7 June 2005 - Day 2
I think it's the smells that remind me - the way everything smells. Not that all the smells are bad (though of course lots of them are - it's durian season!), but everything seems to smell more. Makes you realise how sanitised everything at home must be to have lost so much of its smell. And of course the heat, I remember that, but my body is learning all over again what it means to be sticky wet all the time. The way you crave a shower about 3 minutes after the last one, and how the clean clothes you just put on feel like someone slept in them for a week. Oh, did I mention the noise? Motorcycles and cars and construction bouncing off hard surfaces for 20 odd hours a day. Suits Amy and I with our loud voices, but you need subtitles on the TV to understand what's being said…Thank god we were so tired on our first night or I fear we may never have managed to sleep in the din.
Though I have been to this country, this city, many times there are so many things that are different about this trip. I sound like a real old fart (or pretentious Asia hand) when I say Chiang Mai has changed, but it really has. The cars and highways, the high-rises and proliferation of international brands and technology just aren't in my memory of this place. Perhaps it is my rose coloured glasses, or the reality of the pace of change here, but the world outside my window seems much more oppressive than it was last time I was here. Everything is faster, louder, more complicated, dirtier in that polluted and scary sort of way. There are lots of great big shopping malls with supermarkets which sell too much of everything, and while the availability of some things is most welcome (cheese! milk! almost decent bread!) the choice just seems to make things harder. Like the bridge between home and here is just that much closer to completion that the whole mess of expectations has changed…
But I dance around the real change, which is travelling with my child. Where in a different time I devoted my energy to observing, negotiating and engaging in the local world, now I am full-time mediator for someone else whose needs and wants are neither predictable nor rational. Never expect a 2 year old to respect local customs, to mean what they say or say what they mean, or be nice to the new landlord just because you think they should ('I no like P'Niwat!'). My food loving daughter has gone on a hunger strike, she 'no like' everything (from milk to chicken sandwiches), and insists she's not hot and wants all her clothes and socks on all the time. How do you negotiate with a stressed out kid who can't process change of this magnitude, and who threatens vomit (and often produces) at the drop of a hat? Bizarrely the trip to the supermarket saw her almost her own self, but by the trip home even she was showing the stress of the familiar turned strange ('sick coming mummy') till she passed out in the back of the car and had to be carried in through the office downstairs.
It really divides me that her needs are so great, immediate and omnipresent, but so in conflict with my modest attempts at cultural sensitivity. Thais do not yell or even get emphatic (except on game shows), they do not hide their faces and say things like 'I no like you' or 'I don't want to' or 'you go away!'. And I know that when I push her to fit in better, she really doesn't get it, and she doesn't get why I am changing the rules on her. And besides with her gag reflex on overdrive I know that I push her at my own peril. It's one thing to be embarrassed by bad behaviour; it's another to be cleaning up spew. And when every stranger on the street wants to touch and kiss her (so cute! so white!) how can I blame her for feeling like her world has been invaded?
So now I have the luxury of sitting here and mulling it over (thank god for afternoon sleeps, long may they reign). And I have to remind myself to be grateful, and that it's only day 2 of this great adventure and I shouldn't expect us all to be settled. One day soon I'll look back and this will be a dim memory - yeah, those first few days were hard, but so worth it! Soon I'll have a handle on all the weird stuff that's so hard to understand right now and it'll be back to all the same old stuff - what are we going to have for dinner, time to do the washing, has Amy had a balanced diet today, will I ever get my thesis done…
11 June 2005 - Day 6
Of course, of course, everything is looking more manageable now. We're learning our way around, made our first friend in the local market and found a fantastic guesthouse a stone's throw away to encourage visitors from home. I've got the technology sorted out to connect me to the world and we've started the complex journey into getting Amy into kinder. Sure there will be more on that in future posts! I've even discovered where the geckos live in the apartment, and it's very comforting to know they're here. What's a Thai house without geckos afterall?
Amy's temper tantrums remain a challenge for us, there is still so much she can't process or express, but her good moments are getting better and more frequent (might have something to do with the new DVD player and multiple pooh movies we've just bought). She has her appetite back which says a lot, and the vile hacking cough she's been carrying for nearly two weeks seems to be abating. Nose still runs like a tap but there you are. Of course she has passed the thing to me (I really thought I was going to escape this one) and I'm crossing my fingers it passes quickly. Very hard to manage domestics when unwell, but in this environment it seems insurmountable.
17 June 2005 - Day 12
It's 3 pm and outside my window the afternoon storm has rolled in, the wind whips up and the rain pours down. Hopefully it will temporarily put an end to the incessant noise of heavy machinery as they resurface the road outside our house. Even the traffic thins out a little when the rain is at its heaviest. Not that it makes much difference; the noise of the rain is as loud as everything else. I turn the music up on my computer to its loudest setting and I can't hear a note!
Really should be working, but 20 minutes of reading Ulrich Beck's 'Risk Society' and I'm nodding off in the afternoon heat. I try to get as much done as I can while Amy sleeps in the afternoons, but it's also the time when I'd like to be sleeping too - or at least doing something more in keeping with the my energy levels. Instead I'm trying to work out how to relate the crumbling of the industrial age with the modern work and family policy dilemma.
Had the archetypal Asian experience this morning trying to post a parcel for my niece's birthday in Australia. Sent from shop to shop looking for a postbag, no one speaking English, finally discover they are sold at the post office. Always suspect the obvious. By the time I've posted the thing it's almost lunchtime and I can't believe I've lost the whole morning. While Dave had Amy at the Zoo with my in-laws I expected to achieve a lot more. Ah, grasshopper this is something to meditate on.
In the time it has taken me to write this (maybe 10 minutes) the road has gone from dry to submerged half way up the parked motorcycles tyres - maybe 30cm. It's no wonder that everything grows like crazy here and all the buildings age at 10 times the rate they do at home. Now the rain is slowing down and the sun will probably be out at its hottest in another half an hour.
18 June 2005 - Day 13
Got caught in the messy complexity of class relations and non-linguistic relationships last night. Amy made a major breakthrough in her burgeoning friendship with Nut (pronounced Nert), the 8-year-old daughter of the Thai maid who lives off our kitchen. Things are already confusing for an Australian - Nut and her Mother, Suthep, live off our kitchen (in one tiny room), but Suthep actually works at our landlord's home out in the suburbs during the day. Nut sleeps out at the big house on weekends with her dad who also works for the family.
From my perspective this makes our co-habitation somewhat delicate, for while Suthep is not OUR maid, the class hierarchy dictates that we are not equal either. Add to this that once a week she cleans our house (as an extension of her work for the landlord) and every night she cleans the office downstairs. The kitchen is a kind of halfway space between the office downstairs and the residence upstairs, and between our space and Suthep's, so I'm kind of responsible for mess, but so is she.
In this context, Amy is dead keen to have a friend, but a bit wary of both the complete lack of common language (neither Nut nor Suthep speak a word of English) and the obviously unusual relationship between the two families. We've been buttering Nut up with little gifts of icy poles and visits upstairs to watch our DVD, but until now Amy has been too shy to do much except stare and hide.
So last night Amy hovered on the edge of Nut's room for a while before plucking up the courage to go inside and next thing you know she's glued. Hysterical laughter. Dave and I left for dead. 3 hours later when Amy won't come back upstairs to have dinner with us and Dave's folks I go down to find her sitting on the floor of the kitchen eating dinner with them! In no uncertain terms she tells me I'm not needed. Glorious!
But about 15 minutes later I hear bloodcurdling screams and go down to find Amy absolutely hysterical and crying at Suthep - "NO PET! NO PET!" (pet means chilli hot). In a most un-Thai fashion she has totally invaded Suthep's personal space and is really in her face, Suthep is talking to her very quickly in Thai which neither Amy nor I can understand. Suthep and I try to get her to drink, have an icy pole, fruit, but she won't touch anything she just keeps screaming.
I can't quite work out what's happened - Suthep fed Amy some chilli? Amy took some chilli by accident? - but it seems to me that Amy is more angry than in pain, and clearly feels that Suthep is to blame - perhaps the problem isn't chilli afterall? So I'm trying to not make Suthep feel bad since I don't think she's been malicious, but it's very hard without words, and Nut is looking very sheepish, though Amy doesn't seem the least bit angry at her. She doesn't stop the wracking sobs for 20 minutes.
So while I'm pretty sure that Suthep won't be going near Amy with a chilli in a looong time, it's just one of the subtleties of relationships (let alone the cross culture thing) that Amy isn't old enough to negotiate, and without more Thai I'm not much better. Does Suthep think she has a bit of a pseudo nanny role and is trying to change Amy's behaviour? How intrusive is it to let Amy overrun their tiny little space when we have all this upstairs (though Nut doesn't like to be up here, I'm guessing because it makes her nervous to be in the employer's home)? How can they tell Amy to leave when they need to get on with other things (like dinner, homework and just being together)? When is giving Nut icy poles etc considered inappropriate? Do we make things harder for them if we create an expectation of equality that their lives can't deliver? What happens when we leave in 6 months time and they go back to life as usual?
21 June 2005 - Day 16
On Monday I wanted to write about how wonderful life over here is. Amy settled instantly into her new kinder and came home grinning from ear to ear. I had just finished a really fabulous meal (and so cheap!!), bought some really stunning fabric to make clothes (so cheap!!) and came home just as the rain started to pour. And I was thinking of the thousand other little things that make daily life so nice - the fresh flowers that cost 30 cents a bunch, the tropical fruits you buy already cut up and ready to eat, the eating out every night, the laundry service…and then I wake up Tuesday morning with killer stomach cramps and the worst diarrhoea ever and spent the whole day in bed feeling like hell. So it's kind of hard to get back to all the good stuff I was thinking I'd write when the world is swimming and I've gone to the toilet approximately a thousand times in 24 hours and haven't even ventured as far as the kitchen.
But lying in bed drifting between sleep and waking I was thinking about how hard it is to apply some of the concepts about life I have been reading about for my thesis over here. One of the ideas I've been really attached to is this one about how the 'market' has grown and overtaken so much of what used to be 'domestic'. You know, when we were kids pretty much all our domestic 'labour' (cooking, cleaning, laundry, gardening etc) was done by the family, unless you were really rich. Statistically most mums didn't have jobs outside the home, so they did all the other stuff and as kids got older they took on more responsibility for doing their own jobs. Now, when most mums work, and increasingly in full-time jobs, much more is 'bought' to save time - childcare, pre-prepared food and eating out, cleaners, appliances etc.
Most social researchers point to this as a bad and relatively recent development. It raises the cost of living, and reinforces the need to work more outside the home, children no longer grow up knowing how to do things for themselves, they become more materialistic, see less of their parents… there's a whole raft of criticisms. But over here things operate very differently. For a start the 'outsourcing' of domestic work such as cooking is not reserved for the rich (pretty much everyone buys everything already cooked - including little packets of rice to reheat in the microwave), and is not a recent development about the growth of the market. It seems to be more about specialisation of labour and the high cost of infrastructure - why would everyone build an expensive kitchen when one person can do it and do all the cooking? Similarly a washing machine is beyond the means of most workers, so they pay to use the machine of someone else. It is those wealthy enough to afford the infrastructure and domestic staff that become self-sufficient in the sense of eating home cooked meals and having their own laundry. The chain of employment seems to be much more complex and involved, not the typical money flows down, labour flows up model we have at home.
So why does it operate so differently here? I mean, it's all changing, and definitely becoming much more like oz with supermarkets full of prepared foods and so on. But it would be fantastic if at home we could go to the local market and buy a fresh home made curry and rice, a salad, a fresh juice and plate of fruit, some cooked vegies, and a bunch of flowers all at a price that was affordable to everyone. With a bit of chat on the side and smiles all round. Leaves lean cuisine or microwave pasta for dead! So perhaps the problem is less about taking the labour out of the home, and more about what the 'market' has to offer us in Australia - both as buyers and producers who expect the full range of exciting opportunities for upward mobility. Hmmm.
Anyway, enough ruminating. Off to try and get some work done, wading through my scary theory books.
23 June 2005 - Day 18
To market to market to buy, buy, buy, buy…
There's something about the intensity of the Asian market experience that I find both exciting and overwhelming. The way you come across things you've never seen before (fried grasshoppers and dried lychees), or things that are sort of familiar but different too (peaches shaped like rain drops and translucent dried apple), or things that at home would be luxuries and here are too cheap for words (a 30 piece hand-made china doll's tea set for $1, or a hand-painted tea pot with ceramic teas strainer for $2).
But for me this weird thing happens, I start wanting it all and end up wanting nothing. In the beginning everything is so wonderful, but then the choice starts to overtake you. Especially when most things are hand-made you find yourself noticing that this one is a slightly darker shade than that one, or on that one the shape is slightly rounder than this one. How do you choose between such infinite variations? And in the quandary of the decision I find myself saying actually, maybe I don't really want any of it, maybe it's all just too much. Perhaps I'll just get the teapot as my birthday gift from Dave's folks (because every house needs a teapot!).
So I spent the morning with my mother-(not)-in-law in Warorot market, which has the most amazing array or preserved and dried foods I've seen in a while and is also a kind of textile/craft centre. I went thinking she would have a whale of a time (she did), since it's bargain central and she loves textiles, and I would pick up something to take as a gift on Saturday when our landlords are hosting us for dinner at their house. I was also keen to poke around the craft shops in search of something more climatically and culturally appropriate to replace my Steiner doll-making hobby while we're here. And that's the other weird thing, if I go to the market with a mission, I almost always fail - I came home with a teapot, some fabric I don't need and a stunning array of dried fruits (this last for Amy's benefit), but neither of the things I'd started out wanting!
So we dropped Amy off at kinder in the pouring rain, and by the time we got back to the market we were pretty much wet through. The market was already pretty busy just after 9, but being foreigners in a mostly local market we received more than our share of attention. First stop was the clothing section where Dawn eyed off the 'hilltribe' collection (heavy cotton, embroidery, various adornments) before settling on a couple of pairs of pants, and a sarong for Ron from Burma. (It's both a disappointment and a saviour that my size cuts all this stuff out of my field of vision!) Then we visited the ceramics, where almost more than we could carry set Dawn back a bit over $5, and went through the food area (toffees, biscuits, dried fruits all into our over laden bags).
Next we returned to the fabric shop David and I visited on Monday (me and my fabric - it's a sickness!). I'd thought about getting something to match the electric blue fabric I'd bought, but the fabric shop is like a microcosm of the market experience, so overstuffed with infinite choice that I half expected at any moment to start bleeding from the ears. And as though the thousands of rolls of fabric crammed into the shop were not enough to dizzy the mind, a thousand more options were on offer through various sample cards on the grand wazzoo's desk - simply make your pick and some shop boy does a runner to a nearby warehouse and returns with your piece. Only in my case after waiting what seemed like ever, the buy returns empty handed and so I choose something else and wait another eternity and now that I'm home I'm not so sure I should have persisted.
By the time we made it to the craft shops we were both whacked and it was nearly time to collect Amy. Interestingly I almost had to strip to get someone to even acknowledge my presence - I'm guessing they don't have to deal with too many farangs (foreigners) in there, and the negotiations are complex without shared language - since all the beads, bells, buttons, threads etc come in enormous bundles and are broken down and priced for each transaction. Nonetheless, my eyes were popping out of my head with all the possibilities and I tell myself that next time I'll start at that end. But what am I talking about; I'm not sure there will be a next time! Because although I got away lightly on the purse (the whole morning cost me somewhere in the vicinity of $10, most of which was the dried fruit), these things suck time and energy out of the rest of my life (read thesis I should be doing), and somehow leave me feeling dirty and tired. Because sometimes the only way to beat the consumer demon is just to stay home…then again, I'd have never seen those fried grasshoppers…
24 June 2005 - Day 19
And now a word about garlic
It doesn't matter where you are in our house or what time of day it is, you can smell garlic frying. Not just the occasional whiff as a prelude to the other tasty ingredients being added to the wok, not one of a range of cooking smells that make your mouth water and wonder what the neighbours are having for dinner tonight. The smell is so strong and so omnipresent that we speculate we may in fact live next door to a garlic-frying factory. Strangely, I haven't seen garlic (fried) for sale in the market so perhaps it's some clandestine affair.
My tolerance for the smell is somewhat greater than Dave's. Perhaps my love of food is carrying me through, or perhaps it really is much worse in his study than mine. Perhaps I just compare it (unfavourably) with the traffic fumes that waft in my windows and compete with the garlic for what can burn out my nose hairs more effectively. I think I'd take the garlic and the quiet over the traffic smell and noise, maybe the grass just seems greener.
Amy has finished her first week of kinder and remains firmly attached to her new school bag (the most garish pink plastic backpack you ever saw) and her new teacher, Frankie. She impressed both Dave and the architects who work in the office downstairs by making her first 'model' today out of sticky tape and toilet rolls and old boxes. Already witnessing discussions about a future in construction.
Dave and I are breaking out of the parental role (and the garlic compound) to have dinner tonight while Dave's folks mind Amy. They get to watch our DVD while we sit by the river and eat at leisure. A happy trade both ways I think!
26 June 2005 - Day 21
A day in the country
What a fantastic day! Dave hired a car for the weekend and we drove up to the hills for some quiet and greenery. Wow. Lots of stops along the way, but was completely blown away by the elephant camp. I was cynical at first (the tourist buses went for miles) but my absolute delight and amazement were only exceeded by Amy's - she jumped and squealed through the first act. Watching a dozen or so of these mighty creatures take turns to dance, play soccer, roll logs and so on was wonderful - I swear you can see them laugh when they do something particularly impressive or amusing and get a round of applause. Watching one pretend to limber up before taking a shot at goal had us laughing like idiots.
But when they trotted out with their easels and paintboxes my cynicism was truly laid to rest. These guys can paint! They produce pictures of recognisable flowers, with multiple colours and shapes, slowly and with great concentration. I was gobsmacked. When the show finishes the elephants come to the rails in front of the audience and are rewarded with bananas and sugarcane, which they reach over and take from your hand. Being in the front row (well actually as we arrived late we were in front of the front row on a step!), we were reached past by the massive trunks sniffing out and grabbing their prizes from the those sitting behind us. It was such a treat to be able to actually mingle - one even used his trunk to reach up and take his rider's hat, put it onto mine head and then pat me before returning it to its owner. You just can't believe how intelligent and full of personality they are.
I would have been content to leave it there, but we went on to Queen Sirikit's Botanical gardens even higher in the hills. A nice drive through the gardens topped by strolls through the most impressive greenhouses I've ever seen - each one devoted to a different kind of ecosystem - Thai natives, arid cacti and succulents, aquatic plants, ferns etc. But the biggest of them all was a tropic rainforest complete with waterfall and canopy top walking ramp. Looking down on banana flowers growing is not a common experience! I could have spent hours more there just looking at all the amazing plant forms.
And somehow being in our own car, free to choose where to go and when to stop, made the experience so different. It was much more like being at home than a 'tourist' - despite the tourist trail we were on. Like it would have been something to do on a Sunday, even if we lived here all our lives. It makes me wonder how much Amy's presence influences what we choose to do and the way I see things through new eyes. In all the times I've been to Thailand before I've never contemplated going to see elephants or the bot gardens, and we've never hired a car…then again, maybe we're just getting older, richer and lazier…
27 June 2005 - Day 22
Thinking about economics 2 - or the down side of community
In my previous post extolling the virtues of the communal life I neglected to mention a few things. In focusing on the benefits I get (outsourcing my domestic labour without guilt and all the warm human interaction I get) I narrowed the frame a little too much, and allowed myself to haze over both the ethical conundrums that come from binding people to lives of servitude and the problematic reality of rubbing up against people at close quarters all the time.
The first of these is largely an intellectual argument (since those who have managed to 'free' themselves from the bind seem to be the ones most vocal on the topic), about values. I reflect when I leave the market that it is almost impossible for me to suspend my consciousness that I am 'better off' than the people who provide the goods and services I buy. Whether they see it the same way is a moot point, at some level I am always aware that participation in the market is about trying to off load to someone else the things I don't want to deal with. Doing everyone's laundry every day may indeed be a step up from working the fields, but I wouldn't want to be doing it. And unlike at home, I don't kid myself that this economy offers all the opportunities for upward mobility we've come to see as a birthright. (This raises a whole other set of questions about expectations and how happiness or otherwise is tied to them, but I'll leave that for another time).
And this rubbing up against it thing is a big one. Would the incident with Suthep, Amy and the chilli have happened in a world where community wasn't strong enough that she felt it was OK to feed someone else's child whatever she saw fit without consulting a parent? In another life I might be outraged by her presumption, or the strangers at the market who feel entitled to pick up Amy against her will or pinch her pretty white arms. But here, it's just part of the deal. For the comfort of interdependency you also have to put up with the discomfort of what feels (to our thoroughly Western eyes) like imposition.
Suthep tells me (there's a lot you can say without English but a good mastery of hand signals) that I shouldn't drink Coke because it makes you fat. And she's right of course, obviously, and yet at home to say such a thing would be considered rude, meddling, being disrespectful of our right to make choices. But interdependency gives people rights over the lives of others, since your fates are now intertwined. What John Howard would like to call mutual obligation (even though there's nothing mutual in his framework of obligations). It gives us the right to pass judgement, take action even, where others are not doing what we perceive as right.
I spent some time thinking about this when I read a survey of new mothers who talked about why they felt so overwhelmed with responsibility for caring for their infants and yet didn't pass more of it on. Basically they said they didn't think it was worth it. To ask a mum, sister, aunt (husband?) or whoever for help, was to take on the other's right to have a say (not to mention actions) in the raising of the child. You had to deal with their views and judgements, their expectations and baggage. You had to negotiate at just the time in your life when you were struggling to remember your own name. For so many of the women in the study the high price of being autonomous was without question what they were willing to pay. Of course, they wished it was different, they wished they could ask for help no strings attached, but there wasn't a lot of naivety about what asking for help meant.
I know I'm being simplistic but we're happy to make statements about how sad it is in this market driven world to see people becoming increasingly isolated and alienated from each other. About the loss of social capital that comes with the empty streets and the sprawling suburbia, the expensive and expansive homes overflowing with stuff. But there are few of us still willing to enter into the social contract of mutual obligation at anything like the level required for the functioning of the tight knit community. We don't want to put up with someone else's barking dog or cooking smells day in and day out, be told how to look after our children or care for the neighbourhood disadvantaged, have to loan and borrow the things we need. Where we take on these responsibilities we are aware of them as burdens, we tend to minimise them through all sorts of guises and expect thanks for our 'good works'.
29 June 2005 - Day 24
It's not just a holiday
Feeling the walls closing in, or rather the computers and textbooks, over my slow pace with work. Counting out the days and the words I need to write, something has to give. So Dave and I have finally established a routine around who is minding Amy which makes space for a much longer working day - and some of that clarity I love so much over what is my job and what is not. So I got stuck into writing yesterday after weeks of reading books and this morning I'm up at 6.30, writing this while Dave does the morning routine with Amy and takes her to school. My part kicks in this afternoon after sleep and I take her till dinnertime. So far so good.
But it is an uphill battle to see the trip as a continuation of everyday life in another location. There are just too many exciting things to do and places to go, and a lot of nostalgia for the backpacker years. Simple things like keeping track of what day of the week it is, or not going to the market for a poke around everyday seem all too hard. It reignites that yearning to travel and explore that's been in the cupboard since the maternity clothes and mortgage papers came into my life. Like I've been on the twelve-step program (1. get a job that pays well and promises a future, 2. buy a house, 3. have a baby, 4. fight for a childcare place.) but now I'VE LAPSED and the addiction is starting to take hold…now all I have to do is work out how to pay for the next fix…
30 June 2005 - Day 25
It feels very weird, but I've just written a personal ad for Amy. Not of the single white female looking for love kind, but the single white child looking for other playmates. Is that the same thing? Is it just me or is it weird to post a sign in public asking to meet people? But gee, how else does a girl meet other kids? (It's hard to meet other parents too when they drop their kids off at kinder without even getting out of the car…)
After a great night out with friends visiting from Singapore, Dave and I reflected what a difference we saw in Amy when she was playing with other Aussie kids - from shy, withdrawn and clingy to confident, independent, happy. Why is this? I mean isn't a kid a kid a kid? Goodness knows back home most of what kids do doesn't even involve language, and they don't discriminate by race as far as I can see. So why is it that Amy just can't seem to break the ice at kinder and develop friendships with kids she sees everyday, but is firm and fast with two complete strangers who just happen to have been born in the same country as her (even though they have spent more of their lives living in Asia)?
Perhaps she's tuned into being the minority, the one blond in a room full of black haired children, perhaps it's less about white and Asian than it is about the clear distinction between me and all the rest. Or perhaps those very first cognitive skills babies learn - how to recognise faces and voices and belonging - come to the fore when you're in a strange land.
