Thursday, December 30, 2010

New Territory, New Year

Hong Kong is the most compressed big city I've ever seen, filled with layer upon layer of buildings and a spiderweb of crazily intersecting streets. Kowloon has more space, which I love, but both places are crammed with more opportunities for conspicuous consumption than I feel comfortable with over the long haul. My antidote for this has been street markets that sell fresh food and utilitarian clothing to local residents, until the day I got on a bus near one of those markets, that took me into the hills and beyond.

The area beyond Kowloon stretches into mainland China and is still called the New Territories. Satellite communities to house the overflow from the cities are sprouting up here, in the middle of dazzling natural beauty that still gives the impression of wilderness. There are hills behind the highrises that are dramatically shaped and gloriously green. There are islands within spitting distance of small coastal towns that are vacant--some of which are just slightly bigger than a postage stamp. And in front of the Hong Kong Heritage Museum on the banks of a sparkling river, there are trees full of white egrets, watching the nearby fisherman reel rather unimpressive catches up onto a bridge.

In Sha Tin park near the river, old ladies ballroom danced to outdoor karaoke while old men watched from a vantage point on the hill above the dancers. Suddenly I was in Beijing again, until I found a foodcourt on a busy street where all of the food was Japanese. In Sai Kung I scrambled onto a bobbing sampan from a steep staircase with the help of people I'd never met before and was carried to a silent island with rocky beaches that took me back to my Alaskan childhood. I needed this kind of time.

This beauty is a quick ride on the MRT or in the case of Sai Kung, an MRT ride and then a spectacular bus trip that winds across the hills. The journey is so brief that it's hard to believe it transports me to another universe, where a child's lost festively pink balloon floats along a grass-green river as egrets watch it speculatively, or to a pier that will take me to an island that I can almost believe once sheltered Robinson Crusoe.

I've learned in the past few months that places like this and I aren't meant for longterm relationships but are quick restorative flings to sustain me when I go back to my crazy crowded kinetic city that I love and leave and always return to. They stay with me as small places of quiet and beauty, to be remembered when I most need them, gifts of light and silence.

Saturday, December 25, 2010

From Shanghai Street Art Space

Christmas Was Really Here

Starbucks was open this morning in the only spot in the world where I enjoy going to Starbucks--Isquare across from Chungking Mansions--and the very nice older couple who sat near me spoke Thai, so I was able to misuse the language I love for a little while. There were mangos and pomelo from Thailand in the supermarket so I took them back to the Holiday for a taste of Bangkok along with a little bottle of Bailey's for a taste of Christmas. Two of the people who tasted with me were from Chiang Mai but originally from NYC and Seattle--and since they had been to Nepal, which is where Hari and Jun come from, there were no degrees of separation on Christmas morning.

I went off to find a religious observance of the birthday, since I knew there was often spirited hymn-singing accompanied by drums on the fourth floor. But the Christian Center was closed for Christmas, which I thought was rather delightful, so I went to the Turkish kebab place instead, where the second course of my holiday brunch was mint goat's milk ice cream and Turkish coffee, both of which are definitely drugs and definitely delicious.

Riding my sugar/caffeine high, I left CKM and went off in search of a baby tuxedo at H&M, where I discovered a cast of thousands all shopping the sale racks at the only H&M in Hong Kong that carries no baby clothes. So the infant girl whom I just met will probably not sport the Annie Hall look this season, latida, latida.

Shanghai Street is my favorite Kowloon thoroughfare so I escaped the aerobic shopping of the malls near Nathan Road and headed down past cooking supply shops that have really lovely wooden molds for I don't know what and gorgeous little wooden spoons and mesh things with handles that would look really pretty hanging on a wall.

I was stopped in my tracks by a sign hanging on the door of the Shanghai Street Artspace that said essentially Kids, don't bring your peanuts in here anymore. We've had to sweep up shells everywhere. This isn't something I've ever seen posted on a door of an art gallery, so I had to go in, saying as I entered, "I didn't bring any peanuts with me."

A young man came over and began to tell me why the sign was there--the space is to encourage neighborhood children to come in and make art, which they do but the peanut shells they left behind were becoming a nuisance. The space had once been an art gallery, but is now a place that encourages creativity--and as it turned out, much more.

Flowers made of bright, iridescent paper that are attached to bamboo frames covered the upper wall. These once covered the walls of businesses in Kowloon in geometric and intricate traditional patterns, handmade by artists, when the enterprise first opened and would remain in place for a year. A black and white photo of a building on Shanghai Street shows what this looked like, much like the ceramic flowers on a Thai temple, with the walls covered with designs made of handmade flowers, which must have been dazzling.

The art space has an artist in residence, a man who spent his life making art on buildings with these designs. When the young men who run the space found out the artist no longer had work, they asked him to be with them. He creates his designs and teaches children who want to learn how to do what he does.

But that's not all that goes on here. The director of this amazing community resource is an activist and uses art to make his points. Today is the one-year anniversary of the imprisonment of this year's Nobel Peace Prize winner and the windows of the art space are emblazoned with the face of Liu Xiaobao wearing a Santa Claus hat and a smile. His face is also attached to an empty stool that stands on the sidewalk near the open door.

Yau Ma Tei is not a wealthy area and gentrification is not yet its hallmark. The Shanghai Street Art Space is near the Kowloon Asthma Center and the neighborhood Immigration Office. The Yau Ma Tei Public Library is close by, and it looks as though it still exists in the 1950s. A large fresh market fills an area only blocks away and it is for the community, not for tourists. It's a neighborhood that needs the creativity and energy of the people who run this space--and Hong Kong needs their irreverence and imagination and freedom of thought. Please stop in and chat with Lee Chun Fung at 404 Shanghai Street. He's a man who can make December 25th feel like Christmas.

Friday, December 24, 2010

Chungking Christmas Eve

Before I went to dinner tonight, Hari told me, "Tonight the streets will be full of people. There will be no cars, only walk, walk, walk." There were "No loitering" signs in the subway that hadn't been there earlier in the day and notices said, "After 6 pm waiting for friends in this area will not be allowed."

When I came home at 9 pm, I came up to a neighborhood that was engulfed with pedestrians. A river of people coursed down Nathan Road and along the waterfront, admiring the Christmas lights, taking pictures, shopping. There were families with their children dressed in festive red outfits, teenagers dressed to the teeth, people wearing Santa Claus hats and reindeer horns and cardboard top hats with glitter script that said Merry Christmas. There were Indians and Africans and Westerners and Chinese, all torrenting along streets that usually belong to vehicles, all punctiliously following police crowd control instructions, all having fun. Carolers stood in the middle of the road and a brass band swept by, playing a jazzy version of Hark the Herald.

"This happens three times a year," a security guard told me, "On Christmas Eve, New Year's Eve, and Chinese New Year." He and his colleagues were pulling gates over the entrance to Chungking Mansions at 11 pm, leaving one small open doorway that was just big enough to allow one person to enter the building at a time. The halls were almost empty and most of the lights were already turned out.

Families were headed toward the subways, a pop concert was in full swing on Canton Road, and the holiday spirit showed no signs of ending. "After midnight there is singing and dancing," Hari told me, but sensory overload claimed me well before then. Merry Christmas, everyone.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Kowloon Christmas

It's sweater weather in Kowloon on Christmas Eve, with a crisp breeze giving an autumnal touch to midwinter. There are hordes of shoppers in the subway and on the streets but there always are shoppers in this community. People in clothing that is far from haute couture wait in roped-off lines to get into Chanel and Louis Vuitton, gleefully taking photos of each other as they stand under the designer logo. Crowds mill along a sidestreet filled with fake watches and Birkin bags and in the downmarket Yau Ma Tei area, women scrutinize stalls crammed with polyester clothing and infant garments that look highly flammable. Even Chungking Mansions has put out bins of gilted keyrings with Hong Kong scenes and little plastic trees and gaudy Christmas balls. Tis the season after all.

