You can't go to Koh Chang aka Elephant Island and not ride on an elephant. Likewise, you can't go to Bangkok and not 'bang' a lot of 'kok'. "James, can I keep that bit in?" "Deffo, hahaha"- we're like Beavis and Buthead. - I'll check later that he is out souvenir shopping with his mum (bless) and not in Nana validating my erroneousness.
It took a minibus, a ferry, a taxi and a golf buggy to deliver us to our Koh Chang holiday destination. The cheaper option would've been a bus but I felt shady on the other passengers for inflicting my kid's whining and my impatient shouting upon other holiday-makers. Turns out they behaved immaculately, I am 'O' of 'yee of little faith' fame. The car ferry took us across to the elephant shaped island (it's not so-called because Nelly lives there, its the shape, who'd have trunk? Sorry). On arrival Granny exclaiming "This is exciting!" as we were driven up steep winding roads, through jungle in the blazing sun, the sea shimmering below. This is going to be something else, we all thought.
The 'Spa' aspect of our 'Spa Resort' is a fallacy, it is closed for refurbishment. No massage! (I know I might sound like a tit, but that was one of the main reasons we chose it for our first holiday in Thailand). We're out of season and while this means we don't have to listen to awful jazz bands or queue next to Newton Faulkner-a-likes for a can of Singha on the beach, it means this resort is not firing on all cylinders. The second restaurant is shut, so the posters on the walls offering pizza and a beer for pennies isn't going to happen. We can cope. There is a huge cement mixer and a pneumatic drill on the bit of beach allocated to our resort. Can I cope with that? There's been building work going on next to our apartment for months and although I can in my 'Up' moments transform the noise into Bjork like music, I could do with a break from sound. They've put the G'parents on a different floor to us, not next door as we requested. There's barely space to unpack our clothes (James tells me when we get home that he found hidden drawers under the TV, Grrrr!). The kids have to share a bed, they're only small but will they just muck about at lights out? The town is too far away to walk to, you know if I have a sudden urge to buy a wind charm and a snorkel. The cable car to the beach isn't working and we're at the top of a bloody big hill (called 'Romantic Road'!) Oh shit! I'm going to have to complain. I don't like to complain, it's awkward, especially here where the staff are so smiley. I complain over the phone, "I'm not happy?" and list my reasons. We're offered a taxi to a masseuse in town, a free trip to a nearby waterfall and a go on a kayak across to an island. None of which we take up, my inner diva seethes, my outer diva accepts. I imagine some friends will be cross at me for not complaining harder, let me be zen, ey. James says he'll write and complain, I laugh because we won't.
Our views are amazing - as in what we see, not our opinions, which are more like 'can't everybody just get along, equality, kindness, you know' - neither of us are particularly opinionated. We're here to do what we moved to Thailand to do and we're up a mountain in the jungle. Now I'm in Koh Chang, its beautiful, peaceful, a paradise, the air is clean, our lungs can fill and we can clear the Bangkok black bogies away. But hang on, we're out of season because it's...rainy season and it's lashing down. After long downpours the sun creeps out with the insects - palm-sized butterflies, hovering dragonflies, toads, newts, lizards, unidentifiable bitey things, mozzies. For a week I swipe the air in front of me, hop from side to side, slap my thigh and brush my ankles - I resemble a country line-dancer strayed from my line and consider "yee-haa'ing" intermittently, support the theory of any quizzical onlookers. However, the other holiday makers seem to have lost their smiles, even at our kids! What the blazes? I suggest to James there was on offer at this spa for the recently bereaved and he supports this theory.
A cleaning lady brings me a leaf insect on her palm. They're referred to as "walking leaves", Phylliidae, or wood-mason's leaf. It is the best camouflage I've ever seen, it's a leaf with a bright green body, brown around the edges, leafy veins, dew drops and he's missing a leg (I later read they can regenerate a new leg, phew). He has a mate, who walks off towards a banana plant, it looks like he's being blown by the breeze, but its all part of his leaf-like act. I want Abe to be as in awe as I am, like the Gerald Durrell kid in "My Family and Other Animals" but he complains he can't see it (told you it was good camo) and wants to go down the slide in the pool. I feel like my folks must've felt when they'd take us to castles around the British Isles and the only bit I liked was the joy of a new rubber from the shop, or the sniff of a tassled leather bookmark.
To escape the rain we plan a day out, we'll go on an elephant trek. "James are you sure it's ok? It's not tight on the elephants, our fat arses to carry? I mean, should we be riding on them, this isn't The Raj". James has checked Tripadvisor so our minds are at ease. We plant the seeds with the kids so they're prepared and don't refuse the jungle adventure and a ute of sorts takes us to Ban Kwan Chang, - like a retirement village for heffalumps. A few elephants are mooching about in the rain, like stray pensioners cockling beside the seaside. When we pull up the rain turns to monsoon - I'm not fully behind this venture.
James takes Abe and they happily plod off. A larger elephant is called in for for the Grandfolks and as the fat arse of it sways off in the distance I see the seat is tilted towards Grandad and decide to 'think myself feather-light' and sit centrally. When Patti and I climb on Nelly moves, she's gently reprimanded and I'm disconcerted. I see a hook on a stick dangling over her big flapping ear, but never see it used and hope it's to do with chaining them or something painless and necessary. It's an odd sensation my bare feet on her cold wrinkled, coarse-haired back. I try and be lighter like I did when James carried me/dragged me across the threshold when we got home from our wedding. When I look back on that moment I conjure images of the Roly Polys and Les Dawson. I try and tred gently and respectfully.
