Saturday, April 12, 2014

Bring It On

When I was in my twenties, my mother told me about a woman she had met in San Francisco who was in her fifties and still wore jeans. This shocked, delighted, and intrigued me, all at the same time—fifty was old. Fifty was middle-aged spread. Fifty was stodgy. Fifty wore jeans?

Thirty years later, when I was in my fifties and still a slender smoker, I wore jeans that were the cast-offs of a willowy boy who was a bookstore colleague. When I stopped smoking and gained weight, I gave those jeans away and bought others. It’s never occurred to me to stop wearing them, except in Thailand where the heat makes them uncomfortable.

This is not the old age that I envisioned when I was in my twenties. It’s much, much better than that.

Soon after I turned sixty-five at the end of last year, I had lunch with a friend who mentioned the well-worn perception that time moved more rapidly with age. In a burst of the idiot’s satori for which I’m sometimes noted, I replied, “Yes. It’s because that’s when we’re at our happiest.”

He looked surprised and I had to back up the statement that had come thoughtlessly but quite certainly to mind. As we begin to age, we have the time to do all the things that responsibilities constrained us from doing when we were young, busy with children, jobs, husbands or lovers. Appearance took time—buying make-up, dressing for what the world expected of us, cooking regular meals. As we get older, every day unfolds like a birthday when we can usually do pretty much anything we want. There’s time for writing or painting or sculpting or photography, unbroken, uninterrupted time. If we’re still in our pyjamas, unkempt and unshowered at the end of a day of exploring what we can do, nobody will know except perhaps the UPS man. And it will have been a very good day.

And if we choose to end it with salted caramel ice cream and a glass or two of Pinot Noir, we can. Stay up until 4 am watching episodes of The Wire or reading Gone Girl from cover-to-cover in one sitting? No problem. 

This was undreamed of bliss when I was a young mother in my twenties.

A magazine (oh all right—it was More, but I do read the New Yorker and the Atlantic too) recently had a list of statistics about various stages in a woman’s life. Although a Harris Poll found that women are at the perfect age, according to women from the ages of 18-36, when they are 38, they are happiest, says Social Indicators Research, at 74.

Nine years to go—and I’m pretty damned happy right now. The sun’s out, my cold is going away, and waiting for me in my bedroom is a pair of brand new, completely perfect jeans.

Friday, April 11, 2014

Reclaiming My Turf

When I came home after a 10-week trip, my apartment was warm and clean and bright, with the feeling of fullness that comes from being inhabited. I was met at the door by the man who had lived in it while I was gone and who left soon after I arrived. With his departure, suddenly my place felt like a hotel room, no longer someone else’s but not mine either.

My books were on their shelves, the kitchen still had glasses and plates in their accustomed spots, the towels were the colors I had chosen, but it all felt weirdly unfamiliar. Although in some ways I felt as though I’d never left, the strongest sense of place that came to me was that I was just a temporary tenant who needed to be careful of the furnishings and appurtenances because they really belonged to somebody else.

This gave my first couple of weeks back a hollowness. The comfort of a furnished apartment was delightful, reading on a sofa instead of on a narrow bed, propped up by lumpy pillows, waking up in a bedroom and moving into another room for coffee, and having enough coat hangers was pure luxury after spending 80 days in the surroundings of a traveler. But this all felt tenuous, as though I were the apartment-sitter and my friend who had lived here in my absence would be back to claim his turf.

I unpacked my suitcases but I didn’t unpack my apartment. I had cleared out spaces for my friend to use while he was here and there was a closet carelessly jammed full of a random collection of stuff. When I peered into it, it looked like the private domain of a hoarder and I quickly closed the door.

There were things I had tucked away into spots that I couldn’t remember now, like my library card. For some reason that I couldn’t identify, I was reluctant to look for it.

Into my third week of this unsettling form of jet lag, I was slapped hard by a cold and my life shrunk to the size of a Kleenex box. Nothing was interesting, not the books I was longing to read, or the movies that had been sent by Netflix, or the beginning of baseball season. I sat and blew my nose and drank coffee that tasted so flavorless that it might just as well have been Nescafe. But when it finally ebbed away, I was back in full possession of my space and the things that filled it.

