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, saut̩ed mushrooms, custard apples and honey. We passed around the odd yellow fruit and discovered it to have a very dry very sweet texture Рlike 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!