Westerners decry holiday commercialism in their home countries but I do think Hong Kong has a deathgrip on that particular talent. Why just commercialize a holiday when you can strike directly at the heart of it--the Christmas tree?

A prominent public square in the heart of Hong Kong has a mammoth Christmas tree that is purportedly made of Swarovski crystals--at least that's what all of the nearby signage proclaims. And in my own temporary neighborhood of Nathan Road, Christmas has been brought to us by Chula Pops, with a tree decorated with gigantic versions of these confections, which "make Christmas sweet." There are probably far more co-opted trees all over the city, but I don't have the energy to hunt them down.

Yesterday a friend and I went to Lantau Island's Big Buddha, a statue so glorious that it transcends all of the hype that surrounds it. A "village" dedicated to shopping and Starbucks was what we walked through before climbing the 200+ stairs to reach the Buddha, and suddenly we were surrounded by snowflakes. As Johnny Mathis crooned over a "white Christmas," a snow machine blew bits of dandruff onto passersby. Before I could indulge in my usual cheap cynicism, I caught sight of the very small children who were transfixed by what was coming from the sky and suddenly the snowfall was real and the carols were sweet and Christmas was really and truly in the air.

Merry Christmas to all--even (or perhaps especially) to those who manufacture a phony snowfall and make little children happy.

Friday, December 10, 2010

Goat's Milk Ice Cream and Politics: Chungking Morning

This morning I had almond goat’s milk ice cream for breakfast, found in a Turkish kebab place in Chungking Mansions. The guy who sold it to me said rather mournfully. “America is not safe. They go to other countries because they say they want to make those places safe but America’s people are not safe in their own country.” It was a heavy dose of reality to swallow first thing in the morning but I agreed with him, having lived in my country as a woman alone, struggling not to live in fear, but always cautious.

DVDs and perfume are an unlikely combination for a retail space but that’s what one shop in CKM has for sale. Another counter sold cotton candy machines and chocolate fountains, with photos of a middle-aged blonde happily presiding over free-flow chocolate from a fountain presumably purchased from this spot. An Indian grocery sells fruit and vegetables from cartons on the floor outside the shop, which don’t look as fresh as they probably were a week ago. A little boy rested one foot on top of a pile of potatoes as his father chatted at length with the shopkeeper; fortunately they’ll be cooked at high heat or peeled before someone eats them.

Clothing designed for infant ballerinas, all pink and tulle, wait to identify babies as undeniably female with a shrine to Bob Marley and Tupac, their faces emblazoned on tank tops and tee shirts, next door. African fabric is everywhere, in prints that are visual celebrations--if not orgies-- sold in bolts that would upholster an entire living room set.

I have found one Chinese food stall and one Chinese souvenir counter in Chungking Mansions—and no Christmas trees or canned carols. For the lack of Christmas commercialism alone, I would love this place.

Yesterday a jackhammer tore through the air and through the old tiles outside the apartment across from the Holiday Guest House. This morning the new tile lay clean and glistening and firmly in place, while a worker waited for the elevator with chunks of the old floor. Project completed, peace restored and I not for the first time have respect for a country without OSHA. Without regulation, people have jobs and the jobs get done. Fast. It’s no accident that it was Chinese men who made it possible for the US to have a railroad.

There is a community in this five-building monolith. “You were here before, this is your second time,” a man at a Pakistani foodstall remarked last night. And yes I had, once in April, and was astounded that he remembered. Chungking Mansions is no place to behave badly; memories are long and time holds no statute of limitations. I wander about this small town, watching and eating and looking, realizing that now on my third visit, I am no longer a stranger.

Sunday, December 5, 2010

666 Words about Penang

666 Words About Penang

And of course there is sunlight today, not profuse and glorious but more than I’ve seen in a week. I have to remember that if the Brits settled somewhere in SE Asia it was because it tended to be cloudy. I wonder why they never made it to Hanoi; they probably avoided it because it lies inland, gravitating toward the small and misty islands with bad climates instead. The woman who wrote Morning is the Whole Day pointed out the similarities between England and Malaysia. I should have remembered.

Jessie said yesterday that she had been horrified at the change between the woman she first met and the one who had spent two months in music hell. “Your face was so different from when you came,” she said. Ah yes, and I rarely burst into tears in a public place either, as complete strangers walk past.

I’ve read in novels and memoirs how people—usually women-- weather times of crisis without wavering and then become masses of quivering nerves when all is well again, Post-traumatic stress disorder is the term our time and place reduces that to, an envelope of clinical words for the near-panic state that comes from having what is accepted and demanded as normalcy being shot directly to hell. The Vietcong reputedly sent blasting music for hours into the jungle nights as torture for nearby American troops and I can testify that it is extremely effective. I would rather endure 24 hours of something truly horrible and then have it over and done with than ¼ of my waking moments consumed with sound that I can’t abide, when I’m winding down for sleep, for weeks and weeks and weeks.

Lack of sleep plays hell not only with emotions and sanity but appetite too. I know the food here is good; I loved it when I first arrived but now I associate tamarind and shrimp paste and even the lovely fresh orange juice with throbbing amplifiers and bellowing singers and my stomach closes shut.

When the music was going on every night, I found ways to keep from screaming but once it ended I was shocked when I discovered that I couldn’t sink into silence at night. Somewhere inside I waited for the noise to begin, even though it was after the legally bound time of silence, after midnight.

“It will start again,” Jessie said, “You never know when. It depends on the deity.” And another woman told me, “It’s much worse in August, and it goes on longer.”

I know that if I stayed here, the minute I saw a blue plastic structure go up indicating that stage-building is in progress, inwardly I would start to scream and wouldn’t be able to stop.

This is done to benefit Chinese temples. The music doesn’t burst into full glory until after the final call to prayer fades into the night, at around 8 pm. Since the concerts have ended, that last call to prayer has become longer, louder, and more pronounced. It makes me wonder what the Moslem population thinks about the deity concerts and if they ever attend them? I didn’t see a bescarved head among the concert-goers the night of my investigation. Unless it comes up in fiction, or I ask Jessie, I will never know.

I look at the decaying houses that I had dreamed of living in. They stand waiting for renovation or destruction in the part of Georgetown near the historic area and now I know that within their grace and silence lives vermin. I’ve seen rats swimming down the open drains and I have learned in this city exactly what a thriving bed bug colony looks like. Even here in the modern splendor of Symphony Park, I received a spider bite that took over a week to heal. I’m only grateful that I escaped the experience of lice—but then of course I do face another 36 hours or so in Georgetown...

Noise, clouds and vermin. Hello/goodbye, Penang.

Early Resolutions

Hong Kong is easy. I have stories to find, work to do, people to visit, and miles of sidewalks to walk. With fewer than thirty days in that city and with still so much of it unexplored, I simply plan to succumb to its rush and energy, absorbing as much as I can.

I’ll return to Bangkok at the perfect time, after Christmas and New Year’s with their emotional weight and well before Chinese New Year, which I love with an ignorant passion. It’s still cool there in January and the light has a winter cast to it, but there will be sun. After two months of Penang’s clouds, I’m hungry for Bangkok’s sunlight.

I will have avoided the knots of Christians who sing carols on the Skytrain and the frantic commercial frenzy of lights and Christmas trees that glitter in the shopping malls. I won’t be there for Starbucks’ marketing of eggnog lattes or hotels serving up hearty winter meals in a city that has never known a winter.

When I get back, even the holiday hangovers will be old news and Bangkok will be getting ready for the return of blinding, blazing heat and a spurt of holidays that have nothing to do with the Western calendar. The exception of course is Valentine’s Day where the streets are full of stalls selling little pink garments for miniscule Thai girls and hordes of flower vendors take to the open road.

