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Peanut Butter Sticky Rice

Twilight from our balcony. There is little twilight so close to the equator: usually night follows day with shocking rapidity.

We are happy to say that we found our Chiang Mai home, a two-bedroom condo on the 17th floor of the building right on the Ping River (for those who know CM, it’s the Rimping). Our choices near the school were strictly limited, as few landlords accept a tenant for less than twelve months. They would, indeed, rather let a property sit empty for years rather than put someone in it for six months. Be that as it may, it’s inoffensive aesthetically, with two bedrooms, sitting and eating areas, a kitchenette, and two bathrooms, one very Western and one very Thai, with an open shower and the toilet in the corner. The air-conditioning is loud and not terribly effectual, but it will do, especially as we’re now turning the corner into rainy season. There is a laundry service, drinking-water delivery, and a reasonably good, if a bit pricey, restaurant on the first floor (the restaurant is set into a garden overlooking the river bank). The best part is the view from our balconies overlooking the river, the city, and mountains. Ascher likes to stand out there and take photographs and watch the tiny little cars and motorcycles crawl by on the bridge over the river below. There’s something of a gym (read: my sanity) and a swimming pool on the sixth floor. The swimming pool is open on three sides–sort of like an indoor parking garage, as it’s almost completely shaded by the floor above. The water is actually cold: it’s eighty degrees, but that feels very chilly in contrast to the air temperature. Camilla, who has discovered the joys of swimming and can now dog-paddle, doesn’t mind in the slightest; Ascher complains and would much prefer to play endless games of ping-pong in the gym area. For those of you who are anxious about us living in Thailand, the building is directly across the bridge from the American Consulate, so we can see not only the roofs of the children’s school but also a tiny bit of American soil from our building.

The building also opens up onto the public river-path. It took us a few days of poking around, but we discovered, to our immense joy, that we can take this path to get up onto one of the main bridges leading into town, thus avoiding a exhaust-choked, dangerous intersection. We can also walk underneath the bridge all the way down to the pedestrian bridge that leads directly to Warorot Market, also a joy. On the way, we cross by some laborers in from the country squatting under and around the bridge, who mostly fish in the river or do small manual jobs like batching latex gloves together to sell to street workers. They don’t see many Westerners walking this way, and are delighted to greet the children. The kids are rather dumb-struck at the prospect of such neat and tidy poverty: these men, whom we might call “homeless” back in the US, bathe as often as ordinary Thais (which is to say, constantly), have their clean laundry hung and drying neatly (underwear closest to the ground, as is proper), and cultivate tiny little vegetable plots in beds ringed by overturned Bia Chang bottles.

Despite having found our home—or perhaps because of having found our home—the kids’ adjustment began to get rough and bumpy. Like summer-campers getting homesick during the second week of camp when the novelty has worn off, Ascher and Camilla have now been officially homesick. The other day, they woke up and both crawled into my lap, naming all the particular stuffed animals left at home, for which they yearned: “Tufts, Snakey, Elly-phunt…Groovy Girl and her tent, Bunny…” Ascher frets that the contents of his piggy bank may not be safe—what if the nice young couple renting our house are robbers in disguise?—and repeatedly lists those friends whom he intends to invite to a “coming home” party. You all are remembered, and fondly.

In retrospect, it may have been better to arrive just in time and stick them into school and their new routine. A lack of routine is particularly difficult for Ascher, who thrives in school and other strict daily protocols. He’s so ready to get back to school that he’s done his Hebrew homework about three weeks in advance. He’s gotten weirdly lawyer-like all of a sudden, nit-pitcking through any request we make of him (he’s trying to pull a glass of water around the table with his chopsticks, and I say, “That’s not a good idea.” Two minutes later, he’s doing it again: “But you didn’t tell me to stop, you just said it wasn’t a good idea.”) Everything is a complaint, and since Ken and I are knocking ourselves out to keep them entertained and happy while we try to set up our household and our own routines, the constant bitching and moaning is enough to make us want to kill him. It’s difficult to remember that he’s under a great deal of stress as well: in addition to all the incredible newness around him, condo living is not the ideal set-up for an active eight-year-old boy. At one point, during one afternoon’s preeminent melt-down, he broke down weeping, “I just don’t understand.” And that, I thought, says it all.

Ascher desperate for something resembling school.

