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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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35 years ago today

I came home from school to find the house strangely silent, my parents uncharacteristically sitting in the sitting room in the middle of the afternoon. It was mid-summer. February 13th 1980. I remember the sun streaming through the windows, Mum and Dad sitting still, like statues.

The letter on the kitchen table was from AFS New Zealand.  It told me I would be going to live in Bangkok, Thailand, for a year.  It told me I would be leaving in just a few weeks.

And so, in the wink of an eye, in the opening of an envelope, the direction of my life changed forever.

I didn’t know then that as a result, I’d change all plans of what I’d study at university. I didn’t know then that my parents and sister would host a girl from Thailand for a year in 1982. I didn’t know then that ten years later I’d take my husband to live in Thailand, as I worked at the New Zealand Embassy for three years. I didn’t know that my husband and I would adopt Thai as our secret language. I didn’t know that I’d enjoy learning Thai, and would attempt two other Asian languages as a result. I didn’t know that much of my career would be focused on south-east Asia. I didn’t know that one day the favourite compliment I’ve ever received would be, “you must have been a Thai in a former life.” I didn’t know that 35 years later, I’d still be in touch with the friends I made that year, and the family I lived with.

I just knew that I was off on an adventure. Excited and terrified at the same time.

(With a nod to my first post on Mali’s A to Z – Alphablog, back in 2007.)

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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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