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.

 

 

 

 

 

Back on the Road With Grandma

This summer, it’s Istanbul, Turkey. I’ve never been here before.

Once upon a time I dreamed of seeing Istanbul-not-Constantinople and taking in Ephensus, the Topkapi Museum, et al. My imagination conjured encounters with all manner of exotic people, places, ideas. Even in my old age, I fantasized about meeting interesting people, perhaps a man? Preparing for my trip, I made a hypothetical list: The Blue Mosque, the Haga Sophia, a ride atop a double-decker tour of the city and the ancient ruins of Iconium, a cruise down the Bosphorus alongside the remains of the wall that protected Turchia. I figured that since I’d be in the city for three months, I’d have ample opportunity to learn some of the local language, soak up the essence of the culture.

Now entering my third week, I have adjusted my expectations. Mine is not the sojourn of a freewheeling youngster or a liberated retiree. I am here in the official capacity of Toddler’s Grandmother. Consequently, though I have happily partaken of the pide bread and acquired a craving for muhammara salad and vegan boreks, I remain more familiar with home-heated frozen French fries and chicken nuggets. While I’ve managed to board the ferry and visit the Isle of Heybellada, My experiences are filtered through a skewed lens with minimal focus. I see the world through the eyes of a two-and-a-half-year-old, who is fixated on construction vehicles with three doors that open and shut or on dogs sleeping in the shade or birds resting on low-hanging branches. Nothing else in Turkey matters nearly as much. A museum would be excruciating, and the Blue Mosque might shudder at the thought of my grand child running through.

I have yet to see the city by night. Bedtime is early in the world of a toddler.

None of this is in any way disappointing. I believe I will love the memory of this Turkish sojourn all the more for having shared it with my little miracle boy. A walk on the Bosphorus is as satisfying as any cruise when you’re throwing rocks to watch the ripples disrupt the calm and laughing at the boats seeming to race with one another, singing about wheels going ‘round and ‘round as a big green bus zooms behind.

Back in New York, I’ll hear in my dreams the five calls to prayer outside our window, but I will remember a sleeping boy rather than the responses of the faithful. Here I’ll content myself with vicarious visits to storied places. The beauty of Haga Sophia and Rumeli Castle resonates adequately from the page, and neither will age any less sublimely for want of my presence.

Much to my amazement, I have no need to further enrich my senses. Things that once seemed intensely important have lost their luster. The glories of the past are singularly unenticing because the future is in my arms.

My future has become irrelevant. Who knows what time I have left? Nothing is promised,. I have had already a long life that has given me much to be grateful for. I gladly turn my attention to what I will leave behind. Memories matter.

No matter what time is left, I will be a presence in this boy’s heart, even if only as half-seen a shadow casting stones on the water of the Bosphorus.

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Next up: How America looks from here . . . . Spoiler alert. It’s not pretty.

 

Notes From a Temporary (we hope) Curmudgeon – Day 1

From the week before Christmas till the penultimate week of January, I was in Asia. For some of the time, I was in Taoyuan, Taiwan then moved for the last two weeks to Bangkok, Thailand. I was immersed in the world of the two-year-old grandson, who was my constant companion.

That meant that, for the most part, I was absorbed intellectually and emotionally by the mercurial disposition of the little boy. But when he descended into the quiet of sleep, I found brief opportunities for critical thought, just before the curtain of fatigue closed over my brain. The internet was unstable, but I was able to search intermittently for both news of home and moments of entertainment. Thus, in the narrow alleyways of my own mind as it intersected with the limited scope of the available worldwide web, I found enough material to support a series of rants.

I was unusually cranky. It was hot in Asia. I am no fan of high temperatures. The hot weather exacerbated the extreme anxiety wrought of my distanced observation of the travesty that has become my beloved country.

