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  • Vanessa Rae

carry a big stick

Updated: Jan 19

I take my daily walks carrying a big stick.


That way, should I happen to cross paths with an unfriendly dog, I can scare them away. The street dogs of Chiang Mai are terrifying: wild, unpredictable, scrappy.


In between my Thai massage lessons, I go on three walks a day and have seen mutts of every shape and size; some with matted, mangy fur, others who appear to be survivors of a car strike or dog fight, while a few have earned the privilege of wearing a collar or even a coat, protecting someone's property however they see fit.


I frequently cross these dogs' paths as they lazily sprawl across a street, chase after a scooter, lounge in the sun on the steps of a golden temple or stand watch in the meticulously-swept dirt yard of a makeshift shack.


A few weeks ago, just before my arrival at Baan Hom Samunphrai School (which means, "place of herbal medicine") in northern Thailand, a fellow student on a walk was bitten on their upper leg. They were sent to a medical clinic for care. Part of me wishes I hadn't heard that story on my first day here because I've never had a fear of dogs until that very moment.





As a lifelong animal lover and quasi-vegetarian, the thought of bringing physical harm to a dog or any living being is unimaginable. Still, every day here, I have had full-body, adrenaline-induced goosebumps from being so deeply startled.


One moment, I am peacefully contemplating a hibiscus flower or papaya hanging heavily on a branch, happily soaking in sunshine, and the next I am jumping out of my skin as a dog snarls and barks viciously in my general direction.


All it takes is raising the stick over my head to send the dog running the opposite way, tail tucked between their legs.


My heart breaks a little every time I do this.


I think of my own sweet Lupe, who was once a street dog in Guadalajara, Mexico, and how he was equally terrified of anyone carrying anything stick-like, such as a hiking or fishing pole, when I first got him nearly three years ago.


I know unequivocally that no one in the world loves their dog more than I love Lupe. So if you had told me a couple weeks ago that I would soon take to threatening dogs with violence daily, I would have laughed in your face and adamantly said, "Never!"





Nor would I have believed that I could spend an entire month waking at the first light of dawn, work out or walk before sunrise, practice yoga for an hour, do Thai massage all day long and manage to have enough energy for long walks in between it all.


But travel reveals parts of yourself and our world in unexpected and surprising ways. Bird songs become mysterious, street signs are fascinating, dining is an adventure.


So I lean into all the small details of life here with curiosity.





There are the "climax birds," as we've come to nickname them, who start their calls around 6am every day. They begin with a low-toned "ooh-OOH!" which increasingly gets louder and louder, building into a crescendo until they suddenly fall silent.


There are the roosters, who insist in their rather masculine fashion, that they are indeed awake and would like the whole world to know it, whether it is 2 o'clock in the morning, 4 in the afternoon, or anywhere in between.


There is the acrid smell of burning trash, which makes my lungs and throat ache, as it joins the smog of Chiang Mai: the walled city in a green valley along the Ping River.





There is the hardest bed I've ever slept in (yes, including the years I spent living in wilderness), more akin to a wood floor than a mattress. As a side sleeper, I am tormented nightly and have found restful sleep elusive at best.


There is the worst water pressure in my shower room, which I share with ants and one very large spider.


There are nine other massage students here: Mark from Longview, Texas; Sarah from Edinburgh, Scotland; Erin and Adrienne from Portland, Oregon; Tobias from Berlin, Germany; Cindy from Dallas; Texas, Rin from Phuket, Thailand; Neville from Totnes, England; and Fox, a traveler, most recently from Portland. All but one are massage therapists and most have been doing Thai massage for a very long time. There is also a lovely couple staying at Baan Hom; Sheila from New York, New York, and Wolfgang from Berlin. They've been coming to this place to enjoy the warmth and relaxation for many, many years.


There are chilly mornings when I can see my breath, and do not want to do Rusi Daton (Thai yoga for practitioners). Still, we sit cross-legged, bow our heads together and begin our chant, thanking the Buddha and his physician, the father of Thai medicine, offering gratitude for this practice in hopes it will bring healing to ourselves and our clients. After an hour of moving through a specific head-to-toe sequence, my body feels grounded and supported in ways I have perhaps never known before. I am pleasantly surprised by how flexible and strong I've become over the past few weeks, in more ways than one.





There is the nightly "mystery dessert game," where all the students take turns guessing which ingredients are in the treat at the end of our evening meal. Some nights, it is a gelatinous, slightly sweet concoction inside a banana leaf, either steamed or grilled over a fire. Other nights, it is a gloppy stew of small red balls that are both gooey and crispy somehow, like a bowl of crunchy cereal that's been left in a bowl of milk, minus the sweetness. There are some desserts that resemble donut holes, except they are rolled in sesame seeds or green-flecked leaves, and filled with a brown substance, vaguely akin to tahini. Some have guessed it's mashed mung bean. One night, we're served a somewhat hard, somewhat gooey brown disk. No one knows what it is, some can't eat a bite, others swear it resembles a turd. We all die laughing.


But the best nights are when we're served pumpkin stew cooked in coconut milk, not only because I finally recognize what I'm eating, but because it reminds me so much of tsirebky, one of my favorite dishes in Madagascar. These nightly guessing games leave us roaring, tears of laughter coming down our cheeks, especially when we're sleep-deprived, as we attempt to describe what we're tasting. None of us ever agree on what it is nor whether or not we actually like it.


