Rob Marshall is from my home town of Maine, Iowa. His sister and her husband are old friends of the family; they live across the street from the house I grew up in. My sister and I played Barbies and “figure-skating” on rollerblades in the unfinished baement with their three daughters. As if all of that does not make us close enough, Rob and his sister were raised in the very same house that I was; he and I have the same childhood bedroom.
I’ve heard about Rob now and then over the years - how he was in Jakarta or Nairobi or Cairo, always working for the U.S. Embassy in some capacity - but I never met him nor thought about him except in a wistful kind of way as a child whenever I heard of him – working for the embassy in Cairo… Magnificent but completely impossible. A story, beautiful novel I read in bed, nestled in blankets, hearing nothing outside my own window but the sound of wind like waves through leaves, a car door shutting, the neighbor tsking tsking ther dog from the porch.
As soon as I announced my decision to move to Bangkok my mother in turn began announcing it to everyone in town. When she told Rob’s sister she learned that he and his wife, Anne, were accepting a second assignment in Bangkok (they had been there years before on another post; they would arrive in the city a month before I did. By some grace of God they went to
Rob and Anne could not have possibly been nicer. When I called, they sounded as homespun as strawberry-rhubarb pie, each getting on a separate extension so they could talk to me at the same time. And yet, they itinerary they laid out for our afternoon together is pleasantly sophisticated. I dress in something silly, having no idea what the fashion is in Bangkok. I only feel half-pretty in a green silk wrap-around skirt and crinkled brown camisole because of the wooden beaded necklace a boyfriend picked up on a trip he took without me.
I stand outside my apartment building in the bright sun, perspiring. I fiddle with my purse, pace back and forth, waiting for their taxi, wondering what color it will be. I look around at all the colors – purple apartment building, orange coffee shop in which a long-haired, slender, shirtless Thai man mixes something in a tiny plastic cup, pink bouganvillae over the white wall, orange marigolds in gold pots and rainbow-colored puffy garlands of ribbon around an alabaster miniature house. I think this is a spirit house with offerings, but I don’t really know why or for what spirit or anything. I make a mental note to find out.
Maybe Rob and Anne will know. They said they will take me on a tour of a part of Bangkok, around Sukhumvit Road. We will got o the mall, they said, just a few malls, not really to shop, then tea and cake, then something else and something else and eventually dinner, that’s all I know. I also know without question that they will pay for everything and I try to settle into that notion and get comfortable. I smile at the grinning doorman who watches me and bows whenever I look at him. I pull my shoulders back and stand up straight. I feel wet and pink. I realize that possibly the doorman thinks I’m rich, and I try to think of myself like that too.
A blue taxi.
Rob and Anne are tall and thin and white and look as Mid Western as anyone possibly could. She is wearing a straw hat with a pink ribbon around it and he is in khaki shorts and a light blue Hawaiian shirt. Calm but quick, they seem to simmer with information. I know they don’t have any children and I immediately feel a wealth of love and care emanating from them that has not been given sufficient outlet – until now. I step right into their open and outstretched arms. We embrace quickly and pop back in the cab.
The taxi turns around in my garage and we speed back the way they came, down my soi, around the corner, and out to Tong Lor. “Yeah, this is a great neighborhood,” Rob says, turning and grinning at me and Anne in the back. “There’s the
The taxi drops us off at the end of the soi, where Tong Lor meets with Sukhumvit, a ride of about five minutes; Rob warns it would take a lot longer with traffic. He pays the driver and we hop out, take the escalator up to the entrance of the sky train, where my first lesson of the day begins. Information comes rapidly, Rob and Anne’s voices cutting in and out, carrying on one another’s sentences. I’m listening keenly but relaxed now, enjoying the gentle volley of their words. There are only two trains, they tell me, the Sukhumvit line and the Silom line. The only place to change between them is at Siam. On the wall there is a very simple map. They point out my stop, Tong Lor, and theirs, Chit Lom, big green dots connected by black lines on a white background. They show me how to buy a single ride fare, then purchase a reusable card for me and top it up with 100 baht worth of rides. I have to take in my surroundings almost surreptitiously while attending to their advice. The station hangs in the air over a busy road, open air on all sides. It’s busy but not crowded. Thai pop music plays over loudspeakers and kiosk vendors sell mini pizzas topped with corn and pineapple, freshly squeezed juice, and intoxicatingly good-smelling almond waffles.
