inside thoughts on China and beyond

Guest (TT.4)

GuestI was staying at a guesthouse that was nicely tucked away along the eastern shore of the Ping river and under the shady canopy of an ancient tree that fully umbrellaed the grounds here, and that of at least 3 neighbors. Everyday during breakfast a Dutch radio channel announced the day’s traffic jams (there’s one between Amsterdam-Noord and the IJ-tunnel and, surprisingly, both directions of the Van-Brienenoordbrug only had 10 km of cluttered cars), which was nice to know especially when you’re not there. I was just not sure what to do with the information. But then again, the place is run by a Dutch guy who started it way-way back, before traffic choked the streets all day long.

One evening at the guesthouse a monthly jam session for local expats revealed just how much Chiang Mai is a retirement home. The occasional band comprised of talented pensioners from Holland, Ireland, UK, Australia and the like, with grey hair all tied in tails, or no hair at all. Living dreams as only retired hippies can. The audience weren’t any different. Too cool to perish away in Spain or Mexico or Blackpool. And even though today was one of Thailand’s religious days where alcohol could not be served or sold, it was flowing freely here by the time the first Rolling Stones song blasted over the river. ‘Honky Tonky Women’. Trudie from Amsterdam swung her considerable body in all opposite directions, unwound wildly on the way back, eyeing her peers with cheerful glittering eyes that asked to go on, and on. ‘As naked as the day that I will die…‘ Her head was loosely wobbling above her torso and at times it seemed ready to just roll off and go its own way.

The guitarist bent over his guitar while toggling away on his solo, like only Keith Richards could. ‘Give me, give me, give me the honky tonk blues…’  Any moment now he would sweep back up, guitar pointing to heaven and together reaching the climax while the sax was going to lead. The crowd, same age and same origins, was catching up nicely. Rowdy, drinking in the music and anything else that flowed their way, patting Trudy on the butt -hard to miss- and singing along the songs that disappeared into the darkness of the river. As an outsider, a passing visitor who didn’t have to pretend happiness and belonging, I tasted a sadness with each move, each yell and cheer.  Like the colonists in India and Indonesia, adventurists with a purpose, we were all strangers in a foreign land, creating little islands, little safe havens where we can be ourselves and forget all that we miss, but here, really, with no purpose at all. There is an depressing meaningless to it all. Trudy was now on stage too -we had altogether moved into The Who’s ‘My Generation’– and she hung onto the mic as if she might fall over any moment now, but singing her lungs out, and, I had to admit, doing this not bad indeed.

The drummer fell in an ecstasy by the sheer power that exploded from the speakers each time he hit his drum set and began sweating seriously. His perfect rhythm and strong and fast beats resonated in every bone. It was impossible not to warm up to it. The crowd -still retired- could no longer sit still and stage and terrace were moving and ready to roll beyond reality. I expected him to send his drum set flying into he audience any moment now. Only 2 minutes to live. The sadness I detected at first was gone – or was this sadness I saw, I wonder, not at all theirs, but my own? And this longing to belong, and this search for security? The guitarist never swept back up for his ecstatic zenith. His bending over, it appeared, was not a theatrical move to climax, but a permanent sign of the unavoidable end.

For lunch the following day, I choose a restaurant because of its location and feel: along the river, away from the main road, overlooking a wat, charmingly rundown and lorded over by 2 older ladies, Eng and Ong. No English but smiling intensely -I love Thai friendliness!  A handwritten sign in front read ‘vegan & vegetarian food’, which worried me, but they did serve coffee. My arrival worried them and caused quite a commotion -how to take the order?- but they solved that by simply piling my plate with all dishes available.

From my younger years in Holland I remembered the alternative scene – peace-loving-macrobiotic-ecological-vegetarian-vegan-hand-picked-food people – I’ve been there. Long haired men and badly dressed women all in unwashed clothes with sandals or wooden shoes. The dirtier, the better. Their food was chronically undercooked and with no shortage of pride presented as ‘direct from the garden’ which basically meant that it was unwashed. I liked it nonetheless, because they stood for a cause, and because I never liked washing either. And so I ate whatever Eng or Ong served me. Although I had an occasional worm looking at me from my spoon and little flies hovering between my plate and mouth and sand grinding between my teeth, I enjoyed the nostalgia. Vegan at the core, except for the worms and flies. But at least I knew what I was eating.

You see, the difficulty I had in Thailand initially, was that most of the time I had no clue as to what I was eating. That was especially true in the off-the-tourist-track roadside joints, where you got nowhere with Dutch, let alone with English or Chinese. At first, to play save, I learned to ask for fried rice, but after 5 days of rice, one needs a change. Later, I would be looking around the room first and identify what most likely is a regular costumer. (And take it from me, always avoid restaurants that are empty – the emptiness is a warning by itself.) I checked what was on his plate (ground rule: as long as I don’t see fish, reptile, insect, or movement, it’s okay) and ordered the same. After all, a regular wouldn’t be eating it if the past had proven it to be no good, and in this way I was being surprised with something new each time.

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