Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Hawaii 1981

Honolulu View of Diamond Head

Hawaii was a place that I had known in my imagination long before I arrived there. During WWII, both my father and my uncle were stationed in the Hawaiian Islands. While my father returned to Massachusetts after completing his service, his brother settled in Honolulu, married a lovely Filipina and raised a family there. Over the years we received pictures of my cousins playing on beaches framed by palm trees, gift packages of tropical food items and colorful flower arrangements of sweet-smelling plumeria and bird of paradise.

In the years before statehood, Hawaii seemed more like a distant foreign land than part of the United States. It wasn't often that we heard from the Hawaiian side of our family as phone calls were too expensive and letters would take a week or so to arrive. In those days before commercial jetliners and budget travel, the idea of visiting our Hawaiian relatives hardly seemed possible.

It was not until the spring of 1981 that, together with my wife and son, I finally got to Hawaii during a short leave taken while we were relocating from Indonesia to Cameroon. After so many years of seeing their photos and hearing about them, I was finally able to meet my aunt and my cousins. As my uncle had passed away some years before, my aunt had struggled to raise their three boys on her own. She soon remarried and the family now included a daughter. My cousin Mackie and his wife Annie picked us up at the airport and gave us a traditional Hawaiian welcome with garlands of fragrant leis. The few days we were able to spend with them were memorable. Mackie and Annie and their three children had a home in Wahiawa which was near where Mackie worked at Schofield Barracks. Like my father, Mackie was a carpenter. Also like my father, his building projects made his house a "work in progress." So I felt right at home.

Annie showed us around Oahu. Although we soon found it was possible to make a circuit of the island within a few hours, our trips around Oahu always took longer. Everywhere we went there was something new to see and experience—from looking over fields of ripening pineapples alongside the Kamehameha Highway, to enjoying shave ice with sweet azuki beans at a roadside stand in Haleiwa, to swimming in the cool, clear water at Waimea Bay, to standing on the Pali Overlook where we could lean against the wind while viewing the valley below and the ocean in the distance. While we did visit some tourist destinations, we found the daily pleasures of "talking story" and making family outings to local markets, parks and quiet beaches far from Waikiki much more enjoyable.

All too soon it was time to leave but we knew we would be returning again. In Hawaii, my wife and I found a multi-cultural lifestyle rich in Asian tradition where we felt at home. Within a couple years we became Hawaiian residents and before the decade was out we had bought our first home there.

Hanauma Bay

Sunday, April 19, 2009

Concord Massachusetts — Patriot's Day

Minuteman Statue 1968

In Concord, where the first shots of the American Revolution rang out, Patriot's Day is always celebrated on April 19th. While the official state holiday may now fall on the third Monday of the month, residents of Concord and neighboring towns keep with tradition in commemorating that particular day in 1775 when Minutemen engaged the Redcoats in Concord and Lexington. Today, as residents play the role of local militia and British soldiers to re-create the fight by the bridge, crowds of onlookers will once again thrill to the crack of muskets and the smell of blackpowder smoke.

Growing up in a town that neighbored Concord, on Patriot's Day I often went to the Old North Bridge to witness the re-enactment of the battle. Sometimes, I would walk with local Minutemen as they made their way from Acton to Concord. On those early spring mornings, the weather was typically cold but everyone's spirit was high as we followed the militia on their 7 mile march to Concord. Wearing tri-corner hats and shouldering muskets, our neighbors tried to act the part of 18th century farmers called to war. Accompanied by fife and drum, they gave the appearance of being a determined if not a disciplined lot.

During my youth in the 1950s, the Old North Bridge was not yet part of the national park system. Although world famous for the fight that took place there, the park itself was small. From Monument Street you walked down a short, tree-lined path to the bridge. Across the bridge stood the famous Minuteman statue by Daniel Chester French. Here, a hedge marked the park's limit. You could take it all in within the few minutes it took to walk from the street to the statue. Or you could spend a quiet afternoon pondering what happened here while sitting on a bench overlooking the scene. Except in the summer, the park was seldom busy. Most of those who came by were, like me, local visitors who enjoyed the park's tranquility and natural beauty. If you looked across the river, the Buttrick estate dominated the view. The Buttrick mansion stood on a rise overlooking the river. During spring and summer, flowers on the hillside created a tapestry of color flowing from the grand house down to the riverbank. Today, the flowers are mostly gone as the National Park Service has tried to restore the landscape of 1775. The Buttrick mansion itself has become a visitor center where you can see exhibits describing the Concord and Lexington battles. The Old North Bridge is now just a small part of Minute Man National Park which covers all of the battleground from Concord to Lexington.

With Patriot's Day transformed into another Monday holiday in Massachusetts, for most residents of the Bay State Patriot's Day now means being able to enjoy the first long weekend of spring—a harbinger of the carefree summer days to come. For many, Patriot's Day has become synonymous with the Boston Marathon, a wonderful event celebrated by runners and sports fans around the world. For me, however, Patriot's Day will always be the 19th of April. Wherever I am, this holiday always brings me back to thoughts of Concord and my many visits to the Old North Bridge.

