Tia Birthday- Are the Thais like the Hobbits ? :)

JOy

Farang is the word used for Thais to refer to Westerners. Farang is a fruit, it is guava. In case you do not know what guava is, I took a picture of one right here.

Guava

It is a gift from Tia. Tia works in the kitchen and still remembers I adore guava. In Brazil guava is “goiaba”, and at least in the state I was born in (Sao Paulo) when we say someone is a “goiaba” it means the person is silly, dumb 🙂 Here I was told they call Westerners Farang because they are white like a white unripe Guava. I take my guava in the kitchen and smile. They still know I love it, they knew since I broke my foot here almost two years ago.

 

That day I had been working at Mut Mee for 3 months. I knew the ladies of the kitchen because I spent lots of time with them, not fully understanding them, owing to the fact that their English is 100 times better than my barely inexistent Thai. We sat together, we had meals, we laughed. Tia was always very reserved. And it was only when I broke my foot that I found out how much she cared for me.

 

You must know that today, the 16th of August is Tia’s birthday. She is 43 today, she has been working here since she was 24. Almost 2 decades. It takes a while at Mut Mee to understand why Tia is reserved, because, like everything that is in a border, things here are transient. So Tia has seen probably dozens of managers who work and go, and thousands of travellers. Like a person from the landlocked State of Minas Gerais in Brazil, she is always reserved and wary but once she opens up to you, you know it is so profound. As I told before, it took me ages to understand the ladies of the kitchen. And by that I mean it took me ages to understand I did not need to fully understand what they say and do to understand something more profound.

Kitchen

 

It took me months to understand that when they laughed at me it was an invitation to their life. And I took the invitation, and when I broke my foot, Tia came to me and told me she would take care of me, bathe me, make food, anything I needed I should call them. And I cried for the following week the end of a journey that still had valid tickets, unused, to Burma and India. I cried and mourned that I was not going to see Vietnam and not return to India. And that I was being kicked out from Thailand by my broken foot.

 

I was taken care here like a real child in total need. My friend Michal took a 18-hour-long bus drive to see me; Joana, whom I recently visited in her home in Portugal, offered to return to Thailand from Laos to take me to the airport. How could I do that whole journey alone with a bag and broken foot? And at the time, all these pleas to help arrived when Nick from England had already offered to fly with me to Bkk.

 

So, on the final day, a week later, when my passport was returned to me, I left this place crying, sobbing, and they brought me guavas to eat in the journey. Pook brought me her handmade bag, which was worth her monthly salary. She had made it for me. When I went out and even Sam, the village homeless, came to bid farewell, I looked at all these people walking me to my car, and the Mekong, the sun was beautiful there, and I remember that as I looked, I thought that I cared less for the Mekong, and more for the people. Tia was there, she had tears in her eyes when she hugged me. I remember Tia there in the pavillion saying goodbye forever.

 

Today then it is Tia’s birthday, something she told me yesterday when I sat with them to  show the beautiful pictures I had taken of us. I had taken pictures with Tia, Joy, Yong, Noy, Mun, Pook, Gaew… always laughing. I sat and showed them where I come from. And then Tia asked me why I had not been back sooner.

Gaew Joy2 Mun NoyYong 2

 

I tell them I tried so many times. And then I try in broken Thai and English to tell how sick I was. And as I actually work hard to explain, I cry… again.. remembering how close I felt to being dead, and how much I wanted it.  Pook and Tia sit next to me, translating it to each other. I don’t know how much they understood but somehow I know they did understand it all. So as I speak, Pook has tears in her eyes. She sits next to me and tells me she loves me. “We missed you.” Then they ask me whether I am happy here at Mut Mee.

 

I tell her that I am. I am finally happy. I am finally in place. I have been so for a while now. And sitting on the floor with Tia, Joy and Pook I realise how happy I am. I feel so much love and gratitude to these ladies.

 

Tia suddenly asks me what is my favorite food.

 

I tell her it is broccoli, which I have not had in months.  And so she tells me

 

“tomorrow, It is my birthday and I will make broccoli for you.“

 

I am surprised.

 

“I will make food to the ladies in the kitchen, I will make for you, too.”

 

Though I know nothing of this custom I feel it is a huge honor to be asked what is my favourite food.

