Sunday, January 29, 2012

Sukhothai - Part II - Breathing with the Buddha

Casey and Karis don’t trust Marco, and I hate how much that influences me. He is chatty and informative, indulges my efforts at Italian, and hustled us out last night as soon as we’d dropped our packs in our rooms so we could take a tuk tuk for a spin around the historic park during the Saturday night illumination. It was amazing, and we would have missed it otherwise. But I confess, he makes me uncomfortable too, and I am not sure why.

Still, he promised an incredible breakfast and even if it had been toast and coffee, I would have enjoyed it from my seat on the porch at the main house, surrounded by lush gardens, tall, graceful lotus flowers, rustic chairs of twisted vine, and tables set with fruit and jam in painted ceramic bowls.

Marco greets us warmly and places a small green pouch of banana leaf on the placemats before us. “Coconut and rice pudding. An old woman in the market makes it every day,” he says. “And this,” he says, referring to a long stick encased in seeping translucent gold, “wild honey from the forest.”

We peel open the little pouches and spoon honey on the pudding inside. I don’t like coconut, so I take a cautious nibble. Divine. I love it, so Marco brings me another, as well as eggs to order, coffee, juice and toast. Incredible. He was right.

Dave asks about the ceramics - our sink, the pots on the table - so Marco disappears in the house, and returns with a map of the town. He draws an arrow to indicate the location of the ceramics shop and instructs us to rent bikes to visit the park. “Go now. Later on, it is too hot. Come back to the pool for the afternoon, and return to the park for sunset.” He could not be more gracious, and I am defensive when Casey is annoyed when he asks for payment for WiFi use. I want everyone to get along, everything smooth. One of Casey’s personal goals for the trip is to free herself of undue concern over others’ opinions, expectations and moods; I could use a dose of that myself.

* * *

After our morning tour of the park, Casey and Karis head back to the pool while Dave and I ride out in search of ceramics. We steer our bikes down a narrow lane lined with rickety shacks separated by corrugated metal fences. A man squats in a doorway making a broom. A family prepares to sit for lunch at a table beneath a metal awning. Will they shoo the kitten off the table, I wonder? The dog stretched languorously by their feet is not budging, and everyone’s ignoring the chickens scratching about the table legs. Dave and I know nothing about Thai economics or social circumstances and this neighborhood is, at best, humble, but we’ve seen many streets and abodes like this. Still, it’s hard to imagine a shop of fine ceramics in this setting.

I slow down and stop to show the map to a strolling couple. They look blank and shake their heads. A wisp of an old woman limps by, leaning on her walking stick. We greet each other, Sah-was-dee-kah, but I don’t bother her with the map. Finally, a young man in a soccer jersey appears in a yard, studies the map for a moment, and directs us back the way we came, indicating a final jog to the left.

We retrace our path, take that left… and the shacks, metal fences and dusty yards give way to thick jungle ferns stalked by snarling green ceramic guardians; Ganesha, the elephant-headed Hindu god of success; writhing serpents; many Buddhas….and a woman in a surgical mask bathing a small naked boy in a tub. She waves as if she’s been expecting us, and points to a doorway across the road. We park our bikes hesitantly; will they be safe? I look to the woman, gesture to the bikes, try to come up with some universal signal for safety. Can’t think of any. I make a concerned face, wave my hands around to take in the area and the bikes. She nods and bends to douse the child with water.

Inside, two women greet us, bowing, beneath a carved wooden lintel. In shin length jeans and a multi-colored shirt, one woman is fiftyish and matronly, with a round, flat-planed face. Her feet are bare. Her regal companion is older, seventy or so, with youthful, fine-boned features. Her shiny, black hair is pulled back in a tight bun and her white jacket is stylish over an ankle-length skirt. A small reserved smile curves her lips. Beyond them, a hallway is lined with shelves piled high with plates, bowls, tea sets and vases. We see jam pots like those at Lotus Inn, as well as the mammoth bowls that serve as sinks. As we browse, the older woman remains silent while her round-faced partner follows our eyes, hands us pieces to inspect, and spouts prices. “Hand made. 400 baht.” About twelve dollars.

