Archive for the ‘AFS Year’ Category

I like planning. Half of the fun of any trip or other event is the anticipation, and being involved in the planning means you can take full advantage of the anticipation. There’s nothing quite like the excitement of finding the perfect solution and then the exquisite torture of having to wait to enjoy it. So I will frequently say to people “we should do that!”

But the delights of solitude don’t only consist of dreaming. Next in enjoyment, I think, comes planning.

On a smaller scale this isn’t a problem. For example, at lunch on Sunday with good friends, we decided we should cook a dinner together – mainly so C can use some tiny teacups I helped her select at the Weekend Market in Bangkok, and because the summer so far has been set on destroying our plans of barbecues on our decks.

After years (decades?) of suggesting we explore somewhere exotic together, my sister-in-law /friend and I finally managed to get a few days in France and Belgium together back in 2006. And when I’ve passed through the UK, I’ve managed to catch up with some friends I met on the internet. And I’ve had a couple of adventures with my friend in Geneva. But that’s about all I’ve managed.

On a larger scale though, it is harder to accomplish. I have two friends who want to go to New York with me if I ever get there, and if my husband doesn’t get too upset that he can’t come too. The thing is, I can’t imagine us ever doing it – managing to match our commitments, budgets, timing etc. But it’s fun dreaming.

My sister and her husband, and my husband and I have a shared love of good wine, and we’ve often drooled over the prospect of a week in the Barossa and Clare Valleys of South Australia together. But Charlie is only 3. Too young to put up with drunk parents, too young to be our designated driver. We’re either going to have to do that alone, or wait a few more years.

I also have another friend – one I haven’t seen since Bangkok airport in March 1981 – who I’ve discovered (thanks to Facebook) loves tennis too, and so we want to go to the Australian Open together. I’ve even investigated how to get tickets. I love watching tennis, and my husband doesn’t, so that might be easier to organise. Melbourne’s easy to get to from here. But Becky would have to fly from California. And we’d have to cope with Melbourne’s 40* degree heat – though tonight, when Rafa and Federer are due to play in the semi-final, temperatures are much cooler (around 23 degrees according to the Aus Open website). But I just know we’d have fun!

And again as a result of Facebook, I’m in contact with so many of those friends I farewelled at the Bangkok airport in March 1981. A number of them now get together annually for the Thai New Year celebrations at a wat (temple) in Washington DC. DC is one of my favourite cities. I would love to meet up with them there. I plan to. Someday. Becky is going this year. I’m a bit jealous.

My blogging friends and I have talked about meeting up somewhere exotic. Latest plans are to kidnap George Clooney and/or Colin Firth in Italy. Sounds bellissimo to me! Italy actually would be a perfect location for a first time meeting – if we hated each other, we’d at least have Italy. (We won’t hate each other, I know). But in order to actually manage a meeting, I suspect it’s more likely to be in Parts West in Vermont, or Canada on the Danforth, or at Duckfat in Portland, Maine. That’s OK – New England has always been on our list of places to visit one autumn, so I’m confident I can get there sometime. The problem will be whether our St Louis friends will be able to get there at the same time. Still, I’m reluctant to abandon Italy. Or France. I just know they’d love the villages of the Ardeche or Dordogne.

Of course, there’s always room here in NZ for them all. But it’s so far …

Making plans is fun. I know, I watched my mother plan to build her new house for much of my childhood, and saw how excited she was. But after a while, if the plans aren’t fulfilled, they are of necessity benched in a dusty, unused part of the brain, and I don’t want that. So seriously, Mali! You’re not getting any younger. If you’re ever going to achieve any of these then you have to actually make the effort and organise something.

So I’ll start. Italy 2014 anyone? 2015?

Unless commitment is made, there are only promises and hopes; but no plans.

Peter F. Drucker

* Temperatures in Celsius of course. 40 C = about 104F


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13 January 1981

Our year in Bangkok was nearing an end. We only had a few more weeks left, and we were feeling that acutely. We’d spent most of the year relaxed, seeing things when we could, taking pictures when we felt like it. But by now, we had realised that it was now or never. So Fe and I decided we needed to explore and take photos. And in particular, we wanted to go to Wat Pho – The Temple of the Reclining Buddha. Cee and Madeline decided to come too, and we were happy for their company.

