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.