Monday, August 30, 2010

A Body in Motion...

I love fall. Its golden crispness and sharp berried scent has always made me happy, even though what follows it is sheer misery for me. The most beautiful autumns are the preface to extreme cold--Fairbanks, Alaska and Beijing both testify to that.

Slack with Bangkok heat, I try to separate what I am feeling for Beijing right now from what I feel for fall. Last year when I was there, a piercing-blue sky soared above a thick plumage of gold leaves that waved above much of the city. The air was invigoratingly brisk and each breath I took made every one of my nerve ends feel sharp and alive.

Beijing is defined by its trees for me. The tender pale green haze that washes the city in the spring after months of skeletal black branches softened only by snow is almost as lovely as the blaze of color in autumn. I left just as a hint of green began to emerge and returned to streets bathed in light filtered through new leaves. After a month in the grey gloom of Kowloon and Chung King Mansion, I walked for hours, ravenous for green, through neighborhoods that were transformed by spring into a place that was almost magical.

It took me two long bus rides before I found Beijing's Botanical Gardens, and even then I wouldnever have reached them if it weren't for a boy with the troubled complexion of early adolescence. I pointed out where I hoped to go on a bilingual map, as I had with other passersby before he appeared, and he waved in the same expansive gesture I had been provided with earlier.

With very little optimism, I began to walk away after uttering the only Mandarin phrase I knew, which is thank you, heading toward a park that looked verdant enough but not quite what I had expected. Suddenly the boy was at my elbow, beckoning forcefully toward a nearby bus stop. He led me to it, pointed out a bus number on a sign that was filled with many of them, waited with me until it came, and then told the conductress where I wanted to go. I still get chills of gratitude when I think about him.

What I found when I reached the gardens was landscape that had hints of wilderness in the hills outside the city. What I was given was kindness that was completely unexpected and undeserved, and is a large part of why I now look through my snapshots and feel a small but persistent yearning for Beijing.

Beijing On My Mind

Missing Beijing

Friday, August 20, 2010

Falling in Love with Alphonso

I was sixteen before I ate a mango. We lived in Puerto Rico in a dilapidated old house with a big tree in the front yard. It bore fruit, which for Alaskan transplants was an act akin to a miracle. We gathered the large ovals, golden with a tinge of red-orange, as greedily as if we were hoarding treasure, and immediately ate them. They were appallingly juicy, tangy and sweet, with a vague taste of turpentine. The peel was tough and we had no idea that we weren't supposed to eat it. Perhaps that's where the turpentine flavor lurks, because I've never found it in a mango since.

In Thailand mangoes are as much a staple as rice. Green mango salad, or somtam, is unofficially the national dish and I have eaten a pick-up truck load of this since I first encountered it. It comes in different versions and different incendiary values. I've lain awake at night for hours with my hands on fire because I made the mistake of eating somtam and sticky rice with my fingers. On the other hand, I ordered it once at a street stall in Ubon Ratchatani and was given shredded mango and peanuts with no chili at all, out of deference for my delicate farang taste buds. I almost sent it back for firepower and then realized that the pure, clear flavor of the mango was like eating cold water.

Less frequently I indulge in mango and sticky rice with coconut cream--it's seasonal and rich and no doubt capable of clogging every artery in my body. I've discovered that if the mango is ripe enough, it is completely luscious without the coconut cream, since the sticky rice is already permeated with it.

I thought I was a mango connoisseur until I had lunch with my friend Amrit in Hong Kong. She ordered dishes I had never had before--I'm still haunted by the butter chicken, which has been unequaled by any place that has served it to me since--and for dessert she chose mangoes with vanilla ice cream. But these were no ordinary mangoes, the menu told us--they were Alphonso mangoes that glowed on our plates.

An ice cream fanatic, after my first taste of mango, I let the vanilla ice cream melt. Its coldness numbed the taste of the mango slices and that was very close to sacrilege. Every mouthful of the Alphonso was a little explosion of sweetness and juice, with a velvety texture that was like a caress. It was almost an act of public indecency to eat this anywhere but in private and I forced myself not to moan.

I am not moving to Penang just so I might be able to savor an Alphonso mango or two in the Indian section of Georgetown, but I certainly hope that I do. They are like Eve's apple--one bite and the world changes forever.

