the night bazaar (more small shops selling cheap whatevers) before coming in to crash.

Night Market

The night bazaar reminded me of the International Market in Honolulu and of shopping in Mazatlan. Steve and I spent a lot of vacations in both Hawaii and Mexico (he loved the beach – Tommy did not as his skin would burn and peel after about five minutes of sun exposure) so poking through market stalls always reminds me of him. On one cruise we did, we got smart and made friends with the bar and entertainment staff and hung out with them in port. The bartenders were mainly young Brits and we all went shopping together at the department store in downtown Mazatlan before ending up at Senor Frogs for too many margaritas. I bought a couple of shirts that day that I still have and which I wear occasionally, twenty some years later. A lot of the oldest things in my wardrobe are resort wear. I guess you don’t wear them often enough to wear them out and it’s not like beach wear goes out of style. Perhaps I’ll add to the collection when I get to Phuket and have some linen schmattas that I’ll look at fondly and remember this trip when I am in my eighties.

Tomorrow is all about elephants. After all, they’ve got elephants and if you ain’t got elephants, you can never ever carry it off…

December 17, 2018

Chiang Mai at night

Dateline: Chiang Mai, Thailand-

The second half of today’s travelogue. I have arrived in Thailand in one piece, arriving after a journey of some 27 hours involving three airplanes, four airports, and more time zones than I care to contemplate. It’s currently just after midnight, local time, but my body thinks it’s time for lunch. I assume my body and brain will eventually come to an accommodation with each other, but, in the meantime, I’m exploring the fabulous world of late night Thai television as I’m too loopy to go out exploring in the small hours of the morning. I’m going to wait for my tour guide to show up at 8 AM. A full day of temples and other historic sites according to my itinerary.

There have been questions as to why, in the middle of the holiday season, I decided to up and travel half the globe away. It’s no secret. Much of Christmas, especially the last seven years or so after Tommy and I took over the children’s Christmas pageant at church, was, for me, bound up in our identity as a couple. There was the pageant, our annual post Christmas open house bash, my family Christmas, his family Christmas, the opera Christmas concert, the Messiah etc etc. When he died this past year, one of my first decisions was to make sure I got away from all the usual patterns for this holiday season. Thailand was on the bucket list, it’s warm, it’s non-Christian. I figured it was as good a place as any to spend two weeks hiding from the usual spate of activities. Will I go back to any of them after this year? I haven’t figured that out yet. New life, new traditions to be forged.

I can’t say much about Chiang Mai yet. I’ve only seen the airport and a highway at night getting to the hotel. I’m sure I’ll have lots more to say about it tomorrow. The last leg of the flight, Seoul to Chiang Mai was as uneventful as the rest of the trip. I may be bitching about 27 hours, but think about what such a trip would have required even 100 years ago. More like 27 days each way…

An ASO chorus rehearsal from an earlier year. Familiar face center at the top…

For storytime, I’m going to go back to the Messiah. I still have a hard time believing I’m actually in the ASO chorus and get to sing all of these masterworks with a world class orchestra. Usually, we just do the Christmas portion (part 1) with the Hallelujah chorus tacked on the end. This year, we did significant portions of the whole thing. This was my first crack at parts 2 and 3 and some of those choruses are rough and I left it to the guys that seem to have been singing the Messiah since they were in diapers to do some of the heavy lifting. I moved my mouth convincingly on some of those runs… It didn’t help that I was on the border between the tenors and the basses and had a tenor singing in one ear and a bass in the other. Note to self. Bury self deep in bass section next year… Anyway, during the dress rehearsal process, I was reflecting back on the first time I heard the Messiah. I was 8 or 9 and the choir at our church (University Congregational in Seattle) did it as a special program. I can’t remember a whole lot more about the music program there in my childhood (other than the organist and some of his family drowning in a tragic boating accident) but that Messiah stayed with me. The chorus that stuck with me at a young age wasn’t The Hallelujah Chorus (which I thought was sort of silly, especially the standing up part), but rather For Unto Us A Child Is Born. To this day, that music, especially as it ascends into the chords that make up Wonderful Counselor et al. stirs something deep in my limbic system. Maybe it’s that message of how each new birth rekindles the possibility of hope and each child has the potential to save us from something eventually.

I’ve been a bit weepy over holiday stuff, which I suppose is understandable, and I’ve had to stay away from the Hallmark channel entirely or I’d be a huge mess. I went to see Scrooge! at Virginia Samford Theatre on Saturday night, just before I left and cried all through the second act. Fortunately, I was sitting by myself in the patrons balcony and didn’t disturb anyone with my sniffles. I’m not sure why it got to me the way it did. I’ve seen dozens of versions of A Christmas Carol over the years. Heck, I even played Scrooge a couple years ago. (A part I would gladly do again). Maybe it was because it took me back to childhood. I saw the film in theaters when it was first released, back before they cut a number of sequences that I don’t think have been seen since (like Scrooge being weighed down by his chain by devils in hell). Maybe it was watching a whole lot of friends perform. Maybe it was missing Tommy. He never got to see my Scrooge due to other commitments (he said he’d catch it next time).

