Diary of a Globetrotting Family
Phantom pain, kittens, Thai dentists, and I’m leaving my family
A week of everyday living on the road in Hua Hin, Thailand, observations on the differences between dentists in Thailand versus the USA, but also with some serious phantom pain for Jodie. And a strange circumstance, involving the Air Force… and chicken nuggets.
Traveling while living
Some people travel for place. Others travel for people. Our family travels for each other.
We love the things we do and the places we visit, but we never feel obligated to take in a sight simply because it’s there. Engaging with folks we meet is intriguing and adds so much to our days. When you get down to it, though, what our little family loves the most is each other’s company. From playing games or working on school projects, to dining at night markets or heading out to an amazing local attraction, we are the constant in all our ever-changing days.
However, sometimes it’s nice to meet up with other people.
During the past six months, we’ve met up with families a few times. In Chiang Mai, Thailand, we had two meetups at a coffee shop. Each led to hours of various kids playing together, while we adults got to talk about everything from travel and visas to work and parenting. Now, in Hua Hin, we’ve had a couple of meetups with another travel family.
Each time we hang out with other families on the road, we come back feeling more refreshed, inspired, and engaged. We get reminded that we are not the only folks who face challenges in travel and parenting, whether that’s sibling squabbles or having to contact our accommodation host because the ductless AC unit is dripping.
Travel now for understanding later
What we encounter over and over is families who see that travel not only builds memories. Traveling as a family gives their kids a perspective on the world that can serve them well as they grow up.
Connor and Aster don’t necessarily appreciate every moment or experience. And that’s okay. What matters about travel is not always about what happens in the moment. Much of it is what you come to understand later, with growth, maturity, and reflection. Sometimes we do something that completely floors us with its significance, such as being at Angkor together, releasing baby sea turtles, or taking an overnight cruise on Halong Bay. Other times, Connor and Aster just want to play Minecraft with another kid for a while, and in Hua Hin, that’s exactly what they got to do.
Not everything in travel is transformational. That’s actually part of what we love. We are not on a vacation. We are living while traveling and traveling while living. Our days are full of ordinary living too, but those are the things that set us up to appreciate the big moments that the kids will remember for the rest of their lives.
Attack of the phantom
While sitting at the table in our Hua Hin apartment, Jodie began to jerk, as yet again her brain tried to process sensations from a leg that hasn’t been there for nearly thirty years.
Many amputees know—and dread—this phenomenon, known as “phantom pain” or “phantom limb pain.” It’s also something that science and medicine don’t have a lot of understanding of yet. Phantom pain can be a disconnect between a person’s body as it is, and an outdated neural map that still shows the body as it once was.
Phantom pain is especially bewildering because in so many ways, the brain and body excel at adapting. However, sometimes it’s like the brain pulls up that old neural map and forgets that it’s working with outdated info. For amputees like Jodie, the next thing they know, the brain thinks it’s processing a signal from a limb that isn’t there anymore. That can quickly result in pain, spasms, and a hell of a lot of discomfort.
Jodie’s dealt with phantom pain off and on throughout her entire post-amputation life. There’s not necessarily a rhyme, reason, or obvious triggers to it. Pregnancies brought their own varying phantom triggers. We’ve wondered if sitting certain ways might press or squeeze Jodie’s residual limb, or “little leg,” in such a way that the brain receives not only sensory information from the limb that’s there, but then her brain thinks there’s more signal coming in than there actually is.
A persistent haunting
Sometimes, phantom is a blip, a brief visitor making a cameo before skedaddling. Jodie has a few twinges, but maybe a few stretches or a glass of water will sort things out. Other times, phantom pain gets more persistent. It’s not necessarily a constant sensation, either. Sometimes phantom pain blasts up and then goes quiet, only to repeat. It’s like trying to focus on a huge project, only now and again your neighbors crank up the stereo for a few seconds, but they do that randomly every couple of minutes.
This day, Jodie had one of the worst bouts of phantom pain she’s ever had. Nothing tamed it, not stretches, water, ibuprofen, meditation, food, naps, nothing. Something that didn’t physically exist hijacked her entire afternoon and evening, making her feel distracted and fatigued.
Even the next day, the phantom pain still lingered. It gradually went away. We don’t know what brought it on, what made it worse, or why it stopped. It’s like being haunted by a ghost, only you never know when or why it’s going to show up and wreck your day.
A tale of two dentists
“No, really, I’d just like my teeth cleaned, thanks.”
Instead, the dentist, assistant, or other sales team member walks you through the ins and outs of various dental gear.
“I thought I was here for a cleaning.”
But why get a cleaning, when you haven’t yet heard about these braces that seem to never stop being needed? That pitch gets followed by enough add-on products and services to make you wonder if the entire staff spent their lunch breaks drooling over yacht catalogs.