Then I'm handed a weighty golf umbrella, which I hold in my weaker left hand, it wobbles from side to side, drips water on our driver and a wet patch forms on his sweatshirt, please don't hate me and drive with abandon! I clutch Patti to my right, but already I'm welded to her by the plastic of our 7/11, 35Baht waterproofs. I ask if she's ok, but she can't answer, she's busy breathing in her plastic hood at every intake of breath. It sticks to her face and as I gasp and move it for her to breathe, I hear the Scottish tones of presenter Lynn Faulds Wood echo through the forest, "that's a potential death trap". I remove the hood, Patti replaces it, she's enjoying asphyxiation and she's too young to be warned about the INXS frontman. There's only a rusty pole stopping us falling off our seat but we could both slide under it. Why is everyone else smiling? This is fucking awful.
It's jerky when we set off and we both slide about "Jesus! It always happens to the ones at the back, how come we're at the back?" What were dry sandy paths are now muddy puddles, "Peppa pig would like it here Patti". "And Geoge" she adds, then sings me the theme song while I hope elephants can't sense fear. To calm myself I turn my attention to snakes. Would an elephant freak out at the sight of a snake? Or would it sit down and we'd fly off the front? Can they handle mudslides? The path is fast becoming a river. I realise I know nothing about these awesome creatures.
"Dumbo" is my only elephant knowledge and because a boy at school once called me "Dumbo" on account of my ears protruding through my hair, I've never been a lover of the film. Yes, I was pre-op 'bat winged'', that's what they call it before corrective surgery when you're 11. It all helps with the self-esteem. Its alright, I showed them bullies with my painful ear operation, 6 weeks off school and being put in the second to bottom sets for everything on my return <vows to kill and kill again> ...Oh, I tell a lie, I have seen elephants at Chester Zoo, I passed focussing only on the stench and the length of an elephant willy while he chanced his arm - not with me, with a female elephant. My ears weren't THAT bad.
Oh I wished Attenborough was here, a calming nature guru. I'm more likely to have to tolerate James's derogatory impersonations of Bill Oddie. Some of the elephants are scoffing the vegitation, they're not really in a line but they're following the same orangey river of a path. They all seem happy, a bit stoned- truth be told. The umbrella is a hindrance so I put it down and use it as a stick to bash the branches out of our faces. I have a mantra in my head about us being ok and Patti not falling off. It happened to my friend Caz in Koh Chang! She What's app'd me about it, she slid under the bar - "seriously man, I nearly got trampled on by that fucker"...(she's teaching your kids people, just saying)... I can't stop thinking about it. "I hope you're praying" I shout to Granny who smiles in amusement at the fear on my face, perhaps she is resigned to her fate. Abe's loving it, he turns, smiles and waves on cue.
Do you need a licence to drive an elephant? Our boy steers this beast with his foot on the mammal's ear. He turns and gives me a laminated card, he's selling souvenirs made from dead elephants and not harming live elephants, but luckily James has the cash so I'm saved from that particular dilemma. (He puts his hacksaw back in his pocket) and we continue down the hill, one eye closed, telling Patti "that was fun, what an adventure, ey". She's loved every second. We clamber back onto the wooden platform, where if it wasn't for fear of disease I'd papally kiss the ground.
We're given pineapple and water while we sit in a wooden shelter and talk about the trek. I have the thousand yard stare and can't really join in. The ute takes us back to our resort where it continues to rain. We're enjoying our holiday despite the elements. I've had a lifetime of training for rainy season by living in the North-West of England, like Inuits with snow there are many terms I like - lashing, pissing, teaming, pouring, and now I have monsooning. It doesn't stop the kids who love wellies and puddles. I think after the trek has sunk in a bit more I'll reflect on it and be appreciative, I'm just glad it's over for now. To help inspire me I ask Abe.
Me: "Abe, did you enjoy that?"
Me: "What was your favourite part of the elephant ride?"
I met James outside work, he was late so I sat on the wall reading My Booky Wook 2, which makes me feel very far removed from Russell Brand's world of sex, Hollywood and more sex. (I have eclectic taste in literature and Russell makes me laugh - fact). I watched the kids in their school uniforms pile into tuk tuks giggling together, white blouses tucked into A-line navy skirts and gloriously white plimsoles, then a heavy built boy in a beige Boy Scout school uniform jumped off the wall and landed in front of me with a thud, and I swore to God it must be kicking out time at Wes Anderson's school of style.
I've never been to the Khao San Road. I'd seen it on YouTube before we moved here, in the name of research, and I'd seen it in that scene off the film 'The Beach' where Leonardo DiCaprio arrives and its all a bit fast and furious on the streets of Bangkok before he goes mental with a bunch of hippies on an Island. It didn't look like anywhere I'd want to go, but when in Rome.... I imagine this is the street people pictured when we told them we were moving to Bangkok, which explains the smiles on their faces and the contradictory/puzzled shaking of their heads.
Its a short street, the Khao San Road, lined with stalls to buy allsorts of shit from what I'd describe as 'ethnic pantaloon' to flip flops, bangles, and henna tattoos. Nothing I'm really interested in buying just now. We walked the length of the street in 10 minutes, declining offers to have suits made or buy what looked more like Peruvian hats than anything Thai I've seen so far. For some reason the Peruvian/traditional Thai(?) ladies want us to buy wooden frogs with sticks, so that when we're back in Levenshulme we can turn the heating on and switch the lights off and pretend we're back in the tropics surrounded by toads.
We decided the best thing to do would be sit down and watch the world go by - i.e. stare at people who are different from us and comment about it behind our beers. So we did just that, like the 'diet starting tomorrow', so too is our Buddhism. I'm more observant than James when it comes to people watching, I hear snippets of conversations and peice puzzles together, I have a scooby sense when things are about to kick off, or when couples are about to fall in love. James can spot a good light for a photo so he takes pictures while I observe and I like to think the two narratives work well together. We point things out to one another - mostly the absurd.
