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Here we are at the brink of a New Year, a good time for reflecting back on the year that was.  While many of my favorite bloggers have been posting lengthy lists of their favorite music, books or movies of 2006, I've been thinking about how different my life is now...

A year ago, I was actually staying about a 45-minute drive from where I live now — at a small hotel just up the hill south of Kamala.  I don't remember exactly what I did on December 30th (probably went into Patong to watch beach volleyball) but on the 31st I spent most of the day driving around with my hotel's owner and his wife (Silvio and Lek).  That evening, I had planned to take a tuk tuk to watch fireworks on the beach.  But fate stepped in...

When I'd emerged from my room following an afternoon nap, Lek wanted to introduce me to two of her friends.  She'd been trying to set me up with various Thai women since I'd arrived (so I'd have someone to "speak English with" and who could show me around) and I'd been content to explore Phuket on my own (I enjoy solitary tourism) and was weary of the whole process.  I was first introduced to Puk because she spoke English while the other woman did not.  Puk didn't impress me and I was anxious to get on with my (solo) New Year's Eve; I thought I'd say "hello" to the second lady and be on my way.

That introduction turned out to be Tim (a nickname — all Thai people go by their nickname rather than their given name except on formal documents — meaning "ruby").  I had been told that she couldn't speak English and that she'd been at Patong when the tsunami struck.  I was interested to talk to someone about that and Tim actually spoke enough English where we could converse (albeit with a bit of difficulty).  I didn't think she was a great beauty but there was something about her that drew me in.  I often tell people that it was love at first sight; I definitely felt something whether it was sympathy for what she'd experienced a year before or affection for her strong but childlike demeanor.

At any rate, I cancelled my plans to go to the beach that night and instead sat in the hotel's open air restaurant getting to know my new-found friend.  There was a spark right from the start; I'd had a flight booked for Bangkok on January 2nd but on New Year's Day I went to a travel agent and pushed that back several days.  I knew I wanted to spend some more time with Tim.  We spent a couple of days getting to know each other and she introduced me to several of her friends (including Jum and La who, along with Puk, are still fixtures in our life).  On the third, we went on a sea kayak trip together in Phang Nga Bay visiting James Bong Island and Koh Panyee and paddling through a number of limestone caves in the area.

When I did get to Bangkok (as well as during my journey to Kanchanaburi and my return to the States), Tim and I remained in constant contact.  In fact, I called her every day from the time I left Phuket to the time I returned (except when I was stuck on various airplanes).  I think it was either mid-January or early February when I decided that I was definitely going back to see Tim — at first, I promised to return the following December, then it became "in six months," and finally I decided I wanted to be there in time for her birthday which happens to be on Songkran Day (April 13, the greatest of Thai holidays).  By March, I was already thinking perhaps this was the woman I would marry and I knew for certain when I saw her waiting for me outside of baggage claim at the Phuket Airport (a good thing since my brother-in-law had helped me pick out an engagement ring in Albuquerque about a week before).

Our initial home was a 400-baht-per-night (approx. USD $11) guesthouse (the International House Of Traveller in Kathu) but we soon set out to find a house to rent.  We both agreed the farther away from Patong the better and the prices were fairly reasonable in Chalong.  We moved into our two-bedroom semi-attached house in the Ananda Garden Hills Estate a couple of days before Tim's birthday; we pay 12,000 baht (approx. USD $332) rent per month plus utilities (electric, water, telephone come to less than $40 a month).

Songkran was quite the experience as was Tim's formal birthday party held a few days afterwards.  Our first trip together was about a month later when we flew to Bangkok (Tim's first trip on an airplane) in order to get her passport and do a bit of sightseeing, took a train to Bang Pa-In where I first met her daughter and son-in-law, and an overnight train to Chiang Mai in the northwest of the country.  We spent just a couple of days in that wonderful city (my favorite in Thailand thus far) before booking a hotel in Lamphun (about an hour from Chiang Mai) which we used as a jumping-off base for visiting her family who mostly live another 90 minutes or so farther southwest.  Much to my relief, they gave me their blessing (and, thankfully, no mention of the much-feared dowry).

Other significant events in the spring and summer include Tim's daughter giving birth to a beautiful baby girl (Noo-dang) in late June and my first visa run (to Kawthaung in Myanmar via Ranong) on the fourth of July.  In early August, we once again journeyed to Bangkok (on the overnight bus) where we got married in Bang Rak district (meaning "village of love", this is the most popular location in Thailand to register marriages) on the 2nd.  We also spent a couple of days in Ayutthaya exploring the ruins and spending time with Tim's daugher and granddaughter.  At the end of that month, I began my six-week TEFL-certification course with Text And Talk Academy in Patong.  Not only did I enjoy the grueling training schedule but I also made some really lasting friendships.

Following graduation, it was time for another Ranong visa run and — because of a severe change in Thai immigration laws, not to mention crackdowns because of the coup — a jouney to Singapore in order to obtain a proper Non-Immigrant Visa.  I am now legally seek employment, a slower-than-expected process because of the lack of employment opportunities at this time of the year not to mention a greater emphasis on the Ministry of Education background checks/screening process.  In the interim, Tim and I made yet another long bus trip to Bangkok in November (we plan another in January for more immigration-related tasks not to mention the much-anticipated Eric Clapton concert).

Shortly after I celebrated my own birthday in Thailand, Tim journeyed north to Lamphun in order to get her married name on her identification card and she returned with her young son, Gaow.  Little did I realize a year ago that I would be celebrating Christmas (and New Year) with such a fully-formed family!

The year 2006 (or, 2549, according to the Thai calendar) has been rewarding in so many ways.  Not only do I live in a country so far removed from my family and friends where I have to learn all new ways of doing even the simplest of things but I am doing so with the woman I love and have a brand new (large) family as well as valued new friends to share my experiences with.

Yes, for the past (almost) nine months that I've lived in Thailand virtually everything has been brand new to me:  new language, new money, new bureaucracy (that's a BIG one!), new culture and customs, new religion, new ways of paying bills or picking up packages, new weather patterns to deal with, and the list goes on.  In the midst of all of this newness, I do try to maintain a certain amount of "old" so I don't go completely insane.  Certain things from home bring great pleasure such as the packets of Kool-Aid my sister sent, the downloads of American television shows or the occasional tacos or chimichangas at Los Amigos in Nai Harn.

Of course my collection of books and music breed familiarity for me, particularly when I read something by a long-favored author (such as Lawrence Block or Clive Cussler) or listen to a CD by someone like Pink Floyd, Marillion or Bruce Springsteen.

There's been newness in my music.  I've discovered a bit of Thai music that I enjoy including Carabao and Boolong Sa Orn(spelling?).  I've found some great music by bands I'd never heard of through a local newstand which stocks the excellent UNCUT magazine (each issue contains a free CD with the best of the new American and UK bands).  In the past week or so, I've discovered an awful lot of new music via several audioblogs and their year-end "best of" lists.  New favorites include Midlake, Band Of Horses, and The Kooks.

As I wrap up this blog entry as well as this very active year, I just want to say that I'm very happy.  I'm also excited to see what new adventures 2007 (2550) will bring...