Musings, Travel & Adventure

Tidbits About Thailand

Our time in Thailand, rather shockingly, is drawing to a close. Two months ago, I had said goodbye to my family and students and made frantic last minute additions to my backpack and iPod before leaving in a rush with an anxiety-induced stomachache, having no idea what to expect. Experiencing the initial culture shock upon arriving in Cambodia, I felt that my almost three months here would trickle by slowly. Instead, it’s flown by. I can hardly believe that we have only a week and a half left in Thailand before we head up to China for another week and then, home to the United States.

I have learned a lot of interesting things about the culture here. I am grateful we were able to come here as part of a volunteer teaching program, because we were able to learn more about local life than we would have merely as tourists. Of course, in two months I have barely scratched the surface of understanding a new culture, but I thought I would share a few little tidbits that people back home might find interesting:

  • Chopsticks are not widely used in Thailand. More common is a fork and spoon, as in the West, but general table manners would have you use the back of the fork, in your left hand, to push your rice or noodles onto your spoon, in the right hand.
  • Tipping is not common in Southeast Asia. In fact, on some occasions when we have tried to leave tips, the server has insisted we take our “change.” One transplanted American working at a beach restaurant told us that generally the only customers that leave him tips are other Americans.
  • It is generally considered poor manners to drink from a bottle by tipping it up to drink from it. Better manners dictate to drink from a bottle by using a straw. Should you buy a bottle of water or a Coke from a 7-Eleven, for example, you will be given a straw to go with it. Teachers should definitely not drink from bottles of water without a straw in front of students, as the students are likely to emulate them and thereby go home copying these bad manners.
  • Speaking of 7-Eleven’s, they dominate every street corner in every major town here. I haven’t even seen one in the United States for I don’t know how long, but I have grown to love these little treasure troves of convenience where you can buy a 1.5 liter bottle of water for a mere 40 cents.
  • The “wai” greeting is used largely among native Thai people, meaning to place two hands together in a type of bow to show respect. How high or low you place your hands depends upon the rank of the person you are greeting – place your hands higher (fingertips at eyebrows, nose, or chin, depending on the situation) when greeting monks, elders, teachers, and bosses, for example; and place them lower (chest level) for employees beneath you, people younger than you, and students if you are a teacher. However, with Thailand’s active tourist industry, the locals generally understand that we Western visitors will not be able to “wai” correctly and don’t often try to greet us in that way.
  • It is rude to beckon someone with one finger as we do in the United States, mainly because that is how they call animals such as dogs. Instead, you should turn your hand so that your palm is facing down and use your entire hand to beckon someone. It is also rude to point at someone.
  • In Thailand, the head is considered holy and the feet are considered lowly. For this reason, you must not touch the head of an adult (with small children, it’s usually ok), and you must not point your feet at someone while sitting. Instead, it is more polite to keep your feet crossed safely underneath your chair.
  • Because feet are considered lowly and feet touch the floor, the floor is also considered an undesirable place for items of value. Books and school supplies must not be placed on the floor or stepped over, as knowledge is considered valuable and stepping over them would be disrespectful to knowledge.
  • So many people in Thailand’s tourist areas speak English, that if you attempt to speak to them in Thai and greatly butcher the pronunciation (as I do), the friendly Thai people are almost less likely to understand you then if you just speak English. At the very least, you may very likely get laughed at. At least, I do. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try, however! Tommy is better at speaking Thai than I am, I admit.
  • Much of the beauty market sells “whitening” products, in the form of face creams, lotions, and makeup. I always find myself jealous of the beautiful tan complexions here, but then again, usually we want what we can’t have. Perhaps it is similar to America’s obsession with tanning beds, fake tanners and bronzers?
  • Although Thailand is a democracy with an elected prime minister, the country greatly adores its royal family, so much so that to say anything disparaging about the king could land a person in jail. Even to step on money inadvertently is considered disrespectful, as the face of the beloved king is displayed on Thailand’s coins and bills.

Cultural differences are fascinating.

Speaking of, I think going back to the United States may be a culture shock all over again. Going from the humid 80- and 90-degree weather back to North Dakota’s winters will be the biggest shock of all!

Musings, Travel & Adventure

New Perspectives from the Airport Bathroom Floor

About eighteen months ago, I decided my life had gotten too comfortable and that I needed a new perspective.

