Kitchen Talk

I love the Thai ladies who work in kitchen. Thailand might be the land of smiles, but Isaan, the poorest province of Thailand, is the land of roaring laughter. Laughter of the kind that makes you feel first embarrassed, then upset, then it makes you simply abandon your ego and accept that yes all you do is plain stupid. You farang ( foreigner) coming from another world definitely have no clue what is going on so you might as well just embrace it. I love the ladies in the kitchen. They laugh without restrain. They never really care what someone else might be thinking of their laughter. They laugh at you, and at each other. They laugh at themselves. If you pay close attention you might realise that in their generosity they are in fact inviting you to laugh with them.

Joy is back. Whatever were the problems she had to set up home, they are now set. And so we are back to lots of hugs till you can no longer breathe. There is also a new lady in the kitchen. Kung who is 32 but like most Thai people in their 30s looks in her 20s. She is pure happiness. She always asks me if I am hungry or happy. How is it that we communicate, I wonder? Broken English, broken Thai, miming and laughter.

Today as I was walking around the garden I saw them all seating under the sun. They always do it when things calm down for some minutes. They sat under the shades of the jackfruit trees. Apart from all the women in the Kitchen there was also Non, the handyman who can do literally everything, and Oy, the massage lady. They were laughing at her. She looked sick and exhausted.

“Are you sick?” I ask.

“No”,

Then they all start laughing again. I can’t really understand what the heck is going on.

“Massage Man.”

“What? tired of the massage?” I ask.

They signal using their hands to show me the man Oy massaged smelled. Oy is now smelling tiger balm to recover.

“Oh!” I say. “Farang. They don’t shower.”

We all crack up. I can’t believe Oy is smelling tiger balm to recover. It is just too funny.

I tell them in Brazil we shower twice a day. Morning and Evening.

“Same same Thailand. Brasil good. ” exclaims Joy

“I like Ronaldinho” laughs Wii.

I can’t really believe that even the ladies in the kitchen in Nong Khai know Ronaldinho.

Then they laugh about his front teeth. They tell me Thailand is bad in football and they, the ladies, like to play cards for money.

“For MONEY?”

“Little. 1 Baht”

We all laugh.

“JulieTAH ( as they call me) work here when”

I now am an expert in speaking and understanding broken English so I know it means that they are asking me till when I will be staying here. It means more in fact. It means they care.

“February.”

They look shocked. 1 month ?

“Going to Burma.” I explain.

Lots of shocked faces looked back at me. “Maynamar ? Why?”

“Why not?”

“Not good. Not clean.”

I am curious to discover what are the prejudices these ladies who have never been there have against the Burmese. I, of course, cannot find that out in sign language. I just keep asking the same question.

Why? Why? Why?”

Eventually Pook tells me.

“Joke. Same Same Thailand”

As Roxanna appears later and attempts to speak her Thai, and I try to learn words we cannot stop laughing. People must think we are crazy.

Yes in exact one month I will be flying to finally see Burma. The country I did not see three years ago. When I bought the ticket months ago I imagined that by that time I would have had enough of being in one place. I am starting to think that I might have been wrong.

How could I possibly live without this roaring laughter? Without the Mekong? Without the sunsets? The simplicity of life. Helping people who show up. Hearing the amazing stories.

We, the Nong Khai victims, call jokingly Mut Mee a black whole. Only one month to go and I am already nostalgic. Well, I might do like everyone else. I might just have to come back once again. Well, I am sure I will.

Life Stories

I do not like writing one day after the other but last night I heard an epic story. So interesting it was that I who had accepted the invitation of a gorgeous English man to go check up Chinese New Year celebrations in town stayed behind to hear the story of a 76 year old lady. Wow, and how worth it was.

They say in Brazil that life begins when you are forty. The sentence could not have been truer than for Carley, the Australian lady I checked in about a week ago. Until last night all I knew from her was that she had spent lots of time in Kashmir, that she read voraciously the newspaper and that she was very friendly.

Where to even start?

“I arrived in Kashmir in the 80’s. After crossing India, I arrived at the lake. I arrived in the house boat, and as I got out of the shikara I looked up. There was Kadir. I took one look and thought ‘ There you are. I was looking for you for my whole life. And I did not even know it.”

Kadir, a Muslim Cashmere married man. Kadir who lived in a place that was about to be set in turmoil, war, killings in the eternal struggle of the Kashmere valley.

