06 November, 2013

US Bank is not fit to manage your money

This story started over 3 years ago, and continues to this moment. It's a string of ineptitudes and inefficiencies that can only make one wonder "Why would I put my money in the hands of US Bank, when they repeatedly demonstrate they are not able to deal with even simple matters?"

A few years ago, I decided to get a car loan through US Bank because they happened to have a very good rate. When I completed the loan paperwork, we need to have multiple meetings because the loan officer was new to doing car loans, and forgot to have me sign all the necessary papers. That is fine. Mistakes happen. It didn't bother me much at all, because he was a nice guy. When I was finishing up the loan, they told me that US Bank would be happy to file the paperwork for registering my vehicle, so that I didn't need to deal with it. "Wow," I thought. "This seems awfully nice of them!" So I left the transaction feeling like maybe it was a good decision to do business with them.

A couple of months passed. One day, I left my house to go to work, and discovered a ticket on my vehicle. The ticket was a citation for an unregistered vehicle. "Oh, no!!!" It immediately came back to me that I guess I never received the license plate or registration for the new vehicle. I contacted the bank and discovered that they had failed to submit the paperwork for the registration. They promised to take care of it immediately, and some sort of paperwork was submitted that was supposed to prevent me from receiving further citations. Unfortunately, that didn't pan out, and I got another citation the next day. Over the course of a couple of weeks, and many phone calls to the bank, who assured me that they were on the case, the finally got the paperwork submitted. It was a show of good customer support that they took care of the citations, and I attribute that to having had a good contact in the branch office.

Nonetheless, I decided, after completing payment of my loan, that I wanted to terminate my account with US Bank because I really didn't want to do business with them anymore. When the loan closed, I requested that my account be closed and withdrew my remaining funds. To the best of my knowledge, it had been closed. Once in awhile, I would receive a letter from US Bank, which I would routinely toss in the garbage because I "knew" I no longer had an account with US Bank, so they could only be sending me junk mail (a mistake I acknowledge, in hindsight). After some months, I start receiving a phone call every day with a missed call, and no voice mail, from a phone number I did not recognize. No message. I ignored them, until they eventually became annoying. I figured it was telemarketing. So I looked up the phone number online and discovered in one of those forums that it was someone claiming to be US Bank but that it was most likely a scam. Great. So I continue to ignore. More time passes, and now, they start leaving voice mails, telling me that they needed to speak to me urgently about my "account" (but I don't have an account, I am thinking). Finally, I get in touch with them, and discover two things. (1) My account was never closed, and (2) The terms of my unclosed account had changed such that I was now being charged a monthly fee. But since I had no balance in this (un)closed account, the monthly fee was drawing on my cash reserve, and now they were threatening to send the account into collections for the $20-$30 of fees that had been assessed. I had a very unfruitful discussion with a very unhelpful representative who informed me that my account was not closed, and that she could not reverse any fees, and that I would need to go into a branch office to close the account. Over the course of a couple of days, I tried speaking with other representatives to try to resolve the matter, hoping I would find "The Right Person" but to no avail.

Finally, I went to a branch office, where I was greeted with kindness. They closed my account, zeroed out the amount owed, and even issued me a check for $10 for money I didn't know I even had in the account. They said everything should be all set. Phew.

Two days later, I receive a call from the 1-800 telling me about the collections again.


I tell them the account is closed, and they say they have no record of this, but they will annotate the account, and maybe it just hasn't propagated through the system yet. If they have further issues, they will get back to me (this, I believe). They also told me that they need to make me aware that my delinquency *may* or *may not* have been reported to credit agencies. They are required by law to tell me this, but they are unable to tell me if it actually was reported. They suggest I contact all three credit agencies. Seriously?

So, I never heard back from them. I assumed all was good. I checked all three credit agencies, and nothing seemed to have been reported. Maybe it's over.

A few weeks later, I receive a letter in the mail from US Bank that shows that my account is closed, and that I STILL OWE THEM (NOW) $40 IN FEES FOR CASH RESERVE OVERDRAWS. They did not zero out the balance, and they did not close the cash reserve.

This time, I am not even bothering to call the 1-800 number, because that is useless.

I will go into the branch office again, hopefully resolve it. And if not, I will just pay the goddamned $40 and tell everyone I know to NEVER do business with US Bank again.

I think I'll start with everyone on my Facebook. News travels fast over the social networks.

27 May, 2013

Dear Seattle: maybe we should see other people

In the last week of August 1999, I put my guitars, amplifiers, clothes, computer, and the cat into my Corolla, and I waved goodbye to Boston. The drive across the country was an apropos passage through the birth canal into what would be my new life on the West Coast. I didn’t know what it would be like. I didn’t know why I’d even decided that what I had was not “good enough” for me anymore. My family certainly didn’t understand it. My sister had said “Everything you could ever need is right here.” My father hadn’t been so dramatic, but he did ask me “Are you sure you really need to do this?” When I said I did, he respected that decision, and I feel that, as the years have gone by, his respect for that choice has grown and grown. And as our relationship has grown stronger and closer, especially in the wake(s) of deaths of my mother and sister, my dad has shared more and more of that respect and pride in me.

So, it’s sort of a sign of the times that, when I called him on the phone, while sitting in a park in the sunshine in The Mission in San Francisco, and told him “I think I might move to San Francisco,” he said to me that it was always a city that he loved and remembered fondly from his time in the military when he was stationed there (in the mid-1940s). He didn’t ask me if I was sure I needed to do it. He didn’t even ask me if I thought it was a good idea. My dad is done with worrying about the quality of the choices I make, and he trusts me. I suppose that it’s the result of both of us getting older, but it’s also the result of both of us having taken risks in getting closer in the relationship (something that is fundamentally difficult for either of us to do).

