Thursday, 31 July 2008

Making It Home Again

Getting home after a few months away is often disorientating, especially when the season has changed from dry to rainy. Thailand is so very different when in drought or flood. Now as I gaze out from my upstairs balcony the colours are bright, dominated by greens and the sky is patterned with towering thunder clouds that from time to time show us the power of nature with a torrential downpour.

The house has also changed because it hasn’t been left empty while I’ve been away. Cat and the family have been here all the time and so everything has been moved round. The buffalo cart has been put outside on the verandah, there are some new cupboards and all the furniture seems to be in a different place.

I always spend my first few days looking for everything I want that’s utterly and hopelessly lost. I’m pacing around distractedly wondering if my rubber boots have been shoved away somewhere or if it’s my grey matter that’s at fault. Stepping from one world to another when I fly to England, the details of what I leave behind are too easily deleted from my ageing floppy disc and I now feel an idiot hunting round the place like a total stranger.

The house has developed a bit since I went away but the ‘garden’ has changed out of all recognition.

In MY THAI GIRL AND I there’s a chapter called, “Is It a Farm or a Garden?” where I moan about the different attitudes to this piece of land we all live on. As it's primarily a book about the vast cultural differences between me as an urban Western male and my rural Asian wife, what exactly we do with our ‘garden’ is one of the many unavoidable stress points. Cat thinks of it primarily as a farm and I as a garden.

As I survey it four years on, it seems we have now found a good compromise. I enjoy that middle class frippery, a lawn mower, and Cat has loads of fruit trees and as big a vegetable plot as she could ever want to cultivate.

Whenever I get back home after some time away the grass is usually longer than I’d want because the mower has been belted to destruction and is in lying in the garage in bits. This time two of the three bolts holding the Briggs and Stratton engine to the chassis have fallen off and the engine is threatening to detach itself and fly off like a helicopter. A screw holding the tiny petrol tank has also dropped off and, unsupported, the tank has split and there’s petrol flying everywhere.

So a few days ago I did a run into Surin in the pickup and take it to a rare place that plays with mowers. I ask for the usual service and carefully point out in Thai and sign language that it needs an oil change, the filter and plug cleaning and the blade sharpening.

When I return for a third.time they say the mower is ready at last. It’s lying on its side in the gutter, the old black oil running out all over the engine and chassis, Yes, they have fitted two new bolts and changed the oil but they’ve forgotten all the other things. It’s still the Land of Smiles though and I smile grimly as I stand over the boy and watch him finish the job.

Home again I exult in mowing my patch. It’s a stressful time when the grass is long and growing wild and I can’t get to cut it but now I’m happy again as I can control my environment in this one small way.

I’m streaming with sweat as I roar round in flimsy flip flops (I never did find my boots), mowing manically and cursing when the machine stalls in the long grass. They all think me quite mad. It’d be much more useful to let the grass grow and cut it for the buffaloes, but it’s my garden and I think it now looks wonderful. It really is a garden but with concessions to being a farm and so after five years Cat and I are still together.

In the book I mentioned how sad I was when Cat had half the back garden ploughed with ridges for planting instead of designing something a bit more suburban. In the black and white picture that went in the book it does look pretty bleak.

But that was four years ago and now with all Cat’s hard work, it’s been transformed into something very green and pleasant. From upstairs I look down on the vegetable patch she has just redug and planted with seeds for vegetables. Around it there’s a blue net to keep out the hordes of chickens that have been multiplying while I’ve been away. Admiring all this, I keep quiet and don’t mention that our chickens are pretty good at flying… my life wouldn’t be worth living if I did.

So now after nearly two weeks back here a nine hour journey from Bangkok, I think I’ve found all my stuff except the boots and it’s become my place once more. I can’t exactly say I’m acclimatized though, because it’s very hot at the moment, even for Isaan. The rains haven’t been too good either and much of the rice is standing in dry fields but that’s another story and a much more serious one than my garden.

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