Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Colors of Laos

Colors in Thailand are ritualized--yellow for Monday, pink for Tuesday--or politicized--yellow shirts, red shirts, blue shirts--or polite--muted colors in subdued palates. I am always amazed when I see a photo of the oldest princess dressed in scarlet, which she often is (but then she did marry an American and lived for years in the states.) When I buy a present for my friend Usa, it is always brown or black if it's something to wear, and I am taken aback that Jessia, our housekeeper, often wears a turquoise tee shirt I gave her (but then she has lived in an American household for over a decade.) If it weren't for the blazing gold and red of Thai temples, I would be be starved for color in this kingdom.

But not in Laos. How is it that across a river lives a glowing, gleaming, exuberant, imaginative world of color? It's like trading in a small box of Crayolas for the deluxe 144 crayon pack and it brings me the same sort of joy that I felt as a child when Crayola taught me that there was turquoise and magenta and fuchsia and tangerine as well as ROYGBIV.

I could go broke in a heartbeat buying fabric in Laos--this time I confined myself to purchasing a few Hmong items embroidered with a story-cloth motif but it was difficult to be so restrained. Whether in an upscale silk shop or at the morning market, cloth in Laos is a riotous festival of creatively combined colors--the same sort of glorious tints that Hmong flower vendors place in bouquets at Seattle's Pike Place Market but in Laos they are unfading, immortalized in textiles.

The same brilliance is found in Laos temples--hues that never appear in their Thai counterparts--and the harmonious anarchy of colors other than red and gold delight my spirit and dazzle my imagination. When I look at the interior of a domed roof in Laos, I feel as though I have seen these tints before in my dreams, when I first was given a big box of Crayolas and began to realize the potential of a world of colors.

Monday, December 28, 2009

Temples and Bookshops--Part one

As the night train to the Laos border pulled away from Bangkok's art deco station, I sipped my beer and looked at the man sitting across from me. He was elaborating on the subject of Thai girls and I was feeling grateful that our beds would be made up soon so he would have to move. I hoped he didn't talk in his sleep because I already knew far more about him than I ever needed to know.

The next morning there he was, clearly fancying himself as an Old Asia Hand after three years in Thailand, telling everyone within earshot where they should stay and how they should barter and where they could get a free refill on their cup of morning coffee. I listened carefully, making mental notes of neighborhoods and restaurants to avoid while I was in Laos' capitol city. The Ancient Mariner was someone I never wanted to have to listen to again.

I didn't need to worry. He was a man who knew where all the cheapest places in Vientiane were to be found and I was willing to pay for comfort--a financial incompatibility lay between us like a very welcome moat. He was dead set on his 250 baht guesthouse and I decided upon my hotel choice, without making my selection public, minutes before disembarking at the border.

It was on the river or where the river would have been if it hadn't dwindled to the size of a large brook--all of it close to the Thai side. It was disconcerting to see the Mekong so diminished from what I had seen in Kratie, and I hoped its lack of majesty was because of the season and not the dams in China. The rainy season had ended only two months before and wouldn't resume for another six--by then people would probably be wading from Thailand into Laos, with no need for the Friendship Bridge.

I walked away from the long line of hotels and restaurants on a road that soon became dust and flowering bushes and trees. A little mini-mart flanked by a Christmas tree on one side of its doorway and a spirit house on the other had phone cards for sale. When the proprietress and I couldn't get my phone to work after inserting the card in what we thought was the proper fashion, she called for her teenage son who restored functionality without even a flicker of impatience.

A man emerged from a nearby house and walked beside me, asking where I was from and if I spoke Spanish. "Where did you learn Spanish?" I asked him, in ESL classroom mode. "Cuba," he said and the balance of power shifted in a heartbeat. He smiled and walked on, clearly savoring his moment of surprise and status, while I struggled to put my dropped jaw back in place.

The next morning I went out in search of a place called That Dam Bookstore, which was in the vicinity of a towering stupa called That Dam. Although the wordplay was what drew me there, the name had been changed to Kosila Books, a well-kept place crowded with bookshelves and paperbacks in a multiplicity of languages. The owner is Sam, and he is a man who is an honest-to-god book person. His English is fluent and his patience for questioning foreigners apparently inexhaustible. It's a browser's spot, with many surprises and I went away with an Iris Murdoch and Alan Rabinowitz's book on conservation adventures in Thailand.

Monument Books was my next destination--it's a pretty store,smaller and more enticing than the one in Phnom Penh, and as I wandered through it, two copies of Tone Deaf faced out on a display stopped me cold. "Oh, it's my book!" I said happily to the clerk hovering nearby, who responded with a look of total incomprehension. "I wrote this book," I told her in Thai. She and two of her colleagues smiled at me the way they might at a street person they hoped was harmless, and wandered off to a safe distance. Relegated swiftly from happy author to shunned leper, I went back out into the blazing sunlit street.

In the riverfront street of my hotel was the Ventiane Book Center, with an open front and every piece of merchandise swathed either in cellophane or dust or both. The clerk swabbed at the cards I bought with a feather duster and I energetically polished my hands with a clean handkerchief I'd fortunately brought with me. I sneezed, she nodded, I left with no reason that I could see to ever go back.

Temples are the punctuation mark of Vientiane and they are beautiful, quiet places with trees and flowers. I found my way of being in that city was to eat, see a temple, wander, and then repeat. It's a better prescription than Xanax and Valium put together for a frazzled refugee from Bangkok.

Sunday, November 29, 2009

The Lady or the Tiger?

Thailand has always had an ambivalent relationship with Tiger Woods, claiming him once he became famous and then becoming deeply offended when he chose not to make his mother’s nationality his own. “Cablinasian” wasn’t a term that charmed Thailand, not when he could have accepted the privilege of being Thai instead.

He has always received a generous amount of attention from the Thai press, even after his refusal to become the Kingdom’s returning son, and yesterday both English-language papers ran a large AP reprint about Tiger, served up with a generous helping of schadenfreude.

Police To Talk To Tiger About Accident blared the headline in one, Woods In Crash Drama: Wife Smashes Window With Golf Club After Tiger Hits Fire Hydrant And Tree screamed another, and heaven only knows what the less conservative Thai-language press had to say about God’s gift to the sport’s page. Probably quite a bit since the story deals with some of their favorite subjects, an auto crash, blood, a rescue by a dutiful wife, and rumors of infidelity. Certainly the National Enquirer is having fun with what the Florida police have dubbed “a traffic crash,” not a “domestic issue.”

Alcohol was not a factor, the police report stated, but provided no reason why the golf star left his $2.4 million dollar home and his blonde trophy wife at 2:25 in the morning, rapidly losing control of his 2009 Cadillac which hit a fire hydrant and then a tree on his neighbor’s property while Tiger briefly lost consciousness somewhere along the way. When the police arrived, Woods was able to say “nothing coherent,” and those close to him are keeping silence, including the night club hostess with whom he was rumored to be having an affair.

This is the stuff that reporters dream of, all over the world, and who can doubt that Vanity Fair will soon have a feature article about Tiger Wood’s domestic life, with glossy aerial shots of his estate and inset pictures of every woman he has ever spoken to. Did his wife bludgeon him with one of his own golf clubs? Was he fleeing to receive medical attention when he lost consciousness? Or was he simply relaxing with a recreational drug after the thrill of being inducted into Stanford U’s Sports Hall of Fame? God knows that kind of adulation can take it out of a guy, not to mention the recent two-week golf tour of China and Australia where he may or may not have seen the club hostess who was in Melborne at the same time he was. It’s the best kind of mystery. Nobody died and nobody’s happy. Who in the world of newsprint and declining circulations could ask for anything more?

A similar story involving a young Thai actress appeared in the same issue of the Bangkok Post yesterday but garnered only a couple of hundred words in that paper’s gossip column. Her auto accident was far more serious, putting the comatose twenty-one-year-old in the hospital with a bleeding brain and a fractured pelvis, while her passenger was unscathed. The former Miss Teen Thailand was on her way home “early last Tuesday,” chatting to her companion as she drove, when suddenly her car veered off the road and hit an electric pole. She was”catapulted through the windshield and on to the road” while the passenger was thrown into the driver’s seat. Obviously seatbelts were not involved in the accident.

