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

It is the People…

sunset

Coming back from my 3-euro massage, I see the sky in varied colours. Psychedelic massage. I woke up early and wrote loads for my new Portuguese blog before the usual crew started to show up and I once again sigh, thinking how I love to be back at Mut Mee. There is nothing really that special in Nong Khai, nothing comparable to Angkor or Pagan (though there’s the lovely Salakaeku sculpture park). There are also beautiful Buddhist temples, or wats.

I did not come here for any of these reasons the first time, five years ago. I was supposed then to cross the Mekong to get to Laos on the other side. It took me 15 days to do it. And once I did it, I crossed the whole Asia, saw beautiful temples and beaches just to return now and then back again. Don’t ask me why, I still have no answer. It’s just home, so I won’t bother any more with it.

The last time I was here I was so lost, so it is really good to be back and feel so in place. In this state of mind I can’t help remembering one of the most remarkable encounters I had here. An Australian lady who dropped out of her life in her 40s and kicked the road. That was in the 80s. When I met her she told me her whole epic story and I asked her if I could write about it. She said “ok, but it’s just a life”, and that I should also care about my own and go home.

I felt like she had undressed me stark naked, disarmed all my ready smiles, opened a hole in my stomach and seen inside of my soul deeper than I ever dared myself. She could grasp my vulnerability, and said that it would kill me. It was time to go home, she said, so that one day I would be able to be in place to go out in the right way.

And now I see these wondering soulless people every morning. I feel like shouting “go home” to so many, for their own sake. The art of traveling is also to recognize when the journey is over, and that one must deal with oneself again.

Her name was Carley, and she is now in her 70s. And today I heard another epic story of another Australian woman, called Carly, but who’s in her twenties.

We got along fine since I arrived here exactly two weeks ago. She is doing the same job I used to do. She is just completely lovely like I used to be. She had also been to the funeral I recently wrote about. But I never knew the reason why she ended up here in Thailand.

We were here all of us, Mut Mee victims, when for no reason she told me she was about to go home, but before she had to meet her Thai family. I wondered if she also had volunteered and had a host family like I had. But no, none of that.

Karly

Carly and her twin sister had been adopted in Australia. Her Thai family was her real Thai family. And I could never imagine that Carly was Thai, even after two weeks together IN Thailand.

She once asked her Australian parents who told her they had adopted both girls from an orphanage in Nong Khai when they were 2,5 years old. She then got in contact with the orphanage, and from what I understood the lady was very moved as she was the very same person who had taken care of the twins.

The lady went all over to find the family. I kept asking questions not knowing whether it was Ok. But Carly told me she is getting used to it. I eventually asked her how did they react? And she told me she was just looking for her mom, and suddenly found a whole family. Actually a few families. Separated families with new children. Her father said he had been looking for her as well for the past 20 years.

Then I was even more intrigued. So was she given against his will? What about the mother?

Her parents had married “for labour”. I asked what that meant: they married in their teens to have an extra pair of hands. Carly’s father was a monk who could not fish, so the family sent him away and convinced the mother to give the twins away. Right afterwards they died.

Soon I understood why the mother was more resistant than the father. The mother’s family was responsible for the abandonment. Carly told me they were starving. Her father never knew that, but once he found out he spent his life searching for the twins.

So when she showed up here, her father was beyond joy. He became very well off and all of his new family wanted to meet her. They even offered her a terrain to build a house, and gave her money.

I asked her how her sister reacted. She told she did not want to meet them. Her Thai grandmother said she should at least come before she dies. I remember that in my own family I have a cousin that was also born a bastard. I was very excited to meet him, but my cousins, his half-sisters, where very resistant. One did meet him, while the other one never felt at ease. Thinking of my cousins, I said to Carly that maybe she should respect her sister’s time. People are different. It is just so painful when we see so clearly someone making such a mistake.

And then Carly told me that her father wanted to go to Australia to meet her Australian parents. He wanted to thank them for taking care of her.

There is nothing perfect in this story. Carly, the beautiful woman, had to cross the world to find where she came from. She is getting to grips with it. I was so moved that I went straight to a massage once the conversation had finished.