A few days ago, I found myself on the tiled floor of a public airport bathroom in Bangkok, throwing up my food-poisoned dinner from the night before, cursing myself and the bathroom and all of Asia in general.

Why did I ever think that “too comfortable” was a problem?

Let me tell you exactly how I came to find myself on that bathroom floor: After deciding I needed this new perspective, I researched Southeast Asia volunteer teaching programs online for months, began setting aside chunks of my teaching paycheck, got a second evening job, booked tickets, quit both my jobs, moved back home, found a new job willing to give me three months leave, prepared sub plans for those three months, applied for visas, got all sorts of brutal vaccinations in my arms, stocked up on sunscreen and mosquito spray, and packed everything I could into a backpack.

And here I am.

Did I really do all of this for the sake of gaining a new perspective on life?

I’ve always been accused of being a little bit dramatic.

But on that bathroom floor, I came to the realization that it’s working. As my list of new experiences expands — some more enjoyable than others — I do believe I’m getting what I came here for. I’ve seen and tried more new things in the past two months then I have in any other period of my life. I’ve been lost, homesick, swindled out of money, challenged, exhausted, disgusted, and culture-shocked. I’ve lost what feels like half my body weight in sweat in one day; I’ve battled the fastest, most ninja-like mosquitos that I’ve ever battled; I’ve trusted the kindness of strangers who don’t speak a bit of my language. I’ve purchased overnight bus tickets just to find myself on the overnight bus from hell. And of course, I’ve lain on the floor of a public airport bathroom in Bangkok, wanting to die and be put out of my misery. (I told you I could be dramatic.) Oh, and I really miss my dog.

But here’s the thing: I’ve also made new friends, learned a bit of a new language, and (somewhat) successfully taught English to Thai children. I’ve enjoyed my interactions with locals; and I’ve had interesting conversations with other travelers from Poland, France, Russia, Kazakhstan, Turkey, the Netherlands, Switzerland, Canada, Iceland, Spain, Australia, and the UK. I’ve gained a new taste for spicy food, gazed at the Indian Ocean for the first time, and found a good traveling partner in my brother Tommy.

I didn’t know what to expect when I signed up, but I think I can say that so far — despite the few hiccups — it’s been a good decision. The months preparing weren’t easy; the months spent here haven’t been easy; but I knew they wouldn’t be. I knew I was going to be hot and sweaty the whole time. (To those freezing in the Midwest right now: I apologize and I know this may be hard to hear, but intense heat is not all it’s cracked up to be.) I knew I would end up lost more than once. I knew I would like the kids at my school just a little too much. I had a strong suspicion I might get food poisoning. And I knew I was going to be thrown right out of my comfort zone. That’s what I signed up for, for reasons I can’t always remember now.

Here are a few pictures of our more memorable new experiences. (If you don’t mind, I’d rather forget the airport bathroom.)

Remember The Spider?

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I’ve made new little friends:

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And new grown-up friends:

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We’ve trekked over mountains:

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Climbed waterfalls:

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Visited countless beautiful temples (this, the White Temple in Chiang Rai):

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Participated in a lantern festival:

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Gave Thai cooking a shot:

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Went white-water rafting:

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Got up close to an elephant:

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And kayaked, in the rain, through Thailand’s renowned karst formations. On this particular adventure, I also had to arm myself with my paddle against creepy little bandit monkeys, but I refused on principal to take pictures of the little jerks:

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Most of the new experiences, unfortunately, really can’t be caught on camera. If I could, I would show you the insane traffic in Cambodia, or the friendly Thai security guard practicing his English on me, or the moment we realized we were really, really lost in Chiang Rai. I can’t, but you can take my word for it that my perspective, in just 8 short weeks, is changing. I appreciate things I didn’t appreciate before. I’ve gained new ideas about the world. And I still have a few more weeks to go before I go home for Christmas. Hopefully, the list of new experiences will keep expanding until then.

On second thought, remembering the airport bathroom that I’d really like to forget, maybe I should be careful what I wish for….

Musings, Travel & Adventure

Thank Goodness for the Hokey-Pokey. Oh, and I’m in Thailand.