I moved here fourteen years ago, without any idea of how long I’d live here. I didn’t think it would be forever, and I didn’t think it wouldn’t be forever. People often move around after finishing a doctorate, so there had to have been the subconscious expectation that there would be other cities. But I don’t recall it, if that was the case. And when I decided to leave academia, the choices I made, including buying a home, made me feel more rooted to Seattle. There came a point where I couldn’t really imagine myself ever leaving here. There were lots of reasons: A relationship… Property values… A job. I’d idly talked about wanting to live in New Zealand when Bush was first elected, without having ever been there. It was just a Utopia to me. I’ve still not yet visited. When I visited Germany, I thought “Someday I want to live in Munich!” And there have been various other passing sentiments, either based on political (Canada) or some arbitrary loosey-goosey feeling that another place would be better (Portland). There have even been some nostalgic feelings that occur each time I visit Home that make me think I may one day move back to Boston.

Over the past several months, a little voice inside has started to whisper, though. Not about Utopias. Not about expatriotism. Not about nostalgia. Something about “here and now.” And that voice has been whispering “It’s time to move on…” The feeling is that maybe I am all done with Seattle. And not long after that voice fades off, the next voice that I hear is saying “Maybe it’s time to move to San Francisco…” Over the years, it has come to the point that I have nearly as many strong connections down there as I do up here. In no way do I forsake or minimize the relationships I have here in Seattle, which obviously include a few of my closest. But sometimes it is just time to try something new. Sometimes the only way for a plant to keep growing is if you repot it.

I don’t want to think of this as running away. I don’t want to think of this as any kind of delusion around the truism that starts with “Wherever you go…” But the question is not about who I *am*. The question is about who I will *become*. And I am starting to feel that the same kind of tectonic shift that occurred in my life after the move from Boston to Seattle may once again be due. I don’t know for sure yet. But I am now open to it. Instead of thinking about all the reasons I cannot possibly move forward, I am now strategizing about the ways in which the move might be accomplished.

It’s time to move on, it’s time to get going
What lies ahead I’ve got no way of knowing
But under my feet babe, the grass is growing
(- Tom Petty)

08 March, 2013

Sears Home Services

Dear Customer, please wait while we connect you to a Sears Blue Service Crew member to assist you
Connected to David Fleischer
David Fleischer : Thank you for choosing Sears. My name is David. How may I assist you?
You : hi
You : Bob xxxxxxxxxxxxx
David Fleischer : Hi Bob.
You : xxx xxxx Avenue, xxxxxx, xx xx
You : xxx-xxx-xxxx
You : xxxx@xxxxxx.com
You : i am the homeowner
You : waiting for a service rep who was supposed to arrive between 8-11
You : no call, no update
David Fleischer : Thank you for the information.
David Fleischer : I apologize that we have not arrived yet. 
You : i have contacted chat 2 times already and they gave me false info both times
You : first time they said "any minute"
David Fleischer : Let me check your file and help you further.
You : second time they said "the dispatcher or tech will contact you in a few minutes"
You : nothing has happened
You : i am missing important meetings at work and my boss is not pleased with the situation
You : this is the 3rd time i have had to take a half day off, and the problem is not solved
You : i am leaning toward contacting my credit card company and disputing the service charge of $212 that sears made becuase this is unacceptable support
David Fleischer : I apologize for the frustration and inconvenience caused because it was not what you were expecting. 
You : i should not be paying for this
You : also, i want to let you know that i'm not angry at you :) just angry at sears service. i know this isn't your fault.
David Fleischer : I completely understand your frustration at this point, and want to apologize for all of the frustration that you have experienced thus far.
You : is there anything sears is prepared to do other than just keep apologizing while i keep taking time off from work?
David Fleischer : However, I have cheked your file and see that the service is assigned to our technician.
You : an 8-11 appointment means that i should be able to schedule my work around that time window.
David Fleischer : I will go ahead and send a message to our technician and say our technician to call you and give the estimate time of technician arrival time,
You : that's what the last person i spoke with promised - i don't think they're acting on the request
You : i know your team is reaching out to the tech, but it's going into a black hole
David Fleischer : I am sorry, I undertand you concern, Bob. I’d feel disappointed too if technician not arrived on time.
You : he just called me
You : estimated arrival 12:30
David Fleischer : Thank you for the information.
You : so, i'm looking at missing more meetings today
David Fleischer : I apologize for any inconvenience caused to you in this regard.
You : so would it be correct to say that sears is unwilling to do anything to show that they value the time i have lost?
David Fleischer : Customer satisfaction is our prime goal. I am extremely sorry for the inconvenience caused to you.
You : but how can you achieve customer satisfaction without doing anything to "make things right" when you make errors that impact your customer experience?
David Fleischer : We value the business of every customer, and we would never do anything to intentionally put those relationships in peril.
You : but when that happens, though unintentional, am i correct in hearing that sears policy is to do nothing to rectify the inconvenience?
David Fleischer : We strive to provide our customers with prompt and accurate service in response to their individual situations. High-quality and accurate Customer Service is our foremost priority. We are working diligently to improve our internal systems and training programs. 
David Fleischer : This does not at all excuse the fact that you had to wait. I am truly sorry for the lack of assistance that you have received. 
You : okay, but to repeat, there's nothing sears will do in terms of the money i paid to sears for a certain standard of service?
You : you're keeping that money?
You : sears is, i mean
David Fleischer : I want to assure you that Sears does care for it's customers. I would like to tell you that this is a rare incident.
You : but it happened twice in one week
You : monday was a no-show due to illness, and i missed half a day of work
You : and today, they're over an hour late outside the window
David Fleischer : I absolutely understand how you are feeling right now and to be honest, I would have felt the same. 
You : just tell me that there's nothing else sears is willing to do. i want you to put it in writing that sears will not compensate customers for lost time and inconvenience that should have been preventable
David Fleischer : I assure you that we will make the decisions necessary to protect our customers. 
David Fleischer : Such an incident is an isolated one. 
David Fleischer : I am sorry that it happened in your case. Please do give us another chance to demonstrate the care we take in helping our customers to shop with us in a better way. 
David Fleischer : We always try and ensure that you get the maximum benefit out of a purchase.
You : i'm making it difficult for you here, because it is obvious you are not allowed to say that sears will do nothing, and yet, you also cannot say that sears will do something. and you probably agree with me that this is ridiculous.
You : but you probably can't even say that you agree
You : anyway, i won't torture you any further. i have copied and pasted all of this and it's going into my blog. i'll blank your name out so you don't get dinged for it. but i want it to be known that this is sears' policy
David Fleischer : I am sorry, we do not have information on that, Bob.
You : david... have a great day. i am sorry you were not allowed to help me.
David Fleischer : Is there anything else I can help you today?
You : yes. i had a question about my aquarium.
David Fleischer : I am sorry, Bob. we do not have any information on Aquarium.
You : you don't? sears does not service aquariums?
David Fleischer : Yes, that's right, Bob.
You : would it be possible, when this technician arrives, for me to have him clean my aquarium as compensation for the time i have lost? that would be an acceptable solution for me.
You : (this is all going in the blog too)
You : i can send you the link if you're interested in sharing it with your friends
You : it's http://www.feeblefables.com - i should have the blog posted probably within a half hour or so
David Fleischer :
Is there anything else I can help you today?
You : is that a "no" regarding the aquarium cleaning? the technician is here now. i can ask him but i wanted to run it by you first.
You : it should only take him about 3 hours, which is about the amount of time i wasted
David Fleischer : I am sorry, That will not be possible with our technician, Bob.
You : could you send someone else to do that?
You : David. Do you think my request is unreasonable?
David Fleischer : I am sorry, we do not service Aquariums, Bob.
You : so... it appears we are at a bit of a standstill then, huh?
You : wait - i have an idea
You : sears charged me $39.99 to check and see if my washer needed any service. there was nothing wrong with it. maybe sears could just refund me for that service as a show of consideration to me. the technician was already here for another service that i paid for, so it would seem a reasonable request and compensation, wouldn't it?
You : this occurred last week when the first technician was here
David Fleischer : I am sorry, You can contact us ( Home Service) at our toll free number 1-800-4 MY-HOME (1-800-469-4663) and they will help you further on this.
You : but i really want YOU to help me
You : David
You : please help me?
David Fleischer : I am sorry, we do not have that option, Bob.
You : please?
You : (still pasting into the blog, by the way)
David Fleischer : Okay, Bob.
You : really?! you'll help me!?!?!?!
You : thank you!!!!!!!!
David Fleischer : You are welcome.

