Tag Archives: Thailand

People, Identity….. and Mattresses, by Carole Howard

My husband and I once did volunteer work in Thailand with an organization whose mission was to promote sex education, mostly with an eye toward preventing AIDS. Their primary method was to train university students to make presentations to adolescents who would be encouraged to spread the word.

The organization had two principals, May and Jee. We worked primarily with May but saw Jee every day, interacted with her, hung out with her. She was uber-feminine in the way she dressed, spoke, and flirted. “Oh, that Jee,” we thought.

At some point during our two month stay, we figured out that Jee was transgender. Not surgically, but in every other way. “How interesting,” we thought.

What we never thought, not even for a second, was “I wonder which bathroom she goes to.” The question never occurred to us. Who cared? Jee was the same as she always was, but now with a different descriptive label. She was still a woman to us, but now a transgender woman. In other words, a woman.

It occurs to me that if you meet a person and get to know him/her with a “what you see is what you get” attitude, then a change of “label” later on doesn’t really change much at all. It’s when the label precedes the person that problems can arise – even though they shouldn’t.

For example, you meet Tom. He’s warm, funny, and smart. You get along well. Later on, you find out he’s gay. Or you find out he’s Jewish. Or you find out he’s black. Or you find out he’s a loyal member of the political party whose positions you detest.

The person hasn’t changed, though the “label” has. It’s a funny feeling for you. Cognitive dissonance. You like the picture, but maybe not the frame. Whatever your reaction, it’s surely different from what it would have been if you’d heard the label first, and then met the person. Then the person would be the label and nothing more. Then the bathroom issue might bother you. Then things could get much more complicated. “I like Tom, but…..”

If only people were the opposite of mattresses, whose labels you weren’t allowed to remove or else……

*     *     *

Carole Howard is the author of Deadly Adagio, which is set in one of the many countries (more than 50 …… so far) to which she’s travelled.


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Christmas With Bob Hope

The last few days I’ve been putting up my Christmas decorations with the sound of carols playing in the background. This time of year is always a time for reminiscing for me, and while unpacking, one storage box held memories from 1966. Inside was a garland of realistic holly, boxwood and pine intertwined with miniature old world lanterns that light up. I remember splurging on it at a department store Christmas boutique that year. The Vietnam War was on and my husband was stationed with the USAF in northeast Thailand at Nakhon Phanom Royal Thai Air Force Base. The amazing thing about that garland is that it still works! I’ve never replaced anything on it, and it’s been lighting a wall or fireplace mantle every Christmas since, for 48 years!

As I stepped back to admire the garland, memories flooded back of that time my husband was gone. In those days there was no R&R (Rest and Recuperation Leave) for our troops overseas at the half-way mark and no phone calls for the entire year. The Internet and Skype didn’t exist. Only letters. How the men looked forward to letters from home and an occasional gift package.

Probably the most exciting time for them that year was a visit from Bob Hope. Stars accompanying Mr. Hope were Vic Damone, Phyllis Diller, Joey Heatherton, and Miss World, Anita Bryant, plus some minor acts. The men at the Nakhon Phanom base talked about it for weeks ahead of time and families at home were eager to see the Bob Hope Christmas Special when it came out in January to see if they could catch a glimpse of their son, brother, uncle, husband, or father.

I remember my son and I sat on the living room floor as close as we could get to my parents-in-law’s TV without blocking anyone else’s view, to see if we could find my husband in the crowd. He had written to say he was in front sitting on the ground only about ten feet away from the stage. During the special, everything happened so fast and there were so many faces to search, I couldn’t be sure we actually saw him or not, but the important thing was that the troops were able to see Bob Hope and company. What a thrill it was to them! I wish there were DVRs then!

Not all the memories of that time were good ones. Last month was Veteran’s Day and many Americans thought of all the sacrifices our soldiers have made for their country. I’d like to mention the sacrifices of the families of those soldiers as well. That year my husband and I missed sharing the celebration of our birthdays, our anniversary, several extended family events and a year of our 4 year old son’s life in a country that wasn’t very supportive. My husband’s paycheck documents got lost and for several months, we had no money coming in at all. It was a difficult time sometimes, but we persevered until his return. We considered ourselves really blessed that he was able to come back to us!

