Saturday, September 8, 2012

Seventeen Years Later

Almost twenty years ago, I fell in love with a city. Bangkok in 2012 is wildly different from the way it was in 1985--but under its newly sophisticated gloss, some things remain the same. It's true that its small children no longer scream at the sight of a foreign face, and coffee is more in the mode of Starbucks than the caffeine-in-a-baggie that I used to carry around by its rubber-band handle, but there are still things that persist that I've always loved and still do.

1) Motorcycle taxi drivers-- Those intrepid entrepreneurs who have never let me down--they know where to go and how to get there. When in doubt, I look for the guys in the vests--and sometimes when I need a lift to my spirits rather than a lift to a destination, I turn to them. There's little that can't be cured by a motorcycle ride down a busy highway.

2) River boat whistles--A language of its own--stop, back up, go--imagine a jet plane where the co-pilot communicates with the pilot though a little tin whistle. On dry land, whistles are disappearing--no longer does every security guard use one at the sight of a vehicle. On the river, that piercing call is still a common language.

3) Little buses that resemble tin cans and think they are motorcycles--When I first came to Bangkok, the only thing my boss told me NOT to do was ride the little green buses. When I finally did, I was usually the only foreigner on board. Now they're orange.

4) Fruit sellers in pickup trucks with megaphones--The first time I heard this weird, disembodied call on a quiet soi, it woke me from a sound sleep and I was sure it meant a revolution was at hand. They still wake me but at least now I can understand the names they call.

5) The sting of chili and garlic fried in a wok--It isn't as pervasive as it used to be. It's hot, hard work--my favorite wok chef retired to run a business where she sits at a desk under airconditoning with her Alaskan husky by her side. I can't blame her but I wish that the art she practiced wasn't so hard to find in 21st century Bangkok.

6) Cute, cheap shoes--Everybody told me Thai shoes would be too small for me and that was sad because they were everywhere and they were fantastic. They still are--and somewhere along the line I courted instant humiliation, asked to try on a pair and to my great joy, they fit! They teach the nature of impermanence, since they last for fifteen minutes, but it's easy to practice non-attachment when replacements are so easy--and so much fun--to find.

7) Wet markets--Food and flowers and frivolity all in one place--I've furnished entire households from these sprawling collections of fresh fish and crockery and polyester sheets and alarm clocks and Buddha amulets. Hot and crowded and completely irresistible, despite Tesco Lotus and Carrefour, the markets prevail.

8) Fresh fruit carts--The best invention the world has ever known--pineapple, green mango, papaya, cantaloupe, watermelon, sliced and handed over in a plastic bag with a skewer and some chili powder and sugar as a garnish. I can't eat fruit anywhere else--nothing tastes like Thai fruit anywhere.

9) Isaan food--Instant picnic no matter where it's eaten. And no. You can't get it in the states--not even a ghost of the grilled chicken and catfish laab and green papaya salad or grilled fish with mango that is on every streetcorner in Bangkok.

10) 7/11--Where else can you buy minutes on your mobile phone, a bottle of Stoli or Johnny Walker, a jar of instant coffee, and a bucket of essentials to take to a monastery as an offering?

In October, there will be a whole new cluster of places to explore in Bangkok that have sprouted up over the past year, but this list is a large reason why I'm going back. My love affair with Bangkok is anchored by these things.


Packing is very different for me than it was at this time four years ago. Then it involved winnowing possessions to fit in two suitcases; now it's a matter of choice that is temporary. Somehow that's much more difficult for me to do. I've practiced the art of leaving so often but the art of a journey that brings me back to my starting place is one I've not yer perfected.

I don't even know the word for what I'm doing in a week, It's not really a vacation because my work is in the computer I'm carrying with me and I'll keep slogging away at the rewrite that is my job. It's not really a work trip because I'm going to spend the bulk of my time with friends and reacquainting myself with Kowloon and Bangkok. It's a sojourn, but who uses that word anymore? It's a reunion, more than anything else, and that's strange to me because I usually avoid that sort of thing. The closest I've ever come to that was at family weddings in the small town where I grew up, and that was sheer hell. Huge gulps of my past in a massive wave--this will be more like sips of cold water on a very hot day.

I've made lists of things to take, things to do, and people I'll see, only for the pleasure of thinking about all of this. Except for the itinerary given by air tickets, I have no set schedule and with a few exceptions, I don't know what I'm going to do--the joy of traveling alone is that I can be completely spontaneous. I love to be able to turn on a dime.

Yesterday I read Vaddey Ratner's stunning novel In the Shadow of the Banyan, which brought Cambodia so close that I could feel its red dust on my skin. And then I was lost in memories of Savannakhet and I knew the first thing I need to do in Hong Kong is have more pages put in my passport--just in case.