I need to find my new home, but after the domestic disaster that I blundered into in Malaysia, I’m going to look for my Bangkok spot with all deliberate speed. I’ll find a place where I can work and then I’ll reclaim my life in Thailand.

I did that rather badly over the past two years. I tried to step back into the past and let the present annoy me far more than I should ever have allowed. I took a place I loved for granted and then wondered where its charm had gone. I whined a lot. I was a true pain in the ass.

In the past two months I’ve become acutely aware of what I walked away from. When I go back, the things I will be grateful for will far outweigh the things that are less attractive to me. I won’t list them here; I won’t fail to write about them as I re-experience them; I won’t forget how it has been to live without them.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Homeward Bound

Last summer I returned to my home in Bangkok to find few traces of the unrest that had turned the downtown core to a battleground and no hints of any sort of reconciliation between the government and the Red Shirts. The burned shopping centers were already being rebuilt. If I hadn’t read the news articles about the battle that had consumed the end of April and much of May, I would never know that my city had been full of smoke and gunfire a week or so before I returned after a three-month absence.

There were ripples on the domestic front. Tensions that had to have been exacerbated by the political debacle had come to a flashpoint between my housemates and the woman who had been our housekeeper for fifteen years. She packed up her meager belongings and left in tears.

The man who sold coffee on the main street of our neighborhood now brought his baby son to work with him every day. One of my favorite restaurants had been closed for a month because of the street fighting outside its walls and now was almost empty every time I went to it.

Adrenaline surges during times of crisis and ebbs away after, leaving exhaustion behind. What I returned to was a post-adrenaline Bangkok, and since I had never seen it in an exhausted state before, this was more disturbing than the burned-out buildings.

I left it. I was certain I could make a home in another Southeast Asian city, and in Penang I found what I was sure I needed. I was mistaken.

Since 1995 I have lived off and on in Bangkok. I was never completely sure of why it continued to pull me back. Now I know.

It’s the people who bring their energy and creativity to that place from all over the Kingdom of Thailand. They make this a kinetic city, constantly moving and changing and redefining and adopting and absorbing. Bangkok is a city that is never going to be completed and that makes for some rather stunning dissonance within its continually expanding borders. But it has, as my friend Elizabeth observed recently, “great infrastructure.”

And I agree, although the infrastructure I salute isn’t the Skytrain or the Underground or the new train to the airport. It’s the stall only feet away from a shopping center on Sukhumvit that sets up tables every night to serve one dish only—the best chicken rice I’ve had anywhere in Asia. (Yes, Penang roasts the chicken they use for this dish—which is terrific—but the sauces from stall to stall all taste the same, and that’s where the excellence of this meal resides.)

It’s the network of trucks and motorcycles and riverboats that will get you where you want to go, anywhere in the city, far beyond the newer forms of mass transit. It’s the man from Chiang Rai in my neighborhood who makes fabulous food from the north of the country and the thousands of women who have made papaya salad and grilled chicken Thailand’s national dish. It’s the exquisite manners that children are taught from the day they can bring their chubby little hands together in a wai. It’s the markets that sell fresh food still, all over the city, even though supermarkets are everywhere nearby. It’s the shining, glossy, clean hair and the well-scrubbed bodies of people who live in one of the most polluted cities of the world but who never smell bad themselves. It’s the temples, still supported as social centers, providing education and shelter for people who might not otherwise be able to afford these things.

Yes, it’s the bookstores that draw me back as well and the eccentric and original expats I’ve met who have lived in this place far longer than I. And the lovely, nondurable shoes for sale on almost every corner, and jasmine garlands and fruit stalls and beautiful blazing sunsets. But these things exist because of Thai people and the way they have chosen to shape their capital city.

I will have days and even weeks when I complain about the trendiness of my home in the world—Krispy Kreme anyone?—and the insanity of its politics. But those things aren’t the core of Bangkok—that’s the coffee-slurping that causes every long-term relationship to quaver and scream. I will take off when I need to, for the rest of my life, but Bangkok is where I choose to be and will choose to be, over and over, because of the people who live there and how they live their lives.

Thank You Note to Georgetown--It's Been Fun!

For the past two months I’ve lived in a very lovely little city. I’ve posted photos and tried to write lyrically about Georgetown. God knows it deserves all the adjectives I could possibly bring to bear upon it.

I’ve met some unbelievably kind people, all of whom speak my native tongue, and have found several gorgeous little spots to relax in. Here are my favorites.

On the backpacker oasis of Chulia Street is a hotel that up until recently was one of the disheveled examples of decaying grandeur for the frugal traveler. It has been renovated to financial heights far above my own fiscal capabilities but I found that its breakfast buffet is like a tutorial in Penang’s culinary history. The Yeng Keng Hotel was built in the mid-1800s as an Anglo-Indian bungalow and became a budget hotel in the 1900s. Now 5 million ringgit and over a century later, it is a stunning place to sit and ease into the day. Manager Jacky Cheung takes great pains to bring in the best of the BabaNonya delicacies that travelers might otherwise never taste, and the coffee he has chosen is almost the best I’ve had in Penang.

It would indubitably be the best if the guy at Fatty Loh’s Chicken Rice on Nagore Street hadn’t told me about siTigun Café, where Indonesian Tigun Wibisana retired from backstage work on Broadway to roast coffee beans in Georgetown. (Tigun is beyond a doubt still a New Yorker—he knows his smoked salmon and you should not pass it up when you’re there—comes with a very good croissant and just the right amount of cream cheese on the side.) Sinking into the faded comfort of an aged sofa, surrounded by Broadway posters and listening to jazz, I go there every week religiously. I buy beans to take home and have lunch and sit in one of the prettiest spots I’ve found in Penang

It would be the prettiest if a debonair little dog hadn’t lured me through the door of the place she is in charge of—Amelie Café on Armenian Street. It is incredible how much beautiful stuff has been artfully arranged in a dark and delightful little room that is certainly bigger than a breadbox—but not by much. The owners are clearly artists and are fabulous conversationalists and also make the best lassi in the city. It’s almost my favorite drink on the island of Penang—with absolutely no sugar involved.

It would be my favorite if I hadn’t ended up one day at the Jolly Café on Masjid Kapitan Keling or Pitt Street. I went in because of the name and because it is open-air on two sides with a great view of sidewalk strollers. I go back as often as possible because of the nutmeg juice, made from fresh nutmeg fruit and more aromatic than sweet. No other place has measured up to that standard of nutmeg juice for me, and although the Jolly Café isn’t as pretty as my other refuges—oh hell it is not pretty at all—it’s been another once a week staple in my Georgetown incarnation.

As has been the Trois Canon Café on Chulia Street, because the lady behind the counter is one of the kindest people I have met in my wanderings through this city and because it is one of the few diners in a classical mode that I’ve found in SE Asia, and because the hot buttered toast with kaya (coconut jam) is superlative comfort food. And who doesn’t need comfort once in a while? Even in Georgetown

Sunday, November 28, 2010

Exiles in the Mansion

When I returned to my room in Chungking Mansions on my first afternoon there, I walked into a smell that was a lot like soggy bread and when I sat on my bed, the blanket felt damp. At first I thought that when Hari or Jun cleaned my bathroom, which was only inches from where I slept, perhaps they’d inadvertently sprayed the outer room with water. Then I realized that in my zipped suitcase, out of cleaning range, my clothes were damp too.

I opened my window but the air that came in from the enclosed space between buildings smelled like garbage and mildew. No wonder, I realized. Earlier in the day I’d used my camera’s puny little zoom feature to augment my myopic view of the airconditioner in a window across from me. The white objects that covered it in a small mound were bags and boxes and less identifiable debris and outside my window were pigeons cleaning up food that someone had dumped from above me.

