“Five hundred twenty-five thousand six hundred minutes/Five hundred twenty-five thousand moments so dear/
Five hundred twenty-five thousand six hundred minutes/How do you measure, measure a year?”
— RENT, Jonathan Larson
How do you measure a year?
This year, it was all about defining moments as an expat in Thailand. Moments that changed my life, moments that forever altered my heart, moments that impacted me so greatly they caused me to ache in ways I never thought possible.
It goes beyond measuring things in cups of coffee, sunsets, stolen glances, secret kisses … it is so much more than that.
In five hundred twenty-five thousand six hundred minutes, anything is possible. Everything is possible.
These are the moments that will always be remembered for the impact they had on me in 2013. Some good, some bad, some heart-breaking, but always, always making me the person I am so proud to be today.
1. Everyday is New Year’s Eve. Especially New Year’s Eve.
Any good story starts with New Year’s Eve. As a friend constantly reminds me, in Chiang Mai, everyday is New Year’s Eve, so what better way to begin with saying New Year’s Eve — the real New Year’s Eve — changed everything.
It starts as most NYE’s start, over dinner and drinks. My friend, Megan, is in town to visit me, and we head off to Loi Kroh to grab dinner. As lights twinkle and reminders of New Year’s Eve surround us everywhere we turn on the crowded street, we enjoy dinner and then drinks. My friend, Aaron, joins us and then, after dinner, we head to a bar owned by two Americans.
I’m not a New Year’s fan, so the idea of going out on the night where everything is placed on how much fun you have/how much you drink/who you kiss, makes my stomach turn. But, I’ve got a friend in town, and Aaron wants us to check out the bar, so we go.
I walk in, and it is empty, save for two Americans — the owners. In the dimly lit scarlet bar, the three of us begin to down the white liquor when I meet Ron and Hollywood. They are both from America and have just opened The Playhouse. And, other than Aaron, they are the first American guys I have met in Chiang Mai. I instantly like them both, and while I am there, I spend most of my time with Ron, chatting away about life in Thailand and life in America, and how glad we are we both came here.
He’s pretty awesome.
And, even though we leave the bar, I don’t forget about The Playhouse. There’s something in the back of my head that tells me Ron and Hollywood will both become important people in my life. Even if they don’t know it yet.
I lay in bed the night before we are due to leave for Phnom Penh, feverish, shaky, praying to some higher power that I don’t have dengue. In the morning, I call my boss and tell her I’m not sure if I can make the trip. But, inside, I am devastated. It’s an elephant rescue. Two elephants being rescued, and not going crushes me.
“I will come,” I explain, “but if I start to feel worse, I am going to fly back to Chiang Mai. I don’t want to get hospitalized in Cambodia.”
I make the trip, fortunately, and am treated to the most magical eight days of my life.
The journey starts out hard — we land in Phnom Penh and the next morning embark on a day-long drive, where, under the cloak of darkness, we meet up with another team of volunteers who have driven the two elephant trucks into a tiny town along the Mekong. The next morning, we awake early to go to a village in Ratanakiri to take the first elephant from her life of trekking.
We spend the day with the children of the village, playing with them, giving them clothing, watching in awe as they watch us in awe. With so little, these children’s live seem so filled with laughter.
When its time to load the first elephant into the truck, Lauren, a volunteer who I had met the night before, leans into me and whispers, “This is the worst part, they don’t always want to get in the truck.”
But, this elephant? She does. Tempted with bananas, she walks right onto the truck from the pile of dirt. Done.
That night, our team visits the other village with the second elephant we are rescuing. In front of a fire, and sitting on mats covering the earth, with chickens and pigs hovering besides knobby stilts supporting the huts, we dine on home-cooked food as the owners of the elephant swap tales of life. Even though I understand nothing of what they are saying, simply being there, in this little village where a radio provides entertainment and most huts don’t have electricity, I am moved.
In the morning, we are up before the roosters and begin our journey to the sanctuary outside of Siem Reap.
We drive down dirt highways through the interior of the country. Along the roadside, children run from their huts and wave at us and the elephants. We speed through areas of trouble. I ride atop the truck at times, sitting with one of the elephants and Lauren. As the sun begins to set and the fires from the jungle burning around us begin to fill my lungs, I opt to get back in the van.
When we arrive to the sanctuary around 9 p.m., seeing the elephants take their first steps to freedom touches me. Lauren and I hang back, arms wrapped around each others shoulders. Smiling. Yeah, it was entirely worth it.
