It is the People…


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.


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.


One’s Inner Light. Nong Khai, Thailand


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.


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.


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 :)


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.


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.


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.


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


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.