From over there, it was difficult to assess the degree to which my homeland’s future was tenuous, but it wasn’t hard to picture the Orange Imposter standing on the steps of the Capitol Building grinning while Washington burned. A hideous manifestation of

Theater of the Absurd — an ersatz president strutting and fretting his too long hour upon the stage, pizzicato-ing across the instrument of our American government, threatening to pop the strings and break the neck. My reaction to things was probably more negative than it might have been had I stayed home.

I declaim my rants. I realize I am a victim of my own White Privilege, preyed upon by my sensitivity to an unstable internet connection and an Asian climate.

I acknowledge here that I am an outlier. My opinions and reactions reflect (nearly) none of my confederates’, my cohorts’, my co-anyones’. I react on my own, according to my own lens.

Thus beginneth the venting of my steam. . . Over the next few days, one rant a day. . .

1. The journey across the world.

I usually fly Taiwan’s own EVA Air. The service is terrific, the bathrooms are immaculate, the 777s offer sufficient leg room for my aching knee. Best of all, the company offers slippers that make it easy to shed shoes and still wander the ample aisle space and ward off PAD (peripheral Arterial disease). Unfortunately, I was traveling at exactly the same time as the myriad Asian kids leaving their American schools to spend the holidays at home, and EVA was booked solid.

I resorted to Qatar.

The flight over was miserable. Puddles in the bathrooms threatened dropped clothing, and in the absence of complimentary slippers, stocking feet. The

Airbus E350 has aisles too narrow for easy navigation. The endless sitting made my inner thighs ache. Seats are configured such that I was unable to sit up straight, and the strain on my back worsened as each of the 13 hours it took to get to the first stop (Doha) dragged on. No inflight entertainment soothed the soul either. Every film on the agenda was an action or horror film. I’m too old for those. Instead, I watched the Netflix shows I had downloaded, which meant that I used up the shows I was saving for later.

Truth is, I was already predisposed to be disgruntled. Unlike most airlines, Qatar’s policy is to charge a customer $350 when s/he makes a reservation and changes within 24 hours. The website promised a 72-hour grace period, but it turned out that was only for tickets purchased online.The website was inaccessible on the evening I wanted to book. The price they advertised was expiring that night so I phoned Qatar Air and booked with the company. It turned out that I had chosen the incorrect date and had to cancel. only two hours after booking. Hence, I was obliged to forfeit the $350.

I hope I will never have to fly Qatar again. (NB: There is an addendum to this entry at the end of the book of rants.)

 

Im Not Getting Better . . . I’m Getting Older

Horsey: T S A ©2010 Hearst Newspapers

There are so many slings and arrows we become inured to as we age. Being shoved aside by youngsters bent on getting a subway seat. Receiving condescending rejection letters from potential employers under forty. Being addressed, like a hard-of-hearing toddler, in loud monosyllabic words. It sucks to grow old. But because the alternative is far worse, we simply tolerate the little insults and abuses.

Most of them.

I still get flustered when a TSA agent tells me, “I’ll have to pat you down.”

A pat-down is unnatural. Disconcerting. I try to make light – the way I do when the dentist is extracting yet another of my teeth – but a typical TSA agent has less sense of humor than any dentist. To make fun could land me in jail because to a TSA agent, I am a threat to national security.

All because of my titanium hip. Which I chose to have placed in me.

One bitterly cold February morning in 2006, I was out for a run in Fort Tryon Park. Looking upward, dazzled by the brilliantly cerulean sky, I failed to see the sharply pointed rock jutting out if the earth just in front of my toe. I tripped and flew a bit upward before falling down. My right hip landed squarely on that rock.

“It’s definitely fractured,” my surgeon affirmed, looking at my x-rays. “You must have fallen just right.”

“I know,” I sighed. “I was running faster than I’d run in weeks. I just got over bronchitis and. . . “

“You’ve got options,” he mumbled impatiently. “I could fix it. But you’ll have pain, and you’ll limp. Or I can replace it. Then it won’t bother you at all. Except when you fly.”

