On Being a Spectacle

"I wonder if it would be rude to take pictures of the people who take pictures of us when we're out."

Aaron laughs when I ask this. "Does it matter? They're taking pictures of you."

A farang family with a baby and several blond (ish) children causes quite a stir whenever we go out together. The first time I went to the Thai market, all the kids in tow, you could hear the decibel level in the already loud market go up at least 10 degrees when we trooped in the front entrance. The women in the stalls called to each other back and forth, "Do you see this? Do you see all these foreign children?" Or some other similar dialogue. It often isn't even words, just loud exclamations. I've learned how to answer the basic questions in Thai. "He's 2 months old. He's a son. I have 3 sons and 2 daughters. Yes, 5 in all. Yes, I'm busy."

They worry that baby Dek's little legs are tucked inside the sling instead of out. They all carry their babies with the legs sticking out the bottom. But I never see them carry a baby as small as he is that way. I am unable to explain that he prefers being all bundled up inside right now, it's more womb like.

They are lovely really these people and their attention. They tell me the girls are very beautiful, the boys are handsome and cute. They reach out and touch. Oh the touching! So odd, so awkward for us westerners. They put their fingers on Dek's little cheeks, they pat his bum through the sling, they touch hair and try to pick up the littler kids and it's all a bit overwhelming.

The Boy turned to me, halfway through the market and muttered, "I'm tired of people always looking at us all the time. I wish they would stop."

"I feel that way too sometimes," I told him. "But it's just part of living here and we have to figure out how to cope with it."

I think I will start taking pictures of them when they take pictures of us, just for fun. I want to take pictures, but worry about offending. This would be a good opportunity to get the pictures I want without that concern.

This past month alone:

A woman stocking shelves at the department store just took the baby out of my arms and walked off with him, shouting at her co workers to come and look. I could have held on to him but it would have literally been a bit of a tug of war to do so, and it might have scared him. She brought him back a few minutes later when he got fussy.

BamBam was sitting in the play car of a little play area next to the food court in the little local mall with the Girl standing nearby watching him. A Muslim woman with a beautiful headscarf plopped her little boy into the car beside BamBam and started taking pictures of the 3 of them, reaching out to turn the Girl around and pose her next to the car every time she moved away.

A man selling popsicles from a cart ran his fingers through the Girl's, now short, blond hair and picked up Bam Bam. Bam Bam yelled in protest and reached for me but that in no way deterred this guy from holding him and grinning at him until I was able to rescue him from the overly friendly stranger.

A Thai border guard lined all my kids up and told them to smile as he snapped their photo.

A waitress at a restaurant went from saying hello to the baby to reaching for him to hold as I got everyone settled. I let her, because she was trying to be helpful and she looked like she had held a lot of babies before. I thought she would give him back once we were all seated and I had Bam Bam squared away but she just walked to a nearby table, sat down, and held him until we were finished eating and I asked for the bill. I was on my own that day without Aaron's help, and I think she thought I needed a break. It's hard to tell with my limited language skills.

A foreigner, European I think, asked me to line up all my kids so he could take a picture of my "beautiful family". I declined that one, we were in a hurry to catch a bus and I wasn't going to risk missing it just so some stranger could take pictures of us.

The ladies at the little squid stall, just up the hill from our house, sat us down on chairs to wait for the squid to cook and took our pictures while we waited. (Fresh grilled squid on a stick for about 30 cents US. My seafood loving kids spend their allowances on this kind of thing.)

My favorite though happened at the border market. Aaron had gone ahead of me with all the kids and the baby and I was trying to find a toilet. The first lady I asked didn't understand my question at all, but then looked at me and asked, "Baby?" while making a cradling motion. When I nodded she helpfully pointed me in the direction my family had gone, sure she had answered my question successfully.

The kids are thus far gracious about the whole business, more or less. They submit to the posing and the questions and the marveling over their hair, seeming to understand that it's all well intentioned. (There was a great deal of marveling over the Girl's hair back in our Hispanic neighborhood in California too so she's kind of used to it.) They definitely don't mind when someone gives them a free snack because of it. But we are working on figuring out together things they can do when they are truly uncomfortable and feel alarmed by some of this attention. Perhaps we should start by learning how to say a few important phrases like, "Please, put me down."

"Please don't touch my hair."

Or better yet, "Are you a professional photographer? Because we would sure like some well done family portraits. And since you're taking our picture anyway..."



There are things I want to show you, but don't have any photos of. This is partly because they happen too fast for me to pull out my phone and snap them, also because my phone can't catch these things adequately and the big camera is kind of a pain to walk through the rain with while also carrying a baby in a sling, wrangling a 3 year old in a stroller, far easier than wrangling a 3 year old without a stroller, and carrying an umbrella. Also I'm not sure I want to act the tourist in our new neighborhood and take pictures of people without permission.