The imposing glass and steel building across from me on Nathan Road smelled unmistakably of wet mops when I had gone there for coffee that morning and on the streets the air was still. Throwing open the window I had pleaded to have was an act of simple-minded optimism, the instinctive act of someone who lived in a Bangkok neighborhood filled with the scent of jasmine and fried chili.

Thailand had turned me into a woman who lived through her senses. Deprived of all but the most rudimentary language skills in that country, I depended on sight and smell to interpret the world around me. In Kowloon, my view was of diseased concrete and trash-covered air conditioners and what I smelled made me feel as though I were living at the bottom of a deep and polluted river. I thought of the trees covered with small and fragrant blossoms on my Bangkok street and struggled to keep from whimpering.

I was going to spend a month in Chungking Mansions and although I didn’t mind living in a room that was perhaps the world’s cleanest shower stall, there were changes I needed to make. Fortunately it was a very small room; it wouldn’t take the efforts of a Martha Stewart to transform it.

In Bangkok my bedroom was a scented orchard every morning, thanks to Boots, the British shop that sold lime and coconut and orange fragrance in the form of soap and shampoo and lotion. Although Hong Kong had been shaped by Great Britain, Boots wasn’t one of the blessings of colonialism and the local version, Watson’s, wasn’t the same olfactory paradise when it came to bathing. But, I remembered, with a burst of relief, there was at least one branch of Lush—I’d smelled it when I left the Hong Kong subway station on my way home hours before.

Lush is so cute that I usually avoid it with enthusiasm. Its salesgirls would head toward me in charming little clouds if I even seemed to inhale when walking past one of their Seattle shops and it merchandises soap as though it’s food, which nauseates me. But when it came down to living with the odor of wet bread or watching adorable little girls slice bars of soap as though they were serving cheese at a cocktail party, my choice was obvious.

I wince every time that I think of how much money I spent on aromatherapy that afternoon but it was worth it. Lemongrass, jasmine, lime blossoms pervaded my little portion of Chungking Mansions every morning and lingered through the rest of the day.

I handed over the bedding from my narrow little cot and replaced it with the muted earthy colors of vanilla and dark green, punctuated with a bright magenta cushion, and lined my tiny windowsill with a pot of azalea and one of jasmine that I found at the flower market on the edge of my new neighborhood.

“You’ve made a little home,” Hari said when he came to take away the unwanted bedlinen. His smile didn’t reach his eyes, and both of us for a second were caught in the memory of other places we had loved.

He had told me once about fishing in Nepali mountain streams and as he spoke, it was the only time I saw the sadness leave his eyes. I felt my own heart brighten as I remembered the sound of water flowing over rocks in an Alaskan valley and for a second felt a wave of nostalgia for the world I once lived in.

A few days later I found a magazine with photographs of Nepal and gave it to Hari as he sat at the reception desk alone.

“So beautiful,” I said and his response was immediate and bitter. “Yes so beautiful, my country—so many trees. Trees, only trees, no jobs.”

But later as I walked through the reception area, his head was bent over the magazine. He didn’t look up as I passed and fleetingly I could feel the trees and rivers of Alaska and Nepal, palpable in a small corner of Kowloon.

Friday, November 19, 2010

Traveling with Ma Thanegi

Of course it wasn’t Ma Thanegi’s fault that I found myself risking my life trudging beside a busy highway on the outskirts of Penang’s suburbs. Just because I was reading her latest book Defiled on the Ayeyarwaddy when I overshot my bus stop, so immersed in her longing to play the drums at a Kachin festival that I was half-way to the airport before I looked up and realized my error, I have no reason to blame that on her. God knows I’d been eager enough to rush downtown to get her book and bring it home—and it was my greedy curiosity that made me rip the package open before I even left the post office.

Just because I was still thinking about the stones she had found at the beginning of the Ayeyarwaddy River, which she had someone polish into smooth, cool beads and string into necklaces and bracelets, and was feeling blessed that she had given one of each to me, and wondered what they had looked like when Thanegi found them and crammed her pockets full—this was no reason to mentally castigate her while I walked cautiously along a little grassy strip as cars whizzed past me.

I tried hard not to let my mind wander to the prospectors who dredge one of the rivers that becomes part of the Ayeyarwaddy, looking for gold, wondering how similar they were to Alaskan gold panners, and forced myself not to think about the woman with the baby strapped to her back whom Thanegi talked to, the one who dreamed of finding lumps of gold as big as peanuts in the round wooden tray that served as her gold pan.

But as I realized my trek was taking me into the territory of a freeway and retraced my steps to find a less hazardous route, I began to think about the quiet villages and rock-strewn roads and the ice-cold, clear water that began Ma Thanegi’s 1300-mile trip down the Ayeyarwaddy river and felt envious. I roamed past squat, ugly, cement “link houses” with a strong pang of gratitude that I didn’t live in one of them and wondered why some women find themselves wandering in search of a bus stop while others boat-hop their way down one of the world’s great rivers.

When I found a bus that would take me home, I refused to allow myself to go any further with Ma Thanegi until I had entered my apartment. After all, it’s not as though I hadn’t read it before, I scolded myself, I’d edited it, for God’s sake. But even though at one point a year or so ago, I practically knew every page of this book by heart, I couldn’t wait to plop down on my couch and keep reading.

A whole day shot to hell, I thought happily as I sank back into Thanegi’s verbal company. Drat the woman, I echoed her long-suffering pal, Ko Sunny, here we go again…

Ma Thanegi is my friend; I am her editor at ThingsAsian Press. I can’t review this book. But I can lose myself in it, I can get lost while reading it, and I can tell everyone I know that if they want to meet one of my favorite people in the world, take a trip with her down the Ayeyarwaddy. Just don’t begin your journey while you’re still on a bus.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

A Little Night Music

A week ago I went to a fancy little expat café to have a pre-birthday lunch. I ordered a glass of Merlot and spent the next thirty minutes holding the bowl of the glass in my palms trying to warm the wine to a drinkable temperature. It hadn’t been chilled; it had been iced. But it eventually released a little bit of aroma and flavor—I can live with that.

Since I arrived, I’ve tried desperately to find the sort of cute, cheap shoes and handbags that are on every Bangkok street corner. No luck— but Thailand is right over the border—I can live with that.

There was something very dubious in my fried rice today. As long as I can convince myself that it was only the size and shape of a rodent turd and not the thing itself, it’s okay. There are other places to eat—I can live with that.

Somebody above me seems to be fond of chopping vegetables on the floor for an hour or two in the early morning but it’s not every day—I can live with that.

I’ve lived here for almost six weeks now and except for the week of Deepavali, every night at 8 pm, pop singers who will never be at the top of anyone’s charts—least of all mine—sing and whoop and make little speeches until midnight, over sound systems that wouldn’t disgrace the biggest clubs in Vegas, on outdoor stages. For four hours almost every night, I’ve heard music that makes me yearn to be stone deaf.

Penang has a regulation that says noise must stop at midnight—and it does. But because it is regulated, it seems to be the god-given right that anyone with an amplifier can turn it up full-blast every night they choose and keep the noise going until midnight. And we are talking noise that comes blaring into my apartment even when I have all the windows closed and earplugs crammed in my ears. By the time it ends, my delicate little nerves are so jangled that I’m usually awake until after 2 a.m. Bad music does that to me; I can fall sleep listening to Chinese opera but not to this bilge.

“Penang is famous for this,” a woman told me in the elevator the other night—and it’s absolutely true that I live in a complex called Symphony Park with Harmony View right next door. But I didn’t think that would mean that I would end up in Cacophony Acres—and you know? I’m not at all sure I can live with that.

