Travels With Grandma . . . Winter 2019-20 Edition

New Normal

In 2003, I left my home, my marriage, my comfortable suburban life and set out to work hard, to experience setbacks, and to carve out a modicum of comfort that included the freedom to roam the world. Predictably, it took a while for me to achieve mobility. For the first seven years, I did all my roaming in the city of New York, guiding bus tours around the city I loved. The job nearly killed me.

I daydreamed my escape.

I’d envision myself venturing out to places I knew from my mother’s childhood stories – her birthplace in Austria and home in Croatia, her parents’ hometowns in Ukraine – and those I’d imagined my father’s people left behind in the 1600s.  Places like Utrecht, The Netherlands, Somerset, UK, Scotland.

But when my daughter relocated abroad, she coopted my travel plans.

In 2012, I reached the age my generation had targeted for retirement, and my child invited me to visit her world. At the time she was living in Thailand, a place I had never even considered for my bucket list. But it’s where she was, and I was keen to see what it was that held her there.  So off I went. First to Bangkok, a side trip to Bali, and then to Samui, the Edenic island where she lived and worked. In the intervening years since then, I have visited her three times in Thailand, once in Hong Kong, twice in Taiwan, and most recently twice in Turkey.

None of these were places I’d have sought. But each has mesmerized me in one way or another. Each has equally repelled me.

The people of Thailand are the gentlest, most personable people I’ve ever met, and the scenery in most of the places I’ve been is breathtaking. But the climate is far too hot far too much of the time for my taste. Poisonous snakes and soi dogs are never far from my consciousness. And the cities are antithetical to my desire to walk in that they have obstructed or nonexistent sidewalks and street vendors that impede all movement.

 

Hong Kong is – and I speak here as a New Yorker! – far too crowded, too overrun with teeming flesh and filthy refuse. Conversely, I find Taiwan too orderly, too polluted, too rules-driven; finding food there is a challenge, as it is expensive as well as often inedible.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

And Turkey, well Turkey . . .

Is a confusing assortment of dichotomies and paradoxes.  I find myself excited to go there and aching to leave the minute I arrive. The people are warm, friendly. Or they are aggressive, willing to shove your car off the road in order to gain a few seconds of driving time or to avoid braking.  The food is delicious, but the spices can be shockingly voracious. Islam is the primary religion of the country, but stores, especially pharmacies, are closed on Sundays, and the liquor is as destructive to weekend calm as it is anywhere else. Gorgeous landscapes abound, punctuated by spectacular sunrises and sunsets. But they lie in the omnipresent, foreboding shadow of Musa Dagh.

Since my daughter and her family live in Turkey much of the year, and because I am absolutely addicted to the pleasure of my grandson’s company, I shall continue to return often.  I’ll learn to love being there.  Especially if I can learn more of the language.

Does it matter that I doubt I will ever feel entirely at home?

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Fear Displacement

I get a real kick out of watching people’s faces when I say I’m off to Turkey. Again. Brows wrinkle, cheeks migrate upward, eyes show their pain by squinting.

“Well, then,” they’ll say in husky tones of genuine concern, “You be safe now.  Be careful.”

It’s never clear to me of what they feel the need to warn me. The same people, should I bid farewell and head to the subway or embark on a cross-park sojourn, would smile and wave without a moment’s dismay. Yet multiple dangers like armed druggies, hungry coyotes, angry raccoons lurk in the city’s parks and construction sites. These same folk would simply wish me a lovely good time were I to tell them I was heading for Walmart or the movies or, say, Houston or Orlando. Is it not true that mass murderers lie in wait in such hinterlands?

I have no fear of Turkey. I do admit to holding a bit of a grudge – I want the country to own up to the Armenian genocide. And there are cultural norms that I don’t understand. Yet I feel far safer in greater Istanbul or in the coastal villages near Izmir or Antalya I have visited than I do anywhere in America these days.

Well-armed, vigilant police patrol the cities, parks, public places. I’m a savvy city kid, and I know enough to be conscious of my surroundings to keep my valuables close. At least in Turkey, it is unlikely that suddenly, without warning, some enraged young man will jump from the shadows and aim an AK-47 at those of us unlucky enough to be in his line of fire.  Turkish roads are scary because drivers are impatient, reckless. But the kind of violent road rage I see on the streets and roadways of my country every day doesn’t exist in Turkey.  No guns sit on racks over windshields there. The military and the police are the only ones who can get away with packing.

When I go to the Istanbul Airport, I know that everyone who enters the huge open space must go through a metal detector, must withstand the scrutiny of a no-nonsense security check before they enter. When I’m at JFK or LaGuardia or Newark, I am always struck by how vastly unprotected the areas are, how easily the myriad people wandering in and out could get away with annihilations.

Ironically, the officials maintaining my safety in Turkey are far less intimidating than those at the gates in the US.  My prosthetic hip inevitably sets off the alarms, and the TSA folk at JFK and Newark too often treat me as though I purposely require that they pat me down, and they pat me down with a vengeance. It’s humiliating and often painful. I have never once been assaulted by a security person in Turkey. They apologize. They treat me respectfully. They are gentle.

A friend recently marveled at my willingness to travel to Turkey.  “It’s so far,” he said. “So foreign.”

“You’re going on an equally distant journey,” I posited. “I mean, Alaska . . . it’s far, and it can be pretty creepy, no?” I was thinking about the high crime rate in Anchorage, the recent shootings in Seattle, where my friend must catch a connecting flight. I envisioned airports open and vulnerable.

“Nah,” he said.  “It’s in the US.”

My point exactly.

 

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Yemek (Eat)!               

In December, when I had booked my flight, I told my students that I would be flying to Istanbul the day after our final exam.  I expected them to be shocked or fearful. College freshmen are singularly self-concerned, and I thought they would worry that I might not get their grades in on time. Instead, they surprised me.

“That’s so rad,” said one boy.

“Lucky,” said another.

“Omigod.  You’re gonna get fat,” exclaimed a girl in the back row who had not spoken once all semester.  Everyone stared at her,  “I mean,” she stammered, “The Food.  It’s so incredible. You’ll be eating nonstop.”

Her mother, it turned out, is Turkish, and she visits her babaanne (grandmother) every year.

I smiled. Having summered there already, I was well familiar. The food is exceptionally delicious. At the same time, it can be a culinary adventure.

In the first place, the food is ipso-facto organic. Turkey is one of the few remaining countries in the world that is entirely self-sufficient when it comes to food production – if Turkey allows a foreign label to distribute food in Turkey, the product must be grown and processed in Turkey; farming is a major occupation country-wide, the life’s blood in more ways than one.

Industrial farming does not exist. Farms are owned, operated, maintained by close-knit extended families, who share clusters of multi-story living quarters at the farms. They eschew the use of pesticides and appearance enhancers, and they are opposed to genetic engineering.

