Over the past three months I hoped that I could share that I lost 25 pounds. It hasn't happened. But I’m close. In the daily ups and downs that can often keep us drifting from goals, I’ve been impaired with another upper respiratory infection for the past ten days.
This condition impedes so many elements of my life in Thailand that it consumes my energy and generates the “what was I thinking?” mentality. Suffice to say, after a low-grade fever that lasted for days I finally got the butt shot and an array of meds. I’m on the mend, but it’s an arduous journey.
Thai people are fanatical about health and physical fitness. When I was returning from the Temple in Chiang Dao last weekend with the Director, Kim and Maedaeng, a tiny, elderly, devout Buddist who habitually dresses in white, they all expressed concern about my cough and pulled a paper facemask out of the glove compartment for me to wear in the car.
I’ve heard “Don’t drink cold water” as the primary advice for the cough. When I lost my voice a few days later, my favorite carrot smoothie guy wouldn’t fill my usual order and put together a warm concoction of fresh squeezed lemon juice, heaps of salt and sugar and made me drink it on the spot. Supplements for energy and health abound in the 7-11s. The local banana jelly produced here is cut into bite size pieces and served over ice at the school cafeteria. “Good for health”, Tua says. When the Thai teachers and students are merely sniffling their way through the day, I am suffering from thunderous reaches deep in my lungs. One of the greatest losses of my sickness experience is the inability to exercise.
In the late afternoon of the workday, legions of Thais in all shapes and sizes emerge to move in various ways around town. Here’s a highlight of two favorites:
1) The uber-fit runners and bikers in the Ancient Forest Temple Across the Street. The Forest Temple is one of the best elements of my life here. In the waning light of the day the place retains the cool tranquility and explodes with bird activity. The runners gather in groups and then take off on their jogs on the paved roads that circumnavigate and bisect the park around the stone ruins, finishing sleek and shiny with sweat to rinse off under the hose at the entrance. The bikers have similar MO, although outfitted with lycra outfits, fancy bikes and helmets. They do lap after lap, leaving me in baggy t-shirt and nylon shorts standing on pedals and pumping my way up the one hill on my one speed. One older guy habitually signals with a single chime on the bike bell as he passes me, with a friendly sawadee (hello). On one “pedaling past sunset” experience a few months ago, the female of a jogging couple asked me what I was doing out there. In English! Since then, we’ve exchanged pleasantries when we see each other.
2) The Sirijit Park along the River. This park has a swimming pool across the street but the main attraction is the daily “Thai aerobic dance” program held every evening, complete with spandex-clad routine leader with wireless head mic, booming disco music and a confounding series of steps, arm movements based on an eight-count beat that I have yet to master. Here's a sample of Thai aerobic dance footage I took in Phitsanulok. The park is enclosed by a five foot cement fence with iron decoration, just inside the periphery is a sidewalk where people walk and run in loops around, some talking on their cellphones. The men gather to play basketball or engage in Takow Lat Huang. (Google it for videos if you are interested.) Others use the completely mechanical iron exercise equipment that is scattered around many parks in town. On one evening, I met Mon, a nurse my age who sees me as the primary conduit for practicing her English. It is always delightful to run into her and exchange a few bits of conversation.
There are the other joggers along the river, the a/c fitness club that I have reconnaissanced but not actually used, the elderly walkers that circumnavigate the park that’s across the street from the corner market closest to my house, and the men who fly their model airplanes in the park surrounding the old city walls. In all of these situations, I have never encountered a fellow caucasoin exerciser.
Just two weeks ago, I sensed a shift in my life here. My new, next door, English-speaking neighbor invited me to his housewarming party on Sunday night. The next night I had a dinner invitation from some school colleagues. The night after, I ran into Mon at the night market when we’d both skipped aerobic dance because it was raining; she invited me to go to P’lok with her husband sometime in the future. I was feeling giddy with the new energy, had a couple of sleepless nights, feilded a few problems and went shoppig after work. By the end of the week, I was sick.
Maedaeng told me that foreigners did not have the immune system to manage the Thai climate. When I overcame my first reaction (what? Are you saying I’m inferior?” ), I realized she was right. I'm not adapated to this place. In Eat, Pray, Love, Elizabeth Gilbert describes a harrowing night of the soul on her bathroom floor. It was then that she heard the voice of her true wisdon, which said, "Go back to bed."
I am learning how to go to bed. If nothing else, the lesson of this bout of illness has been to listen to myself when I am ramped up, carried along on an energy wave that can sweep up all around me. Anyone who has worked with me on a big project knows the mentality from where I speak. The rallying cry of "do what it takes to get the job done!" has far more profound consequences in this unfamiliar land.
It’s easier to find clothes that fit, but not that often that they are something I like. Getting an appointment with a primary care provider on a Saturday was easy with some help from school, but watching him flip down the mirror on his forehead as he sterilized the instrument with a Bunsen burner and probed the inside of my nostril was a bit disconcerting. The daily routine of dinner is never an easy task. With my penchant for trying new foods at the night market, the losers can be a real downer. These are all factors that have a slow, steady drain on the energy it takes to conduct the business of daily life.
Last night, I rode my bike to the corner market for the first time in days. I wasn’t strong, but I was steady. Experiencing a complete change of life, particularly in mid-life, has had impacts I have yet to realize. In the weak, self-doubting moments of illness, the fears arise around what this will mean for my career, my health and emotional self? In March, I subscribed to Mike Dooley’s Tut.com. Mom had sent me a calendar for Christmas that had a nice meaningful quote from him. Just yesterday and after I finished the first draft of this essay, this quote came in the emailbox.
For every setback, disappointment and heartbreak, Ellen, ask yourself, "What does this create the opportunity for?"
And therein you will find its gift.