Monday, October 29, 2007

Get Over It

Colds usually mean nothing more serious than spending more money than I would like on Kleenex, but every once in a while, one of them hits me with the force of a John Deere tractor and turns my life into the week of the living dead. Faced with the conventional wisdom of "Get lots of sleep, drink lots of water," I buy lemon grass, lime leaves, Thai chilis, a jar of chili paste and make soup, spicy-hot enough to make me hiccup, slather my skin with Tiger Balm and do my best to burn the virus out.
In Bangkok, I did exactly the opposite. When a monster cold laid me flat, my friend Rod would come over with Alka-Seltzer for colds (unpurchasable in Thailand, brought from the States, and hoarded for emergency use only) and a bowl of Campbell's chicken noodle soup, bland, salty, and completely comforting.
Maybe these momentary health lapses of mine are simply exaggerated attacks of homesickness for one of my two homes, and are cured only by edible memories of whichever place I happen to be away from. It's something to keep in mind when I'm packing to return to Bangkok next year--make room for the Campbell soup cans and boxes of Alka-Seltzer.

Monday, October 15, 2007

The Globalization of Levis

"The whole world is becoming one homogenized mass, with everybody eating at MacDonald's and wearing Levis," is a complaint I frequently hear from people who wouldn't be caught dead eating a Big Mac or wearing jeans that cost under two hundred dollars. When I'm presented with this dire assessment of exotic cultures crushed by capitalistic juggernauts, I do my best to look sympathetic, stop listening, and remember my friend, Somsak.
A Bangkok boy born and bred, Somsak has style that James Dean would have envied--highly polished motorcycle boots, teeshirt, sideburns, carelessly held cigarette, and the best-fitting Levis that I have ever seen on any human being.
"Where do you buy your jeans?" I asked him, after many weeks of envying their perfection.
"Every year when I go to Paris, I buy a pair of Levis. They fit me, but you know, they're never quite right. So when I come back to Bangkok, I take them to my tailor, and he copies them. He makes me six pairs of Levis, just like the ones that I bought in Paris but better, because they're made just for me. Every year I have new Levis made when I return from France, and I put the ones from last year away for my sons, so they'll have them when they grow up."
"But your jeans even have the leather Levis label, and the little red tag. How does your tailor make those?"
At that point Somsak looked at me with the benign pity that only a Thai person can convey properly, and that never fails to make me feel as though I should go away to drool quietly in a corner. "Oh, Janet," he said gently, "those things are very easy to buy in Bangkok."

Thursday, October 4, 2007

Living Without Limes

I live in a country with so few flavors that at times I feel as though I’m wandering through a landscape that is made up solely of primary colors. Imagine a place where everything is red, yellow or blue, and you’ll know how I feel about having my tongue enveloped only by sweet, salty, hot, and sour, with a dash of garlic. It’s like eating baby food with the taste kicked up a couple of notches, completely unsatisfying, which is what probably accounts for the vast obesity epidemic in America.
While I’m in exile from the food that I love best, I spend a lot of time eating in Thai restaurants, and slaving over Southeast Asian cookbooks, with lackluster results. As anyone who has lived in Thailand will tell you, eating Thai food in the U.S. is like eating with a condom on your tongue.
Americans eat the way that they have sex, with safety taking precedence over sensation. The dubious benefit is that any poverty-stricken peasant living on a dollar a day in the third world eats better, and probably has better sex, than anybody who lives in the U.S.
I recently saw a picture of a woman in Yangon, sitting near a road, selling limes, and I wanted to cry. She had what I cannot buy, a green orb with bumpy skin that is smaller than a ping pong ball. When it is cut open and squeezed over a plate of food, the lime emits a lovely fragrance and a flavor that is a mixture of sour, and a fresh, tangy sweetness. For me, living without this is like living without salt, in a culinary world gone flat, and I hunger in the land of plenty.

Monday, October 1, 2007

Myanmar on Our Minds

Donald Gilliland is a writer, photographer and Bangkok bookshop owner who has spent a lot of time in Myanmar, with his last visit a week before the protests began. His weblog is where I have gone every day for information and background about this beautiful and misunderstood country, and I cannot recommend it highly enough for people who want to go beyond the newsflash. Donald's photographs are worth thousands of words of political analysis in showing the heart of a city that he loves, and his stories about the people he has met and made friends with are both affirming and heartwrenching. For a glimpse of the people behind the politics, there is no better guide than the talented and generous Mr. Gilliland--go and see for yourself.