Whatever it is, it's set us on a mission to find some other white kids for her to be with. Hence the ad. We're sticking it up on the notice board at the expat resource centre and hoping some other parent with a bored kid sees it and gives us a call. And from my perspective I'm hoping those parents aren't missionaries or corporate trophy wives. Really hoping. But we have no idea who walks through the door at this place, and I'm guessing my chances of finding myself sliding into a community of mum's and kids like the fantastic group I have at home are frighteningly small.
2 July 2005 - Day 27
Climb every mountain
At 7am the sun was already blinding in a cloudless sky. The fourth day in a row of no rain and climbing temperatures. I just burned a CD and when I took it out it was almost too hot to touch. If you touch the walls of our concrete apartment it's like touching the front of an oven (nice for Dave to have his thesis about building materials confirmed - concrete bad, wood good). While the rains don't have quite the impact of a Melbourne cool change, they do seem to bring things down a few degrees and make the heat a bit more pleasant. Needless to say I'm hoping the sky opens soon.
Listening to the music of A Cappella Seven - a Thai pop band featuring our landlord's son. Weird to think we're tenuously connect to an actual celebrity and not even taking advantage of it…the music's not bad either, and the VCD Karaoke is pretty entertaining with funky visuals that would fare OK back home. Opal (as he's known) studied music at Monash Uni while his dad was doing his PhD at RMIT a few years back - I wonder what his classmates would think of his success…
Went to Doi Suthep temple this morning and by complete fluke managed to catch the annual pilgrimage walk of the freshers from Chiang Mai Uni. The students group by faculty, with their own distinctive outfits, and walk in a steady procession the full 13km to the top of the mountain. Once there they pose for faculty photos on the temple steps before climbing the last gruelling 300 steps to the top where they make their religious devotions.
The truly beautiful sights of Doi Suthep were almost overshadowed by the enormity of the crowd and the momentous feat of climbing the mountain. More than a few of them were carried away on stretchers, and as we started back down the hill for lunch there were some groups still on the ascent. It was astonishing too to see crowds of literally hundreds of uni students sit stock still for minutes on end as the photographer took shots.
All we could say was it would never happen in Australia for a whole stack of reasons:
· it would be a small minority prepared to anything much for religion, let alone agreeing on one religion everyone could support,
· hardly anyone would agree to wear a faculty outfit,
· most of the freshers would be pissed and unable to walk before the climb even started,
· half of those remaining would have disappeared off into the bushes during the climb - either sleeping, getting stoned or just hiding out,
· getting a couple of hundred exhausted students to pose for a photo would be like herding cats
· those that passed out from the heat would have made allegations of bullying and harassment to undertake feats beyond human endurance and sued the uni,
· the whole thing happened on a Saturday morning - and the only freshers up on a Saturday morning are the ones throwing up from the night before.
Luckily (with the aid of our trusty song tao) we made it to the top before the crowds got too thick and had a lovely walk around the temple, Amy rang all the bells (and there's a few), made her devotions and even genuflected to a couple of Buddha images. When I waited in line and shook the temple fortune sticks, Amy cried to miss out. The very kind Thai woman following me allowed Amy to butt in line and have a go (much assisted by me) where she drew #19 - "your life is full of prosperity, however you should respect and worship beneficial persons such as the triple gems, revered monks and YOUR PARENTS, your goodness will enable you to have good luck and happiness as soon as possible" [my emphasis]. Very wise advice Dave and I concluded, and Amy is very much in need of it, though I'm guessing not going to heed it.
Mine was a little more mundane #23 - "Getting this number is indicatory of good destiny, infinite prosperity will attend you. A merchant is the best occupation for you. Asking about illness and lover, they are going better. But legal case is maybe losing." Please don't see this as an invitation to sue me. Not sure what to make of the merchant thing. I'm guessing working in a call centre doesn't qualify me as a merchant, but then again in a postindustrial economy maybe it does…
4 July 2005 - Day 29
Road works, Thai style
We are truly blessed. Not only do we live on one of those roads where the traffic is quiet for approximately 2 hours in each 24 - between 3am and 5am just before the Wat bells toll - but in the 4 weeks we've been here there have been continuous road works right outside our front door.
It started almost immediately upon our arrival (were they waiting for us do you think?). First they brought in the trucks to rip up the gutters, made lots of dust and noise and made pedestrian activity impossible for as far as you can walk up the road. Then they came and removed the debris. Things seemed quiet for a bit after that and we got used to walking on the road with the traffic. Lots of shoulder rides for Amy. Next they came and laid new gutters and finally they have started on new footpaths (over the top of the old ones).
But there are some interesting aspects to the way this job has progressed. For a start the road crews are not entirely made up of men - whether this can be considered a positive gender equalisation is another question. The crews also seem to have a number of quite young members, while I hesitate to call them kids they are certainly younger than you'd ever see in Australia.
In some ways the crews work very efficiently, with minimal equipment and infrastructure (wheelbarrows, sticks, the occasional trowel), through rain and beating sun, seven days a week to cover a significant amount of road in four weeks. In other ways there seems a lot of waste and excess of physical labour, and tremendous inconvenience for the general population (like doing both sides of the street in gradual steps, rather than completing the job section by section so there's somewhere to walk).
But the thing you really notice is the hazy boundaries of the job. Aside from a general quality issue - the laid concrete is rough and uneven etc - there is a real microcosm view about each bit of the job. For example, where the gutter is broken to go up a soi (laneway) or into a property (what in Australia you'd call a crossover), here the gutters just end, without being curved around the opening. This means when the guys come to do the footpaths, they just pour the concrete and leave a messy edge where the footpath breaks off. Similarly where the footpath meets the properties (which are mostly shops near us) there are all these differences in levels and surface materials - new footpath, old footpath, tiling. As you can see from the roadwork photos at right, this is obviously not the first bite at this cherry.
In this process the street level gradually rises. For most of the shops in our strip this isn’t a big problem - given monsoonal rain and the like they are built up one step anyway - but there are areas where this isn't the case. Suddenly houses and shops find themselves lower than the footpaths and subject to periodic flooding. And don't be thinking some guy from council will come out and compensate, or some irate Thai will give the road workers a serve. The boundary of responsibility is porous. In the round and round of life these things are borne, stuff ups made and costs attributed by logic that defies a stranger's observations.
Today is the first day in a while the roadworks are silent (does this mean it's finished??) and we were counting our blessings until the poo truck arrived. In a town without sewage you have to know that something has to be done about those septic tanks. Well today was the day. In the laneway beside the house (the one both Dave and I have windows and hence clear olfactory paths to) idles a truck that sucks out the contents of the septic tank. So we were treated to a couple of hours of the delightful smell of human waste topped off with diesel fumes at close range, as well as the chug chug of the motor and pump. What a way to celebrate four weeks in Chiang Mai!!
And it still hasn't rained and it's absolutely unbelievably hot.
5 July 2005 - Day 30
Thai health system
Well it was inevitable, and all I can say is I'm thankful it was for me and not Amy that we made our first visit to hospital. It sounds dramatic, but in reality going to the hospital is pretty much the same as going to the GP at home - with the advantage of on site pathology (more on that in a minute) You might as well stop reading now if you don't like to hear about the pointy end of gastro intestinal health or lack thereof...
So the nasty gut ache and shocking squirty bum I had a few weeks ago has recurred, and in the tropics a non-food related recurrent gut problem often means a parasite. With the help of good friend and Asia hand Ang (who not only knows about these things but has personally met and mingled with every parasite known to Asia) I am convinced it's time to see the doctor. So off I go to have blood taken and to poo in a jar - the former with a very large needle, the latter sadly unproduced under pressure. The doctor seems nice, in a non-shared language kind of way, for the thirty seconds we are in the same room. He tells me not to worry and to come back in a week (WITH POO IN JAR).
All up the experience takes a little over an hour, which is amazingly efficient given the huge volume of people moving through the hospital system, the number of people I had to wait in line to see (registration on arrival, triage nurse for blood pressure and temp, doctor, cashier ($18 for the whole experience), pathology, doctor again, cashier again, nurse again) and the nearly 15 minutes I spent trying in vain to do more poo. After the last three days of nothing but it's something of an irony to be trying and failing to poo, but then again not surprising given there's been nothing going into the system and everything coming out!
If I have the suspected parasite, I have no idea where I got it, it's one of those bad luck of the draw things. We may all have shared the same bowl of food and I was unlucky enough to get the centimetre of infected vegetable garnish, or the drop of infected water on the edge of the not quite dried glass. The shame of it is that too much of this leads you to become paranoid and cautious about food, which is deadly here. Partly because you lose the flexibility to participate in local life, partly because you end up eating nothing but food fried in hot oil. Some of my best food memories of past trips involve spicy salads, raw food garnishes and food eaten from markets, and I have never gotten sick before.
So how do you balance the preventative, the excluding all risk, with the participative, taking calculated risks knowing there's a lot of random elements in the mix? If I was at home in the winter getting coughs and colds (but free to drink water from the tap) would my health be better off? At home in winter I accept you can't avoid germs via exclusion, and it means you just get the bugs that go around. But here it's all so much less familiar it would be easy to become a germophobe and see every meal as crawling with potential illness. It's easy to understand why Buddhists practice mediations about the body falling away and physical suffering; the knowledge of its inevitability is inescapable.
So life doesn’t stop - I still need to keep writing, and occupy Amy (Dave has to get work done too) and try to keep in perspective that although I feel like I'm dying, this too will pass. And if it doesn't at least I know the way to the hospital…
7 July 2005 - Day 32
The rhythm of life
Despite illnesses and such we seem to have settled into a workable routine. We made the decision at the end of last week to lengthen Amy's kinder day to try and lengthen our workday and it's worked a treat for us all.
So our day starts sometime around 6.30 (some days as late as 7, some days as early as 6). Dave and I take turns on morning shift, which includes getting up, having breakfast - a yoghurt and yakult is the standard, but sometimes we get a bowl of corn flakes or half a piece of toast in as well - and going through the torture of a morning bath. Don't ask me why but since being here Amy has gone from a nighttime bath to a morning shower to a morning bath and seems less than happy about any of them. In particular she screams blue murder when you try and wash her face or hair. It seems perverse that just when Dave and I want 20 showers a day, she has developed a pathological fear of bathing. After bath we chase her around for about 15 minutes trying to get her clothes on before it's time to leave for school.
With her school back pack on, armed with a post sleep change of clothes (why change clothes after sleep? I don't know!) and morning and afternoon drinks, we set off to find a song tao. This entails standing out the front and hailing a passing one, saying in my very poor Thai "Bai Thanon Faham Ka" which means literally "Go Faham road please". If this is met with a blank look, I say it again with varying inflections in my voice - Thai being a tonal language a slight variation in tone can lead me to be saying something entirely different. We then haggle over price - 30baht on a good day, 40 on a bad day (that's either $1 or $1.30) and get in the back.
Song Taos are really utes with bench seats down each side in the back tray and a fibreglass shell over the whole vehicle which provides shelter for passengers from the sun and rain (you can see the back of a yellow one in the road works picture to the right). They act as a kind of de facto bus system but without set routes. You flag one down and the driver decides whether or not your destination is in line with where he wants to go. He may already have other passengers, or stop and pick up more on the way, so you may not get to where you are going in the shortest possible way (sometimes you go MILES out of your way). Like all forms of transport they are busiest at peak times on main routes - no surprise there.
But on our morning trip we usually catch one in a minute or two (the upside of all the traffic on our street) and we are often the sole passengers. The trip takes about 10 minutes direct, and up to 20 if we are going on a round about. We get dropped off in the street and the traffic cop (yes, the school has it's own traffic cop who stops traffic so parents can get their cars in and off the school grounds) stops traffic for us to cross and walk in. I'm sure this amuses the teachers no end - every other kid gets dropped off by a parent or maid who drives in and doesn't even get out of the car! The teachers wait by the door and help the kids out of the car, take their shoes off and see them inside. I am not only the only parent who comes by song tao, I'm also the only one who goes inside or who speaks to the teachers.
Luckily Amy is beginning to warm to both the other kids and the Thai teachers, and no longer spends all her time stuck like glue to the white teacher. She stays at school during the morning session, lunch, 'sleep' (of course Amy doesn't sleep) and afternoon play then my in-laws pick her up at 2.30 or so. Dave and I take a break from working when she gets home at 3 or so while she has a snack and drink before bed, where she sleeps till 5.30 or even 6. We have another work session and then take turns on afternoon (well, evening really) amusement session before we head out to dinner for 7 or 7.30. We catch song taos or tuk tuks home, stop at the 7-11 to get tomorrow's yakults and yoghurts and socialise with more of Amy's adoring fans. We get home and get Amy to bed anywhere from 8.30 to 9.30 (more often later than earlier!!) before Dave and I catch some alpha rays on DVD (no English language TV here without expensive cable) and go to bed too.
As Dave was saying last night, he used to think parents who kept their kids out so late at night were irresponsible and yet here we are doing exactly that. In truth, I think Amy is not as relaxed in the evenings as she was when she was up at 3.30 and had an afternoon activity before dinner, but in other ways it seems like a worthwhile compromise. For a start she is much better integrated into school life. She eats lunch with the other kids (she used to eat nothing at school lunch and then come home expecting cheese and biscuits), she is learning their names and even lets one of the Thai teachers put her hair in pigtails each day (she won't let me near her with a brush let alone an elastic band!). It also means she's asleep during the hot afternoon and up and about in the cooler evenings. And of course, it gives Dave and I something approaching a regular working day which allows us to have some leisure time on the weekends rather than a seven day working week.
And there's other stuff too - visits to the market (2 mins walk) to get fruit and various other stuff, visits to the shopping malls (10 plus mins by song tao) to go to supermarkets for the imported luxuries like butter, crackers, cheese, cereal, and for Amy to have a go on the bouncy castle and a relatively safe run around in the air con. We go to the laundry (5 mins walk) a couple of times week, the bottle shop (2 mins walk) to pick up beer, coke and tonic water by the slab, the bank for cash (2 mins walk). And although we've only managed it twice, we intend to take advantage of weekly in home massages - at $5 for an hour, how could you not?! Dave and I tend to run more complicated errands on the way home from school drop off, although with most shops opening at 10 or later in the morning sometimes this doesn't work as well as you'd like. Until I got sick I was swimming my laps on the way home (at the girl guides centre of all places).
We are also making something of a hobby of temperature readings at our place and comparing them with the guesthouse where Dave's folks are staying. As part of his thesis research Dave has two devices that take periodic temperature and humidity readings, which you then download to the computer and make graphs. The upshot being it is significantly hotter at our place (max 35° at 5pm), particularly at night (minimum of 28° compared to 26°), and it is at the minimum for less time (7-8am vs 4-8am). Again, nice for Dave to see the hard numbers confirming his thesis that it is dumb to build in concrete. We upset the readings one day by turning on our one air conditioner (which we almost never use) and found that even with that going full tilt, it only reduced the temp to 29.5°. Will be interested to look at the current set, which is taking readings over 4 days, including this extremely hot and dry spell we're having. Will try and work out how to post graphs like pictures for the measurement freaks like me who might be interested J.
10 July 2005 - Day 35
How does your garden grow
Before we came here I had harboured visions of planting or tending a tropical garden. We had initially intended to rent a house with land - a kind of traditional family home with garden for Amy to run a round in and so on. When Dave came to look for a house though he found that the only houses that fitted the bill were miles out of the centre of town, very new and often quite palatial. It could have been fun to play suburban couple, but it meant getting a car and driving everywhere. Of course there are fabulous houses in the city, with gardens, but none seemed to be for rent. So we fluked our fabulous apartment and counted ourselves lucky.
The apartment has two patios, one on the same level as the kitchen and Dave's office, and the other upstairs off our bedroom. The downstairs one is small but surrounded by a high wall and filled with a small jungle of overgrown plants, so it's relatively cool and pleasant. It also has an outdoor sink, in a throw back to when the kitchen was heavily used and the dishes were washed separately (as seems to be the custom here), so it has a bit of a work area feel rather than a place to relax.
The upstairs patio is really quite large and has quite an interesting view of the various neighbours, back of the market and even the remains of an old stupa. Unfortunately it also faces South West (the equivalent of North West in the Southern hemisphere), so it's as hot as Hades (perhaps hotter…) and blindingly bright when the sun is out. Not surprisingly, we don't spend a lot of time out there, and my plans of a tropic garden were shelved when we arrived.
But I have been inspired by the vegetable garden at Amy's school that has literally sprung up before our eyes. In Amy's first week they were tilling and planting, now the beans are taller than me and the rest of the greens need to be cut back with a machete. Similarly, the grass in the school playground was patchy at best in Amy's first week and with the monsoon rains, there was a fair bit of mud play. Now the place is wall-to-wall lush green. You just can't believe it.
So today with the help of Haydn and his ute we made a trek out to the flower market, which is actually a complex of open-air nursery stalls selling the most fabulous array of plants you have ever seen. We completely failed to get any vegies (the initial aim), but did buy quite a few other delights. For the princely sum of $32 we bought 2 hibiscus, 3 Canna lilies, 4 lotuses, 1 vine with yellow flowers and a large Malilan (not a Maliwan, but another relative in the jasmine family), plus terracotta pots, potting mix, watering can and terracotta frog.
So I got home and in the stinking heat potted everything up (plants here come almost exclusively in plastic bags rather than pots) and now we have the beginnings of a garden retreat. I have to keep reminding myself that we only have 5 months to go (and three flights of stairs to lug everything up) or I'd be down there going SICK. The range and quality of the plants is extraordinary, and some of the trained trees (what Dave calls Dr Seuss trees) are truly magnificent. They'd be literally thousands of dollars per specimen IF you could get them in Australia. I really want to go back for another visit, though I don't know if I'd be able to restrain myself, there were an awful lot of wonderful bromeliads…
And now there's outdoor seating to think about…
14 July 2005 - Day 39
A whole lot of Thai
Just spent a fabulous day at Yui's home style cooking school. What a fantastic day! Hardly know where to start - the family, the place, the food…'A Lot of Thai' was recommended to me by my friend Haydn, a fellow Farang (foreigner) living over here well known back in Melbourne for his culinary expertise and good taste. A very good start. I had been looking forward to getting there since he sent me the brochure back in Melbourne sometime last January! A few days ago it clicked with Dave that their legendary 1973 combi could be seen suspiciously frequently at Amy's school. Turns out their little boy Sid also goes there. Spooky coincidence!
After a few false starts Dave's dad and I managed to book in for today and dutifully waited out the front for husband Kwan to pick us up in the combi. Yui, the instructor, recognises me from school, so we do the whole mummy thing which feels kind of nice. Next it transpires that Kwan went to school with Opal, the landlord's pop star son! And her degree from Chiang Mai Uni is in public administration, pretty much like the Masters I am doing now. It absolutely amazes me how small Chiang Mai is, and even more that we are actually integrated into the community enough for these connections to come up.
Yui informs us the government is spraying for mozzies this morning so we will do a visit to the market (scheduled for the break half way through cooking) first. We stop at a local market on the way out of central town and Yui takes us through everything (how I wish I could commit it all to memory!) from vegetables, to the 16 different kinds of rice, to the precooked curries and various quality fishsauces and chili jams. By the end I've learned so much it feels like the class should be over!
We drive out to their place which is in what the Thais would call a village (as opposed to a suburb which is a new estate) but not what we might think of as a village, which is something that you go through countryside to get to. So we go down the winding lanes off lanes till we come to a home with a front courtyard full of plants in pots, and a covered veranda down the side with cooking stations. Yui cooks a dish and then we imitate: Pad Thai, Tom Yum Goong, Green curry chicken, Chicken with cashew nuts, spring rolls and sticky rice with mango. After each dish we sit and eat, taste each other's for comparison and chat with the other two students - two girls from Korea who have never cooked before and are astonished when they produce each great tasting dish.
And the food is great! Really easy to prepare (of course our ingredients are already purchased, washed etc and the dishes are all washed up for you), and it tastes just like what you get in every joint around town. And a great environment to cook in - outdoors, surrounded by jungles of trees and creepers. And it isn't even blistering hot. I ask a million questions about the recipes, other recipes, ingredients, substitutions back home and on and on and Yui responds with quite a few about Amy and school and then we get onto sewing and craft and art and and and…
It occurs to me that in a lot of ways we have slipped through a cultural barrier - I mean, yes I am a paying student, and it's her job to make me feel that way, but it's more than that. Despite the obvious differences about how we look and where we live I feel I have as much in common with her as I do with many friends back home. It doesn't surprise me at all when she mentions her friend runs my most favourite jewellery shop (for those of you in the know think of egetal or Ingot) when I tell her I am thinking of taking one of their workshops. How non culturally specific is our love of interesting fabrics (and our feelings of guilt when we buy more than we can use!), our love of making things for our kids, our search for things hand made and interesting, our disdain for the conventional Thai approach to schooling, our love of of making and eating good food, of wanting to make a living doing something that makes us feel good in our souls and makes us feel connected to other people.
So I recommended my favourite new craft site to her (loobylu.com) and even sent her some pictures of a few of the Steiner dolls and animals I've made for Amy and I hope somehow we find a way to stay in touch. And I hope I manage to remember how to cook everything so I can make a really impressive dinner party when I get home…
Wing bean salad:
- Wing beans
- Shrimp (boiled and/or dried - dried ground if using with boiled)
- Grated fresh coconut, toasted until fluffy (be careful not to burn)
- Chilli jam (Nam Prik Pao) 1-2 tbsp [blue lid - oil 20%, dried shrimp 15% dried chilli 10% onion 10% garlic 10% tamarind 10% sugar 10% salt 10% shrimp paste 5%]
- Sliced shallot
- Fresh chilli sliced or crushed
- Ground roasted peanuts
- Sauce - equal fish sauce and lime juice with a little sugar
Now while I've been writing this it has been raining. And when I say rain, I mean a whole lot of rain. Amy and Dave went to pick up the laundry and next thing I know the skies have opened and the street is completely under water. I'm watching it out the window as I write, thinking gee, it seems really heavy today and I'm wondering to myself if I should get out the video camera and how long will it be before Dave and Amy can brave the weather and get home. But then I get up to go to the living room and I stop dead in my tracks when I realise about a quarter of the room is underwater. Water is pouring out of the ceiling and down the walls. I don't even have a mop!
So I broom as much of the water as I can out the door and on to the balcony, strategically place our two buckets and go downstairs in search of Art or Om (the oldest and youngest sons of the landlords - Art being an architect and I think manager of the firm downstairs and Om being a kind of general mr fix it and boy Friday). They are both out. But the 'boys' are there (the architect underlings Amy calls neung, song sarm and see, meaning one two three and four. We don't know their names and no one seems interested in changing the situation despite the fact that we transit their office every time we leave or enter the house. But I had a moment of bonding with them this morning when I sprung them watching porn on the internet in office time! Very red faces).
With my miniscule Thai and their slightly more than minuscule English I get them to come upstairs to see the damage. They go make phone calls and come back to tell me someone will come tomorrow to fix it. They also get me a squeegee thing and a mop and then go downstairs to realise the water has flowed down through our floor to Art's office, then through his floor to their office. Waterworld. So we all stand downstairs watching the water dripping on the floor and the street steadily disappearing and the other shop owners virtually sandbagging. It kind of feels like survivors of a ship wreck or something. Anyway, tomorrow I might even ask them what their names are and really freak them out!
Amy and Dave get home about an hour later, having sheltered in the laundry where Amy has sucked down a (icy) pole or two. Dave also reported with great delight that as the water came down and filled the drains there was a mass exodus of cockroaches into the street! Since the efforts of the kids to kick them back in the water proved pretty futile, bamboos poles where put into service and with great whacks that produced, according to Dave, very satisfying popping sounds. Nice, and I'm sorry I missed it. Aren't you? Gee the joys of monsoon!
15 July 2005 - Day 40
We had to actually cook dinner last night for the first time because the water was so high there was quite literally no way out. Very plain spaghetti with tomato sauce, shared by Suthep and Nut who were similarly stranded. Of course Suthep poured chilli and bean shoots all over it as it was so plain, and tasted the cheese but barely contained her gag reflex.
It rained all night and everything is damp this morning, though the street has remerged. Turns out it really was an exceptional amount of rain. Lots of work for roofers this morning! The storms have also taken out my email server (though not the internet thankfully), and I'm feeling very isolated. So the emails I had to send to everyone are waiting in my outbox till I'm back in service.