21 January, 2013

Thailand: The final leg toward home (Monday)

We hadn't really thought too much about the implications of an 8am departing flight. On a Monday. It would be necessary to get to the airport early enough to account for traffic, and to deal with whatever insanity was at the airport. I don't remember much about the transit to the airport, other than that we felt frazzled by the early morning hour of departure. We must have left at 5:30 or 5:45am if i recall correctly. We made it to the airport, and then we got on the plane, after whatever routine one must go through at the airport. After boarding, we discovered that there was something wrong with the aircraft. I don't remember what it was, but it resulted in us sitting there for a long, long time. If I am not mistaken, we departed nearly three hours late. So, of course, the next question was, "How are we possibly going to make our connecting flight from Tokyo?!" There was a layover of about three hours, but it seemed iffy, at best, that we would be able to make our way to the next flight. So there was anxiety, for sure.

During the flight, there was pretty much no information about whether or not we would make the connection, but the flight attendants alluded to the fact that it was not looking promising. When we got to Tokyo, there was still no knowledge as to whether we could make our flight. We ran through the terminal, which I seem to recall was like half mile to get from where we were to where we needed to be. And then, much to our dismay, we had to go through a type of customs line, and it was a long, long line. We are trying to communicate to people that we are late for a flight, and others are in the same boat as us. We are all confused, and we all speak about half a dozen different languages. After much chaos, some Japanese airport staff come running through the terminal yelling for people who are flying on the ANA flight to Seattle. And everyone who is on that flight is being segregated and identified to gradually hurry them through. They're holding the plane for us. I guess there was a significant enough number of passengers going through to Seattle that they did hold the plane. But, boy, it was stressful.

The last leg, inside a Boeing 777, completing the last of my "I can't wait to someday fly on this aircraft" experiences. It wasn't that exciting. It's a long, long flight. As we approach Seattle, finally, we are descending, and then it becomes evident that we have made a 180 degree right turn, which would be normal for coming into SeaTac from the north. What we didn't expect, though, was a few minutes later, when we make another 90 degree turn. And another 90 degree turn. And another 90 degree turn. We are going around in circles. For about a half hour. When it gets to about an hour, the pilot comes on and says that there is a fog situation at the airfield and conditions are not acceptable for landing. If the fog doesn't clear soon, we will need to divert to Portland because we are running out of fuel. And, of course, this is exactly what happens. We go to Portland. Land. Refuel. And 2-3 hours after our intended arrival time, we finally are back in Seattle.

A long, long trip.

Much adventure.

Epilogue to come.

