It’s late on my last night here for awhile. Tomorrow evening I fly Chiang Mai-Bangkok, spend the night in a hotel near the airport, then catch a crack-of-dawn-flight to Narita and from there to Chicago. I go through the rigmarole of American customs and immigration then get on a plane to Toronto. While I’m doing that Tashi will be writing his last Christmas exam, Ancient Greek. With luck I get home on Wednesday in time for late supper with Dom and Tashi (if he’s still standing, as he said on the phone to me this morning!). How lovely is that?
Like every departure, this one makes me reflect and notice a little more than usual. I find myself reflecting back on the last five weeks, beginning with the intensity and whirlwind excitement of the Worlds of Flavor conference at Greystone in November, moving on to my first ten days here in Chiang Mai, and then from there to the extraordinarily interesting two weeks I spent in Moulmein and Hpa’an in Burma, and finallly to these last days back in Chiang Mai. A friend said to me this evening, “Do you actually LIKE this rushing around?” “Well, I said, I’d rather be slower paced, but there are some pushes and pulls involved. First, I really want to see my kids, so that’s why I am heading back to Toronto for the holidays. And I am still engaged in trying to make a living, so obligations related to that also play in. But I have no complaints. How could I? given all the freedom I have to choose my own projects.”
This life of travel is not a vacation, to do with exactly as I please or to be “lazy” in, but instead is a way of engaging with the world and trying to understand how people live in other cultures, other places. It’s a pretty privileged way of going about things, with no boss, and no schedule, but then that lack of structure demands that I structure myself, and set my own limits. Hence, I guess, the travel schedule, so at odds with the free-form life that many expats here in Thailand lead in their early retirement. Many soon get fed up and take on commitments of one kind or another. And then of course they get to complain about being over-committed...
So like eveything else in life, this matter of freedom versus constraint is a balancing act. With luck, each of us gets to figure out our own balance. Many of us have the luxury of complaining when the balance doesn’t suit us, or, even better, of doing something to tweak it so it works more comfortably.
As for the noticing, it’s more acute just pre-departure. For example, I walked across the footbridge to Wat Ket Karam this morning. It’s a temple with beautifully maintained grounds and a small school, and was the neighbouring property to the little wooden house we stayed in for some months the winter Dom turned two, so it’s wonderfully familiar. I try to get there several times each season I am in Chiang Mai. This morning the way the light hit the temple figures at Wat Ket felt magical, a serial spotlighting of details. Would I have felt so struck by it had I not been on the brink of departing? Hard to say. And then, on the way back across the footbridge, would I have been so ready to put money into the begging bowl of the old indigent guy who hangs out there?
...... I wrote the above twelve hours ago. Now it’s already past noon on the day I go. I had a long walk this morning to Chiang Mai GAte, where there’s a lively daily market and also a woman who makes traditional Thai tea and coffee. I think of Ed Rek when I’m there, for he’s a big fan of Thai tea, orange-coloured and then sweetened with condensed milk. I had two glasses of coffee today, each tasting as great, earthy and rounded, as the other. It comes always with a glass of clear “Chinese” tea, that gets refilled endlessly. The tea is to quench thirst and clear the mouth after the rich intensity of traditional tea or coffee (especially when served the classic way with sweetened condensed milk).
On the way back I cut through back lanes and then came out on Thapae Road near Wat Bupparam where a woman had set up selling sticky rice and a couple of options to go with, “sai tung”, that is, to take away in a bag and eat elsewhere. I chose the makeua tam (literally “eggplant pounded”), roasted eggplant pounded to a smooth texture, with fish sauce and grilled shallots and garlic, topped with a piece of hard-boiled egg and generous amounts of fresh herbs, in this case mint. It was the breakfast I needed, smoky tasting eggplant and always welcome sticky rice. And it made a lovely pause in a day of errands, sitting in the sun by the door of the apartment, the fountain trickling gently nearby, and a world to travel around just waiting.