We’re going back! Eighteen years ago, I promised friends that I would be back in two years. Easier said than done. There was a wedding and then a baby and then another baby. Somewhere in there we gained car payments, a mortgage, and two full-time jobs to go with it all. Plane tickets aren’t cheap and vacation time is priceless. What seemed so simple, never happened. I thought about my friends; I sent cards; and even experimented with Internet calls in their first incarnations. But I never got back.
Then, a few years ago, we were outrageously lucky enough to spend six months in Vienna, Austria. As we made new friends and began to feel at home, there was a strange underlying sadness for me. How could I commit to this new culture, to the German language and its torturous grammar, and to our new friends when I had never made it back to Thailand?
For six more years, we dreamed about it. I priced tickets with the kayak app on my phone when I was waiting in line at the checkout. We schemed and we saved and then, finally, in September of this year, we gave up on the idea of using frequent flyer miles, we gave up on the idea of getting back for a month, and we even gave up on the idea of cheap tickets. We just searched up the tickets in that small window called Christmas Break and we did it. We pushed the “Buy tickets” button! And then we sat there in disbelief. We really did it. I am so excited and so nervous, it has been hard to think about anything else. So, we decided to focus that energy into remembering what we loved about Thailand. We’re writing out memories separately and then we’ll compare.
I know this is cheezy but my best memories really are, by far, of friendships. Quiet times and conversations with wonderful people I had the time to know in a deep way – even when language wasn’t easy. I remember the beginning of two special friendships. A young woman, about my age, who was also studying fisheries asked me one day “Would you like to go to Iceland this weekend?” Hmmm. Now that was not what I was expecting!
What on Earth could she mean? “Yes” I replied with no idea what would be in store. On the day of the trip, she picked me up in a van and we headed out to a boat dock. Our destination was … an “island.” Ohhhhh!! “Island!” Better still, on that island was a village and in that village was a family that welcomed me in as a friend. I was the whitest friend they’d ever had. That’s for sure! The little kids in the village ran at me calling “piii piii” which means “ghost ghost”. And, then in a very ironic twist (to me anyway), warned me gravely about crossing from one side of the village to the other after dark because of the graveyard. I visited the village many times after that. Usually just for a day or a night. They always said I needed to come back for three nights so at the end of my trip, I did. I slept on the bamboo hut, in my sarong, on one of my last nights in Thailand, holding hands with the head of this household. Her kindness and her deep, belly laugh are drawing my back to the village now. And who will drive our family to the village this time? The very same friend who brought me the very first time.
We made many other friends as well: teachers enthusiastic about river ecology and NGO co-workers working to protect the villagers and the health of the Andaman Sea. As my Thai improved, it was easy to start up conversations will all sorts of people. There was, for example, a boy with the nickname “Squid” (but in Thai) that I met on a bus. Poor kid.
– A giant spider (we named him Fred) that lived in our kitchen. And our friend’s laughter at our fear of that spider. “He’s only a nice house spider” she told us mockingly. OK well he’s still thick, black, 4” across, and moves at the speed of lightening!
– Our neighbor, a 10-year-old boy who showed us how to put little rings of water around the legs of our dining room table to keep out the ants. He also brought us some fish to keep in a bowl of water on the table so that no mosquito larvae could grow.
– Learning, slowly, to eat some of the fun curry that was sold in stalls on the street. In my first attempts it was a bite, a glass of water, a bite, a glass of water, a bite, a glass of water so that after only a few bites my tongue was sore and my tummy full. But, after a few months, I had fried those tastebuds and I could enjoy most everything. I even learned to untie the little plastic bags that the curry was put in as a take-out container.
– The ground covered with red papers after a display of fireworks right in the middle of a crowded main square. And, in the celebratory crowd, friendly Thai’s would come up and tell me where Bill was. After all, he was the only other “farang” around so they were excited to update me on his whereabouts. “I saw your man in the bookstore” “Your man is on the next street.” These weren’t friends or people I had ever met before. They were just strangers being helpful. Other strangers called out “I love YOU” and “Pai Nai YOU” when we walked into town. There was no flying under the radar for us that year.
– Bringing my shorts and a new sarong into a tailor and having an identical pair of shorts made from the sarong. Oh the older women in the village thought those sarnong-shorts were a hoot!
– Everyone told me that couldn’t work because they “ben wat” – which translates to “have a cold.” I kept thinking that I was mistranslating. Why can’t folks do any work when they have a cold. Then I got a cold and I went to the doctor. Ha! He prescribed codeine 3 times a day for a week. That explains it eh? Eventually I came to understand that there was a Rule of Three in Thai healthcare. If you go to the doctor, you should expect to see the doctor for 3 minutes, get asked 3 questions, and be given prescriptions for 3 medicines.
– We took in a stray cat and decided to bring her home with us to America. Alas, she got herself knocked up before we could leave (crazy street cat). Eventually, we had to take her to the vet for a presumed urinary tract infection and to get a check up pre-emmigration. I held the cat in my lap all the way across town in a tuk-tuk, during which time, she decided to pee all over me. So there I was, a tall, sweaty white farang standing on the street trying to pay the tuk-tuk driver with a screaming cat under one arm and my clothes soaked through by infected cat pee. Ahhh, sweet memories.
– Meeting some women in Northern Thailand toward the end of the trip and starting up a conversation. By then, I could really speak and I asked them what the sounds were in the middle of the night. “Oh your hotel is right on top of the square where they slaughter pigs.” I must have turned white and they got the giggles. We chatted some more and then they invited us back to their homes where they dressed us up in their traditional clothes and we all took pictures. It wasn’t a tourist event, no money was exchanged. It was a spontaneous grassroots cultural exchange.
There is so much more. A vegetarian restaurant owner who invited us to what I think was a religious cult meeting; the sound of fish nibbling coral under water; the little pastries for sale in the town square; the day the first 7-11 opened in town, Songkran New Year’s water festival on the beach, and bartering gently at the market. It wasn’t all easy. We witnessed fatal accidents (yes – plural) and grew frightened of road travel. I struggled with a culture in which there wasn’t an easy path for a western woman. But it was an amazing year. And we are, finally, going back!
*That cat did come back to America where she donned a rhinestone collar and lived out the rest of her life in a high-rise apartment overlooking Manhattan. She lived to be about 18 years old. She will be missed.
NOTE: This was written and posted without reading what Bill wrote. Now I can finally see what he said ….