Tonight I saw that the stage across the road from me had been taken down but before I could feel exultant, I saw a sign for another ‘concert” right beside my building. It’s going to happen next week on Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday. If I had the money, I’d leave town—as it is, I have absolutely no idea of how I’m going to live with that.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

…Crazy for Crying and Crazy for Loving You—

My new life is filled with colors and trees and old architecture and water. It is, I’ve been told, against the law to cut down any of the trees that shade generous portions of the Penang streets and road ways; even in my somewhat lackluster neighborhood, small green groves punctuate the rooftops below my balcony and leafy plumes lend grace to the ugly thoroughfares.

Only a few miles from where I live, in the hills that range at the edge of the suburban sprawl, is jungle and terraced hillsides where crops are being grown and gigantic, mysterious boulders that are the size of small houses. Small clear streams make audible sounds—it is that quiet—and the air smells moist and cool. An unpaved road holds a handmade sign at its beginning—“the art of living” it says and an arrow points invitingly down the lane. Someday soon I’ll go back there just to see where that art can be found.

The street where Sun Yatsen lived for a while still looks as it might have when he walked along it one hundred years ago, if you ignore the little Euro cafes and galleries and boutiques that fill the buildings that were probably much more utilitarian when Dr. Sun plotted revolution in their midst. A Western woman passed by me as I gaped my way along Armenia Street; she held the leash of a large German Shepherd and together they entered one of the old, refurbished houses. I longed for her life, her house, her dog—but only for a moment.

I moved to Penang because I needed time to step away from Bangkok’s jangling turmoil. Seduced by color and greenery and the promise of natural beauty, I signed away a year of my life to live here, in a small city that isn’t prey to the cognitive dissonance that characterizes Bangkok for me.

In Bangkok, I was whisked from downtown to my neighborhood in minutes on a glacially cold subway—and then climbed into the back of a pickup truck and sat until the driver decided he had enough passengers to make it worthwhile to start his vehicle and drive us all home. For the first six months of my return back to my Thai neighborhood, I thought this was charming and then I began to feel homicidal, especially when the humidity was around 110% and it was raining so the driver had put up his Visqueen walls to keep his passengers dry.

There are no pickup truck transport options in Penang, and no motorcycle taxis. Once you leave the downtown area of Georgetown with its taxis and trishaws, you take a bus. It’s clean and airconditioned and just a tiny bit boring. But on the other hand, I don’t conclude a foray into the larger world with thoughts of murdering a fellow-human—or by racing down a highway sitting side-saddle behind a man whom I pray hasn’t had one too many Red Bulls. Oh wait—that was the good part of living in Bangkok, and I realize now I didn’t do it often enough.

In my new home, I get on a bus and I go to the one place I’ve found that has really good coffee beans and I go to another place where I’ve found I can buy the International Herald Tribune and sometimes I go to the spot near the seawall where I can sit at a plastic table and watch the water as I eat something that is very good indeed. I come home to a place that is bright and pleasant and triple the space of any apartment I’ve had in Bangkok for what I would pay for a studio in Thailand’s capital. There are no mosquitoes and no cockroaches and no rooftops to block out the setting sun or the SE Asian l’heure bleu that I love so much.

And there are no bookstores to tempt me into spending my last cent, and no wonderful eccentric opinionated writers and booksellers for me to drink too much beer with as we chat for hours and hours, and there are no riverboats to call me away from my work. And damn it, when I think about it, I’m a lucky old broad. So why am I crying? Beats the hell out of me…

The sky outside my balcony is golden and pink and dark grey with flashes of heat lightning. A curtain of rain rolls toward me and I remember a student years ago in Bangkok asking me “Can you see the shadow of the rain?” Those kinds of memories have informed my life in Thailand and gave it depth. I look down at the houses below me now in Penang and know I will never have the glimmer of understanding about them that I was lucky to have been given in Thailand—and oh god, at this moment how much I miss all that I was so eager to leave behind,

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

An Illusion of Borders

Acres of chicklit and the male equivalent, shrines to James Patterson and Jody Picoult, books I might read but only if there were no cereal boxes lying around to keep me company—this is what I found in Penang’s presiding bookstores. I came away with nothing I yearned for—a map, a book on Bahasa Malay, the conclusion of Anchee Min’s life of the Empress Tsu-zi.

Kinokuniya in Bangkok had kept me alive as a reader, along with Orchid Books’ history selection and the wonderful grab-bag of perpetual surprises of well-chosen used books at Dasa Book Café. What in the merry hell was I going to do for books in Georgetown, I wondered gloomily. A used bookstore yielded a volume of Agnes Smedley’s wartime years in China and I read it slowly, trying to make it last.

And then I rode past yet another mall, which is where bookstores live in this part of the world, and a sign emblazoned on it announced that it held a branch of Borders Books and Music. As someone who resolutely avoided Borders and Barnes & Noble in the States, I didn’t get off my bus, but the damage was done.

A day later I set off to investigate what a Malaysian version of a big-box category-killer might have to offer. I walked into a gigantic brightly lit room with a Starbucks off to one side; I almost walked out but there were display tables…

And on them were multiple copies of Dan Brown’s latest and good old James and Jody and many, many vampire novels. Nothing leaped out at me in the fiction section as I wandered past its shelves and I kept on going. There was a separate space for music, half of the room I was in held really ugly children’s books and stationary supplies with the rest of it a confused jumble of haphazardly placed books in the usual sections. But not all the usual bookstore sections were visible, to me at least.

I roamed around and finally gave up. At the information desk was an earnest-looking boy who responded, “We don’t have a biography section.”

I tried to keep my voice level as I repeated his statement. I tried to smile but I knew it was a grimace as he explained that if I wanted a biography of a writer, I should look on the fiction shelves.

I did. I also looked for the short stories of Somerset Maugham and any of Joseph Conrad’s Asia-based novels and finally just one book that I might want to read. I came away with a thirty-year old novel by Alison Lurie and the knowledge that I would never, ever return to this hellish parody of places that have nourished me and brought me great joy.

But the truly terrible part of my abortive shopping expedition is that if this place had the vaguest idea of how to be a bookstore, I would have returned. And somewhere in my most hidden portion of my heart, I wish it had been well-stocked and well-run and you know what? If you were here, you would wish the very same thing…every last one of you bibliophiles and independent booksellers, because like me, you are an addict and will take what you need wherever you can get it. Be grateful you aren’t in my position and be sure to support what you are lucky to have, junkies.

Monday, November 1, 2010

Writing without Thought

My postcard post was written with the same degree of carelessness that I use to scrawl a message on an actual postcard. I think that's fair for a blog entry but it isn't a true representation of my deepest thoughts and feelings about Bangkok.

Certainly, like any spot in the world, it has flaws. It also has been extraordinarily generous to me, and many people whom I love I would never know if Bangkok hadn't presented them to me.

When I returned two years ago and rented an apartment at RTS Condotel, I had no idea I would meet a family there who have become my friends. Mrs. Nupa, Mr. Prateep and their two sons have brightened my Bangkok life with their intelligence and warmth and radiant kindness. I'm lucky that we are still in touch on facebook, I hope they will come to visit me here in the year to come, and I desperately miss the conversations that I would often pop in to have with them and hope to continue to have throughout our lives.

My friend Usa and I have struck a sort of generation gap that had never come between us before. She is a vibrant, beautiful woman in her 30s and I am a 60-year-old who has slowed down a lot. But I love her dearly and know that in another few years, that energy gap will narrow and once again we'll spend hours chatting and eating and having a good time, whether it's here, there or someplace in the middle. And if we're lucky, her evil brother Eddy will be with us.

