Monday, December 22, 2008

The Miss List

I’m flying home! My five months in Thailand have also flown by, commemorated only by this rather spotty chronicle of my time here.

The last few weeks I’ve kept a list of things I’ll miss about Thailand.

The only things I felt like I left behind in Kenya were friends. Everything else I was happy to see becoming a progressively smaller dot on the African landscape behind me, getting more wavy and distorted through the trail of jet fuel from the plane as we barreled down the runway towards the US.

Overall Thailand has been much more livable. I didn’t have the same level of cultural immersion as I got from living in an African village, but I also didn’t emerge with the frayed edges of sanity poking through my sweater at awkward angles.

Things I’ll miss about Thailand:

1. I won’t dwell on the obvious: friends. I met some really great people and each of them touched me in their own way. Like all good friends should.

2. The way Thais treat animals. In the States we’d want to vomit a little, because many Thais treat their pet dogs and cats like kids, combing them daily and even dressing them up in barfy clothes with ruffles and ribbons. I came here with the expectation that Thais, like people in many Asian cultures, value animals for their utilitarian worth and not for the companionship and affection they can provide. I assumed that they believed that dogs and cats belong outside and should be grateful for scraps to eat.

In Kenya most people treated dogs and cats like, well, animals. Beating the family dog, keeping him chained up all day, feeding him household waste destined for the garbage pit, beating orphaned kittens on the head with a metal spoon, and throwing rocks at any animal that wandered into a human dwelling were all appropriate ways to treat things with four legs.

So in contrast, seeing Thai people carry puffy toy dogs in their motorcycle basket or letting them ride standing with their hind legs in their owners lap and front paws on the handlebars was pretty heart-warming. Most pet dogs and cats don’t cower and shuffle away when you lift your hand over their head, because they don’t expect to get beaten all the time.

Also, most people in Thailand can claim to have “soi dogs,” or strays that hang out on the lane (soi) where they live. It’s not clear whether these dogs technically qualify as strays since many of them are fed and taken care of by people who live on the soi. No one will claim ownership for the dogs or allow them inside their houses, but everyone makes sure the dogs are well cared-for. At the same time, they bark and fight all night, spreading mange and doggy STIs to each other. One of my first observations when I got to Thailand was that the country needs public health for dogs. Part of the problem is that people feed their soi dogs, so they stay healthy enough to reproduce, ensuring future generations of mangy but loveable strays sleeping like speed bumps on your street all day.

One of my friends says that her soi dogs are really intelligent. I suppose it makes sense if you’re going to survive as a stray in Bangkok. She says that when her soi dogs walk out to the main street, which is a two-way multi-lane thoroughfare, they look both ways before crossing the street. How can your heart not melt seeing that?

I think it puts their IQ higher than some American politicians we’ve known lately. Look both ways before invading a foreign country.

4. Cheap stuff. I suppose it’s not hard to beat out New York City when it comes to having cheaper stuff (or more charm, smaller rats, and friendlier people for that matter).

This was a mixed blessing, though. You usually get what you pay for in Thailand. If a bowl of noodles is 30 baht ($1), it’s not enough for a decent meal. If a pair of flip flops is 59 baht ($2), it won’t survive more than a week of hoofing around in Bangkok. If a cotton shirt is 180 baht, it’s not cotton. But, hunt around for awhile and you start to learn where the bargains are. Plus, $580 gets you a really nice, furnished one bedroom apartment in a centrally-located neighborhood, with a real kitchen and space to lay down a yoga mat in front of the TV or have drinks with a friend or two on the balcony. Three thousand dollars doesn’t even get you that in New York.

5. Obviously, the food. Although I’m a bit tired of Thai food for now, and just asked my mom to have a pot of spaghetti sauce waiting for me when I get home tomorrow, there are certain dishes that just won’t be the same back in the States. One of them is pad thai. The only thing that makes pad thai worth eating, in my opinion, is the sliver of baby banana and sprigs of Chinese chives that come on the side. In the States, they only give you bean sprouts.

Also, Thai food in the States isn’t properly spicy. I’m not even sure if most American Thai restaurants have that four-flavor spice rack that every self-respecting food establishment in Thailand has, the one with 1. chili powder (hot), 2. chilies in vinegar (sour), 3. sugar (sweet), and 4. fish sauce (salty).

And finally, Mahachai was THE place for cheap, fresh-off-the-boat seafood. One night I bought two fat crabs and devoured them both all by myself. I have to admit, though, it was a bit difficult to hear them tapping frantically inside the pot as I steamed them to a sweet, rich tenderness.


MB said...

Thanks for the nice round-up! I really enjoyed reading about your Thai adventures and your conclusions about what you will miss. I like the way you mention "friends", isn't that what makes us feel at home when we return to a country even after a long time. I definitely never miss "Ugali" when I think about Kenya ;-)
Happy 2009! What's up next in your life? Keep us posted. Its been a journey!

Justina said...

I have to admit though that sometimes I do crave a big fried tilapia with a heaping plate of steaming hot ugali, sukumawiki and kachumbari with lots of pili pili. Mm mm.