I picture my already burdensome backpack, considering what I can toss out, what products I can combine, how much I could carry in a separate bag. I’d love a full set of dinner plates…and those sinks? Out of the question, of course, but they are glazed with a subtle crackle finish that makes them look ancient, and Asian design or not, they’d be perfect in our early American house.

We have wandered into a warehouse area stocked with life-size Buddhas and guardians. The lovely woman in white abruptly takes my arm, turns me around, and walks me purposefully toward the front hall. Have I offended? Is she kicking us out?

No. She has decided that guardians are not on our shopping list, and steers us toward the items-that-might-fit-into-a-backpack room. She knows clients and wants to get down to business. Her companion pulls over a stool for me, and then our two hosts sit cross-legged on the floor. Dave joins us and the negotiations begin. A young girl appears from the back with a tray, bows, and offers water in sealed plastic cups: a variation on the tea theme, perfect for this hot day. Dave and I press our hands together, bow, and say “Kah-poon-kah.” Thank you.

“Babies?” the round-faced woman asks.

At my answer, “one girl, one boy,” she rises to fetch two small figurines – a pony and a bird – and hands them to me. “Gifts.” She then adds another bird and an elephant, and with an open hand, palm up, indicates me and Dave. “For you.”

I feel like I’m in a movie. Shopping at the mall, this is not.

Dave and I review the array before us and begin eliminations: if only we could carry more! I ask, with a combination of words and gestures, if they ship to the U.S. They shake their heads no, so we are down to a vase, two bowls, four small saucers, and the figurines. The women give no sign of disappointment in our meager purchases when we signal we are done.

After an abundance of wrapping in newspaper and bubble-wrap, several bows, and “Kah-poon-kahs,” Dave and I mount our bikes, now ungainly because bulging plastic bags dangle from the handlebars. How? How? How will we fit all this into our backpacks?

* * *

It’s not work from which I need a break, but myself.

After our excursion to the ceramics emporium, Dave and I join the girls at the pool at Lotus Inn. Due to the heat and relentless sun, they have taken refuge on colorful fabric mats in one of the raised, thatch-roofed platforms pool-side. We claim the adjacent shelter and stretch out. Could not be more idyllic. But I am mentally twitching. This morning as we biked the shaded roads of the historic park past stately Buddhas, bulbous towers and corridors of ancient columns, I admired the view, but my mind was a hamster on a wheel of worry. We have hotel reservations in Bangkok tomorrow night, but because of the floods, trains aren’t running and normal bus routes are closed. Earlier, we’d asked Marco to look into our options and he said, “Bangkok is floating. You can take a bus, but with the detours, it will take twelve hours at least. You’ll have to fly. That’s it. Fly.”

That’s it. Fly. Casey hates flying and both girls are budget conscious. The unexpected plane fare was bad news – not to mention the “Bangkok is floating” part - and Marco, the messenger, received a low grade from the girls. But we had no choice, and booked the flight with Bangkok Airways. So that was set, but I sense the tension. Dave and I will help the girls with the ticket price, but still, Casey is annoyed and anxious, and the shadows are lengthening. If we are to make it to the park for sunset as planned, we have to hurry.

Hurrying is hateful when it is sweltering hot, the shower sprays water all over the bathroom (as there is no shower stall, no shower door, no shower curtain, just the shower itself with the resulting wet toilet paper, wet toilet seat, and wet towels), clothes are clammy the minute you dress, and the bike ride (over streets littered with flattened snakes, land crabs, turtles, and toads) is steamy.

We wheel into the park as the sun sinks. It flames orange through the trees and glints off the reflecting pool at the entrance. We leap off our bikes to capture that shot, then re-mount and pedal like crazy to reach the monuments. We let drop the bikes and run up the walkway, past snoozing stray dogs and sauntering tourists who’d timed their visit better.

