Four pairs of shoes were in my rucksack. How could I have let this happen on a nearly year-long round-the-world journey where I had to carry everything on my back?
I'd been running around in sandals with one melted heel for months after a motorbike exhaust pipe had a disagreement with my shoe in Mali, but I'd ended up with two replacement pairs when one pair was too tall and made me trip, and the other set gave me blisters the one time I'd worn them.
I'd just have to learn how to walk in taller ones, I thought. Anyway, I liked being tall in Thailand.
I asked my friend Toby if he knew any women with my size feet, so I could give away some shoes. He’s an American living in Chiang Mai and I'd met him in Bangkok a few weeks ago, though I'd been e-chatting with him for a bit before that. He knew a university friend of mine from when they were kids together in Manhattan.
Toby laughed at the idea of any Thai women having monstrous feet in my size. I was a little offended, but I knew what he meant. The reason I felt tall here is that Thai women are generally smaller than I am. I'm not tall at home – I'm fairly average, meaning tall people think I'm short and short people think I'm tall – but I was feeling both cool and clumsy being a big person here. This was accentuated more when I went to Chiang Mai’s “Earth Tone” clothing shop – I loved their shirt I'd bought here during my first trip to Thailand in the year 2000 – and the clothes wouldn't even fit over my shoulders. I'm a small or medium at home, but Thai t-shirts aren't even big enough for my apparently hulking frame. Toby has the same problem in Thailand. I'd even started to think of him as hugely tall, though he isn't, not really.
I was only planning on being in Chiang Mai for a few days, but the problem was that my Thailand visa would expire in a few days, while my onward plan was still in flux. I was hoping to go to Tibet but it was currently closed to non-Chinese tourists and had been closed intermittently all summer. I wanted to go and I wanted to go local, supporting Tibetan businesses and trying to understand what is going on there, but at the moment, I wasn't going at all – local or otherwise.
I wrote to a boat transportation company that travels in a single day from Chiang Saen, Thailand to China along the Mekong. From there I could go by bus and train to Chengdu, which is a gateway city for Tibet departures. The Mekong River was high and it was no problem to go – except that the boat trip was only being offered twice a month. I'd initially thought that the next departure would be too late, but I was clearly going to have to extend my Thai visa. There was no point in going to China to hang around and wait. Not when I could stay in Chiang Mai’s cheapish, super-comfortable Lux Hotel and hang out with my pal Toby.
Plus, I was down to the wire on finishing a 65-page comic book I'd been working on for months for my employers in Kuwait. I needed hours and hours of down time to sit in my room and be employed. Working from the road had proven to be difficult, but I couldn’t continue to do this trip without income.
I didn't let the work stop me from getting out once a day. Once, Toby and I went to see a Harry Potter movie at the Chiang Mai mall out by the airport. We'd gone to see Green Lantern when Toby had been in Bangkok, so I wasn't surprised this time when the audience rose for the salute to Thailand and the King at the beginning of the film.
Another time, we went to Chiang Mai’s Sunday Walking Street and sat down with some hilarious older European men while we people- and busker-watched. Toby introduced me to a mad Hawaiian who insisted I try eating Ben & Jerry’s Cherry Garcia ice cream with chop sticks the next time I had the opportunity ("Sublime"). And then there was the time I got impressively lost on the back streets of Chiang Mai and had to be rescued by my iPhone's Google Maps. But let’s not dwell on that.
Finally, Monday rolled around and my visa was expiring at midnight. I could have run up to the Burmese border, gotten stamped out, and turned around and walked back into Thailand, getting a 15-day visa, but that would have been a long day when I could instead just go to Immigration out by the shopping mall and pay for an extension.
I woke up early, crossed the street, and hailed a shared pick-up truck taxi, a red songthaew. I asked for the Airport Mall, which is a lot cheaper than asking for the airport, which is just past Immigration. I walked up the street from the mall to Immigration.
That holiday that had made the trains all sold out when I’d headed up north from Bangkok on the bus? It was still with us.
I'd be illegal as of midnight.
* * *
"NWA ...no ...wait, that one's Public Enemy," said Toby, fiddling with his pencil and hogging the list of pub quiz questions.
"Don't Believe the Hype!" That was me, pulling some long-dormant bit of trivia out of the recesses of my brain. Then, "No, Toby, you spelled that wrong! Fix it. FIX IT!"
I'd gotten a little carried away at quiz night at an outdoor Chiang Mai bar, which resulted in a lot of eye-rolling from Toby. But I hadn't corrected his spelling of "Rumours" on the Fleetwood Mac question – darn! – so we lost that point. I tried to bluff that the spelling had been different on the American release but the quizmaster would have none of my lies.
This didn't matter. Between us, Toby and I had an encyclopedia of worthless tidbits in our brains. We crushed at quiz night, which surprised me since I'd never done a quiz night before. But then, the others were European expats a good deal older than us, who frequently said: "Bah! That's not music." So perhaps we had an unfair advantage.
Late Monday night, or early Tuesday morning – after the "best noodles in Chiang Mai" drove up on a food cart, I got to ride on the back of Toby's bicycle to my hotel. I hadn't been out this late in a long time, though the expats of Chiang Mai seem to live through a whirl of late-night social engagements.
And in the morning, I had to drag myself out of bed early to head back to Immigration. I didn't know if I could get my visa renewed or if I had all the paperwork right, but if anyone asked me who sang "Pulling Mussels (From the Shell)," I'd ace it.
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