It was a Tuesday, but by now, we’d well and truly given up on school. Time was running out, we weren’t getting any credits for our time in school, and the amazing city of Bangkok was quite literally on our doorsteps. Besides, we’d made some wonderful friendships over the year, and who knew if we’d ever see each other again? Time spent together was important. We felt it, even if we didn’t say it.

We headed off to the temple. It was quiet, tranquil, with lots of pigeons, and – for 1981 – lots of tourists. On my last visit (a year ago), I remembered how peaceful it had been in 1981. In those days, a busy temple probably meant 10-20 tourists in the compound. There had been no queues for photos of the Buddha’s feet, or to put coins in the bowls which line one side of the temple. Wat Pho in 2011 was still pleasant, and is always interesting, but can no longer be described as tranquil, though there were still spots you could find yourself alone for a short time.

Wat Pho is one of Bangkok’s most ancient temples, and has always been a seat of learning, in particular for traditional Thai medicine and massage. It is still very much a working temple, despite the tourists, and you frequently see monks hurrying across the courtyards, on some business or other. We encountered two young monks, and must have said something – presumably something polite and respectful – to them in Thai. Astonished, they disappeared then quickly reappeared with their teacher (also a monk) telling him over and over again that “they can speak Thai!”

Soon we were surrounded by over a dozen young monks wanting to talk to us, keen to meet these strange young foreign teenagers who could speak Thai. We chatted for about 30 minutes, and then their teacher gave us a fascinating tour of the Temple. We went home happy, after yet another unique AFS experience.

Friends chatting with monks 31 years ago

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As suggested by Helen (be careful what you wish for!) in a comment to my Ten Favourite Smells, here is a list of ten bad ones. Not necessarily the worst, and not necessarily smells that bring bad memories – in fact, most of these bring good memories. But they’re by no means pleasant.

  1. Shearing shed. Hundreds of sheep, kept inside in close confines, over the hours it takes to shear them. You know what sheep do when they’re slightly stressed. Or if you don’t, I’m sure you can guess. It doesn’t help if it was raining before the sheep came in. The smell of the wet wool mingled with their droppings. Eau de mouton.
  2. Mutton fat. Roast lamb or mutton, once it has been cooking for a while, makes me want to drool. But when it first starts cooking, and the fat just starts to melt, it explains why a) the Thais say sheepmeat smells, and b) why northern Africans and Middle Eastern cuisines add lots of spices to their sheepmeat. I have a leg of lamb in the fridge for dinner tomorrow night. I think I’ll be adding lots of spice.
  3. Taiwanese fish markets. Probably not helped by the 4 am wake up call, but hundreds if not thousands of kilos of fish, squid, shrimp and anything else hauled from the sea to be eaten with gusto by the Chinese has a unique aroma which I wouldn’t want to bottle.
  4. Everything smells worse at 6 am

    Everything smells worse at 6 am

  5. Dried squid. The Thais like dried squid. Fortunately it is usually displayed open air, and so breezes can disperse the aroma. I just don’t see how they can eat it.
  6. At least photos don't smell bad!

  7. Cat pee. Though I do miss Cleo and Gershwin, I don’t miss their incontinence. Some wine writers say sauvignon blanc has an aroma like cat pee. That’s just wrong.
  8. Vomit. Enough said. Good thing I don’t have kids.
  9. Bangkok canals. Some Bangkok canals are so polluted that nothing could survive in them. Deep, black and oily, they look awful. They smell worse.
  10. Shrimp paste is one of the reasons why you should buy your Thai curries already made up. Frying shrimp paste helps you understand why Asians cook outside.
  11. Durian. This large, rugby-ball sized fruit with a spiky green skin emits a pungent aroma that you can smell from miles around. My Thai father – like most Thais – loved durian with a passion. He would take forever choosing just the right fruit, picking it up and sniffing it, tapping it, listening to the sound, presumably to tell if it was ripe or not. The durian (also known as the king of fruit) needed to be opened with a large knife, to cut through the green skin and the clear white flesh in order to reach the desired goal – the luscious yellow pods of gooey unctuousness. The Thais would “ooh” and “aah” at the sight of this favoured fruit. After my first taste, overcome with the stench and disgusted at the taste (soapy, pungent, hideous), I would shudder at the sight of the large yellow pods. Khun por was resigned to my ignorance. Other Thais thought my horror at the durian was funny. They knew that we farangs (foreigners) just didn’t understand. They knew that we were missing out on gourmet heaven.
  12. Rotorua. A city set around a beautiful lake, in what has been described as a geothermal wonderland. Unfortunately, all that sulphuric activity bubbling up from the centre of the earth means it smells like rotten duck eggs.

