Monday, April 1, 2013

Rough Landing: A Thai Tale

It was July and the wet season in northern Thailand. Today, the rain was falling steadily without breaks. This was a penetrating rain. No wind to speak of. The sound of falling water had begun around midnight.

She watched the water drip from the leaves of the trees that clung closest to the house. The garden surrounding the place where they were dog sitting was alive with flowers and shrubs she had never seen before. They glittered like emeralds in the rain. 

In a corner of the garden was a spirit house. Every building in Chiang Mai had one. These elaborate wooden structures on pedestals were erected to shelter and placate the spirits of the land. They looked a lot like dollhouses. She wondered if the spirits and their houses came alive at night. Fear of the mosquito hordes who feasted after dark prevented her from checking.

The inside of the place where they were staying was just as alive as the garden and perhaps even the spirit house, but much less appealing. At night, the walls were covered with geckos. Another bigger lizard also lived in the house. It let out a loud call whenever it caught a gecko. Rats could be heard scurrying to and fro in the kitchen, leaving mounds of droppings that needed to be cleaned off the table each morning. The window screens were in poor repair, making it difficult to sit for any length of time without getting bitten by mosquitoes and gnats.

Basically a huge, dark, dusty box, the house had little cross ventilation. Stifling by mid-day, it did not cool down until well after dark. They had long given up trying to sleep on the lumpy mattress in the sweltering bedroom on the second floor to which the owner had assigned them. A long tattered couch in the living room where it was slightly cooler was less lumpy. The only comfortable thing in the place was the dog, an affectionate mutt with an expressive face who leapt with joy to greet them whenever they returned from errands.

The house was in a neighborhood north of the city. Unlike the ancient golden templed tourist section where they had stayed on their first visit, there were no expats to speak of here except for the occasional few who could be spotted at a run down hotel several blocks away. The Thais in this part of the city, unfamiliar with tourists, spoke little English. This made getting transportation or ordering food in restaurants for people who did not speak Thai unpredictable and frustrating.

Weedy sidewalks with wobbly tiles dotted with piles of food led down the main road from the house to the superhighway. Who was the food for, she wondered-- the dogs or spirits? Or was it one and the same? The traffic of the superhighway swarmed with trucks, tuk tuks, cars, and song taws unimpeded by crosswalks or traffic lights. Overhead, a thick tangled vine of telephone and TV wires attached to poles lining both sides of the street sprouted frequent loose ends that dangled to the ground. She learned to dodge them and the packs of dogs that roamed freely.

Everything about this said developing world. She had always thought she could live in that world because of her travels in Nepal and Tibet. There she thought she had learned that along with the dogs and wires and traffic came a perspective more grounded in human connection than in material possessions.

Then again, that might simply have been what she wanted to see at the time.


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