The date May 19, 2011 loomed in my mind for months. Admittedly, sometimes it was a date I looked forward too. But for the most part it was date I dreaded. When it came, I cried and literally made myself sick; fever, rash, upset stomach, anything my body could do to delay the inevitable. But time waits for no one, and so the date came and went and I went back to America along with it, not knowing when I would return. Alas, two years, two months, and two weeks (that is an exact count. Imagine that!) later, I was once again facing the house that became a home.
But let me back up a bit, since I didn’t come straight home to Yasothon. I stayed in Bangkok for a night and took the night train to Ubon Ratchathani, where my mom lives during the week to work. I got a cheap cell phone and SIM card in Bangkok, but couldn’t figure out how to top up my balance so I only had enough money to send one text to Meh (Mom) to let her know I was on the train and that it was meant to arrive at 7:30 the following morning. A few minutes later, she called back. A few minutes after that, Paw called. And then my sister, P’May. Word travels faster than the trains, that’s for sure! I hadn’t showered after a long day of wandering Bangkok, so my own sour body smell kept me up most of the night. I opted for the cheapest option, which was the top bunk of a fan-only car. The windows on the ground floor stayed open much of the journey, which I actually enjoyed. It is the rainy season, so the dust isn’t too bad and the smells that creep in are usually inoffensive.
Still, I managed to sleep. My recurring alarm woke me up at 7:30 (I did manage to sleep after all, stinky pits or no) and still we were a ways from Ubon, which I didn’t know at the time. Meh called again and I said that we were about to arrive and that she could come to the station. I didn’t know that we were still an hour and a half away, and I didn’t have enough money in my phone to tell her to hold off. So I sat, staring out the open window at the breath-takingly green rice paddies, and feeling guilty for making her wait. But when the train finally pulled in and I saw her sitting on the benches by the tracks with her beautiful smile, any feelings of guilt or doubt vanished. I was almost home!
My arrival was on a Wednesday morning. We stayed in Ubon until Friday afternoon. She went to work during the day, and I went with Friday morning. She works in the accounting department at a police station that is almost (or is? I am not quite clear on the whole situation.) part of the military. Everyone wears fatigues, including Meh. It is a bit strange to see her go from sitting in a sarong watching TV to putting on a crisply ironed uniform and shined boots, but still she has that smile. Everyone else at the station wears the same uniform, and in the mornings they line up for a morning prayer to Buddha, to sing the national anthem, say some sort of pledge, and hear the day’s announcements. Just like I remember at school. Seems some rituals never end.
The morning ceremony over, her housemate and co-worker, P’Oi, took me to see the tanks on the base. When we got there, some men were warming them up. The door of one not yet running was ajar, and P’Oi asked if I wanted to hop in for a picture. Uh, sure? I climbed in, and one of the maintenance guys said I could sit in the driver’s sit and poke my head out the open hatch. I did so, gladly. This is what I love about Thailand: life is much slower and more relaxed here. The authorites will let an “inside” foreigner check out their toys before taking them down to the South to quell some violent unrest. (No worries: Isaan is about as far from the ongoing unrest in the South as one can get. The violence is nothing new and was an old story when I first got here three years ago.)
Friday afternoon, Meh came home, made us some vegetarian lunch (delicious home cooking at last!) and we packed up, ready to go to Yasothon. The ride was only an hour, a little longer with the stops to buy various fruits and sweets along the way. This region is pretty much nothing but farmland, so it is easy to get the feeling that you have been on this road before… But the signs put me straight. Numbers next to the name Yasothon, standing tall in anonymous fields. 65. 34. 12. The kilometer markers now tell me we are in Yasothon province. So close!
Finally: something I recognize. Dtalad Dtad Tawng. Meh says the name to jog my memory. Out the window on her side I see the market that was the destination of many lazy weekend bike rides. How many pounds of jackfruit have I eaten, sitting in the roots of the tree outside the adjacent temple, watching life scurry about in the shade of the market umbrellas?
Then I see the store on the side road where I know to turn to go home. It is farther from the market than I remember. The shop makes stickers to customize cars and trucks. Once I stopped in to meet the wheelchair-bound owner and he was happy to show me the sticker-making process and show me albums of his finished work.
After his shop is the crocodile farm. I ask Meh about it. Apparently it is closed; something about someone dying. Now that she mentions it, I remember people saying something about some funny business at the crocodile farm before. I don’t push the subject.
But we don’t turn down this road. Instead, we go straight and turn on the large road with the traffic light. If we had gone straight, we would have reached the town. Instead, we stay in the countryside. Another traffic light. And then, blessed be, the 7/11 that is closest to our house! As has already and will continue to happen many times during this visit, memories came flooding back. I smiled to myself, thinking about the time I made applesauce (and burned the bottom of the pan) and bought vanilla ice cream for some fresh, hot applesauce a la mode to share with my family. One morning I even rode a bike to 7/11 to buy another tub of ice cream to give to the village monks when they came around on their daily, predawn rounds. We don’t have a freezer, so I had to do this long before the sun rose. I still wonder if they even tried the applesauce. Later that day I didn’t have the nerve. At home, everyone liked the ice cream but barely nibbled the applesauce. “Too sweet!” they said. I kept it in bags in the fridge and ended up eating it all myself when I got violently ill after trying to make mushroom salad. Little did I know that you are supposed to wash and boil the mushrooms first. Live and learn.
