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.

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