But that is not where the story starts. The story starts with a girl in Australia who got pregnant and married very early. A girl who spent a life in academia, in a loveless marriage and then became a political activist. A woman who is part of the group who set all legislation that till this day protects the forests of New South Wales and the rivers of Tasmania. By her forties her husband changed political activism for Rajneesh, also know as Osho. That was it for Carley.

Carley left the world of academia and learned to be a nurse, a practical work that could ensure her work anytime, anywhere. And so it was that she left at forty for the first time to see the world. She never stopped since then. She first went to China.

“I went in as a socialist, came back as an avid supporter of democracy.”

Back to Australia to work a bit more and off she went to India. Met by the unscrupulous heat of India she immediately realized she needed to go up to the mountains. How to do it? At the time traveling through these roads was not so easy as they were mainly for the military. She met an Indian devotee of Gandhi and followed him to Manali. From Manali she went to Kashmir on her own carrying with her a bottle of Cointreau .

For those of you who know the very famous book Shataram Carley spent the first three nights of her Kashmir stay drinking with Kadir and Gregory David Roberts. Wishing him to disappear and leave her to be alone with Kadir. And so it happened that they started an affair that would change both of their lives forever.

Kadir’s wife was sent away and Carley stayed. She became close to his kids. She did not fully understand at first the impact she had had in that poor woman’s life. When she met Kadir he was suicidal. Unhappily married in an arrange wedding. He was unhappy in Kashmir having lost his older son and having left two daughters. In some parts of the world that is a true disaster. Carley was herself recovering from her own traumas. They helped each other.

For the next years she went back to Kashmir. She brought tourists. She paid for schooling and doctors and everything that was needed for his family. Always going back to work as a nurse. She was then able to get him a visa to come to Australia and so he worked every Cashmere winter of the following 10 years in Australia.

Carley suddenly realized she wanted to see more of the world. She could not just keep going to Kashmir. In the middle of the 80 she traveled alone through all the Stan countries (Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan etc ), Azerbaijan, Armenia in winter seeing first hand starvation and what the Soviet Union was doing to the place. As she arrived in Turkey and saw piles of Tomatoes and fruits all around she knew the Soviet Union would collapse very soon.

She loved Istanbul, but tired of the cold went south to Egypt. Loved Cairo hated how she was treated. After having seen the beauty of Islamic architecture all over she found Egypt was all about building big things. She missed Kadir and wanted to go back to India. In Egypt they would not give her a visa, she went to Jordan, they also refused it, she took a bus to Damascus only to arrive in the middle of Palestinian uprising because of the killing of someone I do not remember the name of.

She was eventually able to go back to Kashmir. By this time the violence had restarted. The army would round up man and make one Cashmere pick three militants or else that man would be killed. The women many times would come and surround men and army. Then violence escalated with children being shot in shikaras and even inside mosques.

She was furious. She was too outspoken.

“There was it. I had to either pick up weapons or leave. I was putting my family in danger for being so outspoken. The girls were growing up and I was a huge scandal there. His children needed their mother. I paid for her to have an operation to no longer have babies. I made a mess in that lady’s life. By then I started understanding the real dimensions of my arrival in their life. I had to go.”

“When was this Carley?”

“2003. I left.”

“Have you been back?”

“No.”

“ Are you going to see him again ?”

“In another life I am sure. I am certain if there are other lives we have met many times before.”

“Do you feel guilt?”

“Yes. I feel some guilt for what I caused to that woman’s life.”

But her face lifts up.

“Do you want to know something incredible? My daughter was in India last year and she wrote me to ask whether she could go visit Kadir. She loved him. He was a charming man who enchanted my whole family. I agreed and was very clear that it was of outmost importance that she should be respectful to his wife. And so she went and I saw a million pictures of them together. His wife hugging my daughter! And then she told me that Kadir told her that neither him nor his wife will have anything to do with the decision of who his daughters will marry. It will be their own choice. I was shocked. I was shocked. I felt happy beyond belief. This is the most important thing now. They must have good weddings.”

As I hear the story in details. Ask every single question in the world. Go through the feelings myself. The complexity of humanity. The coexistence of a multiplicity of feelings. As I imagine in my mind the places I have visited being in war, being destroyed I feel an eerie feeling. I am so moved. I know these mosques, these boats, these shikaras she talks about. I even know Kadir. How many Kadirs have I met along the way in a mixture of gentleness with old traditions. People who we imagine so different but are always willing to go to different places than the ones they have been to.