These ladies have known my body and me for years now. And I enjoy their touch and, due to my inability to speak Thai, the total silence I need to process this entire story.

And as I walked back the sun was setting and another Mut Mee victim who lives here, Mark the American, comes to tell me he had a gift. It was wrapped like flowers, it was a bouquet of rockets (the salad!). A real delicatessen here. I thanked him and sat looking the setting sun saying goodbye to the morning staff and hello to the ladies of the night kitchen.

joy tia yong

This is what it is about Mut Mee. It is the people. It always is.

victims

One’s Inner Light. Nong Khai, Thailand

lightening-photo

The explosion is so close and so loud that I remember Diwali. Then I breathe in and out and remember it is not Diwali and I am not in India. And as I watch the lights lighten up the mighty Mekong in front of me, as I see it all shiver in and out of existence, as my mind flies away, I realise a whole lifetime has passed since Diwali in India when firecrackers exploded next to me. It feels it was just a character of my only fiction who needed those explosions to be real. I felt a certain fondness to that stranger but it also felt like I knew her from another life.

In India Diwali is the Festival of Light. Firecrackers explode all over the country both to fight evil and to celebrate the return of Krishna. At the time I was in India in 2011 I did not fully understand that behind Diwali there is an awareness of one’s inner light. Now as I hear explosions of a Monsoon storm, as the thunders explode so close and make every bone in my body tremble, as it pushes me away from so close and yet so far, I look at Laos on the other side of the river feeling a mixture of amazement for the nature and joy that nothing in me wants to be anywhere else.

Almost all that I have lived flashes through my mind. A few hours earlier I had visited Mun (pronounced Maaan with an open a), who is one of the ladies that work in the kitchen. Her father had died. I had been to another funeral before (as those of you who have read my book, or have been in this email list long enough know). This time I went in the wake. And as I somehow knew what was about to happen, and as I know Mun, it was easier and more meaningful to me.

Pao, Julian’s wife, drove us there, all of us who worked or work at Mut Mee. Pao is Thai, Simeon is American, Petra German, Carli Australian, and I am Brazilian. Yes, almost all continents represented, for love of Mun.

We arrived in the middle of a party. Older people were gambling. I knew exactly what to do, I had learned it with Horm, my host in the rural village where I once taught 4 years ago. And this time Pao explained to me once again. We go in, we see the coffin, we pay our respects to Mun and her mother. We take an incense, we light it and we put it there with other lit incenses.

coffin

No one cries, people laugh, children run, people take pictures. Pao explained to us that it is the best thing to do, to keep joyful company to those who have lost someone they loved. I remember how much I had heard from different lamas that in the time of passing one should be aware and conscious. I remember that I heard the same from Indigenous peoples of the Americas. You must forget the person who died, so that they can keep their journey; trapping the loved ones close was a necessity of the living. I even remember the cognitive explanations that burials were created because humans realised they needed to bury a dead person soon so as not to spread disease and smell, though emotionally they still wanted to keep them close.

My mind wandered as I sat and did a short meditation. I asked Mun how could they keep a body in a coffin for so many days in such a warm weather ( here in Thailand according to what I understood from Tia, the lovely lady who cooks in the Kitchen and whom I adore, a wake takes 3 days) and for it not to rotten.

Mun looked at me and smiled. I could see some tears that had been hidden in her eyes. She took me by hand and took me to see the coffin. I don’t think I remember ever seeing a dead person so close. The coffin was shimmering and golden, and it had a little glass window on top of it, through which I could see a beautiful man, perfectly dressed, surrounded by flowers. He looked asleep. I could also see it was a fridge. Just as I am processing this information, Donut, Mun’s 5 year old daughter who is my friend from the garden of Mut Mee, shows up. Mun lifts her up and shows her her dead grandpa. She looks while her cousin is going around taking pictures of the party. Mun looks at me and says “ My Papa is going to sleep now.”