Guns and Omelets

In the spring of 2006 I went to the area where protesters were camped out, demonstrating against their Prime Minister, who had conducted a war on drugs in which suspects were shot on the spot without being sentenced, who had been responsible for the suffocation of 78 protesters who had been packed into the backs of trucks like cordwood in the southern district of Tak Bai, who had sold a controlling interest in his telecommunication company to Singapore for $1.9 billion dollars on which he paid no taxes to the government he headed.

The camp was peaceful and hospitable and I wandered through feeling that Thailand had achieved a pinnacle in free speech and public protest. Later that week I watched a march stream past Mahboonkrong, Siam Square and Paragon. People poured down the street with hundreds of supporters cheering them on from the sidewalk, the footbridges, and the skytrain platforms. As I watched, a ripple of excitement reached the area where I stood and a man beside me asked in English, "Do you know what is happening? Chulalongkorn University has joined the march. It's the first time they have taken part in a protest."

And then the street was awash in pink, the color of Chula, and spectators were cheering wildly and my skin prickled. It still does when I think about it. The old saw "This is what democracy looks like" was at the forefront of my mind, along with memories of other protests in this country that had ended in blood. I was thrilled by the courage of the people who marched and awed by the dignity and peace with which their demonstration took place.

Since then many things have gone awry. In the clash of colors, the atrocities of the former Prime Minister seem to have been forgotten. People whom I respect believe what is happening now is a necessary stage in achieving a democratic government. It has been pointed out that more people mourn the destruction of Central World Plaza than they do the people who died in April and May. The random violence that has occurred sporadically since the Red Shirt protest was crushed is being discounted by some as being of little consequence.

I'm not naive and I know that omelets are made only from broken eggs and that change must come through a barrel of a gun and that democratic governments are all based upon violence, one way or the other, be it Valley Forge or the guillotine or Partition. I believe people are better off in China now than they were before Mao and wonder if this would have happened without the Cultural Revolution.

And yet what a friend of mine recently describes as a "small bomb that killed one person" went off on a downtown sidewalk the night before the religious holiday of Khao Phansaa. Its timing was as deeply sad as its injury of ten people and its killing of one. It invaded a day that is integral to many Thai people's spiritual lives. That is true terrorism.

When I take the Skytrain, I pass three sites that were torched in May. They are all being rebuilt. I also pass a temple that I feel has been desecrated forever. People were killed on the grounds of a place that has traditionally provided shelter and sanctuary and safety for all who come there. The shops will reopen. People will return to their jobs. The temple will always be haunted.

I wish I could pick a side and believe that eggs must be broken, but I've never been a true believer in any dogma--and I hate omelets. It's time for me to move on.

Monday, August 9, 2010


When I was on Penang, I went to the part of Georgetown where covered food stalls cluster together in little food courts with tables facing the water and the sky. Mutton satay and crab spring rolls with a bottle of beer stuck in an ice bucket may be one of the best meals I've had this year, and looking across the street at open water was a great way to spend time while chewing.

On the way back, I passed a knot of taxi drivers, which was fortunate because it was a long march back to my hotel. They offered professional services, I accepted, and then looked happily at the words painted on the side of the taxis indicating that meters were used and no haggling was allowed. I expressed my joy at finding this out and the driver who was leading me to his car, looked, smiled, and said, "Twelve ringgit, okay?"

"But I thought the fare was metered," I objected and he smiled even more sweetly and said, "Yes, but we like to ask for more."

(I'd paid a rickshaw driver significantly more and this request was what the guys at my hotel said I'd pay for a taxi, so I paid--but it was the sweetness with which this was done that completely charmed me--suckah!)

On my way to the ferry when I left, I was passed by a small man wearing gold brocade polyester pajamas with such confidence and aplomb that for a moment I wondered why nobody else was. (And yes, they were pajamas--the kind you can buy at any Target in the states. The savoir faire with which he wore them is a bit harder to come by.)

And then, while embarking on the hellish trip home, I met my favorite traveler to date, a large pink aging man with an over-sized backpack sprouting from his spine who spoke basic Thai loudly and quite badly--even worse than I do--to Malaysian railway workers who addressed him in rather good English. They gave up on him at last and I went over to see what I might be able to do. Turned out he spoke no English nor any other languages but Finn and Thai--by all means the two lingua franca of East and West! (Somehow he managed to make it to the Thai border, so obviously this works for him.)

