Mexico City, Thailand, Travel

Fashion Around the World

When I quit my job to adventure, there were a lot of things I wanted to see. Beautiful temples, distant lands, the faces of new friends. And of course, food. This is why people travel. (Well, that and we’re hard wired and get depressed if we stay put. But people get angry when I trot that one out.)

One thing I didn’t set out to see was fashion.

Consumer Uniforms

People use clothing very differently from country to country. In the United States, it’s a uniform. From business suits to the 30-something geek’s pithy T-shirts, every person has a narrow range of acceptable clothing based on their age, occupation, and position in society. You can vary the colors or brands but basically, dress code is mandatory and your friends won’t recognize you if you break step.

This might not sound like the oft-eulogized land of the free, but think about it. Can you wear leather pants and a see-through tank top to your staff meeting? Can you wear a polo shirt and khakis to hang with your emo band? To both questions: yes, but get ready for a shitstorm.

It may seem like the tyranny of the corporate system, but it goes beyond that. The U.S. is a consumer culture through and through, so we express our personalities through brands and trends. Unemployed non-conformist 19 year olds are just as rigid in their wardrobe as married project managers. They cleave to a different narrow mold, but a narrow one all the same.

Asia Ain’t So

In Thailand, I was struck by the diversity of styles on the street. Not just different groups but individuals with their own unique look. In the US if someone is sporting a unique look I make a point to go up and compliment them. Had I done that in Chiang Mai I’d never get 100 steps.

Without a doubt T-shirts and jeans were ubiquitous in Chiang Mai, like anywhere. But a substantial chunk of the population takes the time to build their own personal style. For a people with relatively low income, fashion statements seem to be a spending priority among the younger generation.

At its root, this is no different than the American impulse: spend money on clothing that says who you are. It’s the execution that’s different. Americans buy into a brand or group: Nike has this, goths wear that. Thai 20-somethings seem to disregard all lines of brand, style, East and West to make something that says “this is me.”

Chiang Mai was not my favorite place, but this really impressed me.

I can’t explain this phenomena. Have you ever watched anime? Each major character, good or bad, wears a unique style that extends to their accessories, hair style, and tattoos. For a long time I resisted making the anime comparison because, well, “OMG Asia is like anime!” does not sound like the worldly traveler sound bite of the month. But art/life/inspires, you know the deal: they consume a lot of anime there, and anime is in part based on actual youth culture.

Bottom line, people in Chiang Mai are using fashion as a canvas to express their individualism in a way no US high school rebel has ever matched.

What About Mexico?

The difference between US and Thailand was easy to see. It’s drastic, and they’re almost total opposites. But Mexico makes my head spin.

Again, I’m not talking about T-shirts. Sure, those are everywhere. And walk into any business district and you’ll see suits and professional attire. No surprise there.

But it’s in more informal settings I’m surprised. Frequently I see men in vest, tie, jacket and dress pants just out walking their dogs. Not only older men, but men my age too. Women build themselves up: tall boots with tall heels, flaring jackets with high shoulders, so much hip sway they take up two lanes. It reminds me of a cat puffing itself up to scare off bigger animals.

People dress like this to go to the corner market.

I’ve got an ascot. I’m going to start wearing it.

What cultural differences have surprised you? Jump in and tell us a story. Did fashion statements surprise you somewhere you visited? Did you change your own style afterward?

Please tweet the shit out of this post because I love you.

By the way, did you know I’ve started my own business? And I make beautiful things? That are magic? Click on over and check out altmagic.com.

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Mexico City, Spotlight, Thailand

Adventures in Chinese Medicine

Mauricio Quintana is my host in Mexico. I first met Mauricio through, of all things, our mutual interest in online gaming. For several years we chatted online. We share a love of travel, adventure and meditation. Our traveling ways sometimes baffle our more settled friends. Soon we had a strong sense of kinship.

But I didn’t expect to go hunting for blood powder for him.

Tinctures at Mauricio’s clinic in Mexico City.

Skepticism & Weight Loss

“Blood powder” is my incorrect term for yunnan baiyao, a powder that is not made from blood. In fact, no one’s sure exactly what’s in it (proprietary recipe), but it’s been used for about a century to staunch bleeding wounds in Asia.