As a longtime vegetarian –a vegan but for the use of honey and an occasional eggwhite – I especially appreciate the multivarious textures of flavor in the vegetables, flavors that titillate my taste buds. The distinctiveness in every bite is singularly unmistakable. Cucumbers are melony, tomatoes have a robust richness I remember from my mother’s long-ago garden. At the same time, however, I am constantly aware that there is likely to be a kick delivered from some sector of any given dish. Spices insist on surprising the palate. Eating is like riding in a car behind a seemingly mild-mannered hanim (woman) in a delicate hijab. Watch out lest she suddenly swerve or stop or make a turn in front of you. Likewise, peppercorns or a dried biber (pepper) show up on the tongue without warning to remind you not to be fooled by the prevailing air of relative calm.

While no restaurant has any dearth of vegetarian options in Turkey, it is clear that the people here love their meats, and I am told their meats are delicious. Like the vegetables, the animal protein sources are nurtured and maintained with loving pride. Farmers take care to provide humane and uncrowded conditions for the animals that sacrifice their lives. No chemical enhancements or antibiotics spoil the purity of the flesh or the integrity of the dairy products.

What saves me from the fate of which my student forewarned is that I am essentially not a sweets lover. If I were, then Turkey would indeed be dangerous. Especially at the sumptuous buffets that are laid out for brunches every weekend.  So many desserts, so little room to spread them out. Puddings and pies, Baklava, Tavuk gögsü (chicken breast pudding, which is often made without the chicken breast), cakes and sugary fruits, chocolate pistachios, Turkish delight (enormously popular rose- or orange-infused jellied candies),and the one thing I can be a sucker for: halvah(a thick, honeyed sesame paste), et al., present themselves for over-indulgence.

Luckily for me, I’m not easily seduced.  Even halvah repels when I remember the discomfort of the sugar rush it inevitably delivers. I am not fooled by the melt-in-my-mouth sweetness.  I know it will never really like me.

Then, too, too much of a good thing can be disenchanting. One week during my stay in Turkey, we went to a resort in Antalya, a hotel that operates like a giant, stationary cruise ship. Once checked in, a visitor need not want for anything.  Snacks and light foods are served 24/7 at various stations about the massive place. Drinks of all kinds flow endlessly. And three times a day, double doors swing open to a ballroom bursting with tables laden with food.

There are stations for every kind of culinary experience.  Hot foods – stews, casseroles, roasts, fried foods, side dishes – sequestered from the cold foods such as bean pastes, salads, myriad pickle options, olives, dolma, a panoply of fresh fruits and vegetables, and the endless tables of colorful desserts.  The first day we arrived, we marveled. We ate. We enjoyed. But the array never changed. And we found that the food was likely to be recycled, reused the next day; there was a staleness about it that made even the fresh rocket seem dull and tasteless by the time we’d been there a while.

It was a relief to get back to Istanbul, to the fresh produce in the markets, to our own home cooking, to the brunch buffets in the restaurants along the shore.

 

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Toddler in Ephesus

Late December

My little grandson cannot wait to go to Kusadasi. He’s not terribly impressed by the fact that it’s the closest I’ll ever get to experiencing ancient Greece or with the notion of seeing the Aegean Sea or remnants of archaic worlds.  He loves to fly.  Airport? We’re going to the airport? “Let’s go!”

And a taxi.  We’ll ride to the airport in a taxi. “C’mon, Mommy.  Are you ready?  Hurry up, Gran’maw.”

In the taxi, he watches the road. His father is a pilot, and he has flown more often in his three years than most people fly in a fifty. Traveling to an airport in a taxi is as natural as breathing.

“Look out,” he warns our non-English speaking driver, who is blissfully unaware. “Red light.  You have to S T O P. . . . Oh, no, do you go that way, or that way?”

I remind him that the driver knows what he’s doing and deserves to be trusted.  He settles back and contents himself with counting buses, assessing cranes, watching for airplanes in the sky.  Then he falls asleep.  It’s an hour-long ride. His nap will serve us well.

At the airport, he climbs dutifully into his stroller.  “I can have a squeezie (a squeezable fruit treat he favors over candy) while we check in?”

At the gate, he counts the airplanes taking off, landing.  When our plane arrives at our gate, he jumps up and down.  “That’s our airplane.  We can get on.”

The flight reaches Izmir in forty-five minutes flat, and another cab takes us the remaining 80 km to our hotel, a lovely inn nestled in a tightly knit complex of shops, restaurants, hotels, fish markets, and bazaars on the Aegean Sea. The windmills and trucks, stoplights and birds along the way have kept the boy busy, and when we arrive at the hotel, he proclaims, “Here’s my home.”

The name Kusadasi means Pidgeon Island in English, and it’s not clear whether the name derives from the shape of the island on which its protective fortress lies or from the flocks of foraging birds that dominate the sandy beaches.  It hardly matters.

The town sits on a sandy lip of a beach that smiles wanly at the lapping waves shimmering teal-to-turquoise as the sun ambles along.  Fishing boats and yachts, kayaks and sailboats bob about beyond the breakers, and tourists meander the streets with no apparent imperative except soak in the warmth. It’s a peaceful place. Like a fantasy. For me, the perfect respite from current events that perseverate.  For my little buddy, it’s the perfect place to explore.

Each morning we set out on a mini-constitutional. Glee overcomes him the minute he sees a slide in one of the several playgrounds that dot the sea walk, and he dashes up the stairs chanting “Up the stairs. Down the slide” and makes himself giggle as his tush hits the ground.

Sailing insouciantly through the air in a swing, he makes up songs about flying and sailing that he combines with those he’s learned.  “Sing a song of sixpence pocket full of rye, I zoom to Bangkok (or Singapore or Timbuktu) on a bicycle built for two. . . “

Innumerable feral cats amuse him endlessly as they strut about the streets.  He crouches to touch each one that comes close enough, and he squeals with delight at the softness of their fur, the strength in their tails. The cats are remarkably well fed, with shiny, fluffy, healthy-looking coats. He offers the possibility of affection with the back of his unopened hand, and they oblige him by purring contentedly as he strokes the tops of their heads, tickles them beneath their lower jaws.

At an amphitheater on the main street, we watch as a bevy of homeless felines cavorts about, eating the food local people have left them, napping in the make-shift shelters someone’s built them. My boy is delighted but refuses to walk with me when I say we must back to the hotel. He wants to stay and watch his “friends.”

“Remember?” I prod him. “We saw a few cats living at the Chinese restaurant.  Let’s go say hello to them.”

“Stop for a muffin?” He asks.

“Of course.”

At Starbuck’s (Yes, Starbucks.  Sorry!) I lift him so his head is higher than the counter, and he tells the barrista that he’d like a chocolate muffin.  We sit while he eats it, and we discuss our plans for the day.

“First the cats at the Chinese Restaurant! Second my home!”

At first, he is testy. Why is the promised land not right ahead of us. I tell him to be patient, and he slyly invents a game. At every building, at every street sign his eyes dance with mischief. “Is this the Chinese Restaurant?” He laughs at his own cleverness, sufficiently amused until we reach the restaurant. It does not disappoint. Several large cats and a trio of kittens are there to entertain him, and he breaks into a symphony of laughter that takes us all the way “home”

After we return to Istanbul, he insists on visiting and revisiting the photographs. “Look at me – I following a duck. Hear me, Gran’maw? ‘Quack, quack.’” The video of at him riding a carousel dolphin in the indoor playground makes him thoughtful after his fifth viewing. “It was raining. Remember, Gran’maw?”