As we approach the turnstile, Anne touches me lightly on the shoulder. “Oh Emily,” she says, hear her sweet, easy smile audible in her voice. Looking up at her I see how it stretches wide across her milk-white face as she leans her long body down to talk to me. I like the incongruity of her young, excited expression and her lined neck and thinning hair. “I have to warn you about the gate. Watch out for the yellow triangles!” she says, and demonstrates by quickly scooting her hips through the opening, only moments before the heavy plastic turnstile snaps shut again with a puff of air.
We ride another escalator to the train platform, where a uniformed guard with a whistle polices the yellow line in front of the platform edge. I want to look down the track and see if the train is coming, take in the view, but as soon as I touch the yellow line with my foot a frantic whistle resounds from the other end of the platform. I pull toward it, at the police officer, indignant. “Jeez, dude,” I mutter to Rob and Anne, not at all chagrined. Depending on the MTA of New York City for my transportation needs has inspired my open contempt for transit workers. Though I can’t say I ever saw an MTA employee looking so spiffy in his uniform.
“Oh yeah,” Rob grins. “They’ll do that.”
The train arrives long and smooth as a bullet, its outside completely covered, as though wrapped, in advertisements. Getting up closer I can see that they are all done with a kind of pointillism, so that from inside the train you can still see perfectly out the window.
It’s freezing inside, a shock to the system that starts out refreshing but quickly becomes too much. TVs near every other door blare advertisements in Thai. The chairs and poles are all bright yellow plastic and people both sit and stand, leaving a few open seats here and there. Everything looks shiny and new; Anne tells me that’s because you’re not allowed to bring food or drink on the sky train, or BTS, as it’s really called, and obviously there are people to enforce that. So far it seems far superior to me than the NYC subway, at least aside from the obnoxious TVs. We swish through the dazzling blue sky passing glass skyscrapers and rooftops, the slow, humid street clogged with traffic directly below.
After a couple of stops we get off again and Rob and Anne tell me this is the stop for their apartment but we’re not going there. Instead they’re going to take me through a few of the many massive, shiny shopping malls that cover this part of Sukhumvit. I didn’t exactly come to Bangkok to go to the mall, but I can already see that what Rob and Anne show me here and what I’ll discover on my own will be vastly different, and that that’s good. Above all I want to learn as much as possible here, to start to see it all, from everybody’s points of view. So, to the mall.
A glimmering, sparkling black glass, architectural feat of a mall, the Paragon shopping center is all green jungle foliage in white marble and waterfalls dripping down black granite. But aside from the extravagant entryway it’s like an upscale American mall only louder, brighter, and coutury-er. Chanel, Gucci, Fendi, Hermes – socialites want for nothing here but not a single shop do I see where I could actually buy anything. It’s okay though because we are just walking through and soon we pass through glass corridors in the sky, the busy streets visible again beneath us, into another mall, and then again to another. We pass the movie theater where Harry Potter and the Simpson’s movie are playing, just as they were in New York.
“This is a nice theater,” Rob says, pointing his thumb back at the marquee and pausing for a moment next to a wall full of movie posters. “They have this thing called the ‘King’ special where they have these Lazy Boy chairs and you get your own waitress for snacks or drinks or whatever. They have blankets, slippers probably.” He laughs. “The whole works.”
“Wow, I’ll have to check that out sometime,” I say, thinking that I certainly will never be able to afford that on my Fun English salary.
We leave the mall through an open concrete sidewalk in the sky now and I walk along between Rob and Anne. The sky train is above and the street below. The air smells of car fumes, meat burning, dog shit, oranges, incense. Clouds of smoke rise above an intersection in the distance and on sidewalk below there seems to be an even larger flurry of activity than everywhere else. This must be the Erawan shrine.
