Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Memory Stretches: Lovers in Chiang Mai

If you were to ask me how to get from Chiang Mai’s old city gate to the Doi Suthep Temple, I wouldn’t be able to tell you. I vaguely remember some of the stores around the train station, but I don’t even remember which end of the city it was on. Despite having studied the city’s history, having rented an apartment there, and having run all my daily errands there for nearly four months, I can’t remember another time in my life when I was preposterously disoriented and had such a difficult time realizing how the map coincided with the alleys and landmarks that lay before me. The city is hardly expansive, and it doesn’t possess those intimidations that are common of metro areas, like raging traffic, garbage and clutter, or marketplaces with feverish tempers. Thus, there was really no excuse for me not to teach myself some directions. Chiang Mai was a thick humid jungle of snaking streets, intense dripping foliage, and flowering golden temples all encrusted with glorious sun-catching gems and a scattering of monks in melon-colored robes. I felt awed and lost. Nearly every day I spent there, I felt drunk from the passionately warm skies, and chilly from the mysterious unknown that lurked behind every cluttered storefront, every smoking food stall, every bamboo thicket, every cluster of shacks and barrels. 

 The most vivid recollections are of the rituals John and I created within our new Northern Thai city. I fondly remember Raintree, a restaurant two blocks away from our apartment, located on a boulevard with a littering of expat shops and restaurants. It was clean, sunny, and luxuriously air-conditioned; truly a refuge for our swollen feet and drenched, overheated bodies. More often for lunch, John and I would step in, our pale faces glistening amidst the tanner, dryer locals, legs exhausted from a mid-morning session of exploration and hopping around the bustling city, either in sawngthaew, a pickup truck with a covered bed and secured park benches for commuters, or on foot. The first thing we would request was two cold filtered glasses of water: na’am. While we waited for the water to filter, I would reach for the Lonely Planet guide book and plunk it down on the table between us.

“You want to look up the next route of exploration?”

“I thought we could make our way toward the market, and end up around there tonight.”

“We have enough time to skip town, see the outskirts, and be back in time for the night market, Mariana. Let’s think of something for the afternoon.

“Okay.” I turned the book on its spine and it automatically fell open to a two-page spread of a map of Chiang Mai. I ran my finger down the page, trying to spot a highway leading out of the city.

“We’ll take a sawngthaew.”

“Should we write this down?”

“We don’t need to write it down.”

“Okay.” I laughed at myself and turned to the glossary at the back of the book to look up the correct pronunciation of “sawngtheaw.” (Saong-TAO).

Water was shortly followed by two dainty bowls of steamed brown rice, fluffy and grainy, comforting to our unsettled stomachs. Ever since the first big monsoon storm, we had been waking up with pains in our abdomens and complaining of occasional dizziness. On a good day, John could avoid diarrhea and I would stay clear of nausea by remembering to shield my face from the exhaust while riding in the backs of the sawngthaews.

 With our tummies feeling fortified, John and I grazed on heaping plates of Pad Thai noodles, fried fish skins, and Panang Curry with a side of extra bamboo shoots. John would squeeze a lime wedge over a side portion of bean sprouts and call it his salad. We were leery of lettuces and greens. Even though Raintree’s dining room was crisp and tidy, the view of the kitchen on the way to the outdoor squatter displayed the unspeakable horror that is an unregulated multi-use back alley, with one use being food preparation.

That night, we stayed under the tents of the night market for as long as possible. Globs of water began pouring from the sky with shouts of thunder and strikes of lightening. Brocade blouses and silk scarves danced in the stalls as the winds cut through the warm night air. The monsoon rains were invading the city again, crushing a merchant’s tent full of souvenir trinkets and forcing the food stalls with chicken feet and fried noodle purses to shut down. We began our decent home once we realized the rain was not going to cease. The locals shrouded themselves in plastic ponchos and shower caps. We didn’t even have an umbrella. When we were blocks from our apartment, the road had transformed into a brown river, clutching dirt and debris from the ground and hauling it toward our legs. The water was up to our knees and I tried to keep the handbag I had bought for my grandmother out of the water as we passed the yak pasture next to our building.

“Oh my god the yaks! I hope they’re okay!” I yelled out.

John assured me, “They are probably inside, I’m sure they’re fine,” he said, clutching my slippery wet hand in his.

If only we had known that the yaks’ feces was clinging to our toes as we passed the field and that the next morning, we would be wading back down the same boulevard toward the hospital, clinging to each other, squinting for visibility through the rains, waiting to be diagnosed with a dysentery, thanks to the monsoon.

Perhaps that is why I never really learned to read a map of Chiang Mai.

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