Thursday, December 9, 2010

A New Normal

There comes a time when the novelty wares off, when things that once struck you as exceptional, now rarely make your head swivel while speeding by at 40 km/h on your motorbike. I would surmise that it happens to most people. It has happened to me, though it took a while to acknowledge the change. My first month in Thailand was marked by over-stimulation – everything was new, funny, odd, amazing, beautiful, absurd, different. It is not an overstatement to say that everyday was an adventure of sorts.

I am both happy and sad to report that is not the case anymore. Life here in Chiang Mai has settled into a comfortable routine, even if the routine is not always comfortable. I find myself having to push harder, drive farther, wander longer in search of new adventures. But there has also been a small-scale transformation over the last six months - the oddities of the everyday have slipped quietly into the normal background of life. Simply put I have become desensitized to Labradors riding circus-like on the backs of motorbikes. Doesn’t that happen everywhere?

It is wonderful to be comfortable living and working in Thailand and it horrible that I have come to take so much for granted. So here is an attempt to re-acknowledge and thus re-appreciate my no-longer-new home.

Things that are now (wonderfully) normal:

1) Monks bedecked in bright orange robes at phone booths and riding escalators in large shopping malls.

2) A plethora of soup stands where one can buy large bowls of meaty soup bobbing with ground pork balls, vegetables, garlic, chili, thick chewy rice noodles – all for the equivalent of less than a dollar

3) Driving by thousand year old temple ruins that abut Shell gas stations.

4) Sipping daily smoothies loaded with bright fuchsia dragon fruit, fingerling bananas, pineapple slices and passion fruit.

5) Getting a massage next to another woman who is decked-out in a deep purple shirt with an enormous white bow attached at the neckline. (I am convinced that Thailand has the oddest fashion sense in Asia.)

6) Encountering baby elephants (not a happy thing) being led through the old city so that tourists will pay to feed them bananas.

7) Riding open-air passenger trucks piled high with eggplants, cabbages and long, knobbly bitter vegetables whose name I have yet to learn.

8) Observing sinewy old men peddle rickshaw bicycles in banana leaf woven hats.

9) Passing spirit houses on street corners and tucked between buildings, complete with offerings of incense, flowers, cookies, Fanta soda bottles, and long trails of hungry ants.

10) And yes…dogs on bikes. Most recently riding alongside a pug who sat upright in the front basket of its owner's Honda, front paws on the rim, catching the breeze.

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Wandering Star

Two weeks before the holiday I started hearing cannonballs fire, late at night, from the window of my room. Fighting had not taken to the streets, but firecrackers had. Unhampered by US laws restricting the sale of small colorful explosives, fireworks are set off by anyone and everyone, everywhere – often with little heed to passersby. As we drew closer still to the holiday I would on occasion spy a lone lantern floating away into the night air – a tall cylinder of paper with a flaming circle on the bottom that propels it upwards. I watched them – beautiful and lonely – before bed, not realizing what was in store.

Loy Krathong, is one of largest two festivals in the country and involves the floating of lighted Krathong, small banana trunk and flower decorated offerings to be set to float in the river. It coincides with the twelfth full moon and celebrates the life of the Buddha among other things. In the north of Thailand, the holiday has been combined with Yi Peng, a festival of floating lanterns, ensuring that water, earth and sky are all equally alight. For the three days of the holiday the city takes on a festival appearance, a mix of Hanukkah, Christmas and Halloween with small clay lights lining balconies and walkways, fireworks and lanterns going off and folks flocking to the streets.

How to describe Loy Krathong along the Ping River? Imagine a war zone – It is night, maybe 10 pm, there are bombs going off in every direction, smoke is thick in the air, crowds of people, sparks of light whizz - some up into the sky others colliding with shoes and legs, some explode with a bang, others in a shower of sparks, the river is alight and so is the sky. Got this all in your head? Ok now place this along the banks of a large muddy river along the East side of the northern city of Chiang Mai, Thailand. That’s pretty much Loy Krathong for you.

All up and down the river food stalls are crammed selling meat on a stick, fish on a stick, piles of soy soaked noodles, pulled violently-orange iced tea, fried rotis, fried eggs, fried chicken. At the river's edge thousands of men, women and children are casting their sorrows into the water carried in the petals of flowers and the origamied banana leaves of Krathong and each with a solitary candle and a small outcropping of smoldering incenses.

From the banks too shoot fireworks – reds, whites, greens, purples. They spin in tighter and tighter spirals arcing out over the water until they land again and are extinguished in a hiss. Others go off with a gun shot and little else. Still more explode into enormous cascades of light. Along one bank a parade makes its slow progression up the street hemmed in by crowds. The bridges are by far the most dangerous. Crowds and fireworks are in closest quarters here and fireworks carve out their priority. Everywhere are huddles of people setting off lanterns (khom fai) into the sky: narrow and long, wide and big, red ones, ones painted with the colors of the Thai flag, ones shaped like soccer balls, hearts, gigantic panda heads. They bob and sway like jellyfish high, high and higher into the sky so that it becomes near impossible to distinguish stars from their glowing imposters. Calm and chaos coexisting for three long, glowing nights.

But the real magic of Loy Krathong came outside the city at Mae Cho University where we headed off to, via motorbikes, late Saturday afternoon. Once at the University, forty-five minutes outside the center of Chiang Mai, we allowed ourselves to be swept along by the crowd making its way to a pre-designated field. The field was stuck with long poles crowned with unlit candles and we eagerly took up our post next to two such poles, leaning large, human-sized lanterns up against them. What followed was an hour long out-door service of monk chanting as the sky grew darker and darker. Lanterns from outside the clearing floated high overhead in a meandering line, an orange-hued milky way. And then we were standing up, thousands of us, Thais, Westerns, teens, adults, babies. The candles were lit and lanterns were hoisted overhead so that the circular wicks would catch flame. Slowly the lanterns around us expanded. We waited. And then, finally, with a signal thousands of hands let go and one thousand lanterns floated upwards. Slowly, gracefully, so at first all we could see was the flickering glow around us and then the entire night sky was suddenly burned out in the glow, our visions consumed by the enormous, circular rings.