20 January, 2013

Thailand: Cooking & Happier Moments (Sunday)

The last day had in store for us one main activity - a cooking class. At the Silom Thai Cooking School, on Silom Road in the heart of Bangkok. It was truly one of the highlights of the trip. I don't recall how the day began, but I think we made our way over to where we needed to meet the others, and arrived early enough that we were quite hungry, or thirsty, or something. I have vague memories that we wanted to get there with time to spare, and then found our way into a restaurant that was completely empty, where we ordered some sort of fruit smoothies because we were very hungry or thirsty, or something. And they took a long time to make these smoothies. It took a very long time. Time was passing, and passing, and passing. And we needed to explain that we were in a hurry, and they found a way to clumsily provide us these beverages in takeout containers, but I don't think they were actually takeout containers - I don't remember well. Just that we were hurried, and we made our way back out to the corner where we met others. There were about 16 people in the class, in total. There were only a few Americans. And the rest of the people were from all over the place. Israel, Europe, Australia. All over.

There would be two teachers and the group would be divided in half. Our teacher was a very fabulous, petite Thai man, who had spent time living in San Francisco, was incredibly funny, and super-high energy. The first stop, immediately, was the open market, where we would select all of the ingredients that would be needed for the class. In addition to selecting the ingredients, the teachers educated us about the ingredients, their purpose, the flavors they provide, how to select them well, and many funny little tidbits. It was exciting, and created a levity that hadn't really been there on the trip for some time. We hadn't, other than the couple of dinners with Jakkie and Nu, had much interaction with others. And it was good to have it.

We made our way back from the market, and into the alley, and up the stairs of the building in which the class was held. We were given a bit of an overview of what we'd be doing. There are probably 20 different dishes that they teach at this school. On any given day, you will prepare 5-6 of these dishes, in courses. Learn, prepare, cook, eat, repeat. It's intense. A whirlwind, but you are doing it, and learning. We started off with preparing a curry paste using a mortar and pestle. Then we made a curry. Then we made a spicy Thai salad. Then we made a dish with fish cakes. Then we make a noodle dish. And there was a dessert too. Each course was bang-bang-bang, He teaches, explains, demonstrates. Then we repeat, go to our woks, and cook it. Eat it. Ten minutes later, back into the preparation room again.

The course probably lasted about three hours and I never wanted it to end. Some of the only photos of "The Two Of Us" from the trip came from that class, when others in the class were all taking pictures for each other. And we looked happy. On that day we looked happy. And it wasn't just an illusion. That was real. That was happiness. The intensity of the activity, jarring us from any of the stuck patterns, or any of the realities that weighed down on us. It all served to pull us back into the place where we were Together, and it didn't feel contrived.

That happens in relationships. Even when things are on the downward spiral, happiness can still be found. Because there was a reason you were drawn together. And underneath all practical matters, it can be found, if only for little windows of time.

I don't remember anything else about that day. I don't remember what we did after the class. I seem to remember we walked much of the way back, but I don't think we walked all of the way. I don't remember what we had for dinner. This was the last day in Thailand. The next day, we would wake up early, and hurry to the airport to begin the trip back.

When I think back on the trip, I will remember the photo of us doing the mortar and pestle together, sitting in the circle with the others, with big smiles on our faces. And perhaps, someday, it will be all that I'll remember about how I felt, with the sadness of feeling disconnected - and regret that I felt unable to stop the progression of that disconnect - falling away from memory.

Photographs have the power to preserve specifically what you want to remember.

19 January, 2013

Thailand: From Khao Lak to Bangkok (Saturday)

Our flight back to Bangkok was not until late in the day, but it would take a certain amount of time, I believe 90 minutes, to get back to the airport, and there was a need to be very certain that one leaves enough time to get there and check-in (we were warned, and it's a good thing, because the Phuket airport was pandemonium).

The morning, as well as the afternoon, of our last day in Khao Lak was marked by aimless ambling. We didn't really have much motivation to do anything too exploratory or touristy because of being so tired from the previous day. We knew we only had until about 2pm before we'd begin the ride back to the airport. We asked our German hosts if we could leave our bags in a safe place while we wandered around. Of course, the said yes, but made us feel uncomfortable about it at the same time, which was exactly par for the course, given our experiences with them during the days prior. So be it.

We wandered into the small sub-village of Khao Lak. I had that sort of sinking feeling one has when one knows they are passing by certain things for the last time. We didn't know what to do with ourselves. Even writing about it now, seven months later, brings up the feelings I had then. We ended up settling on going into a small shop that had beverages, and I think we ordered french fries, believe it or not, just so we could get out of the sun and sit somewhere cool. It was sweltering hot. They had wireless, if I remember correctly, so maybe we were checking some of our communications. We were passing time. Not really connected, not really enjoying ourselves, and mostly waiting for it to be time to move on to the next step in the itinerary. That's sad, looking back. This moment being all that we ever have, and we were squandering the moment, not enjoying it, not even tasting it, only waiting for the next moment, in the hopes that it would somehow be better than the present. More than any other time in the past 2 years, that week was the time that I most significantly lost my connection to my yoga practice. This isn't my yoga blog (you can find that at "The Feeble Yogi"), so I won't elaborate.

It was finally time to go to the airport, so we arranged a taxi and collected our belongings from the hotel. We said our final awkward goodbyes to our hosts. Then the long ride began. Our driver knew a fair amount of English. He was young, and drove a little bit less like a lunatic than most of our other drivers had. It's a pretty drive, and we were largely zoned out. It's been so long now, I cannot remember if we really talked much on the way. When we arrived at the airport, it was a madhouse. There was no apparent order. In order to get a boarding pass, one had to go through a long line, but it was not immediately clear where the line began. We thought we had arrived ridiculously early. But, upon seeing this line, we immediately realized that we might actually be late, rather than early. After standing in line for about 5-10 minutes, we realized we were not at the end of the line. We were at some sort of secondary spur of the line that was accidentally formed by a bunch of people who didn't understand where the line actually ended. So then we had to relocate to the real end of the line, which was now 30-50 people further back than it would have been had we discovered it immediately. It was long, and it was slow-moving. But sure enough, we eventually made it through, and made our way through security, and made it to the gate, where there was yet more waiting. I don't remember much about it, other than there was a delay, and nobody knew what they were doing, and the system they used for a queue was confusing with different rules than anyone could have figured out.