There is the sing-song sound of our Thai teachers' voices, who speak in such a way you'd swear they're murmuring a lullaby rather than carrying on a conversation. They offer professional sessions to students after class or on the weekends. In the true Thai way, sessions last anywhere from 3-4.5 hours.





There is the exhaustion that comes from doing bodywork day after day, using our thumbs almost entirely. We are all learning new techniques and new ways of moving the body, which requires deep lunges and exact pressure, core strength and balance. We work from 9 in the morning until 4 in the afternoon, taking an hour for lunch. All the while we are focused on orienting ourselves to anatomical landmarks, properly doing techniques, studying sen (energy) lines, frantically scribbling down notes in our workbooks and giving feedback to our fellow students as we receive massage from each other.





One might imagine that getting bodywork for a whole month would be the most wonderful experience in the world. What could be so hard about that?! However, often we're left feeling lopsided, slightly battered and/or discombobulated, especially as we quickly transition from receiving a deep session to suddenly turning around and giving the same treatment to our classmate. Our brains are frequently mush by the the time the late afternoon heat rolls around.





There are mosquitoes. Oh, mosquitoes, those annoying, buzzing insects. They fear not mosquito coils nor citronella.


There is tropical plant life absolutely everywhere, a jungle-y lushness. Flowers explode with blossoms of every color of the rainbow, palm trees and coconut trees sway in the breeze, bananas hang heavy from their lofty green perches, moringa trees line the streets (which I haven't seen since I left Madagascar in 2012; their leaves bring back memories of so many watery broths), bright birds of paradise, gargantuan lily pads, on and on it goes on every walk I take: starfruit, mighty banyan trees, intoxicating frangipani, fig trees, cactus, longan fruits, coleus, Thai chiles, bright purple pea flowers, orchids, giant pothos, spiky jackfruit, prehistoric-looking ferns, morning glories, lime trees, bean pods as long as my femur, basil of all kinds, flowering trees with massive yellow blossoms that look like a cross between a carnation and a pompom. And the vines, so many vines... it's not uncommon to see someone walking around their property with a machete to clear a pathway.





There are sticks of incense and vibrant strings of flowers adorning spirit houses in the corner of every yard. Some offer pineapple and sugar cane. Others provide cigarettes and juice boxes, just in case the spirits are in need of a different kind of offering.


There is a golden temple down the road, with an adjacent funeral pyre. Its concrete platform becomes the final resting place prior to cremation. As the smoke rises into the sky, it lifts into a magnificent column. Then fireworks are lit to alert the spirits someone has been freed of their body.




There is the 5:30pm bell, my favorite bell of all. It lets us know the herbal steam bath is ready. In between the screen-wrapped classroom and the green-tiled pool, sits a small bath house with a propane-powered steam machine attached. This metal contraption is quite difficult to describe but magical nonetheless. Inside the bath house, the pressurized steam is directed to a large basket filled with fresh herbs. The room fills with the fragrant scents of lemongrass, ginger, turmeric, plai and other lovely Thai herbs whose names I cannot pronounce. We steam ourselves for at least an hour and a half each night, stepping out when our cheeks are rosy and hot to jump into the cool pool. We repeat this cycle over and over again until the dinner bell rings at 7. Hot, fresh ginger tea is served. As bats flitter about in last light of day, we're left feeling renewed and relaxed.


There, drying by the side of the road, is shredded coconut and sticky rice and people's laundry, including underwear.


Three meals a day are served at Baan Hom, some of the freshest and most delicious food you could ever imagine. Passionfruit, guava, tiny sunshine-flavored bananas, enormous avocados, lychee juice and neon-colored oranges adorn every breakfast table. Decadent lunches of pad thai, pad see ew, pineapple fried rice, noodle soups and green papaya salad. Dinners resplendent with green curries, eggplant stew, spicy green beans, fragrant coconut and galangal stew, delicate mushroom and basil dishes, chicken and egg and tofu and yum. Sometimes the food is so spicy, you break out into a sweat.





There is always being 14 hours ahead of your sweetie, one of you going to sleep as the other is waking up. Forever living in their tomorrow. Video calls frozen or dropped.


There are the daily markets down the road, which teem with all the beautiful and terrible scents of open-air fish and vegetables and sushi and meat, out in the warm air with fans blowing away flies. Fetid water, rotten trash, diesel truck fumes spewing black clouds as they roll past, stands with towering heaps of oranges, mangoes, or deep-fried somethings, clothes for sale, some used, some newly shipped from China, tubs of fried crickets, plastic bags of bloody organs. Here a table with a random assortment of gidgets and gadgets, there a tiny table with a few foraged fruits for sale.


People stop and stare when you pass by. All they need to hear is "sawadee kaaahhh," a cheerful greeting, before they start grinning from ear to ear. Thailand is called The Land of Smiles for a reason: people are indeed so friendly here. Many strangers have gone out of their way to help me scare off dogs that snarl at me as I walk by.


I have learned one crucial lesson, more important than massage techniques or the name of a mystery dessert: in the Land of Smiles, just smile!


But always carry a big stick.







There are two puppies here (named Tong Dee & Tong Dum) and one big, fat, crosseyed cat we've nicknamed "Waffle."








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