Camilla has coped with the chaos and stress by refusing to eat anything but plain rice and some fruit, and not much of that. This refusal is doubly maddening, because a great deal of what is put in front of her is EXACTLY what she’s served at home: pork curry, stir-fried greens, rice. We can usually beg, threaten, and cajole her into eating a banana, or yogurt, but I did pick up some peanut butter, whole-wheat bread, and honey, so we’re reasonably sure nobody is going malnourished. Not eating, of course, exacerbates her crankiness, and her stubbornness ebbs and flows proportionate to the degree of newness in front of her. On top of this latest quirk, she, like her brother, has developed what New Englanders call a fresh mouth. She’s earning an advanced degree in driving her brother to further madness, and has been a trouble-maker and a pot-stirrer in her own right. They’re not only sharing a room but also a bed. The shared bed is fine for sleeping, as they have always both conked out in record time and are even faster these days, but it’s one more piece of precious real estate over which to squabble during the daytime.

Crowning this claustrophic brew are us as parents, altering our expectations of what living here would be like with kids on a minute to minute basis, and mourning the burdens that children place on us that we just hadn’t expected. Now longer able to both hop on a single motorcycle, we now must take song-tauws or tuk-tuks everywhere; this trip to the beach meant even more kinds of adaptations and expenses. Living abroad with two children is not twice as expensive as two adults; it’s easily six times as expensive, and that doesn’t even consider school fees. And they just plain old cramp your style. On my birthday, Ken asked which sort of beer I wanted him to pick up for my durian, and I really couldn’t muster up any preference. Finally, I had to say, “What I really want I can’t have—I want to be in a Chinese bottle shop in Malacca with just you.” (Malaysia has the best durian, small, like a football, and super-sweet). Alas. A Bia Chang after the kids were asleep it was.

Having a real home also meant, of course, setting up the household. At Tesco-Lotus, a Western-style hypermarket, the salt was three nonsensical aisles away from the pepper (located near the aisle labeled “adult food,” which I enjoyed enormously.) I failed to pack my Swiss army knife, had no way of opening aforementioned bottle of Bia Chang. I also need to locate, bargain for, and purchase a screwdriver to assemble the clothes drying rack. I bought extra sheets the other day, and the “three in one pack” the saleslady promoted meant a fitted sheet and two pillow-cases: no top sheet. One might think, with three salesladies helping and Ken speaking fluent Thai, that someone might have asked why I wanted two bottom sheets, four pillow-cases, and no top sheets. But they did not, so a return trip was in order. The drinking water comes in these enormous jugs that only Ken can manage when they are full, and somehow we need to locate one of those frames you drop them into and that swivel so you can tip them over and pour the water out of them properly. “Drinking water barrel tipping frame” is not in my phrase book. Poor Ken, who must translate so much more than he used to.

And then there are the usual faux pas: I tried to tip the security guard who unloaded the hypermarket purchases from the song-tauw and brought them up to the room, and he laughed (out of embarrassment) and wai-ed me. One of his colleagues accepted a tip for handling our luggage when we moved in; was it because the tip came from Ken? Who knows, since I never will. I suppose it’s better than the time in Hanoi that I broke down weeping on my bed because I thought the banh cuoc vendor was cheating me (which he wasn’t, and when I apologized to him the next time I bought banh cuoc, he was unbelievably embarrassed and couldn’t look me in the eyes for the next three months). Ascher gave a few baht to a begger, who wai-ed him, and Ascher wai-ed back (in perfect form, I might add). We explained as kindly as we could that you do not wai a beggar, that it is embarrassing to him or her. All these mysterious rules.

Thankfully, the children provide all kinds of distractions away from my ineptitudes and various pleasures and amazements. Ascher is beginning to flinch in a rather pleased and self-conscious way from groups of Thai school children: “Mama, why are they all staring at me?” “Because you look funny,” I answer. Camilla had her first child cower in fear of her—many Thai preschoolers who have never seen a farang are frightened, reasonably enough—the little girl went and hid under the table in her mother’s lap. I could only imagine that to her, Camilla looked like this enormous living doll, larger than life, and had the same kind of scare-potential that clowns do for some people.

