This trip was made possible through the generosity of friends who offered a spare bedroom and local expertise. In addition to them, another couple adopted us and helped show us around. However, the entire relationship is something of a strange story.
By strange, I mean wonderfully inexplicable. But I’ll try.
It hinges on a friendship between Catherine Salazar, then Catherine Morrell, and me that started more than 10 years ago, while working in Antarctica.
She was en route to Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station to work as a “fuelie.” One of her principal jobs was offloading fuel from the New York Air National Guard’s LC-130s which ferried most of the vital fuel to Pole to keep it going through the long winter.
I was working as a journalist at McMurdo Station, the hub of activity for most of the U.S. Antarctic Program and the site through which Pole traffic passed.
South Pole Station was late opening in 2006 due to extreme conditions. Every day for weeks, the opening flight was again postponed. That meant many Pole-bound employees were stuck in McMurdo. Catherine spent part of her time hanging out in our office and we all got to know each other. She also agreed to send in occasional reports about what was happening at Pole for us to include in our weekly paper, so we kept in contact with her.
Then something almost magical happened.
On Dec. 19, I made a treasured trip to the South Pole to work on some stories and take photos. After the cold, rough and particularly loud flight, I stumbled out of the ski-equipped military aircraft with two other passengers into temperatures colder than minus 20 degrees Fahrenheit, just days before the summer solstice.
As I tried to get oriented with the buzz of activity surrounding the plane, which keeps its engines running, I heard someone call my name and suddenly there was Catherine giving me a big, warm hug and then directing me toward the station while she returned to work.
It may sound silly, but that greeting was special to me. (As a side note, my character JP Weiscarver had the same experience when he landed at Pole in the book “The Reporter and the Penguin.”)
That three-day visit to Pole was the last time I saw her on the Ice as my department had redeployed before she transited back through McMurdo. Catherine being a Vermont native made it seem unlikely we would cross paths again.
Ah, but I love the ways life tosses surprises at us.
Along came Facebook and we reconnected on a virtual level. A few years later, she was passing through Central Texas and we met for a long coffee break. A little more than a year ago, she and her new husband James were visiting his family in the Houston area. The two of them met Leah and me at a point halfway between and we had an extra-long lunch at Yumm! Sweets & Eats in downtown Brenham, so now our two spouses were finally in on the relationship.
And that’s when something else magical happened.
Catherine and James told us of their dream. They planned to travel to Thailand soon, become certified as scuba diver instructors and open their own dive shop. And they extended a preliminary invitation for us to come visit. We agreed, but you know good and well there was a lot of doubt.
Their end of the deal worked out, except for owning their own shop, something that is difficult for a non-resident to do. However, they were both working full time at a quality dive shop, they had rented a two-bedroom home, and the offer stood.
We got the best deal by flying Qatar Airways through Doha, Qatar. The outbound trip consisted of a 14.5-hour flight from Houston to Doha, an 11.5-hour layover and a seven-hour flight to Krabi Airport, which is about a 30-minute drive from their home.
But first, we had to get into the country.
After getting off the plane in Krabi, which is a relatively small airport, we were funneled to the immigration area, where we had to pretty much guess which line to get into.
I will talk later about the prevalence of English, but airports everywhere have good English signage. Perhaps immigration at Krabi did as well and we overlooked it. However, there were abundant, large, clearly understood signs that we must not take any photographs. So … no pictures.
We saw two different sides of Thai bureaucracy while entering the country.
At immigration, we turned over our passports and the forms we received on the plane. It included a place to list where one is staying in country, a hotel or an address. Not knowing their address, we simply filled in the town of Ao Nang.
The woman circled that area on the form and wrote “hotel” in it. I made a brief attempt to explain we were staying with friends and didn’t know the address. She gave no quarter, perhaps because she didn’t understand me, and again demanded the name of our hotel.
Leah and I slipped to the side and I told her to just write James Salazar. She replied she was going to print James and Catherine Salazar and I suggested she not. “James Salazar could be the name of a hotel,” I said.
Our passports and visas were stamped and we were waved through.
Next came customs. Everybody was streaming out of the secured area underneath a sign that said, “Nothing to Declare,” breezing past two officers sitting to the side.
We were carrying with us two bottles of liquor that we brought for our hosts, things they could not get – quality-wise – in Thailand. It was my understanding we could import that much without having to pay a tariff, but I didn’t want to make a mistake, so I headed to the desk with “Declare” written above it.
Nobody was there.
We headed to the two officers watching the stream of passengers go by and I tried to ask them whether the liquor was OK. I’m pretty sure I didn’t get the question out before they were waving their arms for us to go in.
