Thursday, November 24, 2011

Giving Thanks

Yesterday a tall slender young woman who was probably from Somalia, dressed head-to-toe in form-fitting turquoise shot with silver and holding a brilliantly yellow umbrella, walked down the hill outside my window like a spot of summer in Seattle's winter darkness. This morning the elderly Chinese gentleman who puffs his way back and forth, up and down, that same street with the reassuring regularity of a cuckoo clock, showed up in his usual sweater, scarf and sweatpants. Soon after, three young girls wearing down jackets in green, magenta, bright blue sauntered past, a small moving garden of blossoms.

Yesterday I stopped to talk to the young African-American guy who stands on my corner every day holding a sign for the gold shop on the next block. "I'm leaving next week," he told me, "I got a job on a fishing boat out of Dutch Harbor." He has been one of my heroes since I moved back and I will miss him.

The day before I sat and had tea with a couple from North Vietnam, on the Chinese border. Their baby woke up and watched me talk to him, moving his mouth in imitation, grinning at me when I applauded his efforts to speak. I love my neighborhood; I'm grateful to have found a place in it once more.

Today I'll leave it for a different part of the city, where I'll be with my family on the last Thursday of November for the first time in three years. Such happiness, such gratitude, so many, many thanks.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Inventing Home

Every foreigner who stays in Bangkok lives in their own version of the city, partly because of the far-flung nature of Thailand’s capital, partly because of its malleability.

In spite of its stunningly up-to-date downtown core, Bangkok is made up of thousands of urban villages, every last one of them its own little community. There were—and I hope there still are—roads not too far from downtown where oxen stopped traffic as they lumbered slowly to the grass on the other side. Canal boats still whisk people back in time to riverine enclaves where mailboxes jut out over paths of water. And it's difficult to find a Bangkok neighborhood where local roosters don't issue wake-up calls.

My own neighborhood was far from pastoral and the advent of the subway meant it was bordered by more and more high-rise buildings that seemed to sprout up after every heavy rainstorm. But at the end of the road, near the subway entrances, where the pickup trucks waited for their next load of passengers, there was a tree. And one day as I walked past, it sparkled and glittered and glistened in the sunlight, festooned with silver that wavered and flickered in the morning breeze. The pickup truck drivers had brought their old CDs and tied them to every branch of this tree that stood alone and was knocked down to make way for a new condo-housing building within the following month.

When I visited with friends, other foreigners who made this city their home, they told similar stories about their neighborhoods, but the stories were never identical Bangkok was a gigantic Rohrschach test for the strangers in its midst; even Rodney and I, who lived in the same small community, saw different editions of it when we left the common ground of our house.

Most of my friends seemed to feel that when I returned to Chokchai Ruammit, I stepped out of the subway station and then fell right off the rim of the world. In a way they were right. When I came home, I emerged from a world that moved at a dashing pace of appointments punctually kept and a whoosh of constant motion into stop time, where I climbed into the back of a pickup truck and waited for the driver to finish his conversation or his cigarette or his nap. My journey home continued when he felt it was time to go and not before; then, when I had fully left the urbanity of downtown, I was allowed to re-enter my home turf.

I often envied Nana, who lived in a neighborhood that was served by motorcycles, not pickup trucks. Motorcycle taxis were fast and immediate; the drivers left when the passenger wanted, not when they chose to, and riding on the back of a motorcycle had infinitely more panache than huddling in the back of a pickup truck. And I was deeply jealous of my friend Will, who lived close to the banks of the Chao Phraya river and had a choice of motorcycle taxis or express boats when he went out into the world. But in Bangkok, you are where you eat, and long ago I had chosen to eat on Chokchai Ruammit. I knew its story to the same limited degree that it knew mine and we had accepted each other’s limitations. Without the pickup trucks, I would never have seen the silvered glory of a doomed tree.

The friend whom I privately called the AlphaDude was nourished by neon in the neighborhood where he had lived for almost twenty years. “I have everything I need here,” he told me, “Supermarkets, department stores, good restaurants, street food, the best hospital in the country, bookstores, bars, a population that comes from all over the world, and nightlife like nowhere else.” He lived within walking distance of Nana Plaza, an entertainment complex that employed enough people to populate a small city, a multi-leveled rabbit warren of rooms that blazed into life after dark. It was a place he roamed through regularly, making friends, collecting stories, having fun, entering its community on a level that many of its visitors didn’t care to explore.

