01 August 2015
Astrologers joke that "it's a good year when you don't die three times." At this rate I will be lucky to squeeze three blogs out of 2015. This is supposed to be "low season." (Actually, it has been low season for the past two and a half years, resulting in an austerity program that may rival Greece's.) I'm supposed to have time on my hands, but that is never the case. I suppose that's a good thing.
Half of our small staff is gone. One went into drug rehab. And in mid-June Ton (one of the best people who has ever worked with us) was lured away by a glam condo along the river, which offered him much more money than I could afford to deal with wealthy residents and all the baggage that accompanies such people. I think he was getting tired of me anyway.
One or two new faces will appear later this month as we gear up for what promises to be a busy high season. The big destinations this year are Myanmar, India and Bhutan, in that order, with Cambodia and Vietnam very busy as always. Thailand seems to be be competing with Singapore for the bottom of the list. If you have been contemplating visiting anywhere in the region between November and March you should plan to do something about it pretty soon. With the Thai baht/US dollar exchange getting a badly-needed realitycheck, things here look busy.
A Month With Bhutan Boy
When I emerged from customs at Paro Airport last February I came face to face with a tall, slender tour guide with a deep voice and a peculiar grin. I remember wondering at the time whether either one of us would last ten days with each other. That was only the beginning.
(Before you read any farther you should probably read my Bhutan Blog to see the genesis of this story. It's even better when you read it a second time.)
Within five minutes it became clear to me that we had a very strong past life connection. This is only the third time this has happened in my life, the last occasion being 20+ years ago on a rainy Sunday afternoon in San Francisco. I walked into Badlands, a bar on 18th Street just off Castro, and before I even began to remove my coat I caught the eye of someone across the room, who began to swiftly move toward me. That was that.
In those days I lived in a magnificent Victorian flat on Fell Street with a formal dining room, pocket doors and two Carrera marble fireplaces (one of which was still working). The first time I saw the place I knew that I had been there before. In the ten years or so I had already lived in 611 Fell Street I became well acquainted with the three ghosts who hung around and I dreamed from time to time about falling off the roof to my death in 1878.
At a crucial moment during some very intimate afternoon exercise my new friend blurted out: "You know I lived here in this house with you in another life. You were working on the roof and fell off and died." And so my work-out ended suddenly.
I was far less unsettled by my first encounter with Jamyang. The epiphany of one or more friendships with him over the centuries was far warmer and sentimental to me than falling to my death. While the weather was terribly cold in February my feelings grew even warmer. Even after the trip ended we have stayed in touch via the Line mobile app several times a week, and sometimes daily.
I admit that we are a very odd combination of people. Jamyang is 25 going on 40. I am a 50 but trapped in a 65 year old body. He's very quiet unless we are alone. I talk endlessly if you let me. I eat it all. He won't touch chicken or fish.
While Jamyang is one of the most outstanding guides I have ever met, he admittedly had limited life experience for a man of 25. He had never flown, had never traveled outside Bhutan, had never seen the ocean, a department store or a supermarket, never had 110 cable channels to choose from (none of them from India), had never traveled by train, and had never eaten my cooking. In April I invited him to spend a month with me in Bangkok.
Before he arrived I cooked for weeks and filled two freezers. I also prepared myself for how Jamyang might be overwhelmed by the things he saw and did, how he might experience severe culture shock, might desperately miss his mother's cooking, and possibly even regret putting up with me for a month. None of that actually happened except, perhaps, for the latter. In fact, he was remarkably resilient when he suddenly found himself in a city of 12 million that is best known for heat, stress, pollution, noise, con artists and bad traffic that still occasionally surprises and delights jaded old queens who have been here for 17 years.
Jamyang arrived on the afternoon of 19 June. I actually saw the Drukair flight land as my taxi swung into Suvarnabhumi Airport. Half an hour later he emerged from customs, glowing from the thrill of his first flight. Only once before had I seen him in jeans. I was relieved that he was finally here. From the very beginning I began to tick items off the Jamyang Bucket List with the high speed (well, maybe compared to driving) Airport Link elevated train into the city, followed by a Friday traffic jam.
He brought with him two bottles of K5, two bags of nearly-leathal chilies, two bottles of ground chilis, and the "cheese on a string" that Bhutanese snack on. These cubes, which might have been cheese back in the day when I was falling off roofs, are strung together to make something that looks like a necklace Wilma Flintstone might wear. I purchased a couple of these cheese strings in Bhutan at a place that calls itself a cheese factory. It hardly compares to Tete de Moine, Beppino Ocelli, Rogue River Blue, Cow Girl's Red Hawk, or Velveeta for that matter. (Please feel free to add any of the above--except the the stuff with the string--to your packing list if you plan to visit here.)
A real home-body, Jamyang settled into domestic life quickly and instinctively operated the TV remote control that I had to study a volume of instructions to use. He helped me with dinner the first night and occasionally did the cooking and we made chili-cheese together several times. And throughout his stay he took over the care of my plants, including all the tomatoes, and also the dish-washing. What a guy.
Over his month in Bangkok we did most of the things on the mental to-do list I had prepared. On the second day he saw the world-class supermarket at Central Chidlom department store, which requires walking through about two acres of cosmetics vendors. There were no gasps. No Oooos or Ahhhhs. One thing I ultimately learned about him is that he processes people (particularly me) and experiences silently and impassively.