One thousand lanterns in the sky create an entire starry overlay to the real celestial landscape, a brighter, closer collection of ever-shifting constellations. For those who have watched Princess Mononoke, the bobbing lanterns resemble Miyazaki’s wide-eyed tree spirits. And when the lanterns finally extinguish and fall slowly back to earth, dusky grey against deep blue, so to do they resemble the spirits' movements, a descent not fluttering or plummeting, but fully bodied and stunningly sorrowful. I have experienced few moments as breathtaking or truly magical as this.

Friday, November 12, 2010

To Enter the Heart

I have covered rain and rambutans, the eccentricities of my college classroom and the traffic rules of Chiang Mai, but there is one entire area of my experience that I have neglected to touch on. That of course is pashaa Thai.

As I mentioned in previous posts, my Thai lessons began informally with my students acting teacher, to their very confused teacher. Thai has five tones: middle, low, high, rising and falling, thus the same collection of letters can have completely different meanings. Having lived in the Kingdom for six months now many of the tones have come to sound very distinct. That was not the case upon arrival.

Just like Kiswahili which has wonderfully similar words (Ona = to see, and Oa =to get married. Or: Elewa = to understand, and Lewa = to get drunk) Thai also has its share of aggravatingly similar sounding words that have the potential to lead you easily astray (Glaai – falling tone = near, but Glaai – middle tone = far. Or Suay – rising tone = beautiful, but Suay – low tone = bad luck).

Learning three words a day from each of my classes, I had, within a couple of weeks, collected a hodge-podge of words that my students thought necessary additions to my slowly expanding Thai lexicon. Pen, pencil, eraser, blackboard, leek, car, fan, sticky rice, dance, door, mackerel.

But my Thai teachers have not been limited to my students. While I have taken some more formal Thai lessons, the best lessons have been those that happen by chance in the markets, at food-stands on the roadside and in the school office.
I have learned colors from my Thai co-workers who explained one morning that each day of the week is assigned a color and that government officials are traditionally supposed to dress accordingly. Monday = Lwang (Yellow), Tuesday = Chompoo (Pink), Wednesday = Ke-ow (Green), Thursday = Faa (Blue), Friday = Som (Orange), Saturday = Mooang (Purple), Sunday = Dang (Red). While many no longer organize their outfits based on the official colors I was told that some do continue to observe by wearing color-coordinated underwear.

I have come to notice that Thai is spoken, at least for women, two to three octaves higher than normal western speech patterns. This was made apparent to me when returning to Thailand after my three weeks away and speaking Thai again for the first time. You smile a lot more when you speak Thai. This is partly because there are certain sounds that can only be made by pulling your mouth back in a wide grin, and partly because (again for women) there seems to be an emphasis on making everything sound extra cute.

Fruit words are my strong point, a direct correlation with the quantity I consume on a daily basis. There are a number of ladies who have helped expand my vocabulary in this avenue. The smoothie woman at the Chiang Mai Gate Market who has come to learn how much I love mangoes was the first to teach me the staples of my smoothies. A woman who runs a fruit stand outside the back gate of CMU quizzed me multiple days running and only when I had successfully repeated malago back to her would hand me a bag of sliced silken papaya. Another woman who runs a stand at the corner of Suan Doak Temple not only taught me the words for Pomelo, Jackfruit and Pomegranate, but had me teach her the English words for her produce and write the English names below their Thai counterparts.

I’ve learned vegetables from Denali’s host mom who runs a vegetable stand, body parts from the women who I receive massages from, and I’ve collected a handful of dirty words from my older students. An old couple that sell noodles at the school cafeteria were first to instruct me in the words for small and large rice noodles and the all important pet nit noi (only a little chili please).

In my linguistic wanderings I have come across a few classic examples of words that are truly excellent when heard with a western ear. Two personal favorites: The Thai word for a pumpkin = Fuck-tong and the Thai word for an incredibly bad smell = Men.

One of the most fun and fascinating aspects of learning Thai is how so many words are a kind of puzzle. Two simple words will be combined to create an entirely new word. There is a kind of poetry to these words and they seem to inherently encourage you to ponder the deeper meaning and understanding of the word. My favorite collection of puzzle words are ones that utilize the word Jai meaning "heart" in Thai. There is:

Tok Jai = “Falling heart” which means: “surprise”
Jai yen yen = “Heart cold” which means: “calm down”
Tang Jai = “Balanced heart” which means: “balance”
Kao Jai = “Enter heart” which means: “understand”

Saturday, October 30, 2010

I’ve come upon a theme concerning ‘time’ since coming to South East Asia – perhaps not quite ready for a Nature article, but certainly worth note. It appears that time here moves both incredibly slowly and incrediably quickly, despite these being contradictory statements. There was a time that a three-week vacation would have seemed enormously long. Luckily it still is - in a way, it just also transpires so rapidly that I find myself asking: have I really been away from Chiang Mai for close to a month? But I have, and I did, and I find myself, once again, in front of a classroom pretending to know what I’m talking about and pretending that I am more than just two or three years older than my students. But what of those three weeks? While I will refrain from detailing every single adventure here are some highlights / snapshots/ random occurrences (the kind that are the norm here):


First of all I’ve got to mention how amazing it is having friends scattered throughout Asia. An hour flight, three hour flight, thirty minute taxi ride and suddenly I’m in a market at night, somewhere in the middle of Ho Chi Min city meeting Carolyn Smith-Lin a fellow PiA-er for dinner! That night we chose to sample one of the street restaurants – an indoor restaurant combined with a food stall, there being table clothes and china on the plastic tables that lined a bustling market alley. We dined on avocado shakes swirled with condensed milk and surprisingly tasty, a massive rice puffball, and an entire fish stuck between poles so as to stare glassy eyed at us.