Lee came from Seattle twice a year to stay in the same neighborhood, in a hotel he had found more than a decade earlier and never deviated from. He had become part of the staff’s family; they taught him Thai, brought him food, showed him how to live in his Bangkok neighborhood. All of them had come from somewhere else in the Kingdom and had learned the city inch by inch, just as he was. For Lee, the neon glories of lower Sukhumvit Road had become the surroundings for a village homestay; his hotel was a spot where he was always welcomed, a place where he could settle in and relax.

On the streets of their neighborhoods, every foreigner has two identities, the one they construct for themselves and the one the local residents have pieced together, which is usually accompanied by a local nickname. Few people on Chokchai Ruammit asked me what my name was and I had spent too much time there to be addressed by Mahdahm, the common appellation for foreign females. When I walked past street vendors I could hear the words that announced my approach and they were telling ones. Although I was sure I had found a home, within that home my nickname translated into “Vacation.”

If ever I yearned for a less publicly monitored existence with immersion that was far from total, I could snap myself out of it by remembering the morning I met a woman at a Starbucks in an affluent expat area. I got there first and as I went to order my latte from the counterstaff, a room full of women stretched their necks to see if I were someone they knew. When my companion breezed in a few minutes later, it took her five minutes to reach my table. “I love coming here,” she told me, “There are always so many other expats here in the morning and we’ve all become friends. I’m sorry I’m late but when I walked past Le Bon Pain, there was a group from the American Women’s Club and I had to stop to say hi because I’m president this year.”

My mornings rarely encompassed another foreign face unless Rodney was at home. I smiled and picked at my scone without enthusiasm. Silently I counted the minutes until I could go back to my neighborhood street and buy crisp little pancakes, placed together in a sandwich the size of a silver dollar and filled with molten hot coconut cream that had been sprinkled with fresh chives. Although there were days I wasn’t sure that was what I wanted, I was positive that the alternative would never be a room full of expats at Starbucks.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Thai Crime, Thai Smile

Newspapers are where I turn for clues to the world around me and in Bangkok I received most of my enlightenment from stories about political turmoil and true crime. These were two areas that frequently overlapped, but I was happiest when I found the stories where they did not. Sons of politicians getting in bar brawls, brandishing firearms, and demanding “Do you know who my father is?” Boring. Bank robbers who successfully loaded their bags with cash after closing hours, then decided to take a nap and were found asleep when the bank opened the next day? Delightful.

I had become a connoisseur of Bangkok’s true crime journalism and would stare wistfully at all of the newspapers I was unable to read with their Thai script and their garish front page photos of blood and body parts. The Bangkok Post and The Nation were far too sedate for that; their model was the London Times, not the New York Post. But buried in their genteel reportage were stories of crimes that baffled and enchanted me; I hated those days when I missed a paper because I knew it held cultural insights that now I would never know.

In the mid-90s travel guides offered shrill warnings about strangers on Thai trains or buses who would offer tourists a snack or a bottle of water and then strip them of everything they had on their persons when the drug-laced gift put them to sleep. I was sure these stories were apocryphal until the days of the airport occupation when tourists were turning to any form of transportation that would let them continue their trip. A group of stranded travelers happily climbed on a bus that would take them out of Chiang Mai one night, enjoyed their complimentary snack, fell fast asleep and awoke in the middle of nowhere on a stranded vehicle with no driver, no conductor, no luggage and no money. There was a dash and style to that caper that I admired; it was imaginative, it took planning, it was nonviolent, and like the criminal mishaps that I treasured most, it was funny.

Banditry on a smaller scale took place on a Thai train when an armed man divested the passengers of the things they carried and then dove out an open window. One of the victims had the presence of mind to slam the window shut as the thief made his escape, closing it with such force that it severed some of the robber’s toes. The miscreant fled but the police had no worries about apprehending him. They knew somewhere in one of the nearby villages, at the end of a blood trail, limped a man with fewer toes than the ones he had been born with.

Rural criminals were the most brazen; not for them the random bag snatching while whizzing past on a motorcycle or the frenzied apologies of a working pickpocket who has just bumped into an affluent tourist on a crowded city street. Robbers in the countryside are after bigger game, like the men who drove into a village, took down the community’s water tanks which they claimed needed repair, and carried their haul off to sell to a scrap metal dealer. With chutzpah like that, I felt sure these thieves had to be using the gains from this heist to jumpstart their political careers.

Crime in Bangkok was usually more grisly than amusing, which is why the prize of my collection is the Squat Toilet Caper. A man entered a toilet cubicle to relieve himself but being more prudent than most, he removed his trousers, carefully folded them and draped them over the door of the stall, placing them so the contents of his pockets wouldn’t fall to the floor. While he was in no position to argue, he watched in horror as an invisible passerby pulled down his pants and walked away with them. Clad in his beautifully ironed white shirt, a tie, shoes, socks and underwear, the victim, who no longer possessed a wallet or a cellphone, was forced to commit an act of public indecency in order to find a policeman and another pair of trousers.