After the 7/11, more rice fields, an electric plant, and a sign alerting us that we had entered Ban Nong Faek. Our village! My pronunciation of this name is spot-on, earning laughs from Thai people, border agents included.
Shortly thereafter, a marketplace that is empty at the moment but Paw has something to do with. Then a curve in the road which means… Home at last! Praises be, home at last. Meh goes straight through the curve, off the road onto our dirt driveway. The front of the house that used to be a shop is now an office and painted brown. I am pleased to see that the rest of the house is pink, from floor to ceiling, inside and out, just as I remember it. We park and get out. Meh’s keychain is a silver silhouette of Chicago, the very same one I bought at a Walgreens downtown when I first began dreaming of the faraway place of Thailand.
No one else is home yet, so Meh and I sweep the paved part of the driveway and wait for the family to come back from their work, school, and errands. My family lives as an extended unit. Their is no walled compound, but all the nearby neighbors are family. Meh’s mom lives behind our house, on a narrow dirt road used by our family exclusively. Her younger brother lives farther down, past the herb garden and chicken farm. Her mom’s sister and husband live even farther down, past another chicken farm and before the ox pen. A cousin lives in the house next door. Next to them lives Meh’s sister, P’Pat, who has two sons. Nong Pete and Nong Chip. Pete was five when I left, and Chip was still a few months away from taking his first step.
Chip comes home from nursery school first. He looks just like Pete and I could almost swear that he is the one and the same and that no time has passed. But he takes one look at me sitting on the porch steps (which doubles as a dining room in the evening) and runs to grab Meh, holding on and hiding his face from me like a frightened koala. He won’t let go, not even with temptation like a fresh coconut already cut open and ready for him. I even see a genuine tear roll down his cheek. He was too young to remember that once upon a time I held him and that he liked to pull on my skirt while I stood ironing my school uniform.
Pete has a better memory, but is still shy. Neither of them dare speak to me and I wonder if Chip can speak at all. Pete used to be a good teacher, talking to me and teaching me through his mistakes. If he mispronounces something, the adults repeat is for him correctly, slowly and clearly. I take these opportunities to practice too.
One by one, people trickle home. Everyone smiles to see me. The dragonfruit vines at P’Pat’s house are laden with fruit, so we all gather on her porch to eat (an ongoing obsession in Thailand; it is pretty much all I have done so far besides smile and laugh) and prepare dinner. Meh, Chip, and I take a break from snacking to gather ingredients. Mushrooms have sprung up in the field next to the chicken farm, no doubt encouraged by the wet weather. Meh gathers while I hold the bag. Then we head to Kuhn Yai’s (grandma’s) herb garden to gather mint, green Thai eggplants, and double-jointed leaves that smell like heaven and can make or break a proper Thai curry.
Back at P’Pat’s, Meh pulls aside a small amount of ingredients to make a vegetarian version of the main dishes. I watch as she mixes pickled bamboo with some fake meat and some other ingredients, then wraps it all neatly in a banana leaf, closed with two toothpicks to differentiate it. There are plenty of non-veg versions to be made, so I get some practice in banana leaf cooking. I can do a pretty good job of folding this simple pattern, if I may say so myself. She also makes a mushroom salad (making sure to show me how to wash and boil this time around) out of the bounty we harvested ourselves not an hour ago.
At dinner, Kuhn Yai laughs and jokes that I get to eat some weird food here in Yaso. “There is no other food like this in the country or the world,” she says, indicating Meh’s vegetarian alternatives. I am sure she is right.
My homecoming is warm, full of good food and that nasally twang that marks the Isaan language. Everyone asks how I have been and if my parents in America are doing well and then carries on with their lives. No big deal; I am seamlessly back in the fold. Back home, where I am happily going to stay until my visa runs out.
Which brings me to another little update. I have been talking wtih Paw and thinking aloud with P’Pat and have come to the decision that I will not go to India this time around. This is for a few reasons. 1) When it comes down to it, I don’t want to go to India alone at this point. After talking with other travelers, everyone says India is amazing but everyone also has horror stories that they saw/experienced firsthand. 2) I want to do a little more research about India. A little knowledge can go a long way in making one feel comfortable and downplay culture shock. If you know what’s coming, it’s not so bad. (Sometimes.) 3) When I go to India, I want to stay for longer than I have now. I have had a feeling of being rushed with being there only three or four weeks. I would like a solid month, or three or more if I could. It will just be another trip sometime in the future.
Instead, I am going to stay home as long as I can and then go to Laos. Other travelers and Thai people alike have good things to say about Laos. It still has a lot of nature, a slower way of living, and culture very similar to the Northeast of Thailand where I am now. I will travel there for two or three weeks and then come back to Thailand for another week or two. Paw has all kinds of connections both in Laos and in the south of Thailand, so I can do more homestays and see more local life. Now that’s the ticket! Now that the decision is made, I feel lighter, like some pressure is lifted. Of course I would love to go to India, but now is not yet my time. There is the whole country of Laos, and plenty to see yet in Thailand.
But for now, I still have a week and a half at home. Anouk is comng to town tomorrow, so I won’t lack for company and my family has day trips during the week lined up already. I don’t need sparkling red shoes to say that there’s no place like home.