Riley flew in the following day and from there we set out to explore southern Vietnam. Saturday was for the reunification palace and War Remnants Museum (originally called the American War Crimes Museum), which presents a disturbing picture of American atrocities during the war. Sunday Riley, Caroline and I drove out to the Cu Chi tunnels – an extensive series of underground tunnels that were built to resist the Americans. Some have been widened since, for foreigners to be able to experience. Crawling on hands and knees, or sometimes shuffle squatting in the dark, it is near impossible to imagine the tunnels being any smaller or for anyone having to have lived down there for months.

Sunday night we hopped on a three hour bus south into the Mekong Delta and the city of Can Tho. Good news – the bus played Avatar, bad news – they turned the volume down and over it had a single high pitched female voice translating the whole movie into Vietnamese. We stayed with two awesome PiA fellows in Can Tho who let us in on the secret restaurants of the city and we woke up at 5:30 to zoom our way via motorbike taxi to the wharf where we bargained our way onto a boat that took us to see the floating markets! Boats upon boats selling everything from dragon fruit to soda, French baguette sandwiches and enormous knobble skinned pumpkins. So that no one is in any doubt of what a particular boat has for sale, a sample is hung high from a pole and strapped to the boat so that the result is an airborne menu of onions, pumpkins, long beans, pineapples.

Heading farther south, we caught another bus and then a boat to the island of Phu Quoc where we rented a motorbike and explored the rutted dirt roads and the white sand beaches the island had to offer. While swimming we came across what we thought was a coconut, but turned out to be a jellyfish– dark brown with stubby tentacle. And then immediately after we emerged from the water and started walking down the beach we witnessed a mob of jellyfish two hundred strong floating their way to where we had just been swimming…On further exploration we investigated the insides of a large fish sauce factory. It looks much like a wine distillery, minus for the incredibly pungent smell. We also did see our first roast dog on a platter…

Then it was back to Rach Gia along the coast where we dined on shrimp muffins, fresh spring rolls and sugar cane juice squeezed with lime. Then back to Can Tho and finally back to Ho Chi Minh by Friday morning.


Arriving off the plane in Singapore Friday night I was met by none other than Megan Schoendorf! Together we met Denali who has seemingly magically flown in at the exact same time from Chiang Mai. Over the next two days we proceeded to eat our way through this very small country – hobbit style: first breakfast, second breakfast, brunch, lunch, afternoon tea, dinner, supper, midnight snack, etc. What did we consume?.... Shanghai soup dumplings, Malaysian cheese roti with curry sauce, Chinese rice rolls soaked in soy and savory sticky rice bundled in banana leaves and steamed. We consumed bento boxes of sushi, green tea soba and crispy tempura in a bustling down town mall and bit into rectangles of chocolate, blueberry and raspberry ice cream between thin wafers while sitting on the grass out by the wharf. We sipped Star fruit juice, pineapple juice, rock melon juice. We tasted “carrot cake” lacking cake or cream cheese frosting, but rather consisting of a white tuber that has been mashed and then flattened and then fried on a griddle before being chopped like hash with scallions and soy sauce. In the quiet streets of the Arab quarter we found a dimly lit café were we had a feast of kebabs, yogurt dips, pomegranate couscous salads, pitas, and of course ice Moroccan mint tea. Then immediately after that feast we waddled our way to the bustling Indian quarter to one of the best south Indian restaurants were we ordered extra long paper and masla dosas, coconut curries, masala chai, mango lassis, and, need we forget, plump sugar soaked gulab jamun!

Least it seem like we only dined for 48 hours straight, we did indeed see a little more of what Singapore had to offer besides what came from its kitchens. We visited the beautiful and pristine botanical gardens (complete with a gift shop that reminded me of being back in the states). We hiked up a small hill/mountain in the early morning heat and happened upon some small, possibly poisonous, snake that lay draped between branches, we viewed the city from the height of one of the taller skyscraper restaurants, and we became well accustomed with the jingles that play on the subway…how the community population of Singapore has remained sane is beyond me. And best of all we met/re-met a whole host of awesome PiA-ers who I only hope will now come visit us all in Chiang Mai!


The last two weeks of freedom were spent island hopping in Indonesia with mom! First stop was Bali. Not having been able to ride a horse in almost two years I found myself on the second day cantering along the beach at sunset and watching, from horseback, a funeral disperse (Balinese funerals end with everyone going down to the sea, before dispersing back to their homes).

After two days along the west coast near the sentinel temple Tanah Lot we drove up to our favorite village of Ubud – the art center of Bali. We spent our days walking through the monkey forest and the local markets, making friends with many of the women and buying breakfasts of bright pink and white coconut cakes, babi guling (whole roast pig), tiny succulent chicken satays, and mini green pancakes filled with coconut shavings and palm sugar.

One of our favorite things to do in Bali is to attend temple festivals which are almost literally happening every day somewhere, as there are temple birthdays, weddings, tooth-filing ceremonies, full moon celebrations, rice celebrations, celebrations of metal objects. On our drive to Ubud we drove through a town called Tebonkong where we notice the tradition braided palm frond decorations. So of course we stopped a little ibu (grandmother) and asked what the ceremony was. Apparently there was a big celebration at one of the three village temples starting that evening! We never did really find out what the celebration was for – a cyclic ceremony that happened every 25 years, or every 30 years, or every 50 years. One person even told us – once every 200 years. From another person we were told it was a ceremony to celebrate the completion of reconstruction on some part of the temple. Whatever the reason we returned each day (the Balinese are very welcoming of outsiders at ceremonies as long as you dress appropriately: temple sash, sarong, and a head scarf thing for men).

