15 February 2003
It happens suddenly. One morning chill bites through our nightshirts. We pull the thin duvet around us like silkworms tucked in warm cocoons. The next, salty sweat beads ring our necks. The night had been warm & restless. Not a hint of breeze welcomed us to morning. This is mid-February in Chiangmai.
Our breakfast is Western but simple. We don’t accommodate quickly to salty fish staring up at us before noon. Especially in the morning, the lower floor of our townhouse is quite cool. A breeze blows from front to back. The dozen tropical plants and one palm tree out front give us shade. Sparrows fight noisily over birdseed thrown down at our iron gate. Two tropical birds with strange head feathers sing us their morning song. Another pecks at the neighbor’s window. We have no idea what they are.
So this is how our days begin: a cold shower, then several hours of writing or else we’re off to the market, to the library, to the post office or 7-Eleven to pay a bill, or to the bank. Those are the local errands. Other days take us further away, to one of the shopping centers, to the old city markets, or to a nearby village.
If we walk, silver-coated umbrellas protect us against the intense sun. Exhaust fumes sting our noses. Salty drops form on our brows and backs. Cars and trucks and motorcycles zoom past near enough to touch, reminding us how different perceptions are of distance between East and West in terms of personal space and safety. Dust swirls and settles on our sandals. A scent of bright orange honeysuckle pleases us.
We wonder aloud about the woman sitting on her mat along the roadside every day. With black hands, she bags chunks of coal to sell to passersby. We smile at her and she smiles back, unused to…we think…receiving any recognition at all because of her low status.
We wonder about the rack of sausages that so often stand alone in the hot sun. Do people actually eat them? Andy why do we never see flies landing there? We’ve heard that meats are sprayed with pesticide.
Men gather on wooden benches for their morning smoke or a shot of Sang Som, the local whisky. A woman dozes by her cart of grilled chicken. Another rests her head on the table of lottery tickets for sale and we wonder if they are is ill or only tired.
The market is a busier place. Boys unload trucks of eggs and tamarind. Toads and eels and catfish splash in plastic buckets. We try to ignore the trays with roasted grasshoppers, bamboo and silk worms. Steam rises from pots of curry and sweet potatoes boiling. Oil sizzles where meat is grilled along with fish and flattened squid. Water splashes as a vendor sprays her vegetables. The machine rumbles where one man grinds up coconut, another where a woman squeezes out the cream. Motorcycles rev their engines where scents of kerosene surround the shops where they’re repaired.
One must walk carefully on sidewalks here. If vendors don’t block the way with shops and carts to sell their daily goods, then wires or buckets fill the path. Cobblestones are loose or missing. Levels change without warning. It’s easy to catch your shoe on a sawed off metal pipe that sticks up only slightly from the path or scrape a shoulder on rusty grates along the way.
We’ve been here three months now. A guesthouse in the old city our first home and this our second. It’s a modest place, certainly not among the gated mansions that would cost us another one or two hundred dollars a month, nor among the shacks that line the river or the concrete condos eight-stories high. It’s a two-story town house (row house, they call it here). A three long block walk gets us to the university gate. Three in another direction and we reach the art museum. On the nearby corner, we find one of the larger fresh markets in Chiangmai. The airport and the air force base are nearby, too. Once or twice a month low fighter jets entertain us with maneuvers. Thai airplanes headed for another provincial capital, Bangkok, or Xian in China, rumble low above our house.
Our neighbors are nice enough. Several recent university graduates live to one side, two young men from Australia on the other. The large, well-established family with a compound just across from us sometimes gives us lifts to town…a way for the young daughter to practice a bit more English before heading off next month to tour America. Two gentle boxers guard their gate. Exotic caged birds make strange sounds behind the walls.
So this is our home: Completely furnished, our downstairs is long and narrow, shotgun style. There’s the entryway, a western toilet to the left, then wooden stairs, the living room, dark and lined with seating, and a kitchen in the back. Beyond that is our small walled garden space of grass and flowers and trees. A green banana clump hangs down above the wall. Orchids sit on trays suspended in one tree but fail to bloom for lack of care. A giant pathos climbs the wall to our second floor balcony.
Upstairs opens to a large landing. Two bedrooms, each with a big balcony, one front…one back, making the space seem larger than it really is. The bathroom with a shower is small but plenty big for two and has a water heater that functions half the time.
Our home life is spent mostly in the kitchen and the living room. We’ve added a TV and stand and a bookshelf in the kitchen. Our satellite dish delivers plenty. Twelve or more channels are Thai, then there’s French, Japanese, and Chinese, occasionally German. We mostly watch CNN Asia news, BBC World, Startrek Voyager re-runs amazed at how few we’ve seen. National Geographic, Animal Planet, Hallmark, and Discovery are among the others. In all, a luxury at $35 a month.
In case you’re curious about real costs to live here, we’ve decided to include our budget in dollars. You can build a lovely house here for $20,000 and a mansion for $50K, but this is what we spend each month:
Note: health insurance is not included here. We pay for it back in the States.
The curriculum unit on Thailand promised to teachers by March was finally mailed out. More research and technical work than we’d anticipated, It’s smaller than we’d hoped. You can see it too on the web at www.bluemarble .de/Thailand.
Our first round of teaching is finished. Lahu hill tribe students (ages 17-25) worked with us on speaking skills. We created scenes to help them practice: a grocery store, a medical clinic. They played tour guide and “took us through their village” and watched movies at our house. The evening of their graduation, they received diplomas, fed us supper, then sang and danced their Lahu songs.
Our next round starts up soon, this time with a pre-college group from many villages and many tribes: Karen, Mon, Lisu, Lahu, maybe more. Teaching college level management has created more demands. Books in English are expensive to buy and difficult to find, so the university library has been our greatest source. Some professors and professionals in the U.S. have given us permission to use their on-line materials, but still it’s lots of work.
The Chiangmai Sunday Market or the many annual festivals provide us with welcome weekend entertainment. We missed the Flower Festival parade last weekend but were able to take pictures of the flower-covered floats parked along the city moat. Endless rows of stalls selling food, flowers, and souvenirs lined the inner side of the moat extending around the corner past Buak Had Park almost to Pradu Suan Prung, one of two southern city gates. Hundreds of people enjoyed the spring like day at this large city park, picnicking on rented mats or playing a game of badminton. We were tired and hot. Under a cooling fan at a nearby restaurant we ate lunch. Maybe another day we will come back to the park for a picnic.
We like living here in Thailand and are no longer worried that the three years we plan to be here might be too strenuous for us. There is so much to do, so many things to explore. We just wished our Thai was better and we could have more meaningful conversations with the locals. We are talking about taking a course at the university soon. Our Thai “niece” Aon will be living with us for a few weeks during her semester break. Her family will bring her – probably in a car. They live pretty far away near Bangkok, several hundred miles. She hopes to better her English; we in turn hope to improve our Thai. We are looking forward to her visit. The second bedroom is ready for her.
Wishing you all health and happiness