“Carley, Thank You. This is an amazing story. I am so thankful to have heard.”

“Thank You. It is just a life!”

The Power of Stories

Two years ago I came to Mut Mee for the first time. At the time although I had studied a lot about Middle Eastern politics I had never been there, nor had I really had any personal encounters with middle easterners. It was at Mut Mee that I met the first Israeli that challenged my black and white thoughts about the Palestinian Israeli situation. From then on it has been as most of you who have been in this list long enough quite a deep dive in the political, academic, personal, emotional, rational, visceral, crazy world of that conflict.

It is somehow surreal how much in one way or another I always get caught up in it. It does not matter where I am Palestinians and Israelis always find me. And when they do I am now a bridge between these worlds to these individuals. Something incredibly surreal for a non Jewish, non Arab Brazilian citizen who has been crossing borders for as long as she remembers.

But back to two years ago, after I met the first Israeli who challenged me I met an older couple here. I wrote about them at the time. They had left Israel as a political statement. They were activist. She was a journalist. They moved to an island in the border of Thailand and Cambodia and here she changed topics of writing. Instead of writing about subversive topics she wrote the first ever written Thai food book in Hebrew.

I traveled Thailand at the time mainly with Israelis and once I went back my dissertation of my masters ended up being about the Israeli Palestinian conflict. From my masters I went into my PhD, I visited both Israel and Palestine, became friends with people in both sides of the wall. I cried in front of that wall and left feeling defeated.

I remember going to a human rights festival and watching the documentary Budrus which documents the struggle of Palestinians, Israelis and international activists to change the wall of separation that was at the time circumventing Budrus, a Palestinian village. I was deeply moved by the film. Not only because of the absurdity of a wall surrounding some villages and making it impossible for people to reach other parts of Palestine, but because of the power of people to unite in the face of absurdity to challenge injustice. The people gave me hope. Hope that humanity could go beyond ideologies.

I watched the film in London, found out it was made by a Brazilian friend of a friend of mine, and the people who gathered together came from everywhere in the world. The people protesting in the film came as well. As the filmmaker was present we were able to learn a lot about the 6 years of that protest. We learned about the Israelis who crossed illegally the wall to go to the protest to minimise the violence towards the Palestinians. We learned about the Israelis who slept in the house of Palestinians, about the soldiers who once released from the IDF changed sides and started to protest. We heard about the Palestinians who in turn protected the Israeli activists when the new order was to arrest Israeli activists for being illegally in Palestine. They did not care about the “imagined communities” they belonged to. They cared about what plain absurd. I cried the whole film. First out of anger then of emotion for human capacity to unite. As I watched the film I saw the man I had once met here. He was there, on a little clip of the news. I could not understand what he had said. It was not translated but I could see he was supporting the protest. I was so moved. I knew him. Even though I did not even know his Israeli name (but only his Thai one) I knew him and I knew what he stood for.

So it is that I am here not doing much when suddenly I see him and his wife in the garden. I am so excited. I run towards their table barely containing my emotion.

“Hi! You might not remember me. I know you so well. I heard you speak about your activism, and your book, and your experiences in the war, and I saw you in Budrus and and and and and” There was so much to tell. How could I explain to them how much they had changed me, affected me, how that one encounter had meant so much to me. How could I say it in one sentence all that happened since I had met them.

They looked at me surprised

“I remember you. You sing”

I sat and was able to vomit out some of what had happened to me in between now and then. They were of course very surprised. Now I could relate to almost all they talked about. I was astonished to find out they set up Uri Avenery, the Israeli 86 year old activist, website Gush Shalom. I really admire Uri Avnery’s writings. As I sat looking the Mekong I learned they too had moved here to Nong Khai. I learned their party had really grown. Their activism was still very active.

How strange is the world I thought. I am at Mut Mee. Julian, my friend and the owner, is half Palestinian. One of the new rooms and nicest rooms in the new building has a Star of David on the wall. It is a very syncretic star mixed in Buddhist and Hindu imagery. Julian had explained to me when I first arrived that the room was designed for his very good friend Carol who is Jewish Iraqi. “She is like me, cant go back to her family home, she is of the Diaspora”. Julian like, the Israeli couple does not think of nationalities, and groups he thinks of people. How many times have I heard him say “We are the same people.”