The bar we chose to gawp at the world was a perfect spot, there was almost too much to see. It was people watching porn. Opposite me a tattoo'd man in his early 20's sat alone, scoffing chips and a floppy toasty, he startled me when he spotted his friend and shouted his name. A tall, tanned, daft looking kid approached and squealed with delight upon seeing his friend. They hugged and slapped each other, seemed delighted at their reunion, I told James it made me want to weep. The daft kid sat and instantly tucked into the other's chips and I thought, 'gosh, he hasn't eaten for a while'. They talked in a language unfamiliar to me, maybe Dutch? I was intrigued by them, had they back-packed together? Were they lovers? Were they drug buddies? Its none of my friggin' business, but that's the beauty of people-watching - it's whatever you want it to be.
It was getting dark, the activity was warming up, lines of back-packers were being taken round the corner of our bar. I like to think to a top-notch hostel as none of them seemed to come back, and James said the kitchens for where we were seated was round the back. Gulp! I watched a tall European man being arrested and escorted down the road by a policeman, he stood tall, but his eyes gave him away. Christ, the thought of being arrested over here. Instantly james and I decide it must be drug related and pitied the fool now on his way to his life (meaning life) sentence. Perhaps I'll pursue the idea of visiting Brits banged up, take in some cigs and a magazine. I imagined that was where Bangkok life would bring me at some point, Bangkok Hilton.
A pair of Japanese ladies pass by, they are the first people I've seen to make Elephant-print baggy pants look cool, and they're the only dudes not to be carrying rucksacks in favour of suitcases on wheels. I tell James I doubt I'll carry a ruck-sack again and then we discuss why we never ever back-packed in our youth. The truth is it didn't ever seem to be an option. When we were 18 we don't remember anyone saying - 'hey, instead of going to Uni/straight into a job, why don't you take a fucking gap year and see the world?' It wasn't happening in the Wirral, not in my peer group, and it wasn't an option 4 years earlier in James's post A-Level peer group. Plus we were always skint and holidays for me in my university days meant going to Glastonbury. For James, the thought of getting a job to pay for it was the deterrent. The kids I met at university who'd travelled were all posh, or you know, spoke like the royals and had a bit of cash.
A squat Peter Andre chap on the plastic table next to us asks his Thai accompaniment whether she thinks he should get a tattoo. I can't hear her answer through the cloud of sincerity he's creating, they've clearly known each other 5 minutes. I hope she suggests having her face tattoo'd on him, I love a shit portrait tattoo.
A Thai kid in the street wearing an Argentinian footy shirt, about 6 years old, looks like he knows a trick or two. I wonder what Abe would be like if this was his norm, working on this street with his family, and I decide we'll return with the kids. I might have to put them on leads, I think 'reigns' is the correct term.
A woman with a blue tray full of scewered shiny black scorpions gestures for us to indulge and we "my ka/my krap" the same way we do when the dude encourages us to buy one of his giant dictionary sized zippo lighters. Surely they're for those people who juggle fire on the beach to a bunch of gurning on-lookers, who claim "this is awesome". I only feel offended by the woman who thinks I'd want to buy a friendship band with 'Wolf Pack' written on, and forget my manners and say "no thanks" instead of "my ka, korp kun ka". 'Wolf Pack' FFS!
I wasn't that impressed by the Khao San Road at first, it was way smaller and less edgy than I'd imagined. But then the sun went down and the streets darkened and the street became alive. A grown man stood lobbing a neon glow-in-the-dark-insect-thing high up in the air - similar to the men who stand on Market Street in Manchester flogging things that whistle shit bird-like sounds. James and I talk over the revs of the 3-wheeler motorbike - ice - delivery guy, he's pimped his ride. I don't know what this vehicle is but it drips water onto the dry road wherever it stops, at least we hope its water, if its petrol with these giant zippos everywhere, this may be our last moment together.
A young lad turns up to practice his 'keepy-uppy' skills outside the bar opposite. James points him out to me. I ask him if he wants to get a photo, he's messing about with my new snidey Ray Bans 'cause they're a "good filter, these" for photos. I ask James - "do you want to take a photo of the kid with the tricks?" Its a negative, apparently the number one in the world keepy-uppy trickster is a regular at Huddersfield Town games and James is far from impressed.
The reunited friends depart - one lad sets off, leaving his Leonardo DiCaprio tanned, vested friend behind. I think he's off his mash, the Leo one. He starts singing along with the bar music - Jack Johnson type vagueness, he downs a bottle of Chang, lights a cig before pursuing the man who left him. For a second I wish I was off my mash on the Khao San Road, about to embark on an adventure, but I am mid-adventure and a bit boozy, and my adventuring is a bit more 'reponsible?' You can tell there are opportunities to find chemical enhancers here though James and I aren't offered any such thing. James is in his office attire, cool and Kerouak-like, I'm dressed a bit too Roman Holiday to get away with being a backpacker/party animal, plus I look like a geek writing in my notepad. "You two are different" one man observes. 'Thanks' I think, then he tries to flog us a suit. We're not different, we're just the same, but a bit older.
There's a touch of the Morvern Callar of a girl who's wandered past us twice now. She's layered herself in ethnic print. I'm not sure she's comfortable in this heat. She wanders passed twice with the same concerned facial expression, but second time she's changed her hair. Because she looks naiive and alone I picture her as having rare Kung Fu/Ninja skills, else, I'd probably bring her home and make her eat stew. I feel the same way about the young men who pass me wearing what looks to be their pyjama bottoms - its a bit Peter Pan.
I'm drawn to the Germaine Greer-alike who makes eye contact with me as she passes, eating her Cornetto. We give each other a smile, its like the 'celebrity nod' when Noel Gallagher sees one of The Proclaimers in the pub (I'm sure its happened). It says, we own this moment, we're passing through and we probably don't belong here. I suspect everyone is passing through, the trustafarian in bare feet and a blanket, the tanned face with gleeming white teeth, the girls in teeny hotpants on bums big and small.