We made it back to Bangkok without much more excitement, other than that our taxi driver attempted to screw us over on the way back to the hotel by refusing to turn on his meter. This was getting really tiresome, but that's Bangkok for you. It was probably around 8pm or so when we finally reached the hotel. I believe we did venture out locally for food, but I don't really recall. Maybe we didn't. Maybe we were too tired. I can't possibly be expected to recall things from seven months ago.

I do recall that when we arrived at the hotel, we discovered that the room we had when we first stayed in Bangkok was actually the more modest room. This room was an amazing suite, incredibly luxurious. I knew that I had booked one room that was nicer than the other. But the first room had been so nice, I had assumed it was that one. Nope. Things got better. It's only too bad we weren't in happier spirits.

18 January, 2013

Thailand: Back for more of the good stuff (Friday - evening)

I have been remiss to complete this blog. It is now August, and I am looking at the history and seeing that I left an unfinished story. While I won't have the details to share due to my eroding memories, I would like to at least document the rough idea of how the rest of the itinerary went, for sake of posterity.

After the long day at the Similan Islands, we were both pretty tired. I recall returning to the hotel and crashing for some period of time, perhaps a couple of hours. The plan, all along, was to return to the restaurant that we loved so much, and see Jakkie and Nu one more time. Blue Mist is the name, as I mentioned previously. Used to be called Blue Dolphin and now it's Blue Mist. We were immediately greeted by our friends, who were both there because, in Thailand, where else would a small business owner be other than at their business? I don't remember the details, other than that it was another great meal, and that Jakkie and Nu, and perhaps Nu's girlfriend joined us at the table for a bit and we chatted about more things, all of which escape me now. I really wish I had written this back on January 19th when I could have told you everything that happened.

This was to be our final night in Khao Lak. It's back to Bangkok tomorrow for the final couple of days of the trip. As I write this, I look back with some regret, because the company really was great company. We were both lucky to be there together. But we were having a hard time appreciating it because of the barriers, mostly mine, which were in place. Looking back, I wish I had at least been nicer. There was a time in my life, "pre-yoga" (which actually ended some period of time before I actually started doing yoga), where I wouldn't have expected myself to be able to act with kindness under all circumstances. But I had been practicing whatever we like to call that thing that is "mindfulness" for over a year at that point, and I still was not willing or able to walk the line of compassion. I think the battle was actually with myself, and that's the battle where it's hardest for me to be compassionate. I was mad at myself for not being able to be something I was not ever going to be able to be. And Melissa got caught in the crossfire.

But this is about Thailand, so I will stop there.

Thailand: Surin Islands - More Risks! (Friday)

Friday morning, once again, we were for an early rise, and a quick breakfast, as we'd be picked up by a van to go snorkeling again. This was a different travel group, and to a different set of islands, the Surin Islands. These were the much awaited islands with the great tales of the most amazing snorkeling ever. The Surin Islands are quite a bit farther away than Similan Islands were. As such, the drive to even get to the point of entering the water was longer. We headed north. I believe we rode for 60-90 minutes in the van. There were a few stops in Khao Lak to pick up more people. Was it the Swedes? Germans? I cannot recall anymore. I know we rode in a van with Swedes who we (I) thought were Germans, and later we discovered we were wrong. Yes. It is coming back to me. This was the Swedes. The ride was long. And not particularly comfortable or enjoyable. And, as usual, riding in a vehicle in Thailand always feels like it might end in a fiery crash, since people will try to execute passing moves that seem perilous, at best. One would (like to) think that having a van full of tourists would be recipe for some degree of caution. But I just don't think the drivers perceive "risk" in the same way as I do. But I am also open to the possibility that I have an over-developed sense of danger.

After much riding, we finally arrived at the location from which we would launch. I have very little recollection of this. No, wait. It's coming back to me. It was another open-air place, and it was much quieter. There were nasty bathrooms around the back. There were some light snacks. This group seemed to have far more older tourists. People older than us, that is. I mean, at this point, I am probably nearly an older tourist myself. These were even older than us. There were no loud obnoxious French dudes. That was a saving grace. Although,  I will foreshadow by noting that, by the end of the day, I had been secretly fantasizing about how it would have been apropos for the French dudes to have been on this trip, rather than the one to the Similan Islands two days prior.

Eventually, it was time to go. We boarded the boat, and began to ride. It was a nice ride. It was clear it was going to be a longer ride, which we knew, but very clearly so, since it took us quite some time to even make our way completely out of the channels from which we launched and into the truly wide-open ocean. The ride was a little choppy, but it was a beautiful day. A few times we hit little bumps that caused water to come flying into the boat and some of the passengers got soaked. But heck, we're about to go snorkeling, so why should it be such a big deal to get wet.

It was like a 90 minute ride. That is a long time to ride in a speedboat, dancing around on the water. It's a long, long time to be sitting facing sideways without good back support. Our muscles were aching by the time we arrived at the destination. But we were there, so yippee. All is well.

Into the water we went, and we snorkeled.

And I've got to say...

It wasn't the best snorkeling I have ever done. It wasn't terrible. The coral was a bit healthier than what we saw at the Similan Islands. But this was no Hawaii. This was no Belize. And it has to make one wonder if it was ever that great? Or is the quality of the snorkeling in the Andaman being overly hyped to drive tourism. The story they tell now is that the tsunami messed things up. Perhaps that's true. My efforts to research this online didn't yield a whole lot of insight.