As I seat hearing the couple I feel an uncontained joy for being able to always encounter the nicest people. At night I don’t even want to waste time telling my Israeli friend about the terrible incident that happened two nights in a roll. I want to tell about this couple. I want to introduce them after all my friend is coming all the way here to visit me. I feel so happy.

As I seat looking at the Mekong I remember Uri’s words which are not new to me. As the couple tells me I have to share my experiences with the world I think I will post it. I will write once again about these people going around and changing the world. Changing perceptions in spite of ideologies. As we seat there I remember the words of Uri Avnery. They are not new but they are however important words:

“Nationalism is a relatively recent historical phenomenon. When a community decides to become a nation, it has to reinvent itself. That means inventing a national past, reshuffling historical facts (and non-facts) in order to create a coherent picture of a nation existing since antiquity. Hermann the Cherusker, member of a Germanic tribe who betrayed his Roman employers, became a “national” hero. Religious refugees who landed in America and destroyed the native population became a “nation”. Members of an ethnic-religious Diaspora formed themselves into a “Jewish nation”. Many others did more or less the same.

Indeed, Newt would profit from reading a book by a Tel Aviv University professor, Shlomo Sand, a kosher Jew, whose Hebrew title speaks for itself: “When and How the Jewish People was Invented?”

Who are these Palestinians? About a hundred years ago, two young students in Istanbul, David Ben-Gurion and Yitzhak Ben-Zvi, the future Prime Minister and President (respectively) of Israel, wrote a treatise about the Palestinians. The population of this country, they said, has never changed. Only small elites were sometimes deported. The towns and villages never moved, as their names prove. Canaanites became Israelites, then Jews and Samaritans, then Christian Byzantines. With the Arab conquest, they slowly adopted the religion of Islam and the Arabic Culture. These are today’s Palestinians. I tend to agree with them.”

As I seat by the Mekong with my old new friends I realise how much what people say changes us. Their words some two years ago had changed me. They in certain way stirred me along the way. Their words led me to go see the Middle East. To find out who these people really are. Couple weeks ago I got an email from an Israeli I met last time I was in Israel. He wrote me to tell me he had for the first time been to Palestine without a weapon. “I went and I walked with no fear. I met the people you talked about. Not the ones I had heard about.” He was not the first friend who had crossed that wall after meeting me. I never tell them to. I just tell stories. The stories of the people I encounter. Encountering the Israeli couple here again made me realise how powerful stories are. They changed my path .

The Lowest Point

I imagine that every long trip has a low point. It has been now almost 5 months and a half since I left my life in England. It has been almost eleven years that I left Brasil to go study abroad. The lowest point in my journey happened last night. After being sick for so long, my existentialism was reaching unprecedented levels. I felt abandoned by all those that I once trusted, i felt I wanted to abandon myself. Why is it again that we live for?

As I cannot manage to reach any of the people who know me from within I decide that this is it I must just practice vipassana. I must just accept to bear all the pain on my own. There is angst and tension in the air that seems to be not only mine. Like a sponge I am sucking it all in. I had been for the whole day.

In England Julian, my friend and Mut Mee owner, is in Hospital with Ben, his son, awaiting for yet another heart surgery. Since Ben is little he has been struggling through this. Roxanna who works in the Gaia, the floating bar in the raft in the Mekong in front of us, passes by me incredibly shaken.

I am on the phone dealing with my own feelings, my own regrets. I am so absorbed by my pain that I see hers but do not hang up. She goes away. I seat in the stairs that lead us to the raft. Then I hear my new friend from Albania anxious about all that she can not really know because is far. Feeling entirely helpless I go to bed.

I fall asleep and suddenly I am awaken by noises. I am a bit confused but I have the feeling someone is knocking next door in Melissa’s room. Melissa, a new yorker who used to work for the UN, had left her life and came to Asia to study yoga. Although her room is technically in my house it has a door that goes outside. She has no way to reach the inside of the house as the door that goes to the communal area is locked. It was a temporary thing because since she came to Mut Mee on a day we had no rooms we arranged that room for her. Keeping the door locked was a way of ensuring my privacy.

Mut Mee spreads in front of the Mekong. It has beautiful bungalows, mixed with new buildings, a beautiful garden, little soys ( streets) and it is always entirely open. My house faces the Mekong. I have a balcony that leads to a bank that is filled with grass, bamboos going down to the river. I enter the house through the side door. I almost never close neither the door to my room, nor the Verandah door.

