Thursday, January 31, 2013

A Life in Chiang Mai

View from the kitchen window
I've been trying to sit down to write something in here for weeks but I just can't seem to pull myself away from the maps, the maps. I'm delving deeper and deeper into it as I learn more about the Open Street Map project (OSM) and my own level of expertise increases. Mapping the world is no small chore and there are literally countless web sites, software programs, wikis, blogs, and other source materials dedicated to map editing, routing, error detection, database interrogation, etc., using the OSM data. Add to that the major distraction of the Australian Open on TV and assorted friends  from Homer who have been visiting Chiang Mai practically non-stop since about mid November and you can begin to understand why I've felt so busy these last few weeks. I've read about people who lose their will to live after retirement. Who are these people, I wonder, and what's wrong with them?

I've tried to come up with a theme for this post, something compelling enough to motivate me to write and I keep coming up with the fact that I'm incredibly happy and satisfied, perhaps more so then at any other time of my life. I wake up early every morning with a feeling of utter contentment. Despite that feeling, or maybe because of it, I can hardly wait to jump out of bed to begin the day, whether it's to play tennis or make a mapping expedition or take a ride in the country.  Life in Thailand is deeply satisfying on so many levels. I have a crew of tennis junkies to hang out with that provide enough recreation to keep me active and somewhat fit, a few consuming and satisfying pastimes including motorcycling in the hills hereabouts, and a wonderful woman to share things with. After a hot November, the winter weather settled into an almost perfect idyll of cool mornings, blue skies and temperatures that barely reach 80 in the afternoons. Damn near perfect.

We've done some motorcycling up north, visited some picturesque spots, entertained some good friends, eaten a slew of wonderful Thai meals but I'm tired of writing about that sort of thing. This blog stared out as a travel blog. However, now that I've all but stopped traveling, what's there to write about? I've settled into a pleasant life over here, with a home and a satisfying relationship — I have no desire to go anywhere else for the time being.

I reckon part of that contentment stems from the fact that I quit drinking again back in June. Those of you who have known me for a while also know how much I love my beer (and wine and scotch) and that I've quit (and started) drinking several times over the years. I love the feeling of an alcohol high, the pleasant buzz, the lowering of inhibitions, the elimination of anxiety. But for me those qualities are what makes alcohol so addictive and what makes it difficult to manage my consumption.  I've never had a drink in an evening and been satisfied with just one. I've actually noticed half-full bottles of wine in people's refrigerators from time to time. Imagine that. Saving wine for another day. Not me. If it's open I finish it. After a while I got tired of being a slave to the addiction and quit.

It's easy to avoid alcohol when you're happy and freshly committed to being alcohol free but it's also easy to backslide, especially when most of your friends drink. When I learned about my heart situation last August I immediately did some reading on the subject and two of the things the writers, cardiac doctors, harped on were these simple directives: "If you drink, quit. If you smoke, quit." Check — I quit drinking last month. Check — I quit smoking in Africa two years ago. (Yes, I temporarily slid back to that horrible habit as well.) Frank Sinatra, a notorious drinker, reputedly said, "I feel sorry for people who don't drink. When they wake up in the morning that's the best they're gonna feel all day." I can recall many mornings during the past few years, I call them lost mornings, when I experienced the truth of that statement. Blech. I love waking up clear-headed and full of energy right from the get go; it's an infinitely better way to begin the day.

Then there's being in Thailand.  What is is about Thailand that exerts such a draw on me? This is neither my country nor my state and is certainly not my ancestral home. But I do feel at home here. I've written previously about the super friendly Thai people, the mom & pop stores and food shops that you find in every neighborhood and along every roadside, the delicious Thai food, the world class motorcycling. The amount one can buy here with an American dollar is a huge factor. I can live well on my retirement income, unlike in Alaska, or indeed most of America.

And then there's Nut.
She makes my life here enjoyable, and easy, as I've often noted. She also makes it possible for me to feel very relaxed in a country whose language I still cannot speak. She's where my real Thailand home is.

Nut is a woman who's caught in the middle of a period of great social change in Thailand, although I don't think she's really aware of it. She's a traditional Thai woman in that she values family, duty and acceptance above all. Her needs are few and uncomplicated. She wants a comfortable life with a man she loves and who can care for her in return by providing both emotional and financial support in her later years.