(And then there were Judy, Bou, and Phyllida--all of whom made me remember how much fun it can be to thaw out and chat for a while--thanks to all!)

Sunday, August 8, 2010

How to Travel like a Thai Citizen or Why I Favor a Revolution

Want an authentic Thai travel experience? Here's how...

1) Buy a round-trip train ticket on the International Express Train to Malaysia.
2) Go to the train station in Butterworth for the return trip to Thailand.
3) Discover the train from Thailand has been cancelled and will not provide the second half of your r/t journey.
4) Have the Malaysian railway staff stamp your ticket as unused from Butterworth to Hat Yai in Thailand so you can receive a refund for whatever portion of it goes to waste.
5) Get a seat in a mini-van that will take you to Hat Yai where you can possibly take your assigned seat on a train that has inexplicably refused to pick you up in Malaysia.
6) Sit tight as the mini-van driver races through Northern Malaysia to get you to Southern Thailand in time to catch the Little Engine that Couldn't (Be Bothered to Complete Its Journey) and ignore the truly spectacular auto accident that you speed past. (How did that car end up in a standing position, anyway?)
7) Take your seat on one of the dirtiest train carriages it has ever been your privilege to ride in.
8) Hold your breath when you have to visit the toilet. Try not to retch as you observe the clogged sink become fuller and fuller with grey, scummy water. Pray that cholera isn't on the rise at this particular point in Thai history.
9) Reach your Bangkok destination an hour behind schedule. Discover that although you spent 400 baht to reach a train that should have come to you, your refund will be 20 baht. Talk to a Thai lady who spent double the amount of your mini-van expenditure on a share-taxi to reach the same train and also received 20 baht. Notice on your train schedule that the cost of a ticket between Butterworth and Hat Yai is 50 baht.
10) Leave your 20 baht refund on the counter staffed by the surliest man in the Kingdom of Thailand. Try not to tell him to buy himself some manners.
11) Find out that your train failed to pick you up because it had "too many delays." Try not to wonder why, even though it left on time from Hat Yai, it was still an hour late in reaching Bangkok.
12) Realize Air Asia, a Malaysian carrier, is a much better bet than the Thai Railway .
13) Understand that for Thai citizens, this lack of consideration on the part of government bureaucracy is a fact of life, although judging by the lady you talked to, it still pisses them off.
14) Hope it pisses them off enough to change it.
15) Congratulate yourself on having an honest-to-god, genuine Thai experience--many farang never attain that privilege.
16) Pray that the motion sickness that was the souvenir of this journey will eventually go away.

Serial Monogamist or Geographic Trollop?

I'm not hard to please--put me in a place with wonderful architecture, creative use of color, fabulous food, good and easy to find coffee, fresh fruit juices, handmade fabrics, street markets, a brilliant bus system, a bookstore or two, pale aqua salt water, the promise of a beach in the area and I am blissful. Add the lagniappe of a diverse population who live together without bloodshed while still retaining their individual culture and cuisine and clothing--and who speak English as well as two or three other languages--as well as a government that has a sane visa system for longterm visitors--and I begin to pay serious attention, especially if that place is affordable.

Since I've come back to Bangkok, I've had brief flirtations with Beijing and Kratie, but they have turned out to be one-night stands. They are both places I love to visit but when I think of living in them, issues like frigidly cold winters or rural isolation always make me burrow a little farther into the city I continue to choose, over and over again.

Penang is different--hotter and more humid than Bangkok, with the same magical light that softens the heat at sundown, a city whose diversity is exhilarating (Bollywood movie theatre, anyone? Chinese opera on the grounds of a temple?), street food that rivals anything I can find in my neighborhood, nearby fishing villages and beaches to explore, a tiny National Park on the island, and--a cosmopolitan Dutchman of my acquaintance told me--a Watson's as well-stocked as any London equivalent.

I, who have fruitlessly searched for the mosquito repellent patches that I bought in a Watson's in Hong Kong only to be told by Watson employees in Bangkok, "Oh, Thai people aren't bothered by mosquitoes," (Right, no Thai person ever gets dengue fever...) am rather charmed by the thought of perhaps finding them on the once-malarial island of Penang.

