Tuesday, May 30, 2006

Vietnam/Thailand Part III: Mango Sticky Rice and Baby Elephant Slobber

"Waking up as a "shopaholic" is much like it is for alcoholics and sexaholics, you don't really know the damage you've done until you check the bags at the foot of your bed...and your wallet."
RST, the "Morning After" in Chiang Mai

May 30, 2006
Chiang Mai, Thailand
10:00 p.m.

A warm breeze drifts in carrying the sweet smell of rain....
After doing lots of cultural shit the past couple of days and sweating like Ukrainians in the tropics, Mom and I spent this gloriously precious day in an air-conditioned mall shopping for clothes that I think will look better than the ones she brought, eating hot pretzels with fake cheese dip, and watching the X-Men III for two bucks.

Thailand, I've decided, is like the Hawaii of Southeast Asia. It's hot, it's humid, it's comfortable, economically strong, and it's filled with all sorts of tropical fruits and prostitution. Okay then, it's mostly like Hawaii.

For the first day or two, we stuffed ourselves with bowls of sticky rice, freshly cut ripe mango in coconut milk with toasted yellow rice, juicy chicken satay with peanut sauce, and pad thai made with flat rice noodles and sprinkled with chili pepper, lime juice, and crushed peanuts. On the street, each of these dishes costs around a buck.

We've had absolutely no agenda here which is exactly why this part of our trip has been so good. I've taken a break from all the photos and the drive to see all the tourist sites. We're nearly over-shopped, over-"watted" ("wat" means "temple" in Thai) out, and over-saturated with cultural stuff. I've put my camera away for a day or two just to relax and enjoy each moment we have together before our trip comes to an end. Mom and I have come to amuse ourselves with the most urbane things...making fun of each other's fashion choices (mostly I make fun of hers) or of our tireless drive to buy every possible piece of silk in plain view (mostly, that would be me). We've even invented our own language and jokes. After all our travels together, it's scary how closely alike we think. Often, we only have to say a word to the other and we both start cracking up.

Our newest game is to count the number of balding, pot-bellied, old white guys we see traipsing around town with their peri-pubescent Thai "girlfriends," a long-term version of prostitution. We lost count last night after the eighteenth "couple" we spotted before we realized we were walking through the Red Light District of Chiang Mai and past a bunch of prosititutes and "lady-boys."

Aside from our intense cultural experience at the mall shopping this afternoon and all the meals of sticky rice and mangos, our most magical moment was visiting an elephant "camp" yesterday. We mostly expected it to be a circus-like event in which the elephants are living in these awful cramped quarters, being fed scraps, and paraded about in tutus (okay, really big tutus), and mocked in classic and bastardly anthropomorphic style
We were shocked at what a lovely place it was...we stood just feet away from a rushing river where the elephants bathed themselves (the "mahouts" or trainer/drivers) scrubbing behind their ears) and watched a show in which the elephants played soccer (blocking the ball at the goal post from another elephant), threw darts at water balloons, played harmonicas, and most amazingly, PAINTED on easels. (and yes, this is "anthromorphizing" but the entire place and the tone were respectful, more so than any other I have experienced and sadly, this is a way that elephants can be "protected" as their natural habitat continues to be wiped out throughout Asia).

The painting was fascinating. The "mahout" dipped the brush in different colors and the elephants began to paint, gingerly holding the paint brushes with their trunks and running the brush along the "canvas." We thought the art would just be scribble marks but were astounded when we saw one elephant painting a bonzai tree and another painting a vivid purple inflorescence of wisteria blooms perfectly proportioned and more graceful and evocative than anything I've painted in my life (not that I'm Georgia O'Keefe but you know what I mean).

Afterwards, the elephants came up to us and "bowed" to us all. One young elephant wrapped its trunk around me like a giant, prickly-haired but affectionate boa constrictor. Another young elephant placed a hat on my head, took it off, and put it back on again with three taps.

When the show was over, Mom and I walked freely through the camp past the village where the "mahouts" live with their families and on to a grassy field where the nursery resides. Aside from two young German girls, no other tourists had ventured this far and we had the place to ourselves.
In the last enclosure (really only a wooden fence about four feet tall) was a mother elephant and a two-month old newborn elephant that stood only about 3.5 feet tall. We couldn't believe our luck.

The baby elephant wandered about between its mother's legs and would then amble over to check us out...sniffing my toes and tickling them with its trunk. It was the most divine sensation to be rubbing the ears of this baby elephant as it tickled my ankles...to feel its warmth and curiosity and to be so close! We couldn't believe our fortune. Mom and I had a very special moment with elephants in South Nepal many years ago and I continue to be amazed by their energy, intelligence, and sentience whenever I'm around them. When we left, I felt this ecstatic high and blissful happiness to have been around them...

Last night as we ate chicken skewers with peanut sauce at the night market, Mom stopped eating and looked at me funny. "Don't get upset or anything but I think you should know..." she pointed to the back of my black shirt and skirt which had been crusted over in elephant slobber for the whole afternoon and evening. It looked as if I'd just rolled in a bunch of oatmeal and the clumps had dried and crusted over in big globs of spit and mucilaginous stuff.

"That's so damn cool," I thought. "I'm covered in baby elephant slobber."

I cleaned most of it off right away but, just for sentimental sake, I did leave a little bit of it on my backpack.

Hope you're all living your dreams...off to a Thai cooking course in the next day and then headed home this weekend...

my love to you all-




Tanuja Gill said...

Dear Rachel !

There is no doubt that you worked very hard...it was a nice blog but I found that you should make it more easy for people to read it. Black background is very tough to read with colored font....please think about it.

I congratulate you to have such a good blog !

Tanuja Rupwal