That is why when I hear someone knocking in Melissa’s door I can hear as if it is on my own. I am confused but go back to sleep. Suddenly I am awaken by someone opening my window, and then slamming it. i get shocked but again imagine it to be a friend of Melissa. I fall asleep probably for seconds and suddenly hear Melissa scream. She screams from the top of her lungs ” get the fuck out of here.”

Now I am paranoid. I am convinced it is a man. I am terrified. What could I do? i hear noises and then someone opens my window. I decide to be totally silent. I remember all my doors being open. i want to go check on Melissa but am terrified to do so. I do not want to speak because if someone was inside all that protected me was the fact that they did not know I was there.

I feel charges of adrenalin inside of me. All I can do within my ability is to call for help. All I can do is to actually text for help. All the men I know in Mut Mee are gone. Rob who works in reception lives in another village. i text him. It is 3 and a half am. I call so that even though I cant speak he would be able to see the messages. A lady picks up. I feel defeated I probably have the wrong number. I text Roxanna so she could call for help. She texts me back telling me the reason she was shaken earlier was because a Thai guy had ambushed her and wanted to have sex. Reading her message I am more terrified than ever.

I text Europe America.. All the people I trust to make the call I could not make. It is a 40 minutes of terror when I suddenly hear a motorbike coming. i hear someone calling out my name.

” Rob”?

It is him. i have never been so happy to see a man. I scream to Melissa. ” are you OK? She is. Rob calls Roxanna who is terrified alone in the raft without credit on her phone. He goes get her.

Melissa is calm she explains that the man had tried to break in and crawl through her window. He clearly wanted to rape her. When she shouted he open my window and then left. Nothing had happened but the tension we were in, both me and Roxanna, for the lack of knowledge and what our mind allowed us to create had us both in tears.

Melissa told us that she kept looking for a weapon but she had none. I was astonished. Fighting the man never crossed my mind. I don’t know if it is because I am too coward, too pacifist or simply because i was not face to face with him. All I could think about was to contact people. People who could come from outside.

But as the sun rose and the three of us had waken up things looked brighter. Yes it was awful. Yes I had never felt so vulnerable. Retrospectively, however, I realise that all my existentialism vanished. I who knew not why we live for did not want to die. I did not want anything to happen to Melissa or anyone. I wanted to help her, Roxanna and I. As the son rose I realised that I was not alone, I was just a bit unprepared. I needed more numbers of people who live here. I needed to learn to lock my doors at night. I needed to never let my imagination run wild. Melissa who confronted the man was way calmer than both of us who imagined him, who imagined what he could do. Imagination practically paralysed us.

I kept remember Suu Kyi’ s words “When you are feeling helpless, help someone”.

The lowest point taught me valuable lessons. It taught me I should have helped more. But that as usual within the limits of our own incapacities I did what I know best. I reached for people. As I am thinking about that Yong, who works in the kitchen, having heard the story seats next to me.

” Take my number. You call I come.”

The lowest point reminds me that we must never let the evilness of one undermine our love and faith of the vast majority of people. That is how I know this is the lowest point. It is not as some of my friends suggested time to pack and go home. It is time to start going up.

Lots of love, Me

Sick Away

I think there are few things that are worse than feeling sick. Feeling sick for days on end while travelling is one of them. It is not that it does not matter having friends around, people offering their drugs, natural remedies, offering to buy food, or pain killers so that you don’t have to move. Although these friends make you feel exponentially better there is this vulnerability that when you are sick and away from home becomes almost unbearable.

When you are sick home you can afford to be grumpy, not nice, close yourself in your safe room and sleep away. People will come and check on you even if you tell them not to. When you are travelling you cant inflict this on people, who as nice ad they are, are after all people who you just met a few months ago.

In the beggining feeling sick every single day with a fever that never leaves that makes you just accept the lethargy. But when the fever is accompanied by your head punching you, your eyes making you feel you are in a rocky boat about to throat up, always just about to, because the relief of putting outside that which causes discomfort does not come. Also when your throat stops allowing you to speak and eat you don’t mind too much, but when it screams ” listen i will tear apart all of your self respect, your ability to sleep and even breathe” then you cannot even just resign yourself to the fate. You want to vomit yourself out but you are too tired to. Then when you loose it. When you loose all the shred of hope and patience that you can just wait and things will be fine then you go search help.