Ninteen sixty-six was a different time and military families have some advantages since then, but they also have more challenges and difficulties than ever before. I just hope that as we celebrate this holiday season, we remember the families, as well as the soldiers and airmen, for the dedicated, selfless people they are. And that those families have something nice to remind them of their sacrifice, like my garland that keeps staying lit.


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“Souvenir” Means “To Remember” in French, by Carole Howard

After ten straight days of work in Chiang Mai, Thailand, we finally had a leisurely day in the walled Old City: Buddhist temples, lunch dishes whose names we’d never know, and heavenly $3 foot massages from women whose oils and sticks were in boxes like shoe-shine kits.

We were on our scooter, almost “home,” when I saw a brown mid-sized dog chase the scooter in front of us. But he gave up the chase after about ten yards, so I figured he wasn’t fierce.  We passed him.

Without warning, my left calf felt like it exploded, and I heard an unfamiliar sound – me, screaming. Geoffrey got off the bike with an expression worthy of war or heart attack. As people on the sidewalk gathered, we both stared in horror at the blood and yellow substance oozing from my ragged puncture wounds.

I stopped screaming and called Grib, our volunteer agency’s on-site liaison, who told us she’d meet us at Chiang Mai Ram Hospital. “It is the preference hospital for Westerners. Most people speak English a little.”

Photo by Dan Taylor, via Wikimedia Commons

Photo by Dan Taylor, via Wikimedia Commons

During a tuk-tuk (pronounced “took-took”) ride to the hospital, I fearfully asked questions I knew Geoffrey couldn’t answer. “Do they have rabies in Thailand? Are dogs vaccinated? What if I need those horrible rabies shots in the stomach?  Do they keep the serum on hand? What if they don’t?” He held me tight, which I needed more than answers.  In my panic, I was trembling.

* * *

The doctor gently cleaned and bandaged my messy wounds.  Then he asked the question I’d been dreading.

“The dog that bites you was vaccinated against rabies?”

“I don’t know. It was a street dog.”

“You must receive treatment.  I will get the serum.”  When he left the room, I grabbed my stomach, then Geoffrey,  and tensed every muscle in my body.

But I was in for a glorious surprise, better than being asked to the prom, getting into the college you want, getting a tax refund.  The rabies series consisted of a series of five shots in the arm, not ten in the stomach.  They were no more painful than flu shots. My relief left me weak and very happy.

* * *

We took our hospital paperwork to a large waiting room with cashier windows like a bank’s.  There were adolescents in oversized T-shirts and backwards-facing baseball caps, Buddhist monks in orange robes, families with young children, but, surprisingly, no other farangs (Westerners). The woman next to me had an infant in her arms and two squirming children next to her. She looked weary and her children looked at us with curiosity. I had no idea which of the four was the sick one.  She pointed to the machine from which we were to take a number, just like the ones in a deli.

Announcements were in Thai and, after each one, someone went up to the window with the flashing light.  Would we recognize our number or accented name when it was our turn?  Whatever.  Breathe.

And then we heard in unaccented English, loud and clear, “Mrs. Carole Howard, number 45.”  The medical team had indicated we were English speakers, and the cashier acted accordingly!  We went to the window and paid about $60 for the wound-cleaning, the first rabies shot, and the medicine we’d pick up at the hospital pharmacy.

Good care, low price, efficient systems – a winning threesome that continued when I showed up for my next four shots.  No wonder Thailand is known for Medical Tourism: go for a face lift or dental implants and, after paying for the procedure, the plane tickets, hotel and living expenses, you save a bunch.  Nearby hotels cater to the trade.

* * *

My ugly wounds healed into ugly scars.  Two dark-purple irregular circles, about ½ inch in diameter. They were a visible reminder – a true souvenir – of the incident.  A memento, better than my silk scarves, earrings, and salad servers.

Back in the U.S, I considered a tattoo incorporating the scars, maybe a butterfly with one purplish circle in each colorful wing. I wish I’d done it because the scars are now hardly visible.  You need to know exactly where to look.  As crazy as it sounds, I sort of miss them.

What’s your most unusual souvenir?


Carole Howard is the author of Deadly Adagio, recently published by Second Wind Publishing.  She is working on a travel memoir (I Didn’t Know Squat: Volunteering in the Developing World After Retirement), from which this is an excerpt.


Filed under musings, Travel