    Ducks on Lake Rotorua. Not the culprits.

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Oops, I forgot

I’ve always had a good memory. Not so much for things on my personal To-Do List; I’m notorious for forgetting to do things like that, though I suspect issues other than memory come into play there. I have already blogged on Procrastination once – I sense another one coming, when I can get around to it.
Anyway, where was I? (Just kidding).

My memory is good, though far from the “photographic memory” league. Before the advent of pre-programmed telephone numbers I could remember a lot of numbers. I’m good at remembering birthdays, just not at remembering to post birthday cards and presents. I barely need a calendar or diary – I record things only as a failsafe, but usually remember my week’s appointments in my head. I’m less good at remembering things I tell myself to remember when I read, I‘m really bad at remembering quotes or jokes or punch-lines. I’m quite good at names and faces, and very good at places. I’m good at languages, and that’s pretty much all memory. But I fear I’m going to become like my mother and forget which story I have told whom. (I fear I already repeat myself when blogging). I’m really bad at remembering subjects I want to blog about; I have brilliant ideas when I’m working out, showering, or driving, then when I get home, my mind goes blank. When I am out though – for example, eating passionfruit gelato by the beach – if I compose a blog in my head, I can usually recreate it almost (not quite) word for word when I get home to my computer.

I vainly pride myself on my ability to remember events, trips etc. (And of course, like every good woman, arguments with my husband). Most of my travel articles on my Travelalphablog have been written by memory, many of them from the early 1990s. I have very strong and clear memories of my AFS exchange year in Thailand, 31 years ago. I remember discussing this with my niece. At 18, she was astonished that I could still remember things very clearly from the dark ages when I myself was 18. She claimed she couldn’t even remember the previous year! (I’m not so sure I believe her.) Anyway, recently I have been working on a little project and have been re-reading both my diaries from 1980 and my letters home. I found I was a terrible diarist, focusing more on what I had for lunch than most other issues. But usually my memory has been able to fill in the blanks on major events or items. Often in quite intense detail – smells, tastes, emotions (all powerful memory joggers, of course). Until today, that is. Or should I say, until 14 May 1980. I recorded the visit of my friend Jane and her friend/chaperone/host brother (I don’t remember which), Somchai. I remember his name. There had been a mix-up with the AFS office, and my host father was annoyed. I vaguely remember that. But what I don’t remember is what we did on the visit. In particular, my diary records an adventure to Chonburi, south of Bangkok, with Jenni and Gayle. I read it, and find I have no memory of it.

I am shocked. I am not accustomed to not remembering. A taste of things to come, perhaps?

Which brings me the rare opportunity to quote Nietzsche:

The advantage of a bad memory is that one enjoys several times the same good things for the first time. ~Friedrich Nietzsche


The existence of forgetting has never been proved: We only know that some things don’t come to mind when we want them. ~Friedrich Nietzsche

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First I was a resident, living in a Thai family, going to a Thai school, clad in the ubiquitous blue skirt and white shirt and Mary Jane shoes that branded me a Thai teenager (despite my towering height and pale skin). Ten years later, I was a diplomat, living the life of an expatriate, a life that I fitted (unlike the Thai school uniform) perhaps more appropriately, a life I loved. Over the next decade or so, I visited as a businessperson, and as a returning resident. But as time passes, the returning resident label wears thin. It has been 18 years since we left Thailand. I can’t believe I am writing that. And now when I return to Thailand, I fear that the former Thai teenager, former resident, former legitimate business visitor, is now simply becoming a tourist. A common-as-muck, everyday, annoying tourist. I’m getting to know Thailand in reverse. And that is not without pain.

Still, I’m not quite a tourist. I still find real joy in seeing the strange, and knowing it is familiar, even if I’m scratching to remember its Thai name these days. Walking down the street, past so much Thai life there sharing the pavement with us all, was a joy. Recognising things I’d forgotten I ever knew: the strange, neon-coloured desserts, the stalls filled with dried fish, each variety a worse stench than the other, the green spinach-like cakes, batangkor, fried bananas, candy floss and crepes, all the different varieties of noodles, banana cupcakes, the queues for the lottery tickets, the pushing as the bus comes. I loved that it all felt so familiar.