He was half right. It only presents a problem when I fly out of an American city. I’ve flown out of cities in Israel, Taiwan, Thailand, Italy, UK, Hong Kong, Turks & Caicos, among others, and I have never been subjected to so much as a second look. In fact, in most places, because of my age, I don’t have to wait on lines, and people go out of their way to be helpful. A body scanner readily picks up the hot spot near my groin, and other countries’ agents recognize the piece of metal that is my bionic hip. No problem. Off I go. But in the US, I’m treated with the care and respect reserved for foreign terrorists.

To be fair, some TSA agents are nicer about it than others. Some are even downright kind. At LaGuardia last month, the woman who responded to the request for a “Female Assist” was personable, friendly. She apologized and did her business quickly. It’s never fun, but in that case, the experience was not humiliating. I flew to Chicago without a single case of the willies.

The agent in Chicago at my return flight made up for the deficit by providing me with a full dose of creepiness.

It began with a bit of drama back at my hotel.

My room’s safe, where I had put my wallet for security’s sake while I attended a wedding on the South Side the night before, was so secure that it refused to open for me. The hotel had only one person with the key to open it, and he did not arrive to liberate my valuables until ten minutes after I should have headed to the airport. By the time I reached the airport, it was nearly time to board. Flights to NY that day were overbooked, and I wanted to get home. I knew, however, that if I gave the TSA people any inkling that I was in a hurry, I would irritate them.

“I need the body scanner – prosthetic hip,” I announced in the practiced, sing-song voice I’ve developed for the statement.

“Female Assist,” the cry went up.

A formidable woman appeared from somewhere else. Imposingly muscular, at least three inches taller than I, she sauntered toward me in her best John Wayne posture and looked down at me with disdain. I’ve come to the conclusion that the TSA HR looks for candidates with resting bitch faces and eyes that shout “NOTERRORISTWILLFOOLME.”

“Feet on the yellow,” she growled. “I said ON the yellow. Hands up. Higher. Hold still. Stand still.”

I emerged from the cell and waited. It took her at least a minute to get back to me. The picture in the scanner was exactly as I expected. Even though I was wearing no jewelry, no braces, no underwear, there was a dark spot on my collarbone and a large one in my hip and groin area. I have no idea what that is at my collarbone. It’s always there. The hip is self-explanatory.

“You’ll have to be patted down,” she growled again. This time she was clearly annoyed. It was my fault.

“I’m gonna have to pat you down on your breasts, your buttocks, your waist, your groin, your . . . “

“Could you just do it please?”

“Not till I’ve said what I need to say.” She started over, droning on about where she would be putting her hands. I think I groaned. She stopped and stared at me with an unmistakable death threat. “I can have you taken into a private room for this if you don’t like it here.”

“It’s okay,” I shuddered. “I was just thinking my plane is going to leave without me.

“We gotta do our job.”

“I understand.” She stood staring at me. I must have sounded sarcastic. No wonder. I should have just held my breath. Instead I said, “I never have this trouble anywhere but in America. Everywhere else, they. . . “

“Well maybe you should ’a’ stayed somewhere else then. You put our country in danger, we don’t want you here.”

I shut up.

She patted me down not once but twice in each of the specified areas. The second time she even pushed her gloved hand roughly down my pants. I closed my eyes so I could not see the other passengers, hurrying by on their way to their flights, stop to stare at the menacing old woman being detained at the TSA station.

When she was finally done, the agent made me endure a hand check. More waiting. Finally, she scowled at me and said, “You can go now. But next time? Maybe you should just stay home.”

 

Dancing in Lunacy — Bali Part I

“The way it actually was. The endless ocean. The infinite specks of coral we called islands. Coconut palms nodding gracefully toward the ocean. Reefs upon which waves broke into spray, and inner lagoons, lovely beyond description.”

Tales of the South Pacific, by James Michener

How can I possibly be in the South Pacific and not think of James Michener?