And then, “Oh, and look at this, Grandmaw. . . The cannon!” He is standing guard at the Kusadasi fortress. “ Look at me. A pirate – Hear me? ‘Ahoy, mateys, fire in the hole!’“ Gales of guffaws telegraph his pleasure.

His favorite photos are the ones we took the day we walked through centuries-old ruins. “Look ‘t grandmaw. ‘s Ephesus,” he crows. I wonder if he’ll remember that day when he’s my age. How we climbed stairways built by the Greeks in the 10th Century BC. How delighted he was to sit, giggling,  on a stone toilet in a communal outhouse dug first by the Romans and then modernized by the Roman Christians. As I marveled at the thought that Constantine might have defecated there, my grandson exclaimed, “Look!! People made poopie here!!!”

As though for his personal pleasure, regal cats adorn the remains of the 2nd C Library of Celsus. In the photos, they perch on pedestals like Egyptian gods, silky felines deigning to allow human contact. Power resides in their graciousness.

Clearly, that little boy in the photos is aware of his own potency as they respond to his touch by gently pressing their heads against his hand.”Haha. That tickles, gran’maw.”

In the photos, I am clearly breathless in the great amphitheater.

Imagining Dionysian competitions, Plautus comedies, Roman Olympic games. My grandboy cares only that I hold his hand so he can use the narrow stone walls as his balance beam. In my head there’s a joke about finding a seat – nearly 40,000 await here – but he distracts me, so enthralled he is by the colors in the masonry. Someday perhaps he’ll be impressed that he visited a theater that drew audiences from all over Europe and Asia for over 2,000 years. But at this moment he has his sights set on a hillside nearby, where a herd of sheep descends. Their collar bells clang in unison with their guide dogs’ barking. “I can barely see them,” he says, mimicking a phrase he’s heard far too often in his favorite video. “I hear them.  Hear them, Gran’maw?”

Just before he falls asleep in the taxi headed back to Kusadasi, he snuggles close and exclaims, “I like Ephesus. We have fun there!”

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Paradise Lost/Paradise Regained

Do people in the States go to private doctors these days? I mean, do the majority of the population, who are minimally insured at best, have a personal pediatrician on speed dial or a family GP at beck and call? I wonder if people more often look to Urgent Care facilities and HMO Clinics for sage advice.

I was fortunate as a young mom. I raised my little ones in two very different communities, and in each I relied on a wise pediatrician for counsel and guidance.  Each of those physicians was level-headed. Neither proclaimed a diagnosis without asking my opinion, and both were thorough and sensitive to the children’s concerns and fears. We all endured some harrowing health moments, through which these gentle heroes held my trembling hands and steered us out of danger.

In Turkey last month, I found myself wondering what most Turkish parents do when their children are ill  As outsiders, my daughter and I found ourselves in a position to wish either one or both those medical angels was alive. We most assuredly would have called him the second night we were in Antalya.

Let me backtrack and say that going to Antalya turned out to be a great choice.  But not for the reasons we expected it would be.  My daughter had booked a week in a luxury hotel, a kind of stationary cruise ship on the Mediterranean coast.  Though their massive water park and beach activities were shut down for the winter, the hotel offered a week of total relaxation, replete with three meals a day and a perpetually stocked minibar, for less than I might have paid for a room in the Tulsa, OK, Motel 6.

From our balcony, we had a spectacular view of the dormant water slides and the graygreenroyalblue Mediterranean just beyond them. If we looked left, beyond the hotel flanking ours, we could watch the snow accumulate on the tops of the several the Taurus Mountain peaks that tower over the region. On the first floor of the hotel, there was a children’s playroom with a small garden of colorful balls and a fast wooden slide designed to entertain a child if there should be rain. At the bar, wine, beer, and whiskey flowed freely . . . and at no extra charge.  An on-site spa with Thai masseuses stood at the ready from early morning till well after the dinner rush, and a footbath stocked with flesh-eating, skin smoothing garra rufa fish required no reservation. There were even family films screened nightly in the hotel cinema. Theoretically, a heavenly place for a true vacation.

What it turned out to be was the perfect place to wait out the flu.

On our second day in Antalya, my grandson seemed listless.  He wasn’t hungry.  The multiple tables spread with enticing confections that he’d found irresistible the day before were entirely uninteresting. All he wanted to do was lie in his mother’s or grandmother’s protective arms and watch videos or sleep.  Clearly not himself.

Overnight, he spiked a fever.  I knew it was not a dangerous fever, but it was high enough to send a clear signal that he was ill. The hotel, aware of its responsibility to be the compleat home away from home, advertised a doctor on board, in an office that opened at 9AM. We called at 9:01.

There was no doctor.  There was, however, a matronly nurse, who arrived in our room with the English-speaking guest relations representative(a person to whom we owe enormous gratitude). The “nurse” was very sweet, but I doubted immediately that she had any real medical training.  She took his temperature and immediately told us through our interpreter not to panic. She would, she assured us, prevent his having convulsions by wrapping him in cold, wet towels to reduce his temperature.  His temperature was not quite 103. He was in no danger. We eschewed the towel treatment and asked to be directed to a doctor.

They gave us the address of a private hospital that would accept my daughter’s ex-pat insurance plan, and we called a cab to take us there.  The hospital was nearly a half-hour away, and much to our relief, the cab driver waited to take us back.  A valiant gesture that turned out to be!

In the hospital, we waited endlessly in an open area, where coughing, vomiting  and the injured hordes came and waited or were directed to the triage room.  It was a cold day, and there was no heat in the building; attendants, nurses, doctors, and maintenance people were indistinguishable from one another as they all wore their outdoor street clothes.

When we were finally taken into a treatment room, our little boy was prodded and poked by several people, none of whom washed their hands or wore gloves.  I was embarrassed by my inability to speak Turkish and worried that we would know nothing about what ailed him.

Fortunately, the Attending Physician, who came to have a look, spoke English. She suggested we admit him for an overnight stay. In his room, she told us, they would strap him down, take his blood, and take him to a lab for a series of x-rays.

I know that, as adults, my kids are invariably embarrassed by my forthrightness, my unwillingness to do as I am told, my reluctance to accept advice I do not trust. But I wasn’t about to worry about whether I’d make my daughter blush.  I was unconvinced. “Why not do a culture first?” I inquired.

The doctor moved closer to examine my face before she replied. “Oh, yes, we could do a swab. But blood and x-ray would tell us more.”

“No,” I said firmly. “Let’s find out whether he’s got something bacterial or viral, and then you can prescribe medication. If, after a day or two he is no better, we’ll think about blood tests and x-rays and overnight stays in hospital.”

She agreed.  Reluctantly.  She wrote of my impudence in her report. Then we waited.

And waited. While we waited, we defended our screaming child from an attendant intent on forcing alcohol rubs on him. His fever was already responding to the ibuprofen we’d administered earlier and had dipped to below 101. There was no possible reason for any such treatment.