I’m all right with that.
Catherine was waiting for us as we passed through the gates. She had arranged a ride from friend and co-worker Rod, an Englishman who was kind enough to help out since Cat and James’ car was ill.
As we drove to her house, she told us James’ uncle and his Thai wife were visiting also, though they were moving from the house to a hotel for the rest of their stay. I’ll confide in you that I was a little concerned about it. I guess I was afraid it would cut into our experience.
But it promptly proved to be a tremendous blessing.
Thomas Salazar is a little younger than Leah, so we were a fit in that regard. His wife, who goes by the nickname of Tukata, is from a city well north of Bangkok, which is quite a way from us. She, like Catherine and James, is about 20 years younger than I.
So, still, we made a strange combination. But it worked. You will see them pop up a few times during this story.
Life in Ao Nang
Our hosts had a bit of bad luck immediately prior to our arrival.
The owner of the dive shop took a two-week trip out of country for a special dive tour. That meant Catherine was called upon to run the office. It also meant they worked every day we were there.
While that meant we were mostly limited to enjoying each other’s company in the evenings, we made the most of it. On a positive note, it compelled Leah and me to find our way around and explore our area more closely.
James and Catherine seem to have adapted well to life in a new land. They are working at picking up the language, something Thomas and particularly Tukata helps with when they’re around.
They are quite at home with the food, enjoy the neighborhood in which they live, have learned to coexist with the crazy traffic, seem at ease within the Thai culture and absolutely love their jobs. All of these topics will be explored individually in later sections.
They still relish some things from home. There is a large jug of Vermont syrup sitting in their kitchen. There is also a cookbook with Texas recipes. While we were there, they received a box of goodies from James’ mom.
When we were planning our final evening in Thailand, we asked where they most wanted to visit and he confessed that he had a hankering for a good steak. Beef is not often encountered except in tourist spots. They knew of a restaurant – appropriately named Carnivore Steak & Grill – with a good reputation. That’s where the top photo was taken.
Our desire for this visit was the opportunity to get to know a community to some degree. Over 16 days, Leah and I roamed around the town pretty well, mostly on foot, and became comfortable with eating from the street vendors, shopping in the markets (which were in different spots depending on the day of the week) and interacting with the locals. It was exactly what we wanted.
The return trip home added another flight. Instead of flying directly to Doha from Krabi, we had to transit through Bangkok, though we were not allowed to leave the secured area there because we had already been stamped for an exit.
The layover in Qatar was shorter, but it still ran nine hours. People have told us we should pay for a lounge, but we’re able to take trips like this because we will simply make the best of a discomforting situation instead of dropping a hundred bucks. The seats around the airport were rather comfortable and the shops were open 24 hours. We took turns walking the corridors while the other sat with our carry-on bags. We did all right.
While waiting, we were in front of televisions. On one side of the column was CNN and the other was Al Jazeera. I thought it interesting that they showed channels that were in English. Even Al Jazeera.
Anyway, the big news was that President Trump had just unveiled his ban on people entering the United States from seven Mideast countries. Qatar certainly wasn’t one of them, but we realized it was possible some of our fellow travelers would be affected.
We were pleased to see that both networks gave prominent play to the protests going on back home. We couldn’t help but feel we should go around apologizing or at least distancing ourselves from the president and his positions against the rest of the world.
However, we felt no negativity from anyone and the only hiccups we experienced were due to the heightened security required by the United States.
The last leg home was the fifth flight of our trip and was the only one that subjected us to anything more than a cursory inspection.
Thankfully, they opened the gates early and started processing passengers and depositing them in a secured waiting area. Leah and I were separated at the screening area, where she was held back for a while. I figured that was because, after being scanned, I was patted down by a security person, and I thought Leah’s delay was to run her through with a female officer.
That was the case, but Leah got special treatment. She was told she was randomly selected for a more thorough screening.
Once the regular scan and pat-down were completed, they pulled her to the side and a woman went through everything in her bag.
“I finally got her to laugh,” Leah said, “when I told her she was lucky to get me instead of my husband because he had our dirty underwear in his bag.”
After that, the woman used what I guess was some sort of sniffing device. She prodded around the bag with it and then “sniffed” around Leah, even sticking it under the edges of her shirt and pants. She then removed what looked like a filter from the end of the wand, popped that into a machine and then cleared Leah to go.
I’m sure everyone on the flight felt better with the assurance this grandmother was deemed to not be a threat.
We felt better when we stepped off the plane in Houston. At 16 hours, 40 minutes, Qatar’s Doha-to-Houston flight is one of the longest in the world. But it felt longer.