In the midst of designer malls and five-star hotels, behind a white iron fence opening up onto the street, a golden statue of the Hindu four-faced Brahma glitters under the adamant sun. Every inch of the god’s temple is covered in garlands of marigolds, stems of orchids and lotuses, hand-written notes, food, fruit, drinks, and burning candles and incense. Behind the statue, under a low roof, men tap padded mallets on wooden xylophones while women in traditional dress slowly bend their long, thin hands this way and that. Rob and Anne tell me that the shrine is a tourist attraction, but I see few other white faces in the bustling enclosure, and I am the only one holding a camera. Everyone else appears to be Thai, Chinese, or both, and I get the feeling that the shrine is not a special destination for them, but a place to stop for a break from shopping or work, to make an offering or a wish.
We walk up to the entrance of the shrine past lottery ticket vendors and wicker boxes full of small birds that you can buy to then set free. Rob explains to me that this is just one of the many things you can do to “make merit” in Thai Buddhism. You can also leave offerings to Buddha – the flowers, food, and drinks placed before a statue – or put any of the above into a monk’s alms bowl. It sounds to me like the outdated Catholic practice of buying indulgences, basically paying for good karma. “But who is Erawan?” I ask Rob, and he explains that Erawan is the Thai name for Arivata, the three-headed elephant known in Hinduism for carrying the god, Indra. There’s also a four-faced golden statue of Brahma. People light incense and kneel before the statues, burning sticks smoking between their praying palms, lips moving silently as they bow again and again. I’m confused because I thought Thailand was a Buddhist country but Rob explains that the form of Buddhism here is special. The Thais are adept at absorbing the influence of other cultures while retaining their own, Rob says, so plenty of Hinduism and Animism has gotten mixed up into their Buddhism. They are more superstitious than anything, he says, so anything that they think might possibly bring them luck will be welcome.
“This is pretty much just a big spirit house,” Rob says. Anne is wandering somewhere else by herself, reading inscriptions, watching people. “I saw you have a spirit house outside of your apartment building. They’re so the spirits of the dead ancestors or whoever else don’t feel the need to come into the home and bother the living. You’ve got to give them a place to stay and food to eat if you expect to leave them alone. That’s what’s going on here. They had some trouble with building this hotel and so they put up the shrine. I guess it went better the next time around.” Rob grins. I am grateful to have a guide of such an intellectual caliber. He tells me that people surmise that perhaps this flexible sensibility that explains in part why Thailand is the only South East Asian country to have never been occupied by an outside power. “That is, technically,” he says.
“So no religious violence?” I ask, disbelieving.
“A little,” he says. “Down South, against Muslims. Probably not the best place to travel at the moment.”
I think about this as Anne and I pick flaked pieces of gold leaf from the ground and press them carefully into the elephants’ foreheads, another way of making merit. She shows me a font of water which can be prayed or wished over, then patted on head, hands, and face as extra good luck - like holy water, but more accessible. I make no offerings other than to reapply the gold leaf. After asking all my questions I smile shyly at Rob and Anne, too unsure yet to attempt anything spiritual in their presence, too unversed in the ways of Buddhism, and especially Hinduism, to feel comfortable making any offering to anyone. I don’t know if Rob and Anne are religious, but I would guess probably not based on his family, who as far as I know don’t belong to any church. I wonder what it’s like not to wonder to the point of worry about the nature of reality.
“I know that we were supposed to go to the Erawan tea room for our snack, Rob, but what if we went to the Intercon for High Tea instead?” Anne asks. “If we head over now I think we can just make it. Oh, it’s so lovely Emily. They have these adorable little sandwiches and dim sum and the best, just the best chocolate fountain.”
“Sure, yeah. Sign me up!” I say, my mouth watering instantly at her description. I’ve always wanted to go to a High Tea. “I’m game if Rob is.”
“Why not?” he says. “It’s only across the street. We can cross over through Amarin Plaza.”