Dave and I are off for a mini holiday to a hotel in town while Dave's folks have Amy tonight. It will be our last chance for some one to one face time (as Kath Day-Night would say) before Dawn and Ron go back to Oz on Sunday. Quite exciting really. We can pretend we're tourists with no kid and only ourselves on our minds…or lie in bed and watch telly (telly!!) and get room service J
17 July 2005 - Day 42
On our own
Dave and I enjoyed our night off at the Imperial Mae Ping - a bit of a dive in many ways, but a great pool and breakfast buffet. We also lucked out with a room on the 15th (top) floor, with windows that opened (and may in fact have dropped out completely they were so dodgy). Amazing view. Dave watched red neck car and motorbike modification shows all night on the Discovery channel (in one they turned a 4 wheel drive Suburban into a mobile heavy metal wedding chapel…what can I say) while I ploughed through the first third of the Nanny Diaries and had no less than three hot showers (just because I could).
The dinner out was great - outrageously extravagant at the new Chedi hotel. (If I die and go to heaven it will look just like the Chedi Chiang Mai…of particular interest to the architects in the audience). While the food was overpriced, the buildings, furniture etc were truly gorgeous and we had a dessert sampler plate that featured two really nice and interesting things. First was an apple puree with just a hint of young ginger (I think I have seen young ginger once or twice in Melbourne, not at all like the dry old ginger you commonly see), and the second something they called a chocolate fondant. This was served warm (straight from the oven) and had a sort of crispy cakey outside with a runny inside. Never had anything like it and it was amazing. Needless to say they promoted on the menu that they had a visiting pastry cook from somewhere fabulous.
But today we trekked out to the airport to see off Dave's folks after nearly five weeks visiting. It's only been 6 weeks since we arrived here, so we've spent nearly the whole time here with them and it feels really strange to go back to being just us. A bit like starting over.
So we stopped on the way home from the airport and did some shopping, a somewhat bizarre turn of events for us. Thought of my mum's group friends when I spied a Tupperware stall in the shopping centre, especially Maria who has a pantry to die for and a lot of bills from Tupperware. Familiar and yet strange too, for a moment I thought I was back at knifepoint dodging the hard sell from Josie our favourite Tupperware rep, but one glimpse of the giant rice and water storers (with handy measuring dispenser), wok stirrers and rice spoons (in a pack of three) put me firmly back in Asia. Have to confess I did pick up a catalogue.
Dave bought some shoes! The first pair of something other than Rossie work boots he's bought in about 10 years (and they were Doc Martens!). He also bought undies another rare occurrence. Amy got a new outfit, including at least 100% polyester socks (there are NO kids socks here. Those that do exist have obviously been heavily scrutinised by the Thai fashion police (suppression of natural fibres division), eh Ang), and hair clips. We also got a DVD (legit one for a change) of the Edukators, which was just making it into cinemas before we left - very exciting.
I was thrilled to bits to procure some vegetable seeds - tomato, snake beans, choi sum (Amy's choice - why???), sweet basil and something else that has no English so I have to grow and find out. Couldn't pass up the challenge. Plan on planting them this afternoon. Then as we leave the store I find an actual sweet basil plant for sale! I almost pass out on the way home as I rip up leaf after leaf and inhale deeply…Next mission will be to get the balsamic for a tomato and basil salad. Drool.
Amy had her customary turn on the bouncy castle and some game where you throw balls at a hoop and she was so happy she almost flew home. I bought a Japanese craft magazine - can't understand a word but hoping I can make sense of the patterns. There may be some dollies resulting from this if the tailor understood Dave's desperate attempts to say "please keep the scraps after you make my new linen pants".
Amy is now collapsed in bed after a busy morning and a late night after her dry run birthday last night. Dave's folks gave her a divine little hill tribe outfit which she wore all night and charmed the pants off everyone, even doing a reasonable imitation of Thai dancing (where does she learnt his stuff?). There was a birthday cake and too much food and big emotional farewells from the guest house staff (it isn't often they get someone who stays for five weeks). The only thing missing was the Pimms classic (Pimms, lime juice, orange juice and ginger ale YUM) I had the night before at the Chedi hotel.
19 July 2005 - Day 44
This time it's been Dave's turn to succumb to the tummy demons, and although he's made it out of bed this morning and is hard at work he has been down for the count for the last day. Dodgy fish.
So Amy and I have been doing girl time together, indulging Amy's current obsession for crazy hairstyles. I think it started at school, where all the little girls aside from Amy have long luscious locks groomed to within an inch of their lives. So she started coming home with pigtails and garish hair clips and soon enough was demanding a new hairstyle each morning and another after nap.
I also spent quite a lot of time with her at school yesterday. I dropped her off in the morning and had a long chat to her English teacher, Frankie. Dave's sister kindly sent over a book on Steiner education, which prompted us into talking about educational philosophy. This seems to be a big topic amongst friends at home too as Amy's friends are heading towards kinder.
But I was flabergastered when the teacher told me Amy didn't yet have a confirmed place for next term (which begins in 4 weeks). I should have expected this for two reasons. Firstly when we first looked at the school, they were very evasive about getting in. In typically indirect fashion, they recommended we look at other schools before deciding, and made clear we would have to pay all the fees upfront and they would not be flexible. When they ultimately accepted her for summer school I assumed we either read the situation wrong, or we were lucky enough to just slide in.
The second reason was that Art from downstairs had asked me how we got Amy into kinder. His friends had told him it was very competitive to get in, long waiting lists and so on - and he had joked that when he and his wife Oar had children they would go to Kiddie Bear and say they were friends of Amy's! Ha ha ha. Another couple we met, whose child was turned down for a place this year, confirmed this story.
I guessed that it had something to do with the very low number (ie none) of white students in the class. Most of the kids in the international program have at least one non-Thai parent. In the previous year group (who we met when touring the school), there was a good mix between white, or mostly white, and Asian kids, but in Amy's group there just happened to be none, and very few native English speakers. So from the school's point of view this makes the bi-lingual teaching program much harder (not to mention their marketing to non-Asian parents).
So while we were not ideal candidates, given our short time in Thailand, we were lucky enough to be there when they were holding out for some white English speaking kids. Whew. But it turns out that term time (as distinct from summer school) is a different kettle of fish and if a better long term option comes in the door in the next few weeks they may well get Amy's place.
Needless to say when I went to pick Amy up in the afternoon I put in some quality time! I did a whole lot of Wai-ing (formal greeting with prayer hands and bowing) to the principle and getting the low-down from Frankie. If Amy doesn't get a place I can't imagine what we'd do. She just loves it there, it is far and away the best place for her, and Dave and I really need the time for work…anyway, I know Frankie and the Thai teachers Miss Nu and Miss Goy are completely on our side. Not just because they like Amy and think she's so cute (as they are always telling us), but because they can't believe how much she likes to help them. I'm optimistic. Really.
So much so that we detoured on our way home to go to the Kasem store - a luxury deli/grocery/bakery selling imported farang (foreigner) food and such delights as chocolate croissants and apple pie. I bought some fetta and Parmesan, and some corn chips and refried beans to beef up our eating at home potential. Ironically after we got home with the booty it was Thai food I was really craving so we went to the market and bought some sticky rice, coconut milk and mango to make Kao Niew Ma Muang, a heavenly dessert. Amy, Nut and I sat downstairs eating it while Nut struggled through her English homework. No idea if my cooking passed muster!
And last night we went to the local Italian for dinner because it's close by and it has heavy doors on all the exits so I didn't need to spend the entire night running after her to make sure she didn't fling herself in the path of an oncoming Tuk-tuk. Amy made friends with a Dutch couple through the plate glass (she may well have thought it was a mirror!) so we had a chat to them before heading home. It struck me all over again what a trophy Amy is over here. People (locals and tourists alike) who would otherwise not have bothered to even look my way are now desperate to engage, smiling and saying hello. If I go to the local market without Amy the only thing the stallholders are interested in talking about is where she is, what she's doing…so different to home!
21 July 2005 - Day 46
Been suffering the terrible indignity of a failing internet mail server. I know it sounds pathetic but I swear my blood pressure rises when my emails don't send. I know it isn't like the world stops because I can't reply to people in less than 24 hours, but it's the uncertainty of not knowing what's happening or when it will be fixed that gets to me. You are my link to sanity friends. I feel the need to obsessively log on and check if it's working yet, like a six year old on a road trip who wants to know if we're there yet.
And it's been particularly bad because today and tomorrow are public holidays for Buddhist Lent (or Buddha Day as everyone seems to translate it as), so Amy is at home and bored and I'm trying to sneak 5 minutes here and there while she's watching the Wiggles or pulling every item of clothing out of her cupboard…by 9am we had cabin fever so I took her to the park while Dave tried to get some work done. After a night of rain everything was hopelessly wet and there were no other kids there (because their mums were smart enough to know everything would be wet) and when the rain started up again I drastic action and we went to yet another shopping mall. Oh joy.
But as the only other Farang mother I've spoken to at length agrees, aside from the pool there is very little else to do with a small child when it's either baking hot or pouring with rain and there's just so much traffic everywhere. So today we discovered a whole new play centre full of all the kids who weren't at the park and lots of scary Japanese coin-in-the-slot type rides at the top of Central Department store (pronounced cen-traaaarl). Amy took her first ever carnival type ride (without mum!), which I gotta say from where I stood looked distinctly terrifying, and she laughed all the way. All our fears about future addictions to adrenaline are being confirmed. She'll be parasailing by ten, freebasing for her fifteenth birthday…So we got home with Amy so tired she fought going to sleep (isn't that the absolute irony, that when they are tiredest you can't get them to sleep??).
Now trying to focus on thesis work. Have been feeling very pleased with myself to have finished drafting my second chapter, the biggest and hardest. With more words than I need I now have to go back and cull and redraft chapters 1 and then 2 before submitting it to my supervisor at the end of next week. I'll get her comments back by mid August, leaving me two weeks to redraft again before I submit for my 'independent review'. This is to make sure I am not wildly off track or unlikely to be able to submit on time or completely mad or incompetent (or all the above). I think things should be OK. I hope things will be OK. Though you know, well, redrafting is not my strong suit and I'm beginning to feel a bit bored by the whole thing already…
After submitting I am taking a few weeks off to celebrate what feels like a mammoth effort. Dave, Amy and I are required to leave the country for visa reasons and my mum is coming to visit so we're meeting up with her in Phuket. We'll take a few days of lounging around while I come down from work and she gets into the Asia thing before we fly on to Siem Reap in Cambodia to finally see the jewel of Angkor Wat. So very excited!!! It's hard to say whether mum or Angkor is the real cause…I feel very fortunate that having a child has made me understand and appreciate my mum not just as 'my mum' but also as a woman who did such an amazing job of raising her kids and being an independent person in the world. You're the best mum! J
So the opportunity to show her around a part of the world I love and she isn't overly familiar with is something I am really looking forward to. When we return to Chiang Mai Dave will leave us in Bangkok to go off to his village for some fieldwork time, taking advantage of the opportunity for me to have some company while he is away. So I'm thinking of all the great things to do in the 10 days mum will be in Chiang Mai, another cooking class, visiting Doi Suthep, the zoo, the botanical gardens, the Sunday walking market… and all the great restaurants like the Whole Earth, the River View, the Good View and the Riverside (nice little trio eh?), Noi's kitchen, Jansom's… There's a lot to think about and nothing like travel plans to distract you from work!
Oh dear, I can hear Amy waking next door, and looking at the steady drizzle outside I think I'm going to have to pull something out of the hat to occupy her this afternoon. No shopping malls involved, please. Quick BE CREATIVE AND STIMULATING!
22 July 2005 - Day 47
Reaching for the sky
Planted on Monday, sprouted on Thursday, ten centimetres high on Friday. Was very excited to see the first little shoots late yesterday afternoon, but nearly fell over when I went out at the crack of dawn this morning to see the first of the beans halfway up my little measuring stick! How does that happen?! From photo 1 to photo 2 is something like 12 hours elapsed. I think if I sat outside and watched I might actually see it growing. The basil is shooting too, though too tiny to photograph yet. Maybe by this afternoon…
23 July 2005 - Day 48
Out in the forest
After two public holidays with nothing much to do, we branched out today and went to an unusual Wat (temple) out in the forest. Actually the Wat, which dates back to the fourteenth century is not far from town but in a very undeveloped little pocket so it felt like going bush. Aside from the plague proportions of mozzies (unbelievable), it was a really wonderful spot. Story goes that in 1380 the monastery built the still standing brick tunnels for a clairvoyant monk. Goodness only knows what that was about.
Anyway the compound includes the tunnels, a very impressive Chedi, a large assortment of very old and broken Buddha images including a field of headless ones with accompanying plastic basket of Buddha heads (see picture - too weird). And an allotment of trees with various sage sayings tacked to their trunks - stuff like "The pathway of lust leads only to death" and other cheery ditties.
Dave was also very taken with the library, which features no less than 4 architectural styles, and probably a few more we didn't notice because we were so dazzled. Guessing what was once a reasonable traditional Thai building has been enveloped in a standard modern Thai concrete horror, a dome added out front for who knows what reason and a Romanesque armless statue in the fish pond. What a delight. At least we have yet another example of Buddhism's inclusiveness…
Finished the experience with a stroll down the road to Pie Subai - the most glorious little bakery and stunning garden where Amy played on the swing while we chatted to owner Audrey. Led Dave and I to contemplating what our lives might be like if we lived out that way (pretty good I reckon), or what it might be like if we could find a way to live in Thailand for a longer stretch than this one…there was even a little space for discussing some of the messages from the trees about how we might focus on the higher things in life. Easy to do when you are scoffing BLTs, quiche and milkshakes with a homemade strawberry ice-cream chaser. Went completely overboard and bought 2 loaves of bread to take home and cheesecake for afternoon tea! So un-Buddhist of me.
Also hit a milestone last night (non-parents - boredom alert!) when at midnight I was woken by Amy saying she wanted to go to the hong nam (toilet). As thrilled as I wasn't to stumble out of bed, I was rapt to know she knows when she needs to get up. We gave away the nighttime nappies almost as soon as we got here for the compound reasons that dehydration has significantly reduced her output, the largest nappies here are too small and it's too bloody hot to sleep wrapped up in plastic. But I've always worried that a big drink before bed may result in a wet bed (especially fun when there's no spare sheets). Now I'm just marvelling at how she's grown up…
24 July 2005 - Day 49
Bring the forest to us!
So inspired by yesterday's visit to the greenery that we spent this morning back at the nursery going CRAZY. If you've been watching the seed progress photos you'll see that coming in to the seventh day, the tomatoes have sprouted now, and the first of our beans are over the top of the measuring sticks. So I've started contemplating climbing structures for the beans and the need to get the seedlings out on their own.
What started out as getting the pots to plant out our new veggie seedlings rapidly became a reforestation program. We went to a different market this time, much smaller and closer to home. Nothing like the range of the main one, which was probably a good thing given our total lack of restraint. Can't say I even know what most of the plants we bought are called in English.
Two large bushes, which we were assured would grow very quickly, have a lot of flowers that smell familiar to me, perhaps a type of Potostrum (sp?)? Amy says the flowers smell like honey. Another, also quite large, smells like honeysuckle, though the plant doesn't look anything like it, with clusters of flowers which look a little like our common jasmine only very elongated. I've put these three under our bedroom window where I am optimistic they will improve the odour of our nighttime slumbers.
Another plant has a flower reminiscent of a hydrangea, except here they come in yellows oranges and reds. We also bought a mature orchid. Given it's status as the national flower of Thailand our garden wouldn't be complete without one - although I have to say we took the coward's way out and bought the one the people at the nursery recommended as easy care.
We added in a (I think) bromeliad, a pink lily, a couple of small foliage plants, a couple more bags of potting mix, half a dozen terracotta pots (the original mission), some more flower and veggie (cucumber and lettuce) seeds, and another 4 red foliage plants the nursery folk gave us as a gift. All for less than $30. The garden, needless to say is somewhat increased!
Off now to do some pottering in my garden, plant some more seeds and when I've got it all looking fabulous I'll take some more pictures to post.
25 July 2005 - Day 50
From road works to renovations
Since my post three weeks ago there has been no improvement to our pavements The rusty reo sticks out at dangerous angles all over the place and the drain covers every 10 or so metres haven't been replaced or raised to the new pavement height, making trying to use the footpaths a kind of mountaineering experience. Maybe this is it? This what they call finished?
Now we have a whole new noise hazard - renovations downstairs. Art's wife, Oar, is a pharmacist at the local hospital, whose shift work has been playing havoc with family life. Art drives her to and from work, so when she is on night shift he hangs out in the office till midnight or later watching TV and being bored. Similarly when she is on afternoon shift she comes to work with Art in the morning and hangs out being bored till she goes to work.
So a couple of weeks ago they decided to open pharmacy in part of the office space downstairs. This would improve their lives no end, so Oar promptly resigned and now two weeks later the builders are in putting up walls. In Australia this process would take years, with drawings and planning approvals and building permits and tenders for builders, not to mention the licence to run the pharmacy, maybe a business plan and some financing, and then the actual construction.
Here the family has a conversation and decides it is affordable, the next day the glazier is here scratching the architect sign off the glass in front of the conference room. Last week they ripped up the carpet, today there's drilling into concrete and nail guns. It wouldn't surprise me if the whole thing were complete and operational in a couple of weeks. Meanwhile the noise is directly below me and quite excruciating.
In other news Amy has, theoretically, a place at school for term 1 - very relieved. We have also decided to send Amy to school for one of the two weeks of school holidays. Initially we had decided against it as the English teacher wouldn't be there and only a minority of students go, but after our two public holidays of excruciating boredom and listening to Amy complain about the lack of school (I tell you I'll be dragging that one out at her twenty first!) we changed our minds. So this is the last week of summer school, then she'll have a week off while Gerald is visiting and both Dave and I will take a bit of time out, then the following week it will be back to business. As my thesis draft should be off with my supervisor during this time I might even take a jewellery-making workshop for a day or two.
Spent all yesterday afternoon in the 'garden', working with the plants in the pouring rain while Dave made a swing for Amy to hang from the veranda rafters. Went out to the market in search of sticks to make a structure to hold up all the veggies, and was very pleased to find some dashing red painted staffs. Got lots of funny looks and people laughing at me - turns out they are for boy scouts. Anyway, think they'll do a fine job! Need the seeds to be a little more mature before I can expect them to fend for themselves in the monsoonal downpours, so for now they stay under the veranda, structureless.
When Amy woke up from sleep we even moved the stereo up to the bedroom so Dave and I could sit outside listening to the dulcet tones of cruel sea while she alternated running out into the rain turning potting mix into mud and going inside to jump and dance on our bed whilst playing her harmonica. Nice mess that made, but we all enjoyed ourselves, which is the main thing. Was filled with happiness to drift off the sleep to the smells wafting in from the garden, the honeysuckle in particular, and then to notice the same first thing this morning as I woke. Leaving here in December is going to be very hard indeed.
30 July 2005 - Day 55
Rain, then sun
After seven straight days of rain I was thinking the monsoon was really here at last. It dropped the temperature, making everything a bit easier to bear, but radically increased humidity (der). Need the fans not for cooling, but for drying! Am beginning to wonder about how the computers and cameras will hold up…Now of course we're back to blistering heat and haven't seen much rain for a few days, so maybe the monsoon isn't the monolith, maybe it isn't in full swing…who knows….
Gone quiet on the posting as Gerald, Dave's best friend from school has hit town for a week. Oh and I have passed my draft of the first half of my thesis to my supervisor for comments so I'm feeling free and a bit over computers! Spent an exhausting day yesterday at the fabulous Warorot market followed by a ridiculously extravagant lunch at the Chedi - cocktails at lunch! The swim yesterday afternoon was welcome relief to the heat, which has returned after the week of rain.
The market visit was inspired by my mission to cook for us all. We have been very generously lent the landlord's 'holiday' house in Samoeng for a couple of days, and hour or two's drive away into the jungle. It is very exciting! Also entails actually dealing with self-sufficiency for the first time in nearly 2 months, so it's a challenge. So yesterday I perused the dried seafood (who could believe there could be so many kinds?), the Indian spice stall and several other preserved food stalls looking for the bits and pieces I need. Had no luck on sweet turnip, so I've emailed my cooking teacher to ask her what it is called in Thai. The Pad Thai just wouldn't be the same without it…
Off to the Zoo today and then tomorrow pick up a hire car and drive down to Ban Tawai, the woodcarving village, in search of spirit houses. Monday it's off the Samoeng till Wednesday... It's an action packed adventure having Gerald here after the last few weeks of knuckling down to work and living a very routine life. Loving it!
Finally got the tickets and accommodation sorted for mum's trip in 4 weeks time. The airline tickets were an absolute comedy of errors which started with us being booked for tickets to Siem Reap in the wrong month, Dave and Amy on a different flight to me and mum, then the ticket office couldn't find mum's reservation (not surprisingly since her agent got the month right!). Within a couple of hours we ended up with no less than three sets of bookings for the correct flight as mum's agent, the person who originally sold me the tickets and myself all arranged for tickets independently of each other…lots of stressed calls between mum, me and two different offices of Bangkok Airways…anyway, we can all breathe a sigh of relief that it appears to be locked in and ready for travel.
Oh and the garden is ripping along…more photos to come of the structure I've erected to hold up out tomatoes and climbing beans and cucumbers…
4 August 2005 - Day 60
As David keeps reminding me, it's jungle not bush. Samoeng turns out to be something of drive. Not so far in kilometres, but in a hire car with crappy suspension over an entire mountain range on rugged roads, it's a two vomit deal. Despite the glorious scenery of the forests and jungle, and various agricultural pursuits, we're all very glad to reach the village.
Not so glad to discover that we have parked next to the dried fish section of the market - the smell of rotting seafood really isn't a good match for the car sick - but a few paces out everything is looking up. It's one of those little middle of nowhere towns with a little market and no reason for anyone to visit except for the basics of rural life. We're a definite oddity amongst it all.
With beer and apple juice now on board we set off for the last 15 minutes of driving to reach Niwat's country house. We find the house by virtue of signs written entirely in Thai - a feat so miraculous I am speechless. But find it we do and turn off the pot-holed and landslided road and head down the winding track through the orchard. ORCHARD?!
The first inkling I know less about this place than I ought. So amidst the mangoes and bananas and coconuts and papayas and pomelos and other stuff I don't recognise, we make our way to what looks like (and turns out to once have been) an entire resort. A series of spacious and swanky villas set in a stunning garden with lawns and trees and tropical flowers just as you might expect of an upmarket country retreat.
The architecture is part generic Asian resort, part Tyrolean log cabin, with posts and beams made of fat unreconstructed tree trunks, and furniture to match. An entire forest lost its life for each villa by the looks. Everything is super chunky, heavy, uneven and covered in multiple layers of estapol. Nice. The main house has a tiny living room - an enormous well kitted out kitchen and a dinning table with the biggest lazy Susan you ever saw.
Around the main house and connecting to two of the villas is the biggest deck you can imagine (about the square metre-age of our house), which is bordered by bench seats and a pavilion to seat about ten. It also has a dining table made of great slabs of wood that could easily seat twenty that looks like something made for giants. The deck became a soccer field for a while there. Given the beer consumption, and that none of us are any good at soccer anyway it tells you how big it is that the ball went over the edge only twice!
Oh, and there's a small river running through it which fills the air with a gentle babbling that's very pleasant. And what would be (if there was more rain) a giant pond. And the river has it's own system of locks.
So you can imagine we were pretty excited. Like kids we ran from one spot to the other shrieking with astonishment at the next amazing thing - solar hot water! A fire pit in the garden! A corn field! Tropical flowers bigger than Amy! On and on it went.
But it was time to unpack the ridiculous amount of food we'd bought to sustain us on our get away. I'd planned a full Thai menu along with morning bacon and eggs - Pad Thai (noodles), stir fried vegetables in oyster sauce, chicken and cashew nuts, penang curry, massaman curry, tom ka gai, wing bean salad, sweet sticky rice with mango. Was feeling pretty excited about cooking (absence makes the heart grow fonder for sure).
It was at this point that Niwat's staff In and her offsider (whose name I never got) started to make their presence felt. With each step towards the kitchen they advanced - unpacking our groceries, cleaning benches, folding plastic bags, asking what I wanted cooked and when. Despite their forewarning that we wanted to cook for ourselves, they were unable to restrain themselves.
So started a battle that went on for a day and a half before I gave in and left them to cook whatever they wanted. Their servitude made me distinctly uncomfortable in equal measure with my annoyance and disappointment over losing my grand plans for banquets cooked myself. The only dish I managed to wrest control of was the tom ka soup and the sticky rice - made on the sly in the morning when they were out mopping decks and picking up leaves from the lawn.