A friend of more recent vintage is the irrepressible Jessica C--I met her in person in Bangkok soon after she returned from a long meditative stay in Chiang Mai so I was ready to bask in her spiritual wisdom. "Let's go somewhere where we can have a bottle of wine with dinner," she suggested--which was a challenge for me because it was a Buddhist holiday and alcohol was off the menu in most restaurants. We ended up eating terrific food and drinking a very nice merlot in a hotel restaurant near Patpong--an evening that cemented our friendship, for me at least.

As for my relationship with Bangkok? I'm examining it from a distance in a trial separation--not for the first time since I first fell in love with it fifteen years ago. It's the place where I found my voice, where I learned to live in a way that made sense to me, it might be the place where I grew up. I love it still, always and forever.

Sunday, October 31, 2010

Postcard from Penang

The hills behind my building are where the storms roll in and as clouds begin to crawl down their slopes, I begin to think of hillstations and Somerset Maugham and gin on the veranda and malaria. They are green-covered; they look uninhabited and very, very nearby, so today I went off to see how close I could get to what appeared to be a place that could harbor tigers and the bones of Jim Thompson.

What I found was mint-chocolate ice cream that pretended to be gelato and suburbia that wouldn’t disgrace any residential community of Dade County. One-story cement houses with low-pitched roofs behind hurricane fences with paved yards had me ready to cut my throat within five minutes. They boded ill for what would be found on the hillsides, and I remembered the slopes of slightly grander suburban domiciles that I was shown when searching for a home in my first week. As I turned back and trudged down the empty sidewalk toward my home in Symphony Park, I realized how grateful I would have been in Bangkok for that amenity and tried not to wish for the community that would have clogged it solid on Chokchai Ruammit.

In my neighborhood on the edge of Georgetown, there is very little garbage. The food vendors probably thrive on gossip but they are discreet in their observations. They share a public dignity that isn’t unfriendly but is definitely unobtrusive. Thailand’s slapdash entrepreneurship seems a universe away.

And I do not miss it, but I miss people—the coffee guy with his baby, Nim and her Burmese assistant, the songtao driver who looks like Carabao, Victor, Don, and Jerry Hopkins, wonderful Nana, Khun Anusorn at the Villa Bookazine—and of course the damned cat.

Kinokuniya and grilled chicken I would import in a heartbeat given the chance. And the riverboats. Definitely motorcycle taxis. Cute shoes and handbags, but I can bring those back here, given the chance.

I don’t miss the selfish, greedy, cruel politicians who are ruining the country, or songtaos. Or the pervasive grey of dirty concrete, or the condos that are taking over the neighborhood in my corner of that city.

I will make a life here in Georgetown, at least for a year. But at the moment, I do not think I will find a home.

I know if I went out right now and got on a bus and went to the Indian section, I would immediately feel happy. But I don’t want to use that panacea up too fast because I need it to buoy me for eleven more months in this place.

And then? Beijing? Mukdahan? Who knows? Three months ago I had never been to Penang and now it’s my address—a long way from Anchor Point, Alaska.

Friday, October 29, 2010

Sympathy for Pandora

I am addicted to natural light. I chalk this up to my years in Fairbanks, Alaska, which is 100 miles from the Arctic Circle and is pitch-black by mid-afternoon in winter, with the sun rising at around ten the next day. Put me in a dark room and after a week, I will tell you everything, including any lies you may want to hear, so I can feel light on my skin once more.

When I looked on the internet for a room in Penang that I could call home while I searched for a more lasting one, a window was my biggest requisite, followed closely by an en suite bathroom. My friend Judy had found both at a place called the Broadway Budget Hotel, in the Indian section of the city, and since that was an area that I loved, I booked a room there for a week.

My third-floor room turned out to be clean and had a huge bank of windows overlooking the street. During my first hours in it, I had a stunning view of a Hindu funeral procession and at twilight I watched the minaret of one of Georgetown’s largest mosques change from a stabbing white to a a pearlescent softness, washed in the pale blues and pinks and yellows of sunset.

The hotel is on the street that is the division between the Chinese and Indian parts of the city. Strings of green lights were being festooned from one side to the other for Deepavali and every evening a new strand of green illuminated the darkness. Chinese storefront cafes faced Indian tea stalls across the way and a woman at the Jolly Café introduced me to the restorative bite of nutmeg juice, showing me the fruit that it is made from. After years of loving the smell and taste of nutmeg, I had to come to a Chinese café after I turned 60 to learn that the spice comes from a small, golden orb that resembles an apricot and I became even more besotted with Penang.

One night I had trouble falling asleep, feeling as though little whispers of touch were roaming over my body. Using my mobile phone as a flashlight, I focused its dim beam on my arm—something on it was moving. I turned on the light and not only was there a flourishing colony of bugs on the bed with me, there was clear evidence under the fitted sheet and below my pillow that my restless turning during the past hour had killed many others of their tribe. Small brown spots dotted the cotton bedding I’d brought with me and had used to replace the hotel’s polyester sheet and pillowcases and scratchy terrycloth blanket.

The living insects retreated when the bedroom light was on and I switched on both the fan and air conditioner, hoping they would dislike the chilled rush of air. Unfortunately they seemed not to care. Soon there were even more of them, all different sizes, some of them reddish-brown and swollen with blood which I knew couldn’t be mine, because there were no bites anywhere on my body.

There were too many to kill, although I tried. I flushed some down the toilet and trapped a few under a glass turned upside down in an ashtray. I went downstairs to the reception desk, hoping that I could change rooms but there was nobody there. The office was dark and an open doorway allowed anyone who wanted shelter to come up the staircase and into the “secure” hotel. I went back to my room and locked my door. I put on street clothes and lay on top of the king-size sheet I used as a blanket. I zipped my open bags shut and prayed the bugs hadn’t found refuge within them yet. I tried to sleep with the light on and the air conditioner at full-blast. Shortly after the first call to prayer floated from the mosques and the night faded into grey, the bugs retreated and I dozed for a couple of hours, jerking awake at intervals to be sure I was alone.

I gave the maid my bedding and every scrap of clothing that had been lying around the room to wash and iron and the management put me on another floor that they swore was free of vermin. I checked the mattress for little dots of blood, found none, and tried to relax. That night something bit me and my arms and legs were soon covered with tidy lines of swollen skin that itched unmercifully. I turned on the light, saw nothing, and was sure it was some form of gnat. I put on a long-sleeved shirt, a pair of slacks and slathered every exposed skin cell with lavender oil, but still new portions of my body continued to flare into wild itching and new welts appeared under my clothes.

The next day I googled bed bugs.

As I already knew, those were the insects in my former room and photos on the internet confirmed that. What was even more horrible was that my body was covered with their bites, which are retroactive. There are people who have no reaction to bed bug bites and there are those who react strongly to them. With 93 bites that I could see and more under my shoulder blades and on my buttocks, I quite obviously fell in the camp of strong reactors. The bites, I learned, could linger as long as a week, as did the power of the itch, which could, Google told me, be eased by antihistamines.

At this point I was honestly terrified. I had found an apartment and the thought of carrying bed bugs into it made me want to vomit. I inspected everything I owned and found no trace of insects. After the first night when my bites erupted, no new ones came to join them and there was no trace of bugs at night. Once again, I tried not to feel crazed.

When I left the hotel to move to my apartment, I handed my suitcases to a taxi driver and glanced down as he took them. There, moving across the smaller bag, was a bed bug. I reached out instinctively and crushed it with my thumbnail. The driver put the bags in the trunk of his taxi and I sat in sheer misery as we drove to my new home.

My suitcases never left the hallway of my building. I put everything within them in the small entryway before I unlocked the door to my apartment. Everything that could be laundered I put in a drawstring bag and tied it tightly. All of my other possessions went into a bathroom where the white tile would clearly reveal any bugs that might crawl over it. I closed the door, took my clothing to a laundry right outside the apartment building that had a dryer big enough for me to sleep in. Then I threw away every bag I owned, including the ones that had held my netbook and camera—and my wonderful green handbag that I had bought in Bangkok and loved.