I first read his Tales as a freshman in high school, and when Hawaii came out that year, my mother was called into the principal’s office for allowing me to read such racy literature.  Michener remains with me, especially when I travel (he’s written about so many of my favorite places), but here in Bali, an island that is still confused for the island paradise immortalized by Bloody Mary’s nearly eponymous song in the Rogers and Hammerstein adaptation of Michener’s work, he looms.

Obviously, my expectations were high as we flew from Don Muang Airport in Bangkok to Bali’s Ngurah Rai.  Which is to say that there is no way I would not be disappointed.

Even the physical image of my imaginary Bali, reinforced by the film version of Eat, Pray, Love, which featured gentle marketplaces, smiling people with no desire to rush anyone and a pristine, sparsely populated seaside, was immediately tainted.  There was, from day one, nothing Edenic about what I found there.

I won’t claim to be an expert on anything Balinese.  I was there for five days, a prisoner of my own inadequacies.  To begin with, I was impaired my choice of reading companionship.

For some reason I am unable to decipher as yet, I chose, as my airplane entertainment, 1493, by Charles C. Mann.  It’s a great book; don’t get me wrong.  But it’s very affecting.  As I deplaned at the Bali airport, I had only just read about the spread of Malaria, one of the many results of the Columbian Exchange.

Apparently, and this is a truly reduced explanation, because of the voyages of Cristobal Colon, which created a network of trade routes around the globe, all sorts of agriculture and its concomitant insects, germs and diseases, were able to migrate easily worldwide, and one of the most adaptable migrators is the mosquito with its uncanny ability to infuse malaria into the blood of its host.

Mann’s writing is most engaging, and his descriptions leave little to the imagination, including his descriptions of the way the disease infiltrates the body, what it does to the blood, how it spreads from one host to another and how it creates epidemics that make the flu pandemic of 1918 look downright contained.

So there I was, arriving in Bali, armed with just enough knowledge about malaria to know I didn’t want to get it and knowing that I had ignored CDC recommendations.  Anti-malarial shots can be pretty invasive and destructive, so, since there has been no major outbreak in the Bali city areas, the CDC doctor in NY suggested I just plan to “Use Deet; sleep in Deet, cover yourself in Deet.”  I figured that if it were that important, Deet would have to be readily available in Bali, and, not wanting to carry any more liquid than I had to, I planned to buy it there.

Well, I was wrong.  No Deet presented itself in any form in any of the multi-varied stores we found once we got settled.  But far more worrisome was that in the book, Mann had clearly said that malaria outbreaks are worst in areas such as rice paddies, which are notorious for their standing water, especially when the rice paddies are in areas of extreme moisture and even more so in areas where the rice paddies were not native but had been transported to that region in the Columbian Exchange.

You guessed it.  Bali’s rice was introduced by visitors — Bali is situated, after all,  right along the main trade route, whose center was just up the ocean at Manila –after the 16th Century.  And the rice paddies, built into the sides of the sloping jungle, are awash with tourist resorts for every breed of mosquito.  When we’d found our way to our accommodations, I asked our host about malaria, and he said, “No worry.  Only in rainy season.”  When is rainy season, I wondered and looked it up: all year.

So I began with ill ease, and then communication difficulties intensified discomfiture.

We had planned to stay for the entire five days of our visit in a house that, according to the pictures we had seen online, was a clean, quaint, lovely house, perfect for quiet meditation, in the area known as Ubud.  We expected a few days of retreat, time to read and write and cogitate and perhaps explore the charmingly offbeat town and its environs.  The owner of the house had honestly disclaimed, “If you are looking for five-star accommodations, this is not your place, but it is infinitely comfortable and immaculately clean.”  An unfortunate miscommunication.

The house, first of all, is two hours from the airport. I knew I was in trouble about ten minutes into our trip out there, when I saw a billboard that said, “Visit Ubud.  Enjoy the beauty of the rice paddies in the splendor of the jungle.”