"James, are we too old to go back-packing", James picks up a French Fry, "Yeah". I don't know that we are, but right now, we are living where people tend to pass through, and its fine. "You know what I don't like?" He says, I wait for his answer - "those socks that make you look like you haven't got any socks on". Bewildered by his randomness I look up at the smiling face in front of me. "No thanks, I still don't fancy a scorpion".
Question: How helpful has it been for me to read that all of the following may have been symptoms of CULTURE SHOCK?
Moody melancholia, a desire to run for the hills flicking the Vs at the world behind me, weeping at a song that teaches my kids the alphabet, remembering with fondness my indie days, cringingly recalling my rave days, frantically checking Facebook status updates and Twitter posts - making sure I'm not missing out on anything, remembering with rose-tinted specs my house-shares in my 20s, swinging from mood to mood like a monkey on a chandelier, reminiscing times before the responsibility of kids - my kidulthood. Answer: Well pretty damn helpful really.
I read about the stages of culture shock thanks to an email from Rebecca my stoic, loyal, hilarious, intrepid and trusted comrade since our teens. And I am relieved to read that like with grief, I'm going through a process so there appears to be some 'normal' in what feels like my 'crazy'.
In a nutshell there are 4 stages of Culture Shock: Wonder, Frustration, Depression and Acceptance
I can write about this now because I feel I am emerging for the first time and accepting Bangkok as my new psychedelic home. I am surrendered to it, but in a good way, like a willing 50 Shades of Grey way. I've thrown myself into my new life and brusied myself from the fall. I've been entirely self-critical throughout - 'I'm not parenting well enough here, I'm not supporting us financially for the first time ever, I'm failing to mix, I don't think anyone 'likes' me' - but now, I appear to be winning.
When we arrived I thought 'I'm going to take this opportunity and on behalf of everyone who's never been given this chance, I'm going to embrace it and become the best goddamn expat/stay at home parent/other Bangkok has EVER seen'. I blame my love of the sport movie genre and a slight addiction to inspirational quotes (watch me) for setting off at the pace I did. Mohammad Ali famously said "If I were a garbage man, I'd be the word's greatest garbage man". I over-apply this principle and soon run out of energy. I tried to be 'the best' in my first month, during my 'Wonder Stage', and the wonder stage was gooood, if a little frantic. Like the start of a new relationship where each other's flaws are 'so cute'. "James, look at the size of this apple, its huge, take a picture of me holding it", "waaaaah look at that 'stand up for a monk' sign on the train","OMG I just had the best massage ever", "lets eat Pad Thai everyday then go out and get matching tattoos" (we haven't...yet). The wonder stage was 'wonderful' for our enthusiasm knew no bounds, and Bangkok is brilliant for all its intensity.
I don't want to go on about the Depression stage, because it hit me hard and I'm worried writing about it might conjure it again. I'm not the type of person who says "Candyman" in the mirror several times just incase. However, lets just say I've been pretty low at times and its felt debilitating. Were it not for the support of James and my mates back home willing me on like an over competitive mum on Sport's Day, and my new mates sharing the roller coaster emotions and laughing in the face of culture shock, then maybe I'd still be feeling that way. I dread to think.
So what changed and why am I feeling ok? How - dare I say - am I feeling good? Well, it hasn't been by madly rushing to experience as much as I can in a short time, attempting to get to grips with everything as fast as I can, because this has left me feeling panicked, and more alienated. I must have looked like the cockroach that ran into my massage room and quickly scuttled in different directions til it found a hiding place (least relaxing massage ever). I think I've accepted that in a way I am the office 'new girl', and only time and the arrival of a newer girl will change that. There isn't an Alice in Wonderland remedy, although you might be able to buy one in Nana in the stall next to the dildos and viagra. The change has come with a bit of being kind to myself, seeing culture shock for what it is - a fucking shock to the system.
The shock isn't so easy to recognise through symbols, of course its differences in language and culture and climate, but its not so easy to read when you're 'in it'. It seems to steadily build, and it appears to be a continuum so who knows if I'll sink again, and I'm sure I will. For me the shock hasn't been the fact that frozen crocodile is cheaper than most cheeses in the Big C, or that the supermarket shelves are packed with skin-whitening lotions while I'm hoping for a bit of a bronzey, nor is it that the woman at the til is often a ladyboy, because that just adds difference to my usual shopping trip and I love that ladyboys have 'real jobs' not just involvement with an exploitative sex industry, and as for the food - people at home, you were right, it is divine.
Here I am a "farang", a person of European ancestry. I am Jenny foreigner, but a foreigner is just a person from a different place, right? It gets 'Frustrating' at times, and this is another stage, which can manifest in ANGER. I can be in an empty cafe with 8 employees behind the counter and still wait 30 minutes for my drink. I can be clearly trying to cross a busy street at a crossing with my kids and noone stops for me (zebra crossings are aesthetic not functional), Patti can show signs to Thai people that she doesn't want them to touch her face, and still they touch her face and get upset when she growls and tries to bite them. The Chupa Chup lollies I buy to rot my kids teeth while pacifying them are impossible to open, the sky train terminals crash closed too soon and bruise my thighs. Darling, the condensation dripping from my martini cocktail is marking my silk blouson. Grrrr, you're damn right I'm angry <does angry monkey face>. Although this said, such is the vibe in Bangkok, I can't get angry about these things, everyone seems so passive - I'm hoping it will rub off.
Back to my question of why am I feeling ok nowadays? Well, a combination of things, the first being the love of my family. Secondly, I've returned to yoga - we've had a passive on/off relationship for 15 years. I found a really amazing place where on entering reception I feel instantly calmer, and although my first class was in Thai and I did the relaxation part with one eye open so as not to make a show of myself, you know, while everyone's doing downward facing dog, and I, as class "farang" am lying down. I actually managed to enjoy the class and not let Polly out of prison during any of the poses (Air high fives self). Thirdly, I've learnt a bit of Thai. I was able to have a conversation with a taxi driver whereby I expressed how difficult I was finding it to tell the time in Thai. The number one - "neung" is used for both one o'clock and seven o'clock depending on what other word you use with it. I know, its hard to explain, but I think he knew what this crazy half-pissed farang was on about. Learning the language eases the culture shock, its obvious really.