One day as I was driving out our gate there were 4 young Burmese girls, wearing sarongs with the traditional yellow paste smeared on their cheeks, walking up the road carrying laundry baskets and laughing at something the boy who walked with them was saying. They looked like a post card. (All the Burmese here put a paste on their cheeks and foreheads. I'm not sure why. I'm told it doesn't prevent bug bites, but can help soothes them. I think it's fashion more than anything else. There are many different patterns of application.)

There was the line of ladies in lovely dresses walking in pairs past the rice fields on a sunny afternoon, each pair arm in arm and sharing an umbrella.

Tonight we passed a couple on a bicycle. The woman was middle aged, slightly plump, and sat side saddle in a sarong on the bag rack on the back of the bicycle. She was laughing and holding an umbrella up over both of their heads as they bumped along over the little bridge.

We were walking through the village during a downpour and the sun came out. The way the light reflected off the sheets of water pouring down, so thick you could barely see people through it,  and the way the bright clothes and umbrellas blurred, made me feel like I was inside of a national geographic photo.

In lieu of those photos, that are only in my head, here are some shots I have managed to sneak of people when we're out on our walks.

This woman is washing laundry in an irrigation canal. There's a man on the bank helping her.

Bicycle riding in sarongs

Road into a village

Someone's house.


The Trip to Pai

I wish I could take you with me on a drive through the mountains to Pai. I want you to see the way the road suddenly changes from flat city streets to winding mountain highway through the jungle. You can see rows of mountains up ahead, blue in the mist. Houses line the side of the road, each of them different, but most in the traditional Thai style on giant teak pillars with the floor suspended several feet above the ground. Many look abandoned, and the jungle has done its work and grown up to cover their withering frames.

Abandoned wats, their distinctive A frame clusters of buildings still discernible through the over growth, lay mere yards away from where new temples are going up. Perhaps the spirits, demanding as they tend to be, got tired of the old place and wanted a change of scene. More likely some person is building it to do a good deed, and bring their family honor. You wonder what happened to the people who built the abandoned place down the road.

The road gets steeper, the switch backs more frequent, and if you are lucky enough to be in a vehicle with handles you are glad of it because keeping your balance is engaging most of your muscles now. Walls of bright red earth show where the mountain was cut away to make room for a road, and the jungle has not yet reclaimed it. There are moments when the jungle falls away on the side and you see the sun gleaming on the tops of an entire range of mountains and you gasp because of how beautiful it is

You start to recognize a certain type of structure that occurs, over and over again. There is a raised square platform with a roof suspended high above it on 4 square pillars. A respectful distance away is a sitting area, concrete or stone benches arranged in rows, or squares. This is where they burn the dead, and sit with them as their bodies are reduced to ash and smoke. You realize there is one on the outskirts of every village you pass through.

Little wooden buildings cluster where there is enough flat space beside the road, nothing more than photogenic shacks really, with long tables displaying local produce, honey, pineapple, mango, and featherless poultry that hang by their feet, ready to cook.

Spirit houses, covered in ornaments, are everywhere, always supplied with fresh offerings. If you ask they'll tell you it's not a Buddhist practice, more an ancient tradition to honor the ancestors. At least, that's one version.

Hill tribe people, men and women, ride in the open backs of pick up trucks, some with towels wrapped around their heads to protect from the wind and dust. They prop themselves against packages and bundles, perch precariously on the sides and tailgate, and you just hope they don't bounce off ever and under the wheels of your bus.

You might see someone driving a little motorbike with a big side car and a roof covering all slowly along the shoulder. They might have old CDs fastened to the back of the vehicle as reflectors, a particularly clever Thai innovation.

At the halfway point where we stop to use the bathroom you'll notice that the dozen or so long tables with benches all have solid granite tops. The bathroom stalls are manned by a barefoot old hill tribe woman who wields a mop and bucket of soapy water with extreme diligence. They may be soaking wet, as all Thai bathrooms are, but they smell way better. You are happy to pay her the 3 baht fee to use them.

The road climbs even higher and you thought it was beautiful before, now it's breathtaking. There are fewer people now, no buildings. You're so high that pine trees grow and mountain ranges stretch away on either side of the road as you twist back and forth, higher and higher. Clouds dance on treetops and the sun seems gentler here, painting everything lovingly in brilliant colors.

You wait eagerly for each gap in the trees to reveal yet another breathtaking vista.

And then you see it, on the right, so far below, between the mountains, green fields and a faint glimmer of water in the valley.

Now you are descending. Soon you see rice fields right beside the road again. Signs for coffee shops and guest houses appear. You'll cross the bridge over the river eventually, and the scene changes to fields and houses. The mountains are still near. They lean in to watch over your descent.

Little resorts start popping up, and more big signs in English, to help you find that place you booked online from the tourist website.

And then you are driving right through town, through the market street, with stalls crowded on either side. The walking market opens at night and things are just warming up in the gathering dusk. The bus station is just a little gravel lot with a bathroom at the back and a ticket stall along the side with a  few outside benches to wait on. You climb down and stretch out stiff legs while gathering your things and then just walk out into the street and through the market in the center of this little town.

Time for some exploring.

Maybe some relaxing too.
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