That sign preceded two hours of standstill or crawling traffic.  Nothing moves easily in the congestion of trucks and motorbikes, and we were later informed that this is a condition that is Bali-wide.  Nothing controls the traffic here  — like much of Asia, Bali lacks streetlights, street signs, traffic police, speed limits, pedestrian crossings, road regulation of any kind.  When we arrived at our destination, the driver stopped at the top of a hill, and he indicated that we should walk down.

He took one of our bags, and we handled the rest, descending a very steep hill, on an alleyway sidewalk barely wide enough for one average-sized person.  An overweight ten-year-old would be challenged trying to navigate the walkway.  On our way down, we were surprised — more like mortified, shocked, amazed, terrified — by an oncoming motorbike.  It sped up the hill, assuming we would find a way to stand aside, and as the menacing bug whizzed by, I felt his tire slide over my toe (luckily, this was before I became a converted flip-flops wearer, so I was still sporting my Nikes) and his handlebar graze my arm.

The house is cradled in the spectacle of a greenness I could never have imagined.  Numerous waterfalls drop off the sides of the rice terraces, and the giant palms rustle gently, sparkling in the brilliant sunshine.  A choir of floral hues echo from every bush, every clump of glass.  Where the airport area had been unbearably hot, here on our mountain, it was considerably cooler, and, as the sun began to set it got downright comfortable.  I even considered donning a sweater.

So much for the positives.  The house was dirty.  Not in a neglected or abused kind of way, but in a way that figures you won’t find sleeping on others’ sheets, using others’ towels, walking on wet floors objectionable.  I might have found a way to deal with that, despite the high price (yes, the price per night was verging on 5 star cost) of the accommodation, but there were worse aspects.

For one thing, there was no mosquito netting.  And the local store had no Deet.  But worse than that, the bedrooms — more like monks’ cells, actually — were on opposite sides of the house, with no way to navigate one from another without walking thru the darkness of the jungle.  Is my western-ness showing?  I cannot deny it!  In any case, these little rooms were in a state of perpetual air-conditioning, but they were not screened, so doors had to be firmly shut, yet the bathrooms, which are outside the bedrooms, accessed through unscreened doors, are the domain of marauding hordes of ants and spiders. Of course, the sound of mosquito song fills the air, even drowning out the shrill calls of the jungle nightlife.  Going to the bathroom allows the little visitors in and invites them to hitch a ride atop one’s skin.  We had no control of the a/c, and we had no blankets, which made for a cold night, but it didn’t deter our blood-sucking intruders from feasting on us.

While the open, airy kitchen area was esthetically pleasing by day, at night it became nightmarish.  All kinds of creatures shared the space, including, of course, those mosquitos.  There was a kind of sitting room on the second story, very quaint and something I’d probably love in an upstate NY summertime (after black fly season), but kind of formidable in its dirty unprotectedness.

The grounds were pristine, thanks to the next-door neighbor, who tended them.  The pool, however, clearly presented him a challenge, and there were innumerable dead things both botanical and zoological floating in it.  Not inviting.

But the worst part about the house was something we came to realize is implicit in the Bali tourism trade: the ubiquitous, over-fussy, cloyingly attentive staff employed to meet our needs.

I feel terrible sharing this observation because, especially in the case of the team that cared for this house, the people can be really sweet and genuinely concerned.  But you can’t sit without someone grabbing the chair. You can’t get yourself a glass of water or personally open a mangosteen; they will wrest whatever you are holding from your hand and do it for you, whether you like it or not. Our caretaker made himself responsible for everything from carrying our luggage to hiring a car (his relative) to trying to accompany us wherever we might want to go.  And his wife did everything else.  When I awoke at 5 a.m. and stumbled in the half-light to the kitchen, she was standing there, in the eerie jungle crepuscule, (I had to wonder how she knew I was up  – she and her husband live next door, up a hill), armed and ready with her pancake makings, which I had to ask her — and this seemed to offend her — not to employ.