Things I’d been given, things I had chosen, things I touched and used every day had regained the resonance of my history. I’m not a domestic woman and through the years I’ve given away several households full of furniture and possessions, paring my life down to two suitcases over and over again. I know that feeling of impermanence, of temporary tenancy, is all too real, on many levels. And yet the colors of the things that fill my apartment, the memories that stand behind them, give my daily life a dimension that it lacks when I travel. I suppose I might as well call it home.

Saturday, March 29, 2014

Oh Brave New World. With Fingerprints.

I all on Hong Kong. It is the tablet center of the world and everyone, regardless of economic level, was chatting, snapping, and cavorting with their iPads, Galaxies, and other toys. Bangkok was almost as bad; I was lucky. It wasn't until I reached Korat that I needed to buy a new battery for my Nokia (circa 2008).

In the Northeast people are less affluent and more frugal. Nobody laughed or jeered at the sight of my  Stone Age mobile and I was grateful. But the weight of the bag I carried throughout my journey became a chore. In it was my netbook, my camera, a notebook, a newspaper, books, and magazines. It weighed a lot.

To make things worse, the battery case on my netbook was cracked and broken. Its battery life was short so I also carried its power cord for electric outlets. When I asked where I might find a replacement, that was when I faced public ridicule. Tablets had replaced my netbook, and Microsoft was retiring XP.

On my flight back to the states, I made a rapid dash through Incheon to catch my connecting flight, carrying my satchel of everything I needed for a trans-Pacific flight. As soon as I was functional at the end of my trip home, I took a baby step into the 21st century. I bought an iPad mini.

It is far from love at first sight. There's a learning curve involved and I'm slow at these things. It is however disgustingly convenient. I use it for my initial email check over morning coffee and I just caught up with the Bangkok Post. I was told I can edit PDFs on it and photos look marvelous on its screen. I know full well it's a gateway drug; I'm entertaining thoughts of making my next computer a Mac. And I'm writing this on my mini, thinking how much easier it might be to use a real iPad.

Now if Apple would only do something about the way the screen attracts fingerprints...

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Death Buses: Extreme Travel in Thailand

I didn't want to leave Nakhon Phanom for Bangkok, but decided since I had to do it, I'd take a VIP bus back to the capitol, with a window seat and a daytime departure so I could see the area that I love right up until I entered the central plains. The cost was almost as much as a budget air ticket but the weight of my bag, bulging with small presents and dirty clothes, would change that equation--plus my trip in general was cramming me into far too many economy plane seats.

At the bus station, I learned that the VIP buses left only at night. "But," the clerk told me, "there is an ordinary bus to Bangkok that leaves in the morning."

I've done inter-city travel on ordinary buses before, but never a long-distance trip. "Is there air conditioning?"

"Oh, yes," the clerk assured me, "but no bathroom."

"So I'm going to be on a bus for twelve hours with no bathroom?"

"Yes, but it makes many stops along the way."

On the morning of my departure, I looked for the small orange bus that I thought would take me through northeastern Thailand but was directed to a large double-decker where I was on the upper level. There had been many highway tragedies on double-decker buses but I consoled myself with the memory that my bus trips from neighboring Mukdahan to Bangkok had gone through terrain that was unmenacingly flat. As long as the driver was well rested, we should have a fighting chance for a placid, uneventful ride.

Which we did, until we passed Udon Thani--then the bus began to negotiate dramatic curves that snaked unmistakably upward. The road was a simple and narrow country lane and when we passed slower vehicles, speeding into the area for oncoming traffic, the process was a diverting one. The curves became more frequent as the climb went higher and through the roadside greenery I had a spectacular view onto the countryside below. This wasn't what I'd bargained for and as we passed temples, I swiftly asked every Buddha I could see to ensure that our brakes didn't fail and that no curves were taken in a precipitous manner. The national park on a small mountain that we traveled through was an attractive one but all that I paid attention to were the Buddhas.