Mauricio practices Traditional Chinese Medicine and lately the stuff has been hard to come by in his home town of Mexico City. So while I was in Thailand he emailed me to ask if I would go find him some. “It’s common throughout Asia,” he assured me.

It’s a little funny for me of all people to go hunting down Chinese Medicine ingredients. A year ago, I viewed Mau’s medical practice with skepticism. I have nothing against the use of medicinal herbs: they’re proven to work, and I’ve been trained in the use of quite a few of the Western ones. But many other aspects of Chinese Medicine—the use of needles and pressure points, the reference to “energy” in the body, and so forth—go beyond what has been observed with science. And science is the best source of information we have.

So, a year ago, I was reluctant to go Mau for help. My weight loss efforts, which had started off well as I tracked and cut calories, had ground to a halt. I was still 50 pounds overweight, a legacy of my unhappy marriage and my lengthy injury. On a whim, I asked Mau if he had recommendations for losing weight.

“Well yes, but you’re not going to like it.”

I was intrigued.

Mauricio described a 13 week program he does once a year which “removes toxins from the body, balances the metabolism, improves liver health, and leads to dramatic weight loss.”

Sign me up, right? Well… the program’s not easy. It includes a formidable regimen of herbal supplements, and tightly controlled dietary restrictions that change every two weeks. I’d be giving up such varied amenities as chocolate, sugar, gluten, red meat, alcohol, even legumes at different points in the program.

That shit is hard. I wanted to know if it would actually work. I began to ask some pretty detailed questions about claims like “removing toxins” and “balancing.”

I was amazed and impressed. There is a lot of language in Chinese Medicine that does not make immediate sense to a Westerner. Phrases like “energy deficiency in the spleen” are very literal translations of Chinese characters. However, they correspond to bodily processes that can be observed and studied. When you explain it as “the stress from worrying too much leads to troubled digestion” and throw me a study proving it, suddenly it makes a lot more sense.

In other words, Mauricio translated the arcane phrases of his tradition to the (equally arcane) jargon of Western medicine for me. He was extremely patient, thorough, and astute. It painted a picture for me of a medical system that knows what it’s talking about. That inclined me to give its treatments the benefit of the doubt.

Thus, I embarked on his 13-week program. I lost an average of 3 pounds per week, for a total of more than 30 pounds in just over 3 months.

That was nearly a year ago; the weight has stayed off.

My moleskin. Chinese characters for yunnan baiyao and directions in Thai to the herb store.

The Hunt

Having seen the power of his art, I was happy to follow up on his request for yunnan baiyao. Actually, I was excited: I hadn’t thought of checking out an herbalist or Chinese doctor while in Thailand, and it would be fun to see one of their shops.

Or, as it turned out, the only such shop.

I went to the Waroros day market, a sprawling bazaar inside of several old warehouses and a number of back streets. Armed with my faithful reproduction of the Chinese characters for yunnan baiyao, I was quickly directed to “the” place to get Chinese Medicine.

“We don’t have it.”

Is there somewhere else that might?

Hahahahahaha.

Hahahaha.

Haha.

Ahhhhhh.

Sure kid, here are some directions to follow. Enjoy. 

The smiling herb lady waved to me as I set out on what would be a week-long goose chase across three day markets and a dozen pharmacists in every part of Chiang Mai.

The rogue priest will never let you down.

We Promise They’ll Have It

Each pharmacist greeted me with a smile and fluent English, followed by a frown when I announced what I was looking for. I’m still not sure whether the frown was because they didn’t stock it, or because they look down on Chinese Medicine like Western doctors do. I got the feeling it was the latter.

Even so, each pharmacist was quite confident they knew a different pharmacist who stocked it.

Eventually, these leads became circular, with Shop D referring me to Shop A and so forth. When I told a pharmacist that I had already tried the person they were referring me to, they were surprised. They all —without exception—then recommended I go to a certain shop in Waroros market.

After double-checking their directions, I confirmed that it was the very first shop I had gone to on Day 1. The shop that was out of stock.