Ubud is congested.  In the evening, dreading the presence of our serving staff, we emphatically declined the escort service and walked to the village.  Well, walked is a misnomer.  We crept along the sides of the road.  There are no pedestrian spaces, so we basically stuck to the gullies, kind of clinging to the vegetation to keep from falling down.  Nonetheless, we did manage to get a feel for the lay and texture of the town: very late ’60’s atmosphere, hippies in abundance from all over the world (those we talked to were mostly from Australia and Europe, but there were plenty of Americans around too) with backpacks and naked children and presumably nothing to do but hang out in the local vegetarian restaurants by day and then in the abundant bars by night.  By the time we had spent one night in Ubud, we knew we HAD to leave.  So we did.

But before we left, we were really interested in seeing the area; it had been raved about in every publication we had perused.  So we asked our grounds man to engage his cousin-the-driver to take us on a tour and then to deliver us to another section of Bali, where we had booked a hotel room. Cousin brought the car around, and we were off.
We stopped in Ubud for lunch in a hippie restaurant — I saw some people I know from New York, which didn’t wholly surprise me, as there are scores of what some might call “yoga tourists” milling about– and walked around the shops for an hour, and then the driver hunted us down to ask imploringly if we were ready to go to the hotel.  He seemed anxious to get us there. “We asked for a day,” I said incredulously.  He didn’t understand me and answered me something I couldn’t make out except that I got the word “far,” so I knew he was speaking a kind of pidgin.  I asked him to show us what he loves in the area.  He didn’t understand.  He asked if we wanted to go to the Monkey preserve?  No, thanks.  The zoo?  Absolutely not.  Finally, he had a stroke of genius and wordlessly took us to a coffee plantation.

The coffee “plantation” was small, just a little farm, really, where the family raises luwaks (weasel-ish animals, civets — and the coffee raised with their assistance is called luwak coffee, or luwak kopi, every expensive) and monkeys and other animals with rich detritus.  They harvest their captives’ feces for fertilizer, and plant their coffee in its warmth. In the case of the luwaks, they feed the beans to the animals; it is defecated and harvested. Then members of the family process the locally refined strain of coffee.
As we toured the farm, the owner/workers seemed to be on a break, congregating wherever we were, under no pressure to perform any pressing tasks.  After they ascertained that we were English-speaking, they summoned a young woman, who later explained that she knows “some little” English because she is in her third year of a course to become an English instructor at the local university.

Her father — that’s who he appeared to be — had lived, he said, in Los Angeles; his English was much better.  And when he joined us, we actually had a lively conversation and got the lowdown on how the beans are sterilized, roasted, peeled, prepared for consumption; and I was convinced to spend $30 on a very small bag of coffee, one of the some thirteen varieties we had been encouraged to sample, and which I found delicious.

There were a few men around, who seemed to be hired help.  Absent any cognates, I could not identify any languages except that the one the father spoke was laced with Dutch sounding words.  I did clearly observe that when he talked to these guys, who appeared to be locals, he had to repeat himself.  Curious about this, I later looked up the language of Bali and learned that there are many.

Bali, it turns out, not unlike NY, was colonized by the Dutch, who encouraged immigration from all over.  Indigenous people from nearby islands, as well as people from the Philippines, China and Malaya, moved in.  There is no island that has a single language because even those people who are native to an island speak a variety of tribal tongues; there are actually 637 known languages spoken in Bali.  Communication is difficult at best.  Bahasa Indonesia, the official language of Indonesia, was chosen rather arbitrarily to represent all the people of Indonesia in the 1960’s, when the myriad islands of the area were incorporated to form the country.  So the majority of Balinese learn one language at home and then have to learn another to communicate with compatriots and still another to navigate the tourism world that dominates their economics.

And to reconnect to James Michener, I also learned that Indonesia, Polynesia, Micronesia — the many little island nations created out of disparate tribal nations — are all related in that their people have been often irrationally nationalized and come from similarly diversified roots.

No wonder we were unable to have a fruitful conversation with anyone except Dad of the Coffee Farm.

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.