Another doctor entered. She repeated every step of the exam performed earlier. She, too, suggested a hospital stay, x-rays, blood.  Again I opened my NY Jewish mouth and said no, explained our agreement with the previous doctor. This doctor, a very young woman, was less skeptical. She smiled and nodded.

And sent us back to the outer corridor to the reception desk to pay for the swab. Then we waited and waited until a teenager – well, he looked like a teenager – wearing hat, coat, and mucklucks suddenly materialized in front of us.

Before we could ask who he was or what he wanted, the youngster timidly and awkwardly thrust a q-tip into the baby’s nose, pulled it out and smeared the wet cotton across a petri dish.  Then, in a scene that seemed ripped from my own 1960s childhood, he closed the dish, placed it in a plastic bag, put the culture into a glass cylinder, and popped it into a pneumatic tube. Off it went to some diagnostic lab in the sky, and off we went to find a warmer, less exposed place to wait.

Again we waited. An hour passed while we sat on a narrow bench in another wing of the hospital that was no less public but was slightly less crowded. We saw the doctor returning from her lunch break and asked her if she had the results yet. She promised to get them and, good to her word, brought them to us almost immediately.

“It’s flu,” she said.  “Influenza A.  I’ll prescribe an anti-viral. If he does not improve or if he has trouble breathing or if he does not get his appetite back in 48 hours, please bring him back.”

“Thank you,” my daughter said. “We’ll be sure to have him see a doctor if he’s not better by then.” She is very tactful. She never said what we were both thinking, that we would NEVER bring him back here.

We thanked the doctor, and then she warned that we still had a problem.  It was Sunday. The pharmacies – eczanes – were closed. Nationwide, in this predominantly Muslim country, for reasons we were unable to ascertain, pharmacies are closed on Sundays, even though most businesses operate as usual. “The receptionist will give you a list of those that are open,” our resident explained. “There you might fill the prescription.”

“You mean,” I asked, well aware that anti-virals only work if they are ingested in the earliest stages of the virus. “That there is no pharmacy here at the hospital, no dispensary where we might get a day’s supply to tide us over?”

“Unfortunately, no. Only in the stores on our list.”

The list lied. Not one was open. We returned to the hotel, and because our guest relations Godsend-of-a-staff-member was still there, she was able to pinpoint two eczanes that were possibilities. She called them. Only one was actually open, and they did not have the anti-viral in stock. Another pharmacy, closer to our hotel, opened early the next morning, and there we found the magical elixir.

Shortly after taking his first dose, our little patient was fever-free and hungry albeit still listless and weak. That’s when his mommy fell ill.

The rest of our week in Antalya was all about convalescence for everyone but me. I had a flu shot back in NYC.

[I later learned that people don’t tend to get flu shots in Turkey. Doctors don’t prescribe them. To have a vaccination, it is necessary to buy the inoculation from a pharmacist – not on a Sunday! – and take it back to a hospital, where a doctor administers it.  The H1N1 virus has made a decided comeback in Turkey, and there are myriad strains of flu circulating the country, but prevention seems undesirable.]

As the designated well person, I was truly able to appreciate our Antalya retreat. Being in that hotel made life easy for all of us.  The minibar attendant delivered water, juice, and seltzer every morning. The wait staff carried trays of food to our room three times a day. The maids kept our sheets clean, our towels fresh, our room spotless. The sunrises and sunsets enthralled us, relieved us of any reluctance to stay put in the room. Each day we opened the balcony door, and in rushed the wintergorgeous smell of the sea, the delicious reminder that we were on vacation.

On the Seventh Day, renewed and re-energized, we flew back to Istanbul.

 

 

 

 

 

Green Curry for Christmas (reprinted from Medium.com)

I’m Christmas-ing in Thailand this year, and it’s a relief to be away from what Americans call holiday cheer. At the risk of being accused of crusading against Christmas, I find the holiday, as it has evolved in the US, to be gruesome and overbearing. The real celebration for me is being removed from the ubiquity of obnoxiously perseverating Christmas song in every public space, omnipresent guilt-mongering in the guise of advertising, oppressive overlays of faux cheer, and incessant arguing over how to greet one another.

No one has stopped me in the street to say, “Merry, er, happy, er . . .” Few even know that there’s a holiday going on out there. In Bangkok, except for the occasional paean to the Capitalist Christmas in the form of a display of goods for sale and a few saliently out-of-place reminders, there are few Christmas accouterments at all. It’s like Calvin Trillin’s observation that Christmas in Tibet would be a “place where folks cannot remember/That there is something special in December”(“Christmas in Qatar,” The New Yorker, 19 December,1994).

Absent is the apparent outpouring of hyperbolic Christmas spirit. Even though this is a cosmopolitan city, with strong ties to the West, a large Christian presence, and a decidedly multi-cultural persona, including a huge contingent of expatriated Americans, Germans, Belgians, Russians, et al, one is hard pressed to find reminders that joy has suddenly descended on an otherwise morose world.

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Christmas Eve, Lumpini Park, and not a Santa Claus or Christmas elf in sight (Photo by Stockton)

Some might attribute the absence of Christmas to the fact that Bangkok is 2,000 miles closer to the equator than is New York City, and December is a very hot month. Every time I emerge from an air-conditioned space, I feel like Tom Hanks’ character in Volunteers, descending from his plane into this country. “My God,” he moans. “We must be about a mile from the sun!”

But having lived in the Arizona desert for many years and having spent a few holiday seasons in Florida, I know it’s not the climate that’s to blame. People dwelling in warm climes might pay some lip service to the fact that they can’t get into the Christmas spirit without snow, sultry wintry wind, and delectable fires burning in their family rooms’ fireplaces. But they’ve adapted. No matter what the climate, people who want to decorate for Christmas will find ever more elaborate ways to deck their cacti – or palm trees, boats or sand castles – with boughs of holly and whatever else they can think of to connote the season. In Thailand, however, the landscape is bereft of palm trees disguised as Tannenbaums, of neon MERRY CHRISTMAS signs twinkling out of store windows.

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Amazing. Not a single Monitor Lizard wearing antlers! (Stock photo)

While there is no outpouring of zealotry for the trappings of Christmas, people here are eager to honor one another’s traditions. Among those people educated in the ways of The Other, there is a genuine attempt to honor the fact that some do celebrate a very important holiday on December 25.

In the lobby of my hotel the proprietors have chosen an mp3 loop to play endless celebrity covers of every Christmas song imaginable, and on the screen, a slide show of snow-covered New England and old England scenes that seem odd, out of context, dislocated. But the intent is sweet. Every staff member greets every western looking guest with a heart-felt “Merry Christmas.” But they don’t worry about offending me for not saying Happy Chanukah; they really are unaware that there is such a thing, and I would not expect it. I am touched that they wish me happy anything.

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Luckily, there are not a lot of Christmas displays in Bangkok, but they are not entirely absent. Photo by Stockton.

I doubt they’ll wish anyone a happy Kwanza, and certainly not because they are anti-Kwanza. There simply are no African-Americans staying here. Yet, I am sure that if there were or if a major Muslim holiday happened concurrently, they would be offering their best wishes with some customary acknowledgment, the equivalent of Merry Christmas. And when the time is right, they probably greet celebrants of Vesak or Diwali with appropriate greetings. There is no reluctance to call the day what it is, no fear of offending.