It happened to me in the middle of last night. I just had it. I wanted to be magically transported to my home in Brasil. To have my mom annoy me with teas, and propolis and doctors, and notice that I have not eaten in days. I wanted my dad to bring me coconut water, and tell me not to hear depressive music, and insist that I must eat. I wanted my brother to tell me which antibiotic I should be taking and go into the details of all drugs he love so much. Then I would be a typical teenager. I would roll my eyes, storm out and just ignore them. I wanted my grandmother to ground me once again for washing my hair at night. I would disagree with them all but I would feel safe. i wanted Haiko to tell me the lights that were making me want to vomit were just migraine. But in the middle of the night here even the thought of catching a plane made me realise those were dreams. The truth is that I was too sick to even call. To even speak.

But when this point comes, that not only you are not better, but every second of being well is followed by feeling much worse minutes later then you discover painfully that you have to ( at some point ) to become your own mother, and father, and brother, and grandma, and husband. You have to swallow the pride, the pain, the lack of desire to move and you have to search help.

There are a million things that make you not want to do it. A foreign country. A foreign culture. A foreign language. the fear that it might make you more sick, be wrong, or you might just not be understood. But it comes a point that you don’t care anymore about any of this. At this point you search whatever help there is. That is how I finally accepted my fate and decided finally to go to Hospital. I went once again, 2 years later, to the public hospital of Non Khai.

I walk to the reception.

” do you speak thai?”

i sign that I dont

” I speak a little english. Basics”

I put my hands in prayer in the “way” gesture and thank her. She is so gentle. I am so thankful. I wonder what is the likelihood of someone speaking english in a brazilian public hospital outside the big centres.

The place is clean. It is calm. Organised. She gives me a number. it is number 20.

There are not that many people that early. Another lady comes to tell me to wait a little. I try to communicate for her not to worry I was just one more patient.

But within minutes I am taken in. A young Thai doctor asks me about my symptoms. He looks at my throat and concludes it is bacterial. i need antibiotics. He asks me a few questions. When he notices I am from Brasil he smiles and tells me he loves the brazilian football team. Kaka, Ronaldinho. I once again want to kiss these football players who make me be so well treated everywhere.

I leave the hospital with a bag full of medicine, and a lovely treatment for almost no money at all. I wonder if it is the placebo effect of feeling you are now being treated that makes me feel immediately better. Not good. But better.

There is barely anything at all that feels as bad as being sick in the other side of the world. But there is also almost anything as good as to realise that when that moment comes you do stand up. You walk as much as needed to search for help. And when you do you can both appreciate more the people who have always taken care of you, but also yourself the one person who will always be there to lift you up.

Travelling Families- Nong Khai Thailand

“This place is wonderful but it is not for kids. NO TV!?” I explain the customer that Julian, mut mee’s owner, likes to encourage guests to meet on the garden to talk to each other. “Well not if you have children. If you have children you have to have a TV otherwise they drive you crazy. They move too much. Hearing this I do not know whether to laugh or cry.

 

But this man is wrong. Working for the little time I have here I have noticed an amazing trend. The parents who do not want to be bothered with their children have this crazy children running around, who get very angry at the absence of a TV. Those are usually on a holyday looking desperate to go back to their comfortable homes. On the other hand I have met a few other families. Families of travelers going around the world, hoping to get more time together, and pleased to be able to show or discover the world in its diversity with their children. These families have the most amazing children.

 

I met for instance a French couple with their 10 year old daughter. They had left France because they did not want her to grow up in a place that was so “pessimistic”. They first went to Guadaloupe, then to Madagascar, and then here. In each place they stayed for a while. The girl Eva was one of the nicest 10 year old I have ever met. She was curious about the world. She told me about the places she had been. She wanted to learn about my travels.

 

Then came another French family who I had less time to spend with as I only met them on the last day they were here. It was their second time at Mut Mee. But three years before now they had been on a 14th month family trip around the world. The now live in San Francisco. It was the exact same feeling. They were curious, lively, and bright and had even before their teen years seen the world, and so many different cultures.

 

In India I encountered a few families as well. They always amazed me.

 

But just as I was pondering about the crazy children who needed TV, I see arrive a really lovely family: parents traveling with 2 children. One is 3 and a half and the other 9. Even before I talk to them I know they are travelers and not tourists.

 

When I show them the room the Raphael, the 3 year old is excited because there are pebbles in the shower.

 

“it is so Beautiful”

 

He gets to the garden and realizes there is a Buddha.

 

“We must water it”

 

I get him a little pot with water and there he goes watering plants and Buddhas around.