 

And so we sit there. Me, trying to explain how moved I had been to be given a handmade bag almost 2 years ago. I tried to explain how much I felt something handmade carried the whole story of someone. As my friend Adriana had once said, she felt every handmade thing had a story. In every knot of a carpet she could see in its unevenness that the person who made it one day was happy, the other sad, the other angry. In their imperfection, handmade things will always trump factory-made things. Remember we can’t actually speak… but Pook, who has made a bag out of mut mee (“mee” means thread, and “mut” means a dye pattern) understands. She has tears in her eyes again.

Pook

This morning I walk to the kitchen  to say HAPPY BIRTHDAY to Tia!

 

Tia opens a bag and gives me farangs.

 

She remembers I love farang! Though I have not eaten them at all any of these days because I did not see them around, she still remembers. I take it to eat, to have breakfast before I go searching for my gift for her birthday.

 

I wish I could do something handmade, too. But I can’t. I can’t give my book… So I walk the whole market! And found nothing really that special and personal. But then it dawned on me. There was one thing I could give Tia, that would be for Tia, and that would make her happy. A real gift to her.

 

So I walked to my second favorite place in Nong Khai, Kasorn Massage Parlour, and I ask in my broken English-Thai whether Pi Ian ( the masseuse) could write a paper saying that Tia had right to a massage.

Masseuse

And I walk home relieved, yes… that is not handmade by me, but something that was really thought through especially for Tia.

 

And then I come back and work really hard to understand Thai birthdays. But now I do.

 

Tia woke up very early and cooked for the monks, gave them food, then she came here, and showed me she had brought me broccoli. Broccoli which is not from here, probably from China. Just as I am telling her about my gift, she shows me the food she has for me. My favorite broccoli, tofu and guava! And then, I am told by a Thai girl who speaks English that in Thailand, in her birthdays she cooks for those she loves and you get very happy when they are happy. Simeon says that it is like in the Hobbit, who gives gifts away. Tia grabs my hand and shows me the gift she got!

Broccoli

It is a beautiful pair of shoes which is a gift of Joy, Pook and Noy. A shirt from a Thai lady who started recently to work here, and my massage. A wonderful plate of broccoli is made for me. And I realise suddenly that Tia is not turning 43, but 42, for she was born in ‘71. Then I eventually get it, people are born with 1 year-old in Thailand, never 0. The first celebration after the first turn the sun celebrates the second birthday. So, put simply, if you come from the West, just add one year to your age, and you have your Thai age.

Broc and I

Yes, suddenly I just understand it… I do not know how to speak Thai but i get it. Tia and Thais celebrate by giving…  on her birthday she gives, but she also accepts and is happy to have gifts back and very happy to make me broccoli.

 

A Thai ritual of birthdays is a celebration of connection. Yes, definitely I am happy here. Very happy.

 

Happy birthday, Tia:)

 

Love from the Mekong

Traveling Families , Harry Potter and the Mekong

family

It has been raining for the past 3 days non stop. Monsoon rain, the kind that you really pray for because just before it is so hot so hot so hot, that the air feels solid in its humidity. When it is that hot, 33 degrees Celsius at night, all you crave for is the rain. The storm. They are usually powerful, there is lightning, coconuts fall down to the ground, and jackfruits, and it  makes so much noise on the top of your room when you sleep that you actually smile knowing that finally it will cool down. Usually these explosions of water are so strong and so brief that the 10 degrees drop in temperature is just a brief blessing from the skies before the heat curse strikes back and you see yourself again on your knees, begging for another explosion.

Maybe it’s the dynamics of the monsoon that I have to get used to, maybe it’s just another evil effect of global warming… who knows. All I know is that for the past 3 days it has rained non stop like in a catastrophe movie till one day it simply stopped. And more surprisingly, it has gotten cooler. Of course it it still above 20 celsius, but when you are used to the heat, it feels to me like it is winter. And so I feel even more confined to Mut mee… avoiding to go out into the rain, also because, as Deng my masseuse pointed out, I have a fever.

“You are sick. Hot cold, Hot cold, rain not good!”

My fear is immediate. How sick, I ask her. In broken Thai she tells me it’s not serious. Just need to rest. And drink. “Dengue? “ I ask her. She says no.