It was amazing and weird. I missed my computer. I know I'm a pathetic techno junkie. And with promises of cable TV we didn't bother to bring any DVDs for Amy. Turns out the cable was exclusively Thai language (after we'd spent about two hours trying to work out how to turn the bugger on - instructions of course in Thai), so those early mornings with Amy were a tad long. No phone reception either.
But I did finally make a new doll for Amy and a necklace for myself and spent a lot of time playing my new drum (James I want lessons!). And had the truly awe inspiring experience of seeing fireflies for the first time in my life - like little blinking neon signs in space.
And there was a whole lot of other cool stuff - bats and swarms of bees (In said they didn't sting - is there such a thing as a non-stinging bee?), and giant geckos, and a couple of dogs that hung around us and wagged their tails even when they knew not to come too close. All up a most satisfying adventure and when we got home it was like coming home - even if it was our home away from home.
5 August 2005 - 2 months
Visiting the palace on our 2 month anniversary
Well it's exactly 2 months since we bundled ourselves off to the airport to leave Melbourne - seems both like yesterday and a lifetime ago. A third of our time is over and like an absolute sap I'm already sad. After today's trip to the most divine gardens of the King's palace here in Chiang Mai it's hard not to be aware of just how amazing each new experience we have here is, and just how temporary our stay.
Been thinking a bit about the impact of the trip on Amy. Her wobbly chucking seems to have peaked all over again and we've had a couple of meltdowns like you can't imagine. And when I say out of control I mean full-on rage - shaking from anger, screaming 'leave me alone', crying uncontrollably, unable to think straight, wild eyes, the lot. And usually over something completely trivial, like not taking her shoes off by herself, or using the wrong toilet (there's 2 here), or throwing out the last centimetre of her drink, or one of us pushing the buzzer before her… She seems particularly obsessed by watching herself in the mirror when she is most upset and out of control, what's that about?
It's so hard to strike the balance between controlling her behaviour for social reasons (it is sooooo very embarrassing), controlling her behaviour for discipline reasons (it is not OK to bite, hit, run away in crowded markets etc) and recognising that so much of it is situational and letting it ride. I suspect it is worse when we have visitors (Dave's folks and now Gerald), as she finds the coming and going destabilising…
I sympathise with her. None of us are at our best when tired, hot and overwhelmed, and travel is hard enough for us adults to process, it's impossible to imagine how it all seems from her height. Knowing when to indulge her or turn a blind eye and when to draw the line is the hardest part - especially when I know that line is as much about my state as it is about her behaviour. I ask more of her sometimes, and have less energy sometimes to be her buffer against the world.
So today whilst strolling through such a wonderful and peaceful place, smelling the flowers and marvelling at the various pavilions, houses and salas, I just wanted to strangle her when she was so badly behaved. I wanted to enjoy it, and I wanted a little peace and instead she bit and hit and ran away. Teddy and friends being sad in the cupboard without her has had no impact, so the next step is full banishment of the toy and book collection.
Dave and I hate this move, not least because it makes looking after her such a chore (what do you do??), but last time it really produced results, and she was great as she gradually earned her toys back and for weeks after. The whole experience is so humbling - making you realise that as a parent your bag of tricks is so pathetically inadequate to the task of raising a child! For a moment today I wished that corporal punishment worked and was ethically OK so I could just smack her and make the whole problem go away, but you never get off that easy.
Here's an example. At one stage today my phone rang and caller ID told me it was Sitthiporn (the dean of architecture at one of the Bangkok unis). Dave took the call, but Amy started to complain loudly because she wanted to talk on the phone. Dave walked away to get some quiet to talk, and Amy ramped it up. I tried to explain to her that she couldn't talk to Sitthiporn, she didn't know him, Daddy was working etc, but she wouldn't hear of it. She started after Dave, who kept walking away, I tried to restrain Amy, Amy starts screaming that I'm hurting her, Dave's rolling his eyes, and Amy is still determined to get her hands on the phone.
Aside from endure, what do you do? The more she screamed the harder and more embarrassing it was for Dave (not to mention the other visitors to the palace!), the more I tried to talk to her the more focused on her goal she became and the more she saw me as hurting her. What I wanted to do as crash tackle, hog tie and gag her, but I figured that was only going to work on a temporary basis…
Would she have been this bad if we hadn't come? Would she be better if Dave and I were more consistent, or stricter, or more relaxed, or would nothing make any difference? Is this just the destiny of every child and every parent? Should I be carted off to parent training to learn how to look after her or is my experience so utterly normal and transient that even giving it a second thought makes me neurotic?? Do you ever know the answers to these questions, do you ever stop worrying that you aren't a good enough parent (even when you know it's the wrong question to be asking)?
7 August 2005
Was upset to hear this morning that my 'uncle' Ross had died. I think technically he was my second cousin, but as one of the few local members of my extended family during my childhood, he was very much like an uncle. I saw little of him as I got older, but my memories of him were very vivid this morning when I heard the news. And perhaps it is because I am away from home that this event seems to be affecting me more than I would have guessed.
He made a ritual of buying my sister and I a new party dress each year, and I remember these dresses with great fondness. Those who know me will know I'm not much of a party dress kind of girl, but it was a wonderful thing he did to give us the opportunity to feel special when we made the rounds of birthday parties and the like. Because every little girl, no matter what else she does in the rest of her life should have a great party dress! So goodbye and thanks Ross, I will always remember the kindness of your gesture.
In the last few days since Gerald left we've been catching up on our alpha ray viewing, forgoing much needed afternoon naps and work opportunities for DVDs of TV series. We finally polished off the last couple of episodes of season 2 of the West Wing and started on the first season of Six Feet Under. The former featured the death of Jed Bartlett's secretary, and multiple flashbacks to her entry into his life as his father's secretary, the latter of course an entire program predicated on exploring death and the grieving process.
So on hearing of Ross's passing I felt very much as though I was living in the fictional world I have been watching - one where the people you value, who shape you, suddenly disappear. Somehow everything else goes on around you - Amy still wants action and responses to her every utterance, Suthep still comes up to clean the place as is the Sunday routine, Dave still goes to work. But inside I am caught up in remembering things, photographs of myself in the aforementioned dresses, Ross's great deep belly laugh and sparkling eyes always smiling, the swelling pride of knowing I had something purchased from that great Melbourne institution, Georges.
So when I went out onto the terrace this morning and noticed that one of our heavenly lotus flowers had folded it's heavy head down on it's too thin stem I snipped it off before it died and brought it inside. It's sitting beside me here now in a wine bottle and will probably last long enough to see me through feeling so sad.
8 August 2005
Stuff about Thailand that can weird you out
- It's the height of impolite to complain or talk of contentious things like politics or religion or even to use a toothpick without covering your mouth with one hand, but it's perfectly OK to squeeze your pimples in the street
- Amy wasn't too keen on her chicken fried rice last night at dinner - her favourite dish was barbequed frog
- Daily public donations of food and drink feed the enormous monk community of Thailand, but more than once I have seen a monk buying pepsi max from the 7-11 whilst talking on a mobile phone
- Coke is called coke red and pepsi is called coke blue
- A survey of families in Isaan (the poor North Eastern part of Thailand) found that 44% lived on a monthly income of less than 2,000 baht ($64), and 68% on less than 4,000 ($128). Only 21% of families did not owe debts to either banks or co-ops. This is even more amazing given that 'family' is not the nuclear one or two adults and a kid or two, but multi generations with good fertility rates.
- It's the daughter (or daughter in law) of the oldest members of the family whose job it is to order and dish out the food in restaurants. The bill usually goes to the head of the family, but seems to get passed on to the wife!
- You don't flush used toilet paper down the toilet, you put it in the bin
- Censorship is hard line in relation to nudity or public displays of affection, but it's OK for the entire family to ride a motorbike in thongs - including infants standing up and holding on to the handlebars between the driver's knees
- It's not OK to touch someone's head or point at them, but it's fine to comment and even deride them for their physical features
- A hefty fine is usually just a notice to pay a bribe - maybe as little as 10% of the original sum if it's paid to the right person.
- You are supposed to carry your passport with you at all times
- Scanning and the internet allowed me the honour of delivering ultrasound photos of a friend's much wanted baby to an excited soon to be first time grandfather
- Local calls cost 5 baht a minute (that's about 17 cents), international costs 7 baht a minute, dial up internet access cost under 5 baht an hour and it costs about half as much to buy a DVD here as it costs to rent one in Australia
- You can fly direct from Siem Reap in Cambodia to Phuket in Thailand, but not from Phuket to Siem Reap
- In the supermarket there are about 30 brands of 'hygienic starch' for ironing clothes, but no stain removers (that I can find anyway)
- You can buy curries, sweets and steamed rice in the market in single serves, but it's hard to buy things like bananas in small quantities (you have to take the whole hand). Maybe the people who have enough money to be choosy about the range of fruit they eat have domestic workers to take the excess away before it's too ripe to eat.
- Durian - no need to elaborate for those who know durian, and no capacity to explain to those who don't
9 August 2005
I just love this blog technology. I love that I can use a small amount of time to keep up with a whole lot of people, instantly. And that I can share photos, and even that complete strangers can be listening in without me even knowing it. I love that it's so easy to use and that anyone can do it with very few computer skills, just a nudge to get them started (thanks Steve you are my techno guru!!). I can't help it, I'm a hopeless techno geek.
But lately I've realised that there's something about it that I hate. And I have Loobylu to thank for bringing it home to me. Almost no one ever replies. Her blog always has stacks of comments from readers, but with a few exceptions (you know who you are and thanks!) none of you post anything.
When you write someone a letter they are usually duty bound to reply. I know when I get a letter I respect the time and effort that went into it and feel it's really rude not to acknowledge that. But when you post it's kind of like reading the newspaper, even if it is written by someone you know. You think yeah, I can't be bothered replying. I don't think they are talking to me, not on the kind of personal level that warrants a response.
So I've realised while it's great for keeping everyone informed about what goes on here, the blog is more like writing a diary I carelessly left out for others to read than like a letter where I get something back. The stats on the blog tell me people are listening, but not who they are, or what they think.
And worse, now that they have read the blog they feel no need to correspond, since they know all my news. So why is it that Loobylu's readers post responses (even if they are only one liners) and mine don't?? I'm thinking about starting to include a pertinent question in each post, something I really want to hear back on, just to see if I can encourage a little dialogue. Call me crazy.
Tell me, what would it take for you to post a comment on my blog?
11 August 2005
Been utterly inspired and envious of all the amazing work featured on the various blogs I've discovered through Loobylu.com. Even the ones I can't understand because I don't speak Spanish or Italian feature pictures of sewing projects, photographs and illustrations that are just wonderful.
Been feeling very unproductive myself on the creative front so today I took myself off to a silver smithing class. It was a welcome change of gears after digesting and responding to my supervisor's comments on my thesis draft. Don't get me wrong, that's all going amazingly well, but it felt really good to absorb myself in something entirely different.
So when I say class I don't mean something with structure or notes or instruction. Basically you turn up to the studio and Nugoon asks you what you want to make. If you don't have anything planned he shows you a range of sample projects - rings and pendants, and guides you through the processes to make them. Luckily I had thought, momentarily, about what I might do so I had a project.
So tonight, while Dave is off watching the cricket in a bar somewhere and Amy is asleep my head is full of the possibilities for doing another day or two and making something else…the possibilities are just too endless!
Tomorrow is Amy's birthday, which suddenly seems quite surreal.
12 August 2005
How different can things be from one year to the next. This time last year we were hosting a morning tea for 80 or something insane, all singing happy birthday over a gigantic home baked cake.
We started today with a few presents - a couple of dolls with various exchangeable outfits, a new T-Shirt, a divine book from Margie, a pair of trousers form Dawn and Ron (actually previously given to Amy but finally exchanged for the correct size!) and some beautiful flowers from Suthep and Nut. Then we headed to the park with a momentary side track through a Wat for some Buddhist devotions. (A topic for a future blog - I suspect my daughter is a reincarnated Buddhist since she finds it hard to go past a Wat without visiting and when she does she gets down on the mat and gives thanks for how lucky she is…)
The park, by sheer fluke, was hosting a flower show so we toured the utterly spectacular displays of orchids, bonsai and cacti, and the sculptures made of flowers, leaves, vegetables and herbs. As part of the show there were also a couple of rides - a great big bouncy castle and bouncy slide. I had a flashback to being pregnant and watching my niece climb to the top of the bouncy slide at the Phillip Island fair, looking down from on high and backing herself down the stairs in fear. Not so Amy who took to the affair with frightening gusto.
After thoroughly exhausting the park we had a spot of lunch at the 'bake and bite' (I want to know who thinks up these names…), which serves excellent sandwiches on home-made bread. And of course makes great cakes, so we bought a slab of it to bring home and make like it was a real birthday cake. We invited Art (who was in the office on a public holiday to play with his new computer) to join us and the four of us sat on the kitchen floor and lit a candle in the shape of a 3 and sang happy birthday.
We gave Amy a choice of outings and she chose (surprise!) the ball room and racing cars at the shopping mall. So what was left of the afternoon passed by in a haze of hideous lights and noise and thousands of kids let out from the strict public school system to terrorise each other with minimum supervision. Talk about fun!
We'd planned a dinner at a Japanese restaurant, but when Amy spotted the Philippine 5 piece band playing covers of eighties songs in the food court our plans were abandoned for fried rice and noodles with beer and dancing - the former for us, the latter for her. For the grand sum of $6.50 (plus an ice cream on the way home) a great night was had by all - including the band who haven't had such an appreciative audience since their tour of nursing homes.
Anyway, while we sadly missed the companionship of our friends and family we had pretty much as good a day as a nuclear family can have when let loose in a foreign land (and one of you is just turned 3). I've posted some snaps, hope you all enjoy them.
And now in an unprecedented move I'm handing over to guest blogger Dave who doesn't get so many chances to have his say.
As any parent would know there are times when everything about having a child is just pure joy. Today has been one of those moments to cherish. Smiles, laughter, indulgences, hugs and kisses. What more could you want in the world…….? (Apart from a great partner, good family and friends…) Aaaaah life is good.
PS - thanks to the mates who posted comments - keep it up! I want something controversial next, something that will ensure I turn up on Google searches of suspect terms and phrases…and I can't believe there are only two of you! And Steve, what the hell are trackbacks?
15 August 2005
Rain drops keep falling on my head
Our planned dinner to celebrate Amy's birthday with the Tantayansorns (our landlords) and friends Haydn and Thong suffered a few setbacks last night. First a call from Haydn alerted us to the possibility that due to three days of continuous rain the restaurant by the river we had booked might be a bit wet, so we had to come up with a plan B. This involved lots of phone calls and cross-cultural complexity, ending up with an agreement to meet in a restaurant we didn't know.
We decided to take our weekend hire car out to see the swollen river, and were astonished to find a good portion of the central city under water. Roads were blocked off and the traffic was chaotic and congested. We rapidly lost all hope of getting anywhere and just relaxed into the log jam. People were wading through thigh high filthy water and madly bricking up the fronts of shops and houses to try and keep the water out. It was surreal and kind of exciting in a natural disaster kind of way.
By 6pm Haydn had rung to say that he and Thong had to turn back as the water was too high to get from his side of the city to ours, and the Tantayansorns were variously stuck at home and elsewhere. So plan B rapidly became plan C - a walk in the rain to get a pizza up the road and plans to reschedule Amy's dinner. We gave thanks that our house is on the high side of town and settled in to watch some telly (the start of season 2 of six feet under).
I was woken this morning by Amy crying. I jumped out of bed and went to find her crying because she wanted to go to school (see what three straight days with your parents does to you?!). I assured her today was a school day and we set about getting the morning routine under way. Slowly it dawned on me that school was on the other side of the river, and perhaps the water wouldn't have subsided enough to get there.
I have to say that quite apart from Amy's distress I felt a bit of my own over the prospect of another schoolless day. After last week's short week I was feeling the pressure to get some work done, catch up on emails and write this blog, as well as just have some child free time.
Optimistically we headed out to school, but sure enough the street was blocked off and completely submerged. I'm guessing the lunchroom for example would have been at least chair deep, maybe more. So sitting idling at the end of the street surveying the disaster zone Amy vocalised it for us all when she said with quavering lip "I really sad".
So we renewed the car hire for another day and headed up the mountain this morning with no particular purpose and ended up at one of the human zoos - the 'hilltribe villages' so many tourists visit when they are in this part of Thailand. These are the villages that used to support the many different ethnic tribes that produced so much of the world's heroin and now sell everything else they can get their hands on.
Don't get me wrong, I don't begrudge them earning a living and flogging souvenirs is a hell of a lot better than selling their kids into prostitution or a myriad of other options. And the chance to see their housing styles (very different to Thai) and walk through the village was great, but the whole time it's hard not to feel like you're walking through a human zoo, with many of the inhabitants either depressed or angry over the way the tourists pore over them.
So we wound around the mountain home and we've just put Amy to bed and I feel exhausted. Not much improved by the snippets Dave is reading to me out of today's paper - four dead, the worst floods in over 40 years, levels expected to keep rising, schools expected to stay closed for at least two days, housing estates near the airport (close to us and perhaps where we would have been living if we hadn't stumbled on this apartment) neck deep in water. So I'd better go read up for myself, and give thanks that we are safe and not wading through neck deep filthy water.
16 August 2005
Well the novelty of observing the great forces of nature has definitely waned and we're all tired and grumpy and badly behaved. Went all the way to school today to discover it still isn't ioen. Amy cried in the song teow and I almost did too. While the river level has dropped to almost normal as the flood waters head south, the clean up is just beginning. The papers today have started in on the (I gather) yearly accusations about why the flooding still happens. Calls renewed for building a bloody big damn which would protect towns from flooding but wipe out the last native golden teak forest. What a choice!
Spent a good portion of yesterday morning stuck in traffic, which is still completely insane, even far away from the flood zones. Guess the combination of diverted traffic, increased car useage in the rain and the annual university graduation ceremonies (which involve mind-numbing numbers of people and a zillion roadside stalls selling flowers and stuffed animals wearing mortarboards) have just created a zoo out there. Thank goodness the Thais are not into road rage or it would be a blood bath.
Which brings me to something I don't talk about enough here, the great attitude of the Thais. Sweeping cultural generalisation as it that statement is. For a farang like me it's sometimes difficult to fathom how everyone can be so accepting and calm so much of the time. And it is very difficult for someone as direct as me to know how to 'read' what's going on in an environment where social convention seems to smooth out all the pointy edges that come with human interaction. You never know when you've done the wrong thing, offended someone, made a fool of yourself, amused or impressed someone - everything is always polite smiles.
So for me that's hard and sometimes a little frustrating, but the upside is so, well, up. The absence of anger in any major way from public life is just wonderful. And it takes a while before you notice it. What brings it to your attention is seeing the badly behaved foreigners who get angry over trivial issues. You see them (and occasionally yourself!) lose the plot over poor service in a restaurant, or undelivered goods, or being cut off in the street or something similarly transient and you notice that anger doesn't beget anger like we're used to seeing. They get blank stares in return, and eventually they run out of steam or storm off.
Mai pen rai, which means something like no worries or no problem or it doesn't matter, is an indispensable part of the vocabulary and is used by both the 'wronged' person and the person causing inconvenience - as in "I haven't been able to get your clothes washed yet, mai pen rai" or "my clothes aren't ready yet? Mai pen rai". It's like a constant reminder to everyone that the little things shouldn't bring you down to the level of bad behaviour. Similarly jai yen, which literally means cool heart, is a reminder to chill out.
Couldn't my life do with a little more of this? How much easier it is to keep your cool and not stress when everyone else is in on the same mission.
Also I'm posting a few photos of a trip we did a few days ago to Dara Pirom Palace out of town in Mae Rim, which I didn't end up writing about. It was a really gorgeous teak house once the home of Chao Dara Rasmi, one of the Royal consorts to King Chulalongkorn. She came from the northern Lanna kingdom and was instrumental in cementing ties between the Siam (southern) and Lanna (northern) royal families - a move that eventually led to the unification of the two as the Kingdome of Siam at the end of the nineteenth century. After the king died she was given permission to return north and build this very excellent home which is traditional in many respects but also reflects the influence of Chulalongkorn who was the first monarch to travel overseas and learn about European ideas. She was a very accomplished craftswoman in a number of media, including weaving, 'knitting' (I think what we call tatting?), flower arranging, bamboo arts, music and dance. The place made an arranged marriage at the age of 11 seem like it might have had some pay offs. I can't believe I said that.
18 August 2005
She said optimistically! Amy and Dave are getting ready as I write, about to head off in search of other small children. I found it difficult to get off to sleep last night as I took to worrying about how badly Dave and I are handling Amy's bad behaviour. Yesterday it was screaming - of the full volume, ear-splitting, blood curdling kind - both first thing in the morning and last thing at night, and a few times in between. Poor Suthep and Nut having their peace messed with at both ends of the day.
But like her bouts of violent attention seeking, there just doesn't seem to be any way to stop her. Toy deprivation, parental anger and other bad behaviour, reasoning, bribes…we've tried it all and she just looks you in the eye, opens her mouth and lets rip all over again. And in my mind I am struggling not just with the frustration/humiliation/pain of the here and now (and how to GET HER TO STOP) but also the longer term patterns we are setting place.
I know that the short term stuff is ultimately not the point - I mean I know she will eventually grow out of standing by the side of the road yelling at traffic, or walking through a quiet village yelling 'elephant poohs!' at the top of her lungs. But if we as parents can't find an appropriate way of setting boundaries, and helping her to learn some self control and ideas about social appropriateness then we're all in for a lifetime of pain and sorrow (not to mention recriminations and therapy).
So I lay awake last night wishing we could call in super nanny, and at the same thinking who knows if her answers are any less damaging than our own. I mean we know we could do better on the calm and even tempered front - we are not rising well to the challenge of speaking rationally when having eyes gouged or our ear drums perforated, but the inappropriate magnitude of our emotional responses can't be the only thing wrong with this picture, surely. If this were a thesis the methods and conceptual framework chapters would be missing.
So going back to school will ease things on a number of fronts - less time in each other's faces, more diffuse relationships, more peer social imposition, more energy expenditure. All these things will help, and maybe her behaviour will improve enough to make me feel like it's just a phase and if we trust that basically she's a good and smart kid everything will turn out all right in the end. Even after her most evil acts she can do something so innocent and charming that it's hard to suppress and smile and giggle. Now if we could just adjust the balance in favour of those times…
So if school turns her away again today because yesterday's rains have caused more flooding I think we might all go mad.
In other news I managed to speak to every member of my close family yesterday and for a moment it was almost like being home, which was very nice. Though as always as soon as I get off the phone I remember all the things I wanted to ask but didn't. Because phone calls are great but no substitute for a cup of tea and visit where the news about life just naturally drips out, rather than forced out at high pressure and great cost with a 3 second delay or crappy satellite connection. I guess it's hard to do much more than tread water in a relationship when you are this far away.
Which is part of the reason I am SICK with excitement about mum's upcoming visit! After my supervisor's great response to the first draft of my mid-point thesis review, I'm trying to get the last bits and pieces and paperwork done as quickly as possible to clear the way for a real holiday and some quality relaxation with mum. Of course, swimming in the ocean and wandering through the amazing Angkor Wat are part of the attraction, but they will be all the more enjoyable for being with her J
On the technology front I'm getting concerned that people don't seem to be getting some of the emails I'm sending, even though I get no indication they aren't getting through from my end. I've tried requesting automatic receipts, but that doesn't seem to work too well either. Does anyone have any ideas what I can do about this?? Hate to think that when all is said and done the internet proves as unreliable as a post box in India!
18 August 2005
More floods expected
Just read the headlines - more floods expected in the next few days as the rains continue to fall. Wow.
19 August 2005
It feels very strange to have forewarning of more floods, and the threat of imminent trouble seems to be looming. I can't quite seem to get into concentrating on anything much now.
My thesis submission due at the end of next week is pretty much finished, so I'm starting reading for the next two chapters, but it's hard to really get into a whole new set of ideas when I haven't officially let go of the last ones. Not like Dave, who is now so clearly on the home stretch. I mean he's got his own difficulties of course, but after so many years working on the PhD, when you start thinking about writing your acknowledgements and lists of figures you know the light at the end of the tunnel is almost on you. Way to go Dave!
Of course, I'm also starting to drift into holiday mode and I spend altogether too much time thinking about all the great stuff that's coming up and planning things to do for mum and me when we get back to Chiang Mai. And even more bizarrely, Dave and I are spending a whole lot of time talking about stuff we want to do when we get back to oz - major changes to the garden and our bedroom. It always seems to happen that being away makes us think about bigger things than just pruning and planting, or getting all the dirty clothes off the floor.