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The Chinese Pavilion in Lumpini Park, Bangkok, like the other temples and memorials, are devoid of Christmas accoutrements.

On Christmas Eve, in that same lobby, I returned from an outing to find banana muffins laid out on a table in front of a sign scrawled in a childlike cursive that said, “Free. Merry Christmas.” I smiled at the desk clerk and bowed with my hands together to show my gratitude in the Thai way. She grinned back at me, bowing and likewise holding her hands together, saying, “Christmas cake. Very good.”

I asked the clerk if she celebrates Christmas. “Oh, no,” she said. “New Year only.”

I have never been a fan of the flap over what to say in the holiday season. It’s absurd, at least. Christmas is a specific day, and on that day to say Merry Christmas seems totally appropriate, especially in our country, which has designated Christmas a national holiday. To wish Happy Holidays on that day, seems as absurd as wishing someone a Merry Christmas the day after Thanksgiving, when many holidays approach.

We could take a lesson from my hosts here in Bangkok. If we embrace each day and call it what it is, if we honor our collectivity by understanding that Happy Holidays is all-inclusive, we show our respect for one another, for the individual attributes that make each of us a person. We acknowledge our differences while accentuating our common humanness.

What can be bad about that?

Impossibly Impossible

No doubt about it, The Impossible is a well crafted film.  The Tsunami is impeccably recreated, the acting is superb, and the script orchestrates intermittent tears with the deftness of a klezmer clarinet.  I hated it.
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Don’t get me wrong.  I admire the filmmaking.  Director Juan Antonio Bayona (The Orphanage) has crafted a remarkably terrifying horror film out of a natural disaster, and he has captured the aftermath with paralyzing clarity and alarming accuracy of detail.  He has harnessed a physical violence no Freddy Kruger film could possibly find.  And that is just what troubles me.

What is the point?  That we should respect and fear Nature?  Okay, I agree.  That tourists should stay away from Thai beach resorts?  What other recourse if you want to avoid the risk of being swept up in this kind of maelstrom?

I wonder if Bayona might have made that point more effectively if he had written more about the aftermath of the ordeal, more about the emotional violence every one of those survivors must surely have suffered in the months, now years, since the tragedy.

This is no Titanic or Ship of Fools with disparate characters thrown together and forced to recognize one another as fellow passengers on a death-bound express.  And therein lies, for me, the rub.

This is one family’s terrifying wrestling match with Fate.  We know precious little about them, and that’s all we need to know. Mom Maria (Naomi Watts)is a non-practicing doctor and Dad Henry(Ewan Macgregor) has a job in Tokyo; she has a hankering to go back to England, and he is ambivalent.  Their three boys Lucas, Simon and Thomas (Tom Holland, Samuel Joslin, and Oaklee Pendergast) are pretty typical — entitled, smart, cute.  They make a perfect group to illustrate the blindness of fate; why does this family survive when so many others were so less fortunate?

In perfect horror film cadences, Bayonna lulls his audience into the family’s idyll — not just their vacation in this perceived Phuket paradise but, moreover, the fairy-tale perfect family they embody.  fmp-the-impossibleMaria is beautiful, bright, calm and loving; she soothes her husband’s worry when he gets a text that implies he might fact difficulty at work.  Henry is handsome, intelligent, affectionate; he spends most of the time before the storm playing with and hugging his boys.  Then, knowing the viewers are securely tucked into the family’s Christmas paradise, he dashes them against the  harrowing flying debris — cars, trees, homes, animals, mud — and bloodiness of the tsunami.  The audience reels in the center of the mayhem along with the family as they are torn asunder, roiled in the brine, dashed back to land, remaining on the brink of disaster every minute of the film and until they are, miraculously, reunited and sent flying off to Singapore to begin their happy-ever-aftering.

Which, from where I stand, is where the real struggle will begin.

More than the moment-to-moment endeavor to keep breathing, the life they all move onto will most certainly be fraught with strife that few films, few novels thoroughly investigate: the real struggle for survival, the one that starts after calm returns to the world.  One of the trailers boasts that nothing is more powerful than the human spirit, but in the awful 72-hour wake of the immediate tidal wave, we only see the beginning of the test.

Several times in the course of the film, Bayona’s camera confides the horrors the family witnesses on the way out of mayhem.  We watch, rapt with fear and dread, as Maria comes up from the brown abyss, gasping and moaning.  She sees Lucas, still a self-absorbed child, clinging to flotsam, whining, “Make it stop, Mommy.  I don’t want to be here.”  Then, despite all indications to the contrary, the two manage to connect, and so Lucas begins his fast-forwarded transformation into manhood, while Maria learns to allow herself to be parented by her child.  No doubt about it, the human spirit is boundless, and these two are riveting in their courage.the-impossible06

But then the movie turns quite ordinary, sluggish, boring.  It begins to rely on tear-wrenching moments of great pain and emotion-numbing relief as the rest of the family is recalled to life.  There are some lovely bits — Lucas learns to find solace from his suffering by relieving others’, an old woman (Geraldine Chaplin) bonds with Simon under the stars — but we know how it’s going to end, and after a while we just want them to get on with it already.

The interesting stuff awaits them.  How completely must the nightmare in the water murder all their sleep from now on?  How entirely will the PTSD interfere with their interpersonal relationships?  How will the acrid smell and the visual obscenity of all those rotting dead cast along the shore, the road, the ditches on every inch of each one of their journeys to find one another?  How will their survivor guilt manifest?

Some fine acting has been captured in this movie.  Neither Watts nor Macgregor, who are usually fine, has ever shown more polished chops, and the boys are natural, believable, delightful.  Tom Holland emerges as the real find of the movie — his performance is subtle, nuanced, mature way beyond the actor’s sixteen years.

But how much more could this director have wrung from all that talent if they had had some human opponents to battle.  If, for example, they returned to England and found that no one remembered what they’d been through and just assumed that because they’ve lived, they should be nothing but grateful.  Or if Mom becomes a workaholic because she can’t shake the feeling that if she hadn’t been on so decadent a vacation, one of this would have happened.  If, after the idyll was dispelled, he had taken them back to — horror of horrors! – – real life.

Thailand Variations

Some random observations garnered during my nearly three weeks in Thailand . . . .


Westerners tend to have the image that Asia, especially a country like Thailand, is backward, inferior to the US in sophistication, in industry, in awareness.  But I certainly saw no sign of any lag.  In fact, in the city, there were far more solar panels, far more signs reminding people to conserve, far more toilets with low flush options than I ever see in this country.  Bangkok is a cosmopolitan, multi-cultural center, and it’s more like New York than it is different, a polyglot city with multihued textures of all kinds.

I must admit that I was, to begin with, quite wary.  Because I had just read 1493, I was constantly aware of what the author calls The Columbian Exchange, the signs of Cristobal Colon’s rearranging of our crops, diseases, homelands.  Thailand is a perfect little empirical test case of a country.  It is near enough to Manila, the eipcenter of the Colombian trade routes, and it is a reflection of all the travelers who have visited for whatever purpose, but it is also a country that has been a crossroads since before the intersection of east and west.