The first day we seemly walked into Clifford Geertz’s famous essay. In a back corner was a ring surrounded by men smoking clove cigarettes all avidly watching the men in the ring who were preparing for a cockfight. After much talking a signal was made and the betting began. Men waved their arms in the air, calling out certain sounds to signify how much money they were putting on the table (chukachuka, chachacha) with the result sounding like an adaptation of the traditional kecak dance. Then there was silence the cocks were bounced twice on the ground and then brought back to the starting lines. The whole fight lasted less then two minutes, aided by the spurs attached with red string to the cocks' feet. The fight is to the death and the loser, a brown rooster, was than unceremoniously hauled over to the side of the ring where a man beheaded and plucked it before returning to the owner. Cock fighting is technically illegal, but during festivals they still manage to slip into the program. Other nights we attended the services, watching women in long white Kebayas carrying towering offerings on their heads and gamelan groups playing exuberant musical pieces.

From Bali we flew first to Jogja, Java then a drive to the other side of the island to catch another flight from Semarang to Pangkalan Bun, Kalimantan. From there we drove to Kumai with our amazing guide Jenie where we boarded a small boat that would be our home for the next three days and we set out up the Kumai river and into Tanjung Puting National Park. Thirty years ago my parents followed a similar path on their way to spending a month volunteering at Camp Leakey. Why were we heading into the Kalimantan rainforest? To look for Orangutans of course! Over the next three days we hiked into the rainforest to feeding stations to visit and watch some of the most fascinating and captivating animals I have ever seen. Orangutan in Indonesian means “people of the forest” and they truly are – curious, playful, intelligent – you see it in their movements and you see it in their eyes. We spent hours watching them stuff bananas into their mouths, swing between trees and hang one handed as they peered down watching us! Our guide Jenie has grown up with the Orangutans and knows all of them, their age, personality, family history – all of which he would tell us as individuals swung into get food at the feeding stations. (They are fed once a day). Easily the best day was when we went to Camp Leakey and on the dock we were met by Pan – a 17 year old, particularly playful Orangutan who proceeded to wrestle with Jenie and then guide us along the dock holding mine and Jenie’s forearms in his large soft skinned hands. Pan is a particularly smart Orangutan – he has figured out how to paddle a canoe and when it rained (like it did that day on the dock) he created an umbrella out of a leaves and branches he piled on his head.

We also saw Tom, the current king, who is also enormous, and Siswi, the current queen, who was seven years old when my parents were at camp and who my mom remembers playing with all the time. At one point Tom got into Jenie’s bag and found a container of shampoo, which he proceeded to open and use on his arm getting a nice lather and then eating it all up! In the mean time Siswi found and opened an umbrella, which she held over her head until she got bored. Still hungry Tom and Siswi followed us back to camp, trundling along behind us. Back at camp Siswi relaxed on the porch eating bananas and at one point getting into the ranger’s sambal, which she found very hot and which she washed down with some coffee!

We spent our final days in Jogja, first visiting the stunning Borobudur temple (we had it basically to ourselves because a little thunder, lightening and rain deterred almost everyone else) and then turning to art and a two-day batik workshop where we learned about both drawn wax and tjap (printing wax) designs.

And then seemingly suddenly we were on a plane back to Singapore, I was saying bye to mom, and I was finding Denali in the Chiang Mai airport. And now here I am again standing in front of new classes, figuring out lesson plans and trying to learn a whole new set of a 150 students’ names: Pink, Tar, Gong, Mint, Pin, Bee-Bright…

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Raindrops are falling on my head and other ponderings

Roads and Rivers
Monsoon season has come to Chiang Mai – though later and lighter than in past years and less than is desired. But while much of the time we wonder where the rain has gone there are a couple of occasions were we ponder the opposite. Since coming here I have learned that monsoons can last anywhere from ten minutes to five hours. They can be nothing but a light drizzle and they can pound down with such force that you start to wonder if you should brace your windows or whether Noah might be itching to get back to sailing. On a few truly hilarious and spectacular occasions the rains have come at such ferocity and for such lengths that the gutters have overflow and the streets have transformed into rivers – one prime example is my street. I have now, on a number of days, entertained myself by watching trucks and motorbikes drive down my street leaving watery wakes in their path.

Like almost any large city, Chiang Mai has rats. They are large and a dark, muddied color, the kind that would accompany the word “filth” in the dictionary if colors were a common part of definitions. They are most often seen scampering along the Old City moat or across shadowed fences. Cars regularly hit them, allowing daylight to expose just how large they are. In many places road kill will barely last a day before it is whisked away and turned into someone or something’s dinner. Not in Chiang Mai. Here, even the stray dogs do not ordain to partake in them. Indeed I have never seen a city where the stray dogs are more groomed and cared for then in Chiang Mai. Only the flies partake of the rodents and they hardly leave a mark. So the rats are reduced to lying for days, getting increasingly flattened into the pavement until finally they morph in undistinguishable black spots, or a monsoon rain pries them from the pavement and sweeps them unceremoniously into the gutter.

For those who have been reading the news, there has been a slight increase in cardinal and canary activity. I will refrain from discussing matters in a written forum, but will be more than happy to delve into the subject at length when I am back in Cambridge.

Things on Bikes
It has been a number of months since I drove my first wobbly meters on my bike (since dubbed “Simba” because I miss Swahili, my bike reminds me of a lion, and its fun to think of exploring Chiang Mai via lion back.) Since then I have become very much attached to speeding through the city, accustomed to squinting while driving through monsoons and navigating the fastest way between cars to get myself to the front of a line of traffic. But equally exciting to speeding down Huay Keaw road, is making note of how others drive or what they transport via motorbike.