Then there are other things I'm finding helpful, like talking to Wandi about her family. This weekend is special for her as a new Buddha arrives at her temple, and hopefully one of these days I'll go and see where Wandi lives <pearl clutching time again>. I'm watching the odd Thai TV Drama (I may one day love it like I loved Prisoner Cell Block H (i.e. for its shitness). In the last Thai soap I watched I'm convinced the murderer was played by 'himself".
I'm taking it a little steadier, I've looked within myself (and on this occasion I don't mean exploring my vulva with a vanity mirror) I mean looking at me like a kind person would, like a Buddhist might, or a person on a purple ohm at the stone circle at Glastonbury, and generally sloooooooowwwwwwinnnnngggg dooooowwwwwwnnnnnnnn.What's the point of having amazing views if you don't stop to look at them?
So, I've kind of worked out that everything I need is here. I doubt I'll ever feel entirely at home here, but I can start to enjoy the differences. There will be times when my foreignness feels glaringly obvious (like standing for the King's National anthem at the cinema before the film and feeling like a divvy). As for my mood swings, let them swing, I am that chandelier riding monkey. I decided early on in my blog I'd measure my happiness by whether I'd bought a Fray Bentos pie and some of you may be interested to know I haven't yet. If I act a little crazy, or if I upset anyone, I am sorry, but Culture Shock is going to be my excuse for everything these days.
It is the ridiculousness of a walk home that has inspired this post. My farewell to Mr James, who has accompanied me with his camera on my Bangkok adventures and daily struggles. A chapter has ended and a new one will begin. I have turned a corner - literally and metaphorically, and entered the next phase of the 'culture shock process'.
Mr James, my cameraman/director/therapist/friend, not necessarily in that order, has returned to his loving family, his Jammy Patch and their gain is our loss, but a happy one, 'a bientot', 'so long', 'we'll meet again'. Oh God, if I start singing Vera Lynn songs on the way home from 'women-drink-for-free' nights, by all means mow me down with a tuk tuk. We had a farewell drink in a little bar at the corner of the street, where you can choose the tunes from Youtube, and if you're a male not interested in 'company' you're left alone, otherwise there are gyrating possibilities of the gangsta rap video - ilk. After a couple of beers, a summary of our journeys and the making of the show, and a few belly laughs with Billy - another contributor to Brits in Bangkok and ace cheeky cockney company - I exchange my farewell letter for the contents of Mr J's fridge - he had to go home, man cannot live by peanut butter and tea alone. I did well not to cry (too much) though Uma, Mr James's fixer and super cool, gorgeous Thai font of knowledge was shocked at my tears. She's only met me a few times, once at an HIV/AIDS temple and I wept there too. On this occasion I was crying at yet another goodbye. I'm sure soon I'll be a pro at goodbyes, hardened by the frequency of goodbye hugs. I felt a bit like I'd had my stabilisers taken off my bike, and Mr James having given me a good push-start has let go, and I'm on my own again, pedalling like mad, excited about the ride ahead but scared of falling off my bike and scuffing my chin. I cried for a whole street, the rain mingling with my tears, not like Andy McDowall in 4 Weddings "Is it raining? I hadn't noticed"...piss off...but more Julian Lennon, "Salt Water Wells in my eyes". I am laughing at my dated uncool references. It rained, I got wet. I don't have an umbrella, I just lose them, even the one I 'accidentally' stole from Habitat when pregnant with Patti (I still feel responsible for their going into liquidation). But I had a sudden realisation, a moment of clarity, because things have started getting easier for me you see. I'm not shouting at the kids anywhere near as much, we're having daily laughs and park adventures, they seem to want to dance with me (although I was a tad disappointed that the kid's reaction to Inner City Lifeplayed on the boom box during a recent storm didn't get a better response than "turn it off mum, its too loud"). I'm excited about being here, I'm doing yoga (in Thai), I'm contemplating joining in with the nightly aerobics in the park (its 20p!) and I have a bunch of new mates that seem totally cool. The filming came to a natural and positive ending and I didn't weep in my final interview, though I'll probably weep with embarrassment if I ever watch it (I'm toying with the idea of never seeing it. Someone once said to me that the meaning of life was planting a tree and never seeing it grow, but just to bastardise one guru's enlightened quote, my interpretation is 'make a documentary for channel 5 and never see it shown). Back to my walk home and turning my frown upside down - I felt free. I had a moment. I could see clearly. A piano could've fallen from the sky behind me and I wouldn't have turned to see it. I walked forwards, past a ladyboy wearing an ill-fitting peach twin-set; perfect make-up. I passed a row of motor-cycle taxi drivers with carrier bags on their heads chowing down on street food, seated on low plastic chairs, the kind you get on the street outside pound-shops in Manchester. I passed a woman having her photograph taken on the steps of a shopping mall, posing with the illuminated design in the window whilst getting drenched. I passed the sign on the building site reading "You Dream it we Build it" (they've obviously never shared my Stephen King style nightmares). I started thinking about how rich life is for its mix, its randomness, its colour and craziness, about how if you're open to the universe anything can happen. In my life I've met some amazing people, fallen in love with friends while seeing the world, I'm a lucky bitch, I really am (onus on 'lucky' not 'bitch'). Our last day of filming was spent at The Golden Mount, other filming has occurred which I haven't written about, but I don't know whether I can blog about it, or whether I need to wait until I can make good of it first. I have visited a remote women's refuge and an HIV/AIDS temple to find my place in the world, where I can give back to my new society, but I don't know what my role will be. I've had company with this soul search, and I've seen things and met people I never would had I not been filming for telly. I talked to a Thai woman at the refuge, she studied in Stockport where I've worked for years at several refuges. Random brilliance! I met a ladyboy called Nan, and chatted about his life, in a gazebo amongst the trees. These memories are preserved in my mind and I hope to share more of them and write write write.
