Sunday, August 8, 2010

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.

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