But unlike Tiger’s case, no mystery is attached to this one. It’s the fault of the actress’s director who admitted, “I believe the set of our production may be cursed, as we failed to carry out a buang suang ceremony first.” This is a ritual held before filming begins that drives away bad luck and propitiates any spirits who might be hovering about. When that didn’t take place, bad things began to happen to cast members of the television series.

One actor broke his nose when he ran into a plank on the set and other cast members had received “cuts and scrapes” in the course of filming. The fact that the severely injured starlet had been working from 10 am until midnight on Monday wasn’t a factor, the director assured the press, since she had enjoyed a full day of rest on Sunday.

It’s too late to hold the ceremony now but the director is sure that his promise to have a merit-making ceremony at a temple once the production is wrapped up is sufficient to ward off other expressions of ill will from the spirit world.

It’s easy for him to say—somehow the spirits have refrained from punishing him, although he is clearly the true malefactor in this flouting of ritual. Or perhaps the best is yet to come and the starlet is just a prelude to real disaster? Anyone who has seen the classic Thai ghost story, Mae Nak, knows spirits are not easily dissuaded from a course of wholesale distraction and carnage when their delicate sensibilities have been disregarded. Since the disasters have escalated from contusions to a broken nose to a shattered pelvis, I’d say the spirits are just warming up and that director had better find a good ceremony fast.

Tiger might want to rethink his decision on whether or not to become Thai once he understands how much bad publicity can be averted by giving credit to the world of the spirits. On the other hand, if a jealous wife is involved in his predicament, he may have gotten off easier than his erring counterparts in the Kingdom.

It’s common knowledge that in Thailand, Lorena Bobbitt would have been regarded as a household saint, or worse yet, just one of the crowd of spouses scorned. Had Tiger turned Thai, his wife could well have wielded something much sharper than a golf club and the resulting surgical attachment would have been both painful and humiliating. Perhaps a spot of world-wide bad publicity is a decent trade-off after all, although the world’s top golfer may not feel the same about the tools of his trade for a while—at least not until his facial injuries heal.

Saturday, November 28, 2009

Looking for Soong Ching-ling

I would have been happy enough to simply enjoy the Beijing lakes in autumn but a sign told me that Soong Ching-lings’s house was only meters away and I wanted to visit it. There were only a few places I had on my internal list of Things to See onPurpose and the home of the renegade Soong sister was one of them. I had only read about her in biographies of Chinese leaders and in Emily Hahn’s China to Me; in my mind she was a shadowy figure, a beautiful rebel who was targeted during the Cultural Revolution and was defended by Chou Enlai. He had provided a home for her near a lake which was apparently the one I was meandering through on a day of wandering without focus.

Since I’m American, meters are as hazy a concept to me as my mental image of Soong Ching-ling but I walked in the direction the sign indicated for a few minutes only to find nothing, not even another sign. Brandishing my bilingual map, I approached a young woman and begged for help. She pointed me in another direction and off I went.

But then the path divided with no indication of which way I should go. The only sign was one that told me to “Behave in a good manner,” so I smiled as I asked a passerby which way I should go next. Her directions led me away from the park and to a road of menacing proportions that was at the end of the trail. Sign language from a kind beer-drinker in front of a small house indicated I should take my life in my hands, cross the traffic-laden street, and turn left, which seemed an appropriate direction.

Fortunately living in Bangkok had prepared me for heavy traffic so I crossed without causing an international incident and walked down a very unprepossessing lane. The houses on it were wooden and small and delapidated and I began to feel very sorry for Soong Ching-ling. Even the most dedicated Communist, I thought, would be depressed in one of these crowded little shanties. But then a woman smiled at me and I announced my destination with not much hope of a definitive reply. She nodded vigorously, pointed straight ahead and there the road turned. Once again I was near a lake, and trees and a park pathway with a sign for the spot I was looking for.

The widow of Sun Yat-sen was provided with an estate that had once belonged to a prince and had housed the father of the Last Emperor. It was filled with trees and manmade hills and a stream and pools and had a feudal air to it, with its collection of houses, all of different sizes. It was a park within a park and the formality of it was quelling. I began to wonder if Soong Ching-ling might not have been happier living in a shack along the lane.

The houses that contained rooms of memorabilia did nothing to dispel that impression. They were filled with an assortment of photographs and documents that had been assembled by the Soviet Union and were arranged in a grim and ungarnished fashion. The signs were bilingually Russian/Chinese with the only English prose written in the hand of Soong Ching-ling. In the photographs she was matronly and heavy and quite Soviet in style, with a forbidding demeanor. It was not a shrine that encouraged lingering so I didn’t.

The gardens were dark and cool and much more alluring than the Russian way of presenting Soong Ching-ling’s life. I walked in quiet, marveled that a Communist would live surrounded by this sort of royal splendor, and wondered how Mao had spent his days—or Chou Enlai for that matter, since he was the one who had arranged this for Soong Ching-ling.

She had refused to live there at first and then finally accepted. I was curious about her life and then I found it—a true museum dedicated to her from childhood to death.

She was beautiful. Her father called her Rosamund and she used that name when she went off to college in the states. She was also fierce, and when the Republic of China replaced the Imperial Kingdom, she tore down the old flag from the wall of her room, put up the new, and wrote a passionate declaration of Chinese independence that celebrated the triumph of the man she was to marry.

He was her father’s best friend and when she was denied a paternal blessing, she ran away with Dr. Sun Yat-sen. “It was not true love,” she said but it was deeper than that. They shared a cause and a belief in their country, which Soong Ching-ling refused to abandon long after her husband’s death.

His wedding gift to her was a very small pistol.

After Dr Sun’s death and the Japanese invasion of China, she lived for a while in Hong Kong. Martha Gellhorn met her there and wrote that she was “tiny and adorable and admirable, unlike her sisters Madame Chiang and Madame Kung who were the limit.” She headed relief efforts that sent rice to China, called One Bowl of Rice. The bowls that she used to publicize the drive were both startling and endearing to me. Carefully lit and in their own little display were two of the Pyrex bowls that haunt the memory of every American child who grew up between the 40s and the 60s, the nesting mixing bowls that came in yellow, green, red and the smallest that was turquoise and always the first to break. Soong Ching-ling used and kept and was now illuminated by the green and turquoise Pyrex bowls, a link to her American past.

She still had friends from her college years in the States. She could have used her family’s wealth and influence to live there; both of her sisters often did. She stayed in China, even when the Red Guards wanted to humiliate and degrade her.

The house that Chou Enlai provided as her refuge was big and comfortable, but not ornately luxurious, rather what a well-to-do merchant would live in, gloomy, multi-roomed, Victorian. She spent her time on the second-floor, in a large bed-sitting room with lots of windows and space. A long covered verandah behind it ran the length of the house and overlooked a beautifully manicured sweep of lawn and some truly glorious trees. A room nearby was outfitted as a little kitchen where she prepared her own food, the sign said, and a well-stocked library lay just beyond that.

She must have been comfortable. It’s unclear whether she was a prisoner. A letter that she wrote leaving her books to a young relative “should something untoward happen” hints that she felt she was in danger.

A photograph of her as she greeted Ho Chi Minh when he came to Beijing shows a woman who could still be radiant well into old age. An oil painting on her bedroom wall is a picture of slender women dressed in what looks like Vietnamese clothing and wearing conical hats, walking along a forest path. I wonder if she thought of the Ho Chi Minh Trail when she looked at it, and if she wished she were young enough to be with them, slender and lovely and committed to revolution.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Friends and Gratitude Part Two

I have my fingers crossed that one of my longest-standing friendships will have more threads added to its fabric in December. My friend Lee has a love for this city that has brought him back twice a year without fail for the past decade and visiting with him while he's here is always a very nourishing pleasure. He comes with news of Seattle, of the U.S. political scene, and of the Pike Place Market where he has owned one of the last surviving American newsstands for thirty years. A bohemian, an eccentric, and a thoroughly delightful human being, he, in common with all who sell the printed word, is in peril as newspapers and magazines wither and die, one by one. The Seattle Post-Intelligencer, Gourmet, heaven knows which is the next that will disappear.

First and Pike News has been proud of being a true newsstand that sells newsprint, not gum or cigarettes or candy. Its only deviations have been the postcard trees that grace its outer boundaries, maps, phone cards, and the occasional postage stamp--but those are at the request of the thousands of tourists that come every year. (It also sells my book--and I am so honored by that!)