I got as much as I could out of it. We spent about an hour in the water, and then we returned to the boat, and went to a second location. Same deal. Fair quality snorkeling. I definitely saw some good stuff - there was no shortage of sea life. But I wasn't overwhelmed with the experience. Perhaps it says something about my mindset at that point on the trip. I don't know. I am inclined to believe it was a little bit of both.

After the second snorkel site, we went to one of the islands for lunch. And this was a real treat that we hadn't expected. There was a large shelter built of wood, with picnic tables inside. And we were served fresh Thai meal prepared for us, consisting of whole fish, a very spicy red curry (I mean *very* spicy), and a rice dish, and maybe one or two other things. And this food was fantastic. While we were dining, we had the good fortune to strike up a conversation with a young Swedish guy who was leading a tour group of Swedish people. He was fluent in English (of course), and we chatted a lot, and learned about him. He was nice, and it was a highlight of the trip.

We then, I believe, went to one more snorkeling site, which was (if it even happened?) not memorable enough for me to say anything other than the fact that I think we went to one more site. I don't even think I stayed in the water the full time on that last time because I was even starting to get cold. I imagine that the sunburn I was nursing probably played a factor in feeling cold in the water. But I also imagine that not seeing things that were amazing enough to warrant shivering also played a factor.

The final stop on our trip, one which I had some hesitation about even doing, was a visit to what was referred to as the Mokun Sea Gypsy village on one of the islands. And yes, it is as bad as it sounds, if not worse. This was what one might refer to as a "lowlight" of the vacation. The Mokun, it seems, were an indigenous people of these islands who lived entirely in boats at one point in the past. They did not live on land at all, or not much. They were, as the name implies, wandering sea people. For whatever reasons, and you can probably imagine several, the Thai government decided to make a concerted effort to "civilize" these people (i.e. force them to change their ways). The Mokun were given land and shelters built on stilts on a beach, and there is constant government presence, in the form of monitors or medical people, who are on site in the village. There is a satellite dish. They've been introduced to modern technologies. They are now wearing Western clothing, instead of nothing, or the clothing that native people would have worn. And they no longer live on the sea. We were brought through this "spectacle" to observe, as if it's some really neat circus site to witness. The Thai people who were in our tour group, leading the tour, did not act or speak with respect about these people. It was clear that they were thought of as lesser beings. When we landed, there were children begging and selling these small wooden boats that they either did or did not make. There was a woman who was clearly a very vocal villager. She seemed like she was insane, but I don't think she was. I think she was just so radically different of a human from what we know, that her behavior appeared "abnormal." She was communicating with the Thai people in what seemed like a fairly aggressive, hostile fashion. But to the tourists, she was not unfriendly. Melissa had a camera, and the woman wanted to see herself in the camera view. She looked at herself and she was very excited because I imagine, of course, that seeing herself is not a thing she has the luxury of doing at the frequency that we do. She was kind to us. But she was clearly leery of the Thai people.

As we were waiting to re-board the boat, I watched the behavior of the Thai people, and there was almost a kind of feeling like the Thai ridicule this culture, and there was a look of hatred and resignation on the faces of the Mokun people. Their culture is being strangled. But the Thai would say that they are doing this for the survival and well-being of the Mokun. You know the story. It's awfully familiar.

After this somewhat stomach turning experience, we were finally onto our finally leg of the day (actually, second from final, but we certainly weren't thinking about the tedium of the van ride back from the docks). We boarded the boat and began our 60 kilometer ride back to the mainland.

When we started the ride, there was a little bit of chop on the water, but nothing much to speak of. As the minutes passed, that little bit of chop gradually increased. And it continued to increase from there. Looking back, the Surin Islands were slowly shrinking into nothingness. There was no land whatsoever in sight in front of us. And underneath us, the ocean was growing in intensity. We were at least 30 minutes off land, and it was more than choppy. People in boat were not happy. People in the boat were starting to get splashed with ever-increasing torrents of water, each time we hit some chop. Sitting sideways, as we were, was fatiguing, especially after the long day.

But it wasn't over. It continued to increase. The islands behind us were nearly invisible, and I had the thought, "How bad would it need to be before the captain would decide to turn back?" Because we were getting to the point that, if conditions continued to deteriorate, VERY BAD THINGS could happen. I am not sure I could venture a guess, but I would say that we were easily hitting 6-10 foot swells, possibly larger. And the swells were severe enough that the speed of the boat was reduced from what had probably been 30-40 knots down to maybe 10 knots. We seemed to be barely moving.

And it got worse. One passenger, a young woman, became very ill and her friends were tending to her. We were not feeling ill, fortunately, but I was concerned. I didn't allow myself to devolve into panic or fear or what have you. But I was focused on an action plan. I recognized a few facts. (1) The conditions are poor. But, (2) The captain has not turned back, and the Thai people who are the guides are not behaving as if this is an emergency. (3) No matter what happens, I have snorkeling gear and a wetsuit. If, for some reason, the boat turns over, the most important thing is to not get knocked unconscious, and to not lose the snorkel gear and wetsuit. Because, with that gear, even in poor conditions, I could survive and help others for a longer time than without it. So I had an action plan in place.

The conditions had reached what could be referred to as their nadir at what was probably the halfway point between the start and finish. My action plan was firmly in mind, but I was still feeling like it could devolve into panic if unchecked. I finally caught the eye of one of the Thai guides, and I said to him, "We okay?" And he laughed and smiled, and said "Yes!" Part of me thought, "Well that's what he'd say if we were completely fucked, too," but I opted to not go down that route of thinking, but instead take it as the essential, faith-based reassurance that we were, in fact, okay.

And sure enough, 35 unhappy people survived unharmed, the seas calmed as we finally began approaching land, and became completely calm once we reentered the channels from which we came. The captain received a round of applause (though probably not from the vomiting woman).