We arrived in Pattaya, Thailand, on Sunday night. It was an interesting trip. The seven of us going to Thailand took a van from Sihanoukville, Cambodia, to the border. The gravel roads twisted and winded through mountains, containing potholes as big as the van itself. I have to give kudos to the driver. I am positive I would have gotten the van stuck in a hole somewhere. We would probably still be there, in fact.

When we got the Thailand border, it was mass chaos, as we had to hand over our suitcases and backpacks to people we didn’t know, fill out cards, collect visa and passport stamps, dole out Thai baht for fees (which none of us had except one wonderful woman in our group named Marilyn, bless her heart), exchange our U.S. dollars, pay more baht just to use what they call a “squatty potty” (look it up; it’s really quite amusing), and somehow locate our suitcases again along with the proper vehicle. I think we all breathed a bit of a sigh of relief when we all made it into the van with all of the correct luggage. Amazing.

Then came the brand new shock of entering Thailand. People who have experienced both Cambodia and Thailand have said that Thailand is different than Cambodia, more developed and more “Westernized.” I wasn’t expecting these comments to be so true. The second we crossed the border, the scenery changed. The roads changed from winding and bumpy gravel to smooth four-lane paved highways, the cars became bigger and nicer, the motorbikes dwindled and the shops and houses grew bigger and fancier. If it weren’t for the Thai signs everywhere, it almost felt like being in the U.S. as we made our way to Pattaya, where we have started our time in Thailand. Pattaya was originally a fishing town but, during the Vietnam War, gained notoriety as a destination for military personnel and then gradually became an over-packaged family vacation destination. It is now a giant Vegas-like resort town full of tourists and expatriates, sketchy clubs, and neon lights. At least near our part of town. I have to say, I miss the culture of Cambodia. And I REALLY miss all the tuk-tuks! But other parts of Thailand are less night-clubby and resorty, so we are excited to go see those places in our upcoming travels. Until then, we are teaching English for a time and learning the Thai language here in Pattaya.

Which brings me to my next update: We started volunteer teaching today! We have been assigned to a low-income “kindergarten” about a 10 minute walk from our apartment in Pattaya. This “kindergarten” is actually more like a daycare of 1- to 6-year-olds in which they get an English lesson in the morning and a Thai lesson in the afternoon. We are in charge of the morning English lesson.

Oh my goodness.

Let me just say that they are absolutely adorable. Thirty sets of huge brown eyes watching us? I’ve always been a sucker for brown eyes. They are some of the cutest darn kids I have ever seen.

However, let me also just say that I’m not used to this! I am a secondary teacher. My students back home are taller than me and know how to sit in a circle and stand in a row. These kids are tiny. They don’t sit. They don’t stand in a line. They need help with everything. Furthermore, they don’t speak my language. Thank goodness for songs: they love the hello song and the goodbye song and the hokey-pokey — what? If I tried to do that back home, I have a feeling American high schoolers wouldn’t be quite so enthusiastic. But, I always love new experiences, and I’ve found one.

This should be interesting.

We did have most of the older kids saying “monkey,” “tiger,” “lion,” and “elephant” by the end of the day though, so I think we’ve made progress.

Yikes.

And awesomeness.

At the same time.

If you’re looking for me, I’ll be wiping noses and singing the hokey-pokey in Thailand…

Musings, Travel & Adventure

Good Decisions, Good Friends

Our last weekend in Cambodia, we headed south to the beach town of Sihanoukville off the Coast of Thailand. It was a pretty awesome way to conclude our first two weeks of training and transition to the next two.

After a four-hour bus ride from Phnom Penh, we arrived Friday afternoon and caught a tuk-tuk to — well, we didn’t really know where, so we just told him to take us to a “beach.” He gave us several options, noted our confusion, and just took off with us in tow. It’s just better that way sometimes.