Please if and when you are in Seattle, go to the corner of First and Pike, buy a paper and a few magazines, and say hello to Lee. Tell him Janet sent you...

Monday, November 23, 2009

For Friends, Gratitude

My friend Kristianne comes to visit-- and will perhaps stay, I hope--a few days after Thanksgiving and I am thankful. I am lucky to have met people here in Bangkok and other places who are wonderful to spend time with, but we always hold special places in our hearts for people who share some of our history, and Kristianne and I share the Elliott Bay Book Company.

This means we share a passion for books and for talking about them. We both love to examine our worlds and analyze what makes them the places that we see and feel and love and sometimes loathe. It means that our reverence for words extends to using them in the best way that we can. That we share an astrological sign means nothing but it is possibly why we both love adventures and exploration.

Having Kristianne here means more to me than I have told her; I haven't wanted to let her know how much I long for her arrival in case she decides not to come and might then feel that she has let me down in some way. I am eager to see how she reacts to Bangkok and to see what she finds special about the city I live in. I know she will find parts of it that will be new to me--that's what explorers do.

I love the thought of showing her what I enjoy most about Bangkok and seeing other parts of it that I've been waiting to do with a friend. I'm hoping we can travel a tiny bit together, as well as looking forward to hearing about her adventures when she travels alone. I hope she might think Christmas along the Mekong in Vientianne would be a good way to spend some of the last days of this year.

Living and traveling alone is what I do, but there are some things that are not as much fun to do alone--going to one of Bangkok's many beergardens that spring up in the cool season, for example, or eating at a sushi bar. I'm grateful that in a few days I'll have someone here--as a friend, a companion, and perhaps a reality check. Welcome to Bangkok, Kristianne!

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Korat Dreaming

The day after I came home from my rapid visit to the Northeast, I walked past a vendor selling Buddha images and thought that was weird, why did a man give me a copper amulet in my dream last night?

And then I remembered, although the memory had the haze of a fading shadow. After going to Prasat Hin Phimai and the little museum filled with Khmer treasures, after hearing way too much karaoke and watching traditionally garbed beauty contestants waiting for their turn on stage by the banks of the Mun river, after memorizing landscape on the hour-long bus ride back to Korat and before eating food I'd never had before while being feasted upon by mosquitoes so huge I was afraid they were going to fly off with my fried fish that was still gloriously and completely whole , I had gone to a temple not far from my hotel where an abbot had reputedly raided the local caves to construct a cavern of his own on holy ground.

I was greeted at the temple gate by a cordial gentleman who took me straight back to a room that looked enchanted, with stalagmites and stalactites and candles and Buddha images. I was sure Terry Gillam would love it--I certainly did.

A shout from my escort made me turn to the door where one of the temple puppies had decided he needed one of the shoes I'd taken off so very much more than I did. His plan was foiled by a young monk who was indubitably not Thai--"from Germany," my guide told me.

The monk returned to sweeping leaves, while assuring me that yes, he was lucky to have found this particular temple where the abbot was particularly erudite, and when I looked at the young man's quiet, happy eyes, I believed him.

My escort proudly pointed out a pristine new pickup truck, telling me it belonged to him and that he had a tourist business. Handing me his card, he asked me if I'd been to Nong Khai yet--if not we could go tomorrow. As I began my stroll out of the temple gates, he rushed up to me and handed me something small and copper-colored. I thanked him, put the Buddha image in my purse, and walked back into the quiet twilight of a moated provincial city filled with trees and kindness.

Two days later, surrounded by glare and noise and dirt and concrete and carelessly dropped litter, the gift of the Buddha wasn't the only thing that felt as though it had been part of a dream.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Decline and Fall of a Lonely Empire

I live in a household where books come and stay forever, even guidebooks. Since this household is in Thailand it contains a generous amount of guidebooks to this country--most of them published by Lonely Planet. And after buying the latest edition of Lonely Planet's Thailand, I'm grateful to have the backlist, because the current edition takes "travel light" to whole new arenas.

Tomorrow I'm finally going to Phimai to see the pre-Angkorean Khmer temple and also to make a side-jaunt to Phanom Wan. So of course I turned to my latest LP Thailand to see what bus I would take to go to there. Surprise!! There is no Prasat Phanom Wan in the new edition of Lonely Planet--it's been wiped off the Lonely Planet map by some freak asteroid.

It does still show up in the edition just before this one, so I do have the information I wanted, and it will probably be somewhat less than over-run because for Lonely Planeteers, it no longer exists. Good for me, maybe good for the temple, which is still occupied by monks as a holy place who may not yearn for sightseers, but for those people who believe LP is going to give them the whole scoop about a country--maybe not so good.

I am not a Joe Cummings groupie by any stretch of the imagination, but when I look at the old LP guides that he did for Thailand, I mourn his loss. Under his reign, LP was filled with history, culture, language, and it steered travelers to interesting spots that they would otherwise never know. Now it steers travelers to the most palatial hotels and trendy dining spots.

Is this for the greying traveler? If so, it's the wrong move--I'm over 60 and if I wanted tips on living the luxurious life on the open road, I wouldn't turn to Lonely Planet. They are who I went to for the back story, the quirky spots, the things that would help me give depth to my travels. But not now...

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

I Happen to Like Beijing

I never thought it would happen. I grew up reading about Red China and became politically conscious during the Cultural Revolution. Historical China was bright and vibrant and a leader of all world civilizations. China of my lifetime was bleak and dour and badly dressed. Its art was garish and laden with poster propaganda. It had no literature and its dance was a bad joke.

And yet I've never met a lion dance I didn't like. My last neighborhood in the U.S. was Seattle's "International District," which a less politically correct city would dub "Chinatown," and I would hear drums and gongs and firecrackers and hit the streets of my neighborhood to follow the lions. They delighted me, and so did the old ladies of my neighborhood, kickass old broads who owned their streets, as mean as those thoroughfares could be at times. That should have given me a clue about where my heart might lie, but no.....

I can't blame it on autumn, although that seductive season is when I was last in Beijing. And of course autumn is only glorious when there are trees and trees only exist in cities that are highly evolved. (There are damned few in Bangkok.) So yes, perhaps I fell in love with Beijing's trees, cypress and poplar and weeping willow and ones that look like a variety of oak and ones that resemble Siberian Pea trees that grow in Alaska--but then I would have to give full credit to the people who have filled their city with leafbearing trees, and I do.

It is the people who live there who make me love China's capital city. Joie de vivre is not a term I usually associate with Communism but when I walked down a street after dark and heard music and then saw a large throng of people swingdancing in a space near the Worker's Stadium, that is the phrase that immediately came to mind. Old people, young people, women dancing with women, people dancing alone, right beside a busy sidewalk, without selfconsciousness and with palpable enjoyment--I watched and smiled and kept smiling all the way to the subway station that took me back to my guest house.

It was not an isolated spectacle, I saw this over and over again during my two weeks in Beijing, as well as old men wearing bright and tight Speedos plunging into lakes in the late afternoons, swimming vigorously and emerging with bodies filled with goosebumps and looks of justifiable pride. Old people sang in pavilions near Beihei Park's stunningly beautiful lake, and one group performed what looked like selections from Beijing opera, with professional skill and aplomb, shaking hands with their audience at the conclusion of their performance and thanking them.

Chinese culture is a gift old people give to those around them, and their triumph is quiet but glowing. They survived a revolution that was cruel and terrible and has at last brought a better life to the country. With generosity and elan, they provide a living testimonial to the victory of culture over politics. They are beautiful to see and they carry lessons on how to grow old with joy. I hope they will teach me how to do this one-quarter as well as they do--and I can't wait to begin to learn.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Krispy Kreme On Its Way

I used to wonder during the seven years I spent in the U.S. how American bodies would change if they ate in the Thai way--lots of carbs, meat used as a garnish, green vegetables, a small amount of oil, fresh fruit, an abundance of flavor, fat as a treat and not a daily indulgence, servings that are small enough that eaters don't feel uncomfortable after a meal...

I will probably never know, but I have found out what happens when Thai people eat like Americans.

I returned to Bangkok to find Starbucks with their Frappucinos everywhere, gelato stands and gourmet icecream parlors in profusion, pizza and doughnuts and MacDonald's and Burger King even more a part of the landscape than they were when I left, wafflemakers at every Skytrain stop along with German sausage stands and bakeries with cookies and flabby croissants and squishy white bread. Fried chicken is much easier to find than grilled on my neighborhood street--thank you, Colonel Sanders!