You get this idea when you are free of all the little things that bind your life together that you can return home and somehow organise things to you won't get bogged down again. The pictures of the work space on http://thesmallobject.blogspot.com/ got me really inspired to create an office/craft space that was really what I wanted. Like that would stop me from leaving piles of fabric and half made dolls lying around in the living room all the time.
And like all the great craft bloggers I'm becoming obsessed with I could start posting my creations and become part of this whole web based anti-mass production craft and toy movement that seems to be taking hold. Wouldn't that be cool? I need to become more techno savvy (gotta get the hang of those trackbacks, thanks for the info Steve…) - these guys all have blogs that are a joy to visit in every detail and far superior to my every-person's default msn offering. Of course, as Dave reminds me, there has to be room in there for a job too, but one can always dream.
We're going to venture out tonight to have dinner on the riverside of town - taking advantage of what may be the last night of accessibility for a while. Aside form anything else we need to visit the night market to top up our DVD collection! With no TV here and only a few episodes left of our current series of six feet under we're looking down the barrel of NO ALPHA RAYS. So tonight we're out to get some more sopranos and west wings, since we just don't think we can take any more of the funeral business for a while after watching two whole seasons back to back.
21 August 2005
The threat of further floods seems to have passed, for now at least. The last 24 hours have seen the temperature soar and the first really sunny days in weeks. I guess we'd kind of adjusted to the (marginally) cooler weather and are now surprised all over again at how hot it can be here.
Finally finished my big doll this morning and Amy named him Nana Fashu Allo. Don't ask me why. Only recently has she started naming her friends - Allo dog, Fanny Banny monkey, Gai Lek (chicken little in Thai), Nong Mar (little sister dog), Kiki the little doll and now this. All too weird for me to work out. It started out as my contribution to http://www.loobylu.com/ month of softies wild west August, but it's ended up distinctly un western looking. I blame the total lack of anything even remotely wild westish in this entire town.
Originally Amy asked for a big brother for Kiki, but when she laid eyes on big doll she declared him to be dad, not big brother. An excuse to get me to make mummy doll to complete the family I suspect. Anyway, not sure I'm up for another in this series just yet, but I'm eyeing off a little rabbit pattern from my Japanese cotton book…might be my beach side project!
22 August 2005
Never say never
Yeah OK, so I spoke too soon and the brilliant sunshine turned black yesterday afternoon. Last night it rained and rained, with thunder and lightening and the full regalia. We stayed at home and cooked (she said loosely using the term) a Mexican meal, which we shared with Suthep and Nut. It seemed only fair since Suthep had let Nut off her afternoon work duties to play Lego and dolls with Amy - effectively doubling her work and halving ours, and bringing great joy to both Amy and Nut. Ah the universal language of Lego.
So we smashed up the two enormous avocados Haydn had brought us - which had gone from cricket ball hardness to squishy ripeness in about three days! Thais don't really eat avocados which seems weird since they are prefect climate wise, so they get fed to the pigs, and occasionally you see them sold by the side of the road. I'm guessing the varieties here are not the best, and their rapid ripening means most people try past their prime.
We also made salsa from sumptuous ripe and tasty tomatoes and three colours of capsicums from the market. The latter Dave and I roasted over the wok burner using regular dinner forks (yeah it was fun!) till they were black, then skinned them and added lime, onion and salt. Could have eaten the whole bowl with the spoon right there and then.
So we sat on the floor with our bowls of salsas, potatoes (which are not too common but really yummy here), lettuce, cheese, refired beans and corn chips (the latter two at exorbitant cost but well worth it to complete the meal!). Suthep and Nut were very impressed by pretty much everything except the beans, which they just couldn't come at. And plonking it all down was so much better for sharing than the usual pre assembled nachos or other Mexican meals (which were out anyway as the oven here functions as a cupboard rather than a cooking device).
So it was nice, sitting listening to the storm and the water gushing off the myriad of rooves around the kitchen and thundering down the higgledy-piggledy down pipes, eating, laughing and learning a bit more Thai.
25 August 2005
Trying to be brief today. (I can hear you laughing in mocking tones from here!!) But had to announce the newest arrival - Nana bunny (see picture in the creative projects album). I just love her!! I think there might be a few more of these getting made on the beach…
Got so much to do - getting ready for the trip on Saturday and trying madly to edit all my video footage so mum can take it home with her for all to see. Looking back over what I've shot so far makes me realise how strange the process is of getting to know a new place - and of trying to show that place to someone else. I haven't got any footage of all the stuff we see and do everyday, all the stuff that is really interesting for those that aren't here.
So went out shooting with Amy last night and again this morning to get some of our friends from the local market (what Amy calls melly market - meaning smelly market). Hard not to feel very amateurish about it all, and not to be aware that it's all so invisible to us now that we are used to it. When are you being boring and mundane and when are you really capturing life as we live it?
What do people really want to see? And NO, that's NOT a rhetorical question! Send me the thing you'd most like to see if you had to sit through my home movie of Thailand.
26 August 2005
Too big to fit
Went to pick Amy up from school to go on a play date, and found her still asleep. Miss Nu woke her up and carried her out, all sleepy and dazed. We squeezed into the front seat of the song theow with school bags and shoes not yet put on, and Amy promptly fell back asleep. It was so hot she didn't want to curl up, and for the first time it became all too obvious. My baby doesn't fit in my lap anymore.
27 August 2005
Up, up and away
Suddenly it's time to pack up and get going. Feel strangely sad about leaving the blog for two weeks - like a negligent mother. Knowing that even if I post from an internet café somewhere along the way it just won't be the same…but so excited at the same time. Going to the ocean! Normally so central to my experience of hot weather, the absence of beach has been all to noticeable here, so I'm really looking forward to slipping into the salty waves. And really, just being somewhere new will be fantastic. But the prize is seeing mum.
Amy is beside herself with excitement and keeps running around the apartment with her arms outstretched making very loud plane noises. She's also really into packing - everything she sees goes into her school bag. No discrimination no thought. Books, balls, toys, bits of paper and lint off the floor, a small basket, the odd toilet paper roll and empty cashew tin. Oh well, I guess we've all been there at some stage, and that's how we learn to pack better as we get older.
Anyway, better sign off and get going before we miss the plane. Funny, no matter how far ahead you plan, it's still always a rush to get out the door these days. Hopefully I'll catch you on the road, otherwise I'll see you back here on the 8th.
8 September 2005
It does feel like home here after nearly two weeks of sharing a room with Amy and living out of a backpack. Not to mention trying to stay in touch through the wobbly internet services on the road. Though it feels strange to be without Dave, who left us in Bangkok to go out to his village to do a spot more research.
So I arrive home, the great experience of Siem Reap and Angkor still undigested and awaiting some words, dying to get onto some writing. But of course, there's other things to do. The first is to collect emails - including one from Melbourne University scholarships office to tell me the paperwork I faxed to my supervisor a whole week before leaving (ie 3 weeks ago) has been messed up and no one has dealt with it.
I really want to scream about this, since I sent the 16 page fax of multiple forms a week before we left to ensure an error margin because I have come to fully expect a cock up at every turn, and was assured before I left that everything was in hand. I now find out no one signed the bloody things, so my return from leave of absence hasn't been approved.
Call me a bureaucrat but is it really so hard? I filled out two sets of forms twice, because the university can't share information with itself, including writing out my personal details (address, phone, email, course number, student number etc etc) in full each time, and all they had to do was sign it before distributing it appropriately.
So I shoot off a series of question marks to my supervisor and leave the computer in disgust while I take the laundry off to be done (pretty much everything we own). Despite being spastic with exhaustion I deal with all the other crappy stuff to ensure I can get Amy off the school in the morning and mum and I get to cooking class, like buying milk and juice and digging out some semi clean clothes to dress us in, water the garden, take us out to dinner.
And now it's late and I haven't even started to write about the interesting stuff like what's changed here since we left (the pharmacy downstairs opens tomorrow and the garden has been built and planted out front, and a satay stall has opened on the street next door…) and all the amazing stuff we did and saw while we were away. So I guess that's tomorrow's task, or maybe the day after…
10 September 2005
Holiday in Cambodia 1 - the temples of Angkor
Hard to even know where to start. The things that blow your mind about Angkor's temples:
1. In reality they are even more impressive than the hype. I tend to be a cynic about the touted sightseeing attractions of travel, and often skip the really well known sights. I really hate it when the reality doesn't live up to the image. But like the Taj Mahal, seeing it in pictures and hearing people talk about it in no way prepares you for the awesome experience of being there. There's a reason they are one of the wonders of the world.
2. The scale. One temple complex alone (Angkor Thom) is 10km2 and in the twelfth century was a city of around a million people (at the time London's population was 50,000). The temples are all that remain of the original metropolis since other city buildings were made of wood and haven't stood the test of time.
3. The temples are almost exclusively built out of huge slabs of stone (there's some brickwork). When you see how much stone this constitutes, it is impossible to conceive of the labour that went into construction. Not to mention the holes left in the ground where the stone came from!
4. The carving. Some temples in particular, such as Banteay Srei, are intricately carved on almost every face of stone. Imagine a bunch of guys carving an ornate stone screen and then times it by about a million and then start all over again. Every person, animal and battle scene featuring individual characteristics and complex stories. Carving is done in all kinds of stone, and even some in brick!
5. Preservation. The miracle they have survived this long - the impossibility of stopping the ravages of time. The ones abandoned to the jungle, such as Ta Prohm, provide a snapshot of the disintegration process. When you see how many chunks of stone are on the ground, you feel like every step you take you risk being crushed by a falling wall of stone.
6. The number. There are 100 or so temples scattered over a very wide area (hours of driving) and even a couple over the border into Thailand. While there is a certain commonality to them, each one is unique in it's style of carving, or construction or materials, or central spiritual themes.
7. The heat. I know this one should be obvious, but by 9am our clothes were soaked with sweat. It was extraordinarily hot. Could understand the temptation to dress like some tourists in shorts and singlets, but found their lack of respect for the value of the modesty appalling! And are you any cooler by being baked by the sun directly?
So we bought week long entrance passes to the complex (very expensive to go by the day) and hired a car each day we went temple exploring (4 days in total and by no means covered even all the well known ones). We had a lovely driver who helped us avoid as many of the hordes of other tourists as possible (and this was the wet season!), by steering our choices for which temples at which time of day.
So each day we got up, had a French breakfast (colonialism has left behind a few positives for us tourists who love our bread!), and then started out for a big temple such as Angkor Wat. A couple of hours walking around and we'd be back out to the car, maybe off to something smaller for an hour and then back to town for a bite and a rest. Maybe a swim while Amy slept. Then an afternoon session till the temples closed at 7pm.
One day we drove out to Banteay Srey, which was the most astonishingly decorated temple of all, carved out of pink sandstone, with deep three dimensional images on every surface. The temple was amazing, but so was the chance to get out of town and follow the red dirt roads past houses and villages. Particularly interesting for Dave as a contrast to his village in Isaan - which is really only a couple of hundred kms from Angkor across the border into Thailand. Also delighted to find a band of musicians playing outside the temple. All missing something from landmines, they played traditional Khmer music while Amy danced like Kath Day-Knight. I think they found her as entertaining as we found them. Bought their CD - how could we not?
The efforts of walking for miles, climbing up and down steps, over stone lintels, ducking through low doorways, scrambling over slippery stones all take their toll - almost as much as fending off the sometimes very aggressive hawkers selling postcards, books, maps, drinks, scarves, T-shirts, musical instruments, jewellery, tablecloths (do people really buy tablecloths at temples?!), and trying to decide which temples to go to, which to miss.
But it is hard to not live, eat and breathe the temples no matter how tired your bones get. Despite the considerable charms of Siem Reap (more on that in my next post), the monumental experience of the temples is hard to stack up against the rest of everyday life. Spotting the bullet holes from the war in the front facades of Angkor Wat for example was really strange - like somehow you don't think of something like a 'modern' war in the context of the ancient temples. Don't they exist in a whole other dimension of reality??
I think the only other experience I have had that was similar (though by no means as gargantuan) was the fort town of Jaisalmer. There you are in the middle of nowhere, in the desert, and suddenly there is this enormous 14th century fort rising out of the sand. Part of it is ruins, part of it is populated as though it was still the middle ages. The whole time you are there you feel like you are sliding between the present where you are a tourist, buying stuff, eating, sleeping, doing normal things, and the distant past where you are a time traveller observing something you shouldn't (by the laws of physics) be able to see. More on the tourist thing in my next post too.
Anyway, despite all this stuff I've written, I can't tell you much really. It's all too mind blowing, all too surreal, all too fabulous! The only other thing I'll say is go there yourself. I hear the whole temple area is sinking - too many tourists drawing water up from the water table is causing subsistence. Pretty much what happened to cause the collapse of the area the first time around. Soon you won't be able to enter places like Ta Prohm for fear of falling stone. See it while you can if you can.
11 September 2005
Holiday in Cambodia 2 - Siem Reap Town
For those that missed my earlier post, I'll say it again - I love Siem Reap. Maybe because I'd heard so many bad things about it my expectations were inordinately low. But as soon as we arrived at the airport I was hooked. Hicksville in the best possible sense. It was hot and dry (drier than Thailand anyway) and the airport was in the middle of a big flat plain. Palm trees between fields. The airport not much more than a tin shed with lots of guys in really fancy military style uniforms and no air-con (of course on leaving it all seemed much bigger and fancier…).
The drive into town did nothing to change my view. Our driver looked about 15, and could barely see over the dash, but he smiled a lot and pointed out everything we drove past that could possibly be of interest (including each picture posted on the telegraph poles of the temples). I checked the speedo, which peaked at about 50km an hour. Briefly. The road was pretty quiet by Asian standards, two lane with almost no sidestreets, no gutters or sidewalks, lots of dust, houses and hotels set back from the street but most with no fences. Lots of bikes on the road and relatively few cars, everything looking like it was frozen in some other time. Some time before the modern world took hold.
It reminded me of Laos on my visit there back in 1993. Perhaps another reason I liked it so much - I remember that trip as full of the best of times (thanks Ang and Roo!).
We stayed in a fantastic set of bungalows in a dense garden - lots of privacy and quiet in a small space, with a nice salt water pool and an open air terrace for breakfasts. We had the biggest bed I have ever seen and the floor in the bathroom was made from unpolished stone. The people who ran the place loved Amy and were really great. The bungalows were in the quiet part of town, and while there was a part of me pining to be a footloose backpacker staying in the groovy old French quarter, it was lovely to not be woken up! Not to mention all those scenic moto rides home after dinner in town.
It was interesting to be driven through the back streets on the way to and from the temples and see the lightweight houses built of wood and bamboo hanging precariously over the water. With an average of a single room per family (plus bathroom I guess) they were very much subsistence dwellings, despite the ever present TV. Local life doesn't interact with tourist life much, which was disappointing after my feelings of real integration here in Thailand, but it was still really interesting to see things through the car window.
Other things I loved about Siem Reap:
*the wide boulevards, the trees and river
*the fantastically funky old French buildings in town with their high ceilings, airy rooms and balconies overlooking the street - now decorated like the hippest cafes in any city of the world
*the moto rickshaw/tuk-tuks that take a gentle pace and don't make a horrendous noise
*the bagettes, Khmer Lon Lac stir fry, everything from the Blue Pumpkin café, the duck balls from the foreign correspondents club and almost everything else I ate
*Artisans d'Angkor school which trains young people (many of them with disabilities) in traditional Khmer crafts and then sells the products in a fantastic shop
*Khmer textiles - they like purple and red almost as much as me
*monsoon downpours that flood the street and make impromptu swimming pools for street kids
*two streets out from the main drag and you're on dirt roads and even the non dirt roads seem to be covered in dirt
*Ceiling fans and open windows instead of air-con
Things that are not so great about Siem Reap:
*the number of missing limbs and deformities and who can say what internal losses from landmines and war
*two economies - one for tourists where everything is fantastic and available and the other for locals where things are completely out of reach
*monsoon downpours that make sewerage soup out of the crappy drain system
*even on the dustiest, poorest street you can buy mobile phones
*local schools, houses and other buildings are in a really crap state - but anything built for tourists is in good nik
*there's a lot of rubbish in that 'we've got other more important things to do than pick up rubbish' kind of way
*if Angkor sinks and/or becomes unviable as a major tourism industry Siem Reap is dead in the water
14 September 2005
News has come through that despite administrative cock-ups, my thesis submission has been reviewed and given the all clear. Yippee! Nice not to be stressed about that, and feeling confident that my supervisor's approval was not the aberration of someone too close to the case, but a reasonable reflection of academic standards.
Continuing to enjoy the quiet time with my mum, walking for miles around the side streets, looking at all the amazing sights Chiang Mai has to offer. It is proving to be the best trip ever from my perspective and I am pretty sure she's having a whale of a time too. Tried to take her to Tha Nam last night - one of our favourite eateries in a traditional Thai house by the river - and were somewhat distressed to discover it closed due to flooding. Now on nervous alert for another deluge.
On the health front we have finally seen the other side of Amy's boil and the staph infection on my face (yes, it's lovely - don't expect too many photos from this period of the trip!) is progressing nicely. (Can you use staph and nicely in the same sentence?) Hot salt water compresses three times a day and lots of anti-biotic ointment. The cold mum caught off the plane that went to Dave has now started in me, so I have my fingers crossed it passes as quickly for me as it did for him!
15 September 2005
The pace of change
So they are finally making new drain covers for our street. Only two months after finishing the crappy cement job on the new footpaths they are thinking about getting the covers on the drains so we can actually walk on them. How novel not to spend half your pedestrian miles as potential road kill. Of course because each drain opening was constructed with individual formwork, each drain cover must be made unique to match. The least efficient way imaginable…
At the same time however we are seeing multiple examples of the incredible rate at which things can happen here. I think I've already noted that Oar's pharmacy is now fully functioning - from idea to design, construction, shop fit out, garden landscaping, stock purchase and grand opening in less than two months.
How inconceivable is that back home?! And in the twelve days we were away on holiday a new business opened out the front selling satay and grilled meat, and our favourite café and bakery converted their next door premises into a fully fledged restaurant. There's even a new DVD rent store in a previously vacant shop front.
Leaves me wondering what holds things up back home, and whether the delays are valid. In the instance of the pharmacy there would be delays for permits (planning, building, pharmacy licensing), inspections (all the above), design and tradespeople, contracting, pricing…how many of these things would have improved the overall result, made things better, safer?
With the road works you would have to think that if someone had thought ahead about all the steps in the process and had some investment in equipment for making universal drain covers (just for example) the whole job would have been finished weeks ago and to a much higher standard and with less injuries (like our stubbed toes on the reinforcing that has been left sticking up out of the ground).
It's easy to admire the speed and initiative of the projects that work - the new businesses, the makeovers that give sad old buildings a new lease of life. At the same time the stuff-ups are appalling and leave you saying that phrase I really hate, someone should do something about that.
18 September 2005
Pop gan mai mare (or see ya later mum)
The end of a fantastic holiday. We saw mum off at the airport last night, and I feel sad already! She'd be about over Sydney as I write this and our place seems very quiet and empty.
We told Amy she'd see Nona again at Christmas time, so this morning we had this conversation:
"Is it a school day today?"
"No, it's a Sunday."
"Oh! Where we go today?"
"I don't know."
"We go to the airport and have Christmas time with Nona?"
She then told me she had a dream last night. I make a habit of asking her if she's had dreams, in the vain hope she'll recognise them for what they are. Usually the answer is no, or if yes she tells me about something she's just thought of. So this morning she says she had a dream last night where the teachers were doing wee wee in the toilet and the children had to get the toilet paper! When I was suitably impressed by this she went on the say that then a tiger came.
So back to regular life today - thinking of ways to entertain Amy and get back to work.
18 September 2005
On our first Sunday in a while with no distractions we decide to head off to one of the big local temples for a look around. Dave chooses Wat Pra Singh, the temple with the same name as our neighbourhood. When we arrived it is obviously temple time and the Wat is full of families and groups making offerings to the monks.
Temple conduct tells you a lot about Buddhism. Most everyone who isn't a monk sits on the floor in no particular order or pattern, and people get up and move around and talk quietly. One guy even reads a newspaper. Everyone smiles at everyone else, and no one even scowls at our child running around like she's in the playground. While there are some rules - like not pointing your feet at people (especially monks), not wearing immodest clothes (shorts, sleeveless tops), taking your shoes off - but those who break the rules seem to be well tolerated. Most of the farangs we see who break the rules don't even know they have because no one tells them or gives them a hard time.
So after sitting and watching people take turns to go up before the monks, make their offerings and receive blessings Amy declares she want to do it too. First we need a 'monk bucket', the traditional offering of a bucket filled with various life essentials like toothpaste, soap, noodles, juice boxes, candles, detergent and so on, usually with a bit of cash thrown in an envelope or stuck in on a stick (for the showy people!).
So Dave buys a bucket and gets hooked up with a woman who is keen to show us the ropes with a monk who speaks a little English. We are a great curiosity to all concerned and the monk is keen to know about us, why we are in Chiang Mai and most importantly why we have come to the temple. This is because we are farangs, but also because people usually go to the temple for a reason - a celebration, a death in the family, good luck for an upcoming journey or event. We blame Amy's curiosity and love of the temples, which seems to satisfy the monk.
So we give our offering, and the monk says a prayer for making merit in our next lives (seeing as how we don't have any dead people to make merit for), while we pour water into a cup, and then we all get blessing strings tied around our wrists for long life and good luck. The monk also gives Amy a small Buddha image amulet for protection - though I'm not sure how we are meant to get it onto her neck since it has no holes or anything for attaching it to a chain. We'll have to ponder that one.
All up a pretty interesting adventure marred only by my frustration at Amy's escalating bad behaviour. Towards the end of our visit she is almost shouting through the temple grounds "I want an ice-cream! Mummy, I want an ice-cream now!" Images of Verucca Salt chill me to the bone and make my cheeks red. We high tail it out but not fast enough for me to escape feeling utterly overwhelmed by her repetitive whining, or the stares of everyone else we pass. Another fabulous parental moment!
All the way to lunch in the song teow Amy cries over the denied ice cream till I pull my current favourite trick - let's count to five and then be happy! Shockingly it works and at five she wipes the snot away with her arm and does her best happy face. I try to do so well! But after 10 minutes in front of her sandwich she starts all over again - this time pleading for the chocolate cake Dave has promised she can have only if she eats her lunch. When it all gets too much he picks her up and waits outside out of respect for the other diners while I pay the bill and Amy wails.
Dave and I de-brief with an episode of the Sopranos while Amy naps. God, what does that say about us?!
19 September 2005
After an absolutely stinking hot day yesterday we've now had 10 hours of rain with no sign of let up, and the temperature has dropped to cool. As we were nodding off in bed last night it started with lightening - flashes coming every 3 or 4 seconds and lighting up the sky through my closed eyelids. Next came the thunder and then finally the torrents of rain. I had to get up and close the windows as I could feel the rain on me - and the bed is over 2 meters from the window! Here's hoping the road to school is still open…
Also had the cross-cultural present giving experience twice this weekend. First was at Thong's birthday party. A sit down dinner for 20 or so at the divine Baan Suak Mae Rim (Mae Rim Garden House) where the restaurant is in pavilions built over an enormous fish pond (more like a small lake or dam). There was a ridiculous amount of food including a few dishes I had never heard of and one in particular, which I love, but which is almost never well cooked - baby squid tubes stuffed with pork mince and served in a penang curry sauce. Normally the tubes are so tough it's like a giant elastic band, but at the party they were so tender you could cut them into bite size pieces with just the edge of a spoon. Heaven.
But back to the presents. What do you buy a 38 year old Thai man for his birthday? Hard at home but across the cultural divide…so we opted for a book on garden design as Thong is working at landscape design and has a keen aesthetic eye. So we dutifully wrap and tale it to the party, put it on the table where the drinks are being served. All night Amy keeps saying to me, why doesn't Thong open the present? I mean it's bad enough that he doesn't have a cake and candles, but how can he not open the presents?? Perhaps the presence of various other farangs exerts itself and finally Thong opens them. Lots of thanks, he loves the book.
So it gets me thinking about the present giving rituals we are used to - the giving, the opening, the thanking - and how they are not the same here. The point was underlined when we gave Nut her birthday present this morning. We really splashed out for her - a few reasons for that. We wanted to give something that was both enjoyable, like a toy, but also provided her with something beyond play. Having observed her doing a cross-stitch panel on a few occasions, we decided to set her up with some sewing gear.
A trip to the needlepoint shop saw us leave laden with all kinds of projects of varying difficulty, a good pair of scissors and box for storing it all in. I had also made her one of my rabbits (for inspiration?!). So we hand it over and she says thank you and it all disappears into her room. Dave and I are in the kitchen making toast and sneaking peeks into the room to try and see the opening and her reaction. But this is not the Thai way.