Less than a month later, we are back out on the road. This time, it is to rescue Lucky, a circus elephant in need of retirement. At nearly 30, she has been the star of a circus in Surin almost her entire life. She is blind from the spotlights shining in her eyes. We head out to rescue her from Chiang Mai, packing 10 volunteers into a van and driving through the night, stopping at the Cambodian border in the morning, and then arrive to Surin in the mid-afternoon.
We are there for less than two hours. Then, Lucky is loaded onto the truck — again, she goes in without a thought — and we head back to Chiang Mai. My co-worker, Mindy, and I hop onto the truck early in the morning to sit with her. Above us, the stars twinkle. Next to us, Lucky eats her corn stalks, softly emitting a “crunch crunch.”
As the sky begins to lighten, we can see a storm ahead. Mindy and I ignore it … until it starts to pour. Then, soaked to the bone, we get back in the van until lunch. On the last leg to Elephant Nature Park, Lek, Mindy and I climb back up the truck and are with Lucky as we drive into the park.
I watch with tears in my eyes from my perch a top the truck as she takes her first steps to freedom and meets the family herd for the first time.
It’s actually very difficult for me to write about my time in Myanmar. Not because the words fail me, but because there are stories I just can’t share. I can say this — I was in Myanmar for a week. I met amazing, beautiful locals. I visited the gorgeous Shwedagon Pagoda. I got to be so very close to the royal white elephants. I saw jungles. I explored the Yangon Zoo. And, I left Myanmar feeling absolutely drained, depressed and exhausted in every sense of the word. While I can’t say much, just know it is one of those trips that will stay with me forever.
5. Getting a home
“James’ dad,” Wendy heaves into the phone between cries, “he’s passed.”
The death of my friend’s father catapults my life from one of an open book at Smith Residence to one of far more privacy. In a rush to leave, there are no loose ends tied, and a few weeks later, I get a phone call from Mary, who, along with her husband, are the landlords of said house.
“Wendy said you were interested in renting the house,” she explains over the phone. “You want to come and look at it?”
I’m sitting at a local restaurant having a beer with Paula.
“What do I do?” I ask, torn between having the comfortable life at Smith versus being on my own.
She opens her blue eyes wide.
“I think you should do it!”
The next day, Paula and I walk the quick minute down the street from Smith and tour the house. It’s bigger than the condo I lived in when I lived in Vegas, but not nearly as modern. There are no glass windows. There are gaps between the “sky light” and the ceiling. The kitchen is a sink, a refrigerator and a microwave. The burners are out on the patio.
“Yes,” I say to Mary and John while standing in the teak upstairs. “I will take it.”
A few nights later, I stand on the wooden stairs of my new house and take it all in. The patio. The living room. The kitchen. The bedroom. The guest room. They’re mine. All mine.
It gets even better when I bring home a cute little black and white cat, Penelope, from the office, and a month later, get to take the cat I rescued my first few days here, Lucky, home.
I haven’t felt this grown-up in a long time. And, the icing on the cake? It’s my house in Thailand. For the first time in a long time, everything seems to have fallen into perfect place. Until the perfect burns up along with the mountains during burning season.
A week after I move into my house, I have a house-warming party. The first guests are Paula and my co-workers, Adam, Ter and Lily. We sit on the benches on my patio, sipping rice wine — Adam’s favorite. At some point in the night, we’ve all had a bit to drink, and Adam decides he needs to leave. I give him a hug goodbye and thank him for coming. He leaves his shoes behind.
And, I never see him alive again.
A few days later, I walk into the office when my boss, Lek, stands up and looks at me.
No. No. No way.
“He died, Diana.”
I sit down in a tattered black chair in front of her desk and bury my head in my hands.
“He had an infection and it killed him.”
I just saw him. He was just at my house. His shoes … his shoes are sitting in front of my door.
She comes up behind me and hugs me.
Adam’s death is the first death of a friend in my life. It is the first time I have known what it is like to grieve for someone who isn’t family, but might as well be. Adam is my first friend in Thailand. The first person I can talk to about living here. And now, he’s gone.
I walk through the day as a zombie. And, when I’m not a zombie, I am a wailing, sobbing mess.
This goes on for days. Tears. Smiles. Memories of Adam. I don’t live in a world of sad, but I don’t heal as well as I should either.
There are a few things Chiang Mai is known for, one of which is Songkran, or the Thai New Year. For four days, the city is soaked. Literally. Everyone sheds their work faces and puts on huge, enormous smiles as they delight in soaking people with buckets of icy water. It’s a party, and everyone in the city is invited.
