CITIES, travel notes

Bangkok, day #1

From my travel diary, 12 June 2011.

It is on days like today that I return to the long-standing question of whether I’m royally fucking myself over by living in Australia.

The very edge of Bangkok, so far from the centre it is almost in another province; the edge of the centre of Melbourne, the near-edge, 15-minute walk to the central train station. That edge of Bangkok at 6am is more lively than that near-centre of Melbourne at noon. But, not to be all negative all the time: the near-centre of Melbourne noon is more lively than the edge of Bangkok at midnight. By a small margin.

The taxis are bright pink, orange, blue, green and multicolour, 7-Elevens come by the thousands, and the city has 12 million souls, but can still be traversed, edge to edge, on wonky public transport, changing three times, in under an hour. Balconies everywhere (I love balconies). The city functions as trees of streets rather than districts – you find your big street, the smaller street that branches off, the tiny street that branches off, the house. Big streets are all infrastructure, elevated, wide, with pedestrian walkways, but there is no way to kill this city by quartering.

I have been on seven modes of moveable transport today, and notable infrastructure included pedestrian bridges, multi-storeys shopping malls connecting parts of the city at multiple levels, and covered market streets. The modes of transport: taxi, rickety bus, small shuttle bus, ‘local bus’ (which is a derelict rickety bus), provincial bus (which is a mini-truck with two benches in the back), ferry, and tuk tuk (which is a vespa for four with an awning). One of the buses, I forget which, had fans attached to the ceiling for air-conditioning. They all had doors open to maximise breeze, except the truck-bus, which was all open and people would run and jump on.

I sit here, in this big beautiful city, a city which is all shonky, all makeshift, but is essentially a good, functioning city – the way most of Melbourne is not a good, functioning city – and I feel at ease and I feel at home. Walking down these suburban alleys at midnight, dodging scooters, boys painting walls, girls frying meat, kids playing, I am relaxed, and calmly happy, and this sense of ease is as unpremeditated and spontaneous as the way in which, standing in outer suburban Melbourne, I automatically feel distressed and unhappy. This feels familiar and known.

Thailand is like some sort of Croatia for South-East Asia: tourism, water, cracked sidewalks, people who smile. Everything comes in a way I would expect it to come to me on the Croatian coast, only in unintelligible script. Parent coo and mock their children; babies too small to have friends (because independence comes with friends) roam around trying to break stuff and kill themselves; older children play outrageously late and outrageously loudly; women in their thirties wear denim shorts; chairs in good restaurants are made of plastic; we walk through traffic. In the evening, women are sitting on the floor outside their houses chatting. Backyards are at the front, and paved over. Plastic buckets everywhere. Faint smell of stale water wherever you go, like in Venice. And the best restaurant outside town is in the same kind of rotting modernist seaside building as they would be in Croatia; and the personnel consists mostly of teenagers, as it would in Croatia; and the teenagers hang around while they’re finishing work, in big groups, girls rolling eyes at boys in a loving manner. It’s all so stupidly close to my last summer of high school, spent doing work experience in a crummy coastal hotel with a bunch of kids and barely any supervision, leading to the same combination of underpayment, dilligence, and flirting, that the kids were displaying tonight.

I have the same vortex of immediate recognition when I see images of Israel (again: only in unintelligible script), like a thin thread of Mediterraneanness, or at least coastalness (Sydney does the same, if not too inland), that makes us all mutually intelligible to each other, and I know with the blind conviction of someone not-entirely-sane that I could live here, and I could be happy here. Even without speaking the language. When these people heartily laugh at me for being a foreigner and not understanding their language, when they sing songs with their four-year-old daughters in restaurants, when I see a pink-collared teenager running hands through her mall co-worker’s hair while she is serving a customer without any sense of impropriety, or when I walk through the end of the night at the big hall of the seaside restaurant, and the band performs on a synthesiser, the girl sings slightly off-key, and on the dance floor there is only a young woman with an elderly man (but everyone applauds at the end) – I understand these people. They make sense to me.

And then I start wondering again about whether I’m just undermining my own happiness by staying in Australia, for no reason good enough, nothing but habit and indecisiveness. In a real, genuine way, in which I am asking this question all the time. My being in Australia often amounts to a kind of waiting for it to become really enjoyable. Keeping tabs (like someone else I knows does, of dinners served versus dinners received). Cutting my expectations down always slightly more finely. Having to discard yet another boyfriend because, when I thought I had found someone with a sense of Mediterranean easy-going joie-de-vivre, I had actually gotten myself an irresponsible lunatic (who usually takes himself way too seriously). That kind of stop-start. Stop-start.

It is only a little past 10pm here, and I will now change into my own short denim shorts, and go for a stroll around the neighbourhood, to find a snack, sit on the footpath, and make friends with someone who doesn’t speak English.

Standard