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.