Sunday, March 30, 2008

Breaking Through Cultural Barriers (finally!)

My first month in Southeast Asia was spent pretty much in a daze of "what am I doing?" I wondered on probably an hourly basis why I had chosen to come so far from those I love, from my cushy life, from everything familiar. Nothing felt safe, nowhere felt comfortable.

I once read that the reason time feels like it passes so much slower when we go away is because everything around us is new. When everything is unknown, there is so much more to see, hear, smell, touch, grasp, learn. We become like children, taking everything in with curiosity and often a much more open mind than we might normally have at home. Traveling, I suffer from a term I learned yesterday: FOMO, or Fear Of Missing Out. With so much to explore, to experience, there is always more -- a museum you don't have time for, a restaurant you couldn't to, a yoga teacher who was off the week you happened to be in town -- and I tend to focus on what I haven't managed to pack in rather than what I have. I'm working on it...

When I first arrived on Koh Pan Ngan, I felt trapped in a tourist vortex. Of course it didn't help that that week happened to be the Full Moon Party, which truly brings out some nasty specimens, but regardless, what I really wanted was contact with the locals, to find out how the Thais live, eat, sleep, relate to each other. I blamed language barriers, I blamed tourists, I blamed my attitude, I blamed the Thais. But there was no one to blame and nothing to be done; I wasn't able to break through those invisible walls between us.

My desire to eat healthy and the attention I pay to what I put in my body add an extra challenge when I travel. As a result, I usually find one, maybe two restaurants that serve local, healthy food, places I feel I can trust where I then have most of my meals. Though I probably end up missing out on all sorts of culinary adventures, the benefits of frequenting one place regularly offers other benefits. For one, I am able to establish enough of a rapport that I can safely ask for "no dairy, no wheat, no sugar" (etc). Secondly, instead of trying only one or two things on the menu before moving on to the next place, I can instead explore a wider variety of options in that one place.

Three days ago, I discovered yet another upside, a most wonderful, unexpected bonus, one that I wouldn't have dared hope for. I have written about Big Mountain restaurant before. It is the where J, K and I spent many a meal, if you recall, talking, laughing, crying, eating. From the post-yoga breakfast -- brown rice pudding (cooked in fresh coconut milk) -- to the green curry or the magical galangal root soup dinners, I have made my way up and down their menu much like I have made my way up and down the mountain on my little scooter to reach them.

Jim only starts preparing a dish after it's been ordered; everything is made from scratch. What this means in practice is that on busy nights, you can wait an hour for your meal, longer if it's busy. Sometimes, one person will have finished their food before their diner companions receive theirs. Add to that the sixteen-year-old waiters' teenage hormonal 'tude, the fact that they are often "finish" of some of the most popular items on the menu for days at a time, as well as their constantly changing business hours; and you've got one hell of an eccentric way to run a restaurant. I find it mostly charming although the time we arrived to find them all napping in the middle of the floor was a bit strange.
"Close. Open sik o-kok" one of them said to me as if he'd never met me before.

By now, I know to arrive an hour before I get hungry, and they know "no sugar, no honey, no milk." (although last night, I had to explain to Don, one of the sixteen-years olds, that yoghurt is like milk. He blamed me, giggling like a girl at my insanity.)

Jim and Baum are siblings. Baum manages the restaurant. He also likes to make up stories to see how much people will believe. Jim has shared some of her top secret recipes with me; she has let me into her kitchen to see how she and her helpers prepare everything from chilli paste (by hand, with a mortar and pestle) to the amazing rice pudding, to her famous vegan tofu burgers. From time to time, she will send me out a sample of whatever it is she's preparing -- bean patties, pumpkin soup, vegan taro root ice cream. When she has time, which is rare, she will stop by my table and sit down for a chat.

When I returned to Koh Pan Ngan last week after having been away for three weeks, Big Mountain was my first stop. Jim let out a shriek when she saw me and we hugged like old friends.