I have seen bikes strung with dangling and bobbing bags of fried pork skin. There have been bikes attempting to grow gardens with the quantity of vegetables strapped down. I myself have balanced pillows, challahs, and 9” cakes on my bike, driving through the streets, my legs either delicately wrapped around the parcels or sticking out beyond the bike altogether. I have once driven opposite a man carrying a tall stack of Styrofoam trays that he secured with his chin like Gus Gus and corn kernels. When it rains, drivers will relinquish one hand from the brakes so as to hold umbrellas against the downpoor. When it is sunny I have seen women do the same to block the rays. Families of four or more on a single bike are so common they are hardly worthy of note. Rabbits in plastic boxes that their handlers carry balanced on their lap are less common, but can be found. Dogs in particular are frequent passengers. Small froufrou toy dogs fit easily into front baskets and command a full view of the road ahead. Larger dogs poke out between the knees of their chauffeurs: A Husky on an old yellow Fino, a Golden retriever on a teal tinted model. Once while driving into the old city I drove for a while beside a man on a bike. With him was a fully-grown black lab who stood on the passenger end of the seat balancing like a circus stunt through the streets of Chiang Mai.

Look for the boy jumping from the tree into the very small pool of water that is part of a series of waterfalls Riley and I hiked up to on one particular hot afternoon. I don't think even I would have the guts to make that jump.

Thursday, September 9, 2010

Custard Apples and Honey

One might not expect that one could find Challah in Chiang Mai, I certainly had my doubts, and yet I need not have worried. Faced with my first year out of my twenty two where there would be no family, no service and no tradition surrounding me during the high holidays, I set out to some how still make it special. Every year at home we hold a Rosh Hashanah party – we invite tons and tons of friends, we cook absurd amounts of food and we process outside with a cake literally brimming with candles and sing Happy Birthday to the world. I wanted to recreate this celebration, but first I needed a cake. Recalling particularly delicious cinnamon buns I had sampled at 4th of July I tracked down the store promisingly called: “Butter is Better.” Email exchanges later I had in the works a chocolate cake with raspberries and two large Challahs! Things were looking good! I sent out a mass email to friends: PiA-ers, CMU teachers, Climbing wall staff.

Next I went in search of apples – I drove across town to my favorite local market to pick out red and golden varieties. To these, I added a pebbled skinned custard apple – I am in Thailand after all. I found egg-yolk hued oblong fruits to serve the tradition part of trying a fruit one has never had before – something that was actually hard to find as, being a fruit fiend, I have sampled practically every fruit I have come into contact with. (From internet research I think it is called a Canistel)
There are no reform services to be found in Chiang Mai unfortunately and I had already decided not to attend the conservative service. Instead I drove out into the night and into the outskirts of the city to a fellow teachers house where I had been invited to partake in a Rosh Hashanah party. At the table were: Westerners and Thais, Jews, Christians, Buddhists, Germans, French, Americans, adults, kids. On the table was a gorgeous spread combining Jewish and Thai cuisine: Thai chicken meat ball and noodle soup, grilled chicken and fished garnished with a delicious homemade spicy Thai sauce, noodle kugel, challah, mangosteens, apples, honey, logans, halva.

Driving back hours later the wind picked up – indeed so much so that while driving through a dust storm the wind literally untied the knot on my dress and I ended up driving with one hand repeatedly checking my back to make sure I wasn’t suddenly speeding naked down a Thai highway! To top it off it began to rain, but really that only made the drive more ridiculously funny. And besides it was the first rain we had had in a week (when we are supposed to be entrenched in the rainy season) – in that way it really did feel like the world was celebrating too.

Rosh Hashanah morning dawned wet and gray, but out into the rain I drove singing parts of prayers and swerving between cars. Past the old city, past the market and out to the wide, brown Ping River where I climbed up to the foot bridge and stood in the rain contemplating a year. A year ago when I was just starting one of my best years in college, when I was immersed in thoughts about the Tanzania education system, when I was contemplating living in Indonesia the following year but worried if I would have the courage to do so, when I was on top of the school – a senior and confident – in my friends and in my classes, when I rode a mile along Lake Carnegie in Princeton and stood on a dam watching geese in the water. This year there were no geese. Instead I watched water snakes ripple black along the surface. This year it was not sunny, but grey and wet, and small Thai men and women trundled past me half hidden under umbrellas. To the leaves, twigs and occasional bottles I saw floating by, I added breadcrumbs – a Thai Tashlikh.

From there I stopped by the Chabad to hear the Shofar sound. While it was supposed to happen at 11:30 it was a full hour later before the rams horns were raised and I consequently spent an hour surrounded by davening Jews – a style of service completely alien to the joyous songs and prayers I am accustomed to.

Because of the late hour I literally zoomed school – shrinking a 25 minute drive into a 11 minutes of wind and curves. As we are nearing the end of the semester, the class was devoted to review and in the middle I decided I could allow my class a cultural digression. “What is the Thai New Year,” I asked. Songkran – the famous water festival was the reply. “And when is that celebrated?” April 13 – I was informed. “Does anyone know when the Jewish New Year is” (I had to briefly explain what Judaism was) – “Today!” I wrote. So yes I taught my freshman a little bit about my religion and they taught me in return. I taught them the name (Rosh Hashanah) and I taught them the greeting (La Shana Tova) and in return they taught me the equivalent Thai Greeting (Sawadee be mi).