On the drive, I was struck by the difference between the bustle of Phnom Penh and the relatively open streets of Sihanoukville. After living in Phnom Penh for two weeks, Sihanoukville seemed almost quiet in comparison. Almost. The tuk-tuk driver dropped us off at Serendipity Beach, the most crowded beach in town. It is lined by a row of thatched restaurants, so after a couple of coconut shakes and one too many vendors trying to sell us goods, we were ready to move on. We caught another tuk-tuk to Independence Beach, which turned out to be the best decision of the day. It was open, clean, and uncrowded, free of vendors and sporting only one or two quiet restaurants — basically everything Serendipity Beach was not — and to boot, showed off the most beautiful sunset I have seen since arriving in Southeast Asia. See evidence:

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Saturday was the real treat. We had seen signs everywhere advertising a boat which would take us from Sihanoukville to the island of Koh Rong and back. (Personally I was especially drawn in by the offer of free food and coffee on the boat!) Sixteen members of our group signed up to go. The boat left at 9:30 a.m. and, after about an hour and a half, anchored to let passengers jump off the top of the boat, snorkel, or swim. Then the boat continued on to the island for the afternoon. This was definitely the best decision of the weekend: Greeting us was a gorgeous little island with white sand beaches, a handful of bungalows and an open-air restaurant or two. My only decision at this point was which awesome thing to do first: Swim? Hike to a waterfall? Have a cocktail? Eat my first cheeseburger since leaving America?

In the end, I ended up doing all of these things, almost in that order. And the cheeseburger was amazing.

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The only bad decision I made was somehow putting sunscreen everywhere except the back of my knees. What the heck? I am Norwegian. And sort of a redhead. I don’t mess around with sunburns.

Speaking of decisions, I think the best decision of all was decided to come over to Southeast Asia and do this whole adventure thing. So far, it’s been amazing. I loved my time in Cambodia, and I have made some pretty awesome friends in the process, whom I hope to keep in touch with throughout our travels. That was a bonus I wasn’t expecting when I signed up to do this.

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From here, the adventure continues: Teaching in Thailand!

Musings, Travel & Adventure

Why I Love Cambodia

Tonight is our last night in Phnom Penh. From here, we head to Sihanoukville for the weekend and then to Thailand on Sunday. In Thailand, we will begin our volunteer teaching placement and also get the opportunity to take a Thai language and culture course. It’s hard to believe we have been here almost two weeks already! I am sad to be leaving Cambodia so soon. After the initial shock wore off, I began to really enjoy it here.

So, to commemorate the end of our time in Cambodia, I thought I would create a little list titled FIVE REASONS WHY I LOVE CAMBODIA:

1. The Khmer People: Without a doubt, this is the best part of Cambodia. The people here are the friendliest group of people, as a whole, that I have ever encountered. They are smiley and easygoing. In fact, the only Cambodian person that I have seen even remotely upset is the one woman on the motorbike that chattered a bit angrily at Tommy after she almost ran him over last week. It was Tommy’s fault, and he learned his lesson about looking both ways, so really, I think her anger was just concern for Tommy’s well-being.

The Khmer people are very helpful. People who know little to no English have helped us find things more than once. (That is because we are lost a lot.) They are also polite and personable. One of my favorite people here is the man who runs the little Mini Mart next to the university where we have been taking classes. Every time I walk in, he grins and says, “Same?” which means a large iced coffee with milk and no sugar. I thought it was pretty neat being a regular after only a couple days. The only Khmer word I know, which sounds like aw-coon, means thank you, and this man smiles and nods generously every time I attempt it in my awful American accent.

2. The Other Western People: We have made instant friends from day 1 with our program mates, coming to Cambodia from the UK, Australia and the U.S. — New York to California and everywhere in between. Furthermore, my friend Andy from college and his wife Kirsten live in Phnom Penh, and they have treated Tommy and I like family. They have entertained us, fed us, showed us around, loaded our cell phones and let us do laundry at their apartment. Tommy said last week that “playing basketball with Andy was the first time I knew I was enjoying myself on this trip.”

Thanks a lot, Tommy.

But that just goes to show how awesome Andy and Kirsten are. Hopefully we can pay them back someday for everything!

3. The Markets: Markets crowded with people, brimming with food, and packed with goodies in every stall. Need I say more? We even got up an hour early yesterday to go to the “Russian Market.” (I am not completely sure what makes it “Russian.”) It’s a good thing we had to leave and go to class, or I would have spent my weekly budget all in one morning. Bartering is also great fun. I think life in the U.S. would be more enjoyable if we got to barter for everything there, too.

