Monday, June 09, 2008

chiang mai

I'd almost forgotten this magical thing about the tropics - the schedule-massaging power of a clockwork daily rain in the late afternoon. It politely follows the same predicatable patter, so as not to catch you out: first, a battalion of dove-grey clouds appear on the horizon and advance to throw a shroud around the city. Then the air cools, thickens, stills. Then, the smell. These latitudes are full of intoxicating scents, but the heavy minerality that hangs in the air before the rain is a thing entirely to itself. At that point, it's as imminent as a kiss from a mouth poised an inch away; when you feel that first drop, dash through the first door you see. It's coming.

I've escaped this afternoon's deluge in the glass-wrapped womb of a Japanese noodle house, watching the less-lucky (or more ambitious) careen down the sidewalks with an arm held uselessly overhead against the soaking. The tall, green mountains to the north look proud and ancient with their crown of silver clouds, amber afternoon sunlight streaming through the fissures to heaven.

There's magic everywhere in this city. Its sidewalks stream with turmeric-robed monks. Plumeria blossoms, their perfect white pinwheels set with a yolk-yellow center, scatter the sidewalks. Stray dogs roam the streets like feudal kings - and, even after only a couple of days, I recognize individual mutts as they appear and reappear all over the city on their byzantine rounds. Everywhere, there's the chatter and laughter of a culture that lives outside and amongst each other, not sealed up in little steel pods. The air is full of wet smells and green smells and laundry smells and food smells - an enveloping, atonal cacophony written for the nose. The Thai ladies are such, well, ladies - sweet and quiet and polite, and their faces light up when I try my best to match their tone. I love that the locals absolutely beam at my butchered Thai. I've seen SIX PEOPLE on a single scooter, nevermind the baby-toting mum motorbike drivers and the dogs riding two-up behind the driver, sitting easy-as-you-please on the back of the seat. This city has its measure of offhand filth, but a much larger measure of poetic simlpicity and deep, genuine warmth.

It's quite telling that, of the scores of people I've met so far, none are staying in the country for less than a month. NONE are American. Many became accidental expats once they realized they couldn't bear the thought of returning home. I can't say I don't understand the sentiment, but I have the two best reasons in the world to return for.

Maybe I'll bring 'em both here - my bear and my tigress, and we'll live like royalty in this enchanted kingdom.

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