And people are getting fat. It used to be a rare sight to see a Thai woman who was obese--now they are everywhere. I'm not talking about figures that are plump and cute and zaftig--I mean bodies that would be hard-pressed to fit in an airline seat. The children who seven years ago were well beyond chubby and happily replied KFC and french fries when asked what their favorite food was are now adults who are fine candidates for heart disease and diabetes.

Eating patterns have changed as well. The most subversive poster I have seen since I came back had nothing to do with deposed Prime Ministers or shirts of different colors--it was a picture of a young Thai man, sitting alone at his laptop with a single-portion frozen dinner steaming nearby. This is so antithetical to Thai culture, where friends and family gather to eat food that they love in good company, ignoring all other concerns in favor of the meal, that it is even more heretical than remaining seated in a movie theater when others rise. It strikes directly at the heart of the Kingdom--at the appreciation for good food that is well-prepared, at the need to be nourished in the presence of people one loves, at the recognition that work is less important than being fed on many different levels. It is as sad as the recent news that people prefer to buy packaged food at a supermarket, rather than shopping at a fresh market, because supermarket food is more hygienic.

The other day I read that Bangkok will soon boast its very own chain of Krispy Kremes that will join the throngs of Dunkin' Donuts and Mr Donut in Bangkok shopping centers. My cholesterol soared at the very thought of these little fat bombs attacking bodies in Bangkok--and I began to wonder if there is a Weight Watcher chapter established yet in the City of Angels. Attention entrepreneurs--a new growth opportunity awaits.

Monday, November 2, 2009

Books in Beijing

I just read the latest email newsletter from The Bookworm in Beijing where, in addition to the monthly single-malt Wednesday, they are hosting a film series (Visions of China: six generations of Chinese filmmaking), a bluegrass band, an open mike session for musicians (Basically Beethoven), a Sunday Salon with a violinist presiding, a writer's workshop, and Colm Toibin reading from his latest novel, Brooklyn.

The Bookworm is a strange and lovely place--a bookstore that is smaller than many book sections that I have known and loved in the past, but with well-chosen volumes on its shelves, a library that is huge and disorganized and like a Salvation Army book department where I found a Skagit Valley cookbook with recipes from Pacific Northwest authors and others, a restaursnt with food that is Western, imaginatively named in literary fashion, and marginally edible in British fashion (stick to the desserts), and a carefully nurtured single-malt scotch selection.

It is the brainchild of an English literary empire-builder named Alexandra Pearson, who has scattered her stores past Beijing and into Chengdu and Suzhou, and may go international, according to a Beijing staff member, with possible stores in Bangkok and Canberra. This woman's ambition is only exceeded by her energy--when she moves through her store, the air crackles.

Just one of the events that she has going on in November would have Bangkok on its ear--bookstores are not destinations of activity in this city. In fact, it's hard for me to think of any bookstore in the States that has the diversity of the Bookworm--a bar, a restaurant, a music venue, a library, a place to buy new books, a center for a literary festival that attracts truly fine writers, a spot for readings year-round after that festival is over, regular Quiz Nights and Scotch tastings and recently a month-long series of events dealing with the evolution of the species.

It is not perfect--some of the literary events are so tedious that they verge on the smug side and one author remarked that only two of his books were available for him to sign ( a rival Beijing bookstore who also hosted him had the man's entire literary output, which considering that it is mostly in paperback is not a huge outlay). But it is a vibrant, growing, enticing spot in the citiesI have visited and it always offers something to attract a widely diverse audience, from booklovers to pubcrawlers.

And it leaves me wondering why is The Bookworm the only store I have found to encompass music and food and alcohol and games and a lending library and a bookstore and a place for writers to read and discuss their work and a film festival and god knows what else Alexandra Pearson will come up with?

It could be reason enough to move to China--unless of course The Bookworm comes to Bangkok...

P.S. It's Gone

Bailey-Coy is closing and my heart cracks a little more. The wit of their windows and the beauty of their selections can never be replaced. So many years of bookselling history, gone--"All changed, changed utterly." Stars are burning out and will be missed by people who loved to walk in starlight.

Will somebody please tell Michael Wells that I love him?

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Don't Know What You've Got Till It's Gone...

Thirty years ago I fell in love with a bookstore. I am 60 years old which means I have loved this store for half of my life--and I worked in it for 0ne-sixth of the time I have been on earth. My dream was that someday I would write a book that would be on the shelves of this place that I loved, and that dream came true. I was also allowed to read there, and the wonderful booksellers that make this store the object of desire for all bibliophiles put my book on their bestseller wall and made a window for it recently. I would be blissfully happy--except for the news that this bookstore is in peril. It may move; it could close. My heart is breaking.

The Elliott Bay Book Company is part of my bones and blood and history. When I think of where my home is in the world, first I think of my sons and then I think of Elliott Bay. For it to move from the building that it has made its home from the day it first opened its doors would be a deep sadness. For it no longer to exist would tarnish the rest of my life.

"It's so far from my house." "There's no parking." "It's in a neighborhood with too many street people." I've heard all of the reasons why people don't go to Elliott Bay--unless they have visitors from out of town and they want to show them one of the reasons why Seattle is a splendid place to live. But on the other hand, my sister in Alaska ordered my book in quantity from Elliott Bay because of their support for it--even though she could have found discounted copies in other venues.

Elliott Bay has a website ( and an 800 number. It has gift certificates that it will mail to anyplace in the world. It is easy to support this place--even if you live continents away.

If all of us who have ever spent an afternoon in this store--or who have grown up playing in the store's castle for children--or who have stood behind the podium in the basement's reading room--would buy one book from this store that has been there for us since the '70s, perhaps it will still be there for a new crop of readers in 2070. Thousands and thousands of people have received hours of enjoyment from Elliott Bay Book Company. Now it's time to show how much it
has meant to all of us. Please, please buy a book or three from this store while we still can.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Powerless on the Ground Floor

It wasn't until we were approaching the Bangkok airport that I realized I had packed my house keys in my suitcase. After two weeks of roaming through Beijing, I had forgotten that I would eventually need to reenter my Thailand existence and now I was much too tired to rummage through my luggage. It was easier to call one of my housemates and ask him to leave the gate open for me, and then follow up the call with a text message once I had collapsed into a taxi.

But nothing is easy in the City of Angels and when I went out of the airport to where the taxi-stands had been, they were gone. In their place were the Airport Authority of Thailand's overpriced limousines at every exit until I reached the last one where a sign told me that public taxis had been moved to the ground floor. Obviously this is how the airport decided to clean up the tout problem--by substituting their own scam for the freelance variety. Any tired traveler arriving for the first time would decide this was the only way to get to the city and would end up paying far too much for an AOT vehicle--welcome to Thailand!

When I finally entered my house, there was an unhealthy preponderance of extension cords and plug-in strips all over the floor. "No electricity," the housekeeper chortled--and sure enough, the ground floor was in a blackout, with the refrigerator plugged into an extension cord that led to a socket in an upstairs bedroom. I was awake for a huge portion of the night, listening for the sounds of an electrical fire.

The rumor going around our household today is that "Yes, a man is coming to fix the electric problem." Although the housekeeper is completely unconvinced that this is necessary--after all, she fixed it didn't she? There's an emergency light in the entryway and the refrigerator's running. Dangerous? Oh those crazy foreigners--how they do worry...

I'm more than ready to move to Beijing.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

The Blessings of Empire

The gates of the British Club were closed when I arrived there late for lunch and a sign clearly said No Entry, Go to Silom 18 which was a far piece from where I was standing. Retreating to the garden of the nearby library I called my host who said of course you can enter there—that sign is only meant for cars—so I did, was approved by the security guard, and made my way past the tennis courts to the covered lounge area near the pool.

At that point I felt much like a peasant as well as a barbarian at the gates and my ensuing table talk lacked zest. My host and I turned with some relief to the menu, which was mammoth and double-sided with Thai, European and British offerings. It offered a long string of morning meal choices—a true English breakfast straight out of a Nancy Mitford novel with chips and fried kidneys and baked beans and toast and eggs-- more than I can remember but there were no brains on the list—and I discovered a substantial number of buttie options, which had me entranced. I saw no chip butties, which I had thought were the only kind extant, but the one that leaped off the menu for me was the one made with black pudding.