The US sales call known as a trip to the dentist is something Jodie and I hadn’t done in a while. We’d simply gotten grossed out by how every time we sank down in that bad recliner of a chair, we’d become a captive audience for what felt less like medical advice and more like an offer to get in a timeshare before a limited-time offer expired.
Buy now, get a free set of steak knives with your sugar-free lollipop.
Then we went to Thailand, where Hua Hin is home to quite a few good dentists.
Baht and bicuspids
Medical tourism and dental tourism are nothing new. Many US citizens have figured out that they can have medical or dental work taken care of abroad, with care the same standard as the US, but at a fraction of the out-of-pocket cost.
So while in Hua Hin, Jodie and I went to the dentist. The facility was clean, with modern equipment that felt on par with anything we’d encountered at home. When Jodie got to the dentist, she texted me she was there. About a half an hour later, she texted me again. Clean bill of teeth. Besides her cleaning, she requested X-rays, as she’d had concerns about cavities.
The final bill?
No sales pitch. No evaluation appointment to make a cleaning appointment to make an X-ray appointment to make another appointment. (And while in the US you never know when you might see an actual dentist, you can always be sure of a stop by the finance desk.)
As for me? My cleaning went just as well. Though as the work finished up, the attendant gently tapped a small area on a top rear molar.
“You have one small cavity here,” she said.
Then they booked me an appointment for a little over a week later—with apologies that they were full the next few days and had nothing sooner.
A thousand baht, or about US$30 later, I was on my way with clean teeth, one slightly sore area of my molar to remind me we weren’t done yet, and a restored faith in dental practitioners.
PS: I’m finishing up this draft a little after my filling appointment. It went smoother than tooth composite after a good polishing. And the cost was about US$44.
I’m leaving my family, but at least I gave them chicken nuggets
After joining the US Air Force while Jodie and the kids ran errands, I had two hours to get to the airport.
For a moment, I felt bad. I was leaving my family, and we hadn’t even talked about me joining up. Still. It’s what I had done, what I had to do, and it was the right thing to do. In fact, the most important thing in the world for me to do was to call my stepdad. As a younger man, he had served in the Air Force. I had already found out I was going to be stationed in Germany, and my stepdad would be so thrilled to hear the news.
Dashing around the apartment, I gathered my things into a giant black duffel bag. I’d leave my computer, though. I wouldn’t need it anymore. Maybe Jodie would give it to Connor.
As I threw clothes into the duffel bag, twinges of guilt kept pecking at me, like a chicken finding slugs in a yard. Perhaps I should do something for Jodie and the kids. They’re my family, after all, and I was leaving rather in a hurry. Though if they didn’t get back soon, I’d just have to leave without telling them goodbye.
Now that’s service
Moments later, the apartment’s doorbell rang. I paused my packing long enough to smile. That really was incredible service. Shame I wouldn’t have time to write a thank-you note.
Opening the door, a blur rushed by me, then zipped back out just before the door closed with a soft click. There was no sign the delivery folks had been there at all—save for the giant machine now in the corner of the apartment.
Jodie and the kids would be so thrilled! And so surprised. The stainless steel machine took up no more space than a ping-pong table, but it would provide them with far more joy and amusement than some game. I looked from the machine to the huge grandfather clock hanging from the ceiling. Time was tight. I really should set up the taxi to the airport.
But I couldn’t just leave. The machine had to be tested. Since I wouldn’t be cooking my family dinner for a few years, I could at least leave a few things in the fridge before dashing to the airport to catch my flight to the base in Germany.
Click whir tumble tumble hiss
At the end of the machine near me, I flicked switches, turned dials, and pressed the whistle button. A piercing shriek filled the apartment, and the machine whirred to life. The stainless steel rollers of the first half of the machine began turning. Warmth radiated from the covered area at the center of the machine, shining with a red-orange glow through the long viewing windows on each side.
The delivery people had set two large burlap sacks by the machine. Frost glimmered on each bag. Bending my knees, I took care to hoist up each bag, not with my back, but with my full motion. It wouldn’t do to show up to base with a thrown-out back, after all. Tearing open first one bag and then the other, I tipped each one over the end. The frozen little pale shapes bounced and clinked as they hit the rollers, which started them on their journey to the machine’s fiery center.
I set the empty sacks on the floor and ran around the side of the machine so I could watch the middle. The little brown shapes passed under the shadow of the enclosure. From inside, a hissing noise flew up, as if the sacks had contained hundreds of ready-to-hatch snake eggs. Through the little viewing windows, I could see each pale shape darken to a light brown that, even from the window, looked crispy.
Shame about the hot sauce
The browned shapes emerged from the enclosure and passed along more rollers. Traveling up a ramp, each piece gleamed golden brown under the apartment’s ceiling lights before tumbling into storage bags attached to the far edge.