I was a crime victim only once. Walking down a dark soi in the heart of downtown Bangkok after having dinner, I heard a motorcycle slow down behind me and then there was a hard tug on what I had clutched in one hand. I kept my purse, my assailant got away with a shopping bag. His take was a pair of very old shoes that I was going to have repaired, a paperback in English and a copy of the daily paper. Luckily for me, and perhaps for him, I had already finished reading the newspaper.

Other people I knew or read about weren't so lucky, and in no way am I trivializing the really bad things that happen to good people all over the world, even in Thailand.

Friday, November 11, 2011

Fed by Art

Pale sunlight turned into real heat that blazed into my Bangkok windows well before noon every day. I began to remember how difficult it was to read a newspaper under the gale force of a floor fan and if I wasn’t up by seven, I awoke in a tiny pool of sweat.

Life took on the languid quality of a fever dream; I moved slowly and any urgency I felt was only because I had invented it. Days slid into each other and I stood up a dinner appointment because I was still stuck in the day before.

I had just returned from Vientianne where I felt as though I’d wandered in to a deluxe Crayola box, the one with 64 crayons. The small Mekong city was drenched in color; temple ceilings replicated sunsets with shades of pink, pale blue, turquoise and buttery yellow, houses were painted in soft sherbet shades of pistachio or cantaloupe or lavender, and the traditional paisin skirts that almost every woman wore, whether she worked in a market or an air conditioned office, gave the dusty streets a brilliant vibrancy.

I usually lived in the basic Crayola box of eight colors. It amazed me that Thailand with its soaring imaginative use of flavors and textures in its food was so rigid and limited in feeding the eyes of the people who lived there. Buildings were grey, temples were white, red, and gold with touches of blue, scarlet flame trees and bushes of magenta bougainvillea lined murky canals, and for centuries the colors people wore each day were codified. It was still common even now to see yellow shirts worn by every age and gender on Monday and pink on Tuesday, oceans and oceans of yellow or pink every week on the same day. Red was the color chosen by supporters of the former prime minister in exile; otherwise it was worn only by the oldest and most beautiful princess—but then she was the rebellious one who ran off to marry an American.

I was starving for color, but when I found the vibrant shades I loved, my Thai female friends would smile and murmur “So bright,” leaving me with the feeling that I was a walking neon billboard. Although there was no longer a scheduled color for every day of the week, colors had an etiquette all their own and the older a woman became, the less she called attention to herself with the hues of her wardrobe.

I loved Bangkok’s Indian section, where fabric stores were filled with joyous riots of color for saris and the tunic and trouser outfits of the salwar kameez. Pinks and parrot greens, bright orange and crimson and turquoise and blazing yellows, glorious and gaudy and unrestrained, the textiles found in that part of the city observed no rules and I wandered through it more often than I ever did any of Bangkok’s art galleries. There was an anarchy in those colors that fed my spirit, as much as they nourished my eyesight.

The neighborhoods that I went to when I left my own were old ones. I walked and stared at decrepit wooden buildings with graceful Palladian windows that had been built by Chinese immigrants, at the brilliant white British grandeur of the house that became the city’s English library, at the road sandwiched between the fiery glow of a temple and a park’s cool greenery where men stood in the backs of trucks and tossed off big paper-wrapped bunches of roses as though they were handling bundles of cordwood.

I began to appreciate Thai food for what it was, an unconstrained art form; there were at least four places in my neighborhood that served chicken rice, and each one had their own sauce with its own flavors. Another place gave the customary condiment of chile and fish sauce a salsa-like quality by filling the sauce with fine slivers of ginger along with the incendiary specks of red and green. Every corner had a noodle soup place and the broth in each spot had its own distinctive taste.

Everything that grew in Thailand ended up in someone’s mouth. Mrs. Nupa put the small midnight blue blossoms of the butterfly pea into omelets because they looked so pretty; other people turned them into a bottled juice that was a deep navy-blue and had a fresh almost medicinal taste that cut through thirst on a hot day better than an ice-cold beer. A woman on my street handed me a leaf she had plucked from a nearby bush; when I put it in my mouth, I was surprised by a strong taste of zingy citrus. Even in the city, women squatted by roadsides, picking greenery that they would use in a meal later.

On the outskirts of Bangkok, I saw men hurl fishing nets into neighborhood waterways and once when I was walking along the banks of a city canal, a man’s grinning face emerged from the dark water, holding a large, squirming fish in his bare hands. The same sort of fish hit the street in my neighborhood at dinnertime, grilled in a thick crust of rock salt and stuffed with herbs.