My host looked concerned and suggested scrambled eggs and smoked salmon on toast instead but soon I was served an unadorned, ungarnished white plate which had at its direct center a large white bun, sliced in half with a generous yellow aura of what was perhaps butter but tasted quite a bit like very salty margarine, and two small brown hockey pucks placed in between the slices of bread.

In a state of absolute delight, I cut a small piece of this stunning example of real British food and put a fragment of the pudding, which had the consistency of very dry pate, on the end of my fork. What I tasted was salt and pepper and a suggestion of bouillon cubes. The pudding crumbled slightly when cut and there were little white chunks dispersed in it like chocolate chips in a cookie that tasted a lot like diced and boiled potato. The bun was squishy and the melted yellow substance seemed nourishing, in the same way that whale blubber is. This was more than I had hoped for.

“Buttie is for the butter then,” I remarked with barely restrained joy to my lunch companion, “Do you know what the pudding is made of?”

“Yes, I do,” he responded, “but I didn’t want to tell you until you had finished eating.”

“Please do,” I begged, and was less than surprised when he said, “Blood and fat.” I thought briefly of a friend’s hospitalization after she had eaten blood pudding in Morocco, assured myself this wasn’t delicious enough to be lethal, and decided, “It has the same shape and consistency of the Boston brown bread that comes in a can.” I was proud of finding this small and tenuous trace of the British Empire in the former colonies but my Canadian lunch comrade, while agreeing with me, looked a bit depressed.

His own buttie was supposed to contain an egg as well as ham but all that lay between it were two thin and languid slices of pink animal flesh, and his small Greek salad which he asked to have “lots of black olives” had precisely three, all of which looked like the ones that provided the same touch of class at our Thanksgiving dinners in Alaska as the Boston brown bread did and also came out of a can. My host looked even gloomier than he had when we had chosen our breakfasts from the menu, while I was possessed with a very crazed glee.

“Do have something else,” he urged with a large degree of gallantry as I chewed my way through my substantial buttie. I restrained myself from saying “Oh I couldn’t possibly. Thank you ever so,” and instead managed a polite “No thank you, this is just what I needed.”

I thought of saying “It’s nowhere near as disgusting as poutine,” and then quickly remembered that my tablemate had spent his childhood in northern Quebec. Instead I assured him that I was actually quite fond of blood and mentioned the chunks found in my soup on Chokchai Ruammit and the small frozen bits of raw moose that I used to enjoy as a child, when my father butchered a fresh kill on the kitchen table. My host muttered a reply that I assumed was a pleasantry because his manners are impeccable.

I long to come back to the British Club someday for the delights of a full English breakfast but somehow I doubt that I will ever be asked to return. I don’t think English food is expected to afford quite so much unrestrained enjoyment as it clearly did for me. Yet I take deep comfort in knowing that—in Bangkok at least—there will always be an England.

Saturday, September 26, 2009

From Bad Albert's to Nonthaburi

There's nothing too extraordinary about drinking a Cadillac margarita while eating a really good hamburger with a side of tater tots--pleasant enough but nothing to make you gasp--unless of course you're eating it in the depths of Nonthaburi, Thailand. Then it's close to the stuff that really good acid trips were made of.

A month before I was in the depths of Ballard, Seattle eating an equally good hamburger, drinking a beer and reading the menu at a place that was so neighborhood and ungentrified that everyone over the age of 65 seemed to congregate there in the afternoon to work on their crossword puzzles. It was quiet and sunlit and seemed like the sort of diner where the coffee was still made in a percolator. I was checking out the other locations where the owner had similar dens of iniquity and good food when I read something that stopped me cold. "Excuse me," I asked our waiter, "but do you really have a barbecue joint in Nonthaburi? And is that Nonthaburi in Thailand? Or is it maybe a suburb near Mukilteo?"

It was indeed a spot in Thailand, only a matter of kilometers from where I live, and as I discovered when the owner of the place later chased me down the sidewalk saying, "The waiter said you wanted to talk about Thailand," it had barbecued ribs and honest-to-god hamburgers and rootbeer floats and margaritas that did not resemble a slushy from 7-11.

I was enchanted. Every so often I yearn for a taste of the Old Country and MacDonald's or Tony Roma's simply doesn't cut it. I was also skeptical--how could anything from the American West survive in a town as small and as resolutely unhip as Nonthaburi, which is known for its durian orchards and for its terminus for the commuter boats that travel up and down the Chao Phraya
River? Yet I love taking the river boats and I am always optimistic about new food possibilities, so I persuaded several friends to make an expedition into unknown territory in search of real American food.

It was a varied group that climbed onto the boat to Nonthaburi--my housemate Rod whose formative years were spent in Texas and who then was seasoned in the wilds of Idaho, my housemate Zam who had lived in and near Bangkok for his entire twenty-something life and whose idea of American food came from Pizza Hut, KFC , and other US franchises that had become standard sights of the Thai landscape, Rod's friend Jom who is a fashion designer of some note and had spent a fair amount of time sampling the culinary delights of roadside diners while escaping from New York and Los Angeles during his sojourn in the states, and me.

We zipped along the river of kings, passing pagodas, temples, mosques, and palaces, all looking out of place, of another time, and as though they could easily suck us into their world and hold us there forever. It was a relief to reach the lights and bustle and taxis at the Nonthaburi pier, and to be back securely in our own time and place, speeding in a cab down a suburban road.

Suburban it was but a Thai suburb, which means that among the strip malls and housing developments were wide swathes of greenery and an occasional wooden house and a bovine animal or two wandering down the side of the road. We pulled into one of the strip malls where a sign announced we had reached Barbecue Sandwich King and then we walked into a highway joint in America.

But this was the America of my childhood, where the owner wanted to know our names and told us to call him Mark. He began to handcraft our margaritas while the smell of frying meat filled the air and we all waited for the moment of truth--was this the real thing or a very convincing fraud?

Our silence said it all, as we shared bites of barbecued ribs and pulled pork in a sandwich and a hamburger that would choke any horse I've ever met and a vegiburger that provided the only rice that any of us ate that night. We made small appreciative sounds and ate and sampled and suddenly were staring at empty plates. And we all knew we had discovered America even before Jom observed, "If this were Thai food, we would still be eating. We've come so far and we've eaten so fast."

Food is culture, and usually I experience Thai culture with Thai friends eating Thai food. But it makes me feel happy to know that beyond the outskirts of the Bangkok metropolitan area is a spot where I can go with my Thai friends and for one short moment be in a part of America that can be difficult to find even in the States. Thanks Bad Albert--long live Barbecue Sandwich King.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

The Best Medicine is Affordable Medicine

I’ve been sick in the U.S. and I’ve been sick in Thailand–and believe me, Thailand is better.

Recently a cold that I thought had disappeared from my life and lungs resurfaced and with a vengeance. After six days of coughing and using a box of Kleenex every twenty-four hours, a rapidly rising temperature sent me off to the local clinic in search of a palliative other than my usual Tiger Balm and ginger tea remedy.

Neighborhood clinics are staffed by doctors who arrive after their shift in a hospital, so while I was there when the doors opened by five in the afternoon, the doctor arrived some minutes later. Soon I was directed to a simple office behind a faded floral curtain that served as a door. I was asked a few key questions, had my throat examined, and since the receptionist had already taken my temperature and pronounced it well above normal, was told somewhat briskly that I had an infection. "Get lots of sleep," I was told and when I responded that I'd slept badly for five nights, was asked, "Do you want me to give you something to help you sleep?" (Do you want me to give you the keys to the gates of heaven? Oh yes please...)

A nurse met me in another small room where I lay on an examination table and had a shot of penicillin injected so gently that I could barely tell when the needle went into my skin. I was then given five little plastic baggies that contained medicine, a face mask to keep me from infecting others, directions to drink warm water and eat vegetables, and was sent home to bed.

No blood pressure taken, no climbing onto a scale for public humiliation (always such fun when in a weakened state), no pre-scripted questions about smoking, alcohol intake, or possible domestic abuse–just medical care of the most basic and effective kind.

The cost? About twenty-six dollars. The conclusion? If you’re going to be sick, be sure that it happens in a developing country

Friday, September 18, 2009

Be Careful of Who You Teach...

