Thursday, July 22, 2010

Bursting the Bubble

I felt a tiny bit apprehensive when I climbed onto the three-baht boat (about a dime) to cross the river back to Bangkok. During my walk through a Thonburi market to reach the pier, the sky had become a deep bruised black with swollen clouds. Gambling that the storm would hold off until I got to shelter on the opposite bank, I sat on a wooden bench near the edge of the boat and watched the Chao Phrya turn into the River Styx, dark and ominous. I did my best to forget that I don't know how to swim and concentrated on the brisk wind that hit my face, better than any air-conditioning could ever be.

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.




7 comments:

Jessi Cotterill said...

Wow!! new look for the rainy season...

janet brown said...

Thought it was appropriate!

Ebriel said...

YES!! Love Thonburi, and at the risk of sounding like Mr. Rogers, I hope you'll be my neighbor soon. Thanks for giving me a glimpse of the Bangkok a few of us know and love.

janet brown said...

Thank you, Ebriel! Unfortunately you never stay put long enough to become my neighbor--you're my friend the moving target.

Kim said...

Your feelings describe mine about Saigon. My lost city. I'm too afraid to go back for a long period of time because I fear never finding the old world I used to know. A world without car-clogged streets and skyrises and everyone in a hurry on their way to a meeting and posh shops (fancy chains and overpriced boutiques!) lining downtown streets. Ever since they tore down my shabby little park on Le Thanh Ton, the city has not been mine.

Dr. Will said...

Come on over and stay. It's the Brooklyn of Bangkok (am I quoting you?). And we've also got chains and malls in the neighborhood.

janet brown said...

It is definitely my next home in this part of the world but not until the end of September--can't afford to move until the next quarterly paycheck! Please, Will--no chains, no glitzy malls...