The trip was actually more comfortable than many VIP buses had given me in the past. There was no inedible "free" food handed out by an attendant, the TV screens remained miraculously silent for the entire journey, and the stops provided the necessary bathroom breaks with a chance to buy water and snacks. Best of all, our driver erred on the side of caution, for which I was profoundly grateful. There was no time that  the bus tilted ominously as it rounded a corner. I'd experienced that on other trips and never wanted to repeat that sensation again.

In the week before I left Bangkok, there was a horrific bus tragedy that killed children on a school trip from the northeast to the coast. Since I returned to the States, there have been at least two more. I'm willing to bet that these accidents all involved double-decker buses.

I'll travel in Thailand again but never on one of those buses. They're designed for within-city stop and go travel, not long journeys overland on country roads and certainly not for mountain roadtrips. Trains are slow and dirty but their safety record is far better than the more comfortable buses. I'll take that...I hope you will too.

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Small Familiar Pleasures

After being away for ten weeks, coming home to my apartment in Chinatown has its charms.

I'd forgotten the dazzling light that comes from having big windows at either end of my living room. When I first arrived on a cloudy Saturday afternoon, I felt like a mole who emerged into full sunshine. The brightness almost hurt my eyes.

For almost 70 mornings, I drank my first cups of coffee either sitting on my bed or on a straight chair. Although I propped myself against a pillow or two, it still lacked the luxurious comfort of drinking it while nestled into a couch. (Thank you, Ikea.)

Showers are invigorating and I was lucky to have hot water in every room I inhabited. However nothing matches the luxury and joy of a hot bath before bed. Beyond bliss, I tell you.

And when I leave my apartment, it's not unusual to run into friends on the street and stop for a quick chat. Seattle is still the sort of city where this happens often; in Hong Kong or Bangkok it's a minor miracle. After weeks of depending on Facebook for random encounters, the delight of real-time chats is nourishing.

I love to travel and hope to do much more of it, but in the end, the best part is coming home.

Monday, March 3, 2014

Stepping In, Stepping Out

I've lived a lot of my life on Soi Chokchai Ruammit. I've made good friends here, most of whom are now gone from this place. I fell in love here, I worked here, ate here, and at one point starved here when the baht plunged and the economy dissolved.

It's a place I lived in, thoroughly and wholeheartedly; it is not a place that is easy for me to visit. Bumping into memories at every little shophouse corner, it doesn't take long for me to think of getting an apartment or even a house and settling back into the newest version of this small world.

There are people I remember and who still remember me. Like any small town, the inhabitants have become interknit and I am a tiny, idiosyncratic thread in that fabric.

Tonight the friendliest songtao driver pulled over and invited me to sit with him in the cab of his pickup for the short jaunt to the other end of the road. We passed a little dark shop where I used to buy my drinking water in huge bottles; a man who is the thinnest guy in the world and has lived across from my latest dwelling place for years was inflicting Thai boxing kicks on a man who works in a repair shop. They both looked deadly serious.

The sun was setting bright red at the end of the soi when I picked up my newly repaired handbag that had lost its stitching in a crucial place two weeks after I'd bought it. "No charge," the shop owner said, even though he had to rush the repair much more quickly than he wanted to. He's new to Chokchai Ruammit. His shop has huge glass windows filled with leather handbags in brilliant colors. It's the only pretty storefront in the neighborhood.

I stopped at the Tesco Lotus opposite the small street where I've lived off and on for years--Maew Daeng--Red Cat soi. On my last two trips I refused to walk down that lane--it's a minefield of memory. But I forgot how dangerous revisiting a small supermarket can be. This is where I bought catfood for Smeegle, where I picked up tonic water for cocktail hour on the roof with my brother Rod, where I spent a lot of time since it first opened during my last Thai incarnation. As I grabbed a beer and some corn chips, my life folded in on itself and I was ready to walk down Maew Daeng to the house where Smeegle and Rod and I used to live.

