The storm struck when we were halfway across and every passenger was well-soaked before we reached the other side of the river. Too wet to be concerned about further dampness, most of us sloshed off into the rain, with that delightful wind now a dedicated umbrella-killer.
The bus that pulled up near the noodle cart where I had taken shelter had air-conditioning, and although I was no longer pelted with raindrops, hypothermia set in rapidly. Chilled and sodden, I got off near my favorite grilled chicken place and pleaded for soup. The waitress grinned at me when she brought me my beer and said, "You don't want ice, do you?"
I had gone to Thonburi on a quest for a new neighborhood, with the same instinctive feeling of lacking something essential that makes my cat eat grass. As I wandered through a few back streets and explored the main road of the area, I went back in time by fifteen years. This is what Bangkok used to look like, grimy and utilitarian and decidedly rugged around the edges. This is what I had fallen in love with in 1995, the energy that drives people to make good food and small shops and homes for their children in the midst of rampant ugliness. This is what Bangkok used to be before the arrival of Starbucks and Zara and the wild proliferation of the hygienic and overpriced branches of S&P restaurants.
I grew up in the flip side of beauty in ugliness. The Alaska of my childhood was ugliness in beauty--rusted 50-gallon oil drums and ramshackle cabins poised against the view of spruce groves and ocean and volcanoes. In this tarnished natural paradise I yearned for cities, and now I find that the cities I love are the ones with sharp contrasts and challenges that frequently take me beyond my comfort level.
Yesterday as I sat on a small, open boat, drenched to my innermost thoughts, knowing full well that I was only going to get even wetter, I felt a crazed and exhilarated sort of happiness that never comes from riding the Skytrain. There was a feeling of community on that boat that never exists on the subway, and for the first time in two years, I felt as though I had truly returned to Thailand.