There are wooden dining chairs in my apartment and metal ones on the balcony. This is where I sat for the first week of my occupancy. The two cushy leather sofas were off limits to me; I inspected them every evening, praying that the night I met my landlord and sat on one of them hadn’t led to an infestation. I peered at the tiles of my bathroom religiously and have never in my life before been quite so happy to see little red ants. I leaped upon every little speck of dirt and moving particle of lint in all six rooms of my apartment—in fact I still do—and it was a week before I slept on one of the beds.

Everything that I painfully carried in heavy suitcases on the train to Penang is still imprisoned in clear, snap-topped, plastic boxes. I have opened one of them once, a week ago, out on the balcony with the sliding door firmly shut. I removed camera cords, looked them over with the piercing gaze of an electronic microscope, used them, and then snapped them back into smaller plastic containers.

I’ve been in my new home for three weeks with no appearance of bed bugs. At night I can be awakened by the ceiling fan in my bedroom when it blows a thread from the comforter against my skin or when a hair falls from my head onto my neck. As I write this, my skin literally crawls and I check for small moving objects.

Every day I yearn for my dictionary and the wonderful guide to Penang’s architecture and the Teach Yourself Malay study guide I bought soon after my arrival at the Broadway Budget Bedbug Bonanza. The things I carried from Bangkok are without any value and are all treasures—a small carved box my children gave me for Mother’s Day a lifetime ago, a chess set from my youngest son, a small wooden figure from Africa that my oldest son bought when he worked at Pier One, photographs…all snapped away in quarantine.

For almost a month I’ve stared, with a mixture of longing and dread, at boxes that hold traces of a history that I cherish. The myth of Pandora is the only thing that keeps me from opening them, along with the memory of things crawling through the darkness, feasting on my skin.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Where Air Means Water

“Every few months there will be a water bill,” my landlord explained. “and if it isn’t paid, they will shut off the water to the apartment.”

I had been in my lovely new apartment for a week when a clump of mail came addressed to my landlord. One of the missives was a postcard with red letters, obviously a bill, but for a trifling amount of what amounted to six US dollars. The postcard was in Bahasa Malaysian and was from some company that obviously dealt in air conditioners, since Air was a prominent part of their name. I put the mail in a safe place and got ready for my first house guest.

The day before my friend Lee arrived, a notice went up that on the first day of his visit, water service to my floor would be suspended while repairs were done. Being an Alaskan homesteader by upbringing, I filled two large buckets with water for hygienic purposes, bought a gallon of drinking water, and Lee and I both made sure to get up early for showers on the morning of the appointed day.

As far as we could tell, there was no interruption in our supply and the next morning I foolishly dumped one bucket of my improvised reservoir. Soon after I did this, I had no running water in my apartment.

When it was still in abeyance the next day, I began to feel vexed. Lee had wisely departed by that time and I used the last of my reserved water for a very unsatisfying shower. With a sink full of dirty coffee cups, I went down to see when the building would restore my water.

It wasn’t my building—it was the red postcard saying that if the bill weren’t paid, I would lose all rights to cleanliness. Air in Bahasa means water, and if I live to be 110, I will still have that piece of linguistic competence implanted firmly in my memory.

After I had traveled downtown to pay the bill, made many, many phone calls, and hurled myself upon the kindness of the building management staff, this morning a man wearing an official water department vest appeared at my door to remove the clamp on my water meter. “Do you have a pipe wrench?” he asked with a very sweet smile, and finding that I didn’t, began what sounded like an impotent round of tapping on the restraining apparatus that deprived me of water.

“Turn on your tap and see what happens,” he told me, and I became grateful I didn’t have a pipe wrench because I just might have used it to hit him. But in seconds he became world peace, a cure for cancer, and Santa Claus all rolled into one body, as water gushed from my bathroom sink and for the first time in almost 48 hours, I could flush my toilet.

Air=water, cleanliness=sanity, and the Penang Water Department=I have no words. All I know is for a matter of six dollars aided by my linguistic idiocy, they quite efficiently showed me what life would be like without a functioning water supply, and believe me, it isn’t pretty. I've always had an affinity for water, but now I worship it.

Monday, October 18, 2010

Thank Heaven You're Not French, Ethel--Have Another Bag of Them Freedom Fries

If a male journalist led off a feature article explaining the news that as part of their post-natal care, French women are offered “a state-paid extended course of vaginal gymnastics, complete with personal trainer,” readers might assume a certain degree of prurient interest on his part. When a woman begins a front-page International Herald Tribune article with this fact, and then follows it up with “French women seem to have it all: multiple children, a job, and often, a figure to die for,” it’s forgivable to think there’s a tiny bit of guillotine-sharpening going on.

“What they do not have is equality,” the article trumpets, pointing out that in a recent gender equality report, France lags behind the U.S., Japan, Jamaica, and Kazakhstan. French men occupy 82% of their country’s parliamentary seats and earn 26% more than their female counterparts. French women spend twice as much time on domestic duties than men do, while popping out more babies and popping in more antidepressants than women in any other European country. (“More babies,” as the article admits later, means an average of 2 children, rather than the 1.5 in the rest of the EU—which erases the brood mare image that the reporter offers in her opening paragraphs.) “They worry about being feminine, not feminist, and men often display a form of gallantry predating the 1789 revolution.”

The editor in chief of Elle complains “We have the right to do anything as long as we also take care of the children, cook a delicious dinner, and look immaculate. We have to be superwomen.”

Let’s stop and sob for our poor oppressed French sisters—women whose government guarantees four months of paid maternity leave, the right to take time off or reduce hours at work until the baby turns three—and don’t forget those bouts of “perineal therapy.” French families receive “a generous family allowance” that kicks in after the second child, plus tax deductions—and France provides free all-day nursery school with childcare from 8:30 am until 6:30 at night for “toddlers as young as 2.” Oh the horror, the horror. To top off this grisly picture, every day “French women spend on average 5 hours and 1 minute on child care and domestic tasks, while men spend 2 hours and 7 minutes.” And in France there is a Baccarat crystal ceiling, or as one Frenchwoman puts it, “a patriarchal corporate culture.”

I come from a country that has yet to pass a constitutional amendment that would guarantee American women equal rights, and where the Roe versus Wade decision teeters on the brink of extinction with every Supreme Court justice chosen by a Republican president. I never totaled up the amount of time I spent after work on “childcare and domestic tasks,” but I’m quite sure it was hovering around that average of 5 hours and 1 minute, and equality of pay in my workplace fell under the category of “don’t ask, don’t tell.” At that time of my life, I remembered reading long ago about the oppressed women in Communist Russia who worked all day and then went home and worked some more. As a small girl in the 50s, I thought that was horrible. As a wife and mother in the 80s, I found that was my life.

American women continue what seems to be a losing battle for subsidized—if not free—childcare, for paid maternity leave, for pediatric health care that won’t beggar their bank accounts. The last time I checked, the House and Senate were male-dominated and corporations headed by women were still a back-patting anomaly. Many American women have figures that are potentially deadly, rather than “to die for,” because the food they can afford to put on their tables is highly processed, flavorless, and fattening. Macaroni and cheese, anyone? Or how about a nice tuna casserole for that “delicious dinner…”

We Americans might outrank French women in equality to men, but they have advantages we can only dream of. Healthy vaginal muscles may be one benefit of being French and female, but that is far outweighed by—oh free childcare, perhaps. It would be interesting to see a similar profile of American working mothers in the IHT. One thing is certain, if such a story were published, it wouldn’t lead off with the state of our vaginas. Because we have superior gender equality, n’est-ce pas?