I hold my tears for I have once learned one is not supposed to cry in a Buddhist wake. As Mun is a dear friend to me, I tell her I am sorry, I know I am not supposed to cry. She smiles and says it is ok, we cry a little bit, too, and she holds me. Remember that this was all done in broken Thai.

gambling

We all sit in the ground… while people pay their respects and older people gamble outside. I somehow feel it so healthy the way they do it. Supporting friends and family with positive feelings. And my mind flies to Jewish Shive, Christian wakes, and what I have read about wakes all over the world…. they all have the same thing together… the awareness that we must let go, but that we just don’t want to, so we need to do a rItual.

I, who was never fond of rituals, love them more and more now. I love those actions that mark passages. When they are happy, full of communal support, they are invariably more pleasant. I close my eyes and make a silent prayer, a meditation. I am moved but I hold my tears.

funeral us

And then I pose for the pictures they are taking of us, and then I take my phone and ask whether I could take pictures as well. I knew I could. I was once asked to take them 4 years ago. Still, part of me feels I must ask, and so I take a gorgeous picture of Mun’s niece taking a picture; in the background is the widow, and behind and we can also see the coffin.

funeral gril

In Northeastern Brazil people scream and suffer in mournings. It feels it is engraved in my skin to cry. But I remember Rinpoche, the Tibetan lama who is a Tulku, telling me “ you should cry less” and smile.

I smiled, and he said “I know, it is impossible for you. :)”

And so I did not cry. I prayed, I meditated, mixing all that I knew that could be respectful and then, when I hugged Mun, I just could not hold my tears anymore. And when she told me she had cried a little, too, I felt an enormous relief.

Not because, I felt excused. It was because I understood once more that humans are so alike, and that these opposing tendencies of letting go and keeping close have tormented all of us in the world throughout millennia.

Then her sister came to see the picture I had taken. I promised to send her. But her email was in Thai, we tried to send via bluetooth. It did not work. And so eventually I decided to send it to Yong, one of the kitchen ladies who has a facebook that has a name in english.

And as I stood up to go, I felt happy. Happy that these people knew so well that when someone loses someone dear they need support, and they are ready to give it.

We entered the car talking about it. I was happy that all of us, from so different continents, thought we did not fully understand what we saw but we still came because we care for Mun. And in a sense, for that short while, we had all been a bit Thai.

And so, as the Monsoon thunder cracks and I feel a bit shivery, and wet, I see the lights and I finally understand what Diwali is all about. It is about encountering one’s inner light.

Love, from the Mekong

Back in one of my dearest homes… Mut Mee :)

Sunset

A Japanese man asks me to look at his tablet. I am not sure what he needs. I look at the tablet, it is in a language I can’t really decipher. Russian, maybe. In our broken English spiced with loads of Japanese I understand he needs help with the Russian but I cannot help because I don’t know any Russian; with google-translate I tell him I will find someone who can!

Oh Yes. I am in Asia. And just as I am having breakfast in front of my beloved Mekong I feel so in place that this stranger comes to me as if I still worked here. Being in Mut Mee again… some part of me feels I never left, the rest is pure joy.

I arrived last night. It was a hurried journey. In Portugal we drove fast to the airport and this always-so-punctual-lady almost missed my flight in Lisbon. I had then many hours to wait at Istanbul airport, but I got so entertained by the white robes of the men and women in colourful veils that I almost missed my flight again. Ramadan had just started and my mind flew to my previous Ramadans, the last one in Palestine, and before that in Kashmir; then my mind flew to Ericeira, in Portugal as I had just left the house of Joana and Faisca, a couple I met in Mut Mee a year ago and who now hosted me lavishly in my last week in Portugal.

I had planned it so much, so many times, that only when I was inside the flight to Bagkok did I believe I was really going back to Asia. Now I was in a real plane that was flying in the right direction, there was no more chance not to arrive.

As I landed in Bangkok I found out I had only 2 hours between landing and my next flight to Udon Thani. And had I not rushed enough I wouldn’t be told in time that my next flight would leave from somewhere else. There was no way I could do it. But just as I was taken care when I left Thailand with a broken leg last year, now I was welcomed by people walking the extra mile to make me not miss my last flight. I had less than two hours to find a cab, negotiate the 1-hour drive and arrive safe and in due time at the gate. Miracles sometimes happen, and after jolly 28 hours from door to garden I landed at Mut Mee just in time to see the sun bathe the Mekong with more colours than my poor jetlagged mind could imagine.

