Posts Tagged ‘Bangkok’

Grass underfoot

I’m reading a book right now that I am struggling to get through. I am struggling to finish it before it is deleted from my e-reader in three days’ time (argh!) – no chance of late fees on an e-book from the library – not because it is dull or poorly written, but because every couple of pages there is a sentence or a paragraph that is so utterly beautiful, thoughtful, and well-crafted that I want to memorise it, absorb it, and I yearn to be able to recreate it. I can’t, but it is inspiring.

The last paragraph I adored was a discussion of driving on rural roads in Ireland, and it took me immediately to the road behind our farm that led down to the stony, wild Hook beach. It was what is called a metal road, but there’s actually no metal. Only gravel, dirt and stones, sometimes with a green strip along the middle of the road where weeds spring up, and only one lane, with wide green overgrown verges. It made me think how utterly foreign this would seem to children who grow up in cities, travel on multi-lane highways, and are surrounded by concrete and brick and artificial sounds. My nephew in Qatar used to cross a six lane highway to get to his school just ten minutes walk away (provided of course it wasn’t summer and 50 degrees C and therefore travelling to and from school by air-conditioned car), an utterly hostile environment compared to the gentleness of the nature in which I spent my childhood.

The only concrete at our house was the path through the archway in the hedge, past the clothesline, and onto a small patch at the entrance to the house. Otherwise, I was surrounded by lush, green fields. At our small two-room primary school, the only concrete was the tennis/netball court, and the path from the gate to the school. For much of the year (except the cold winter months), we would throw off our shoes and run and play on the large lawn in front of the school, the freedom of bare feet and the soft lush grass bringing us back to our basic, natural lives. Even in September and October, in the new school term, we’d begin practising for the annual school sports every morning, at the sports field and running track behind the school. If there wasn’t a frost, we’d once again run our races, or practise our relays, in bare feet, cold in the early mornings, often wet with dew. If the grass had recently been cut, grass clippings would stick like glue to our wet feet, but the dampness or cold never seemed to bother us.

There was more concrete at our secondary school, but we still had expansive sports fields, and gardens and lawns between the various classroom blocks. Whilst we went barefoot less often here, we would still occasionally eat our lunches on the soft lawns sheltering under the shade of the big old trees there.

I remember my shock, on arriving in Thailand, to find that the few lawns there – in parks, or at the house of my host family – were made of something entirely different from the fine-bladed grass I knew. These lawns weren’t really made for bare feet, and I missed that.

I think of students all over the world who don’t have the joy of feeling soft green grass under their feet and between their toes. I was appalled at the public parks in French towns and villages, large open spaces, but mostly covered in dirt and pebbles, which is a step up from concrete, but not the luscious green grass I love. Even in the suburbs of Amsterdam, where there were picturesque green spaces alongside rivers and canals, the grass that looked so appealing to me to walk on as an adult, or play on as a child, or to lie on (as either) with a book under a tree, was off limits, defiled by dog droppings and completely unusable.

This trip down memory lane is a good reminder not to take the little things for granted. Though in the interests of full disclosure, perhaps I should mention that a few years ago we built a deck over the tiny patch of lawn at my house.

hook from school to ocean

There was no shortage of grass where I grew up

Image: Google Earth




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In the early 1990s, the New Zealand Embassy in Bangkok was at the end of a lane shared with the Spanish Embassy, nestled under tall, leafy green trees. Sadly those trees are all gone now, replaced with concrete and steel high-rise buildings, but when I was there it was a kinder, gentler time, though even then we knew it wouldn’t last long. My office was on the second floor, and it looked out into the trees. I could sit at my desk and watch squirrels scampering along the branches, desperately madly chasing each other, and occasionally stopping to copulate. It was a little piece of nature in a city that was fast becoming a building site, cranes stretching across the horizon, in the midst of an economic boom; a city that was fast developing but at the same time – in a process replicated all over the world – sadly losing some of its more beautiful spots in the name of progress. My little spot of nature had squirrels, and I was amazed. Who’d have thought there’d be squirrels in Thailand? Certainly not me, who only knew squirrels from books and TV. I loved them. The squirrels in Bangkok though were lean. They weren’t the squirrels from the cartoons I grew up with, cute chubby little cheeks and bodies and brush-like fluffy tails, but they were squirrels nonetheless, real live squirrels in-the-flesh, and forever entertaining.