That evening I piled my bike high with goodies and surrounded by friends on motorbikes we caravanned out to the river again off to a particular hide away restaurant Denali and I had enjoyed when I had visited her in January. Not going to lie it felt sort of like a PiA gang driving through the streets of Chiang Mai (not only was there the usual crowd, but we had in our mass a number of other fellows and post fellows from different countries). At the restaurant along the Ping we filled a long table down the middle and decorated the centerline with the fruit, Challah and honey I had acquired (and in addition a special bottle of mountain honey Denali had been given). Being the resident Jew I was wheedled into giving a brief summary of what the holiday was and then also how my family in particular celebrates. I taught the table round the traditional greeting, just as I had with my class, performed the traditional blessings and then we ate! Challah, tom kai gai, apples, penang curry, cashew chicken, sautéed mushrooms, custard apples and honey. We passed around the odd yellow fruit and discovered it to have a very dry very sweet texture – like someone pureed an apple and a pumpkin and then set it out to dry.
Finally at around 10:45 it was time for cake – we stuck it full with candles and we did actually all sing Happy Birthday to the World – I wonder what the Thais in the restaurant thought…

A high holiday pondering:
On any given day I consider Jews all over the world to be connected to share a common bound of tradition and history. The word Judaism is synonymous in my mind to family. And yet there are those rare moments where I feel completely alienated from my faith, from the people that I usually call family. One such moment was at Chabad – of course I realize that there are different levels, if you will, of observance and that Chabad weighs heavy to the right. Yet knowing that does not stop me from feeling more than irked that I must sit behind a screen shielded from viewing of the torah because I am a woman, that when the torah is given to one of us women to pass amongst the men do not continue singing, but rather chat and wait as if we were some how delaying things. I am more than irked when I kindly ask if I can have another Challah for my celebration, but that I have to go soon because I much teach my class and I am told that yes I certainly can and I should explain it to the Rabbi in the office, but I should not say I have to teach, but rather that I have a child at home I must return to. I am more than irked that I am told to lie rather than be accepted for the way I choose to celebrate my faith as well as my prior commitments.

And yet this is not meant as a rant, it is Rosh Hashana and it is rather a time of celebration and forgiveness – more this is a pondering on my faith. I do not mean to speak ill of Chabad – they were indeed very friendly and welcoming the day before when I stopped by and then did provide me with delicious Challah. Yet at the same time I felt in someway that my faith was some how inferior because I am reform (a feeling I never got from the Chabad I love so much back at Princeton). Rather these thoughts are more an acknowledgment of how, oddly, I felt more connected to my faith and heritage standing alone on a bridge across the muddy Ping river, than I did surrounded by men and women of my faith all praying at the Chabad house. How I felt more connected sharing a part of my heritage with my students and learning some of theirs in return. How I felt more connected to my faith sitting around a fellow teacher’s table with Jews, Christians, Buddhists, sharing Challah, muddling through prayers and teaching traditions. And how I felt more connected to my faith explaining it all to friends over a meal of curry, custard apples, challah and sweet mountain honey.

I guess this must mean that after three and a half months, Thailand has really become part of what I consider to be, in my mind, synonymous with “family.”

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

George Seurat travels to Thailand

Most of the children gathered around the small wood tables will likely-as-not never see a real George Seurat painting. Many probably won't end up getting on a real plane and flying thirteen hours to Paris, France. But that did not stop any of them from arriving excited Wednesday afternoon to glue “French visas” into their “passports” and head off to “Paris” to learn how to paint pointillism.

Wanting to get involved in community service and art while I was in Chiang Mai I found myself meeting behind one of the larger wats in the city with an organization that focuses on art relief, a week after my arrival in the city. Originally my intention was to simply help out a couple hours a week in one of their many partner organizations. They had other ideas. Five minutes into our discussion I was presented with the idea of creating a weekly art program for local neighborhood kids, many of whom are very poor. The only stipulation was that it met once a week and taught kids some form of art, where I went from there was completely up to me. How could I say no?

So after a month of planning (and about another of me traveling and unable to plan) everything was organized and ready for the kids to start. I had a name: Young Lions, Global Artists (the Thai lion is a very popular symbol here), and I had the Thai translation: Singh noi, Sin la pin low. I had a logo: a traditional Thai lion whose tail turned into a paintbrush. And most importantly I had a concept: A tour of artistic traditions from around the world – thus teaching the kids both art and a little bit about the world.

In the week leading up to our first day, a poster was printed to hang on the gate and a stack of green passports were stapled together to be passed out to the children before they “departed” to far off countries within the courtyard of Cultural Canvas Chiang Mai. We made forays out into the neighborhood deep into the sois (small streets) where Pbat (one of the people who works at Cultural Canvas and also does all the translating) marching confidently into alleyways to talk to any family we saw with kids.

And then it was Wednesday – the sky threatening and the air cool. We had our tables set out, the paints ready in the offing at 3:45 (the program was to run from 4-5). We had made enough passports for twenty kids, but we expected closer to eight on this first day. While we milled around pondering who if anyone would come, three small kids in school uniforms came hesitantly into the courtyard. We descended upon them with excitement – handing out passports explaining that they should fill them out (the first page has questions: What is your name? Age? Country of birth? Favorite color? Favorite animal?) When they had filled out their new passports and drawn pictures of themselves we set them to sketching while we waited hopeful for a few additional kids before we began the lesson.

Determined to wrangle up some more children, Pbat marched off into the sois and returned ten minutes later trailing three more excited students who had an hour only before they had to go sell flowers on the streets. In the time she was gone, yet more children arrived – some by themselves, some in groups of two or three and two dropped off by a dad on a motorbike. By 4:20 we had amassed a collection of 14 kids all around or below the age of eight! It was time to board the plane.

Unfurling a map we first pointed out Thailand and then “finger flew” to Japan. We explained (with Pbat translating) the origins of Japanese fans and then I showed them an example I had constructed the day before – a long beige paper covered with watercolor fish, folded and taped into a large fan that I could hang from my wrist or a belt. The lesson was short, and all translated, as they know next to no English, but mostly we were just eager to jump right in.