This was our third visit to the park in twenty-four hours. We’d taken the illumination tour last night as well as this morning’s spin around the reflecting pools and temples, so we have seen the sights. Photography has been an important part of Karis and Casey’s trip; they have experimented with color pick-up, lighting, silhouettes, and details. The purpose of this sunset trip is its artistic opportunities…and we are late. I do not want the girls to be disappointed.

Without a word, the four of us scatter. Where might the colors of the sun’s final show best be seen?

Like the others, I dart down pathways between rows of columns and clamber crumbling stairways, clicking frantically as the sun disappears. On a massive platform before a giant Buddha, near the vine-like trunk of an ancient bodhi tree, I finally give in and sheath my camera. Nestled in the roots of the tree, a scruffy dog nurses her squirming puppies, and I wonder at my haste, my frenzy of photos. I am not a photographer, and three other cameras in skilled hands have been zooming and focusing to freeze this evening for us. Why have I rushed about so, when a pen is my tool?

I sit on the sun-warmed bricks in the dusky light and watch the puppies. Crickets hum. In a grassy area nearby, young boys dash after a ball. I am wistful, envious of their easy laughter. This is their home; these monuments, so familiar, a barely noticed backdrop to their Sunday night soccer.

My gaze shifts to the Buddha. Twenty-five feet tall and painted white, he holds one arm out, bent at the elbow, hand upraised, palm out. Dave learned in an audio tour this morning that this is the posture for fearlessness, protection and peace. Physically, it is not an easy position (I tried), but I yearn for these three blessings for myself and my loved ones. I breathe more slowly and strive to release worry about flights and the girls’ feelings. Breathe… Breathe… Breathe... The Buddha’s smile is serene; I try to match it.

Karis appears below me, camera upraised and aimed in my direction. “Lea, don’t move,” she says and presses the shutter. For the moment, with the help of the Buddha, I am the image of peace.

Monday, January 23, 2012

Sukhothai, Part I - Plan B

The ancient city of Ayutthaya is flooded, so we won’t be wandering among its temples as planned. Rising waters are eliminating travel routes and transportation possibilities, but I am striving to stow worry about reaching Bangkok in time for the flight home in five days. Live in the moment. Pay attention. Absorb my surroundings. Good goals. And right now, Karis, Casey, Dave and I are tucked in a van among a jumble of bags, backpacks and passengers for the trip to Chiang Mai en route to Sukhothai, our Plan B after studying the guidebooks for un-flooded ancient sites.

The girls were shaking and wobbly-kneed after our wild careen up to Pai, and were not about to tolerate reckless driving again. Seasoned travelers as they are, they have learned to assert themselves and demand satisfaction. My sisters tell me I’m conflict-avoidant and there may be some truth to that, so I have been impressed with my daughter’s confident “don’t mess with me” attitude.

In this case, Karis did not wait for Poo, the unfortunately named driver, to demonstrate his skills at the wheel, but put a hand on his arm as soon as he settled into the seat next to her. Her blue eyes and solemn smile expressed, “We will understand each other,” as she said, “Slow and steady wins the race.”

“Number One driver,” replied Poo, hand upraised, index finger extended. #1.

“Number One, yes, if you get us to Chiang Mai with no one sick and everyone safe.”

“Number One,” repeated Poo.

“Do you know the story of the tortoise and the hare?” Karis asked.

Casey, Dave and I chuckled, sure that Aesop was prominent in Poo’s education. Still, either Poo is a man who values his passengers’ lives and mental health more than his colleagues, or Karis’s intensity conveyed her message. He takes the switchbacks cautiously, honks a cheerful warning before blind curves, and drives at a speed that leaves us hands-free as opposed to clinging desperately to the seats before us.

“Besides,” Karis tells us, “the number on the van is my mom’s birthday, so she has us covered.” Karis lost her mother six years ago, and we are grateful for this sign that Cathy’s on watch from the Other Side.

