I'm doing better, the last few days. It's an up and down journey, life, especially in this web of emotions. I won’t forget to hang on, to hold tight, even when I feel like I’m slipping. But the air is doing something to me these days, and it's a good thing. The rains have stopped. The sun is around all day, rising through the fog in the morning, warming up the streets so that when I go to buy apples and coconut in the market, the breeze is still cool but the sun is warm. In places where we have such a strong rainy season and such a long dry season, the first rains are always welcomed with joy, but the first days of sun are also cause for rejoicing. All around me it seems as if people are waking up; repainting, putting concrete down, cleaning out the weeds, freshening up for the sun.
Thailand, I say, I will meet you. Somehow Thailand is at once more accepting of me than India, and keeps me farther off. It’s been more of a journey, getting to know this place, and I think it’s because while India is in your face at every moment, forcing you to pay attention, Thailand is quieter, softer, forcing you to lean in if you really want to hear it. I’m learning how to listen.
Thailand is fragrant drafts of air from hot woks, food stalls on the street, tiny alleys, and snacks everywhere. It is the sound of small motorcycles, birds and monks in the morning, people calling to one another on the road, "Bai nai?" Where are you going? A ubiquitous question that I have encountered in India, Nepal, and Thailand alike; here it means something like "What's happening?" or "What's up?" "Bai tee ow," you might say. "Just going to hang out." Or you might get into more detail. Today, when my neighbor asked me, I told her I was going to the papaya salad (som tum) place.
I go to a certain som tum lady because I think she makes the best som tum in town. It’s a simple food to make, but you have to get the right balance of fish sauce, palm sugar, and lemon. Plus, you use sticky rice to soak up the juice, and we all hate it if people skimp on the juice. Our som tum lady makes som tum that is swimming in juice—she’s no skimper.
Today the lady who usually makes it was gone and her daughter was there instead. I could tell she was her daughter because they have the same cheekbones, high and round, like apples under their skin. Their restaurant is a long, airy bamboo stall, open on all sides except the kitchen side, which is closed with more bamboo. There are wood tables, ten or so, that are never completely full, giving the impression of a lot of space. At the front is the glass case filled with tomatoes and green beans that signifies som tum. I have been known to drive through neighborhoods in Chiang Mai slowly, searching for one of these glass cases. My som tum lady doesn’t keep her case filled with tomatoes anymore. Perhaps she doesn’t need to advertise what she is making, because she is always busy. In the glass case there are instead some discarded bamboo baskets that are made for holding sticky rice, but don’t at this restaurant, because they put the sticky rice in plastic baggies. To the left of the glass case is a faded pink electric fan, positioned to cool the person who is pounding the som tum in the large wooden pestle. Off in the back of the restaurant, pots and pans are strewn hanging on the walls or piled in the sink.
Lately I’ve been trying to soak everything in, when I go there to order som tum. This is here, I tell myself. Feel this. I sit on a worn wooden bench while the lady throws garlic and green beans into the pestle, squeezes lemon, slices tomatoes. I would normally ask for just one chili, but I’m still not eating it, for Isaac’s sake. The ground is dusty under my bench and I draw shapes in the dirt with the toe of my shoe. The lady keeps one eye on her work and another on the karaoke show that is playing every time I visit. It seems to be some sort of karaoke competition, and she loves it. Why, I couldn’t say. The show is comprised of one fancy-dressed woman or man after another approaching the microphone to sing wildly off-key to the praise of all the people in the audience. I am starting to equate som tum with off-key singing.
The sun is directly overhead and the tamarind trees cast their shadows beneath them. The air is bright and dry, and when I look through the covered restaurant to the field beyond, it seems brilliant and hot. Out front, chicken and fish are grilling on a metal grate stretched over charcoal. Another lady is making something in a wok and I cough as frying chili oil enters my lungs. I stand and pull small bags of sticky rice out of a container that is keeping them warm and pile them beside some whole grilled fish that are sitting on the counter. An elderly lady calls out a list of what I am buying, just for the sake of it. She gestures at a pile of fried pork rinds. “Do you eat this?” She asks me in Thai. “It's good.”
“I don’t,” I say, and she laughs. The som tum lady’s daughter is now packing up my food. She puts whole cabbage leaves and pumpkin vines in the bag, to be eaten with the salad. I pay, get back on my scooter, and drive away.
At home the across-the-street neighbors are laying bricks in the new entry-way to their little house. They’ve covered half in concrete and half in brick and have made a shade covering with sheet metal, hammering it until my brain rang in my skull. While they’ve been doing this building, other neighbors come and go. They sit for a while and watch the workers, who do not stop. They chat, and call out helpful advice. The down the street neighbor who always feeds her scraps to stray dogs, yelling for them in the evenings. The Muslim neighbors who have three kids. The new across the street Muslim neighbors who have one ten-month-old baby whose cry sounds exactly like Isaac’s, fooling me almost every time. The aunties from next door, who are my landlord’s sisters and who come to talk often. The whole street has come by, at one point or another.
I nod at the brick laying neighbors and walk into my house. It’s clean today, shady after the sun. I call the kids to the table, and we eat.