I got in another songtao instead and saw familiar faces--the grandfather who owns a little hardware store whose grandson is school age by now, the man whose wife has always been so sweet when I've gone to her store for necessities of life like brooms and coffee cups, the stern soup sister who stopped frowning at me oh...ten years ago?

I made it back to my apartment before I began to cry, missing people I have loved, missing the kinder person I am when I live here, missing my life on a soi that just doesn't change. I really can't live here and there are things about it that make me scream silently when I come to visit, but it is the part of this country that has claimed me and I will always love it.

Sunday, February 23, 2014

The Point of No Return

I haven't reached it yet but I'm very close, which is why I'm leaving this beautiful little city the day after tomorrow. I've been here almost two weeks. The mother at Good Morning Vietnam and Coffee is beginning to explain the political news on TV. I am well acquainted with the Golden Labrador who shamelessly frequents restaurants in his vicinity, hoping that diners will be generous. I've met the local fashionisto, a handsome devil with an exquisite girlfriend and a dazzling collection of women's shoes that fills two walls in the back of his shop. The ladies who sell me the Bangkok Post invited me to join them for lunch today. And of course there is the marvelous, wonderful, kind family that my friend Beau belongs to--more than anybody else they have given me a toehold and a place to feel connected in Nakhon Phanom. I have been extraordinarily fortunate and I am extremely grateful.

From the very beginning, when I saw this, tendrils of longing began to sprout somewhere in my heart and mind. And every time I see it, "Just one more day," is what I mutter to myself. I'm a sucker for sweeping landscapes--it's the one part of me that is truly Alaskan.

Over a period of fourteen months in the last couple of years, two people I love very much died. I didn't realize how unhappy and depressed I'd been recently until that feeling went away. I knew it had when I felt eager to get up in the morning--and it wasn't just because I'd found a place where there was good espresso. It was more to the point that I could walk to it, on a sidewalk, and then sit at a corner table of an honest-to-god sidewalk cafe and listen to birds singing. Top that Bangkok, or even Seattle. Nakhon Phanom doesn't claim to be "inter" or "world class" but in many ways it has much larger places beat.

It's a place that's not afraid of color and uses paint with riotous and delightful abandon, all over town. I'm going to go into withdrawal when I return to Bangkok, where buildings are either glass and steel or unadorned cement.

There are places here that serve Western food and a spot called Little Tokyo (inland sushi, anyone?); with a large Vietnamese population there's a generous representation of that cuisine too. (The best fried spring rolls I've ever had I ate here last night.) But it's the Thai food that I wanted and ate and was delighted with--there are people in this town who still know how to use a wok. And the desserts at Ali Blah Blah Bistro--crepes, pies, creme brulee--are marvelous indulgences that I will miss badly when I leave.

Yesterday I wandered through Ho Chi Minh's garden and the tiny house he lived in. I looked longingly at his desk and the open window above it that framed leaves and blossoms. A hopeless romantic, I knew I could be happy in this place. Of course I always leave out minor details like mosquitoes and outdoor privies in the middle of the night.

There is so much beauty in this river town and I've tried to catch it and keep it and share it. These temples, this sky, these idiosyncratic buildings--I love them all.

But of all the memories I've caught in a snapshot, this is the one that will bring me back, the bend in the road that promises new discoveries, new stories.

Thank you, Nakhon Phanom--see you soon, I hope. Until then I hope to keep with me the sense of delight and the love of life I've felt since I came to stay with you.

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Pretending I Live Here

I celebrated the end of my first week in Nakhon Phanom by living in it--no sightseeing, no picturetaking, just moving through a day as I would if I were lucky enough to be a resident.

It would be so restful, because everything can be achieved by walking. Going to get coffee, buying a battery charger for my new battery, the one that went on strike after two days and 157 snapshots, buying garlands of jasmine and marigolds at the market, taking them to the gigantic bodhi tree in thanks for letting me snap it several times, buying a paper, reading it at a bright and comfortable little cafe, eating khao mun gai, buying a few things at the local supermarket which has aisles like deep, dark canyons, and all on foot.