Even though she's reached middle age and at age 49 considers herself over-the-hill, a concept I am understandably forced to downplay, she's modern enough to scoff at some of the old ways. Since we got together she has essentially dedicated her life to, as she puts it, taking care of me. I read somewhere that one of the things that is so attractive about Thai women is that they have a way of empowering their men. I can certainly say that I am treated very well and feel as though there's nothing Nut would rather be doing than being with me and doing things for me. Of course, the feeling is mutual. Except that in my case I'm not allowed to contribute to the housework or the cooking. My contribution is companionship — in a shared life and shared experiences — and taking care of the rent. And occasionally playing the straight man in our humorous banter.

While she treats me like a king in some respects you would be dead wrong if you were to think Nut submissive or having no sense of self. She's feisty, outspoken, and quick to anger if crossed. She knows herself very well and isn't afraid to speak her mind. She jokes about how she runs things around here, calls herself "the boss" during our playful verbal jousting. Funny thing though, I sometimes think she is.

Many people have written about the Thai-farang relationship and what it means. Many callously describe a Thai woman in such a relationship as a gold digger, an opportunist. Not that these sorts of women don't exist or that certain Thai women wouldn't take advantage of an older farang with financial resources given the chance. Many of those situations arise when a fellow falls in love with a bar girl, a woman who has been working men for profit already. To make generalizations about the entire population of Thai women from these exceptions is both foolish and wrong. While it is true that older farangs have a better chance at snagging a much younger woman in Thailand than they might back home, this has to do with several factors. According to many Thai women I've asked, including Nut, your average farang man is likely to be more stable, more faithful, and gamble less than his younger Thai counterpart. In Nut's world, this stuff counts more than just good looks and is what makes him a better, a more desirable, life partner.

Having read those things, I'll admit that when we first got together I was a bit cautious. I had been warned by everyone about this, for lack of a better phrase, "opportunistic streak" in Thai women, and being well past the age of being physically attractive to women, asked myself what she saw in me. It took some time and the sharing of many experiences to lessen my initial skepticism. During that time I've learned that because our cultures are so different it inevitably colors our views in ways not easily comprehended from the outside or during a casual relationship. Many negative judgments written about Thai women have been by people who don't really know much about the inside of a relationship with one.

As the months go by I find I'm enjoying our life together more and more. It's been three years since our first date and I seldom hear Nut ask me for money that isn't for every day expenses, excepting for the occasional trip to get her hair done ("to make beautiful") or a recharge for her son's cell phone. She's careful with money in every respect, almost frugal. In addition, she's fiercely loyal and worries about my health and safety all the time. She is, in many ways, the perfect partner. I can only hope our next three years together are as good as the last. As for my skepticism, it's been gone for a while now.
Our kitchen on Siriton Road, Chang Phuak, Chiang Mai
Anyhow, last October we found this nice little apartment with a kitchen, two bathrooms, huge bedroom, and cheap of course. Very comfy and very homey. I wanted to do something nice for Nut and because we both love food and eat  breakfasts at home now that we have a kitchen, I decided to introduce her to my special pancakes. We gathered the unusual for Thailand ingredients from various markets and one morning I whipped up a batch. I don't use a recipe for pancakes so Nut watched me as I went about putting the batter together. Pancakes with syrup and butter are not Thai food and Nut had little experience with them, but she really liked them and said, "Next time I watch carefully and then I make for you."
I replied, "No need to do that, this is something I want to do for you."
"No way", she said, "I do everything for you!"
Of course, as in all such "discussions" about house chores, she was not to be dissuaded — I've yet to prevail in a single one of them. Sure enough, next time I made pancakes she observed carefully and asked questions as I went along.
Then one morning a week or so later while I was off playing tennis, she put together her first batch and proudly served them up when I got home. She watched as I ate the first bite and asked, "Okay, mai?"
I replied, "Well, it's very good but not perfect."
"What?" she retorted,  "Not perfect! What's wrong with them?"
"Not quite enough vanilla." She hustled back to the counter, added some vanilla and poured another dollop of batter into the pan, rotating it slowly to distribute the batter evenly. After bubbles had formed and broken she flipped it to finish the top side and then served it to me.
"Perfect," I said.
Fast forward two weeks and this time it's about spaghetti. I had made some marinara sauce and it was an immediate hit with Nut. It was pretty damn awesome sauce I must say. I had packed some bay leaves, basil and cumin in Alaska because I didn't know if these essentials could be found in Chiang Mai. Before we finished our first helping she was asking, "Those leaves you used. What are they?"
"Bay leaves" I replied.
"Use how many?"
I think you can see where this is going.

I guess I'll close now and get back to my mapping.
So much to do, so little time in the day.