I inherited Bee from another teacher and she was not a high spot in my day—a stolid, silent and stout eleven-year-old, she had none of the spark I longed for in a student and we played countless games of Scrabble while we tried to find some common ground to talk about.

It was her mother who provided this for us when she decided Bee should take her weekly lesson in the comfort of her own home after school rather than going to our site. It was a pleasant enough spot to sit and work in, surrounded by Bee’s dogs, which gave us a peg to base conversations upon and Bee slowly began to chat to me in English.

One day I arrived to find her fussing about with the microwave and she came to the table with a snack made of eggs and melted cheese. These are two things that I am less than enthusiastic about putting in my mouth and I tried not to cover my nose when the odor of hot dairy products wafted in my direction.

“Here, have some,” Bee invited, and I explained to her how much I didn’t like either of the culinary delights she was so eager to share with me. “Oh but you must like cheese and eggs—they are so good, “she assured me, a pucker of worry appearing on her plump little forehead. “I never have liked eggs and I don’t like cheese anymore,” I told her and the subject was dropped, although Bee still looked unconvinced.

The next time I arrived at her doorstep, she greeted me with great delight and said, “Look—a surprise for you!” And there on the table was a steaming plate of eggs and cheese. “I made it for you,” Bee announced proudly, “It is so good—you will love it.”

I had worked hard to get the child to this point of communication and her persuasive techniques definitely deserved to be encouraged. In the interests of fostering her linguistic competence in a language not her own, I sat down and managed to swallow every bite of the dish she had prepared, assuring her that it was very good indeed. “I knew you would like eggs and cheese,” she said, and there was a note of triumph in her voice that made me just a trifle uneasy.

Bee’s confidence soared from that moment and I occasionally wished for the shy and silent child I had met at the outset of our time together. Our chats moved from conversation to advice sessions; it became obvious that Bee knew what was best and that in her eyes my life needed her guidance.

“You like dogs, don’t you?” she asked one afternoon, “You should have one. Why don’t you go to Jatujak Market and buy one on your day off? I will go with you and help you pick one out. My father will drive us there.”

I had never met Bee’s father but felt quite sure that he would probably take his daughter wherever she liked and that any resistance to her plan would have to come from me.

“I can’t have a dog, Bee. I live in an apartment and they don’t allow pets there. I can’t even have a kitten.”

“Why don’t you live in a house so you can have a dog?” she asked, that little furrow of concern creasing her forehead in a way that was beginning to cause me a certain degree of healthy fear.

“I can’t afford a house,” I said firmly, “Houses cost too much money for me.”

“I think you should have a dog,” she repeated softly. I smiled and opened her textbook and we moved into her lesson. But I felt uneasy; Bee had given up too easily for me to believe that this discussion was over.

In the following weeks, enticing photographs of puppies greeted me each time I entered Bee’s home. “Look,” she would say excitedly, “Isn’t this cute? You would like this dog, I think.” “Very cute,” I would agree warmly, “but you know I can’t have a dog in an apartment.” “But you would like this dog. I think you should have it.” This became a familiar preface to our two-hour lesson period and I began to lose my feelings of apprehension—until the day came that Bee greeted me with the classified ad section of the Bangkok Post.

“Look at this house!” she said happily, “It is not very expensive and it is very close to my house. I think you would like this house.”

“Bee, I've already told you I don’t make enough money to rent a house,” I replied.

“It’s all right,” she told me, “I have talked to my father and told him you want to have a dog. He says he can lend you the money to rent a house and you can teach me for free to pay him back. It’s a good idea, isn’t it? I think you will be happy in this house.”

I looked at the beaming child standing before me and suddenly found it difficult to breathe. “Bee, I have a very bad headache and I need to go home now,” I said and made for the door as quickly as possible. Another teacher who owed me a favor took over the class the following week. He was a guy who already had a house and a dog so I figured he was safe—at least just so long as he liked to eat cheese.

Sunday, September 6, 2009

The Strange Sensation of Feeling at Home

There were rare moments when I was a child when the wind shook our house, rain spat against the windows, my mother would make a huge vat of popcorn and we would all take a holiday from the work of keeping a house warm and functioning in the middle of an Alaskan nowhere. I'd sit with a book and a bowl of popcorn, listening to the wind and feeling there was no other place I would rather be.

The rest of my life has had few of these moments. No matter where I was or how happy I felt to be with the people I loved, I was perpetually restless, thinking of someplace to go with them that wasn't our home. As a wife and mother, I was continually planning or packing for our next trip and when we bought our first house and the realtor told us the average American changed residences every five years, I was vastly relieved that purchasing did not mean permanence.

Which is why what I am feeling now in the house I recently moved into with friends seems very strange to me. I wake up, make coffee, open the door to my balcony and start writing. Light hits the pale yellow wall that faces my doorway and turns the green of the elephant ear plant that is in my direct line of vision into a color that is both piercing and restful. Later when I move into the large room that has become the household office, palm leaves on the verandah outside filter the sharp hot afternoon light and my eyes feel the coolness of those potted trees when I glance up from my keyboard. Best all is twilight, when the smoooth wooden stairs under my bare feet take me to an open terrace where ice clinks in a glass of vodka tonic and the eastern clouds take on reflected colors from the sunset and the fading light slowly turns to a pale violet, then disappears.

Every morning, before I open my eyes, I wonder where my passport is and what I need to pack. Then I see my curtains floating near me in a mild form of St Vitus dance, feel warm air against my skin, and I am happy to be where I am, in a house of light and air and space and green leaves. With no urge to rush off into another place, I realize that finally I have found my home.

Saturday, September 5, 2009

In the Footsteps of Martha

Usually when I throw around the name "Martha" I'm referring to Gellhorn but there's nothing like moving into a new house to turn a woman's attention towards that redoubtable ex-felon, Martha Stewart. It was with that uber-hausfrau in mind that I went off to the Huay Kwang market yesterday, in search of kaffir limes.

These prehistoric-looking bumpy bits of fruit have a lovely sharp scent when they are pricked with a fork and I thought they would be the sort of elegant and fragrant decorative touch that Ms Stewart would well approve of--rather like orange and clove pomander balls without the bleeding thumbs that come with studding the oranges with dried cloves. So i wandered past crabs in bondage, helplessly twitching their shackled claws, and enough pig organs to build a Frankenstein's porcine monster and piles of fish that were still so fresh that they emitted no odor at all until at last I came upon the object of my quest.

I happily sniffed my way back home, poking limes with my fingernail and holding them to my nostrils as I stood on the subway. I proudly showed them to the guys I live with, and made them enjoy the fragrance before I made little lime still-life arrangements in my bedroom and our office.

It wasn't until much later that Rod said, "When I smell those little limes, I think of the restrooms in clubs. They're cut up and put in the urinals there to keep the odor down." Suddenly I understood why none of my housemates were as enthusiastic about my latest home decor effort as I was, and felt a stab of relief that I wasn't one of the gender who associates the smell of kaffir limes with that of urine.

The woman who sold me the limes told me she uses them to wash her hair and I had thought the juice would make a nice final rinse with its fragrance lingering after my shampoo. But since I know every man who walked past me would immediately think of public urinals, I'm not so eager to try that particular beauty tip--and I now know why some of my male friends surgically remove every kaffir lime leaf that appears in their servings of green curry.

Thursday, July 30, 2009

Home Safe and Hungry

Some places are simply not where you are meant to be, and for me one of those places is the Chumpon beach house where I recently spent eighteen days. I'm lucky, I suppose, not to have been bitten by a scorpion--Yong the gardener was. She also came down with something dreadful that I hope isn't swine flu--she caught it from her daughter, whose school is now closed. Since Yong had carefully peeled and seeded and sliced a papaya that I savored every bite of, my concern isn't completely altruistic.

I also didn't see the monitor lizard that is the size of a small crocodile and lives in a stream near the house I stayed in, although I threw things into the water hoping to draw him out. Nor did the monkeys come, which was disappointing. However, several hours before the owners of the country retreat came to reclaim their property, I slipped on wet granite steps and twisted my foot, which now looks like a fat little pillow--my souvenir from Chumpon. I think I'd rather have gotten a lousy t-shirt.

But I'm home, in my very own room, having had a meal that didn't involve Mama noodles or its seasoning packets flavoring plain rice for the first time in two weeks. I feel wonderful.