It's a great day for walking here because there's a slight windchill, enough to tangle my hair and almost blow away my shawl. It clattered the dry leaves of the tree that I gave thanks to, loud enough that I wondered what a real storm would sound like under its branches. It blew away the smoke of the past few days and made Laos' mountains visible again.

There's more to do, I know there is. Perhaps I might pay a visit to the brother of people I know in Seattle, who lives in an abandoned hotel overlooking the river. Or I could see if I can persuade a tuktuk (Skylabs here) driver to take me to Ho Chi Minh's house and then bring me back--no success with that yet. Or I could sit in my bright little room and watch my battery charger--it flashes in different colors like something out of Close Encounters of the Third Kind--blueredgreen in staccato bursts. As I watch, I can be grateful that I live, although temporarily, in a town with no need for a Skytrain.

Today is Wednesday and I just paid enough to ensure that I will be here for four more days. My friend Beau told me long before I came that if I ever visited her town, I wasn't going to want to leave. She was right; I feel as though for the first time in my life, I'm living in Thailand. Last night I walked through the lovely temple grounds that are near my hotel and was stopped still by the sound of monks, praying. If I were ever to come back to live in this country, this is how I would want to live my life.

Long Ago, Far Away

Today I crossed a river and a border to get more Thai time. I planned to stay a few hours in Laos, at least long enough to have lunch in the town I've looked at from the other side of the Mekong for almost a week. But the minute I got off the bus, I was hit by the smell of dried squid, which seemed odd, since Laos is a landlocked nation.

Following my nose, I found this
which up close looks like this. Strips of fish? Pig? Buffalo? I say it's ugly and I said the hell with it. I bought a ticket to return on the same bus I came in on, for a grand total of thirty minutes in Laos. Go ahead, take away my traveler's status. I'm not going to care.

I like my morning coffee and my silent wanderings in Nakhon Phanom, staring at buildings and looking for my next meal. I was ravenous after my rapid foray into unknown territory and found this
where I had a remarkable lunch of fish lahb and mango salad, which had everything from squid to nuts. It's right next to a joint called Classic that has photos of hamburgers and pizza. I ask you--where would you eat? Yeah, me too.

The clouds are gathering and I think another riverboat ride would be a very good way to begin (and probably end) my evening. I did that last night and avoided spider bites by sitting on the upper deck. The light was different from the one that I saw on my first trip and it probably will be again tonight. It's my Nakhon Phanom Happy Hour, complete with a can of Beerlao.

It's hard to think of a reason to leave, especially since I have yet to go to the National Library, or Ho Chi Minh's house (in a Vietnamese village five kilometers away), or to the Blue House Cafe to hear Isaan music, or to give a floral offering to the giant bodhi tree that I took snapshots of when I first got here. Besides, Bangkok is so far away from this place that I'm not sure I'll ever find my way back.

Saturday, February 15, 2014

Loving Inertia

This morning I sat outside on a quiet corner, sipped coffee, listened to birdsong, and watched this small town wake up. Nakhon Phanom is the first place I've ever been in Thailand to give me this and this is why I keep extending my stay by two more days.

I'm not really a traveler; I'm a voyeur. I like to go somewhere I've never been and watch it. This is my fourth day in Nakhon Phanom and there are still places I haven't been because I wander slowly, on foot. But I know that the best coffee in my part of town is at Good Morning Vietnam and Coffee and the best pastry is at Ali Blah Blah farther down the road. I've spent a lot of time in both places, watching and enjoying the world around me.

There's a boat trip on the Mekong in the evening (for less than two dollars) ; spider bites are free, but in addition they also serve Beerlao in cans--a first for me. And the riverside is walkable for miles. I know. I've done it and plan to do it again soon.

There's more to see here. I've yet to see the center of town and how people do business there. But so far I'm happy in my 65-year-old Chinese hotel, with its big windows, checkerboard floor tiles, and profusions of wood, and in my riverside neighborhood. I can understand why Uncle Ho lived here. It's a fine place to write and wander and perhaps plot social change. So far I'm still wandering.....