It’s late, or maybe it’s early. One way or another, I need to take my melatonin and get a few hours of sleep before touring in the morning. More later…

December 16, 2018

Incheon airport – Seoul, South Korea

And before you know it, the time for the big trip was upon me. I had made the decision shortly after Tommy died to not be in Birmingham for the holidays. There was just too much ‘us’ about that sequence of events for me to cope with. I went to the travel agent, asked about someplace interesting and exotic over Christmas and he suggested a couple of weeks in Thailand and put together the package for me. I think it was a good decision.

Dateline: Incheon, South Korea-

I figured I had to make a brief entry in the travelogue during the all of three hours I’m spending in Korea changing planes. I’m typing this on my phone which is always a challenge. The boarding line for my last flight of three seems to be at a standstill so I might as well make some constructive use of the time.

The weekend was low key until this morning, being mainly devoted to a Messiah performance with the symphony and then running around packing and getting things ready to leave the continent for two weeks. More on that later. Anyway, up at 5:30 this morning and Ubering off to the Birmingham airport. Uneventful hop to Atlanta, uneventful transfer to the huge widebody and then fourteen hours to Seoul.

International air these days is much more comfortable than domestic. My knees were only just short of my chin rather than in my nostrils. I catnapped my way through six films that I didn’t pay much attention to, was served two meals that were fairly tasteless, and tried to distinguish between the dozen identical Korea Air flight attendants who seem to have been grown in some secret cloning lab.

Main concourse – Incheon International Airport

On arrival in Seoul, I found myself stiff in the knees and with swollen feet making it difficult to get my shoes back on. My body once again letting me know that I have attained middle age. Walking down endless concourses past miles of luxury boutiques and duty free shops helped. I did break down and purchase a caramel macchiato. I need the caffeine.

I’m now settled on flight three waiting for it to take off. Next stop Chiang Mai. More later…

December 9, 2018

Dateline: Birmingham, Alabama-

The temperature on top of our mountain in Sevierville dropped last night, but fortunately, the cabin came with a hot tub which took off the chill. This led to some decent sleep and then, an awakening to a fairly significant snowfall. Valerie Lemmons did her damndest to attract a bear up to the cabin with some baloney and a portable cooler but, alas, her efforts were not successful so we all settled into breakfast.

I was initially unsure if I would be able to make it down the mountain in the snow, but the flakes stopped around noon and the roads were passable so while the rest of the gang headed back to Gatlinburg, I turned the opposite direction and headed back towards Birmingham. I have patients scheduled in the morning and I have a huge dose of that physician ‘thou shalt not stand up a patient appointment unless it is a dire emergency’ in my system. The drive took a bit longer than usual due to rain and fog and slow traffic through Knoxville but was relatively uneventful.

It was a quick weekend away to a cabin paneled in knotty pine with bad taxidermy on the walls and more kitschy bear themed decor than one would find at Beef Dip in Puerto Vallarta but it was what I needed. Forty eight hours of love and laughter from a bunch of old theater friends who all go back nearly twenty years together. I hope we do more such weekends in the future but I’m going to suggest the beach perhaps for the next outing.

The drive seems to have given me a bit of a headache so I’m not going to write long tonight. It’s a route I’m intimately familiar with. From 1999-2016, I made about three trips a year from Birmingham, up through Chattanooga, Knoxville, the tri -Cities and into West Virginia to provide support services for the United Mine Workers Funds Geriatric Care Management program in Southern West Virginia, later expanding into Eastern Kentucky. I think I made somewhere between somewhere between fifty and sixty trips all told, in all weathers. Suffice it to say, I know every exit on the interstate between Birmingham and Beckley by heart and it was interesting to retravel part of that route after an absence of some years. A jumble of memories: time spent with case management nurses – site visits to homes off in the hollers – preparing educational programs and lectures – and above all, spending time with Ellen Peach, my long term partner in crime with the program.

Early on in my tenure with the program, Steve was sick and I had to minimize my time away from home. I would drive up to West Virginia on Sunday afternoon/evening, get some sleep, have meetings all day on Monday until about four or five and then drive back to Birmingham getting in about 2 AM. I was in my 30s then and could do that. There’s no way in hell I could accomplish that now. Once I got together with Tommy and we added the Kentucky site, I set the whole thing up to make sure I did not drive and have meetings on the same day. My aging brain just couldn’t do it and I had no real interest in ending up in the ditch trying to get home. Today’s snow reminded me of a couple of times when I had to go in January in the midst of the WV mountain snows. There was one time when a semi nearly ran me off the road coming down from Beckley and it slid on some ice but I was alert enough to prevent anything to untoward from happening. I’ve slid on the ice before in a car. Once that starts, nothing you can do but hang on. I once did a couple of 360 spins in Seattle after sliding off a hill. Fortunately it was 2 in the morning and there was no one else around and the intersection was large enough for me to pirouette without anything getting in the way.

I’m rambling now. Going to shut up. Travelogue will pick up again this weekend. In the meantime, I have three rehearsals and a performance of the Messiah with the Alabama Symphony Orchestra to get through. And the usual work stuff.