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Settling In

I came to Penang with the romantic idea of living in one of its candy-colored buildings at the edges of Georgetown’s historic area. I had been sure I wanted to make my home in the upper reaches of a shophouse there until I visited one that my friend Elizabeth had rented in Thonburi. Except for on the front of the building, the house had no windows. It was sandwiched tightly between two similar residences and it felt dark and stuffy. As I watched her wrestle with the gate that secured the place, I knew I was made of far weaker stuff than she. I need light and air or I shrivel up into a torpid lump of depression.

In Bangkok, renting an apartment is as easy as getting a room in a hotel. In Penang I would probably still be homeless if not for my pal Victor, who introduced me to a friend of his who grew up in this city. He gave me the name of a friend who is a Penang resident, born and bred, and that is the only reason I have a place to live today.

It didn’t surprise me that there were no rental listings in the daily paper, since the internet has killed that form of advertising all over the world. What did surprise me was the lack of apartment listings online for the area that I wanted, and the neighborhoods that did have vacancies could have been on the dark side of the moon for all I knew. Photographs yielded images of gargantuan apartment blocks and my optimism wavered. “I’ll give it a week,” I told myself, but the property agent I contacted by email was elusive and the one that I was introduced to by friendly waiters in an Indian restaurant seemed more eager to take me to dinner than anything else.

But there was Lynn, the friend of a friend. If I didn’t think, mistakenly as it turned out, that she herself was a rental agent, I would never have imposed upon her. By the time I found out that I was wrong, I already knew that she was a someone I liked and wanted as a friend. As was her oldest sister, whom we went to visit and who lived in an apartment that I yearned for.

It was in one of the characterless blocks, about three miles from the historic part of Georgetown, but it was full of light with a view from the balcony and cross-ventilation in addition to large ceiling fans in every room. And it had three bedrooms and two baths and a functioning kitchen—all for the price of a Bangkok studio. The neighborhood was thick with food vendors and when we went out to explore, I found that this area brimmed with the same life I had loved when I first came to Bangkok. There wasn’t a Starbucks or a MacDonald’s in sight, although an Old Town White Coffee, a local chain, had wifi and air-conditioning right across the road.

Lynn’s sister Jessie is the neighborhood’s unofficial goodwill ambassador who knows everyone in the area and she stretched out her antenna to find a place for me in her building. I was in Georgetown for exactly a week before I saw the apartment that is now my home.

It is fully furnished, right down to the towels and flatware, has a washing machine and two large televisions and a view from the 21st floor. The “characterless” building is clean and friendly and has a covered patio area with free wifi and a pool. Food is only steps away from the entrance and there’s great bus service to downtown. A small variety store sells me garbage bags and dish towels and other necessities—the lady who runs it is quite chatty and she speaks serviceable English.

After making an excursion to the area I had intended to live in, where I had a late lunch at an area of food stalls that adjoined the sea wall, I stopped in at her little shop in search of small glass bowls to use as soap dishes.

“Where did you go today?” she asked me and I immediately translated that to the Thai question “Bpai nai ma?” The world shrunk a tiny bit and my nomadic heart sprouted a tentative but hopeful tendril of a root.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Do You Take Sugar and Margarine in Your Coffee?

Supermarkets as my friend Katia has already pointed out on her blog, Scribbly Katia at, are emotional minefields for the unwary expatriate. A friend once suggested that the title of my autobiography could be The Woman Who Cried in Supermarkets, and she had a very good point. When I first moved to Bangkok, the sight of Oreos reminded me of packing lunch boxes for my sons and I would mist over. When I returned to the states, the same thing happened when I saw Thai orchids at a checkout stand. I learned to carry sunglasses along with my shopping lists to hide any surprise attacks of tears.

Yesterday I went to a supermarket near my new neighborhood to find coffee--if not beans that could be ground on the spot (since I have yet to buy my own coffee grinder), at least instant coffee that had no sugar or powdered creamer in the mix and that wasn't made by Nestle. This seemed achievable because I had drunk many cups of what Georgetown calls "local coffee", a powdered coffee that comes black and strong in the cup, with flavor and a real caffeine kick.

No beans, no grinder, but bags upon bags heaped in middle of the aisle displays--finally I found one that said "No sugar." I hurled it into my cart and then felt suspicious for some unknown reason. I looked at the list of ingredients, which were mercifully in English. "Coffee," it announced, "sugar, margarine..." and there was something else that followed but at that point my brain froze. Butter tea I had heard of, and it did indeed make me queasy at the thought, but margarine in my coffee?

I gulped hard. My defenses fell. Suddenly I remembered the coffee bean corners at Tops and Villa supermarkets in Bangkok and I was prey to mist and a weird sort of longing for that particular aspect of the city I couldn't wait to leave.

I carried on. I found the aisle where there was powdered coffee in jars and some of it was coffee unaccompanied by any sweetener or milk impersonator. I chose a jar that said Indochine and prayed hard that it would be drinkable. Then I carefully avoided any aisle that might carry memory, finished my shopping, and faced the challenge of finding my way back to the escalators, always a test in a new shopping mall.

Georgetown is proud of its White Coffee--a mixture like 3-in-1 but more caffeinated. It's a city with coffee stalls and shops on every square inch of space and it is to its credit that Starbucks is only in a few places that cater to the expat community and upscale travelers. Far be it from me to denigrate local specialties but when I go back out today in search of coffee I can drink with pleasure, I hope I can accomplish this without tears.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Eating in Penang

Yesterday I found a cafe with coffee ground from beans and many different variations of hot buttered toast. Only someone who has spent time wrestling with ice cold butter and thin white bread that has been essentially warmed-- not toasted-- will understand the pure joy of having thick slices of bread that have been toasted and then spread with butter and the topping before being brought to the table. I went back today for the coffee and the bright cleanliness of Trois Canon Cafe--and oh all right for the toast--augmented with butter and kaya (coconut milk and sugar cooked down to a spreadable consistency.)

Yes, I like "authentic" as much as any backpacker--but who says authentic has to be grimy and uncomfortable all the time? For my first week in George Town I had coffee at a Chinese open-air place across the street and that was fun, but it's equally pleasant to read the paper over cups of decent coffee and a plate of comfort food as I ease into my day.

Last evening as the day cooled, I roamed around taking snapshots of doors and windows and old tilework and was drawn to a house painted a glowing shade of pale green. It was a place that served three dishes--and one of them was rojak. This is a splendid salad made with chunks of mango and perhaps pineapple and vegetables and thin slivers of something that tasted like anchovies. I can't be more precise than that because everything was obscured with a dark brown dressing with the consistency of molasses and which was salty and chili-hot and sweet and tangy. I can't wait to go back and have the laksa--Malaysia's signature soup--and the cendol which is a dessert made with chunks of ice and other lovely things.

My new friend Jessie, who is so valiantly trying to help me find an apartment, took me to an outdoor food hawker center in what I hope will soon be my new neighborhood. The mussel pancake/omelette that is called hoi taud in Thailand is called fried oysters here and is served with a lovely chili sauce rather than the sweet syrupy one that accompanies the Thai version. Heaven on a plate.

Everybody who comes to Penang probably eats at The End of the World (after I did, I discovered it's in Lonely Planet.) It's at the end of a 20 km bus ride from George Town, a gorgeous route along a twisty road that hugs the coast, and its food is worth the trip. A seaweed soup held fish balls that were lighter than any I've ever had before, and the kailan with garlic tasted as though it had been steamed in saltwater.

And to top it all off, what with mango lassis and fresh fruit juices and iced nutmeg juice, I haven't had a beer since my night on the train with the Cosmopolitan Dutchman. Maybe I'll eventually rediscover my lost waistline, but with all the food there is to try on this island, I truly doubt it.

Saturday, October 2, 2010

Penang Funeral

Start from the bottom photo and work your way up.