4. The Tuk-Tuk Rides: I LOVE TUK-TUK RIDES. Catching tuk-tuks is fun, talking to tuk-tuk drivers is fun and, as I have discovered, the most fun of all is trying to explain, in English, to someone who doesn’t speak English, where we want to go, when actually we have no idea where we are or really where we are going. It’s quite a thrill, really. It’s also when I curse myself for not knowing any other languages besides a smattering of Spanish.

I have two stories to illustrate:

Story #1 (Saved by Accident). Here is how it went on Tuesday on the way to Andy’s apartment: I showed a slip of paper to the tuk-tuk driver with street names written on it. Tuk-tuk driver peered at it for a while, excused himself, went inside the hotel and had another Khmer person translate it for him. We rode around for what felt like an hour, and when the tuk-tuk driver started doing U-turns, we realized we were very lost. However, tuk-tuk drivers do not want to lose business and will do whatever it takes to get you where you want to go rather than admit defeat. So, tuk-tuk driver pulled over and asked other Khmer drivers for directions about 15 times and did about 25 more U-turns. At one point, he looked back and said, “Do you want to get out here?”

I looked around and didn’t recognize anything. “No!” I said adamantly. The only “landmark” I knew of near Andy’s was a VIP store, so I kept repeating “VIP! VIP!”

“Wee-I-P” tuk-tuk driver repeated back to me each time. After that, when he stopped to talk to other Khmer, I would hear what sounded to me like “Blah blah blah — Wee-I-P — blah blah blah.” (Again, why don’t I know any other languages?) Eventually, we got Andy on the phone and truly by accident, happened to be going by his apartment at that exact moment. Saved! I loved the whole experience. There was really nothing to do but laugh.

Story #2 (Saved by KFC). Last night, we wanted to go the river for a boat ride. We caught a tuk-tuk and showed the young driver a hastily drawn map with street names; again, with no other means of communication between us, he peered at it for a while and got his friends to help try to figure it out. I knew no names associated with the boat dock we were supposed to go to, but I happened to know there was a KFC nearby. Finally, I said tentatively, “KFC?” All four of them lit up and began nodding furiously. “Ah, KFC!” Our tuk-tuk driver jumped in and drove us straight there. It was also awesome. Apparently I owe a little gratitude to the Colonel! (Fun fact: This KFC is the classiest KFC I have ever seen, and also has free Wi-Fi.)

5. This One Needs No Words:

We will miss you, Cambodia!

Musings, Travel & Adventure

Sweating Bullets at Angkor Wat

After Tommy and I recovered from spider eating, we continued on to Siem Reap, where we stayed at the Freedom Hotel with our fellow trainees. The hotel was a pleasant surprise after a long, hot journey on bumpy Cambodian roads. The rooms were clean and spatious, the outdoor pool looked inviting and the lobby was full of comfy-looking couches and chairs. I slept as hard as I’ve slept since I’ve arrived in Cambodia.

On Saturday morning, we woke up early to visit some of the Angkor temples. Angkor Wat is the name of the largest temple but is often used to refer to a series of ancient temples in the area built between the 9th and 15th centuries. At that time, the Angkor region of Cambodia was the seat of the powerful Khmer empire. The most popular temple, Angkor Wat, is Cambodia’s premier tourist attraction, said to be the largest religious monument in the world. It was built by King  Suryavarman II in the 12th century and, after falling into ruins for centuries, has now been restored to some of its former glory. It really is beautiful.

We visited several temple ruin sights on the way to the main attraction of Angkor Wat, including the Bayon Temple, known for its several huge stone faces:

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And Ta Prohm, the “Tomb Raider Temple” for any of you Angelina Jolie fans. Ta Prohm is especially notable because of all the giant trees growing out of the stone everywhere you look:

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Angkor Wat itself was gorgeous, a perfectly symmetrical, massive stone complex surrounded by a large moat and accessible only by walking across a wide causeway. Monkeys darted here and there across the walls and through the grass. Stone pillars and archways towered over our heads. It was like a dream. A rain shower added a hazy element to the scene for about a half hour in the afternoon, and when it cleared, the stone towers reflected back to us clearly in the pools of water, doubling the beauty.

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Up until now, this has been a pretty pleasant story, right?: Touring famous temples with a nice group of people on a beautiful Saturday, crawling among the rocks, exploring ancient ruins of a fascinating civilization.

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That’s because I haven’t been completely honest.