From the day I came back, I have pretty much fallen into the same routine I had when I was here with J: yoga, breakfast and writing at Big Mountain, followed by a quick dip in the ocean or any errands that need running. If there is time, I'll usually take in another yoga class after which I make my way back to Big Mountain for dinner. Usually I meet people there whom I have gotten to know -- the yoga community is pretty small and most people are extremely friendly and outgoing.

"See you tonight," they say to me at Big Mountain when I settle my breakfast bill.
"See you in morning," is their way of saying good night.

When I came back, I had asked Jim if I could go with her to the market. I was curious to see what she buys and where. But we hadn't mentioned it again, and I wanted to make sure she hadn't forgotten about it.

"When is good for me to come to the market with you?" I asked, trying not to sound pushy.
"I go to Surat Thani (the town on the mainland where she and Baum are from) for few days," she told me, "my family all come together."
"Wow," I said, selfishly dreading her absence and my lack of food. "How long?"
"I go maybe second until six. Maybe five day or four day. Holiday." Her face brightened at the thought of being out of the kitchen for more than the hour or two she usually spends at the market picking up groceries.

The restaurant overlooks the main road by the beach on the Western part of Koh Pan Ngan. It is built high enough up the mountain, however, that the views reach over the road, past the treetops and out into the expanse of the ocean. The roof is made of bamboo, and like most places, it is completely open to the elements: there are no walls, windows or doors other than the one on the small room by the loos that Jim, her husband and their one-year-old son, Pow, share. (of course the loo has a door as well, but the ceiling opens up to the kitchen so there isn't much privacy to be had there regardless.)
"You come with me," Jim said suddenly, "you come to my family."
And in the best accidental imitation of my grandmother I have ever done, I pulled back, put my hands on my heart and responded with a very nervous "NO!"
"I can't." I told her
"Why? You come second to six. We go to beautiful house of my friend, waterfall. You sit, eat with my family."
"I write my book. I can't leave for five days." I was already smacking myself for chickening out.

I started working on my novel around one thousand two hundred and twenty-seven days ago. In all of that time, I have used it as an excuse to get out of many an obligation -- commitments I have made and later regretted, activities I've feared partaking in, acquaintances I can't be bothered to deepen my friendship with. Often, as I see it, the options have been between being able to partake in "life" or "hiding behind my novel" and usually I have either chosen to partake in life and then spent my time feeling guilty about not writing, or I have decided it best to stay home and write, regretting the opportunity I have passed up on. Sometimes it feels like there is no way to win; other times, I love what I'm working on so much that I can't imagine ever wanting to do anything else. On Koh Pan Ngan, on this journey, I am trying to focus on what it is that I truly want, to ask myself what I want to be doing at all times and to do it.

As I have started to ease into my travels and gain more of a sense of humour and perspective, I have also started to realize how rarely I actually do what I want to do, follow my own desires, make decisions based on me rather than everyone else. This deficiency spans from what I order at restaurants ("I should have the steamed salmon and broccoli, but what I'd like to have is the burger and fries") to how often I exercise, to how I spend my evenings.

I've noticed that this is a pattern I create and recreate. Even here, on an island in Thailand island where I knew no one a week ago, I have managed to pack my schedule: there is tea with M, dinner with T, yoga with TB, and then dinner again, possibly with C from Agama yoga, or maybe D from Pyramid yoga ... Even here I find myself reaching a breaking point over-compromising myself, forgetting to make time for me - to write, to take a stroll or a dip in the ocean, to breathe and retreat and do what I came here for... As a result, I almost missed out on the one opportunity I've been craving more than tea or breakfast with another foreign tourist: spending time with a Thai family, in their home, sitting barefoot in their circle on the floor, sharing their food, holding their children, learning their customs.

I can't believe I even hesitated.

On April second, I will be taking the boat to Surat Thani with Jim, Baum, Jim's husband whose name I've forgotten again, and little Pow with whom I already clap and sing -- although I needn't bother trying so hard: like his uncle, Baum, Pow cracks
up any time he catches sight of me. It's kind of nice.

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