Water dominates the places I'm going to spend time in--Hong Kong's harbor, Bangkok's river, a beach that no tourists go to, unless they're invited--and then that area that is shaped by the memory of water--the dry ocean floor and the marine sky of northeastern Thailand that stretches into Cambodia and Laos, Isaan country, a waterless inland sea. I have snapshots of this place but to remember it, I have to let myself feel it in my skin--salted with sweat from climbing up Preah Vihear, scalded by sun so hot I could feel it hit the ground and bounce back into my skin, hit by the wind that comes to the pillion seat of a motorcycle.

Yes, this part of the world has gotten under my skin and I'm going to put more of it there. That's why I'm going and I don't know one word for that--but there are many of them and I hope to find a few to bring back with me.

Sunday, September 2, 2012

Stuck in the Middle, Moving On

I'm twenty-something years older than my sons and twenty-something years younger than my mother. Like most women of my generation, I haven't ever found my mother a helpful trailblazer. I never wanted her life and I spent a lot of time inventing my own, a process that is becoming more difficult with time.

I still enjoy, in theory, what my sons like to do. I love hearing live music, the louder the better. I'm comfortable anywhere that will serve me a cold beer on tap. I like baseball, although I don't cheer the hometeam since they used up Ichiro Suzuki, and I'm fond of a good action movie. In practice? I go to bed earlier than I ever dreamed of doing ten years ago, I hate shivering on a bleacher in a stadium, and beer makes me fatter than I think is healthy. And movies? I hate paying a small fortune to see something I know I've seen before, often.

It's hard for me to admit that I'm getting old but every day of my life reminds me that I'm wearing out. Not my heart or my eyes or (thank goodness) my liver but things I never expected would dwindle--my nerve endings.

I first noticed it in New York, five years ago. That's a city that always caught me up in its energy and buoyed me through its streets. It exhilarated me so that I barely needed coffee--but not this last time. I didn't soar through Manhattan; I slogged along its streets and wondered why it had changed. Slowly I realized the alteration was in me.

Once I was tuned so tightly that I could pick up and run with any sensory impression that passed me by--sunlight on water, wind sweeping through high grass, a fluster of snowflakes. Beauty charged me with energy; the excitement of the world was more than I could hold.

It's much too easy to contain myself now. The messages that I receive are from my muscles; my nerves have become blunt. Without those sharpened messengers rushing excitement to every one of my cells, now the ache of my back, the heaviness of my legs, and worst of all, the feeling that I've seen it all before dominates the way I look at the world.

I do my best to fight this. I travel when I can. I write. I take every opportunity given to me to see friends. I read a lot.

But the fact is when I talk to my mother, I see where I'm going. I am going to lose more and more of my physical being over the next twenty years. I think of Marguerite Duras with her wrinkles and her short skirt and her smile, of Martha Gellhorn with her cigarette and her scotch and her salon full of "boys," of Dorothy Parker in a hotel room, always poor with uncashed checks stuffed in a drawer--and I realize what kept those women going, in their own ways, was work. And I cling to that, hoping it will stay with me, even as everything else succumbs to deterioration

Saturday, September 1, 2012

Bare Ruined Choirs--Not Yet

"This time of year thou mayst in me behold
Bare ruined choirs where once the sweet birds sang."

Not yet...this time of year the tree outside my window casts hard shadows on the brick wall of my building and the leaves are a deep, warm, translucent green in the late summer sun. I love watching this just before the light falls away, which happens earlier now.

When I come back from Thailand in late October, then there will be those bare, ruined choirs--at least until the branches are softened by snow. But I'm too happy with today's light to think about that now.

Earlier today I was drawn out of my apartment by firecrackers, drums, and gongs. There were lions and dragons parading down the street and people waved plastic Taiwan flags. When I came back toward my place after a quick grocery grab, I was stopped by some of the best lion dancers I've seen in this country--and a dragon dance that was mesmerizing in a very small space. I don't know where this troupe was from--their shirts weren't in English and when they were finished, they packed everything into two tour buses.

"Where are you going?" I asked one of the dancers who replied in strongly accented English, "San Francisco." "Don't go away," I pleaded and he smiled. Of course there is nothing online explaining anything about this, although it was performed for many prosperous-looking gentlemen in suits--and the amount of firecrackers that heralded and concluded this event wouldn't have disgraced a war zone.

But that's, as Jack Nicholson taught us all to say, Chinatown. In this city, there's no other spot where I want to live, with its sun-warmed brick and its private celebrations.