The Thai people, apparently, were the Nanchaoan, living in the mountains of Tibet where they had settled after a migration out of India, through southern China and the Hunan province, moving gradually into the great river valleys of mainland Southeast Asia and settling among the Khmer, Mon and Burman populations whom they encountered on the way. By the 12th century they had established several small states in Upper Burma (Shans), the Mekong valley (Laos) and the Chao Phraya valley (Thais).  Along the way to their becoming Thai, intermarriage, mingling of cultures, sharings of all kinds created a diverse population who established the country of Siam in 1929.In fact, the word Thai itself connotes a congregation of various peoples, so the introduction of western crops, habits, ideas, etc., was embraced enthusiastically, and its effects are evident everywhere.

American corn — maize — is a favorite treat.  Corn appears in all kinds of ways in the abundant street markets — it’s an ingredient in their coconut cakes, it’s available roasted on a stick, just like at the NYC street fairs, and it’s sold in bags, de-cobbed and bagged all by itself.  Sweet potatoes dominate any number of dishes, and they, too, are sold roasted or sweet at both city and rural markets.

In Bangkok, a cacaphony of languages can confuse any eavesdropper.  Dutch, Russian, English of all sorts, German, Spanish intersperse with local words, and everyone, even in backwater corners of the islands, speaks at least enough words of English to buy and sell the abundant array of international products.

The sophistication of the Thai society is evident in some surprising ways.  Sitting in the lobby of the Chatrium Hotel, a mainstream, 5-star luxury establishment on the river that is frequented by businesspeople from around the world, I noticed a transvestite putting on makeup.  No one stopped to stare or point, and no one among the hotel staff seemed the least bit uncomfortable.  Overall, gay life is open and out in Bangkok, as it is in Ko Samui; certainly wherever I went, men and women held hands with and openly embraced co-genderists, and they were, if not flamboyant, then entirely without embarrassment.  I learned that to be a lady boy can be a great honor.  In many cases, little boys are chosen to be raised as girly-boys so they will grow up to be truly feminine, comfortable in women’s garb.

Teeth cleaning, a medicinal art that was already popular in China as early as the 14th Century, is highly evolved in Thailand . . . and very inexpensive.  For less that $20, a reputable dentist will clean your teeth using the airflow method — it feels a bit like sandblasting — and follow that with the traditional ultrasonic and then polishing techniques of the west.  It can be jarring to see signs that offer “Laundry” and “Teeth Cleaning” services under one roof, but that’s more a matter of real estate than business partnerships.  Further, it is very easy to find a good endodontist who will do inexpensive root canal, and implants, crowns and dentures are priced way below American counterparts, and they are superior.

Medicine in general is fairly inexpensive and accessible.  Not surprisingly, Thai plastic surgeons have perfected sex change operations and offer them safely, relatively painlessly and incredibly affordably.  Because there is no stigma, the procedures have been part of the mainstream surgery menu for many years.

Though Thailand proclaims to be a parliamentary monarchy, the King, descended from the line only begun in 1929, is omnipresent.  At the airport, at the movies, on billboards on the streets, in public bathrooms and shopping malls . . .his image is pasted everywhere.  At the movies, before the start of a feature film, everyone stands and watches a very moving, highly propogandized film depicting the happy, fulfilled people of Thailand praising their king, whose image caps the short in a burst of extraordinarily emotional music.  

 One thing that deeply disappointed me, however, was the absence of true respect for the indigenous animals.  Though their pictures are everywhere, no elephants are to be seen except at tourist parks, where the elephants are used as mules to take visitors for looks at the natural landscape.  

The animals are misused, and they are incarcerated, and their wild counterparts seem to have vanished into the hills beyond anywhere I would have visited.  Monkeys, also depicted on posters and logos as though they are beloved by all the people, are seen mostly on chains — in parks or on trucks that carry them to the coconut trees they are trained to harvest.

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Floating in Paradise

Tom Hanks, arriving in Thailand in as a rather unwilling Peace Corps recruit in the film Volunteers (1985),  looks out into the seering sun, surveys the landscape to which he has just arrived, and says rather desperately, “Jesus *H* Christ, we must be a mile from the sun!”

I was lucky.  When I arrived in Ko (Ko is Thai for island) Samui it was already October, and while it was far warmer than I prefer my autumnal temperatures to be, the cool breezes wafting off the Gulf of Thailand, the autumn rains blowing in from higher ground kept things downright comfortable throughout my sojourn there.  I had been told I was headed to Heaven, and nothing  about my 8-day stay disabused me of that notion.

 When I entered Bangkok, having arrived from New York by way of Detroit and Tokyo, the customs official who stamped my passport grinned largely when he read my local address.  “Oh, you go to Samui!  You very lucky.”  He looked me straight in the eyes to make sure I had got his drift.  “Heaven.  Samui Heaven!”

Thais are proud of this island with its langorous beaches and island calm.  The concierge in my Bangkok hotel told me it was his dream to go to Ko Samui.  He said he has to work too much and can’t get away, but if he could ever get a vacation, he would head straight for Samui.

Who wouldn’t!  In October, Samui is a veritable perfection.  When the rains come, they cool the jungle, refresh the air, descend deliciously.  After they leave, the air is clear, crisp, clean.  Everywhere you go are sandy beaches, and when the fishermen are not dumping their garbage, the beaches are downright pristine.  The water remains warm enough that you never need to acclimate; just jump right in!  And yet they have just enough chill to envigorate.

Lots of expats live on the island, and that makes it very comfortable to be a “foreigner” in Samui, but it also poses a challenge.  If the quiet, serenity of Lamai or Netong, for example, or the solitude of Boku seem commonplace, then the crowding and the noise of Chaweng can be jolting.  Night life in Chaweng — especially along the routes of the Sexpats, foreigners here for a deeper plunge into Thai hospitality.   Dance club owners, fight promoters, even bar girls’ agents roam the streets in vans equipped with loudspeakers and recorded music to accompany a speaker extolling the virtues of the establishments, inviting all who are hungry to come imbibe.

Expats, naturally, bring development to any Paradise, and on Samui, construction is everywhere.  Crews are brought in from cities around Thailand and other countries to work on the sites; they are bused from their communal housing to the workplace in the morning and bused back in the evening, and the signs of their work can be seen in the most unexpected of places.  Unfortunately, where a sense of conservation and preservation is thematic on the island, its rank oposite is equally so.  Impromptu garbage dumps abound in the jungle, along the beaches.

Funny thing about expats is that they pretend to know more about the place than the natives.  Maybe, in some cases, they do.  But, like NY sightseeing guides, they make things up, pass fiction off as truth.  I overheard one guy, who’s lived there, he said, for fifteen years, say that the garbage washes in from Hong Kong and China, that the pollution comes from as far away as Seoul.  “Not our garbage you’ll see out there in the water.  It’s all stuff from far away.”