Paper was unfurled, watercolors brought out. For the next forty minutes the children covered their fans with trees, houses, people, declarations of “I love you,” and large abstract splotches of paint. Then it was time to fold them, tape the bottoms with brown “wood” tape and attach a rainbow string loop. Before they departed back into the Sois we handed out snacks and stamped their “Japanese Visas” within their passports.

I think the first class was a success. Indeed it seemed to make such an impression on one little boy nicknamed Pokemon that he came showed up the following day just to talk to the Cultural Canvas volunteers!

This past week’s trip to France resulted in a beautiful collection of pointillist Eiffel towers created undercover from the rain that swept through the courtyard in the late afternoon. To remind the kids to only paint with dots, the volunteers set up a mantra of “Judt! Judt! Judt!” (dot dot dot – in Thai). Almost all the kids returned and we even had a new girl. A major highlight of the day was the little girl who returned to class with a letter for Pbat. It read: "Teacher I love the art classes, but why are they only one day a week!" If only we could have classes every day, but right now I’m just thrilled at how much the kids are enjoying the once a week lessons. This week we are off to Nigeria!

Friday, August 27, 2010

She sneaks around the world from Hong Kong to Saronida…

Where as the first two months were spent primarily within the city limits of Chiang Mai, during the month of August I seemed to have barely been in the city.

For our week long break for midterms (which coincided with the end of my dengue experience) I drove solo down to the city of Lamphun – a drive lined with majestic rubber trees and explored wats both new and well kept, and ancient. On the drive back I went in search of an elephant chedi I had read about where one could offer up bananas and sugar cane to the stone elephants. I discovered the chedi and I also discovered around forty men and women dancing in bright and shimmering outfits – I stayed to watch sitting on the seat of my bike.

The next day I embarked upon a spontaneous trip to Hong Kong to visit my Princeton roommate Shobi! It was the oddest thing to board a plane in Bangkok and arrive in Hong Kong three hours later when I’m used to trips to Asia taking 30 hours…but wait I’m already in Asia. So I landed, made it into the city and was met by Shobi’s husband and led to a restaurant where we had a Chinese feast: fried fish, fried rice, cooked unidentifiable leafy vegetables, and Peking duck – I love Thai food, but there is a lot to be said for variety. Shobi and I spent the entire time giggling and swapping stories and remarking upon how absurd it was that we were both sitting in a restaurant in Asia! The next two days consisted of one delicious meal after another – homemade Indian chai in the mornings, and absurd amount of pastries, muffins, croissants, and cheese, long thin rice noodles that were made in front of us, curly black and white leathery mushrooms that looked like ears, an entire Indian feast of six dishes that we cooked together at Shobi’s apartment during a torrential downpour. For dinner one night we sought out a small hole in the wall restaurant notable for its possession of a Michelin star – the former chef of the Four Season’s decided to make a high class dim sum place for the people. There we ordered practically half the menu and left clutching our stomachs. When not eating we explored fish markets glistening with still flopping fish and malls shiny with Prada and Gucci, we took a day trip out to the coast and a trip across the river to watch the city skyline turn into an enormous light show complete with coordinated music.

(A little piece of Princeton for the two recent Alums!)

Then suddenly I was back on a plane and back in Chiang Mai…but not for long. The next morning Riley and I boarded a three-hour bus (playing Thai slap-stick comedy shows the entire way) to Chiang Rai to visit the three PiA fellows up there. We spent a day exploring the city via the flimsiest bikes I have ever had occasion to sit on. The next morning all five of us caught a bus up into the mountains to the town of Mae Salong. The town is famous for the large quantity of opium that used to be cultivated on its slopes, but the government in an attempt to crack down has had the town switch to growing tea and coffee. The town was originally settled by people of the Hunan Province of China and it has retained much of its ancestry in the modern day – the people look more Chinese then Thai, the food served is Chinese and so is all the writing on the store fronts. To sample the local goods we sat down at a tea-shop and sipped tiny scalding cups of green and jasmine tea. It sounds so serene right? Sipping tea up in the mountains in a tiny sleepy town…think again…while that might have been our intention, no sooner had we sat down then a group of locals sat down for a boisterous lunch, two kids got on a computer and started up a shooting game with the volume cranked up and a Chinese tour group descended on the shop in search of tea. Here be Thailand! I wouldn’t have it any other way.

But we not only sampled the tea of the north, but also the nightlife. First it was off to a Thai’s birthday party we ended up being invited to where we were served plates and bowls of Thai curries and soups and then (because such a party would not be complete without it) a good hour of karaoke! But the night wasn’t over yet and it did not end until early in the morning after exploring a hopping club complete with dragon head statues, fog machines, and green strobe lights, and deciding not to explore two clubs invitingly (or uninvitingly) named: The Womb and The Sperm Pub.

(A Small shop in Mae Salong)

Then it was finally back to that thing called work and class…but don’t worry not for too long…three weeks later I found myself boarding another plane this time to Bangkok for a three day adventure with the other Chiang Mai PiA girls! From our base camp on the edge of the famous red light district we hailed pearly pink cabs (the primary vehicle of the city) to the renowned old palace that literally glows with the amount of gold used on the wats, statues, stairs.

We explored one of the fancy malls of the city and ran into the oldest princess of Thailand – well not really ran into her, but saw her walk out of an elevator dressed all in pink on her way to open some store in the mall. The next day we headed out to one of the markets in the city – its enormous and seems to encompass everything if you can just find it: clothes – both practical and fashionable, pottery, jewelry, plants, food, music, furniture, art, cloth, and the most memorable – animals (also the hardest for me to handle). I have been to animal markets in China that are much worse, but even with it being better I don’t think I will ever be comfortable with them. But we did see everything it seemed: puppies and kittens of all varieties, hamsters, little squirrels on leashes, every kind of fish imaginable, chickens, ducks, turtles – including palm sized albino ones, raccoons, a small crocodile. In a dark corner we found a large group of men circled around a ring where inside we found two cocks going at each other… Geertz would be at home here.

