Sitting in the dining car of the night train to Chiang Mai, warm night air in our faces as the lights of Northern Thai towns raced past us, I whispered to Miles, “This part. I want to remember this part for the rest of our lives — the time we rode the night train to Chiang Mai.” “Okay,” he said, arm around my shoulder, and we watched the lights some more.
We’ve been in Chiang Mai for over a week, over our jet lag at this point, and starting to find the rhythm of our lives on this journey. It’s a perfect city for this — smaller and less humid than exhilarating, steamy Bangkok, the walled “Old Quarter” here is filled with golden temples and intriguing alleyways, easy to wander and explore on foot; the outskirts of the city quickly give way to hills and jungle, with endless options for outdoor adventures. (And a perfect example of the ways in which this trip is different with children than it would have been without them: without children, I would likely never have found myself careening down a 600 foot zipline, hundreds of feet in the air, jungle canopy below — so very far below me. And in fact, I will let one of the boys tell you about that adventure. Suffice it to say — I surprised myself).
Our guesthouse is run by a few astonishingly kind young women, who patiently answer all our questions, from the best place to visit elephants to the nuances of the resident house spirit. There are many expats here, and it’s easy to see why. Earlier this week, I was talking with the Irish owner of a used bookstore, who shared stories of the time he had the misfortune to fall ill in San Francisco (“They wanted $25,000 — and I was only in the hospital for four hours!”) — who plausibly enumerated the many reasons that it’s easier to live in Chiang Mai than in Northern California.
But we are certainly not expats, and I am keenly aware of the fact that we haven’t quite found our stride yet. We started a little bit of homeschooling, which has so far amounted only to a pretty minimal set of math problems for each child, and we continue to demand they write in journals on a more or less daily basis, which has given rise to more arguments and resistance than seems really reasonable. We have also spent a significant amount of time shooting pool in various local establishments, which is a new skill for both kids, and which I am hoping can plausibly count as some sort of achievement in either geometry or, perhaps, physics. Realizing the limits of all these pastimes, we have been thinking about other ways to provide more of a grounding for ourselves — ways to connect more with people and places rather than just looking at sights. Certainly, those moments of connection are the ones that resonate most strongly with all of us.
Today, for instance, we stopped in a little store to buy tissues, because Jonah had a runny nose. The proprietor spoke little English, but we were able to find some kleenex packages and point to them, and he was able to tell us the price, and then Jonah surprised all of us by reaching into his wallet to pull out the money for the purchase. The shop keeper was delighted and amused by this, and kept patting Jonah and grinning, “Good boy! Good boy!”
These are the moments I find myself treasuring most of all, and wanting to write about so that I can recall them later on: not just the golden Buddhas or the green hills, but the moments in which we reach outside our tiny, inseparable family unit and get a fleeting glimpse through the window of this other culture. At one temple today, I watched a group of young monks laughing and buying ice creams from a street vendor, prayer flags waving in the trees overhead. My boys stopped their own silly games, watched shyly, then finally approached the vendor and bought their own ice creams (with sprinkles and fruit sauce, but minus a suspicious looking clear “jelly”). We looked at each other — tourist boys in their sweat stained T-shirts, monks in their orange robes, ice cream vendor patiently handing out treats all around — inevitably, perhaps, some part of me imagined an encounter in which one of the monks reveals the secrets of enlightenment to my children, and we all recognize the truth of our interconnected beings. But the trick, I suppose, is in finding the right lens to reveal the truth that is already there. Ice cream, with or without jelly, is delicious on a hot day. And boys, in robes or in T shirts, will laugh and tease each other, and avoid their school work. We are different, and yet not so different. The connections are happening all around us — my goal now is to slow down enough to recognize them.