December 8, 2018

Gatlinburg at night

Dateline: Gatlinburg, Tennessee-

I’m actually writing this in the cabin in Sevierville but as the day was spent in Gatlinburg, I thought it best to headline it that way. I woke up this morning to find that this cabin, which had to be approached up narrow mountain lanes in the dark, had a marvelous view of the Smokies. The hazy mountains drop away from the bottom of the cabin (which is actually much more of a luxury vacation home) and we were greeted by a couple of wild turkeys roaming through the yard.

I’m sharing a makeshift bedroom with Melissa Bailey. We’ve shared a lot over the last fifteen years so what’s one more thing? She doesn’t snore and I brought my CPAP so I shouldn’t either. We all managed to get up and pile into a couple of cars after breakfast and head off for a day in Gatlinburg. It’s trying to decide if it wants to snow or not. It’s what I suppose they refer to as wintry mix. A little snow, a little rain, a little sleet. A little not fun driving on mountain roads but we made it in safely and took the tram up to Ober Gatlinburg and watched various people fall on their butts at the ice rink. Then, we headed up to the top of the mountain on the chairlift. This may not have been the best idea in 35 degree weather with varying sorts of precipitation, but there was hot chocolate at the top. Then back down to the lodge and to dry out by the fire.

Back down to the town itself for dinner (pizza) and wandering through the lights of tourist land. There’s something unique about American tourist towns, whether they are in the mountains, at the beach, or on a lake. The collection of candy shops, souvenir stands, mini-golf courses, and museums of dubious veracity are unequaled anywhere in the world. We decided to partake in a moonshine tasting and after thirteen shots of everclear flavored with various dental fluoride preparations, I was done for the evening. Ken Rowe and Dianne Rowe and I headed back to Sevierville a little earlier than the rest of the gang who were left behind to take a trolley tour in the dark. I will say that Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge look lovely with all the Christmas lights, much nicer in the dark than in the light when all the seams behind the papier mache tend to show.

I’ve been trying to think of a story to tell all day but nothing much is coming to mind. Maybe something will spark tomorrow. In the meantime, we’re all back, keeping each other company with old movies on the TV.

December 7, 2018

Dateline: Sevierville Tennessee-

I haven’t posted anything long form for a while because there hasn’t been a lot to write. Once I returned from Seattle, things went back pretty much to same old same old. Work was work. I spent some time with friends. I pretended to do some chores around the house. The usual. There wasn’t anything terribly exciting about any of it and, as I have said before, it was very much sleepwalking through someone else’s life.

Things are picking up this weekend. A bunch of long time theater friends decided a few months ago to get a cabin in the Smokies for a weekend of camaraderie this weekend. Why this weekend? Several of them are involved in teaching theater and this is the weekend between the State Trumbauer competition (the Alabama State high school theater event) and the Christmas craziness. As I happened to be either at the right place at the right time or the wrong place at the wrong time sitting around Kimberly Kirklin and Stephen Mangina‘s pool when the idea came to fruition, I was included in the invitation so, as I had a half day today, I drove up into the Tennessee mountains to a lovely Air B and B cabin with seven friends from Birmingham theater circles.

I swear my GPS was having fun with me after I turned off the interstate at Knoxville heading for Sevierville and Pigeon Forge. Many winding roads through hollers and over razorback ridges including one that could be, at best, described as a cart track, but I did finally make it as did the rest of the gang. Good dinner tonight in Pigeon Forge followed by many cocktails and raucous conversation at the cabin following. We have plans to be tacky tourists in Gatlinburg tomorrow.

I’m considering this weekend to be a palate cleanser for the big trip which starts a week from Sunday. While travel is on the brain, I also put down a deposit for a Rhine/Danube river cruise this next July. Should anyone want to be a travel companion, the cabin has a second bed… drop me a line.

The last time I was in Pigeon Forge was pushing 30 years ago. Steve and I drove through on one of our trips to various county courthouses in Appalachia doing research for his family tree. He was determined to track down all the Spivey descendants of Zadock Spivey who settled in Eastern Kentucky in the late 1700s. He found quite a few of them over time. He had documents and oral histories and all sorts of other ephemera on his Scots-Irish Highland ancestry which I helped him run down and I was the one who typed up all the family trees. After his death, I donated it all to the Kentucky State Historical Society in case any of his distant cousins ever becomes interested and wants to continue the work.

Steve rediscovering his roots outside of Gatlinburg

I don’t remember a lot about that last trip to Pigeon Forge other than being rather mystified at the number of mini golf and go kart places that could survive on a single highway. We did stop at Dollywood, but we did not go in as we had an appointment with a county clerk somewhere that afternoon. Steve stuffed his shirt to look like breasts and told a number of startled tourists that he was Dolly and he looked that way after losing most of her hair to chemotherapy. I don’t think anyone believed him. I managed to get him away before security arrived. Steve would be 70 if he had lived. Sometimes I try to imagine a 70 year old Steve. It doesn’t quite work.

I should be writing my column on The Crimes of Grindelwald, but I’m just not feeling it. Maybe tomorrow.