My highly psychosomatic mind luckily doesn’t know the symptoms of dengue that well, otherwise it would stage them perfectly in my body, like an anti-placebo. An American next to me asserts me that I don’t have dengue, “if you did, you would know it without any doubt”. And if by tomorrow you are still in doubt, then definitely you don’t have it.

So, convinced by this expert, I’m feeling good again, and get closer to a newly arrived travelling family.

I LOVE traveling families.

They are always a breath of fresh air. Not the typical travellers who just want to play games, and see TV. No, they really see the world.

trav235

I have spoken about them before, how I once became really close friends to an Albanian-French-Swiss-Luxembourgish family here. They were on the road to spend time with each other, a quality time together that they didn’t have back home. Raphael was 2,5, Victor 7, and the parents Cyril and Ida took their time to further the children’s education while traveling. I had just met them back in Switzerland when I brought my book. Raphael, now 2 years older, climbed inside of my bag and said “ Take me with you! I have the keys to the hotel.”

trav23

Victor, now 9, shows me in his computer the pictures they had of me. Raphael looks at the pictures, he remembers the houses he had had in Bali and Thailand, and he can remember little events. I can remember little Raphael at 2,5 years old walking around to water the Buddhas like he was in a temple, and now, years later, he recognizes Buddhas, houses, and nights when there was not light because of the rain.

As I am sitting here reading in the internet, I meet another Raphael. He is 9. I start a conversation; I know he is French but I speak to him in English. He struggles and stutters. I ask whether he was bored with the rain, after all there is no TV here.

“Of course not, my parents really like it here. And there is a garden, and a swing, and so many things to see.”

I have a computer in front of me, so does Benny (Julian’s son), we offer him to play but he says he is ok. So I shift to French to tell him where I think he should go.

“You know there is a park here, nothing too special, but people can buy plaster figures and paint them. I went there and enjoyed loads even being a terrible painter.”

I open my computer to show what the place looks like, nothing grand, nothing really that special, and there it is my artwork which looks so lame and crappy that I had no courage to bring it with me. I show him the one the Chinese girl with me had painted, a perfect one.

artcrap

He looks at me and said “  would not say this is ugly. I would say it is creative, original, beautiful actually. Thank you for showing me, I will tell my parents.”

I am completely in love with this little boy. He is so polite, so sensitive and sensible, and then I meet his mom, Anne Laure, his brother Antoine and finally their father, Julien. Their good vibes remind me so much of  Ida and Cyril, Victor and Raphael. I tell them so.

“You know, once I was here, and there was this man rapping furiously because there was no TV here for his children. How could children be entertained without TV, he asked, now they would never stop moving around.”

See, it’s true that these people are not “normal”, ordinary, but they chose the way they like to live without fear and they exist and lead perfectly responsible lives, so if you do have children and feel like they can not travel to Asia, just remember these amazing kids. In fact, these amazing parents who do not need I-pads and TVs to entertain their children, are much more involved and create much stronger bonds with them. And these bonds will certainly last forever.

chess

Meanwhile the rain pours down we have a blast. Not even 3 months ago, I told Edu he should read Harry Potter to his son. Edu thought HP was rather foolish, but I insisted and made my point of how much I think that woman, J.K. Rowling, is a genius. Not simply because she made such a success, but because she made a whole generation like to read, and because her books have a very subtle and intelligent take on the “real world”. I told Edu of how the book was eventually published, after being put down by a dozen different publishers (who probably have committed suicide by now); it was because the publisher gave the book to his daughter, and the girl devoured it.

So, very soon, Yuri, Edu’s son, was reading HP and so was I, to accompany him. I remember I liked it very much, even though i was already too old to follow the first ones. But I followed anxiously the release of tomes 5, 6, and 7. And then, as I was back reading, or rather listening to HP on audio books, by the time I got to book 4 I was actually worried. Could a 9 year old read that stuff, which is pretty heavy and made me cry several times. So i insisted with Edu that he should read together with Yuri… But it was too late. Yuri was hooked on it, in a few months he had read thousands of pages and was just like me on the last book. By the way, today he just finished reading the last book and now feels orphaned.

