I knew the jet lag would be a major hurdle when I arrived. I knew I would be irritable and exhausted and that I would probably want to turn around and come right back home. But there is no way to plan for the emotional turmoil that occurs when you compound jet lag with leaving the people you love most in the world and finding yourself alone in an unfamiliar place 30 hours later. It’s a recipe for emotional disaster. So needless to say, I had a rough time when I first arrived here yesterday. I made it to my hotel after the hurdle of figuring out how to get a taxi at the airport (that process involved me walking back and forth in front of the airport about five times), and then the panic set in. What am I doing here? How could I possibly have thought I could do this alone? Why did I ever decide to leave my family? I want to go home, I want to go home, I want to go home. I’m not proud of the thoughts that consumed the first hour of my time in Thailand, but I can’t say I was completely surprised by them either. I knew the transition would be hard. I couldn’t possibly expect myself to face the change without some kind of emotional breakdown. So I did what every sane person does after 30 hours of travel. I took a nap. When I woke up, I ventured out of my hotel, despite the incredible fear that had settled in. It’s not logical, but I was scared to go outside. I was scared of what I’d find there. Maybe it was a fear of being disappointed in my choice, or simply a fear born of the fact that I had no idea what to expect once I stepped outside my hotel. Ultimately, it was the realization that I was going to wither away to nothing if I didn’t find some bottled water that pushed me to go out. It took me a grand total of about five minutes to find the lovely Tesco Lotus gas station two minutes from my hotel. It took me another five minutes to find a little Thai café on a nearby corner. That café has become one of my favorite places at this point. I can buy good food and a delicious smoothie for 65 baht, which is the equivalent of $1.80. Talk about a bargain. So with my stomach full, I gained a little more courage, and wandered far enough to find the Old City, surrounded by its peaceful canal and ancient wall. I also passed through the stalls that were setting up for the daily Night Bazaar on my way back to the hotel, but I wasn’t in the mood to stick around and squeeze myself through the crowds that night. I had dinner at another little café near my hotel, and this offered me one of the highlights of the day. I sat down at one of the tables there, and was soon joined by two very friendly old men who bought a bunch of food and insisted that I share the meal with them. The language barrier limited our conversation to “What is this called?” and “Where are you from?” but it was still quite lovely. The language barrier is one of the most frustrating hurdles at this point. There is a certain kind of helplessness you feel when you realize that your language, your main form of communication with the humans around you, is practically useless. That hurdle may not be so frustrating as I start to meet other English speakers, but as of right now, the vast majority of my interactions have been with the Thai people, and Sawatdeeka (hello) and kop-khun-kha (thank you) only get you so far.
I slept like a rock after my trying first day in Chiang Mai, which was certainly one of the largest contributing factors to the improved quality of the second day. I woke up feeling refreshed and with a new determination to figure things out in my new home. The fact that I was able to Facetime with my mom and sister last night, and with my stepdad this morning, was also a huge boost to my mood and outlook. Seeing their faces and hearing them laugh was the best balm I could have asked for, and it helped me to realize that I may be halfway across the world, but they’re not gone from me. So to start my day, I scheduled a Thai massage, had a breakfast of Pad-see-ew and a strawberry smoothie at my favorite corner café, and headed to the Old City. After fumbling through the crooked, poorly labeled streets yesterday, I started to get a feel for the layout of the city as I walked around today. I can recognize certain street names if I see them, but mostly I just find myself looking for landmarks to orient myself. I know where things are in relation to other things, so if I can find a certain temple, the river, or the walls of the Old City, I can pretty much figure out which way to go. Walking through the Old City, I managed to find Wat Chedi Luang, one of the most (if not the most) famous temple in Chiang Mai. You can’t go in the main temple since its ancient and partly disintegrated, but it is surrounded by a bunch of smaller, newer temples that you are free to enter (after you take your shoes off, of course). I went in several of those surrounding temples after admiring the massive chedi in the middle, and the interiors were breathtaking. Much like what you find in cathedrals, the interiors are often ornately decorated with gold décor and multi-colored tiles. And of course, in the temples you are likely to find large, golden Buddha statues that are really quite magnificent. I’m not a Buddhist, but I did find great joy in following the prayer-like movements of those showing their respect to the Buddha. It felt like an appropriate way for me to embed myself in the culture a bit. My visit to the temple was followed by my Thai massage, which was the best massage I’ve ever received. A Thai massage is special in that it focuses on utilizing the energy points in the body as well as manipulating and stretching the muscles like a normal massage; so it’s like acupuncture without the needles. I’ve been a fan of acupuncture for several years, and finding something comparable was a happy moment for me. On the way to the massage I also had the good fortune of stumbling upon a wonderful little book store with shelves stocked with just about any book I could want. This was another highlight of my day as it offered me a place that I recognized, something I could compare to home. One of the biggest hurdles of the past two days has been finding anything that I can latch onto in its resemblance to where I came from. Until the bookstore, there had been very little that was entirely familiar to me, outside the American-style toilet in my hotel bathroom. The adventures of today ended with my first tuk-tuk ride which I had avoided until then to save money, but after hours of walking, I was ready for a break, and the tuk-tuk was fun and well worth the 60 baht investment.
So even though I’m fighting a recurring headache as a result of the change in climate, trying to figure out how to continue looking nice throughout the day as I face the intense humidity of the rainy season, and missing my loved ones back home, the highlights and happy moments are giving me the lift I need to get over the hurdles of this transition. It’s not easy, but the first two days of my life in Thailand have hinted that I will be rewarded with a good experience if I can make it through the difficulties of decoding the culture and carving out my place here.