At the Golden Mount we met our new mates on the roof where a whopping great golden bell sits cordoned off by rope, which Patti and Abe saw as a challenge and clambered over, getting told off by a monk - not everyone can say they've been told off by a monk can they? You see, I knew we needed to give them life-experience, though that wasn't quite what I had in mind. We met our mates and their kids and we shared the moment. And, so that Mr James could get a few shots of the city for telly, we were allowed to be up there for a bit on our own. We had access to gongs, to wind chimes, to the view of the city, to the expanding cloudy sky, to the end of the day, to the peace to be had at the top of a mount. I could've had a proper moment there, and I think I'll return to take that moment because with Patti and Abe breaking the rules, it kind of harshed my mellow. Though that moment, I wouldn't have wanted any other way.
I meant what I said though, on camera, I feel hopeful, and I hope I'm not narrated as some moaning 'trailing spouse' (I can't even believe that term still exists). I've taken a gamble, seized an opportunity in moving here and in contributing towards the film. The final cut is out of my hands but its been a blast, and without it my time here may have provided me with the space to contemplate my new life. I've seen so much beauty in such a short time, felt the power of people, the power of love, the power of the universe. I'll be taking more walks in the rain if they're this evocative.
It's going to be hard not to let this experience turn me into an urban hippyy! Now where's my conch shell, I want to get some practice in before yoga - oooohhhhhhhmmmmmmmm(mygodmyidentitysearchcontinues).
How do you explain to your Thai live-in domestic help why the kids are shouting "YUK!" at every mealtime? Tonight, what inedible dish is revolting the children? Boiled squid? Chilled monkey brain
No! Irish recipe sausages and mash. Patti attempting to remove the skin, and flicking flacid sausage everywhere, Abe oozing mash between his teeth crying 'urgh!'. Where do I seek advice about etiquette for toddlers toward domestic help?
Post-meal I sneak Patti crackers and cheese (like smack into Strangeways) I worry about offending Wandi, don't get caught with cheese Patti! Likewise James wants a beer out the fridge but won't venture into the kitchen, it's weird living with a stranger, for all of us. Sometimes I daren't search the cupboards for a snack in case Wandi thinks I'll spoil the dinner she's making me, but then the snack cupboard is seriously lacking (only wasabee peas remain).
This week saw a list of House Rules magnetised to the fridge following a meltdown at a local breakfast buffet (mine, not the kids). I frantically googled Reward Charts and followed the advice of Supernanny! Desperate times! (People keep posting "Good Times" on social media everywhere, stop it please, unless you're being ironic, and while you're at it easy on the hash tags too - #itsasirritatingasahalfinsertedtampon #idontknowwhatitmeans #dontleavemebehind.)
At home I'd probably laugh it off, the ridicularse behaviour of my kids of late, compare horror stories with mates, or escape from parenting with mates without kids. "Grow up Patti!" Not my best response to a cheeky toddler this week, she is 2. I'm having a period. Sorry, it's just a fact, and its humid and I don't know whether I just bought a sanitary product or incontinence pads, but either way I feel like shit and I'd like chips and gravy, a can of Vimto, a shit magazine, and perhaps something on E4 to watch.
All Abe's little school mates are gone, the summer holidays started a week ago and will last for 8-sodding-weeks (Abe: "I don't like mashed potato, it's 'sodding'"). Most expats from school seem to have gone home, or on long jollies, and we only just got here so we're not going anywhere. I imagine the border officer at Manchester airport is still recovering from Patti's vicious attack (but come on, who body searches a tantrumming toddler FFS, a biting and kicking one, she's hardly pedaling drugs, surely the crime looked more kidnappy).
This week the rules on the fridge have been broken by me more than the kids. The 'no shouting' one in particular. Yesterday morning, before 09:00 this happened:
05:30 - Patti and Abe woke up and ran themselves a nice bath
06:00 - Abe comes to show off about said bath...shivering
06:01 - James and I jump into action imagining Patti has drowned
06:02 - Comfort shivering children - I am hoarse from shouting
08:00 - Kids chase Wandi, "don't bite me, noooo" overheard
08:01 - Comfort Wandi post early-morning-assault-attempts
08:13 - Patti felt tips the parquee floor, it won't come off
08:14 - Patti on step for 2 minutes, Abe hysterically laughing at the high jinx
08:15 - Have another go at removing the red pencil crayon from the bathroom wall - a separate incident
08:16 - Vow to remove all smug parent friends from social media - a gloating-parent cull
So, early doors we left the flat in search of the park, misery loves company as do stressed parents. After 5 minutes Abe is whimpering about his tummy, like the constipated baker he "kneaded a poo"(Boom!). There are cubicles in the public loo, I'm not sure if some are meant for foot washing? What's the hose next to every bog for? Arse or feet? Arse surely, but it has the force of a jetwash! Miraculously Abe's chronic stomach pains are healed by the medicinal properties of ice-cream. We stay, we play, we make friends!
We invited a mum and 2 kids back to our apartment to hang out. This is not something we did in England, we didn't need to, or were we more guarded and less trusting? We are quick to make a Levenshulme connection, it's the law of 6 degrees of separation. We had a lovely morning, the kids running wild whilst we chewed the fat.
I'd been feeling like the Gina Rowland's character in 'A Woman Under the Influence'. I've decided to be very me, like no airs or graces me, sweary self-deprecation (I did write 'defecation' then and thankfully proof read, I don't need scat-friends...yet). I've considered saying dark things to people when we chat for the first time, like 'scat' or 'merkin' related, separate the wheat from the chaff. Please just 'get me' without me having to explain 'me'. I'm 37, I can't be arsed.