So, as Raphael here tells me he likes my artwork I ask him about HP. And so we are under pouring rain for 2 days talking about literature, about HP and about life. I am amazed. They see the world just like my other friends had. They actually don’t watch much TV, they tell them.

So I ask Raphael, “you are 9 and you read them all, was it difficult? For I confess that I cried in book 4.” Antoine, who is 12, and Raphael tell me that they also had cried in many parts; I ask in which ones, and so it is that we cried for the same reasons, for the beauty of friendship, loyalty, loss….

And then we played music, I tried to sing with what I can, and they tell me Portuguese sounds beautiful, and we exchange words in the dozens of languages we know. I adore them all and wonder what is their secret. What do these parents do, what they don’t. They are interested to know about my book, and as I am done Raphael looks at me and says, “let me see if I got it:

trav

“Your book shows that there are many languages, cultures, religions, and that we don’t need to speak the same thing to respect each other and be friends.” Antoine says something that I miss, and his father says, yes that it is right. I realise I have missed so I asked what did he say. And Antoine says “It is emotion that connects us.”

“Have you seen the Elephant Man?”, they ask; I tell them I have not, though I know what it is about. And they tell me that they cried a lot in that film. In the end, the monstrously deformed man says, “I am a human being”. And they tell me how they cried then.

Suddenly I realise what it is so fundamental about the travelling families. They are inclusive, they are caring, and above all they do not spare their children from the horrors of the world. They don’t scare them with it, they let them know about it with a little bit of magic, and loads of humanity.

As I am bidding them goodbye  I meet  a mother that is very shocked that a 9-year-old has read HP,  she would never let her son read it at such a tender age. It is not the first time I hear this. But before I say anything, she says  “I am afraid he will be scared, and have nightmares.” But she has met the other children, she has seen how friendly, how open-minded and how in place they feel. So, I do’t know what to say,  I confess I secretly think that she could as well lobotomize her son or cut a piece of his brains off so that he doesn’t dream at all and suppress all that so-dangerous subconscious. But I don’t say anything, for it is so clear to me. Travelling families, real incredible families, know that nightmares are part of life, and rather than protecting children from the horrors of the world, they let them see it, being always next to them when they do have nightmares. These are people who understand we are a mosaic, that we celebrate imperfection being together, being present. Rather than turning on fluffy cartoons on tv the whole day and watching from afar when TV-I-padded children have their blissful dreams about computer games.

Love from the Mekong

Girl from Shanghai

sunset

I wish I could refrain from speaking of the beauty of the sun setting in the Mekong. It is however impossible, because my daily recognition of how much it changes and how much it is the same sets the pace of my own moods.

Now I no longer travel places, I rather travel people, and that is why I am here. And many people travel to visit me here. Last time I was in Thailand I met dozens of unforgettable people; about some of them I have extensively talked, like Carley, who is also planning a visit soon, but today I want to talk about Ella, or Arunee, as she’s called in Thai.

Ella

I met Ella years ago, and we struck an immediate friendship beyond differences of culture, religion and age. She took a train from Bangkok and I waited for her arrival at 5:30am, even though she had expressed her wish that I should sleep. “I am 69 and I ll arrive early and I must rest”, she said.

I agreed, but knowing she could not check in so early I waited for her nonetheless. We’ve met several times here, and every time she would come with a different child or grandchild. Once she told me the story of her father, who asked her to build him a Mausoleum, and how she had travelled all the way to Greece to visit the Oracle of Delphos. She thought that it was absurd to spend so much money on a mausoleum, but came to understand in Greece that all that her father wanted was to be remembered. She also wrote a book about his life.

So, this time, I was here anxiously waiting for this wise lady who once noticed my fragility and told me to go home when my journey was evidently over. She arrived, we hugged, I let her rest and later on the same day I told her all that I had to tell…. and then we went out to see the sun set.

Monks

She told me she was writing another book, now it is the story of her mother. I asked her whether I could write about it, she said ok, and so it goes… the story of her mother, The Girl from Shanghai.

Her mother is now 95, and she spent her youth in a Shanghai that was modern, cosmopolitan, vibrating and full of intrigue. Her mother was known for her beauty; she used to to be invited to every wedding as a bridesmaid, and she was usually more beautiful than the bride herself. She had no formal education but soon got a job as a secretary, and she hoped to get married to a rich man and have a good life.