There was an abandon to cooking and eating that was absent in much of daily life in Bangkok, an artistic license that belonged to everyone no matter much or how little they made. A common sight that had become a photographic cliché was the neighborhood street stall with customers who pulled up to it in their Mercedes. Bangkok’s world of food was creative, irreverent and democratic; it was no wonder that it was a city of passionate eaters who took to the streets every day.

And it was no surprise that when the revolution poured into central Bangkok, it was fueled by chili-laden papaya salad and grilled pork dipped into liquid fire. After all, the people in the country had already conquered the capital with their food. Now the relatives of the women who served som tam and larb moo and gai yang every day to middle class Bangkokians arrived in force to shove something less palatable down the city’s throat—the truth that their votes were not to be disposed of.

Friday, November 4, 2011

The Scent of a Lime

Two days ago I was given a fresh, brilliantly green kaffir lime by one of the owners of my favorite neighborhood spot, Thai Curry Simple. I rubbed it between the palms of my hands for a few seconds, raised it to my nostrils, smelled the bright, clear, sharp scent that this fruit is known for and for a second I was back in the market at Huay Kwang, buying a bag of these so their fragrance would fill my room.

It's losing its color and its smell but still when I hold it close to my nose, I'm back in Bangkok. Then I close my eyes and I see the river that Viphawadee Rangsit Road has turned into during the past two weeks. I think of people whom I care about who have had to leave their homes without knowing what will be waiting for them when they go back. I see boats where cars and buses used to be.

I take a deep sniff at the fading odor of my lime and I'm on Chokchai Ruammit. I open my eyes and begin to think of how I could go back there for a week or so, the way I would long to visit a friend in the hospital, with no illusions of making a difference, because I need to, not because I'm needed.

I've always known scent is the most powerful drug there is. A man and a woman come together because of the odor of pheromones. Without the sense of smell, all that we would be able to taste would be dust in our mouths. And a fragrance can wipe away time and space, placing a person firmly in a memory for a moment.

Lime stings my nostrils, leaves its perfume on my fingers , and calls me back to a city that will always, forever, be my other home. "Come, see my new rivers, tell my new stories, I'm waiting. You've never seen me this way before."

My apartment lies near a flight path, my daily routines are punctuated by the sound of jets, and at night I look out my window at moving stars. I raise my empty hands and I smell the city I have known. I think of floods and swamps and the offerings that people make each November, little boats made of flowers and incense and candles placed carefully in rivers and canals.

Loy Krathong comes in five more days; this year Bangkok will be covered with lighted prayers, moving through the water, swept along with pieces of houses, garbage, dead animals. Only a crazy person would choose to be there if she didn't have to be; only a crazy person would continue to sniff at a lime whose scent is beginning to hold faint traces of rot. And, crazy with longing, I watch the planes soar past my window and wonder if one of them may have a seat for me.

Thursday, November 3, 2011

A Tale of Two Airports

For years when I came to Bangkok, I had arrived at an airport where I could smell Thailand as soon as I got off the plane, that steamy, musty odor that I loved, that carried hints of garlic and chili from whatever meal the cleaning staff had just finished eating. Long, dark hallways led to a big open space with currency exchanges and limousine services, and just beyond that the city began.

I always loved that first couple of minutes when I went outside and was slapped by a giant envelope of warm, moist air and the noise and color of buses and taxis and motorcycles and the immediate knowledge that I had come home. At the front of the airport was my road, Viphawadee Rangsit, shooting arrow-straight to my neighborhood. Across that road were food stalls that looked as though they catered to the Seven Horsemen of the Apocalypse and cooked meals that were fragrant and succulent and satisfying, with a never-ending supply of cold beer. After dark, neighborhood dogs came to sleep near the airport’s entrances, lulled by the blasts of air conditioning that escaped into the night as travelers came and went.

For decades politicians had talked about moving the airport from Don Muang to a spot that was known as Cobra Swamp. Don Muang was too small, they said, it was an island stranded in an ocean of traffic jams, and most damning of all, it wasn’t beautiful. Taipei, Hong Kong, Singapore, Kuala Lumpur all had sleek architectural confections studded with shops and restaurants for air travelers; Don Muang had ashtrays in the arrival area and sleeping dogs as sentries.

A year or so before Suwannaphum, The Golden City, emerged in Cobra Swamp, my friend Rodney missed a freeway exit and for many minutes we sped down an elevated expressway that was curving and new and almost completely empty. “It goes to the new airport,” he told me and I began to mourn the loss of Don Muang from that moment on.