A few highlights: the trip to the zoo, where the kids fed Chai-yo, a young female elephant, bunches and bunches of egg-bananas, watched an orangutan cavort in the early morning mist, and watched the baby pandas scramble and climb after their morning milk. The spiffy new aquarium there was also a treat, especially for me, as I adore sting-rays and could watch them swim all day long, and they had so many different kinds. Ascher and Camilla found a kanom (a generic term for all kinds of sweet cakes and steamed treats) they really like: a yellow, shredded-coconut rice-flour gelatinous sweet. On the return trip to the mall, we discovered the Thai equivalent of Chuckee Cheese, where they could be as noisy as they liked, and Ascher played some fishing video game that I suspect had a software glitch, as it kept giving him extra lives until he eventually bored of it and wandered off.

We ate dinner in the Night Market the other night, which has now become a neighborhood well-populated by Thai Muslims, whom we suspect are fleeng the long-standing separatist unrest in the South and moving North. The kids got some Indian food, which was a bit more like home, and they had their first sweet roti (a kind of pastry crepe fried in ghee and wrapped around various sweet fillings). I thought it was a sorry excuse for a roti, but they still loved it, having no comparison.

As planned, we departed for the beach, and plumped for Koh Samui, if only because we could fly direct from Chiang Mai here. For years we’ve heard all about how gorgeous Koh Samui is, and I am rather disappointed. The quality of the sand (we’re on Hat Mae Nam) is better on the Cape (and certainly on the Gulf Coast); the crystalline turquoise waters are not to be seen, at least so far. The food is mediocre at best (although I did have a green curry today that made my nose run properly.) Because of the way the guest-houses/resorts/hotels have been sprawled along the beaches, everyone is pretty much captive to their restaurant or those immediately nearby, and no eating establishment has the motivation to up their game. We’re used to the more primitive Thai beach areas, which have very basic restaurants catering to Westerners, and then a million walking vendors to provide you with whatever food or drink the Thais might require. Koh Samui seems to cater entirely to Westerners. I am appalled at the prospect of not being able to get a cup of coffee before 8 AM (suddenly, Vietnam doesn’t sound so awful; you can get all kinds of breakfast and coffee by 5 AM). Again, hear the rasp of lowering expectations.

It’s still the Gulf of Siam, of course, which means some of the most temperate, calmest ocean swimming in the world. I like to swim way out (making Ken nervous), and look back and admire the mountains, the temple rooftops, and Koh Phangan in the distance. We picked our lodging well: a bungalow/restaurant/pool set-up about a five-minute walk past a temple to the beach. The complex is all set into a very lush garden with a series of raised, traditional Thai teak pavilions under which you eat, drink, get a massage, or just sit in a little library area overlooking the pool and a thousand kinds of palms and fruit trees. If the roofs were a little more peaked and I was using a typewriter, I could pretend I was George Orwell in Burma. Ascher and Camilla are happy, spent the last two days entirely in the water. At breakfast–again, on a raised platform from which we could also view the mountains–they ate peacefully and then sat in a garden swing and talked, by themselves. Minus some crying at lunch yesterday by Camilla, who again didn’t want to eat but did so in the end, they’ve played and had a good time and cooperated nicely. After our seventh hour in the water yesterday, we insisted on them drying out so they could watch Scooby-Doo in Thai. Today, I insisted on rinsing and drying Ascher often, who developed some odd all-body rash, which I’m blaming on the extreme chlorination in the swimming pool. This is without a doubt the quietest Thai beach we’ve ever been to–a delightful lack of televisions, pop music blaring (that goes along with all the food vendors that we miss), sex tourism, and stray dogs. It’s probably good for me to just stop, and breathe. The kids have nothing to compare it to, so they think it’s terrific. We will remain tomorrow morning here in Mae Nam, and then move to another beach, Thong Ta Kien, which seems to be more off the beaten track. Mae Nam is just a stretch of sand; Thong Ta Kien has lots of rocks and boulders and I expect our mad sand-castle-builders and tide-pool pokers will enjoy it immensely.

I just remind Ken that the kids’ contentment at the beach is not something that we can put into the bank and draw upon when we return to the city. This is merely a break, and a most welcome one it is, too. We will return, and I plan on taking the kids on a few mini-day trips so that Ken can begin to get down to work: the sa paper village, Doi Suthep and even maybe the horribly commercialized Hmong village nearby, and Lampang. The Lamyai Festival is coming up there, and who could resist the prospect of seeing the female and the male Lamyai Queens getting crowned?

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