In any case, as I said before, I was lucky. I saw no garbage in the water. But I was told that there are times when the beaches are piled high with discarded nets and food containers, thrown off the fishing boats; algae find their way to some of the coves, and jelly fish, wrenched from elsewhere by storms, will taint the joy of swimming.  But I was never subjected to any of that.  All I saw were lovely white beaches and clear, inviting water. Because you’re on the Gulf of Thailand, you don’t even have the interference of waves.  I told you, just enough gentle undulation and the weight of salt to remind you you’re in an ocean.  Paradise.

Massage enthusiasts must love these beaches.  Everywhere you go, there are impromptu massage tables set up to enable a client to can lie down, listen to the sound of the gentle surf, bask in the sun, and indulge him/herself in relaxation.  And on top of that, it’s Thai Massage — very hot these days!

All along the shorelines, food mongers gather, offering every kind of seafood and fresh fruit and vegetable one’s imagination can conjure.  Like coconut water?  You needn’t walk fifty steps between sellers offering to open a freshly fallen coconut and make available to you its succulent and refreshing juice.

There are lots of coconuts on the island, and the natives are very good at gathering them.  They’ve got cheap help too — local monkeys are trained to climb the trees, twist the giant nuts from their limbs and throw them to the ground for harvest.  Of course, this can create something of a hazard to beware of — a coconut thrown from a height of 60 feet (frankly, even a coconut pulled by its own gravity from a height of 60 feet) can do real damage to your head and other bodily parts.  Even Paradise has its dangers.

More exist than meet the eye, actually. Like serpents and such also live here.  As I was about to go for a walk down the jungle path that led from my home base to the beach, I was warned, “Just in case. . . if you see a snake, let it pass.  People get hurt because they don’t see the snakes and step on them or something try to catch them.  Just let them pass.”  What kind of snakes, I wonder aloud.  “Cobras — especially King Cobras — and vipers mostly.

At the CDC office where I got my travel shots, I was warned to avoid bats and mosquitoes.  “Sleep in clothing,” the doctor told me.  “Bats will bite you while you sleep, and you won’t even know it. And wear Deet so the mosquitoes leave you alone.”  I saw a couple bats flying by in the evening when were were out, but I remained unmolested.  Though there are mosquitos on Samui, malaria is rare, but dengue fever, another mosquito-bourne disease, is less rare.  Still, it’s not considered threatening enough to cause alarm, and few among those living here would even consider using Deet.  We did carry a naturopathic bug spray around with us, and that seemed to suffice; one night, when we went for dinner at a beautiful beachfront restaurant, the waiter brought us bug spray with our menues; we did apply the substance, and we were left alone.  Didn’t I tell you this is paradise?

Some beautiful places are plagued by rats, but I saw none on Samui.  What Samui does have is a large population of feral dogs. They congregate like rats, menace local runners, threatening small pets;  they also lounge around in the middle of the road, creating a serious hazard for drivers, especially for those on the ubiquitous motor bikes.

And, speaking of perils, the motorbike riders are their own kind of menace.  There are so many of them that they have developed a kind of entitlement, a stance, at least,  that suggests that they believe they own the road.  Driving a car or walking can be risky because there is little awareness on the part of the swarming bikes’ drivers that there is anyone else on the road, and a little scooter can do great damage to a small car or little person attempting to navigate around it.

But these are minor impediments to an environment that is otherwise without flaw.

Carla and the King of Siam

 

 

When I stepped off the plane in Bangkok, after 28 hours of transit time, I felt as though I’d stepped back in time. Placing my feet on the tarmac transported me, in a way, back to a simpler era, at least where travel is concerned. As I descended walked into the steamy evening and waked across the tarmac to the bus that would take us passengers to the terminal, I was reminded of arriving in Albuquerque in 1957, after a nearly-as-long flight from NYC. Then something thoroughly unexpected happened; I reverted to my then age.

Travel, especially over long distances through various time zones, can be like a drug. Sights, sounds, the very touchstones of reality can be altered so that the traveler walks in a kind of quasi-hallucinatory state, seeing, smelling, hearing, touching, tasting what may or may not be present. Entering the terminal, in my mind’s ear, a philharmonic orchestration of the Rogers and Hammerstein’s The King and I Overture rolled over me in flowing and ebbing waves emanating from the loudspeakers. Everywhere I looked were the multitudinous children of wise King Mongkut, and just to confirm that I had entered the realm of the play, I was sure that, right in front of me, standing next to the lifesize poster of Mongkut’s descendent, the current King of Siam, stood a prim but visibly amused woman, pursing her terribly British mouth and trying not to laugh at the antics of the children.

I hadn’t thought about the King and I — or even of the lovely pre-musical version Anna and the King of Siam — in many years, although as a youngster, I was moved to desire the life of a musical actress because of it. But I realized, once I had had a bit of sleep and had recovered some of my senses, that there was a logical reason why the images had so starkly assaulted me upon my arrival.

Like so many people in my generation, my first impression of the people of Thailand, formerly Siam, was created in the lush panorama of the movies. I took in the king’s exhortation to Anna that she learn to kowtow, in order to be a proper woman, and I believed that, however toothsome these people — of course, played in 1956 by beautiful but decidedly un-Thai actors — might be, theirs was a sycophantic, toady society, and they lived to serve their betters; women, moreover, were an underclass in a society of repressed people.

Further, like so many girls in the 1950’s, I believed that Lady Thiang’s plea to Anna to give in to the King, to beg for his approval, was exactly as Anna saw it, a paen to a kind of obeisance that a self-respecting Western woman must eschew. Boy was I wrong about the Thai. In its Western bias, the film actually fails to capture the spirit of the people in some extraordinarily insensitive ways.

From the moment I entered Bangkok, I was aware aware of the presence of lovely young models, male and female, wearing their prim, closely-tailored, white-gloved suits — costumes that misleadingly evoke a sense of a colonial Siam — posed welcomingly around the city. There is an ambience here that suggests the gentle sweetness of the people that both films were able to capture, and at every opportunity, they display a somehow disarming array of deference that belies the resolutely independent spirit of the Thai people.

Thai deference should never be confused with obsequiousness. Neither its women nor its well-oiled tourism machine and its well-trained personnel are in any way obsequious. I will talk more about the women in a later entry, but for now suffice it to say that whatever preconception I brought with me was shattered very quickly. There is a genuine respect underlying the deep nods that accompany the multi-meaninged prayer-hand greeting (called a wai) and the warm word of welcome, “Sawatdee-ka.”

These are a people who, unlike some of their more agoraphobic neighbors, take pride in sharing their culture with outsiders. They have nurtured and perfected a tourism industry that caters to pampering their visitors. In this endeavor, they know they’re good, and they don’t seem under any pressure to prove it to anyone.  They simply acknowledge that their guests are worthy of respect, as they themselves are. But they are not needy, not cloying, and they are unlikely to compromise their sense of propriety in the pursuit of pleasing their customers.

Surrounded by countries that have desired to dominate them — to greater and lesser degrees of success — and thereby to subvert the local character, Thailand has managed to ward off all conquerors. They alone among their immediate neighbors have never been colonies of European conquerors, have never been subservient to a western master. Except perhaps to the Western ideals of Capitalism. But who in the world is not?