All along this rush I could only mentalize that I’d drop my bags, say hi to the ladies in the kitchen and then treat myself with a massage. I just forgot the black-hole power of Mut Mee, or its whirlwind. As soon as I dropped my bag down I saw Pancho, the Yoga teacher. There would also be some more people; in the kitchen Yong hugged me and said I was too skinny. More hugs all over and then of course I cried and they told me to eat. They made me my favourite tropical Muesli.

Tia

Then I made the fatal mistake that would keep me apart from my so-yearned massage for some time. I sat under the straw huts and within seconds there were loads of old friends showing up, or falling from the trees. And then I had flowers in my hand, and inside the flowers there was a letter. Edu, from Switzerland, got here before me to say welcome. Other hands brought me the flowers, but the letter was his calligraphy. He was here, too. It took me a while to grasp it. And the sun was just as beautiful as always. I was home. With flowers and friends. Massage can wait.

And then people keep asking about my book, and it is circulating, but Julian took his copy with him in a trip before Petra and Simeon could finish; they had been reading it aloud to each other every night. So I went to get my last copy to lend it to Simeon. And time flew and I met Kevin who was here to work with Justin. Kevin wanted to speak Portuguese, he is also fluent in other 17 languages, including Sanskrit, Hindi and you name it. Then came Pao, Aye, Mark… the night went on.

Pao

It wouldn’t be in the morning that I would get my massage, even though that was my first decision when I got out of bed. I had to say hello to the ladies in the kitchen of the morning shift. The ones who took care of me sooo much when I broke my foot here… and I cried some more.

Justin

Then came Justin, working in some Genome decoding. We sat and he fixed the Russian computer for the Japanese. The man was very thankful.

Don

Then came big Don, the Air Marshal from Australia who lives in Thailand. I wanted to show him something I’d brought, my precious gift, but on the way to my room I was stopped by a lady who told me I would not remember her. I did. She is Do Re Mi, the Israeli I met here before I went to Israel. She is a political activist who set the pacifist Uri Avnery’s webite. Moved to Thailand and wrote the only Thai Culinary book in Hebrew that exists. She used to have a column in some media called sex drugs and rock’n roll, too. She stopped me, but I was speedy. I started telling her about my book, but I had no copy to show. She told me to calm down.

She will be back and I will be here too. That is the thing. She then left, she had cooking classes to give, she has a life here. I realised that all my friends here are locals; they are Thai or farang (foreigners) living in Thailand, they are not travellers somewhere. That’s why coming back here feels like home because it is not going back to an old holiday, but to a home someplace in time. Or sometime in place. Whatever… now I have so many homes… I am just happy.

And then I got my precious gift.

See, while in Italy I met my dear friend Francesco, who had once come to Mut Mee because of me. I even introduced him to my parents, and Francesco brought me a bottle of homemade olive oil from the South of Italy. I carried it all the way down because I know how precious it is here. It’s for Julian, but he’s still away and it’s burning in my backpack. I show it to Don and we decide we’ll prepare some special bread with olive oil for a dinner to celebrate this relic. We just have to save some for Julian… for Julian also knows Francesco well.

Julian wrote me to take care of Francesco once he left Mut Mee. I wrote Francesco the same to show him people care about people all over the world. Care from Julian in Thailand to me in Brazil to Francesco in Italy, where he is a brilliant doctor who took care of me from the day I went to the Hospital and then wrote me every single day. It was great to meet him with his girlfriend and my parents, a very familiar vibe.

So, Francesco, this is for you: your olive oil is worth more than gold here! And we are going to celebrate your friendship everywhere in the world.

So it is 3 pm; I woke up at 7, came to this table and have yet to stand up to leave it. It’s heavy exercise. I can’t move from where I am, from this joy, from inside my love for the Mekong, for Mut Mee, my little house in Asia.

But now I must go, definitely, before someone else shows up. After all, there’s still some serious business to do: my massage.

Love,

Jules

Donut