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Forty years ago today, I spent my first full day in Bangkok, Thailand. I was with 46 other AFS exchange students for an orientation programme at a hostel in Bangkok, having arrived in the dark the night before with the ANZAC contingent. I remember being hit by the heat and humidity as we left the airport, and later, my diary recorded my disgust that I could feel so hot and sticky immediately after a shower.

As it was a Sunday, there were no classes organised. Instead, we were all sent out to discover Bangkok. The newly-arrived Australians and New Zealanders were escorted by the one New Zealander who was finishing her AFS year. We were amazed at her confidence, her language, her level of comfort in this foreign environment. Would we ever be that relaxed here?

The bus into the city was crowded, and I remember being amazed at the sheer numbers of the road, and the variety of buildings. We arrived at the Sunday Market – which in those days was a collection of stalls under canvas across a large field (Sanam Luang) near the Grand Palace. I’ve written about that day before, here and here.

My diary doesn’t say much, but I remember some things very clearly. I don’t remember having lunch at the Sunday Market, which I duly recorded as consisting of “rice and stuff on top!” I don’t actually remember going on the boat ride, shocked at the poverty side by side with the glorious golden temples. But I do remember going to the Grand Palace and Temple of the Emerald Buddha, amazed at the beauty and exotic architecture. It was the first place I went to in Bangkok, and was the last place I visited when I left Bangkok 13 years later after my diplomatic posting there. It has etched itself into my heart, or perhaps I left part of my heart there, even on that first visit.

After the grandeur of the Palace and Temple, we went back to the market to explore. It was, I noted, “very dirty and smelly!” I remember that the heavens opened for my first experience of a tropical downpour. I remember the muddy floors.

We were thrown into Bangkok in the deep end. And it set the scene for the coming year.

But how could I know that day that most of those students in the bus with me, or the ones I met at the hostel, would become dear friends? How could I know that Chai, the language teacher we met the next day, would become an important part of our year too, and would still be part of our lives? How could I predict that I would be back ten years almost to the day to live and work for another three years? That I’d get to visit Sharon and Chai in Delaware, and have dinner with Amy, or stay with Madeline in Dayton, when I made work trips to DC in the 90s? How could I imagine that my AFS friends would become part of my everyday life through social media? That Fe would make me a quilt?That I’d Skype with Cecilia on (her) Christmas Day 39 years later? That in February 2020, almost forty years later, I would be thrilled to have lunch by the beach on a sunny day in Wellington with Jane and Vicki (one Kiwi, one Californian), the first time we’d seen each other since 1981!

How could I even have imagined that we’d all have such a strong bond after that year? That love and laughter (sanuk) – with the help of technology – would keep us together, all these years later? I couldn’t imagine it. I’m not sure any of us could. But isn’t it a wonderful thing?

 

 

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My mother had certain rules in our house.  You might call them superstitions.  I grew up never allowing an open umbrella in the house, tossing spilled salt over my shoulder (we could never remember which shoulder it should be, so to cover our bases both shoulders were subject to salt throwing), not looking at a new moon through glass, and never walking under a ladder.

But I never really worried about Friday 13th. Until my sister performed at a dancing competition. I think it was her first time – I can’t remember, I was only about 9 or 10 – and it was in one of the beautiful Oamaru classical theatres that I should write about one day. We sat in the audience in anticipation. Sister must have been about 6 or 7.  She emerged, in her cute striped teapot outfit, and began singing at the top of her voice. “I’m a little teapot, short and stout!” (An aside: I don’t know what our dancing teacher was thinking, because my sister is long and lanky, and at 6 was as far from short and stout as you could ever imagine!)  The song completed successfully, she began the dance. A short way into her routine she stopped in her tracks.  Blank!  She stood there stunned, no idea what to do next.  She went off the stage, and they allowed her to try again later. Exactly the same thing happened. It was of course Friday 13th.

After that, our next 6-7 years passed peacefully. Then I received my AFS scholarship to Thailand. I flew out of New Zealand for the first time on Friday 13th. The beginning of a wonderful adventure, and a safe flight to boot.  My first niece was born on the same day, though I had to wait a year to meet her.  I then met my husband, whose birthday is a 13th, and of course we regularly celebrate his birthday on a Friday 13th.   Friday 13ths tend to hold good memories for me.  Of course, I hope I’m not tempting fate just by writing this.  The superstitious unease isn’t completely gone then.  I blame my mother.

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