Once underway, the girls flip through Poo’s CDs, and discover Rod Stewart. Crazy. As soon as Rod begins to rock, the girls chime in and commence a synchronized chin-jut, shoulder dip routine in rhythm with the sway of the van. Poo observes their antics with amusement. “I bet he doesn’t usually share the front seat with dancers,” Karis says with a grin.

I love my view of those two bobbing heads, Karis’s streaky blond hair in its neat bun, and Casey’s tousled brunette knot, wispy tendrils curling down her neck. I am infused with their joy, these funny, light, high-spirited girls who are reveling in this portion of their Asian journey.

Beep, beep, beep. Poo blows the horn as we pass a van on its way up to Pai. “Was that your friend?" Karis asks him. He smiles, but doesn’t respond.

“Nice. Nice greeting,” Casey says. I think they’re relieved to have a sane man piloting us down the mountain. Everything he does is cause for praise.

“He’s being very careful, girls,” I say as Poo honks a warning at a pedestrian.

In unison, their heads swivel to smile at me and nod. “Yes. I love him. I might even give him a hug once we arrive.” Karis beams.

* * *

A night arrival to the unforgiving white lights of a bus station in an unfamiliar town is always unsettling. Add the Asian factor? Disorienting and disconcerting. Disappointing. Disheartening. All kinds of words that start with “dis.” It is warm out, but I’m cold, perhaps it’s my mood more than the temperature. We have no reservations, and when a tuk tuk driver, handsome despite a birthmark that stains half his face, grabs two of our packs and hustles us to his vehicle, we comply without complaint. He has a tiny child in tow, a little girl, and for no good reason, that reassures me, but knowing nothing about my surroundings is way out of my comfort zone.

We load into the tuk tuk and leave the station behind. I watch suspiciously as a sign for the historic park points one way, and we head in the opposite direction toward “New Sukhothai.” Doesn’t sound good. I don’t trust “New.” I want to say, “Wait!” but there’s a window between the driver and me, so we forge on into the dark.

In ten minutes or so, we pull into what appears to be a rest stop. No. It’s a hostel. Dave and I clamber from the tuk tuk to check out a room. It’s clean, but sterile, and I can’t imagine that New Sukhothai is the place to be. We shake our heads and our guide says he will show us something else.

“Something else” is down a long, light-less, street that snakes along a canal. “Something else” is a place where one might be murdered and disappear forever. No.

Casey has been flicking through the Lonely Planet guidebook and finds an inn near the historic park. Our driver hesitates, “Far away. 15 kilometers.” My fellow travelers are adamant, thank god. Alone, I might have caved and settled for the sterile hostel, but we head for the Lotus Inn which, as it turns out, is only ten minutes away.

The place is whacky; we can see that despite the hour. Chubby statuettes of gnomes and grinning, bare-bummed girls peek from ferns lining wading pools afloat with water lilies. Paths inlaid with ceramic flowers weave among shrubs and canopied enclosures hung with bamboo hammocks. Scents of wood-smoke, honey and incense perfume the air. We are charmed as we can be, given our rumpled state and fatigue, as Marco, the proprietor, leads Dave and me up the steps of a porch to a snug bungalow.

Marco is sixty-five or so I’d guess, and his white hair is swept back from a high forehead, prominent arched nose, and piercing eyes shadowed by extravagant brows. In a loose canary-yellow shirt, he fumbles with the lock, opens the door, and gestures for us to enter. The room is small but attractive, the bed draped in mosquito nets. Oddly enough, rather than fleeing after spotting a pile of chewed fabrics and telltale turds – a rat’s nest perhaps? – we troop behind our host to check two other bungalows. During our short time in Thailand, I have tried to suspend my American sense of what is acceptable. Besides, I have never slept behind mosquito nets, and I am drawn by the stunning red lacquer bathroom with its sink of smoky blue ceramic graced with circling fish in simple brushstrokes. We search the rooms thoroughly - no sign of rodents – and agree to stay.

We will not tell the girls about that nest.