We stayed in an area of town we rarely frequented when we lived there as diplomats (or when we did we drove), but as students, we visited regularly, usually on the way to our weird, Austrian doctor or to the GPO. I was telling my husband about the Indian restaurant where we occasionally stopped for lunch, enjoying my first experiences of naan bread and dhal for just a few baht. A few days later I just about jumped for joy as we walked past that same restaurant on Charoen Krung Road. Still there, and 30 years later, it had changed little.

But there was something different this visit. Thailand has changed. In Bangkok, the pavements were well-maintained, easier to walk down. Even many of the roadside stalls now had concrete floors and low concrete block walls. Bangkok isn’t the horror it used to be to travel around. We stayed at the bottom of Silom Road by the river, and yet within minutes could whizz to Siam Square on the Skytrain, a journey that would have taken at least an hour or more (depending on the time of day) if we had driven it (remembering that most of that time would be spent at the traffic lights at the Lumpini Park/Dusit Thai intersection, the slowest-changing lights I’ve ever been stuck at). The Paragon shopping centre had good coffee, cheap English language books at Kinokuniya, a floor displaying luxury cars (BMW or Mercedes Benz looked cheap compared to the Lotus, Maserati and Lamborghini!). Local Thai favourite snacks and lunches could now be enjoyed at the food court, not on the street. I slurped on guay tdeeo naam (noodle soup) in the crisp, air-conditioned environment of the CentralWorld food court. It was delicious but lacked the atmosphere that once made it so special. For a start, Sharon, Madeline and Cee were missing. So too were the rickety chairs and tables, the din of the traffic, and the bus fumes.

Realising that I was getting to know Bangkok in reverse – from local pseudo-Thai to foreign tourist – was hard. The changes to the city I love bring the knowledge I don’t have a place here anymore and that, well, that hurts.

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Just keeps rollin’ along

Bangkok is one of my favourite cities in the world. It has been home to me on two separate occasions, for a total of four years. It was where I came of age, where I became an adult, learned to be independent, met and understood people from different countries and backgrounds, learned a new language, and a new culture. Ten years later, it was where I developed to stand on my own as a professional.

One of my favourite things about Bangkok is the Chaophraya River. It doesn’t look much; a slow-moving, silty, brown river. But for centuries it has been the lifeline of this city, and still today, in the 21st century, it provides Bangkok with a port, a transport system, and a tourist attraction. People live alongside and over it, they bathe and do laundry in it, they travel on it to get to school, to work, and to the temple. One of the great hotels of the world, the Oriental Hotel, sits beside the river, and guests can watch the barges, river taxis and long-tailed boats ply their trade 24 hours a day. Tourists travel the river, loving the intimate view of the city, the stunning temples and the simple dwellings. And the river is a great place for a party, too.

On 8 November 1980, I partied on the Chaophraya. The local AFS organisation (I was there on an AFS Student Exchange) arranged a Homecoming party. I didn’t know then what a Homecoming party was, and to be honest, I still don’t. I know it’s an American high school or college thing, but that’s about it. Still, it was a party, and that is what was important. It was to be held on the Oriental Queen, the cruise boat of the Oriental Hotel. My AFS friend Sharon spent the day with me, as we fussed around getting ready for the party. We enjoyed getting dressed up, wearing new outfits and make-up – a nice change from the dark blue and white school uniforms we lived in normally. Many of our fellow exchange students were there, as were so many of our friends and mentors amongst the Thai returnees, who had helped us so much during our days in Bangkok. It was a happy reunion, the students now relaxed and confident in this strange country, so very different to that first week at Orientation. We danced and laughed and talked all night, and when our feet needed a rest, we sat outside in the gentle, evening wind that, in November, is almost cool, and so welcome to the long-suffering inhabitants of Bangkok. The Oriental Queen cruised up the river, and the lights of the city sparkled on either side of us.

I’m returning to Bangkok soon, and although I won’t be staying at the Oriental Hotel, I will be paying homage to the Chaophraya; I’ll eat and drink beside it, ride the river taxis, feel the wind in my hair, and smile.

