Take the superhighway from Chiang Mai towards the village of Doi Saket. You'll stop and go for 20 minutes, trying not to inhale too much exhaust, then drive for 20 minutes more once the traffic untangles itself and starts to flow. The countryside will open into rice patties and banana groves. Office buildings, schools and markets will become occasional gas stations and sausage stands. When you see the white spire and red-gold rooftops of Wat Doi Saket shining on a hilltop to the east, you're getting close. Turn left off the highway on a street marked with a cluster of Thai script signs and one Pepsi symbol.
Follow this winding street to a small road that parallels the long white wall of another temple, whose name is impossible for me to remember or pronounce. Turn right just after crossing the canal. Now putter down a narrow lane lined with small family homes -- some the traditional Thai wooden-box-on-stilts design, others the modern whitewashed-walls-with-tile-floors model. Depending on the time of day, you could see uniformed school children biking to class (7:30 AM), hear monks chanting in their timeless nasal monotone (7-8 PM), or pass Mae Noi going to market on her motorbike (3 AM, 10 AM). I would never want to drive a full-sized car on this residential soi, as it is only slightly wider than the Boulder Creek Path, and nearly as trafficked by people on two wheels or feet. Not to mention the stray dogs and idiotic chickens.
It's easiest to find our house on Saturday and Sunday, because my host father's younger sister A Ning, her daughter Donut, and my host brother's girlfriend No Noi set up a fantastic weekend food stand right next to our driveway. They're always there when Mae Noi and I return from the market around 5 PM, standing behind 8 silver pots of glorious cuisine. Pumpkin coconut soup, rice noodle curry with parsley, chives, and pickled onions, spicy bamboo shoots, mango sticky rice, crab papaya peanut chili salad, fish and vegetable stew, and whatever else they felt like cooking that morning. It seems like the whole village stops by on weekend afternoons -- crooked old men on bicycles, young women with healthy round-faced babies, the occasional distant teenage boy, beautiful 4'8'' grandmothers who receive utmost respect -- picking up a bag of pad ga prow muu for dinner and grinning in kindness, incredulity or surprise (can't tell) at the giant white girl.
Mai Noi's front yard is scattered with chickens, drying laundry, banana trees, and songbirds in cages made of thin bamboo. The house itself is modestly sized and uncannily spotless: living room, 2 bedrooms, bathroom, kitchen. However, it feels much more spacious than that, because we spend most of our time hanging out on the front porch with everyone in the neighborhood. Paw Teet's whole extended family -- younger sister and brother, mother, and uncle, with their respective spouses and children -- live within 50 meters of each other. Most every night the women from each household will bring a dish or two to Mae Noi's porch, and they will drink and talk and eat, while I eat and drink and listen. Sometimes, by popular demand, I bring out my guitar. For inexplicable reasons, the only American songs they know are Take Me Home, Country Roads and Have You Ever Seen the Rain. On a good night, the little kids dance like wild creatures while the men bang out percussion on their whiskey bottles.
Without question, the event of the weekend was Nou-Nou's haircut. This is our very silly terrier, who at first was so hairy I don't think he could even see. But Golf (my brother) and No Noi took him to be shaved on Sunday, and everyone at the Doi Saket market seemed to know about it. I lost track of how many times a customer or neighboring vendor would wander over with their eyes crinkled in laughter and say "Nou-Nou... SKEENHEHD!!!" He looks like a little rat-dog now, but I'm sure he is much happier. Wearing that kind of a coat in the tropics could not have been comfortable.
Perhaps to celebrate the shaving of Nou-Nou, Mae Noi made a remarkable salad for dinner yesterday. It had lettuce, tomatoes, peppermint, slices of a tart cucumber-esque vegetable, gray uncooked shrimp, and whole cloves of raw garlic. I took one bite that happened to contain two of these action-packed garlic cloves, and I thought my head and stomach were going to explode. I was dancing around the yard the way my astoundingly uncoordinated and energetic 5-year-old host cousin does for his favorite Na-Li guitar tune, "Baby Beluga." If you've never eaten raw garlic, try it sometime. It is a unique epicurian experience!
Other cultural/culinary adventures so far include barbeque pork intestines (chewy, but saved by an amazing dipping sauce), marinated gummy worms (which, in context, made me want to cry), and the bowl of blood (needs no explanation).
I love being part of this family! The grandmother, strong as steel, who smiles and chats with me even though she must know I can't understand a word she says; the bright and adorable 16-year-old Donut; the even further misnamed Focus (pronounced Phu-KAT) who is the most precocious 5-year-old in Chiang Mai Province; his mother, tough-loving A No, who fondly calls me "Giant Girl;" the men who insist I speak in Northern dialect, bellowing "sawatdee CHAO!" whenever I greet them with the general Thai "sawatdee kha;" A Ning with her ridiculous cowboy hat and unbeatable work ethic; and of course, the indefatigable Mae Noi. This full immersion is a gift. I wouldn't trade any of it -- even the now-familiar sensation that my head is going to explode.