Sometimes you have to step out of your life for a little while in order to truly appreciate it. I did and I do.

Saturday, July 25, 2009

Living at the Corner of Murphy's Law and Devil's Island

Last night I was coming back in the house after dispensing dog treats and the two male dogs began to skirmish inches away from me. As I walked through the doorway, one of them grabbed me by the leg--gently thank heaven so that no saliva penetrated the lined silk skirt I was wearing nor did he break the skin. It was still a depressing way to end the day and I turned off my phone and went to bed before 8.

Have I mentioned that I have had enough of being the sole participant on Survivor?

This morning Yong came with a gorgeous papaya, which she carefully peeled and deseeded for me. It is succulent and fresh and completely delectable--reminding me that it is Sunday and there is kindness and good food in the world beyond my immediate borders.

Friday, July 24, 2009

Chicken Wings

A troupe of anorexic chickens roams through the yard here and occasionally the canine gang of four rouses themselves and gives chase. One of them caught a chicken long before my arrival, and killed it, and was punished in a manner that has kept him from doing it again, but apparently his carnage lives on in the memory of local poultry.

Yesterday after Yong (fortunately still among the living after her insect bite) opened the windows of the studio to air the place out, there was a loud flurry of barks and chicken noises followed by dazed and confused yelps. When I looked out, I saw all of the dogs at the studio's closed door with the unmistakable sounds of a chicken in panic coming from within the building. Yong, being as I have said already, of sturdy rural stock, went into the studio and pitched the chicken back out through the way that it came in--on the wing and in a burst of desperate optimism through an open window that is at least five feet off the ground.

So there you are--an unprecedented burst of bucolic excitement and I missed the best part...

Small jolts of sunlight that are brief but intense make me realize why people choose to live here. Then the clouds gather, the rain drips, and I begin to question the sanity of country-dwellers all over again.

No wonder they sell their votes, I have decided, what else do they have to do? Attention, cash bonuses, competition for their ballots...hell it must be exactly like having the circus come to town.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Tunnel Light

A faint glimmer of sunlight casts shadows on the Chumpon version of Wild Kingdom. This morning snarls and yips from the neighbor's dog who invaded territory provided a charming punctuation to the otherwise boring ritual of morning coffee. Then the terrified shrieks of a chicken who managed to fly in a window that Yong decided to leave open in the detached studio--lots of drama, no blood in either case.

I am so ready to go home.

Five more days of paradise.

Today holds further excitiement with a trip to 7/11 in Pak Nam to replenish the dogs' supply of canned sardines--be still my heart. And I--oh god--if there is a spot where there is edible food in a "restaurant" I pray I find it today.

The local shops near this little compound are heavy on the Fanta, the preservative-laced chips. icecream bars and malnourished peanuts in the shell. Haiving polished off my last package of Mama (instant noodles), I'm in need of a few supplies myself. I think of the food that lines the sidewalk of Chokchai Ruammit and I stare at my overnight bag and I count the days one more time...

Wednesday, July 22, 2009


It's not even ten a.m. yet and already the woman who is my sole human contact here in the deep woods, the gardener, was bitten by a venomous insect and had to go off in search of medical treatment. Who says living in the country is uneventful?

Yong is a sturdy woman who doesn't seem to be somebody who is an over-reactor so the fact that she hasn't returned from her search for a palliative has me worried. I lived in a rural outpost long enough to know that an insect bite doesn't usually issue an open invitation to down tools but then again there are no scorpions or millipedes in Alaska...

Yesterday the washing machine decided the spin cycle was too arduous an undertaiking to complete; today Yong has disappeared with toxic substances coursing through her bloodstream; cannot wait to see what tomorrow has in store. Stay tuned...

Ten Things to Know about Living in the Country

1. Green bananas exude a fluid that will stain clothing. Indelibly.
2. Do not think the groceries in a small country store are capable of sustaining life as you know it.
3. Do not embark upon a rural adventure without bringing drugs.
4. And a chauffeur.
5. A gigolo who also drives would be even better.
6. Remember--sleep is your friend--indulge as much as possible.
7. Green is only a restful color in very small doses.
8. Too much green is a clear indication that something is probably rotting.
9. Try not to think that what is decaying is probably a large portion of your brain.
10. Be grateful that even in the deep woods, there is still internet access.

Sunday, July 19, 2009

Breaking Out of House Arrest

Anyone who has ever lived with dogs knows it's bound to happen--eventually they decide you belong to them and then they are your ever-present shadows.

I was warned not to allow the dogs to follow me to the highway, which is where the little food store is, but that they would only do that if I walked, so no worries. Then I found the bicycle I was to ride is too heavy for me to feel comfortable when I ride it, and with no driver's license and no passport, I don't feel like reviving my ancient driving skills (and I use that word loosely in this sense.)

So two days ago, when I began to walk to the store, suddenly I had indefatigable companions--and yesterday--and today. The gardener suggested that I walk along the beach to my little food emporium, and when a neighbor dog distracted my prison guards, I made a break for freedom.

Down the beach and up a small hill, unaccompanied I went, and came out with a feeling of sheer excitement--there before me was shining black asphalt.

I know it's pathetic but suddenly dormant childhood memories surfaced and I vividly recalled how after hours and hours and hours of driving on gravel roads, our family car would finally reach "blacktop" and all of us children would cheer. Aspahalt meant civilization, a town, friends to talk with, mail, ice cream--and now half a century later I felt the same elation when reaching a narrow country road that was paved.

I found a larger store than the one I usually frequent, with chips and jasmine rice and nuts and rambutan, nothing even vaguely at the standard of a 7/11, let alone one aisle of my usual Bangkok refuge, Villa Market--but after two days straight of eating instant Mama noodles, it was paradise. Ah the simple pleasures of the rural life--and how eager I am to leave them all behind me--most of all my canine jailers!

And now--for all my foodie friends--a recipe!
Prisoner's Rice
Cook white jasmine rice in a rice cooker. Be sure it is white rice--brown rice will not do. (That is reserved for your prison guards.)
Put a generous helping in a small bowl.
Sprinkle liberally with fish sauce.
Enjoy. Which you will if it's the first freshly cooked bowl of rice that you've had in ten days...

Daggers, Libraries, and Colin Cotterill

Although (thanks to decades of bookselling) I have a dazzling collection of talented friends and acquaintances on two continents, many of whom are writers of the published variety, none of them until now have ever appeared in the prestigious pages of the Times of London. It took Colin Cotterill to achieve that pinnacle--see

Winner of England's Dagger in the Library award last week, Colin accepted his newfound fame with his usual aplomb, cartooning the journalist from the Times who interviewed him, taking snapshots of the awards audience, and wearing his customary sandals. (The other award nominees, the Times noted a bit stuffily, wore business attire.)

I have recently begun to reread Colin's Dr. Siri mysteries, volumes one through five, and am once again pulled into the world of Laos post-liberation, where a (fictional) 70+-year-old doctor becomes the national coroner simply because he is the sole survivng physician, and is plunged into a stunning variety of imaginative homicides. Along with his newfound forensic responsibilities, Siri also learns he has been endowed with shamanic talents in his sunset years, which throws a whole new dimension into crime fiction. After all, Hercules Poirot had his "liitle grey cells" but no phibob threatening him--nor did he have the estimable Mr. Geung, who has Downs Syndrome, a remarkable memory, and a stunning knowledge of how to handle a corpse in a professional manner, or Nurse Dtui, a Junoesque charmer with the wit of a Southeast Asian Dorothy Parker. Siri has been blessed with all of these assets, which make his novels reading that borders on the compulsive, like gulping down the literary equvalent of macadamia nuts.

As I race through Colin's novels, I'm delighted once more at the originality of his characters, his knowledge of Laos history and his respect for that country's culture and citizenry. Plus he concocts a damned fine mystery--my only complaint is there's only five of them and I am halfway through number three! Enough of this award-winning nonsense, Mr. Cotterill! Come home and give me more of Dr. Siri!!

Friday, July 17, 2009

What a Difference a Week Makes...

Last Saturday, when I was taken to the post office in Pak Nam on my first day in the province of Chumpon, to my Bangkok-attuned eyes it was an unprepossessing huddle of market stalls and decrepit wooden structures. When I went yesterday, it had become an urban metropolis in one short week. It has small concrete sidewalks with people on them, a thriving 7/11 where I was able to pick up a week's worth of Bangkok Posts, a selection of noodle shops, and a motorcycle taxi-stand.