And, having gagged down countless gallons of Nescafe while traveling in Thailand, or drinking truly mediocre caffe lattes in places that are distant cousins of Starbucks, I was completely besotted by the Chinese shophouse noodle spot across from the Cathay where a somewhat taciturn gentleman made me two small cups of fully-flavored black coffee every morning that propelled me through the rest of the day. "Powder," he told me when I asked, "but not Nescafe. We call it local coffee." I call it delicious.

Anyone who has ever been married knows well that conjugal relationships founder on the small things: "He snored." "She slurped her soup." And reasons to fall in love can be almost intangible--"We have great conversations." "Oh, his cheekbones." "She always smells like freesia." For me it's "Bangkok is slowly breaking my heart with what is happening to its people." and "The colors of the buildings in Georgetown make me happy." Marriages have disintegrated and lifelong love affairs have begun with less than that.

Meanwhile I have eighteen glass bangles on my right arm--red, gold, turquoise, and magenta, that sound--as my friend Nana remarked--like wind chimes as they move across my skin. When they clink and glitter, I remember the music and color of the street where I bought them, where for the first time ever I ate curry and rice from a banana leaf with the fingers of my right hand. I did that very badly; I have to return so I can learn how to manage this with a small degree of etiquette, if not grace.

Saturday, August 7, 2010


It simply cannot be as good as it looks. Where is the flaw? My natural cynicism kept demanding this as I roamed around Georgetown for the past two days, drowning in color. Turquoise, aqua, cobalt blue, lavender, pistachio, grass-green, peach, pale red, chartreuse, soft yellow, and the mustard shade that only works on haunted buildings in Southeast Asia.

I stumbled off the night train from Bangkok and immediately found a series of signs sprinkled along a path like breadcrumbs that led me to the ferry without frustration. On the other side was a free city bus that took me a block or so from the hotel I hoped I would stay in, where a courtly old Chinese gentleman gave me a key and offered to take my passport to the Thai visa services for a very tiny amount of money. I was enthralled before I even saw my room.

Which was double the size of my Bangkok bedroom and had a bathtub. Only someone who has been to this part of the world will appreciate what that means--let it be enough to say that this feature made up for the 110-year-old tiles that looked as thought they were last cleaned during the Japanese Occupation, and the smeared water glasses that rested on a dusty tin tray. A large fan in the (perhaps) twelve-foot ceiling immediately cooled the room and the towels and sheets were clean--what more could anyone ask for?

The Cathay Hotel is a piercingly white terracotta mansion that was built circa 1900 by a Chinese magnate and it is still palatial, if not luxurious. The traditional swimming-pool-like courtyard in the middle of the building (for feng shui purposes--it captures the rain that comes through the open roof) is surrounded by pillars made of cast-iron that probably came from Great Britain and a delicate lattice-work of carved wood where the pillars meet the upper wall. The staircases are steep and graceful, and massive, double doors painted a soft blue with wooden gates placed at their center lead to those bedrooms that are air-conditioned. It isn't exactly dirty, but it is time-worn and I wore my shoes in my room every time the soles of my feet touched the tiles. I loved it. of course.

Georgetown is small but, like Hong Kong, it is dense. Unlike Hong Kong, it is a wild sensory overload of colors and smells and architectural marvels. Two and a half days is not enough time for this city--at least not for a walking wanderer like me. I strolled and gaped and ate and marveled for hours, then would go back to the Cathay for a bath, and then walk some more. The amount of ground that I covered was embarrassingly slight, I discovered, when I measured my explorations on a map.

But that's what happens when a place jams my circuits. At a certain point I reach sensory overload and my dehydration point (Georgetown is hotter and more humid than Bangkok, and the profusion of buildings painted a blazing white intensifies the fierceness of the light)--then it was time to collapse in a cafe and order a bottle of water and a couple of glasses of fruit juice, and beer later in the day. But before the point of collapse, I would have found a market with chicken so fresh and sweet that I was sure I could eat it raw, and prawns the size of small puppies, and egg tarts that are as good as ones I've inhaled in Kowloon, or a used bookstore organized to the point of OCD, or music and saris in the Indian section, or a very cool in every sense of the word art gallery--and of course hundreds of old buildings painted in jaw-dropping colors.

There are areas with promenades along the water that would be wonderful during a good storm, and hills looming behind the city that promise coolness at their tops, and beaches that I have yet to explore. There's more to tell and even more that I haven't seen. I think I'm in love.