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My life in 10 dishes, continued
The first time that I remember having fried rice was Sunday 23 March, 1980. It was the day I went to live with my host family in Bangkok. They collected me (this might be the subject of a separate post sometime if there is any interest), and before going to my new home, we stopped at a restaurant for lunch. It was a large, air-conditioned restaurant, and lunch was buffet-style. I saw this strange coloured rice and thought I’d try it. A lifelong love affair began.

Since then I have had many memorable fried rice meals, and many that have just blurred together. It was a popular lunch choice at school in Bangkok. A plate cost four baht (about 20 cents), or if we wanted an egg on top, then it was another baht. I have to point out that a fried egg on top of fried rice is one of the great culinary treats of living in Asia. The egg breaks open and the yolk oozes all over the rice. It was a favourite of mine, but it required decent Thai language skills. Mistakenly pronounce khai as gai and you ended up with the more ordinary chicken fried rice. It happened … too often. I remember eating fried rice with egg on the train to Chiang Mai. I was travelling second class with Sharon and Cee, it was delivered to our seats, and we ate fried rice as we chugged off into the night.

Ten years later, when I returned to Thailand, I introduced my husband to fried rice. He learned how to eat it the Thai way. You hold the spoon and fork just so, and push the rice onto your spoon. And you must never forget to squeeze lime juice over the fried rice. In my view it is the lime juice that makes Thai fried rice so much better than Chinese/Malaysian, etc (although the fish sauce and lack of soy sauce helps too). I even introduced my Malaysian sister-in-law to lime juice on fried rice. She thought I was mad, until she tried it.

When living in Bangkok, we were very lucky and had a maid five days a week. She cleaned, and washed and ironed and generally made our lives easier. She cooked dinner too, and it was always a happy day for us when she was feeling a bit tired, and made fried rice for dinner. A big bowl that we went back to a couple of times during the meal. I can’t remember if she introduced us to fried rice with Chinese sausage, or if we told her. But this was my husband’s favourite – slices of pungent, sweet, Chinese sausage (goon chieng) scattered through the rice, the lime juice cutting the flavour. It was always a hit with visitors too.

Fried rice is the perfect, on-the-go lunch when you’re travelling. You can find it everywhere, it is made hot each time, and in Thailand, prawns are cheaper than pork. I remember eating it on the side of the river in Ayudhaya, and with my in-laws in the Golden Triangle near the Burmese/Laotian border. I’ve eaten it on trains (more than once), in five-star hotels and at stalls by the beach.

Since I returned to New Zealand, I make it regularly, serving it in the same large bowl our maid used. I plan* fried rice days ahead. I have to buy limes first (not always easy), before the pork (my husband prefers it to egg, I compromise … sigh). Then I have to cook the rice the day (or two) before. Fried rice is to us a treat, and brings back so many memories. I’m going to share my recipe here.

Vegetable oil (canola, soya, sunflower – not olive)
1 chopped onion
1 tsp sugar
Two eggs
Several cups of pre-cooked rice, at least the day before. Jasmine rice preferably, but otherwise long grain. Don’t use short grain rice, the texture won’t work.
One or two tomatoes, chopped
Some chopped capsicum
Some steamed/microwaved corn/peas (frozen is easiest)
Fish sauce
Chili sauce (or tomato sauce/ketchup at a pinch)
A wok or large frying pan

Fry a chopped onion slowly, till soft. Push it to the side, and sprinkle a teaspoon of sugar on the onion, leaving it till the sugar melts.
Whisk a few eggs together (one per person) and pour into the pan. Let it cook into a kind of omelette, then with your spoon/spatula just chop up into bits.
You probably need to add extra vegetable oil, then add the pre-cooked rice, crumbled in your hands if necessary to separate the grains, and stir-fry to mix with the egg and onions. When it is hot, add the chopped capsicum, and stir-fry to heat through, then the cooked corn/peas (or whatever vegetables you want really, as this is a one pot meal), and the chopped tomatoes.
Add the fish sauce and chilli sauce, and keep stirring. Ensure it is all piping hot before serving, with at least half a lime on the side for each person.
Squeeze the lime over, and enjoy!

It is also great heated up the next day, provided you have some extra limes.

*   2018 update: These days, I’m not quite so organised, and sometimes cook the rice at lunch time, then spread it onto baking trays/flat baking tins and refrigerate or even freeze for the next five or so hours. Then it is fine for frying. Also, I cheat sometimes and buy a bottle of lime juice – that way I can make it on impulse! 

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