Wednesday, 24 August 2011

Thai Travel: It's all about the people

I had ducked into the featureless-looking restaurant to escape the sudden downpour of rain, no less inconvenient for its predictability in Chiang Mai's monsoon. It had light yellow tables with dark green outlines, and I fought against my instinct to dismiss the presence of the dark green as part of the scheme of an owner who didn't understand the effect of this colour in lowering the appetite; I was already there, and I grimly resigned myself to the fact that I would just have to make the most of this place until the criss-crossing curtains of rain were extracted from the hot, humid airspace. At least this place is air conditioned, I thought.

I sat down at a table facing an elderly couple munching on familiar-looking Thai dishes with elegant enthusiasm. I admired the man's tall, delicate physique and thoughtful demeanour, and decided that I would make myself look as interesting and approachable as possible. It must have worked, for the man initiated an on/off conversation with me, praising the chef, asking me about my background and teaching me the correct tones for 'mai pen rai' (roughly translating to 'never mind'). I loved the sing-song quality of the phrase, which made me a quick learner.

While we were talking, I picked up on the fact that this man was socialising openly and passionately with me despite a reserve of general (and probably well-deserved) proportions towards farang (foreigners). He was opening up because he believed that I could match his earnestness, could relate to the things that motivated him in life, and was genuinely interested in his culture. I don't usually open up so quickly to strangers myself, yet there was a minimum of friction in our creation of an intense acquaintance.

I don't even know his name, but this unexpected encounter touched me. It shook me out of the cynicism I had accrued towards making connections that didn't have anything to do with my perceived spending power, and reminded me that all I needed to do to attract genuine people is be open to them, and be in the moment.

I do, however, remember the name of the salesgirl who offered me a ride from the White Temple in Chiang Rai to my hotel... her name was Yim, the word for smile, and we shared many smiles and the meandering small talk of two people curious about each other's lives. For the accompanying salesman who drove our group of four I have two names: one being the official Mark, and the other his nickname, Edward. (I have a feeling this had something to do with Twilight.)

Yim was eager to show her love for Chiang Rai, and told me about her business of selling motorcycles. Fresh out of the spectacular and spiritual White Temple, where I felt the lone cross-legged monk's deep meditative state as he remained focused despite crying and crawling babies, a few artists painting the walls with their unique postmodern touch - showing off how Buddhism could embrace popular culture to engage a whole new audience - or the assorted shuffles and strides of a constant stream of awe-struck visitors. By the end of the discussion with Yim, I had told her about all the Thai dishes that tantalised my tastebuds, my experience of being an only child, and why I had a deep love for Thailand. Her goodbye greeting was 'God bless you,' of which I appreciated the pure intentions, if not its literal meaning. What a sweet person!

As a nice little tangent to end on, I'd like to recommend Elizabeth Briel's podcast on 'Delicious Art', an exploration of the fascinating food culture of Bangkok and other regions of Thailand. Think fusion, and other kinds of experimentation!

Wednesday, 17 August 2011

I Can't Stay Put

Three weeks into Chiang Mai, I realise I can't do this long-term... I can't comfortably limit myself to the Thai version of Globish (5000 English words that everybody knows), I mind that there are ants crawling on my bed while I sleep, and I can't really deal with the grey stains on the buildings and cracks on the walls and having to always use the internet in a public setting.

In four days I'll be flying back to Sydney, where I can hopefully enjoy sorting through the experiences these months of traveling have brought, and read some more books...

I finished Changing My Mind on these travels, which I recommend for anyone who enjoys Zadie Smith's breezy and distinguished intellectualism. Not really a psotmodernist, she is nevertheless sympathetic to the cause (Barthes and David Foster Wallace being two authors she loves), and possesses the admirable trait of being able to hold dear two friction-inducing opinions... in her foreword she admits that 'ideological inconsistency is practically an article of faith' for her. It's rare indeed to find someone who is so comfortable with contradictions.

One of her essays, A Week in Liberia, made me realise that I had never met anyone from that country, and if I did, the struggles I read about concerning that country would probably affect me 100x times more (so to speak: as if emotions can be measured!). The catch is that I did meet someone from (I believe) neighbouring Sierra Leone. Not only did this Swede love his home country, he was planning to start a business which would necessitate that he spend some, if not most of his time, there. I was amazed, given that I would never consider living in Bulgaria permanently, and Bulgaria has a substantially higher quality of life than Sierra Leone. He must really love his country...

Choosing where to go next for me will be difficult: I have friends in Taiwan to visit (yay!), and a continent or two (South America, Mexico in the North) to explore...

Move Over, Old Taboos!

I will allow Lady Gaga to set the scene...

We're supposed to obsessed with reality shows and the spectacle of real life that they celebrate, however a picture like this shows me just how little we actually reveal about how we spend our free, unstructured time. 
Pop stars are falling over themselves to do the next risque thing, however if I get out of the loop of being shocked over and over again, I realise that I'm only shocked because so much about what gives our bodies pleasure and pain, how our bodies react to the most intimate moments, is obscured/obfuscated/ignored/covered up in the public domain. 
Here, Gaga suggests a relationship between bodily functions such as urination and masturbation. The arm over her head (and the armpit hair that it goes with) shows a relaxed approach to the bathroom, where the vagina is capable of more than one function at once. Although wearing shorts, Gaga is re-empowering the vagina by drawing attention to it, which is unnervingly necessary in an age when misogyny runs rife. Fear and hatred of the vagina is challenged by the spectacle of a woman blurring the boundaries between the neutral and the pleasurable, the unavoidable and the desirable. 
I'm sure some of my readers will think this is gross, but, in an age where we've only come to realise how neurotic we are over what's going on under our shorts, Gaga's deliberate recontextualisation of a private moment as a public spectacle encourages me to feel more comfortable with my own body. 

Next, we have a special performance by Lykke Li...

This performance casts the bathroom in a different light: It's a humble place where extraordinary things can happen. The smallness of the space and the echo off the walls make for great acoustics. How many singers have we heard interviewed who claimed to adore singing in the shower? The bathroom has long been a natural space for musical creation, so perhaps it's surprising that it hasn't been used for an impromptu performance before. However, instead of representing the bathroom as a sterile, innocuous place, Lykke Li makes use of everything it has to offer in telling the story of 'I'm Good, I'm Gone'. She turns on the tap, beats on the hand-dryer with a spoon, and flushes the toilet needlessly. In the end, even greater attention is drawn to the specifics of the space by the mechanics of her closing the door on the camera. My favourite tool in her trade is the mirror, which isn't perfectly clean around the edges, but she uses to great effect as she breaks eye contact with the camera and then finds it again through the glass.

So thank you, postmodern female musicians, for drawing my attention to how much secrecy the people around me encourage in and around the bathroom, and thank you for your playful explorations which make me feel more relaxed and awake to possibilities.