I snatched up one shape. It was hot to the touch, almost too hot to hold. It wouldn’t do to show up at base with a burned tongue at chow time. I nibbled off only a small corner of the shape. The taste of succulent, savory chicken filled my mouth and lit up my tongue.
Along with a different heat. I turned back to where the cooked chicken nuggets had now just about filled the bags. Shoot. In my haste to order five hundred and seventy-three frozen chicken nuggets, I had accidentally insta-ordered the extra-spicy ones.
Oh well. I was sad that the kids would learn to appreciate spicy food in my absence, instead of with my encouragement. I really had to get going, though, and there was only so much I could do.
Turning off the machine, I left the bags to cool. Jodie and the kids weren’t back yet. But it was time. I grabbed my bag. Turned off the lights. And left the apartment. Sure, I was suddenly and without discussion joining the Air Force, but at least I had left my family lots of chicken nuggets.
(Oh, he said to his beloved readers, it was all a dream.) Every writer gets to pull the “it was all a dream” trick once, so I suppose I’ve now played that particular creative card.
So no, I haven’t run off and joined the Air Force (though my thanks to all who serve and have served in any branch of the military). When it comes to my family, I, of course, am not going anywhere unless it’s with them.
One of the strangest things about our travels is how often different facets of travel have been showing up in my dreams over the past few months. The other night I dreamed pretty much this scenario, though in story form I’ve punched it up a little. I’ve had my share of weird dreams. But sharing this one with Jodie, we both had a good bout of belly laughs. It’s possibly one of the top ten strangest dreams I’ve had in my entire life.
Where did this dream come from? No clue. What does it mean? Apparently, I needed to eat a little more before bedtime. Though I don’t think I’ll ever look at a chicken nugget the same way again.
Far from worry, close to cats
The Thai Royal Family used to visit Hua Hin for beach vacations, and in the 1920s had a royal residence constructed here. The “Klai Kang Won Palace” roughly translates to “far from worry.” That indeed embodies an apt summation of Hua Hin.
As our Grab car took us down a side street not too far from the old palace in Hua Hin, we got out at a white building. Black letters on a white sign, mounted on a white chain-link gate, told us in Thai and English that we were in the right place:
“Icecream & cat cafe”
Up a couple of steps along the side of the building, we stopped at a low shelf to leave our shoes by the door. Inside, circular photos of cats adorned just about every inch of wall space, as if the owners had attempted to print out every cat photo from the internet. (The photo of a cat wearing a tie was a family favorite.)
On shelves and tables, drowsy cats dozed in the mid-afternoon warmth. Bowls of ice cream in hand, we sat, barefoot, at the low square indoor table and waited for the cats to come to us. After our first experience at a cat cafe in Chiang Rai, when we learned there was another in Hua Hin, we could not resist a followup dose of vitamin kitty.
As we sat and looked around, though, a low bench, like a doll’s bench, across from our table, caught Aster’s attention. She sprang up and dashed over to it.
“I’ve never seen a kitten!” she called.
Now she would certainly make up for it. Fuzzy kittens tumbled and flopped around the bench and onto the floor. One grayish-black kitten loved joining us on the table. Aster stroked its soft back. Connor stared at the kitten, sometimes taking a moment to pet it.
“After this,” said Connor, “if I see another cat this week, the cuteness will make me explode.”
Aster bounded around the cafe, picking up kittens and nuzzling them. White kittens, gray kittens, black kittens, the little poofs of mewing curled up into balls on the bench, or flopped like warm bread dough as Aster carried another to the table.
A mama cat joined us on the low table. Connor petted this one with its amber patches amidst its black fur. Though this cat also seemed rather interested in the melted ice cream remnants in our bowls.
The kittens tumbled around. The adult cats dozed. We petted furry backs, ate our ice cream, and took in all the soft cute kitties around us. Our vitamin kitty levels? Definitely topped up. Animals soothe us and remind us of calm and appreciation. We breathed in the warm Thailand afternoon. Even as we left, it was as if we could still feel the soft fur under our hands.
If I had a nickel
Many of the cats never left their perches; we probably caught them at a particular nap-filled, floppy part of the day. But the kittens could tell that Aster was like one of them. They played with her, accepted her snuggles, and showed her how tightly they could curl up and snooze. One even occasionally ducked under a tall, skinny drinks refrigerator, to bask in the warm air and dark, enclosed space beneath, before coming back out to let Aster pet it a couple more times.
As we loaded up for our return trip, Connor closed his door, and the driver asked him to check it.
“If I had a nickel for every time I had to close my door again in a car,” said Connor, “I’d have enough to buy Buckingham Palace.”
Satisfied, the driver started taking us back to our apartment. Aster sat back, her eyes wide with the mix of excitement and satisfaction she gets anytime she’s around animals.
“Cats,” she said, “can also be mysterious and cute.”