Abe came into our bedroom in a mood this morning. We're not sure whether he's had the dream about the man coming and shrinking his toys again, but he's a bit vulnerable. I snuggle him in, we have a chat, he says he hates Patti and he hates Wandi and he prefers England. We talk about this for a bit and he says he wants to hang out with Wandi a bit more and go to the play area with her. Abe's buzzing at the possibilities of his new idea and I hear him ask Wandi in the kitchen, "Wandi, can you take us to the play area today?" Wandi's in agreement which feels like progress and the next step for their relationship.
We're staying in today so I get the paints out, we do some pictures and it's fun. I plug the iPad into the boom box, find the ABCphonics song Abe liked at Alma Park Primary School http://youtu.be/BELlZKpi1Zsand watch him as he hears it, processes it and smiles so hard it's heartbreakingly beautiful. He asks me: "Are they happy tears or sad tears, mum?" These are happy tears Abe, because you look so happy right now, and I'm not sure when you last smiled like this. We exchange goofy toothy grins. Patti carries on painting the only bit of exposed table she can find, she is punk. Abe takes her paintbrush from her. Abe, we're teaching Patti about sharing aren't we. Abe: "No we're not". It's normal again.
You don't realise the support network you have until it's gone. Not just the obvious family and friends, but the whole network. The familiar: the Richard Gere lookalike butcher, Bolsh the dog from across the street, the regular weekly trip to the pound shop. We miss how easy it is at home. It's not like we want to go back yet, it's just it's all alien and everything's an effort. I could do with a duvet day, comfort food, a roast chicken and the right flavour crisps.
I'm starting to miss events - my brilliant mate's wedding, an old friend's funeral, baby Polly being born, baby Mylo hitting his milestones, summer festivals where I could've gegged in, my niece's adoption, my niece's birthday, the John Lewis clearance sale. I had new people to invest in and I have to hope the bonds we'd made before we left can be picked up where they left off. I am a romantic, a worried romantic.
I'm worried. I'm worried about us. I'm worried about the people missing us. I'm worried about the woman crying in the bar, I'm glad her friends are making her laugh, consoling her, who's making my mates laugh, consoling them? I'm worried that the support we have here's isn't enough. I'm worried that the centres at home that offer support to those without family/ friends are closing, like the libraries and the Sure Start centres. I'm worried about the little naked kids playing in the building site in the mud next door, the proximity of the walls being smashed down next to their little bodies, the vehicles driving past them, their vulnerability. I'm worried my mum will never understand how I can love my kids and want a life for me too. I'm worried about Wandi leaving, or Wandi staying and it never feeling 'normal'. I'm worried I'm helping to make a documentary about Brits in Bangkok and it will be images of me crying all the time, even though I'm actually happy most of the time. I'm worried soon I'll be tired of all this frigging effort, all this worry.
Before we left Manchester, Abe bought some little worry dolls from Levenshulme market and I was explaining how they work to him. I asked what he worries about, "Foxes" he said. Relieved this was his main concern, we chatted about it. I haven't seen any foxes in Bangkok, Abe. "OK then, snakes" he says. I teach him the Thai word for snakes is "gnoo". I know because "gnoo gnoo blah blah" or "snake snake fish fish" explains how I get around the language here, as a snake slithers and a fish swims. Gnoos are less scary than snakes.
Meanwhile, Patti's listening to a Spanish version of 'Wind Beneath My Wings' on YouTube. It's been a batten down the hatches kind of a day, she looks up "Turn it off mama, that's not Ing-il-ish".
Our birthdays, James’s and mine, are 4 days apart though he’s a lot older than I am (obvs). Both being Geminis we’re torn between a world of wanting to show off and shying away from the limelight in equal measure. We have a number of sides to our characters, some say Geminis are 2 faced, we’re not (yes we are) though I can change my mood with the moon. Our personalities have nothing perhaps to do with astrology, I haven't gone in for all that shit since Grange Hill went downhill (post Ro-Land and Danny Kendall). However, for 300฿/ GBP 7.00 I decided to have my palm read by a palmist come astrologist. It was my mum's idea, as she cast aside her Christian ideology, to dabble with the occult. I thought I was just along for the ride.
We'd been to The Grand Palace, my mum and I. My first tourist trip in the 3 months I've lived here. We'd tried to go en masse, but it was hot, like hot hot (at some point I'll stop going on about how hot it is, my sweaty top lip and fringe issues will fade away). The kids and the men made it as far as the entrance to the palace, which involved a walk, 2 trains and a boat. The kids were red faced and tired, and having failed to heed my warning the previous night the men wore shorts.
Me: "It says no shorts"
Dad: "Just women or men?"
Me: "Doesn't stipulate, just says 'no shorts'."
Dad: "Well if a monk's gonna get excited about seeing MY legs, I'd rather not go!"
It was an option to join a queue to hire some elephant print sarongs, but the spoil-sports rejected the chance to be ridiculed by me, and took the kids home. The Grand Palace, where the Kings have lived for yonks, was pretty spectacular - lots of bright coloured jewels stuck to the sides of fancy buildings (sorry I didn't hire the earphones and take the tour, and I rarely read the schpeil about historical places, 'Philistine!'). There wasn't a great deal of shade and we didn't hang about long, not after we nearly blistered our soles legging it into the temple for a nosey with no shoes on. We took a few selfies, which completely missed the buildings in the background, so we could've been anywhere - Parkgate, Prestwich, Paris. We had an ice-cream then skid-addled.
On the way to the palace, through the market, I'd spotted a palm with lines drawn on outside a little shop tucked between other shops and near the harbour. So we headed there, commenting on the amazing street food smells and fabrics, the chatter, the vibrancy, the colours. I felt like a tourist, I just needed a sarong, a fanny pack <snigger> and a woven triangular hat like the local farmers wear. The shop was no bigger than an outdoor loo (this woman's obsessed with the privy). A Thai lady in her mid 50s sat chatting on her mobile phone at the far end of the room, a desk separating us, and lots of clutter. She had plenty of pictures on the walls - photos of cheery ochre-gowned monks on one wall, and a picture of the king with his dogs on the other, a bit 80s and vulnerable looking, like when you see Prince Charles dancing with an African tribe and it kind of makes you feel a bit sad for him, all vulnerable, self-conscious and uncoordinated (just me that one?).