None of these things are part of my daily landscape now. What I saw yesterday is less life than I see in my "real life" in my quiet neighborhood of Soi Chokchai Ruammit in Bangkok, which boasts three 7/11s, a Tesco Lotus Express, a Family Mart, two newsstands which sell both the Bangkok Post and the Nation, and at least six different places where I can eat far better khao mun gai than I had yesterday in Pak Nam.

But after a week of walking down a dirt lane to buy whatever food waits in two pots on a table by the side of the road, I was thrilled to have food prepared for me and served on a plate in situ. After days of silence, it was pure bliss to smile at people on a sidewalk and say hello. And bringing home seven copies of a newspaper in English was thrilling, even though--even when I'm stuck in the countryside--the Bangkok Post is still a paper that can knock me out faster than an anesthetic.

Today, if it doesn't rain, I am off to the Pak Nam Saturday Market, which is almost more excitement than I can bear to think about. However the deep-grey clouds that are gathering over the Gulf of Thailand threaten another day of isolation and silence. I think of the trucks that carry me to the Bangkok subway no matter how wet the weather may be, and the Skytrain that whisks me around the city, high and dry, and I try very hard not to whimper,,,

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Waiting for the Monkeys to Come

I am in the south of Thailand, although not the deep South of bombs and arson, let me assure those who might care. I am however, surrounded by coconut palms and I was told by the owner of the property that I am caretaker of for a couple of weeks that one of these days the monkeys would come.

Suddenly I envisioned a band of simian marauders charging down from the limestone cliffs that rise against the inland horizon, beseiging the dogs and me for days as we holed up inside our beach cottage. What, I wondered, would bring them to us and even more important what would make them go?

As I pondered this and tried not to whimper, my informant went on to talk about the hurling of coconuts to the earth below and all at once I remembered stories about the coconut-picking monkeys of Samui, which is only 50 miles or so away from where I am now. "Were these monkeys," I asked with barely disguised hope in my voice, "brought to us by a human? Was there a reason for them to be here and would somebody eventually take them away?"

All of these things are true and these are fully-employed monkeys that will come to scale the palms that tower above the little house that shelters me and that clatter in the breeze that comes in from the Gulf of Thailand. There are at least twenty of them, each one laden with coconuts that I think about with a fair amount of trepidation each time I walk down to the beach. I wonder as I safely negotiate the path that winds beneath these potentially lethal missiles when the monkeys will come, how many there will be, and how long it will take them to make the palm trees safe again. These are questions I never have to consider in Bangkok.

One of these mornings, probably before I am quite ready to face the public, a truck will drive up, a man whom I will marginally understand will speak to me in rapid-fire Thai and I will have a few minutes to put the Alpha dog in the studio near the house. He usually wants to go there, but this time he will have to be dragged into shelter on a leash--and he's a big guy so this may be difficult.

The drama of rural living--gangs of monkeys meet the Hound of the Thai Baskervilles. I wistfully think of the train that would take me back to my former life of the Skytrain, the Underground, fully stocked bookstores, and floors that are swept clean by someone who is not me. Only fourteen more days--and only after the monkeys come...

(Colin and Jessi, if you read any of these posts, remember I'm a writer and will exaggerate anything for a good story. I'll be here when you return, as promised...)

Monday, July 13, 2009

Gone to the Dogs

I should have known that my housesitting adventure was going to be somewhat less than idyllic when I woke up on the south-bound train to discover that my stop was several kilometers in the distance behind me. Suddenly the cup of coffee that I'd just purchased was completely unnecessary because my adrenaline was wide awake and raging.

I had closed my eyes for a tiny minute after being roused by disembarking backpackers en route to Koh Tao. The conductor, convinced that any foreigner onboard was no doubt headed for the pleasures of Koh Samui, was happy to let me sleep until the train reached the ferry for every farang's favorite tropical island. He was honestly confused when he learned I'd missed the one-minute stop at Lang Suan. "Why do you go there?" he asked and his interest was not perfunctory.

So the man for whom I am now house-sitting had to make his pickup at Chaiya, 70 km further than he had expected, and I started my visit with apologies and a fair amount of chagrin. When we later went for supplies at Lang Suan's Tesco Lotus, I could understand the conductor's surprise at my desire to be there--but compared to the community closest to where I am now, it is indeed metropolitan. Pak Nam is so tiny that its main shopping experience, other than the Saturday market, is a 7/11.

I am in another country altogether from the Thailand I've experienced so far and I'm counting the days until I leave it. This is Alaskan isolation--trees and a stretch of sand and absolute quiet. The weather has been soggy and gloomy and even the dogs look depressed. It's a dandy spot to edit and to practice the joys of contemplation and to write, at least as soon as I'm able to shake the feeling that I'm stuck on Alcatraz.

I suppose I spent too many years plotting how to leave a place that was much like this--although colder--to properly appreciate rustic pleasures. Yesterday the electricity went off and I had to force myself not to hyperventilate.

Once again I'm stuck in a spot with no name, no public transportation, and no sidewalks--just like my formative years on an Alaskan homestead. This morning I woke up to a frog perched in the kitchen sink, looking somewhat dazed. I was positive that I knew precisely how he felt. I folded a dishcloth around him and threw him outside into the grass, thinking that I should probably kiss him and see what sort of prince he might become. However, with my luck his kingdom would be a rural one and I would be stuck in rainy green silence forever.

Thursday, July 2, 2009

Lampang's Pedestrian Pleasures

My friend and colleague Kim Fay has written about the "ennui of small towns" in her blog-column, Literate in L.A. I on the other hand find my own attack of ennui comes in small cities that promise more than they deliver and leave me leaden-limbed and slug-minded.

Small towns promise nothing so what I find there is always a lovely surprise. And although Lampang couldn't match the stunning accommodations I enjoyed in Chiang Mai at the Villa Duang Champa, the town itself completely ensnared me. If I hadn't bought my bus ticket to Bangkok immediately upon arrival I might well still be there.

I usually turn up my nose at tourist attractions but there was something about the pony carts in Lampang that I really loved. Maybe it was because there were no tourists in them, which is actually very sad...

So I persuaded a driver to take me across the river into the older part of town to visit the temple where Bangkok's Emerald Buddha once resided and to go to a museum in an old Lanna/Burmese house. And off we went, across the river and into the trees.

The streets we rode through were quiet and leafy and filled with old wooden houses that tempted me to leave Bangkok and move into one of them. There was an attractive walkway running near the river and I'm always a sucker for a place that recognizes the rights of the pedestrian.

Later I walked around a bit of the newer portion of the city, where old houses still held sway among the newer cement versions and women spread fruit and vegetables on the sidewalk for strolling Sunday evening shoppers. This is a place I could easily love, and plan to return to as soon as possible.

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Scream With Laughter

I am the wrong person to assess the charms of tranquility and orderliness. I have never left my heart in San Francisco and Singapore is my idea of hell. I was born in Manhattan and my home of choice is Bangkok. "Placid" and "peaceful" are words that make me twitch.

So I wandered around Chiang Mai for two days, acknowledging its pleasures and counting down the days until I could leave it.

"Massage." "Internet." "Cake." The quiet streets bristled with these signs that promised innocent, instant gratification. As I strolled past them, through neighborhoods that were so soothing, so easy, I felt as though I was sleepwalking.

Then after a visit to Suvannabhumi Gallery, a place filled with stunning contemporary art from Myanmar, I found a little footbridge that would take me back across the river. Waiting on the opposite bank were huge red and gold signs and the gold shops that characterize Thailand's Chinatowns, and sidewalks crowded with stalls selling flowers and fruit and cheap, plastic shoes, and clothes that were decidedly inelegant.

Lost in the glorious, swirling chaos of a market that was imperfect and irresistable, I found a nightgown adorned with teddybears that was embroidered with "Dear my family, Scream with Laughter. Forcing myself to contain my own mirthful screams, I paid 100 baht for a piece of 21st century folk art and, for the first time in Chiang Mai, I felt at home.

These pictures are of a shrine-- or art installation-- behind a huge temple in the old part of the City, a particularly gorgeous spirit house, traditional Lanna woodcarving meeting kitsch and concrete, and lovely little lanterns--they are everywhere in Chiang Mai.