Here is the true story:

In fact, I am pretty sure I almost died of losing half my body weight in sweat. I had heard about the heat in Southeast Asia. I had read about the heat. I tried to prepare myself for the heat. But I am from North Dakota and WE DO NOT HAVE THIS KIND OF HEAT! The real problem is, I am the sweatiest person I know even in North Dakota. So put this North Dakota gal into the heart of hot and humid Cambodia, amongst heat-radiating stones, and make her hike up and down all day, and you will see sweaty like you’ve never seen before. The stones create something like a giant oven, slowly baking the human tourists from the inside out. Plus, women are supposed to wear long pants and cover their shoulders in order to be allowed into the temples, so wearing shorts and a tank top was not an option. I drank at least three liters of water, but it wasn’t enough.

Can a person die from sweating too much?

Halfway through the day, I couldn’t stand the soaked hiking clothes I was wearing any longer, so I stopped by a tent selling clothing and bought a white airy shirt and breathable-looking elephant-printed pants for four dollars apiece. I convinced the Khmer woman who sold them to me to hold up a blanket so I could change behind it. It would have been much simpler if my original clothing wasn’t plastered to my skin. Eventually, however, I struggled into my new clothing and felt, oh so much better. For about a half hour, until I also sweat through my new clothes. It was worth it though, just for that half hour of sweet, sweet relief.

Also, I now have elephant pants.

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The rain shower that showed up in the afternoon would have been disappointing, except I was no more soaked after the rain shower than I was before the rain shower. It just gave me an excuse for why I am sopping wet in everyone’s pictures. I am not exaggerating, you guys.

That said, however, the trip to Angkor Wat was worthwhile, and something I will remember as long as I live. The temples were truly an amazing, amazing relic of a fascinating ancient culture. Human capacity never ceases to amaze me, and it only increases with every trip I take to a new part of the world. The temples’ amazingness was only rivaled by one thing: the cold shower I took afterward.

If you’re looking for me, I’ll be chugging water in Southeast Asia.

Musings, Travel & Adventure

Eating Spiders

On Friday, I did something I’ve never exactly had on my bucket list: I ate a tarantula. Our group stopped in Skuon, nicknamed “Spiderville,” on our way to Siem Reap to try the famous (infamous?) fried tarantulas. Tommy and I discussed this beforehand: Should we or shouldn’t we? However, it seemed like one of those things a person should do while in Cambodia, just to say she did.

That was until I got off the bus.

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Awaiting us at Skuon was a wide variety of fried bugs, literally everywhere. The bus ride had been hot and bumpy, I wasn’t feeling so great, and, seeing great piles of black crispy spiders and other insects all over the place,  suddenly my desire to eat a tarantula “just to say I did” was diminished to nothing. Plus, a handful of kids were running around selling fruit to the silly American tourists and also, scaring the silly American tourists with live tarantulas.

The good news is, they targeted Tommy and not me.

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The kids at Skuon are incredible salespeople. First of all, they are remarkably persistent. Second of all, they employ tactics such as crying, pleading, and chattering your ear off to get you to buy a dollar’s worth of fruit. There was one little girl whose pineapple I didn’t buy, and she gave me the most attitude I’ve ever seen from a tiny person — hand on hips, eye rolls, the whole works. Attitude clearly transcends language barriers. She also followed me to the bus when we were leaving, found my window and glared at me until we pulled away. I have to say, for two feet tall she was actually kind of intimidating.

One little girl who latched onto Tommy, however, simply employed the friendly tactic. From the moment Tommy got off the bus, she shadowed him. She showed him around, talked to him about America, and also made some hilarious comments about his eyes. “You have really blue eyes! You have long eyelashes! And they are curly, like a girl! Do you wear makeup?” She was quick to point out that she and I both had hearts on our bracelets. And she even helped us when we finally decided to eat a tarantula.

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Yes, we did finally try one. And Tommy bought a bag of pineapple from her just to wash it down. Her friendly tactic worked pretty well in the end.

It wasn’t the worst thing I’ve ever eaten, but it was, not surprisingly, pretty weird. It tasted like burnt char with a flavor that I can only assume is unique to spider, considering it was unlike anything I ever tasted before.

At least now I can say I did it, right?

Before:

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After:

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