And it makes us realise how much of the present giving things is wrapped up in our sense of satisfaction over the reaction we get, the thanks, the smiles, the repeated gratitude. Here you don't get that and you have to give presents for joy of giving alone. On the plus side, because the giving and receiving are separated are you not required to pretend you like things you don't, or are grateful for things you aren't just to make the giver feel good. There's something good about that.
20 September 2005
Ahoy! Kiddie Bear has just rung to say we have an hour before the government are closing all the roads near school - would it be convenient to pick up Amy now? So Dave has shot off, the two of us cursing that our work routine - barely re-established - has again been blown out of the water. Or more literally washed into the water. So I'm guessing that means a trip to the shopping mall for a bit of physical activity in the ball room and a hasty schedule for the coming days until the waters abate. Wonder what else the flood has washed away/closed down/made inaccessible? Time to bunker in again.
23 September 2005
The great escape
After seeing the floodwaters rising in the night market on Tuesday night we decided to high tail it out of town. I went to exchange a few dud DVDs and found instead a scene of mass confusion - the rapid evacuation of truckloads of stock from stalls and shops, sandbagging, even the bricking up of numerous shopfronts to waist high - all while traffic was being diverted left and right and all the footpaths were under water. Chaos!
We toyed with jumping on a plane and visiting Luang Prabang in Laos, but when we tallied up the costs, we just couldn't justify the expense. Instead we got a car and headed North to Chiang Rai, for no particular reason other than it wasn't staying home with a bored kid in a town half closed down.
It's really nice to have the chance to drive through the country, to see the gorgeous tropical vegetation, stop in at roadside restaurants for lunch and generally wing it off crappy maps. Brings back lots of memories and reflections of road trips back in Oz - of which Dave and I have had more than our share of mostly fabulous times. After a while you see more in common with our own country than you see differences.
Like the way roadside stops and tiny 'towns' are a totally hit and miss affair - you can stumble on a gem with good food and ambiance or be made to feel like an unwelcome intruder on a local scene where no one even wants to sell you a drink. You can take a turn off the highway and find yourself ambling through farmland where people are out in the green fields, waving as you pass, or end up climbing the highest mountains of the region just after the heaviest of rains have caused multiple landslides and washed away half the mountain road.
Of course the destination is never as interesting as the ride and after a really bad night's sleep in an overpriced hotel we got back in the car and took to the road again. Another day of driving and we were home again. We returned to find boiling hot sunshine and no sign of rain! So school has reopened today, and Amy is off and it's time to get back to work.
26 September 2005
Just four days ago the floodwaters dropped enough for Amy's school to re-open, and today the papers reported that more floods are predicted to hit us in the next few days. The government is confident Chiang Mai can survive another flood - they have increased their sandbag allocation to 20,000. That'll work.
Spoke to Yui of the fabulous A Lot of Thai cooking school yesterday who told us she had kept her school going last week with sandbags and 4 water pumps - 500 litres a minute is what she was battling against. After less than a week of catch-up looks like she'll be at it again.
All this mayhem reminds me again not to make assumptions about the future. The weather has been so incredibly hot these last few days we thought the floods were surely over for the year, but even as I write this, the sky is clouding over. In the bigger picture it's not much more than an inconvenience to us, but how do people deal with this year after year without losing their minds and livelihoods?
So I'm trying to get lots of work done, knowing my end of next month deadline for submitting chapter 4 of the thesis is approaching all too fast and there's no telling how many work days I'll get in the meantime…
27 September 2005
It's too darn hot
Gee, the things a girl's gotta do to get relief from the heat! Here is Amy making the most of what was meant to be her toy box, but has instead become her swimming pool.
29 September 2005
And now it's too darn wet
Yep you guessed it, a nasty typhoon (now downgraded to a tropical storm) has dumped all over the region and flooded Chiang Mai, closed Amy's school and sent me to the shopping mall. Marvellous.
On the upside a couple of days ago we met some Australians passing through Chiang Mai and although we have nothing in common with them (21 year old backpackers - as Dave said that's almost half our age!) we have nonetheless really enjoyed a couple of dinners with them.
What is it about aussies? We are all instantly comfortable in each other's presence, including Amy who spent last night sitting on the other side of the table all over Cam and Ryan with not a care for Dave and I. Yippee. Dave and Ryan talked about cars (Holden vs Fords - you know the drill), Cam and Lisa and I about all kinds of other stuff. For the first time in ages I don't have to devote half my brain trying to second guess what everyone thinks or what I'm supposed to do.
Gee I miss all those folk from where I come from - even the ones I don't know…
2 October 2005
So Saturday night was one of those nights that gives you pause for thought about the down side of joining the parent's club. One of those nights it's inevitable you'll have because kids are kids, where you debate with yourself about whether the guy in casualty is going to laugh at you for being a crazy worried mother, or if he's going to yell at you for waiting too long before you acted on what is clearly an EMERGENCY situation.
Amy dived down the stairs, landing headfirst on the floor. She wailed and cried and kept saying I don't feel very well, which usually means I'm about to hurl. She managed not to hurl, but did dry retch, and was all shaky and weirdly quiet. So after a hurried late night call to our ever-faithful medical advisor Gerald (and his sterling partner Genie), we set off for the hospital because I'd rather be over cautious than stupid. Amy doesn't agree and starts screaming that she's well now and doesn't want to go and I NO LIKE DOCTORS.
We go down to the market carrying Amy and grab a tuk-tuk, who hightails it to casualty of the (thankfully) close by private hospital. Astronomically expensive by Thai standards, but very affordable by our standards, it comes the closest to what we are used to in Australia - newish building, lots of nurses in starched uniforms, signs in English as well as Thai, flowers in the lobby etc. So we are seen almost immediately (bad PR to have a kid screaming about how much she doesn't want to be there). The doctor isn't too worried, her crying alone convinces him that she's not about to keel over, and her ability to cleverly dodge his attempts to shine a torch in her eyes makes him laugh. SO we all relax a little.
He tells us to go home and observe for the key symptoms for the next 24 hours - diminished alertness, vomiting, pain or weakness in her extremities, strange speech, inability to stand or walk straight - and if we spot any of these come back straight away. By observation he means wake her every two hours (does anyone really expect alertness if you wake a kid at 2am?). Dave and I are particularly happy about his as you can imagine.
So we go to pay our bill ($5) and while Dave detours to get a bandaid for his blistered foot and I'm yawning because I wish I was in bed already, Amy leans over and vomits all over the lobby floor. It isn't a huge vomit, and knowing Amy's hair trigger on the chucking stakes, could easily have been caused by the fear and stress of the hospital visit alone, but my gut involuntarily tightens a little. After attracting the attention of a staff member to get the clean up going, we head back to casualty.
The doctor is less convinced about the whole thing now and gives us the option of admitting her for observation, an option none of us are keen about, knowing Amy's feelings about hospitals. So we ask if we can just sit for a while and see how things go before we decide. So we get put into a clinic that's closed for the night, interrupting the staff who are in there watching the soccer on their break, and set about waiting for a sign.
We don't have to wait long before the next vomit comes, louder and longer than the last. It isn't the fully projective kind they expect in the case of brain injuries (my blood goes cold when he says that), but the doctor has moved beyond options, he wants her admitted, and if we get two more vomits he wants a CT scan. So we go upstairs to a hospital room that really looks like a hotel (minibar and satellite TV included) and sit down while the nurses try to coax a smile out of Amy with a little backpack full of hospital stay stuff (tissues, face washers, toothbrush, talc, comb etc). They find cartoons on the TV and we sit watching them because none of us is prepared to sleep just yet.
Amy perks up a bit and has a bit of a chat while we rearrange the chairs and tables so we can sit next to the bed in a semi prone position. We're still all pretending we'll be sleeping some time soon. She wants Teddy (well prepared Dave!) lies down and watches the b grade cartoons of my childhood for a while and then abruptly sits up and vomits again. After a while someone comes to clean it up (they use a whole roll of toilet paper - none of that specialised hospital stuff here). Now she wants me on her gurney with her, so I curl around her in the most uncomfortable position possible while we wait.
When the next vomit comes I go tell the nurse, but ask if we can hold off on the CT scan because Amy will completely freak and although the vomiting is a bad sign everything else is still normal and although I'm worried, I'm not that worried yet. I'm trying to weigh the relative risks of traumatising her for nothing and waiting too long for a more definitive sign. The nurse tries to contact the doctor who can't talk to her "because he is dong CPR" (!), so she agrees to wait.
By now it's about midnight and Amy is finding it hard to fight tiredness, despite the TV. So we switch it off and I lie holding her while Dave takes the couch and we try to will everything to be all right. They both drop off, but between the worry, the dehydration from the air-con, the mozzies (mozzies? On the 10th floor of the hospital with the air-con going? Go figure!), the periodic visits from the nurses that require me to wedge the thermometer under her arm and hold it still, and my precarious perch and numb arm from holding Amy I'm still wide awake watching the clock and willing morning to arrive.
And although it feels like about two years of my life is passing, eventually it is morning, and Amy wakes up and wants something to drink (thank goodness for the minibar) and for all the world seems none the worse for wear. So we go and pay the bill ($100) and be thankful we can leave. Today Amy's gone to school, newly re-opened after Typhoon Damrey closed it down last week, very excited to be taking her new backpack. If she was a little older she'd be telling all the other kids about it, but at 3 the backpack is all she seems to be focused on.
Dave and I are getting back to work, both of us mindful of slipping timelines and the need to get on with it. But there's a little bit of my mind that is still in that hospital room, thinking about what might have been and making resolutions to remember that next time I want to yell because Amy is mucking around when it's time to get dressed or refusing the have her hair washed or generally being impossible. Life's short, even if you live to be 100.
6 October 2005
Today as Dave and I were taking our lunch break and watching an episode of West Wing we were suddenly drowned out by the noise of chain saws. Looking out the window we saw a guy on the extension ladder of an old fire truck chopping down one of the big shade trees out the front. He was so close to the balcony I could have given him a cup of tea.
Now in our stinking hot climate it's always a trade off between the joys of light filled rooms and the joy of cooling shade, and up until now the shade has won out on the front of the house. We've often remarked how fortunate we are to have the three biggest trees in the street posing as our personal sunshades and how if we didn't have the trees we'd be living in just another box of burning concrete.
But the end tree of the three grows at frighteningly precarious angle out of the tiniest gap between paving and pavement, and apparently the monks from the Wat next door had made some noises about impending doom from falling limbs and powerlines. To look at this specimen, it is pretty surprising it is still up right given where it gets nourishment from and what it has to put up with from cars parking down the alley and so on.
So goodbye cooling leafy shade, now we're looking on the bright side.
On Saturday we fly over to Mae Hong Son for the weekend, known in the brochures as Thailand's Siberia - and this is meant to make want to go there?? Sure it will be very interesting and picturesque.
10 October 2005
Back from Siberia
What a trip! After just two days it's like coming home from another country. Spent a good part of yesterday visiting various villages - from a relatively inaccessible Lisu village of the most traditional kind to a Chinese village that's a tea growing centre and more like a regular town than an ethnic village. Not withstanding my earlier post on the human zoo aspect of this part of tourism in Northern Thailand, the experience was wonderfully interesting and much of it not in the least concerned with the almighty dollar (or Baht, as the case may be). I still feel uneasy about the way tourists change these people's perceptions of themselves, and the incredible inequality that serves as a photo-opportunity, but in between you get some glimpses of stuff that's more transcendental.
Of course with my sewing and craft obsession I found the work done by the women in each of the villages fascinating, and the chance to see the different and distinct styles side by side was great. I sat in the shelter of the Lisu village where the women make their geometric designs on a pedal sewing machine. I adore their long dresses that are made of panels of various shades of velvet with woven trims and other bits and pieces, worn over pants. I showed them a couple of my toys in an attempt at crafting sisterhood, and I think they were interested, though I might be kidding myself!
In the Shan village there were women embroidering pictures to be sent to Bangkok - the most elaborate and divine work you can imagine. They take a large piece of cloth and tack it onto a sturdy free standing wooden frame. Then they photocopy a picture (orchids, an otter) onto fine paper, tack it to the fabric and sew over it with a million tiny stitches using the original picture as a colour guide. By not following a distinct pattern (like a cross stitch or needlework grid) the stitches all overlap, giving a very realistic image, with lots of depth and variation. The pictures (say 40x60cm) take about 2 months to complete. Wow.
In the Hmong village an old woman was making a skirt for her daughter. A long length of denim like fabric is used as the base, then geometric designs are marked on it using (I think) bleach. A range of decorative tapes or strips are sewn (by hand of course) down the length of the fabric at irregular intervals, leaving space for hand stitched borders of tiny patches of coloured cotton (in this case in shades of blue). The border is composed of squares of cross-stitched tapestry with complex symmetrical designs stitched together. The whole thing is then tightly pleated (again, by hand) with tucks of only 2 or 3 millimetres. The resulting skirt is dazzlingly detailed and quite heavy and is worn over pants and with embroidered velvet jackets - just right for life in the (at times) cold mountains.
But there's more to life than craft, and with Dave's eye and constant questioning of our (Shan) driver we also learn a lot about the different housing and lifestyles of the various tribes. Shan are the only tribes to build their houses up on stilts, as is the tradition in Thailand. The Shan village is neat and tidy, each house carefully marked out with fences and lanes ways and quite densely built, while the neighbouring Hmong keep pigs and fowl together, and let them roam relatively free. The driver makes no bones about how gross he thinks this is, and that in fact this is why the Shan have fences - to keep the stinking Hmong pigs out! Aside from the fences a main road also separates the two villages, and while the Hmong are very friendly towards us, their whole village does indeed stink.
Amy enjoys each one as much as the last and with her keen eyes and ears manages to locate the children at each stop. It is the Lisu village where she has the greatest success with interaction and while I sit and talk to the women over their sewing and Dave talks to the men about their houses, Amy plays boo with the half a dozen kids young enough to feel uninhibited about running and screaming like kids do. While to an adult's eyes some of their play appears quite antagonistic (boos becoming close to whacks), and very much built around 'lets gang up on the foreigner', they all seem to be laughing, so I smile a lot and let her have her fill. At the other villages she doesn't progress much beyond pointing and smiling and sidling up close to the other kids, but she interacts well with the grown ups who trot out the increasingly predictable questions regarding her origin and age.
Amy falls asleep on the winding hilly trek back to town and we head up to the airport early with the idea she might continue to doze on our laps before the jalopy of an airplane comes to get us. Seeing the 80 seater propeller plane landing fills me with shudders, but we actually have a very smooth and quick flight back (just under 30 minutes) and from my seat by the window I get to enjoy a spectacular view of the miles and miles of mountains that keep Mae Hong Son so isolated. While I detest flying about as much as emergency root canal, I can't deny that there is something truly awe inspiring about seeing such landforms from the sky. Flying so low we are only just above the scattering of clouds, so my view of the ranges alternates with that weirdly cotton wool cloud landscape that seems so much more substantial than I know it to be. I really wish I liked flying more, especially since I so love to be in other places.
12 October 2005
Thesis black hole
In that horrible bit where the time is bearing down (just over two weeks till the next chapter has to go in) but the inspiration isn't doing its bit.
I'm getting old enough now to recognise the stages of the writing process. You start with the initial idea, when you are all excited about the big picture and it's all possibilities and grand plans. You manage to convince a supervisor and yourself that this is something solid, something workable, something that could be, well, great.
Next comes the attention to detail bit where you immerse yourself in the various aspects of the idea and discover you know very little after all. There are so many bits in the puzzle, you can't hold them all at once and your idea, your take on someone else's idea you now find out, starts to fall apart before your eyes. You struggle with increasing desperation to find the thread, the unifying theme, the thing that pulls it all together. You start to curse the topic, question your capability, contemplate other career moves that don't involve writing. You start looking over your shoulder in case anyone has caught on that you have no idea and probably never will.
Then you get pragmatic and start clutching at straws. You try new ways of ordering your thinking, restructure your outline to no avail, your finished work seeming further from your grasp than ever. You reorganise your notes, looking for new ways to understand your information, read another article, delete everything you've written and start again. You reformat the page, write some emails, walk around and think about what to have for lunch.
And then at some point you give up on the big idea, the solution, the breakthrough and you just start writing what seems like something that might pass for an idea. And for reasons you don't understand after a while this version starts to take shape and you suddenly realise you are on a roll, pelting down the hill towards your conclusion, the little bits tying up nicely into what is really quite a good idea.
So that's the process, and I'm on the uphill bit, not the down hill bit where I'd much rather be and given the time I really should be. I'm still lost in the unstructured thoughts where nothing quite fits together and I always feel like I'm leaving the important bits out. So I know it's only a matter of time before I make it to the top and it all takes off, but for now all I can see is the slope going ever upwards and light disappearing on the day and I feel like this trudge is never going to end.
19 October 2005
Ruins Thai style
A long weekend to mark the end of Buddhist Lent and the arrival of Dave's folks for their second trip here were the perfect excuses for a weekend getaway to Sukhothai, the ruins of the ancient capital. As usual just about the best part of the road trip was the road bit - driving through the countryside and the tiny villages is a thrilling experience for an aussie city slicker. Everything is so green and lush: the rice paddies fringed with banana palms, the corn and sugar fields, the mountains that are always just a stone's throw away, the thatched rooves of the salas and rice barns. I just love it.
We very bravely took a few forays out into the secondary and tertiary roads and I put my navigational skills to the test by reading road signs in Thai script and trying to match them to the ones on the map. Miraculously we didn't get lost once, and the most we needed directions was finding the hotel when we got to town.
The Sukhothai runs themselves, and the ones we visited on the way at Si Satchanalai are what remains of the once glorious capital that was sacked by the invading Burmese in something like the 17th century. It's hard not to compare them to Angkor - although much smaller and much later, they still represent the lost civilisation thing. Of course in the comparison they don't come up so well, as Dave remarked they would have been much more impressive if we hadn't been to Angkor. Unlike Angkor they are constructed of stone bricks and mortar, then render. No carving as such as they age and the render goes they don't carry the same awe inspiring scale of stone mass. On the upside, the wealth of the Thai nation comes to the fore in preserving what remains very well, and surrounding them with gorgeous manicured gardens, smooth roadways and helpful maps and brochures. Can't help but see that difference between the Thias and the Khmers reverberating through the ages…
On the way home we took a detour on the strength of a name on a map - Baan Rai Pai Ngarm - a hand weaving cotton village. It turned out to be a museum and functioning loom of the most exquisite kind. Hand picked and spun cotton, hand dyed with all natural dyes and then hand woven into plain and subtly patterned fabrics. The museum was upstairs in an enormous old teak house, the kind that just makes you wish for a life in them, while the underhouse was a mess of looms in mid weave. All the staff were off at temple (end of lent and all that), so we wandered around on our own, poking at the looms and ending up (of course!) in the shop with the one old lady who was around. I was full of resolve about not going mad but it's so hard not to get caught up in the consumer frenzy when you know you'll probably never be here again, and I have such a weakness for fabric.
And then I spied the remnant pile. I have had it in my head for a while about making a quilt when I get back to Oz. After following the making of Hilary Lang's plainspoken quilt (see wee wonderfuls on the craft blog list) I was very taken by this idea of making quilts around a central idea. And the textiles are so much a part of the Thai experience for me, and combined with the whole hand made thing which is so inspirational and deserving of admiration and patronage…anyway so I picked out my quilt palette with a few pieces big enough to get a new dress for Amy and maybe some other little something. Ah my little heart is singing. Now all I have to do is work out how I'm going to do it…
24 October 2005
Look, I know it's a sickness and impossible for non-crafters to understand, but I'm deep in the grip of my crafting urges. As Dave said last night to Amy, "you'll never see your mum so happy as when she's got a pile of fabric and her head is girring away on a new idea". I've started on a patchwork cover for my scissors, and a part of me is very surprised, like suddenly I've turned into my grandma. Since when do I care about a scissors cover, but well, you know those things are sharp! And it's just a diversion to keep me from cutting up all the gorgeous stuff I've bought here which will be ruined without an iron and sewing machine on hand. So I'm finally accepting what I should have been at peace with when I got an A for the patchwork cushion I made in grade 9 - I was born to craft.
My little heart was all a flutter when I got not one but two emails today saying I had been added to other people's Flickr pages as contacts, and that people had actually left comments about my work there. And one of them was from Melissa at Ohsewpretty, whose work I really like and it's strange and exciting to be noticed by some in the amazing network of crafters I've been lurking around! And I don't even know how to tell you non-Flickr users how to find me on Flickr - that's how slow on the uptake I am. But anyone who likes photos I suggest you explore on Flickr.com, and if you find me let me know the address.
I've also bought a crochet hook and Japanese pattern book for amigurumi figures - I'll let you know if and when I manage to make something happen. Does anyone know if there's anywhere in Melbourne you can get Japanese craft books?
Other than that there isn't much news from here. I'm still running to catch the thesis train. It's not quite the black hole it was, though that's not because I found the light, more like my eyes are adjusting to the dark! I have decided that I need to bring my supervisor into the project a bit more at this juncture, so I've decided to press on with the mess, send it off and get some feedback instead of pacing the floor looking for insight. It means I've lowered my expectations, but pulled the deadline forward. Hoping the additional pressure will push my forward or something crazy like that. So time is a ticking and I should be writing…
Dave's folks are still here so we've been doing all those things you do when people are visiting, hiring cars and going for country drives, making the rounds of the markets and favourite shops, eating out…Amy is getting over a cold and has been operating at about 80% for almost a week now. The cold was mild (I think she caught it from me), but the cough is an annoying little reminder and with her hair trigger vomit response - well let's just say there's a little bit of me that's nervous all the time. Yesterday she was uncharacteristically sooky and clinging, which was very un-fun on a mountain drive, but today she was desperate to go to school so I'm hoping that means she's past the worst of it.
Ok I admit it's a cheat taking a photo of my daughter's artwork and calling it a self-portrait. But I so love this one. Somehow it totally captures that demented exhaustion I've felt ever since she's been born, but it's OK because it's purple! I feel very honoured to have scored both 'circle eyes' and fingers.
We're off again
The long planned trip to visit Dave's village in Isaan has finally come together and after much deliberation and months to plan we've still ended up doing everything at the last minute. Now we have plane tickets to leave on Sunday morning, a car and an itinerary, but can't seem to get accommodation in Bangkok. Should be fun dealing with that! After 5 days in the big durian as Ang would say we're off through the Thai badlands to the Cambodian/Laos border to see long lost temples and nowheresville towns. So long as Amy doesn't decide on day one that she doesn't want to go it should be loads of fun.
Also dealing with this protracted cold of Amy's which seems to leave her well enough to be annoyingly energetic but unwell enough to be hanging off me, coughing all the time, boiling hot to the touch, barely eating and sleeping badly. Last night was something of a throw back to those early winters of constant night waking and discomfort, with a 38 degree temperature and hours of tossing and turning in our bed while Dave slept in hers. Sent shivers down my spine thinking about it, and thankful we missed this Melbourne winter and didn't have to live through half a dozen of these. Anyway after requesting to go to bed at 6.45 tonight (I'm still in shock) I am hoping once again that this will be the end of it. Ha.
And right on Suzy about whinging expats (http://www.floatingworldviews.com/). For everything that's annoying about being in someone else's country there's a thousand fantastic things a lot to learn from not being the boss. If more people tried it the world might be a more tolerant place…
10 reasons why I love sticky rice
In honour of the upcoming Isaan trip I have been thinking about some hardcore Kao Niew (sticky rice) eating, so here are my top 10 reasons to love sticky rice:
1. In those places where sticky rice is a staple, it is also an integral part of the language. As in - "I am so tired I couldn't even eat sticky rice" or "I am so happy I could eat sticky rice!"
2. Unlike a lot of white rice (especially the hideous kind that's boiled in masses of water) it has actual texture and individual grains and requires chewing.
3. It's served in it's own little basket with a lid so it stays warm through the whole meal.
4. The way you ball it up and dip it in the sauces of dishes lets you really appreciate the flavour of curries and the like without the distraction of the other ingredients.
5. You can't have sticky rice without sharing your meal (and everyone else's).
6. It's really best to eat it with your hands.
7. It's steamed not boiled so you don't have an awful rice pot to clean at the end of the meal.
8. No matter what else is going on you can always be sure that Amy will eat sticky rice.
9. Sticky rice is cheaper than Jasmine rice.
10. It's the basis for my all time favourite Thai dessert - sticky rice with mango. This is especially amazing since I don't even like mango (that's how much I love the sticky rice).