She did not want to marry a Chinese man, though, not even an European, she wanted to marry an American. In the view of the Chinese, Europeans – and not just the Brits – had destroyed China with their opium wars. She thought that the Americans were very different.

Japan had already started its wars of expansion, and Jayne (her English name) wanted to marry a Flying Tiger pilot. These adventurers were, however, not exactly the free agents people wanted to believe they were, they were actually American mercenaries that flew for China.

Shaghai was at that time a very vibrant city, parties took place everywhere. And one day Jayne heard about Tom. He was a pilot. He was charming. Everybody was his friend, and every woman adored him. Tom, just like Jayne, had a western name but was actually from Siam (Thailand). He was one of the locals who worked for the Flying Tigers. Jayne was naturally interested in Tom, though actually more intrigued than in love. Tom was dazzling but had no money, so he used to say “girl, i ll take you out, ok… if I have my salary we ll go dutch (meaning we share the bill), but if i have no money you’ll have to pay.” Couldn’t be any more rare in China of the 30s , could it?

Meanwhile, the situation in Asia was quicky deteriorating. War broke in Europe, Japan expanded more and more. And Jayne, thanks to her incredible beauty, had more and more proposals of marriage. Rich Chinese men could get her silk stockings even during worst of the war, but she had set her mind that she would marry Tom; she knew that, if he had the chance, he would provide her a good life.

With Chiang Kai Shek running to Formosa (the later Taiwan), Jayne made her mind and decided she would go to Siam. But by now she was a beautiful Chinese woman already used to the finest things and treats, in spite of her humble family origins (Jayne in fact had very little), but simply because of the bright world of the Middle Kingdom (which is what China means) she was able to enter because of her beauty. So going to backwards Siam was nothing short of a devastating blow for Jayne. But the world was changing and so she did.

When she arrived in Siam she found out that Tom’s family lived not just outside of Bangkok, but in a small province, in a country town. Jayne was miserable. Accustomed to be in the middle of the world, she was now living with a family of country joes who chewed betel nut. Real barbarians, she thought. Tom at least was quite sensitive to it, and soon moved to Bangkok.

Bangkok was just as horrible to her. Ella recites this to me like a poem, it comes out from her book. And now she stops, takes a long look at the river and says that she has to assure to me that her father was very competent. In his early 30s he was a manager in a bank. And though Jayne hated life in Siam she eventually had babies. At a certain point, however, it was just too much for her, and she left everyone and everything for Hong Kong. But she had no formal education, and Hong Kong was not Shanghai. Soon she was back.

“As I grew up I barely saw my father. At the time of his death he owned 50 companies. He had built a vast empire. As a child, I already knew that three out of every 10 articles produced in the whole country came from my father’s enterprises.” But this is the story of Jayne, not of Tom.

“Jayne travelled the world with my father, and she fell so much in love with the idea of supermarkets that when she came back she opened the first supermarket in Thailand. She made a life, she had friends, yet she was not happy. So she moved to the US. It didn’t make things better.”

When Ella decided to write her  life, and asked her mother if it was ok to do it, she didn’t like it and gave no permission. Ella didn’t give up, she believed that she owed it to herself and her offspring. One day she came back to her mother and tried once more.

“Mom, father has been dead for more than 20 years, you are the matriarch of an Empire, wouldn’t you like to visit Shanghai?”

She looked at me for a very long time in silence, and then she said:

“There is no safer place than Siam.”

Then she stayed silent again, and I waited. And then she said

“There is no better place to live than Bangkok”

I expected her to expand. She never did, and I understood that at 95 there is very few things you actually care to think.”

On my part, I was just thinking that whatever mysteries the world have reserved for Siam, and Brazil, Ella and I were both blessed for living in countries that have no recent memories of war. Looking at Laos, on the other side of the river, and thinking of old Indochine, China, Vietnam, Burma, I suddenly felt an everlasting peace here, sharing the same silence that Jayne kept when offered to go back to the past. I was present, and I felt home. Because home, dear Ella, is an encounter. A place you feel safe.

Love,

From the Mekong