Suwannaphum could be anywhere in the world. A mammoth shopping mall housed in soaring glass and steel that leaks in heavy rainstorms, it boasts miles of duty-free shops that sell the usual liquor and kitsch and nicotine, a long series of moving walkways where a robot voice issues incomprehensible warnings in maddening repetition, and food that’s franchised in airports from Hoboken to Harare. The only thing that ever feels at all Thai in that place are the brightly colored plastic buckets that sprout up during monsoon season, strategically placed to catch the rainfall that drips through cracks in the very beautiful roof.

At Don Muang there had been a footbridge that led across the highway to a hotel with a comfortable, shabby lobby. At Suwannaphum in the bowels of the building there are airport trains that whisk travelers to the Skytrain stations in the heart of Bangkok. With a little luck and good management, it’s quite possible to fly into Thailand’s capital, go to a downtown hotel, spend a weekend there shopping and dining and luxuriating in spas, and then fly away without ever breathing the air of the city for more than a few minutes.

Suwannaphum had the ability to make me miss Bangkok before I even cleared customs.

On the way to my hotel, longing for a place to collapse before I began my apartment search, I stared numbly at miles and miles of concrete buildings planted in flat empty spaces. As the city skyline came into view, the cabdriver gathered his courage and his English vocabulary and spoke.

“Madam,” he glanced back at my bedraggled body clothed in what in another universe I’d chosen as an appropriate travel outfit, austere yet definitive black and crisp white. “Are you a Sister?”

I shook my head in silent exhaustion and misery, wondering what clothing in Bangkok I would find that would fit me while proclaiming to the world at large that I was neither a missionary nor a cloistered nun.

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Knowing Home

One of my first memories of home is watching it burn to the ground. Everything after that seemed temporary. Even the big, two and a half storey house that my father built, a place that caught the wind and rocked like a ship when there were storms, its precisely placed windows framing a range of dormant volcanoes and a thin grey ribbon of saltwater—that was always more of a retreat than a home. I can’t remember ever living in it for more than a year at a time.

Alaska was still the Last Frontier and the life of my family reflected that. We moved to wherever my father found work and set up camp in temporary housing. The place on the hill often stood empty, waiting for us, while we made ourselves at home in places we knew we would leave.

My parents had carried the seeds of their immigrant forbears with them when they came to Alaska. Their dream was to make a home in one spot that would house generations; they had claimed enough land for a whole village of their tribe. But while they talked about home, I talked about leaving it.

Everyone carries lessons from their childhood; what I carry with me like a scar is that I can quickly feel at home almost anywhere but home is a word I’ve never learned to understand.

For most of my life, my home has been the body that carries me through the world, blood and bones, muscles and neurons. The romantic fantasies of my adolescence that I pinned to the walls of my room were a narrow, curving Parisian street, the spired domes of Montmartre, and Che Guevara. I stared at these images and wondered where in the world my home might be.

Then in mid-life, I knew I had found it. Bangkok was my place. It puzzled me, infuriated me, delighted me, and engaged me as no other place had before. Its damp heat settled around me like a blanket; its multi-toned language with its sinuous and enigmatic alphabet awoke a primal curiosity I’d left behind in childhood. Here was a place I could live in forever, asking what and why.

So when I was sixty, I packed two suitcases and came home, to a place I knew I’d remain for the rest of my life.

By the time I moved to Bangkok, I believed I knew it rather well. I’d been rigorously schooled in Thai behavior codes, I had a rudimentary, badly pronounced vocabulary, I had a neighborhood I had spent years in during my earlier forays into the city, I’d written a slender little book as a thank you note to the city. I knew I had much more to learn; what I didn’t know was how much I would have to relearn.

I had left Bangkok in 2001; I came back to stay in 2008. The world as we knew it in the past century had tilted viciously in the new millennium; what we were all about to learn was our planet was in the process of turning upside down. Nobody, anywhere, in spite or because of Homeland Security, would know the safety and protection of being home ever again. All over the globe, people were redefining what home is, as opposed to what they had been taught that it was.

Before I unpacked my suitcases, still locked in jetlag, I turned on the television in my hotel room and heard the measured tones of a BBC announcer proclaim that the United States had economically collapsed. At four in the morning, I listened to a panel of Englishmen calmly discuss which nation would be the next leader of the world and I began to hyperventilate. I’d lived in Thailand when the baht fell and the economic repercussions had businessmen leaping from high-rise windows in Tokyo. Switching off the television, I stared into the darkness, feeling molecules whirl about me with no fixed place to rest.