Kao-niew-ma-muang (sweet sticky rice with mango)
1 cup sticky (glutinous) rice, soaked in cold water for 6 or more hours
1 cup thick coconut cream
1/2 cup sugar
2 pinches of salt
Fresh mango (as much as you like)
Sauce (1/4 cup of coconut cream, 1 tablespoon sugar and a pinch of salt)
· Drain rice and steam over medium heat for about 15 mins. Grains should be firm but not hard.
· Put rice in lage bowl and gently stir in other ingredients while rice is hot, cover loosely and let stand for 30 mins to 1 hour.
· To make sauce mix ingredients and heat gently until sugar is dissolved.
· When ready to serve stir in sauce, spoon onto plates and top with chunks of fresh mango and a drizzle of coconut cream.
Guests of honour
Last night we had one of those fabulous travel experiences where you get to walk through the tourism door and come out on the other side, dinner at P'Niwat and P'Ad's home. In glorious Thai style there was enough food to feed approximately 50 people (there was 9 of us). We started out with satay and pomelo salad, followed by fried fish with tamarind sauce, green curry, Panang curry, sour curry and roast pork. Every dish was absolutely delish, and I even managed to get instructions for the tamarind sauce, which has long been a favourite of mine. Look forward to a lot of that back home :-)
We ate under the canopy of the extensive orchard at the Tantanaysorn's, at a table made from the widest plank of wood I have ever seen. I just can't even picture what that tree looked like. P'Niwat is a great gardener, especially interested in ferns, so the setting was filled with greenery and felt much like we were eating in the jungle (if you ignored the gorgeous and expansive house on the other side of the patio). It was an absolute treat, and only topped off by us all watching Amy dance in her own unique combination of classic Thai/creative free form/Kath Day-Knight style in front of the ENORMOUS screen in their home theatre to a DVD of the Eagles performing hotel California. Talk about cultural fragmentation. It was a riot.
A fitting note to sign off for the 10 days or so we'll be away. As usual I am already suffering withdrawal symptoms from my impending techno black out so I might manage to sneak into an internet café when no one's looking, but till then chog-dee-ka (good wishes).
Arrived home last night weary from what seemed like an eternity in transit from the far-flung reaches of Isaan. Was a mighty strange feeling to arrive home last night really feeling like we were home and yet be reflecting that in less than 4 weeks we will be gone from here and back to our real home in Oz. A terrible mix of sadness and excitement: dying to revisit that old life and our friends in it but not ever wanting to leave here and let this fantastic adventure end.
Had the most fantastic trip ever and will write in more detail over the next day or two as I get myself together (right now dealing with the 55 waiting emails, and the nastiest chest cold I've had in a while). When I think back to what I imagined before we left Oz, the travel we have done has way surpassed even my wildest best-case scenarios. We counted up last night that Amy has now had her 12th air flight and has been to pretty much the full array of regional delights! It warms my heart each time we enter a temple and she prays out loud to Buddha saying "thank you for making me a lucky girl". Indeed. That we should all remember every time we pass a Wat (at least one every block here in Chiang Mai) how incredibly lucky we are.
No tale of Krung Thep, as the locals call Bangkok, would be right if it didn't start with a description of the surreal and hair-raising taxi ride from the airport. 30 minutes of sheer terror. Feeling as though you are transported into a game of Daytona on double time (but with even less control), the cars weave and change lanes at an alarming 120km an hour - some feat given how unbelievably crowded the roads are in this city of some six million people. I've done this ride quite a few times now and it never ceases to amaze me when I get out alive, or that no strategy manages to avoid this rite of passage. Like, if you want to play in my town get ready!
But even the taxi ride can't prepare you for the fully physical onslaught of the Bangkok experience - the heat and humidity, the pollution, the noise, the crowds, the smell (oh the smells!), the incredibly confusing complexity of the road and transport system, the scale of a town where you can stand in the middle and see sky scrapers for 20km in every direction. It is at once exhilarating and completely terrifying, oppressive and confusing, fascinating and wonderful, it's easy to get lost and really fun when you do. One of the things that struck me is that even though I haven't been to downtown Bangkok in nearly 10 years and it has changed enormously in that time, I recognised so many landmarks, street corners and little out of the way places. I was cheered to see that scary little firetrap of Bonanza Mall on the edge of Siam square hadn't been developed out of existence, but saddened to see my most favourite haunt from years gone by, the New Light Diner had been given a face lift and lost some of it's Brady Bunch charm.
From our hotel down Sukumvit we rode the skytrain back and forth a million times, and I have to say this new mode of transport, along with the new underground, makes navigating the nightmare sprawl of Bangkok one hell of a lot easier. Not to mention that people give up their seats for children! But even with this wonderful innovation, it takes a good portion of any day to get from one place to another as Bangkok is not in any way shape or form a centralised or organised city. You don't go 'into town' or 'across town', since 'town' is everywhere, clustered around hubs of activity or transport routes. You know if you look at the skyline of somewhere like Melbourne and you see the high-rise of the CBD form a little pimple over the broader town, well there isn't anything like that in Bangkok. The multitude of skyscrapers are interspersed with areas of low rise giving a kind of up and down fragmented effect.
If there isn't a visual for a CBD as such, neither is there a sense of the density of the centre gradually thinning out to the burbs. To the furthest reaches of the city every spare centimetre of space is used at ground level with a dense network of major and minor roads and their side streets (sois), pavements hosting tiny stalls selling food and consumer goods, shops, travelling hawkers with carts laden with toys, noodle soups, juices and every other conceivable thing (we saw one which had ladders of every shape and size). Up above the pavements there are also networks of pedestrian walkovers, sky trains, raised motor expressways and 'sky walk' arcades - giving you the sense of vertical as well as horizontal density that is truly dizzying. And everything is chock a block full of people: walking, in cars, trains and buses, looking at wares, sitting eating bowls of noodles or plates of rice, waiting for space to move forward, pouring in and out of office blocks and shopping malls. And when you can't take it anymore you hail a cab and step into the soothing air con, only to sit stationary for what seems like hours at a time, stuck in the traffic, or speeding at 120km (no exaggeration I swear) for 2 minutes of expressway before you are stationary in traffic again. Total frustration and boredom intermingled with mind numbing terror.
It was no wonder that we had a real handful dealing with Amy who suffered the signs of what we are now beginning to recognise as visitor withdrawal (Dave's folks going home). This includes lots of tantrums, consumer frenzies, erratic sleeping and eating and general revoltingness. Combined with Bangkok overload she had us sliding under restaurant tables in embarrassment and red faced after broking the unwritten rules of mass train commuting etiquette by screaming and making faces while all else was deathly silent. Needless to say there was a lot of bad tempers all round - not least from the entirely different class of tourist than those we are used to in Chiang Mai. Here the back-packers, adventure seekers and laid back Asia lovers are relatively invisible, and the city seems host to more than its fair share of moneyed jet setters with their coiffed hair, Prada purses and disdainful looks. The shopping stop over crowd whose real destinations are the resorts of Phuket or International cities of Europe and have just popped into Bangers for a few days and make the occasional foray out of the five star circuit to slum it with the locals. I felt pretty much like I do when I stray from home turf in Brunswick to the shopping strips of Toorak Rd or Chapel St.
But we managed to scrape up the appearance of respectability for a major evening blow-out at Virtigo - a restaurant on the roof of a 61 storey five star hotel. And when I say on the roof I mean it literally, with nothing to stop you from plummeting to the ground but a handrail that wouldn't pass an Oz building inspection for a one meter high patio, and not so much as an umbrella overhead. I was nervous that I would find the whole thing too well vertigo inducing, but I was surprised at how relaxed I felt. It was so amazing to be able to see 360 degrees over such an awesome city that even the great food and service and fear of immanent death barely registered. Absolutely wow. The only shame was arriving too late to get any good pictures to show you all, but I've included one of the building from the ground.
We also took in some of the sights I've missed over the years, the amazing palaces and Wats. They were fabulous, and I enjoyed them immensely, but with the benefit of hindsight I think I would have chosen to see them in my child-free years. A minor squirmish with some incense had me dragging a screaming Amy through a dense crowd of tourists at Wat Po, and though she was completely fine (don't panic Dawn!) it really took the edge off the stunning giant Buddha image and the relaxed pace I might have taken to view the painted friezes of Buddhist teachings that adorned the walls. The Palace of Vimamer was an absolute delight - oh to live the life of a king! - helped to a great degree by our child-friendly tour group on the guided tour, who found Amy's outrageous behaviour highly amusing and left her parents to take in some of the stunning teak architectural features and royal gifts from around the world. Another highlight was the canal and river taxis - which provided just enough adrenaline to keep Amy engaged without frightening the living daylights out of her. I did some shopping, as you do in a city like Bangkok, and ventured into little India, which is so like India it is hard to believe you are still in Thailand.
All up it was a thoroughly action-packed if at times overwhelming 5 days. Wonderful, wonder filled days. And then we got in the car and headed out to the endless expanse of the Khorat plain known as the region of Isaan…
The road through Isaan
The North Eastern expressway out of Bangkok is big and busy and surrounded by high-rise buildings for what seems like forever. I thank goodness that Dave is familiar with the road from his many Isaan trips and lets me off the hook from navigating so I can just watch. We stop every 10km or so to pay the next lot of tolls, which really aren't exactly cheap for the average Thai. Eventually Amy goes to sleep and Dave and I sit breathing out the hectic pace of Bangkok and taking in the beginnings of the 'country' air - though on a six lane highway reminiscent of the worst parts of the Hume (only twice as busy) that was more an imaginary country thing. But it's nice to just sit and let the Kms tick by as we head towards Khorat (or Nakhon Ratchsima).
Immediately the difference in landscape from the north is obvious - its flatter, hotter, the vegetation is lower and the road just barrels through instead of following the gentle curves of the hills and streams. Suddenly there's buffalo and cows everywhere and steakhouses! It's been a long while since I've eaten beef. The economic change is also obvious, everything takes a step down, the houses are lighter, smaller, more wonky. The roadside restaurants don't sell cold drinks, they sell drinks and ice (separately), the menus are smaller and there's no English to be seen.
Khorat was a blip on our trip, and already I'm struggling to remember the details of the travelling salesman hotel we stayed in. We went downtown to grab some dinner but after getting caught in the rain and having no real basis for a choice we sat in the nearest place undercover and had the usual range of dishes, with no common language there's only so much you can do. I seem to recall the Tom Yum soup was excellent though. Disappointingly there was no sticky rice. It was in Khorat that we started playing Dave's favourite game - spot the Farang (foreigner). The further East we went, the higher the stakes got and it goes without saying that not much money changed hands. Whole towns went by where we were literally a travelling freak show with people pointing like they'd never seem white people before.
After Khorat we had out first big temple day - first at Phimai and then Phanom Rong. These are two temples which were originally part of the Angkor complex of Cambodia, and although separated by hundreds of kms, were connected directly by road on a single axis. It's one of those history of changing border things that they have ended up in Thailand, separated from the herd. Unlike Sukhothai or modern Thai temples, you can see immediately their likeness to Angkor - the large scale, the way they are constructed, the carving, the type of stone, the layout of the temples themselves. They were magnificent!
Phimai is actually in the centre of Phimai town, which has grown up around the temple ruins. After the Cambodia experience it was somewhat bizarre to stand on the edge of the ancient ruins and see cars and trucks charging past only meters from your feet. Phanom Rong was more isolated, built on top of a hill (more bloody steps), but very well touristed by Thais on a Saturday. Again, with no farangs in sight we were almost as inspected as the temple itself and when Amy took to dancing in front of the children's band playing on the steps we drew something of a crowd.In the evening we headed down to CBIRD, the development project where Dave lived for all those months he was doing his field work years ago. By a twist of fate that would have no credibility in fiction, we were assigned a room in the rammed earth house that was built as one of the prototypes in Dave's project - and to which he strenuously objects! And after a miserable sweltering night he had his feelings fully vindicated - rammed earth is not a good idea in Isaan. Amy also had her first ever ant bite, which set up a chain of insect fears that was not helpful when the gnats swarmed all around us at dinner time and had her screaming after every winged or crawling speck entered view. So after years of building up to see the place we were all thoroughly delighted to leave at first light!
A walk through Dave's village was by contrast an absolute delight. The headman and his wife were so wonderfully warm and friendly that even the nervous Amy overcame her fear of strangers (particularly bent and wizened old ladies with betel nut stained lips and rotten teeth) and was laughing her head off after just a few minutes. After a spell sitting with the family we set out while Dave took photos and like the pied piper we gradually collected a stream of children behind us. Clearly the most interesting thing to happen since, well, the last time Dave came. On the way out we came across a parade of people heading to the local Wat for an ordination, women up front singing and dancing and drinking moonshine which the blokes coming up the rear playing music and driving the cars. What a hoot! They were thrilled when I whipped out the video camera!
After a very long drive we finally made it to Phra Wihan. Another temple of the Angkor complex, it sits smack bang on the Thai Cambodian border and after many years in dispute has been decided as belonging to Cambodia. Of course in true Asian style even this simple ruling is more complicated than it appears - the temple is virtually inaccessible from the Cambodian side as it's situated on the top of a very high and extensive escarpment. So you drive from miles into nowhere, pay a Thai to enter the historical park, eat lunch on the Thai side and then walk to the border. Here you pay someone to photocopy your passport and then walk down into a valley before you pay a Cambodian the same amount you paid the Thai to enter the temple complex.
There's lots of ticket punching and official fluffing around and then there you are, surrounded by hand hauled dodgy Chinese duty free cigarettes and alcohol being sold to Thais by Cambodians and the most horrendous walk uphill you can imagine. Thousands of steps made of stone in irregular sizes and shapes, shifted over time to make it as difficult a walk as you can have on a flight of stairs. And hot? Man, the sweat was POURING off us - even Amy who rode the whole way on Dave's back was wet with it. And with each staircase crest and stone temple, you walk through and find ANOTHER stone walkway and flight of stairs, leading to another half collapsed temple. I don't know how many there were - it seemed like a dozen, but I think it was four or five stretching over 800m.
And the temples were nice, and I was thinking that I was glad I'd seen them, even if the walk damn near killed me, and even if they were so similar to the Khmer ones. Nice was what I was thinking. Not spectacular or amazing or unique, but, you know, a nice complete set now to my temple experiences. And then we walked through the side gallery of the last temple and out a little hole in the side and BAM! The view! That escarpment I referred to earlier? Well here we were right on its very precipice, I don't know how high in the air, but high enough to have the single most stunning and breath-taking 360-panoramic view I've ever had in my life. You could see for literally hundreds of kms into Cambodia, Laos and Thailand. It was unbelievable. We shared the view with a monk and two Thai girls and a whole lot of silent hot air and it was truly the most awe-inspiring thing.
With legs like jelly and faces and clothes encrusted in salt and sweat we made our way back to the car, now hours behind schedule, in virtual silence. Amy dropped into sleep immediately and we wished we could follow her, but we were gunning to make it into Ubon Ratchathani before it was too dark to find our hotel and something to eat. Thankfully the hotel turned out to be better than expected - our expectations by this stage dropping fast - and a room service meal was delicious and sleep deep and comforting.
For our last night we headed out to the Thai Lao border and Khong Chiam, a little itty bitty town with nothing to it except the confluence of two mighty rivers, the Mekong and the Moon. After some driving in circles we found the turn off to our out of town luxury resort and were delighted to find ourselves in a gorgeous tropical garden on the very bank of the Mekong, staring across the water to Lao and miles from anyone else. Beautiful view, nice pool, good food, big room and lots of silence - what else could you ask for? Ah bliss. Won't ruin the mood with the boring and extended commute home (2 planes, 2 delays, missed meals, exhaustion - the usual drill), but suffice to say that despite the really wonderful adventure it was nice to sleep in our own beds.
Tis the season
While we were away the calendar ticked over to the month of November, which marks the beginning of tourist high season. Now we were only gone ten days on our trip, but coming back to Chiang Mai the change is overwhelming. Seemingly overnight the farang (foreigner) population has doubled, maybe even tripled. On our side of town where farangs are not usually all that common we are now tripping over them. And while the altered mix of the population literally seems to jump off the streets, so does all the other stuff that comes with it. Prices shoot up, new restaurants pop up like oxalis weeds in my veggie garden (and there's a lot of those), shops are fully stocked and finished with their end of wet season/flood sales, song theow drivers seem happy to take us to school for a reasonable price.
It's also the season of city beautification, though how much that has to do with farang season I don't know since it's also Loy Krathong season. Now I think Loy Krathong is theoretically a one or two day deal, but in reality it is one of Thailand's most favourite festivals (along with the gloriously messy water festival of Songkran) so they make it last. In a wonderfully symbolic gesture the Thais celebrate the festival by releasing Krathongs, small floating boats lit with candles and incense, down waterways. The Karthongs take away all the previous year's bad luck and experiences and pay homage to the water goddess, and at the same time herald the beginning of a new year and the incoming good luck and fortune.
Traditionally the boats were made of banana leaf using the techniques of the art of banana leaf decoration (really complicated folding and tucking to make surreally beautiful structures), and decorated with various tokens. In modernisation there has been a massive shift to polystyrene - an ecological and aesthetic disaster as you can imagine. But there are now a number of new methods being explored, including dried bread (pay homage and feed the fish at the same time!). The supermarkets are full of them as are the stalls lining the river, and even Amy's school project for the coming week involves making krathongs!
So while all this takes place, along with parades and other festivities, next Tuesday and Wednesday, the fun is already well underway. Last night as we were eating dinner I looked up and was astonished to see the sky full of what appeared to be strings of fairy lights. It took a while to realise they were actually Khom Loys - the airborne version of the Krathong where a candle/lamp is attached to a giant paper or fabric balloon. They were drifting so gracefully and slowly into the distance it was absolutely magical. I am BUSTING with excitement about seeing all the Karthongs next week! Not to mention the fireworks…
And there are other signs too, the moat and river are now lined on both sides with thousands of oil lamps (made of old red bull bottles!), lit by hand each night, the road barriers near all the waterways have been replaced with giant flower planter boxes, and every bit of public space seems to filled with stages and seating, billboards, musical equipment and all manner of activity. The paper flags and banners decorated with intricate patterns of gold and silver leaf that you often see used as light shades here have popped up all over the outsides of Wats and houses in celebration, and every second street seems to be closed at some point for processions, markets and goodness knows what.
So we're planning on battling the crowds to get a plumb spot in one of the riverside restaurants next Wednesday so we can watch it all unfold. Here's hoping we do!
There's nothing like an appreciative three year old to make you feel like a crafting hero, but there's nothing like the whiff of commerce to induce crafting anxiety. Ever since the wonderful Cath introduced me to felt doll making during the Christmas holiday of 2003 I have sternly resisted all suggestions I find some moneymaking outlet for the work. And no, not because money is grubby and toys are pure. It's just that every time I looked down that road all I saw was me staying up all night making a thousand identical dollies and doing a poor imitation of a factory assembly line. That's not what I like about dollies.
But now that I have come to know this net-blog-crafting world, I've gained a little more optimism about the possibilities for making stuff and letting others get their mits on it. So when the creative and savvy Carly (http://neststudio.typepad.com/moopy_me/) asked for 'artists' to put stuff up for her new shop I decided to give it a whirl. And now of course every project is coming up crap. I think that in my mind I'm judging everything like the quality control officer at that imaginary factory, even though I know that's not what I'm doing, that individuality in toys is what it's all about. But still. But still, I'm suddenly fussing over every little stitch you can see…because I'm no longer seeing each creation being dragged around by an imaginative little someone, who doesn't notice or care about stitches or arms of exactly matching length, who is really thrilled just to have a new friend. Now I see people in suits, with tape measures and eyes like hawks. I've really got to get over it. It's killing me!
On a far more cheery note I'm very excited to be doing my first craft and fabric swap with a blogging pal - Suzy Small (still just love that name way too much) of floating world views (http://www.floatingworldviews.com/). She's getting all the cool stuff from Thailand and I'm getting all the cool stuff from Japan and I'm so over the moon it's pathetic. I always read other crafters blogs about getting packages in the mail and I'm so jealous. I also feel like I'm in one of the best textile markets in the world and really want to share it around. Anyone else interested??
Also went out for a girl's night with Amy last night while Dave was off doing some work thing ("What's bonding mummy?"). Couldn't help but get this hat. My only disappointment was that there were none in my size. Even though Amy seems to jettison hats about 10 minutes after screaming the place down to be allowed to wear it, so I know it will never get the exposure it deserves, it is just so gorgeous I had to have (so I could take it home study it and reproduce it in my size…).
Festival all around
So I know I've already posted about Loy Krathong, but as the days go by its role in our lives just grows. From the occasional bang of a distant firecracker and the fairy lights of Khom loys we have moved into festival central. The crackers and fireworks are now in 24 hour mode with never more than a couple of minutes between bangs and often several going at once. Their volume is particularly astonishing, given that technically they are all illegal here. The Khom loys have also multiplied to the extent that the night sky now resembles a whole different galaxy, with literally thousands of new yellow stars gently swirling across view. Today there are some very elaborate floating balloons drifting past the window…
And last night the first if the krathongs started their journey off the makeshift piers which jut out into the river. We sent off our first one, an elaborate banana leaf boat covered in flowers, incense, a candle and a coin and Amy did her usual homage ("thank you for making me a lucky a girl"). We did pretty well, with it staying afloat, adrift and alight (the holy trinity of krathongs) until it was pretty much out of sight, so I'm planning on a great upcoming year J. Can't wait for tonight's parade (when things really hot up) and releasing the krathong, which Amy is making at school today, and the others that are gifts from neighbours. And then tomorrow we light our Khom Loys on the banks of the moat…
And all this wonderful celebratory stuff has made me reflect on how unimaginable it is for a similar festival to hit it off in Oz. Dave says we have Christmas, and it's true that our country grinds to a halt, but it still isn't anything like this. Christmas is a family thing, an indoor and private thing, not to mention a potentially divisive thing in a pluralist society where Christianity is not the only belief system and religious difference is sufficient to cause occasional violence and hatred. And I have to say for many many people, Christmas is really about presents and food and a chance to sit around and relax.
But Loy Krathong feels different. For a start you cannot not participate - the sounds of crackers, sights of floating lights in the air and on the rivers and smell of gunpowder are so pervasive that you are in it whether you like it or not. And it is essentially a communal and outdoor thing - you can't float a krathong or set off a khom loy in private, indoors, and why would you want to? And although there is consumption involved, it isn't about either giving or getting presents, there's no net gains for anyone (except the river goddess perhaps and the fish who get to eat the spoils…). And creativity isn't just a side story for the really devoted, there's kids and adults everywhere folding banana leaves and decorating paper balloons and coming up with new and inventive ways to get lights to float and make loud noises. And when they aren't doing that they are hanging flags and lanterns and all kinds of decorative touches to their gates and balconies and fences.
And this is what is so exciting and involving and wonderful about it. The whole city is just one big spectacle and each day reveals new and more amazing sights. I apologise and regret that I haven't been out taking pictures, but when everything is so pervasive you kind of forget it won't be there forever, and that everyone can't see it. And I know that when I return to Oz it will seem like a dream, because Loy Krathong could never happen at home. Too many fire hazards, too much infringement on people's right not to join in, too much disturbed sleep, too few ways to turn a profit from it all. And though I worked in safety for a while and really understand the risks are real (as Dave said, for this week I'm bloody glad to be living in a concrete house), it doesn't stop me feeling sad that I don't get to experience days like these at home.
Just as I was writing that Dave ran and said lets blow off work for an hour and go watch some fun, so even though I am a dedicated thesis and blog writer, up I got and we set off in search of Loy Krathong photo opportunities. We didn't have to go far. Just next door at Wat Fan Soi the monks were in the final stages of preparing their balloon for flight by filling it with hot air so we stayed and watched while it went up and let off it's payload of crackers.
Only another block away and we hit the local boys high school where the multitude were out in the quadrangle and there were balloons, giant krathong making, firecrackers going off left right and centre, a very loud percussion band and lots of screaming and boys running around. Mayhem! It looked like a project of some kind that had groups of boys each with their own giant balloons, each with a sizeable tail of crackers.
Now there's a few tricks to this game, like not ripping or setting alight the balloon while using burning torches to fill it with hot air, making sure there's enough hot air to lift the balloon sufficiently high for the crackers not to be going off too close to the crowd, or the string holding the crackers not to burn through, resulting in live firecrackers plummeting into the crowd. And yes, we witnessed all of these, along with boys trying to extinguish flaming torches with plastic buckets. Now I know plastic actually flames!
And this afternoon it seems a little quieter but for a while there the sky was so full of floating balloons it was almost like we were in some sort of bizarre parachute invasion - only they were going up not down. Can't wait to see what tonight brings!
