I wrote the following post while I was still in India, and though I landed in Thailand at 3:00 this morning (hello red-eye flight with five children!), I'm posting it now. I also want to say thank you for your generous and loving comments and emails in response to my last post. I am glad you understand, and even resonate with the crazy things I write sometimes.
The people in my Goan village like to practice tooth hygiene in public. Each morning I say hello to people who are brushing their teeth outside. One of my neighbors has a toothbrush in his mouth for what seems like much of the day, and I even pass people driving scooters with toothbrushes hanging out of their mouths. Recently Johanna saw someone hammering at a wall and brushing his teeth at the same time. In parts of India, using the facilities is a social event (and I’m using the word “facilities” lightly, because the facilities are a field or the train tracks) but in this Goan fishing village, the cleaning of one’s molars is the social event.
I went to the Mapusa market a couple weeks ago, to buy fabric for Kenya’s birthday dress. I fall in love with India again every time I go to the market— there are just so many moments of quirkiness in every excursion. This is what I miss about India, when I am in Thailand. The quirk. It’s there in Thailand, of course, but you have to dig for it a little more.
There’s the slightly outrageous Romeo of a perfumer, carrying a respectable paunch and sporting a mustache to be proud of. “This perfume is completely you. I know.” he was saying to a woman sitting on one of his stools, when I walked up to buy perfume oil and handmade incense. He applied some to her hand, and she sniffed at it. She seemed skeptical. “No, I know,” he assured her. “This is you. You are from Italy, yes?” “No,” she said. “From Mexico.” “Oh,” he said. “Well, this is for you, I can see.”
I bought some oil, he had prescriptions for me, too—though he always wants me to buy light, floral things, when I like stronger, fruity scents—people are always judging me by the color of my hair. As I left the shop, he was talking to some Russian women about perfume and wowing them with his Russian words. He’s the kind of Indian shop proprietor from olden days in Goa, the kind who buys chai for his customers. A little more outrageous than normal, but he always keeps it on the right side of respectful, despite the flirtatious eyes.
At the cloth shop the polite elder man who is the father of the shop called to me from the door. “Yes madam?” He helped me find the satin I wanted, and then asked, “You are from Denmark?” I can honestly say it was the first time anyone has ever assumed that I was from Denmark, though people often ask if I am Dutch and sometimes speak to me in German. (My makeup is actually mainly British Isles- all the United Kingdom’s countries in one- with a splash of German.) This cloth shop owner is a certain type of Indian man, the kind that reminds me of my own grandfather, exceedingly refined and rather elegant in his simple way. “We are famous in Goa,” he said. “Shop number 10. Outside, also.” In Goa, everything is “In Goa,” or “Outside.”
At the craft shop where I bought ribbon and zippers, the owners were just as contemptuously dismissive of me as ever. Comforting. I drank a mosambi juice and drove home in the golden light of the end of the day.
This week I have been paying my dues to the gypsy community by looking at various pieces of fabric that the gypsy beach sellers call “sarongs.” I made friends with some of them years ago, and so each time I come I have to look at what they are selling at least once. We talk about our children and how life has been for them this year (hard) and how much they have to work (a lot) and then, after a significant pause during which we sit together and watch the sea in silence, because it is their job to hustle and to live they have to do it, they ask, “Look at my sarongs today?” I usually put them off with “not today,” until a day close to when I will leave. This week I found a couple of sarongs from each person, a string of lotus seeds, a string of blue glass beads, and two scarfs for Chinua. I bartered, but not down to the ground.
A new road is being built in front of our house, blocking us in so that we live on a sort of island now. The villages pulled out all the coconut trees that were in the way, hiring a backhoe to do it, and in the process broke half our front wall down. Right now the rock breakers are breaking huge piles of the Goan volcanic rock to form a sort of rock road which will be covered in sand and then asphalt. In true Indian style, no one told us anything about this, (you have to take care of yourself in India, no one will deliver a letter to your door saying that the road will be closed from this date to that date) and one day it just occurred to me that I had better park our scooter somewhere else, because I wouldn’t be able to get it out of our yard after the rocks spread to the front of our gate. So I moved it, and this morning the first pile of rocks were dumped right in front of our gate. The rock breakers are migrant workers— and they have made a little camp under the banyan tree in the coconut grove, including a toilet area made by forming a triangle of privacy with an old sari and digging a hole in the ground.
In our community we are closing up the houses for the season and Johanna from Germany (we also have Johanna from Switzerland) and I brought bags of stuff to the recycling place, where men sort through all the plastics and bottles and paper and cloth and get what small amounts of money they can. In the caste system, this is a low job, and these men are poor and work very hard. One man took our things from us and Johanna had brought some of her recycling in a cloth bag. The man took the bag and emptied it, and when I started to take it from him, he pulled it back and folded it very carefully, smoothing the fabric together before he gave it to me. This small act of courtesy touched me more than anything has in a long time. I go about my days never knowing what small thing will reach deeply into my heart.
I have chopped endless tomatoes and onions in my old kitchen and cooked the food that I am most comfortable cooking. Cooking Indian food is like a long happy sigh, though my feet have ached on the marble floors. In these last weeks, people in our community here have daily walked by my window, popped their heads in our doorway, have come in to help while I make community lunch on Wednesday. This is something I can do. I can cook for a big group of people. I can make chai.
In many ways I tried to make myself into a proper Indian woman in the years that I lived here, and in many ways I shrugged that idea right off of me (running away alone on my scooter, scandalous!) but when I moved to Thailand I didn’t know what kind of woman to be. I look around me always, searching for a template or a form to pour myself into. This friend does life like this and this one does life like that, and I’m always watching. Lately I’m thinking that I need to stop the looking around, stop trying to find a culture to fit myself into, stop thinking about other people’s kitchens when I am in my own. What are you, Rachel? What kind of woman are you?
The kind who is more comfortable reading and writing and drawing than making grocery lists or remembering more than one day of shopping at a time while at the market. The kind who has a big family but has never been a very organized mother, who loves spontaneous things most of all and can’t seem to get her kids to bed before ten these days, because they read quietly and she forgets to check on them. The kind whose temper flares up quickly, causing her eleven-year-old son to use his “let’s appease mother quickly” voice, but who makes up for it by spending all her hours with them, beside them, reading to them, cooking for them. The kind who can be very selfish inside. The kind who loves beauty and making beautiful things for her home, but when given the choice, will always choose to write or read.
Truthfully, I have always wanted a set of rules for what I should do or be. This is one of the reasons I like traditional cultures so much. I can get through any interaction in Thailand gracefully. In Canada or the U.S., it’s anyone’s guess. Chat? Don’t chat? Make eye contact? Don’t make eye contact? Sigh. But I am a girl from a country that prides itself on being multicultural, on being a collection of cultures rather than one assimilated culture, and there is no such thing as a proper Canadian woman. Unless, of course, it is a woman who watches and observes, and love and learns. And then, I guess, I’m doing okay.