I relayed this to one pharmacist, who laughed at me. “If they don’t have it then there is none in Chiang Mai,” he told me.

I was ready to give up. But something didn’t make sense. If yunnan baiyao is such a basic emergency treatment in Chinese Medicine, why would the only Chinese Medicine outlet in town not have it? Maybe I had talked to the wrong person, or asked for the wrong thing?

I dragged myself back to Waroros Market, approached the lady behind the counter (a different one than the first time) and showed her the Chinese characters for yunnan baiyao.

“Do you want pills or powder?”

Well played, Chiang Mai. Well played.

Mau blogs about Chinese Medicine at Mauricio Quintana and about life & philosophy at The Wandering Dragon.

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Thailand, Travel

One Month in Thailand

I just stepped off 55 hours of flights and airports leaving behind Chiang Mai, Thailand for Mexico City, Mexico. MC will be my home for the next 2 1/2 months, but as I coasted over the freezing waters of the north Pacific I found myself reminiscing.

Did I accomplish what I wanted to in Thailand?

How was it?

Mission Objectives

Here is a list of the goals I had when I went to Thailand, and how I did with each one.

Learn Thai massage. My teacher suggested I do this, as a way of taking home something unique from the culture. I only wanted to learn a basic set of movements—enough to give a 30 or 60 minute basic treatment.

I went to a lot of massage schools in Chiang Mai and paid for a massage, and frequently found them lacking. Many places just do a perfunctory job to make money from tourists. Eventually in the village of Pai I found one old woman who was a true master. She treated her art as a spiritual path—she was the only one who began with a silent prayer to Buddha—and she dug into my pressure points with energy and precision. When I asked if she taught, she took me to her teacher’s school, but sadly he was not available till after I left.

Eventually I went with NAMO Massage School in Chiang Mai. They taught me a professional half-day class. The instructor spoke fluent English, was very attentive and indeed included the wai to the shrine (“Pray to your teacher, or the Buddha, or God” she said). I left knowing about 10 movements and feeling competent in them.

Mission: Accomplished

Explore the Thai countryside. I wasn’t too sure about this because I didn’t know much about the lay of the land, but it was highly doable. I rented a motorbike and, after some hair-raising driving lessons from a Dutch friend, made the four hour road trip to the village of Pai, the highlight of my trip.

(Note: learning to ride a motorbike in Asian traffic is the most valuable skill I learned in Thailand!)

Late in my stay, I also met some American friends—a white boy professor from Wisconsin and his Hmong-American wife—who annually travel rural Thailand, Laos and Burma to do social advocacy. They painted such a beautiful (and safe!) picture of northeastern Thailand that I really wanted to add a trip to the city of Chiang Rai and the highway along the Burmese border. Sadly I was out of time. Probably my biggest regret of the trip.

Mission: Good Enough

Relax. One of my reasons for a month in Thailand was leisure time, plain and simple. I didn’t really find that in Chiang Mai. Chiang Mai is a large, loud, busy, dirty city. I had a ton of fun there and I’m very happy I went, but it was more like an insanely cheap New York City than a month of R&R. I don’t feel “recharged” after this trip, more like “I earned a badge.”

Mission: Unrealistic

Learn Eastern geomancy. This is going well, and until I’m ready to unveil some stuff, that’s all I’ll say about that.

Mission: Pretty Vague!

Learn to live alone in a foreign country. I’ve been abroad before but always with people I knew and never for more than a few weeks. A month alone? Don’t even speak the language? How did it go?

This was a stunning success. By stunning I mean I surprised myself with my ability to cope. Not that there’s a whole lot that needs coping in Thailand, but I weathered a serious fever, a case of food poisoning, and a lot of loneliness. I’m proud that I went up to strangers and made friends, networked with other traveling bloggers, and made myself acculturate to Thai daily life (showers, toilets, not walking on trap doors… you get the idea).

Mission: Accomplished

All in all I’ll call the Thailand trip a success. It showed me some highs and lows of the traveling lifestyle I’m embarking on, and hopefully it’s prepared me to better deal with everything that comes.

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