All suffering from late night and inhaling too much fire cracker gun powder and smoke from burning candles and Khom Loys…but wow what a night! The parade extravaganza was amazing. The whole of Chiang Mai's central district was at a complete standstill and the streets were packed with people watching the floats and marching bands and dancers and groups of people carrying enormous signs I could not, of course read. The parade started at 6 and was still going strong when we left at 10. Made Moomba look like a kids after dinner show.
The floats were incredibly elaborate - of course! - with high powered lights, moving displays and even running water on a few. Each slow moving float followed by utes filled with towers of speakers and generators! Can't imagine how long they took to construct, with every square inch covered in sculptures of Nagas (serpents), lotus flowers, elephants, Buddha images, roosters and decorations of gold leaf, fake flowers, mirror balls and who knows what else. As gaudy as all get out.
And all around the parade were people doing and selling all kinds of other stuff - there was a beauty pageant in the open square beside Tha Phae gate, with seating for hundreds, Thai theatre performances and of course the ever present fireworks and Khom Loy balloons going off every few seconds from some spot or other.
And there was street food galore, with people cooking sausages and sweet roti and peddling ice creams and soft drinks and fried insects of various kinds (yeah, I know). And pavements and every horizontal surface was covered in thousands upon thousands of tiny flickering lights - the Thai equivalent of tea lights which are tiny terracotta dishes filled with yellow wax (they look a bit like jam tarts as Dave's mum pointed out).
And it was one of those nights were if we were childless we would no doubt have stumbled home at 3am having experienced the fullest possible selection of sights. We missed the Ping river filled with floating Krathongs and the countless floats that hadn't hit the road by 10pm. But the pinnacle of the night was seeing Amy join the parade in a show of social and musical bravado I could never muster. Spying a band of musicians and a small Thai girl having a dance Amy jumped into the fray without a second's hesitation and danced up an absolute storm.
This is one of the few times I REALLY wish I could load some video footage here. There must have been at least 500 people watching her in astonishment and the crowd was cheering and clapping and Amy was writhing her hips and waving her hands in the air and grinning from ear to ear. And every few moments she'd run back to Dave and I, just to you know touch base, and then just as quickly she'd dash back and keep dancing. We laughed and beamed and shook hands with people afterwards who came to thanks us (I think they were drunk?) because no matter where you come from everyone loves to see a little girl with no inhibitions just joining in and loving life.
It was one of those moments that makes you so glad you have you a child, so glad you took the brave choice and came to a foreign land and let your little girl stay up late to see something so magical, so glad to be sharing the moment with a whole lot of other people, so full of joy and love and admiration for that dancing girl, and wishing we could all be a little more like her. The image will be etched in my mind forever, and I warn all those in Melbourne that you can expect to be pinned down to watch it on video!
Thinking about going home
We're really in the run up to leaving now - less than two weeks! It's hard not get stuck in a constant reverie of all the things I'm sad about and all the things I'm excited about. Here are just a few of the things I am looking forward to about going home:
Seeing all the people I love and miss
Seeing the look on the faces of all the people I love and miss when they see how much Amy has grown since they saw her last
Seeing how much all the other kids in our lives have grown
Drinking water out of the tap
Getting hot water out of the tap
Getting my hands on a sourdough loaf from Gertrude Street organic bakery - Paul you are my baking HERO
Seeing a very pregnant Ang
Visiting my newest neighbours, Ian, Noush, Lilli, Marlow and Rolanda
Heck, just visiting
Being in my garden
Using my sewing machine, rediscovering felt
Eating salads, nectarines, peaches, grapes, plums, lamb and beef
Having a BBQ
Watching the ABC and SBS
Crafting for Christmas
Going to the Vic market
Cooking (I know, the novelty will wear off)
Just a few of the things I will miss about Chiang Mai:
Never having to worry about being cold
Eating out for every meal except breakfast
Hearing 'Maliwan!' yelled from across the street every time we go anywhere
Warorot market, especially the amazing fabric and craft materials section
Song theows - cheap transport and almost no waiting
The flowers and gardens, what I wouldn't give for the Warorot flower market at home
Amy's wonderful kinder and the amazing and crazy hairstyles her teachers do on her everyday after sleep time
The sense that every trip out the front door is an adventure
Learning a new language (even if I do it badly)
Our wonderful laundry lady
Monks and temples - it's nice to be reminded so often about the things you have to be thankful for
Fabulous pineapple and watermelon all year round, lemon shakes (well, lime actually), khao soi, Chiang Mai sausage, som tam (green papaya salad), wing bean salad and catfish salad…why split hairs? I'll miss Thai food
Open air restaurants
The fantastically colourful and ornate dresses of the hill-tribes
Thai pop music
Crossing the mighty Ping river every day
Trips out of town to the lush green fields and villages
Always having people around
Chill in the air
Of course coming from Melbourne, it's a joke to call it winter, but there's no denying that the weather here has changed. You can tell by the fact that everyone is suddenly wearing jumpers and puffy jackets and scarves. It's hysterical. Everyone is complaining about how cold it is - including us. The humidity has really dropped too, making it much more like a nice summer day back home. Still see the streets littered with sweaty singletted farang complaining of the heat.
Reminds me of all those stories aussies tell about being in the UK summer and laughing when the Brits sweat it out in shorts and T-shirts if it breaks 25 - oh my god a heatwave! Here when it drops below 25 the winter woollies come out. Amazing what a little perspective does to your thermostat. For the first time in 6 months we're sleeping without a fan (when it was really hot we had two!), and with a top sheet. Last night I momentarily wished for a blanket.
So hard to believe that in just over a week we'll be back to PJs and doonas and steaming hot showers.
Out on the town
So this time in a week we'll be home, or at least standing in a line in immigration or customs, explaining why we're carrying so much crap with us. Still hard to get my mind around that.
Well it there's been a theme to the last couple of days it would have to be the rhythm of life, or the dance of life or something with a dancing life affirming metaphor. Saturday we finally fulfilled one of our Chaing Mai ambitions and made it to a drag show, Simon Chiang Mai. From an aussie point of view it's hard to convey what this was like - the culture that sits around it is so very different from ours that the whole experience was not at all like it would seem from back home.
For a start in Thailand there is a much greater acceptance and presence of what Thais call the third gender, Katheoys. Being a Katheoy is not the same as being gay or a transvestite, or a transsexual - all of these take one or other gender as their base. Being of the thirds gender is understood as a thing all itself, with as much variety in manifestation as either of the other genders. They might be dressed entirely as women, or like men but with painted long fingernails or their hair in bows or wearing earrings. They may seem a little camp or totally over the top.
You see Katheoy boys and men and even monks, and no one points or stares or seems to in anyway regard them with the kind of open hostility you see reserved for effeminate men in some quarters in Oz. I am sure they experience more than their fair share of discrimination and unkindness, but in the public domain you don't see it and my guess is it is nothing like the scale of what happens in Oz. It seems to be in keeping with Buddhist society in general which recognises that fate and reincarnation should be left to deal with what is less than ideal in people's lives.
So a drag show is not the kind of deviant marginal activity it might be regarded at home. In fact it is a huge industry, with incredible purpose built theatres, elaborate costumes and sets and casts of thousands. Expensive by Thai standards, but ludicrously cheap compared to Oz theatre prices (about $16, kids for free), they run two shows a night and take photos with the punters out front after the show for tips. They run to drag standards (you bet 'I will survive' made an appearance though it took a while to recognise it and of course Peter Allen's 'Rio'), plus songs aimed at tourists (amazing Thailand!) and a few in Thai and I think Chinese. Also the 'let's pull a poor straight guy out of the audience and make him dance with a guy in drag and cover him in red lipstick kisses' thing.
But the show was nearly upstaged by - surprise - Amy. She stayed on her seat for about 5 seconds before she was up and dancing across in front of the stage. She was jumping and squealing and running and copying the dancers, and at one point they even trained a spotlight on her! Ever now and then she'd run back to us, looking for us hard in the dark, but as soon as she touched us she was off again. The dancers of course spotted her right away and were waving and blowing kisses and as we left a number of the audience were filing out and waving and shouting 'bye bye Amy'.
The show was fabulous and I really enjoyed it a lot, the comedy acts had me laughing out loud and the hit songs had me bopping and singing along in my seat. But like with the Loy Krathong parade I was simply blown away by what a fantastic little spirit my daughter is. I just love how much she loves to join in, watching her muscles start to twitch at the opening notes of a piece of music, her enthusiasm to embrace every experience, the wonder in her eyes as each pretty 'girl' in a fabulous costume made her entrance.
And I just love seeing the faces of others light up as they watch her, how for a tired dancer doing show after show a little girl's joy can make her feel like a bit more rewarded for her performance, and for a timid audience member like through her they can vicariously feel a little more connected. When we came out of the theatre and the cast were all lined up for photos you could see them all wave and get excited when Amy emerged, there she is! The little girl! Our little agent of happiness.
Then, after a marathon sleep yesterday afternoon (it takes a lot to keep up with a bunch of professionals past bed time) Amy went at it again at the Sunday walking market. Though her first words on waking were 'no dancing today', as soon as we were in ear shot of the music she was in her familiar trance like state and there was nothing for Dave and I to do but sit back and watch. Up and down the front of the stage she was oblivious to everything except the dance and the other kids who were following her lead and coming out of the audience seating to mill around up front. She was kicking and bending and moving her hands in the manner of the dancers and all the while captivated. "When I'm in oz-trail-ee-a I go on stage and I dance and I talk in the microscope". Indeed.
The Sunday walking market dance has been something of a ritual ever since we discovered it about a month after we arrived. I think I wrote something about it in an earlier post. They have a stage set up with enormous loud speakers playing distorted music at ear splitting levels and little troupes of girls getting up and performing a range of traditional and contemporary dance numbers. In between some old guy craps on endlessly in Thai about goodness only knows what while the girls stand around and look bored or nervous and the audience shifts in their plastic chairs. I assume it's organised by the tourism authority and maybe a dance school or association. In general it's the same group of girls each week.
And like I say, Amy loves it to bits and stands looking up at the stage in front of everyone trying her best to imitate the dancers as she watches. (Something of a tourist attraction herself there must be as many photos floating around the world of her dancing in front of that stage as there are of her at Angkor…). But there's something a bit disturbing about it all too. In the main the girls who dance are very young - some as young as Amy and I would think few would be much into their teens. And they are covered in make-up and fake lashes and wearing high heels and stockings and baring their midriffs. And goodness only knows what the lyrics are they are singing.
And I was thinking last night perhaps a few people will be a bit shocked that we took Amy to a drag show, but no one would think twice about watching these little girls perform. And it strikes me as so mixed up, that conventional morality has so much to say about blokes dressing up like women and so little to say about encouraging little girls to imitate grown women trying to attract attention to themselves and their bodies, to look not unlike the hookers lining the streets in the bars aimed at sex tourists. Isn't that just crazy?
Since I still can't post photos into the albums, here are a few below.
Om, the Tantyanasorn's youngest son has just been ordained for a short stint as a monk. We saw him, along with 80 odd other men with heads shaved and wearing white robes kneeling in rows at Wat Prasingh awaiting their blessing and yellow monks robes. There were lots of other people there too and chanting and processing and other things we couldn't understand, but it was a real treat to get even a glimpse of the complex world of Buddhism.
So much of our contact is from the other side - the touristic voyeur side - where all you know is what you see. A movie without a soundtrack or narration. But this weekend we saw a proud mum and dad watching their son go through one of his most significant rites of passage, and a community turned out to show support for the importance of retreat from the world and spiritual reflection.
We've also come to understand a little of why a man goes to temple, not just in the sense of ritual and duty, but the more personal reasons that dictate the right time. A little of what can cause conflict around such a decision, a little of the trial that makes even a short stint as a monk such a significant growing experience.
So we've been talking a bit about monks and they have been on my mind. Ever since we arrived here in Chiang Mai we have noticed and been commenting on what appears to be a big change in the monk world. A number of the traditional tenets of being a monk seem to be declining in importance. For example just a few of the many rules which govern Monk behaviour include that they are to have no possessions aside from their robes, begging bowl and bag, they eat only alms donated by the community, they eat twice a day and take nothing after noon, they are not to touch women (at all).
But as I wrote in a previous post it is not uncommon to see these rules being broken (often simultaneously, sometimes even within the grounds of the temples themselves). Yesterday as we ate lunch Dave and I saw a group of monks coming out of a restaurant long past noon, and one of them taking out his wallet to pay for their meal. Monks chat on their mobile phones while walking down the street or buying soft drinks in the 7-11. The night before last we saw a motorcade with a Mercedes carrying two monks, and I've seen a quite a few carrying around laptop computers.
It's a scary thought that while the practice of becoming a monk remains strong, the process may be losing much of its impact. It makes me incredibly sad to think that in the short time in which I have been visiting this country monk transgressions have gone from being something imperceptible to an outsider, to something you can openly observe on pretty much any street in a big city. I'm sure there's always been a problem with monks who don't take it seriously, who have sneaked in snacks like kids on camp, or called their girlfriends to make sure they will still be around when their temple time is over, and I even recall the odd newspaper story about monks run amok and involvement in crime and corruption.
But it seems that the problem is more than monks not exercising self-control, it is that they don't seem to have any shame about it, no concern for the observing eyes of the community. No one seems to blink when confronted by monks behaving in ways every Thai person knows is breaking the rules of monkhood, and not just rules but the spirit of it too. I've been trying to work out what makes me sad about all this, who appointed me to the monk police, and I think it's because I see this as the fraying of the cloth of Thai society. Buddhism, self-imposed rules, the expectations of the community, ritual, obligation, …these are such important underpinnings to what makes this country so wonderful. What is rushing into the vacuum that is being created by the gradual disintegration of these things?
And before you all think I've gone all new age soft on a religion I barely understand, I'll give you a glimpse of some of the stuff I find kind of scary. Many Wats are approached by walkways, stairs, avenues and the like, lined with wise sayings designed to teach the morals and insights of Buddha's teachings. A lot of these strike a chord with us - like "As one door closes, another opens" or "He who strives to keep his possessions loses his soul". Some of them are poorly translated and meanings lost, others are kind of gruesome, "the road of lust is the road to death". Nice.
What is so fascinating about these is the stark contrast between some of their sentiments and the gentler more tolerant aspects of Buddhism. "If you love your child beat him" or "Disown a misbehaving child" seem somewhat harsh instructions, while "old man like young girls" seems almost comical, and certainly not trying to tell anyone what to do. "Try to imitate rich people" seems, well, totally un-Buddhist! I don't even begin to get why this might be a good idea…
Clearly there is a very harsh side to Thai society, a rigidity that can be seen in the importance placed on humility, obedience, duty and obligation, but it seems a very tricky balance between this and letting each soul fulfil it's own destiny, to reap what it sows, to tolerate and accept. So I guess what I mean by all this is that despite learning a lot I still feel like I understand so little…
The Korean exhibition I mentioned last time was held at the immigration museum in Melbourne and had a wide range wrapping cloths. The more elaborate ones were made for wealthy families from silk and were hand embroidered with silk threads. Just exquisite. Those used by everyday folk were usually made from patchwork to use the scraps of fabric left from other projects. There is a particular style of patchwork of course, often made of semi transparent fabrics with closed seams, so they looked lovely on both sides. They usually feature irregular shapes with no discernable pattern.
They used the cloths to wrap everything - big bundles of clothes for travel right down to lunch out in the fields. The ones used for food were backed with greased paper, the smaller ones were extremely delicate. Some were earthy toned, others bright and colourful. I thank the stars I had the foresight to buy the catalogue. Perhaps I'll do some photos when I get home for you all.
Here's another wrapper I made, with inside and outside views. No clues on the contents though J.
Doing the farewell rounds
I'm now in that stage of infinitesimal calculations - do I have enough shampoo for 2 more washes, when is the last possible moment to send the final load of washing to the laundry (so we don't arrive home with suitcases full of dirty clothes), how to get 2 more teaspoons of sugar for my morning tea without buying half a kilo, will our last few thousand baht get us through, what Christmas presents haven't we bought…the mind churns!
Yesterday we did our first real luggage assessment and it didn't go well. How will we manage two (large and heavy) Buddha images, two computers, multiple cameras plus sundry travel needs all in our hand luggage? And still have a hand free to hold onto Amy? The checked stuff isn't such a worry - we'll send another box today by freight and then we should make our limit, but I just don't know what fun we'll be having at the airport. Especially that two-hour wait in Bangkok…
And last night we had our farewell dinner with the Tantyanasorns. On this blog I used to call them our landlords, because we rent from them, but somehow that seems too businesslike for what our relationship has become. There remains a certain formality by virtue of our different cultures, and patriarch Niwat's age and accomplishments make him a figure to be respected above all. But there is also a warmth there that has grown over time, especially with oldest son Art and his wife Oar.
As Niwat made a little speech last night he said that when David first came over trying to find a house he helped him out of obligation to a mutual friend. Then when we decided to rent his house, he had a responsibility towards us. But now he feels we are friends, and he hopes we will go on being friends as long as we remain human. We hope there will be visiting and letters and photographs back and forth.
And I thought a lot about that last night, about how emotion comes from duty, about how the practice of something that may at first seem as onerous or empty of pleasure as an obligation can breed within us an appreciation, a warmth, a joy. I would be hard put to imagine myself or many of my friends being so prepared to take on the job of bringing a foreigner into our lives, to deal with their needs and idiosyncrasies, to provide them with unlimited support and assistance.
And while mutual obligation can be restrictive and lead to much time and energy devoted to things that are not your choice, the rewards feel so different than the pleasure one takes in one's own accomplishments. Without entering into this closer relationship with a family of what were once complete strangers to us, we would never have come to know or experience so much about life here, and the unique spirits of each of these people.
We talked a lot about Buddhism last night too, and I am humbled by the way in which Niwat and Art use their spiritual insights to guide their daily lives, to gain poise and grace and kindness and acceptance. I admire them so much and the approach they take to thinking through things and solving problems. These are qualities sadly lacking in so many people (myself included!) who have not built their lives on the foundations of something other than the glory of the self. I am more intrigued than ever to know and understand more.
And in all this reflection I haven't mentioned the dinner itself, which is highly remiss of me since it was an absolute standout. We went to a Filipino restaurant of which Niwat and his family have been patrons fro something like 20 years. Amongst other places, Niwat lived in the Philippines for two years when he was a student, so he has a great appreciation for the culture and food.
So the dinner was all pre-organised and all we had to do was turn up and eat. There was a wonderful prawn soup, full of vegetables I didn't recognise, but which were all delicious. There was a savoury rice dish with raisins, and though I generally don't like fruit combos the rice was cooked with (I think) a tomato and something else stock, which knocked out the sweetness and made it wonderfully flavoursome. Then two pork dishes, one a kind of roast pork joint cut into chunks and served with a spicy soy type sauce and a side of grated radish and carrot salad, the other a BBQ rib smothered in delicious thick glaze sauce.
And then the most amazing thing. A whole fish, but with all the bones removed! Before cooking, all the flesh and skeleton are removed from inside the skin, miraculously without breaking it open (through the mouth maybe?), then the flesh is cooked up with various seasonings and then stuffed back in the skin and grilled. It takes two fish to fill one skin - wild, huh?
We were so stuffed and it was so late that we had to take away our dessert - an amazing sponge type cake with a stiff disgustingly rich butter cream icing. Amy was in serious meltdown stage but the time we got to speeches, but up until then had been in excellent form, dancing, drawing and singing into Art's Palm Pilot Dictaphone. What a fantastic night for us all.
This afternoon we will have what I am guessing will be our most challenging goodbye at Amy's school. While Amy knows we're going, and talks a lot now about how much she is looking forward to seeing everyone in Australia, I don't think she is at all cognisant of what it really means in terms of what we will be leaving behind. So the cake and present sharing with her friends will be fun, but it may well be that come time to leave there will be tears (and maybe not all hers).
With her other close friends - Art and Oar and Haydn in particular - there is the promise of immanent visits to Australia to make the farewells softer and less final. But despite the teachers saying they want to come to Australia, the chances aren't great she will ever see them again. And the promise of going to play at Nah Boon's or Alanna's house will never be realised. So between the packing and the parting it will probably be a relief to get on that plane in two days time…
The sounds of silence
I never really had a feeling for that expression deafening silence, but stepping off the plane on Monday my ears were literally ringing from the silence. Like someone had their hands over my ears and was pushing the air in and locking sound out. And part of it was the blessed release from the drone of plane engines, but mostly it was the reality of Australian life. I mean the airport arrival area has carpet. It had never before occurred to me to find this surprising, but after six months in a country of nothing but hard reflective surfaces, the carpet struck me as quite bizarre.
Even a planeload of people with loud voices (that's us aussies) couldn't shatter the silence. The very few PA announcements that were made seemed to be almost whispered, and still they were more audible than the constant barrage of deafening loudspeaker action you get in Thailand. I kept telling myself it must be the time of day or something that meant the place was unusually empty, but I recall the feeling from returns from Asia before and I know it isn't that. No midnight on a public holiday or bomb hoax.
And my ears were not the only sensory organs in denial; there was nothing to smell either. I caught a faint whiff of grass on the wind as we made our way to the car, but it only served to highlight that up until that point I hadn't been aware of a single smell, not animal, vegetable nor mineral. And I just kept wondering how could that be? How could the whole place be so empty, so quiet, so devoid of traces…
Here I am four days later and already that shock is beginning to recede and I wish it wasn't. I love that first moment of transition, when you get to see your own familiar skin from the outside, before you are inside and outside at once, and then it's gone and you are looking out from the inside once again. So I had so much to say four days ago, but it's taken this long to get myself some time to write and now everything except that thing about the silence and the blankness has gone. Whoosh. Like when the baby that you have been growing for 9 months and getting to know so intimately is suddenly on the outside and there's a whole new thing to learn and all the stuff that went before is instantly erased…
So now I'm working hard at coming to grips with my life here - picking up the pieces as it were. Dealing with the government and banks and repair men and unhappy supervisors, grappling with technology, shopping and cooking, finding old friends and trying to remember what is polite and what isn't, trying to find some clothes for this crazy climate Melbourne has (four seasons in one day, really!), trying to find the things in my kitchen which aren't where they used to be, remembering what it is like to spend all day with a little girl with no childcare and no kinder on the horizon and a partner at work, trying to work out how on earth I can give life to my plan for making Christmas wrappings and still spend next week camping at the Prom and go to my dry felting workshop.
And it was all getting a bit much there, so this afternoon after Dave got home from work I took to the garden and planted veggies and mulched and composted and dug over till I could barely stand. And already I can feel the stiffness creeping in and tomorrow I shall surely pay dearly but is there any more wonderful sight than a freshly planted veggie patch full to the brim with straw mulch? I think perhaps I may be able to settle in after all, even if my heart is still aching for my other home.
It's mad to be even contemplating it, but nonetheless we're off tomorrow for a camping trip. Home for a week and we're leaving again, trying to beat the school holiday season when camp sites cannot be had for love nor money, to get in one decent dose of sand and salt air. And I have to confess to a level of anxiety I'm not exactly proud of and it's clouding my excitement about being outdoors in one of the most beautiful spots this earth has to offer.
I mean part of me is just dying to get away from this house, where we're currently living amongst towers of boxes and an ever-expanding list of mundane chores I have been blissfully freed from for the last six months. I don't even know where to begin with the unpacking, I can't find anything and there isn't a spare moment or joule of energy available for crafting, which is what I really want to be doing.
So the promise of escape should be enticing, but somehow it isn't. I know I'll have fun when I get there, but for now all I can think of is how I can't even remember what you need for camping, let alone be able to actually locate all the stuff. It's all the stuff that's freaking me out. And what do you even cook for four days in a National Park with no open fires? I'm struggling to remember how to cook in a fully equipped kitchen…
In far more exciting news, Carly from Nest Studios (http://neststudio.typepad.com/moopy_me/) emailed me today that the little critters I sent her from Thailand actually made it into the Morphe exhibition rather than simply being sideliners. How amazing is that?! Another artist's work didn't arrive on time so mine was slotted in. I am AMAZINGLY honoured to be included, as Morphe features the work of my craft blogging heroes. I'm just walking on air J Thanks Carly. Makes up for all the other crap I'm not dealing with so gracefully.
Dry felting heaven
Wow. Thanks Deane and Sandra for a fantastic day learning how to turn a bundle of fleece into a fully formed friend. Can't wait till Winterwood gets up online in January. Just love that place so much…here's some snaps of the products. My mermaid is the one with no modesty, the other delightful young lass was made by Cath, my sister-out-law. Also some snaps of the wonderful gifts from Suzy and Blair. Dying to try the sewing bag from Blair's book. Oh and one of the delightful Amy camping at the Prom.