Saturday, January 31, 2015
The Land of All Good Things
My first trip to Chiang Mai was in college; it was the first foreign country I ever visited. That first time, everything was strange and exotic. I rode on the back of a motorbike through crazy (tame) traffic and thought I might die. I ate new foods and bought an iconic Thai Coke t-shirt (which I still own). I had my first encounters with squattie-potties and European showers. I afraid to venture anywhere on my own, sure I would get hopelessly lost.
I returned to Thailand after my first six months living in China. Chiang Mai was like a fabulous oasis. I almost cried over how friendly everyone was, greeting me with smiles instead of suspicion or shock. And mostly, I breathed in the beauty - deep, gulping breaths of one who hasn't tasted air in too long. And speaking of air, I actually felt healthy breathing it. I could see blue skies and mountains, flowers and lush greenery, and if the sky turned red it was from sunset, not an unnatural smog. Even the restaurants were beautiful, and I enjoyed the decorative plates nearly as much as the burritos, pad thai, and milkshakes. Ten years ago, I'd say that asthetics were still quite low on China's priority list, and I was starved for beauty.
It was sometime during my first years in China that another China-dweller and I started referring to Thailand as "the land of all good things." It sums up our feelings pretty well.
This is my ninth trip to Thailand. After so many years, everywhere I go is filled with memories. I walk through the stalls of the night market remembering the lamps and pillow covers I bought to beautify my first China home (the wares have hardly changed). I still expect to run across friends who have long since moved on.
The YMCA hotel seems like it should be filled with our lively group of young singles, staying up late studying and talking like we were in college again. I think of sitting around in the small classroom for our weeklong classes, discussing holistic development and finding out we had a giant research paper due in a few days. I think of the night Kevin and I paraded among our classmates announcing our engagment to squeals and shock ("What? I thought you just started dating?!" Yes, yes we did.) I remember card games and ice cream and even some of the content I studied.
Across the street is the tiny "mom and pop's" restaurant with the dirt floors and the tasty $1 dishes. It was there I was first pooped on by a baby (my teammate's). It was there I had a mini-breakdown from stress and exhaustion - all-out bawling in the middle of the restaurant to a distraught Kevin (who must not have been too freaked out as he proposed to me later that day).
Down the road is the internet bar where I sat and worked on many a paper and sent many an email in the days before free wireless everywhere. There Kevin talked to my dad for the first time - to ask if he could marry me. There we called our family and friends to share news of our engagement. It was there I received the call that my grandfather had died.
There is the hospital where I saw both of my babies for the first time - tiny little blobs with beautiful heartbeats. When I look up to the mountains I remember riding a motorbike up to a waterfall and coming back with a ring on my finger. I walk on past the secondhand bookshops, now that I have my kindle and limited luggage space, but I think of the excitement of so many English books just waiting to be read.
I know where to find the cheap iced coffee cart which never seems to be open when you really need it. I have eaten years of banana rotis and coconut smoothies. I have marveled at Burger King and Subway, just because they were there. We know where to find the Mexican food, the Mediteranean, the Amazing Sandwiches, the burgers, and the pie. And every year we discover new favorite restaurants, until there is barely time to hit them all.
The other day when we returned to our favorite falafel restaurant, I was touched to realize the Israeli owner remembered us. "Oh yes, these two come back every year. I remember before they had children, when he was still chasing after her. And then they come back with a child, and now with these two little ones. It is beautiful!"
I know the streets of Paris and London and Rome are far more cultured and presumably cleaner, but I can't imagine I would ever feel as at home as I do here, with the smelly canals and cheap street food and the beautiful memories.