The only thing left was the van ride back to the hotel, which was absolutely interminable. All I wanted to do was lie on a bed, and it was not to happen for another 90 minutes. And, of course, we were the last ones dropped off, after all the Swedes. It got to the point that I wanted to scream. But I held it together, and eventually we did make it back alive.

I have to say, thinking back, one should never underestimate the sheer awe and power of the ocean. There's this sense of infinity, and there's an ominous feeling of not knowing the depth and not knowing what it will do next. The conditions were changing on us without really much indication as to why, and we had no idea which direction things would change. I suppose the seasoned captain knows the ocean and can read it. I had no choice to operate on the faith that we were in hands that didn't want to be responsible for the death of 35 international tourists. But, compared to air travel, this was far more unsettling. In an airplane, there's a certain illusion of stability, perhaps because the "air" itself does not come equipped with a "character" capable of seeming malevolence.

Okay. Enough of that talk.

17 January, 2013

Thailand: Downtime is a necessary thing (Thursday)

There will be nowhere near the level of granularity in the details that I can offer about this and the remainder of the trip, as it now stands three months past. But I want to document it, partly because it was something I started, but also because it will stand as my memory going forward. Even though it may not be entirely accurate, it will eventually become truth, as I recall it. So here goes...

After the insane amount of activity on the previous days, including the long boat ride and long day of snorkeling, there was not really much energy to do anything. We knew that the next day would be another long snorkeling trip, and therefore there was not a whole lot of motivation to do anything too intense. And, if you're staying in Khao Lak, there are not options-a-plenty. I had read about, or heard about a park where we could do either walking or hiking. It would require a taxi to get there, and there just wasn't the motivation to do it.

When we got up, we had the standard morning breakfast, and then I believe we meandered in the general direction of the town, to see what was going on. There wasn't much going on. There was nothing going on. We were sunburned. Tired. Low energy. Not particularly thrilled with one another, if I recall correctly. We found our way to a pharmacy, which was amusing, because of the combination of having no idea what things were or, even more amusingly, finding things that we could not believe were sold over the counter without a prescription, and seeing that they cost next to nothing compared to what they cost in the States (e.g. prescription antibiotics that can be quite expensive back home, available for a dollar). I think we bought some type of skin something or other. I cannot remember.

We wandered further.

We saw that there was a restaurant that offered a cooking class. We got the information, as best as we could, with our limited ability to communicate. We contemplated that perhaps we would do the class on Saturday. But there wasn't a whole lot of enthusiasm around it. We were lethargic. We dragged our burnt bodies back to the hotel. I believe there was extended lounging in the room. Then, I think we made our way to a beachfront hotel's sitting area. The intention was to sit in the shade, and read. Someone came over and chastised us for not ordering a beverage from the hotel bar. So we did. Even in the shade, it was uncomfortable because the sun kept creeping back onto my burned legs. And the feeling of sand or even of a towel was not pleasant on my skin. I was wondering how I would stand going back into the sun the next day for more snorkeling. But there was some hope that good sunscreen would protect us. The so-called waterproof stuff we'd previously applied was useless, and probably washed away instantly. And it was exacerbated by my getting in and out of the water. I thought I had reapplied it, but I don't think it takes to the skin when the skin is wet with salt water. Must go on dry skin.

We read in the shade for a long time. Eventually, that was enough. We made our way back toward the hotel. I am certain we did not get another massage, because I cannot imagine having someone touch my skin on my legs.

There was a dip in the pool. Then into the room. And more lounging. On the one hand, it is easy to feel like it's a "wasted day," not having planned activities. But part of vacation is, factually speaking, accepting the need for downtime. And we also knew we needed to be "on" for the next day's activities.

For dinner, we managed to get our act together, and it was back to Green Pepper, the place that had been so good two nights past. We had already pretty much decided that Thursday would be a repeat at Green Pepper, and Friday would be a repeat at Blue Mist, with our new friends. We could have explored other places, but these two were truly worth revisiting.

So... back to Green Pepper. It was a little less crowded this time. I don't remember what we ordered. I would not be surprised, nor should you be, if I were to learn that I had ordered Panang Curry again. Because there's a really good chance I did. But at this point, who knows.

There was not much more to the evening past dinner. We didn't have the energy or the will for nightlife. So it was clearly a case of more lounging, followed by unconsciousness. The next morning would be another early one.

16 January, 2013

Thailand: New friends (Wednesday - Part 2)

When we arrived at the hotel, I decided to take a quick dip in the swimming pool, partly to unwind, but primarily to do a better job of getting all the salt off my body than would be possible in the shower (which was beyond weak - I forgot to mention that). This time, when I arrived at the pool, the Romanian guy was in the water again. He had an audience of about seven people, including the young American guy, and he was telling stories. Again, he was doing most of the talking, about the economy, European culture, blah, blah, blah. It became clear that he is a professor at McGill University, in Toronto (which, of course, according to him, is one of the top universities). Yes. That makes sense. He is a professor. Explains a lot.

I stayed in the water long enough to desalt myself (thanks Bruno, thanks Markus), and then went inside to take a real shower. By this point, it had become evident that the sunburn on the backs of my legs, and the backs of my upper arms (everywhere that was not covered by the wet suit) was quite significant. Not a little burn, but a lot of burn. The skin felt tight, and that was only a few hours after the exposure. Was thinking that it didn't bode well. The obvious culprit was "Thai SPF 50 Waterproof Sunblock." Do not believe anybody who tells you that they are waterproof, unless it's Banana Boat. You can believe them. Maybe the French dudes had been using Thai sunblock too? Who knows?