In the middle of our term in Thailand, we were given two weeks additional leave, to ensure we had a break from the temperatures, humidity and environment of Bangkok. We took the opportunity to go to Europe for the first time. There, in the grounds of the Schönbrunn Palace in Vienna, we saw a squirrel. This first European one was much more like the chubby cartoon version, and we were entranced, as I have been since to see squirrels dashing about the grounds of the White House, or many years later in London, as I caught up with friends from those diplomatic days in Bangkok sipping tea together in Russell Square watching the squirrels hard at work preparing for winter, or most recently, posing perfectly for us here, in St James Park in London.

Previously only seen on TV

Previously only seen on TV

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Friday night here in this northern, beachside town, saw us at a photography awards show, and then dinner at a local Thai restaurant. My sister was taking advantage of our presence by insisting we eat at a Thai restaurant. The food was good, and I chatted to the waitress in Thai (though the occasional Italian “si!” slipped through). At the end of the meal, I got chatting to the owner, and another man.

Turned out that the owner’s friend and I had shared a car once, in a Ministerial motorcade in Bangkok. He was a much more senior diplomat than I, but was friendly enough to me, his junior colleague. I remember he looked out the window as the motorcade, flanked by white uniformed motorcycle outriders, sirens on and lights flashing, sped through Bangkok’s usually congested streets.

“You know,” he said, ” people complain about Bangkok’s traffic, but it really isn’t that bad, is it?”

I looked at him in disbelief. The streets we were travelling were empty, but I pointed out the police at all the intersections, blocking the traffic from entering our route until we had passed. I shuddered at the thought of the size of the traffic jams we had created, the gridlock that might take half an hour to clear to Bangkok’s regular, sluggish, traffic flow. We were racing along, taking only minutes to travel a route that might normally take an hour or more. And I shook my head. This is why people think diplomats are out of touch!

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When I turned 30, we lived in Bangkok, one of the great cities of the world.  Work was stimulating; I was watching and taking part in world events, and we lived in one of the great cities of the world.  There was Thai food, and a maid.  Life was good.

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These days, the closest I get to foraging for food is wandering up and down the lanes at the supermarket without a shopping list.  Even growing up on our farm, we never foraged.  Food was farmed or hunted, whether it was meat, fish or the vegetables grown in our large garden.  And so I was intrigued with Lali’s experience of foraging for mushrooms and lambs’ quarters.

And then I remembered.  Next to my host family’s house in Thailand was a large vacant section, one of only a few in the wealthy, gated community.  As with any vacant space in Thailand, it was lush and green.  The plants grew profusely – but looked like (and probably were) weeds.  One day I looked out my bedroom window and saw my Thai mother, and one of the drivers, wandering through the section looking for something.  I called in my sister, and asked her what they were doing.

“Getting dinner,” Dao said, matter-of-factly.  I was appalled.  What on earth did she mean?  The lot was full of weeds that to my foreign mind all looked as if they’d be poisonous.  The only other things out there would be some impossibly large and creepy insects – not appetising at all – snakes (argh!), and maybe even some ubiquitous rats.  “Vegetables,” said Dao, sighing at the ignorant farang.

Yes, my Thai mother and a helper would regularly forage through this area to find greenery to be thrown into the wok.  I have no idea what she found.  I never knew whether the vegetables I was eating came from the market, or the vacant lot.  So even upper-class wives of senators in a gated community in Thailand forage.  With some Help, of course.

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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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He kneels softly at my feet, lifting each one into the bowl filled with warm water and flowers, washing each foot of its sweat and grime from a hard day of sightseeing, on Bangkok’s dirty streets.

In his culture, that sees feet as dirty and rude, how must it feel to make your living by pampering foreigners’ feet? How many times does he do this every day, smiling always at the foreigners, who must seem so large and so coarse to him?

How many foreigners take the time to smile, or chat? I am fortunate I can do so, and hope that he understands my conversation with him is a mark of respect for what he does, and the way he does it.

He pushes back the reclining chair, and engulfs me in a mosquito net. He picks up my foot, and smooths oil on it. His movements are slow and deliberate; his long, sensuous, firm strokes ease out the aches and pains of the day. He takes such care, his strokes well-timed, never hurried or cursory.

I sigh into bliss.

He moves with such kindness, dignity, and pride in his work. He humbles me. My heart like my feet, putty in his hands. The pleasure and gratitude overwhelms me as I relax, and Bangkok rushes on outside.

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