We end up camping out at The Playhouse (remember New Year’s Eve? Well, since then Ron, Hollywood and I have become good friends and spend a lot of time together). For days, we dump buckets on people, squirt them with PVC pipes-turned-water weapons. We even hop in a truck and drive around the moat, soaking other trucks and people on the sidelines.
It’s a blissful party and for a few days, all is right with the world as we live in a constant state of being drenched and reliving our youth.
8. The dating game
As a western girl, it is ridiculously hard to meet western guys that actually 1) want a western girl; and 2) are here more than a few nights. So, when I meet a traveler who is cute, funny, charming, of course, I live it up. And, then there is a guy in town whose company I enjoy … until he leaves a few months later.
It reinvigorates me. Gives me a little sparkle of hope that, yes, I can play in this dating game.
But, once I take a look around at the environment I am in, I lose interest. Again. Maybe … it’s ok to just be single and not set deadlines? Slowly, I start to let go of the life I imagined I would have at this point. You know, being married with kids. ‘Cause, let’s be real. This is Thailand. And that just isn’t happening for me here. I embrace it and come to terms with the new life I am living, resetting all of those imaginary goals and deadlines.
9. Realizing I’m destructable
Photo courtesy Deanslife via Flickr Creative Commons
So, events 6, 7 and 8 all take place over the span of two weeks. Hey, life moves fast here as an expat in Chiang Mai. It is the middle of April, just after Songkran, when I finally come to terms with Adam’s death. And, finally come to terms with my own mortality.
After the evening service for his funeral, I go to see Ron at Playhouse. Suddenly, I can’t see. I can’t breathe. I need to lay down. Then, I need to stand up. I need to puke. I need to cry. I need to freak out.
Hello, anxiety attack.
I have two anxiety attacks over the span of two hours. I’ve never had one in my life, so I think I am dying. Hysterical, I go to Smith and ask the doctor who owns the place, hand tightly gripping Paula’s hand, if I am having a heart attack. If I am going to die like Adam died. He assures me I am fine, tells me to take a Xanax. I do, and in 10 minutes, I have regained composure and am more drugged than anything else.
Paula sleeps on my couch that night because I no longer trust myself.
For months, I teeter on the edge, a little voice in the back of my mind always wondering if I am going to die, or have a panic attack and think I am dying. It is a totally shitty way to live, but I learn to make adjustments.
I (temporarily) cut out caffeine. I pop Xanax (without abusing it, promise). I try to get to the root of my problems, which are a lot deeper than just Adam’s death. I enlist my friend to start a round of acupuncture with me, and slowly, the heart racing subsides. Slowly, my stability returns.
10. A summer of friends
It’s July 13, 2013. I’m standing outside of Owen’s Restaurant, looking up at the sky as a barbecue smokes next to me. Inside are Ron, Hollywood, Katie and Andrew. Four of my closest friends here. We’re celebrating my one-year anniversary of being an expat.
I stand there feeling ridiculously blessed. These people, the longest of whom I have only known since New Year’s Eve, have become such a permanent fixture in my life. We spend all of our time together. I’ve learned to lean on them when I have troubles, and cannot imagine my life in Chiang Mai without them in it. We, along with Ae, and Beam, adventure to Sri Lanna together. We share nights at Smith and my house laughing over Sangsom. We have breakfast, lunch and dinner together.
Only, a little more than two weeks later, like most friends in Chiang Mai, they are all leaving. Hollywood is going south for some time, Katie and Andrew are going to Australia to find work, and Ron is going to Israel.
Me? I’m staying here.
The day they leave, I lay in bed and cry. For weeks, my eyes linger on the road we all used to walk down together. I sit at Ae’s bar and remember all of the good times we had there. I’m caught in this fog of ghosts, reliving the moments of the year that made me the most happy.
I’m like an annoying lost puppy who can’t find her way home. I sink. Deep. Hard. Horribly.
I was meant to see Ron in Israel, but you know the saying “the best laid plans …” so, yeah. Instead, I spend most of my time alone, caught deep in that eternal mind fuck I loathe/love. It’s terrible/amazing. It’s the first time in years I’ve had my passport stamped for something other than work, and I don’t even appreciate it. I’m that big of an asshole.
I wander through the early morning in Tel Aviv, eyes open, trying desperately to grasp some new perspective on life. To regain that spark I had when I first arrived in Thailand. To remember to count my blessings. To love what I have. But, I’m so beaten. I’m so worn down by life the past five months. Alone, in Israel, I feel even more alone. I feel guilty for not living up my time there, but know I have to go through the funk to have the fun.