There were a few bunches of bananas lying around (perhaps for energy, or maybe she suffers with cramp) an array of padlocks (kinky?), newspapers, documents, it needed a sort out and I imagine my mum was dying to get stuck in and tidy the place.
Mum went first, writing down her date of birth and presenting her palms. I pretended to write a postcard so I could jot down her future. Our woman looked stuff up in her book, muttered in Thai, counted a lot, bilingually, and used a magnifying glass and an ink jet pen to draw dot to dot on Mum's hand. Then she revealed details like "You will live a long life", "When you were young you had an allergy?" - "Yes" mum offers. Really? It's the first I've heard. Then she became quite specific "When you were 49 you had a great boss - supports you" and other little snippets perhaps from mum's past, perhaps not. Midway through our woman takes a call on her mobile. This is all very matter of fact and relaxed, no spiritual references are made, no jangling bangles and sequined scarves in sight. The future is bright for Mum, "You have great asset to sell this year. A property? You have?" My parents have been talking about 'downsizing', though my mum wants to retain the same amount of bedrooms and a garden so technically it's 'moving' - we both "ooh'd". Afterwards my Mum says "Well great, I'm going to die of cancer". "No" I correct, "she said you also have to be careful of cysts and heart disease". Take from the reading what you will.
My turn. I've only done this once before, in Australia more than 10 years ago. My Aussie psychic immediately causing me to doubt her abilities by referring to my hands as "beautiful". My school mates still joke about the shape of my "curly digit fries" destined for arthritis, all crooked-like. Then she told me in a "You're terrible Muriel!" accent, that "I can see you like to travel", while whistfully chatting to the voices above her shoulder, her eyes closed. Well no shit lady, I'm in Australia which requires a certain amount of love for travel. I can't remember the rest, and the tape she sold me chewed up so it sounded like she'd had a gram of speed and 10 helium balloons during the reading, which if she had may have made it more memorable.
This palmist starts off well, shows me her ID and she's buzzing that we're both born in June. Then she tells me I'm "independent" <throw your hands up at meeee> and "sincere". She says I have had my heart broken in the past - which I can't deny if Groove is in the palm, and its true. Though I suspect there'll be a break in my heart line the day I saw my last epsiode of Coronation Street. Next she tells me I must be careful of 2 affairs, "foreign people love me" she says, and I am to reject the first advance, but she seems game for me dabbling with the second. I feel Mum's eyes burning into the back of my skull and on the boat ride home she tells me she'll be keeping an eye on me. I tell James and he asks "Who is he?" in his Dev off Coronation Street voice, feigns a Patti/Abe style tantrum, and says he's not talking to me anymore. I guffaw. Not that I'm being flippant, its just you can't be cross over a palmists predicted love affair, anymore than for a love affair that happened before we met.
So, it is written in my palm that I am to have great success in "Mass communication - very good!" (are you listening Random House Cooper/Penguin/Faber and Faber?). While my thoughts drift to a writing career my mum gets fixated with the time I worked for a tele-communications company, Cable and Wireless then NTL in the mid 90s. I'm trying to emancipate myself from the 9-5, Mum.
If all else fails, I'll make a fortune with the "import/export of beautiful things" (I typo'd 'thongs' then instead of 'things', is this an omen? 'Beautiful thongs' <reaches for sketch pad>). At 63 I'll be living in a mansion as a millionaire, my Mum comments, "I'll be dead by then".
I shall skirt over the doom predicted for my mid 50s: an accident, hospitalisation, hypertension, spending too much money, 'The Dark Years'. This lady doesn't hold back, there's no spoonful of sugar with this reading - aren't they meant to keep the fear at bay? At one point I think she may laugh and tell me, like the Tim Robbin's character in Jacob's Ladder, "according to this (life-line) you're already dead". I notice she doesn't tell me I'll live a long life.
I'm neither a cynic nor a believer of psychic readings. That may seem a bit flaky but I can't dismiss it totally and turn my back on my predicted millions, and its part of my Bangkok soul search. Why I dabble abroad and not in the UK is a mystery. Escaping my real world? Being told my future's bright will be more believable perhaps without a British regional accent. Hearing my future may clear the path a bit, give me some direction, like if someone said, "look Kenno, you know that dream about dancing on 3-2-1, well its time to move on now, mate, the programme finished in the 80s."
If I take all the good points, won't it make me strive? Be more ambitious? Surely a good thing, yeah? And as for the negative points, I'll deal with them if and when they arrive. Whenever I embark on something new I put pressure on myself to make it count, have all these ideas, like I'll move to Thailand and become amazing at yoga, or be fluent in Thai straight away, but without new ventures I'd probably live in the now and not reach for a goal. My Dad says by looking at your palm all you can see is your past, the manual labour you've just done digging the garden, the segs in your hands (he does love a good seg), but he's a pure cynic. Perhaps each time I met with a reader, a psychic, I was feeling a bit vulnerable and needed someone to say "Hey Kenno, stop worrying it'll cause hypertension, you'll be right." Has it stopped me worrying? Has it fuck!
The 14th Century Christian Psychic, Meister Eckhart, is quoted as saying (get me and my 14th Century mystics! I think it's relevant but who cares, I just like the quote):
"The only thing that burns in Hell is the part of you that won't let go of life, your memories, your attachments. They burn them all away. But they're not punishing you...They're freeing you from your soul. So if you're frightened of dying and you're holding on, you'll see devils tearing your life away. But if you've made your peace, then the devils are really angels, freeing you from the earth."