(Riley utilizing her shades against all the glitter and gold of the old palace)

From Bangkok I headed off to my biggest adventure yet: a week in Turkey and Greece with the family for the occasion of our great friends Manolis and Lucile’s wedding! The trip could not have started off on a more promising foot – arriving bleary eyed to the hotel at 7 am I was beckoned down stairs and outside where I found a seat overlooking the Bosporus and from where I was served: a plate of cheese, cold meats, cucumbers, tomatoes and olives, a large basket of warm pastries, a bowl of muesli and yogurt in which I drizzled honey, a plate of fruit, a large glass of fresh orange juice and two steaming mugs of tea one after the other. While staring in wonder at this feast in front of me (many portions which are very sadly lacking in my new home country) I glanced up to see dolphins jumping off shore…can it get better than this? I don’t think so…of course it did!

First of all it was amazing to see most of the family (Daniel was home because he already had started college) as well as Pardis and John who were traveling with us. Then of course there was the exploration of Istanbul itself! Every morning we would set sail from Asia in pursuit of Europe (the Bosporus runs along the meeting of the two continental plates allowing us the amusement of breakfast in Asia, lunch in Europe and dinner back in Asia). We wandered through the Grand Bazaar, craned our necks to get a good look at the painted interior domes of a number of mosques, strolled through the old Harem quarters of Tokapi Palace. To escape the sun we stepped into the dimly lit marble chambers of an old city Haman – possibly patronized by Ataturk and Florence Nightingaleand were led into octagonal heated rooms with geometric perforated ceilings and gushing fountains along the walls, where large Turkish women scrubbed years worth of dirt from your skin and sang songs that reverberated off the stone.

While wandering one afternoon in the Grand Bazaar we happened upon a backgammon game played by old Turkish men in a side silver workshop. (Backgammon is an unofficial national sport of the country and personally my favorite game). Staying to watch we were drawn into the folds of the game. Then suddenly I found myself warmly beckoned to the wooden stool and throwing dice with trepidation, with an older mentor at my side who would shake his head and re-move my pieces on occasion if he thought my moves unwise. Over the course of three rounds we drew thirteen more men around our table and at some point we were offered tea that I gulped in between moves – The men play incredibly fast seemingly having memorized every possible move and combination – I have thus since resolved to study hard before my next visit.

(David scaling an old Byzantine wall)

Then of course there was the food: I could go on and on about the wonders of cheese (and by the trips end it had become a running joke) however I will attempt to spare you and just say that there is a glorious amount of cheese and yogurt in Istanbul and I made it my duty to sample some at every meal and indeed between meals – a daunting task for sure, but utterly enjoyable! But besides just cheese it was simply amazing to not be consuming coconut milk, curries, and somtam (papaya salad). I have grown up partaking in the cuisine of a different country every night and it has been odd to limit myself to just one these past months. We ate: cheese borek, overstuffed potatoes, small Turkish dumplings smothered in yogurt, kefta, fresh fish – grilled and fried along the Bosphorus, cherries and meatballs, lentil soups, kebabs, baklava, honey cakes, Turkish double boiled tea, blackberries, figs and, the day before we flew to Greece – goat milk ice cream with the consistency of melting taffy, sweetened with tree pollen and flavored strongly with Turkish coffee grounds!

All to soon it we were grabbing our last cheese borek to go and boarding a plane to Athens, but our prospects were hardly gloomy for of course there was the main event of our trip still ahead of us. Friday night dinner consisted of an intimate family feast at Manolis’s parents’ summer house – an intimate feast of maybe forty people. Platters of lamb – including the local favorite – lamb innards, which taste just as succulent, tzatziki, fries, spinach dishes, trays of figs, Greek ice cream, French fruit pastry tarts…dinner.

The next day was one of recovery and utter laziness…sitting by the pool reading, swimming, exploring just far enough to find a cheese shop (you have probably gotten the impression that I might be harboring a not so secret obsession…you would be right) and a shady restaurant by the beach where we filled the table with food (we guessed that dinner wouldn’t be till quite late). Then it was off to the wedding where we sipped wine on the beach and applauded when the bride and groom emerged looking gorgeous. And then we were off in all our finery following the bride and groom as they led forty minutes along the beach and up into the hills to a tiny church, all the while the bright red sun slowly dipping into the ocean.

For all those who have seen My Big Fat Greek Wedding and wonders as to the validity of the service I can attest that it is relatively accurate. The church that Manolis and Lucile got married in was much more beautiful – all awash in floor to ceiling murals, and the priests were large, bearded and robed. After the service we processed in a leisurely fashion back to the house carrying small white lanterns that flickered in the semi-darkness. Then there was cocktails, speeches, pictures, movies, dinner (as we had surmised) was not served till midnight – but what a Greek feast it was! Dessert was not till 2 am, as was dancing. Despite the lure of 4 am swimming we said our good byes around 2:30 as all those west bound (everyone except me) had to get up again to catch their plane at 6 am! My plane did not leave till 2pm so I had a leisurely morning at the hotel – and yes stuffed down not one but two bowls of Greek yogurt and honey (can you blame me? I have to wait another six months before I’m likely to have any). And then I was off back to Asia.

And now finally I am home…it is still slightly odd to think that Thailand is home, but there is familiarity and comfort in being back in the city for sure. (That comfort started even before I unlocked the door of my apartment, when I ran into one of my students at the airport who then offered and gave me a ride home!) I am settling back into routines, though there are never fully formed routines here. I have taken on new projects to keep me busy (their description will come in a later post) and I am re-taking up older pursuits. And yes, I am already looking online and talking to friends about our next adventure – the semester ends in little less then a month, at which point we have a three week break…I still have much of Asia to explore!