I cry when I get on the airplane and fly over the Mediterranean, over Europe. I cry for the life I had in America, the life I had in Europe, the life I had in Thailand before everyone left.
Yeah, I’m in full-scale self-pity disgustingness. I know it. I try to fight it. But, I’m headed to my Tara — my parent’s home — to get a grip.
No words are truer to me than “home is where the heart is.” Since I first left home, Mom always equated my love for home to Scarlett O’Hara and her Tara. Only, this time, home isn’t the home I grew up in. I said “goodbye” to that home after Thanksgiving 2012. Now, they’ve retired and moved to Lewes, Delaware, just outside my childhood vacation spot of Rehoboth Beach.
Over a week, I cry, I laugh, I try to make sense of my life and what I want. Because, to be quite honest, I have no fucking clue. Do I want to stay in Thailand? Do I want to go home? Do I want to travel? Do I want to try living in Europe? There is the pull of elephants and Lek in Thailand, but still …
No. Fucking. Clue.
But, there is something to be said for hugs from Mom and Dad. They reassure me, even when I’m at my worst. For most of my time at home, I cry, to be honest. Being in America is hard for me for so many reasons. It reminds me of the sacrifices I make being an expat. The things I leave behind. But, it also reminds me of the things I have in Chiang Mai, even though I am too depressed to see those things clearly at the time.
The last day — the day before I head to Vegas to reconnect with my former Vegas life — I go to Pennsylvania to see my grandfather. After being in and out of the hospital for months, he is now in a nursing home and aging quickly. We sit together in the little visiting area, as he complains about the food and recounts the same stories my parents have heard over and over again.
It’s the first time I look at him and see an old man, and it guts me. When it is time to say goodbye, I rest my hand on his bony shoulder and hold him. To this day, I remember what that felt like, and even writing this makes me tear up.
I turn back to see him one last time, covered in a blue blanket, and then leave the home and board my flight to Vegas.
13. Turning 34
I’m in Chiang Mai for about two weeks before my birthday. The night before I turn 34, I am with Beam at a bar, enjoying some gourmet beer (it does exist in Chiang Mai, it is just super pricey). We sit together and I open up to Beam about my fears of being alone forever, my fear of death, my fear of not being able to find the happiness I had when I arrived to Thailand.
“D, you have to realize, you are absolutely perfect just the way you are,” he says to me, smiling. “You can be happy, you just have to let yourself.”
His words stick in my head. I remember being with the shaman in Utah almost two years ago, and how that changed me. And now, his words, they resonate. Perhaps it is because I am just so tired of living in a constant state of unhappy, but really, I think it is because his words finally give me permission to be happy again. To accept exactly who I am, quirks and all.
I. Am. Perfect. Just as I am.
The next day is my birthday, and I give myself the greatest present I could ever give myself — I am honest. I admit my weaknesses. I admit my feelings. I admit I can be happy, it is just a matter of changing my perspective.
Surrounded by new friends and old, we sit together at Smith as I wipe the tears from my eyes and decide it is time to get back to me, and to relish the moments I have in my life — the good and the bad. It’s the best night I’ve had in a long time. Sure, I remember the friends who aren’t there, but then I open my eyes and see all of the friends who are there. All of the people who care about me, and who I am so madly in love with. Justlikethat, my life seems to be back on course.
When my grandfather dies nine days later, it hurts. But, instead of letting it destroy me, I open myself up to the love around me — and there is so much love around me — and I celebrate his life and I celebrate my own.
So, yes, 2013 was one hell of a year. It was fulfilling, heartbreaking, eye-opening … but in the end, I learned the most valuable lesson of all: to love myself. To honor myself. And, if it took all of these moments to figure it out, that’s fine. I wouldn’t trade any of them for the world.
I measure this year through these moments. Moments, where regardless of pain, there was always love somewhere in the mix. So, yeah. I guess I am kind of like Larson and “Rent.” I measure in love.
How do you measure yours?
May 2014 be a blessed year for all of you. Love. With your eyes open. Wide.
This post is dedicated to all those I love, especially Andi and Arnie Edelman, my brother Mike, the memories of my grandfather Louis Lindenbaum and my friend Adam Bromley, Lek Chailert, Darrick Thomson, my Chiang Mai crew/family (you all know who you are), my friends in America, and the countless animals who have invaded my heart.