The spirit of the local service staff can be seen in the style of their deference. They do not kowtow, they do not hesitate to look a stranger in the eye. They never hover, seeking to catch whatever crumbs of gratitude might fall from their guest’s wallet; they simply stand at the ready, willing to meet their customers’ needs but finding no necessity to go any further than requested. Among the myriad service industry folk who populate Bangkok, good morning or Sawatdee-ka and the joining of hands is not a display of supplication to the person being addressed; it is the simply a point of view. The hosts genuinely want their guests to know that their presence is appreciated. The visitor will never feel unfulfilled, but nor will the willing servant ever accept any level of deprecation. It’s a fine balance, intricate in its execution.

The second day I was in the city, at the Paragon Shopping Mall, was again reminded of King Mongkut and his progeny. Touring the river earlier that day, we had passed the King’s nephew’s palace — the king’s home was closed off for a celebration and procession, so we didn’t get to see it — a domicile that could have been the prototype for both films’ sets. Opulent, colorful, heavily guarded by sunny-dispositioned, smiling soldiers wearing their terribly British-affected uniforms, the palace stands colorfully among a varying population of river-front properties. It would be easy to assume, in the bias of a Western-trained eye , that all of this disparity is yet another example of the 99% being exploited and abused by the 1%. There is, obviously, plenty of that in every country, but along the river, people live in a manner they choose, a manner they have struggled to maintain, a manner they support would never willingly forfeit. And to even consider that every owner of a Riverside shack is too poor and too complacent to replace is an injustice to the people.

Later, when at an IMAX movie theater before a screening of The Dark Knight Rises, I was fortunate enough to witness the people’s devotion to their monarch first hand. Before the previews began, the houselights came up. An introductory strain of music played over the loudspeaker, and everyone stood, proudly, at attention. No one was monitoring the actions of the audience, and no one looked around to see if s/he was being watched. They simply, naturally stood in unison. The National Anthem played, and some of the people there sang. A pair of Russian tourists in the back of the house giggled nervously, not sure what to make of any of it. But the locals simply, gratefully, matter-of-factly sang a pledge of allegiance to their king. As soon as the music stopped, everyone sat down as a single entity and went back to munching on popcorn or twizzlers, but the moment was no less moving than the hats-off-no-kidding-around show of allegiance that precedes the beer drinking extravaganza at a football game.

It was all I could do to sit back down.  I felt like someone had just invited me to dance.

A Trifle of a Trip

I am about to embark on an adventure.  Thanks to thoughtful planning and uncommon generosity on the part of my youngest child, I will soon fly to Thailand by way of Tokyo and then home by way of Seoul three weeks later.  Each way I’ll be in transit for over 24 hours, and I will cover nearly 9,000 miles. I’ve never been to Asia before, but I have been on an air trip that took nearly that long, and I realized as I awoke this morning that I feel something like the same sense of awkward anticipation, nervous tension and absolute thrill of adventure I felt in that long-ago moment, as I was about to embark on that first trek.

It was 1957, and I was a miserable child, more than generous with my pain. My mother hoped that spending the summer away from home might make me lose some weight and gain an appreciation for my parents.  Since my half-sister, who lived in Los Alamos,  was expecting her fourth child — her oldest was just 4 — and since I was already a skilled mother’s helper, being the first of (so far) five, Mom decided that the perfect solution for everyone’s ills was for me to travel to New Mexico and spend the summer there.

You don’t think about it nowadays.  Flying cross-country is so matter-of-fact and takes so little time. But I am talking about an era when air travel was still a novelty, and my sister’s home seemed like a very long way away from mine.  We had driven there a few times in my life, and I remembered the long days in the car, the endless sky and cloud formations, the bottomless font of hymns my father could sing to keep us from going absolutely stir crazy.  It took five days to get there .  And now they were telling me I would reach my destination in only one!

My mother bought me a brand new, pink dress from JC Penney, a matching pink sweater, pink socks and white patent-leather shoes and for my flight.  I felt downright regal when I tried it all on, though my bright red glasses kept sliding down my nose.

We drove to my grandmother’s in Queens, an 8-hour journey that was rendered delicious by my father’s recent discovery that the best way to travel by car with children was to do so at night, so we dreamed soundly all the way in the moving vehicle and arrived in the morning, giving me plenty of time and vigor with which to engage with my cousins, who were veteran flyers, having been already to Europe.  They filled me with stories about the terrible things that could happen, and I felt a growing dread that only made my excitement more thrilling.

Since they lived in Bayside, LaGuardia was near by.  The airline of choice — we didn’t have a lot of them — was TWA, whose hub was there.  We parked right by the airfield and went into a small waiting room, which was on ground level and had a wall of window that looked out onto the landing field.   When the plane was ready to board, the stewardess — sorry, that’s what we called them then — came into the room and took me by the hand.  “Are you ready to fly with me?” She fairly sang, as I put my gloved hand into hers.

My mother took a photograph of me walking out to the airplane, and I remember seeing it years later, long after I’d made transatlantic flights and become something of a seasoned flyer.  The plane looked so small, so fragile, and I looked so relieved to be climbing aboard; I do remember feeling like I had to duck to avoid hitting my head on the wing as we approached.  I also remember my heart was thumping, and I was wondering what I would possibly do with myself for 21 hours while we flew.  I had two books to read and stationery on which to write my thoughts for reporting back to Mommy, but 21 hours just seemed such a long time to just sit.

I needn’t have worried.  The flight crew was aware of me, and they entertained me lavishly.  There was the obligatory visit to the cockpit, I got to “help” with the food and beverage, which meant that I served the boxed lunches to each passenger, and I visited the lav pretty frequently.  At one point, like a scene out of Volunteers, one of the Stewards pulled out a guitar and began to sing folk songs to the section of the aircraft where I was seated; in those days, passengers sat facing one another like they might on a train today.

Besides, the flying time was not all that protracted.  We stopped in Chicago, Kansas, St. Louis, Oklahoma City and Amarillo, sitting on the ground long enough to refuel, load in more box lunches and board new passengers, before we got to Albuquerque.

I was sleepy but unable to sleep, and when we reached Amarillo, I thought I heard the pilot tell us we were in Albuquerque, so I deplaned. For a terrible few minutes, I was horrified to see no familiar faces in the assembled greeters at the runway.  Expecting, at very least, the tall, looming presence of my sister’s husband, I was dissolved to tears when no one in sight looked remotely related. But before I could lose myself in despair, my guardian angel stewardess had grabbed my shoulders and was steering me back on board. We landed in Albuquerque a very short time later, and all the family members were there to meet me.

It was an elegant beginning to a glorious summer.  My sister, resplendent with the empathy of young motherhood and free of the burden of shaping my womanhood, encouraged me to play.  So I did, cavorting gleefully with my niece and nephews.  She sent me to a summer program where, as happens in a summer camp setting, I made brief but brilliant friendships.  I ate ice cream without remorse, and I did lose some weight.  I read, I wrote, I even watched some television.  And when I returned home, I was no longer miserable.  I felt soothed, renewed.

What a lovely memory to find as I prepare for my Journey to the East.  No misery to lose, no pounds to shed, I am ready, simply,  to be filled with the wonder of it all.