Saturday, April 4, 2009

Bangkok and Chiang Mai Summer 1971

As the summer of 1971 approached, some friends in my Malaysia Peace Corps group suggested that we should use our annual leave to visit Thailand. It sounded like a great adventure. None of us had ever been to Thailand or even had much information on what we could do there. But Thailand promised to be a great change from Malaysia, a country that was becoming very familiar.

At the Peace Corps office in Kuala Lumpur, we were able to read information sheets written by PCVs in Bangkok and beyond. These brief reports provided us with a lot of local information about Thailand: where to stay, where to shop, what to see and how to do it all on a PCV allowance. Armed with this intelligence, we coordinated our vacation schedules and prepared for our holiday.

We began our vacation in Kota Bharu in the Northeast corner of Malaysia. To cross into Thailand, we had to walk on a railway trestle over the river that marked the border between Malaysia and Thailand. After passing through Thai immigration and customs— a fairly impromptu set up— we boarded pedicabs for the short trip to the train station. Here we faced our first problem. None of us spoke Thai and nobody we met spoke English or Malay. While the train schedule was prominently posted, we couldn’t read it because it was written in Thai, a script that gave us not even a clue as to which of the many stations listed was Bangkok. All we could decipher were the departure and arrival times. Knowing that the trip took about one day from the border to Bangkok, we made a guess concerning which station should be our destination and, with a bit of trepidation, bought our tickets. We rationalized that, after all, we were traveling up the length of the Thai peninsula. There was no place for the train line to go but to Bangkok. At least, we hoped so.

Train to Bangkok?

When at last the train ended its journey at a major terminal, we disembarked and walked out into the sunlight still not quite knowing where we were. “Bangkok?” we asked a taxi driver standing outside the train station. He gave us a quick look and said, “Thirty dollars.” As our train tickets all the way from Malaysia had cost only a fraction of this amount we began to grow concerned that we perhaps had missed our mark by some distance. An attempt to negotiate a lower fare did not reduce the requested tariff by much. In his own way, the taximan indicated that Bangkok was a long drive. But as thirty dollars was more than any of us were willing to pay, we sought another solution.

We soon realized that few people leaving the train station were getting into taxis. Most headed across the street to the river and were boarding long, narrow boats powered by big engines fitted with a long-shaft to the propeller. We picked up our bags and followed the crowd down to the river. When we got to the pier, we again asked, “Bangkok?” The boatman pointed at the city skyline across the river. We quickly piled into the river taxi and within a few minutes arrived in Bangkok. The cost? Half a baht: about three cents!

We found Bangkok fascinating. With its klongs and temples, crowded markets and jumping nightlife, we enjoyed exploring the city day and night.

Erawan Prayers

After several days of seeing the sights in Bangkok, we talked about where else we might go. Some suggested we ought to cross over into Cambodia to see Angkor Wat. Others recommended we travel north to see Thailand’s hill towns. In the end, we agreed to visit Chiang Mai which we thought would be a comfortable change from Bangkok’s heat. We put Angkor Wat on our destination list for next year. As it turned out, however, the war that soon came to Cambodia closed the country for many years. It was not until 2005 that I was finally able to see the wonders of Angkor Wat.

An overnight night bus took us on the 700km journey (about 435 miles) from Bangkok to Chiang Mai. I called this the Thai Gourmet Tour as our bus seemed to stop every few hours at another all-night eatery where every passenger took the opportunity to feast on grilled Thai chicken, fried noodles and other delights.

Our first view of Chiang Mai was memorable. The rooftops of Chiang Mai glimmered half hidden in the shadows of early morning. As dawn turned to daylight and the mist dissipated, Chiang Mai’s houses and temples gradually came into view, as mystically as Brigadoon, framed against a mountain backdrop. Instead of Bangkok’s din we heard cocks crowing and the quiet sounds of Chiang Mai—spirit house bells tinkling in the breeze like wind chimes.

Lovely Chiang Mai

Chiang Mai, although the provincial capital, had a small town feel. It was easy to get around and meet residents, particularly students who just wanted the chance to practice their English. One student was kind enough to act as our guide in Chiang Mai and tell us something of its history.

As much as we enjoyed visiting many of Chiang Mai’s temples, there was much more to see in and around the city. We had a lot of fun going into various shops selling everything from Thai silk to carved furniture. Each shop seemed to employ a former Miss Chiang Mai as a sales girl to attract customers into buying their goods such as these hand-painted umbrellas.

Chiang Mai Umbrella Shop

I think the highlight of our visit was our trek to Wat Doi Suthep high in the mountains overlooking the Chiang Mai valley. The temple was built in the 14th century on a spot chosen by a sacred white elephant. For the people of Thailand, this temple is an important pilgrimage site on major Buddhist feasts. There was a spectacular view from the temple down to the fields of rice covering the valley floor. On seeing the endless irrigated padi fields stretching to the horizon, I had to remind myself that each of the millions of rice stalks had been planted individually by hand. Thailand’s bounty of rice is truly a miracle of man and nature.

Peace Corps Volunteers at Wat Doi Suthep