We showered, and started figuring out where we would have dinner. We knew that Wednesday was Thai Dinner Night with our hosts, so we had to get out of there as fast as possible, to avoid any potential awkwardness. I am exaggerating for dramatic effect. We didn't actually skulk about, but we did know that we'd not be dining at the resort. Trip Advisor had treated us well so far, so we did some research, and saw two restaurants in the Khao Lak area that had received ubiquitously positive reviews. One was named "Smile" and the other was "Blue Mist." After reading the reviews, we opted for the #2 rated restaurant, Blue Mist, because it actually looked more promising as an authentic Thai experience, rather than an all-purpose tourist restaurant (Smile had both a Thai and non-Thai menu, which seemed less promising, though the same was true at Green Pepper, which we liked). To get to Blue Mist, it was necessary to take a taxi, as it was about 5 miles up the road. This is where the currency/value of things in Thailand is odd. It cost us 300 BHT ($10) each way, to go 10 minutes in the taxi. But our entrees at dinner only cost 140 BHT, and even that was on the expensive side, because of the restaurant's proximity to upscale hotels and beach. It would be like taking an $80 taxi ride in Manhattan to order $35 entrees.

The taxi driver took us to the JW Hilton, which was the easiest landmark proximal to the hotel. I should mention that, when I say “taxi,” what I mean is a pickup truck with benches in the back and a covered bed. This was once again what my father would refer to as “not safe.” Despite that, we once again made it to our destination in one piece, though we were not really sure where our destination was. We assumed that the hotel would be able to tell us exactly where the restaurant was, but they weren’t sure. They told us to walk to the beach, and then look for it. Thanks. So we walked through the hotel, exited the back, and then began a long walk toward the beach. You would think that the hotel was “on the beach,” because it was shown on a map as being on the beach. But it turned out, the hotel was set back very far. Between the hotel and the beach was the hotel’s swimming pool, which went on forever and ever. It was shaped like what can only be described as a maze, with landscaping around it. Every time we turned a corner, there was more pool. All of it was contiguous, not separate pools. We walked, and walked, and walked. Eventually we reached the beach and turned right. It was a short walk from that point, and we discovered Blue Mist, which used to be called Blue Dolphin or Dolphin Bay, or Dolphin something else.

The restaurant was in a pair of thatched huts, raised on low stilts, about 5 feet off the ground, with wooden steps going up to each. There was a third thatched hut, set back farther, where the cooking took place. These buildings formed a U-shape, opening toward the ocean, and there were a few more tables in the open area of the “U.” It was so warm there, that even on the beach, at night, it was completely unnecessary to have any sort of protective clothing. We ordered our food. This, of course, included Panang Curry, and I think Melissa had a noodle dish, but neither us can remember what it was (because I have taken so long to write these entries… sigh). We also ordered a smoothie - I think it was banana, since those tend to be popular here. I am assuming that is just a function of being on a tropical resort, smoothies having become an automatic component of that experience.

The food was super-spicy, because I wielded the courage to order it 4 stars on the 4 star scale. It just seems like, when in Thailand, do as the Thai do. But it was absolutely amazing. The best Panang I have ever eaten (and I said that about 4 times on this trip). During dinner, the owner of the restaurant, Jakkie, came over to say hello to us. He was probably in his late 20s, or possibly early 30s. He spoke excellent English, probably the best of anyone we met during the trip. He chit-chatted with us about the food a bit, and we showered him with praises for how wonderful everything was. The meal was capped off with a mango sticky rice, which we had wisely mentioned at the beginning of our meal, because they managed to save their last order for us. 

When we were finishing up, Jakkie came over to talk to us some more, and told us that he wanted to send up a balloon for us. We didn't really know what he meant, but we figured it out, because we'd seen this before. It's a paper-like structure that has a candle or small lamp or something in the center of it. The wick is lit, and the heat eventually causes this object to rise and float away into the sky (probably collecting on some island in the South Pacific and causing endangered lizards to be strangled by it). the idea is that you release this balloon and you make a wish, and good luck will come to you. It felt like a special thing to be offered. Although a lot of these balloons were blowing into the night, it still is nice to be able to have that experience. Jakkie got the thing lit and then took a few photos of us with our phones, as we released it. I cannot remember what I wished for. We watched it rise into the sky. Then we talked with Jakkie some more. We didn't really want this experience to end, because it was the nicest of the whole trip. We talked about Thailand, and about the restaurant. Somehow, the subject moved to the tsunami that had severely hit this coast a few years earlier. When we asked Jakkie what he remembered about it, he told us that we had to talk to his friend, Nu, who was the tour booking guy who worked there. He called Nu over, who also spoke very good English, and was also in his mid 20s. And then an hour of our lives flew past us as we listened, rapt with interest, as Nu told us of his experience where he was nearly killed in the tsunami. He'd been working in the JW Hilton Hotel, which got belted, with no warning, by the full force of the tsunami, with water rising up to nearly the level of a three story building, before it began to recede. He was knocked unconscious, and cut severely all over his body by shattered glass (you could see the nick marks and scars on his body). He thought he was surely going to bleed to death. Many people were killed there. Many. And he was one of the luckier ones who was rushed to a hospital only because he had a friend who was able to get his care prioritized in terms of the very few vehicles that were able to get people in and out of there. He said he had been hospitalized for a month recovering after the tsunami. Nu was such a smiling, tall, handsome, mild-mannered guy, who told his story humbly, but without any hesitation about sharing. I felt so fortunate to be let into this truly personal experience of his life, that gave me such a deeper understanding for the culture and people. He said it took him a few years before he felt safe to be near the ocean again, but that he is now okay with it, obviously, being that he works right there on the beach again near the exact scene.

They called us a taxi back home at the end of the night. We rode back with what was either a German or Australian couple. I think she might have been German but living in Australia. But our minds were still spinning over the experience we'd just had.

Sleep came quickly.