 

Every single person in the garden is marveled by the cuteness of the boy. His 9 year old brother is talkative. He is intrigued by the plants. He helps Raphael. They do not ask me if we have TV. They are amazed by the trees.

 

When I get to talk to the mom she tells me they are on a 2 year old trip. They have finished the 1st 6 months. I asked her whether it was hard.

 

“Much less than I anticipated. It took 2 months for all of us to meet. We were all used to our own lives. We both had jobs; the boys never spent that much time together. It was strange at first but now we are a family. A family that travels together.”

 

Little Raphael comes back with his empty pot. He does not ask for water but I refill it so that he can water everything else. Suddenly, as I look back at him looking at things I suddenly realize what I think it is. These children who do not watch TV all the time they seem to really SEE the world. They are intrigued by the pebbles, the statues, the trees, the tuk tuk, the rooster singing. These children seem to be simply more present.

 

I reconsider. That man (who needed the TV for his children) in being wrong was very right. Children without TV move more. As Raphael comes around with his little Ukulele composing a song about everything that is around I am really happy he moves, and talks and is not paralyzed in front of a machine.

Joy -Nong Khai Thailand

Music from Mali plays while I see on the other side the Mekong. The ladies in the kitchen have become daily more and more friendly to me. Who was it that once told me that Asians were not affectionate? Well, here, the ladies who work in the kitchen they hug me,  give me food, keep track of my attempts to eat healthy, laugh, and braid my hair.

 

I sometimes seat to eat with them. Not always as my attention floats between the people who live around Mut Mee, and the guest I become friends with. When I do the conversations are all carried out in Thai. They laugh a lot. Not discrete laughter, it is laughter that shakes the whole body. I always wondered what it is they laugh about. And I guess it is a bit like us in Brasil with our smiles that seem to rarely need a reason to come out. They just do.

 

There is the staff of the morning and the one of the afternoon. In the morning since I got here were Joy, Tia, Noy, Wii and Pook. And in the evening Man, Yong and and Gaew. From the beginning I got closer to Joy and Wii. Wii played combing my hair all the time. She is 32. Joy is 43. Joy had told me in broken words right when I first arrived that she had two children one boy who was 18 and a girl that was 11.

 

I eventually became friends with all of the ladies. Through sharing food, laughter, painting nails, having my hair braided.. it is amazing how few words we need to like people. But Joy and Wii were the only two who would appear from nowhere and hugged me till I could not breathe. Wii would sometimes carry me up even thought she is my size.

 

Today, as I came to work Joy suddenly said she would not come to work tomorrow. I wondered whether it was her day off.

 

“Are you coming Tuesday?”

 

“No”

 

“Wednesday?”

 

“No”

 

“Thursday”

 

“No”

 

“Friday?”

 

It starts daunting on me that she might just not be coming back. The ladies laugh at my shocked face. That is what they do… like we smile.

 

“Are you not coming back at all?”

 

“I don’t know?”

 

“Why?”

 

“Take care of family”

 

“Are you serious?”

 

I still am not entirely sure this is serious. Joy has been here for more than a decade.

 

I go out looking for someone to actually translate to me what is going on. There is no one.

 

I come back. I am sad. I seat and ask again. It is clear she is going

 

“Are you happy?”

 

She becomes silent. The other ladies laugh and say she has enough money now, and does not need to work.

 

“Husband wants me to take care family”

 

“Do you want to work?”

 

“Yes. But husband wants me to take care family.”

 

I don’t know what to say. I feel sad. What will Joy do without the other ladies? Work in itself might not be the harder thing. But not getting her own money, her laughter in the kitchen.

 

“How about other ladies?”

 

“They have grandparents. It is just me and husband?”

 

“Is your husband nice?”

 

“Sometimes”

 

I don’t say anything. I am just sad.

 

“Sometimes not nice” I do not ask anything when she says that. I don’t know what that means. And in my cowardice I actually thank the fact that I can’t understand the language.

 

And so it is. It is the last day of Joy. Whose name could not be more appropriate?

 

I feel sad and angry at how much people intervene in each other’s lives. I wonder what it is that has changed that makes it necessary for her to be home now. I can’t speak the language to know. Without knowing the details all I see is that the ladies laugh. I smile but we all feel sad. Not knowing the details I understand from her movements, from her eyes from the few words that this is not her decision. It is the decision of a man who “sometimes is not nice”.