Among the more unusual things we did together was a Sunday outing to the shaman tattoo artist in Samut Prakan that I had visited twice already. I went first with a new addition to my left arm, just to prove that dot at a time made by a long pointed stick is not really as painful as it looked. He wanted a dragon on his own arm but was not thrilled with any of the samples the shaman had on hand. Ultimately he opted out and, to my surprise, said he would do it "next time." The possibility of future or maybe semi-permanent visits was an exciting development.
On the following Sunday we made the trek to the gigantic IKEA store in the outer reaches of the city. Surely this would dazzle him, I thought. He processed it all silently, but I could tell he was making a mental shopping list for the container home (with a snooker room for him and a flight simulator room for me) I dream of building some day when I can afford it. Yeah, sure.
We never got around to an evening of people-watching on Silom soi 4. That was added to the "next time" list. He was not really interested in going out, although he did meet up with several Thai people who he had guided in Bhutan. As it turned out I was not his only fan club in Thailand. One former guest even presented him with an iPhone 5.
We also never made it to Siem Reap, which was high on my list. Due to Ton's exit my wings were clipped and I was not able to spend as much time with Bhutan Boy as I had wanted. Thankfully, our guide Peng and my friend Aud spent days showing him around while I was working.
The final night of his stay was my 65th birthday celebration. (I am celebrating living this long.) As is our custom, this orgy of spicy Isaan food, Sangsom (Thai "whiskey") and Beer Chang took pace in a private room at Jae Koy Restaurant. Rath, my adopted son and our manager in Siem Reap was here for the occasion along with other friends and some of our guide family. There were a couple of dinner parties at home during his stay, so he got to meet a number of the people I know, some of whom have told me how lucky I am and how lucky he is. (Sadly, all of this luck did not result in a winning lottery ticket, thus still no container home.) My friend Nancy twice told me that he is a "nice boy" and that I should be decent to him. At my age I have no plans to mistreat handsome twenty-five-year-olds.
Earlier on that day we went on a final shopping spree. One major thing remained on my Jamyang-To-Do List: fast food. So we began the day with lunch at Burger King. As you may know I have lost more than 40kg, in part by giving up junk food, snack food, sugary drinks, ice cream and especially fast food. For the first year it was easier to give up sex than the occasional Whopper with cheese. But this was a special occasion and, to tell you the truth, I really loved it and ended up finishing off his fries. Next we hit Central Chidlom, then Tesco-Lotus before he disappeared into the Pratunam market for an hour on his own. In the end he needed my giant suit case in addition to the one he brought. The king-sized duvet he bought for his parents would have to be checked in the heavy plastic package it was sold in.
The alarm went off at three the next morning and he was in the shower practically as soon as my eyes opened. Within an hour we were downstairs in the steamy darkness of early morning Bangkok and off in a taxi he went. I felt like a mother seeing her son off to his first year at college. Yet, it was hard to feel sad for long. His visit meant as much to me as it did to him. Alone and facing 65 with not much more than a struggling business, he saved me in so many ways. Yes, Nancy, I am indeed lucky to know someone who is kind, gentle, bright, radiates goodness, and washes the dishes.
"Next time" will not come soon enough for me. But we have already discussed a date in next January for his return. I think it is a very good idea for him to stay a couple of months and learn to speak Thai, which would earn him a student visa. Until then, I have a two month supply of chili cheese and baby chilies growing on both balconies from the seeds of the deadly little peppers he brought with him.
So who knows. Maybe this is just the first chapter in a longer story. I hope so. Until Next Time, thanks for reading.
Oh, if you travel with us to Bhutan Jamyang will most probably be your guide.
Jamyang's Ema Datse (Chili Cheese)
Chili cheese is a staple that is served at practically every meal in Bhutan. I like it really spicy but you can adjust the heat by adding fewer chilies. You might find this dish disgusting at first, but it will not be long before you will want to eat it almost every day. Most of the time it is made without the cauliflower, or potatoes, but they help to make the dish even richer.
3 potatoes, peeled
one small cauliflower trimmed
one large onion
three or four cloves of garlic (or more if you like)
about half a cup of chilies, depending on how spicy they are and your heat threshold
About 8oz of soft white cheese. I use a combination of Laughing Cow and Danish fetah (which is softer and milder)
a large chunk of butter
Chop the potatoes, cauliflower, onions and garlic medium-fine. You want smaller than bite-sized pieces, but not so small that they do not add any texture to the dish.
Choose fresh chilies that have tender--not tough or waxy--skins. If you plan to visit Bangkok let me know in advance and I will give you seeds. (Please see the cheese list above). If they are really spicy wear gloves to chop them. Remove the stems. You may want to remove the seeds from all or half of them if you can't handle the heat as well as I can.
In a heavy saucepan melt the butter and add potato, cauliflower, onion, and garlic and and sauté lightly for two to five minutes, stirring occasionally, until they are very lightly softened. Bhutanese do not use butter, but it will help avoid sticking and adds richness (and calories, dear). Add the chilies. Next, add enough hot water to cover the contents of the pan if the water from the tomatoes is not enough. Simmer on low heat for 15 to 20 minutes, adding water as necessary to keep everything covered. When potatoes and cauliflower are tender, add the cheese and stir constantly until it melts. Add salt to taste. Serve this along with rice (preferably "red rice," which is the same as "brown" in the US) and meat--especially if it is grilled. This freezes well and will last refrigerated for up to a week.