Tuesday, 24 January 2012

Kitchen Talk

I love the Thai ladies who work in kitchen. Thailand might be the land of smiles, but Isaan, the poorest province of Thailand, is the land of roaring laughter. Laughter of the kind that makes you feel first embarrassed, then upset, then it makes you simply abandon your ego and accept that yes all you do is plain stupid. You farang ( foreigner) coming from another world definitely have no clue what is going on so you might as well just embrace it. I love the ladies in the kitchen. They laugh without restrain. They never really care what someone else might be thinking of their laughter. They laugh at you, and at each other. They laugh at themselves. If you pay close attention you might realise that in their generosity they are in fact inviting you to laugh with them.

Joy is back. Whatever were the problems she had to set up home, they are now set. And so we are back to lots of hugs till you can no longer breathe. There is also a new lady in the kitchen. Kung who is 32 but like most Thai people in their 30s looks in her 20s. She is pure happiness. She always asks me if I am hungry or happy. How is it that we communicate, I wonder? Broken English, broken Thai, miming and laughter.

Today as I was walking around the garden I saw them all seating under the sun. They always do it when things calm down for some minutes. They sat under the shades of the jackfruit trees. Apart from all the women in the Kitchen there was also Non, the handyman who can do literally everything, and Oy, the massage lady. They were laughing at her. She looked sick and exhausted.

“Are you sick?” I ask.


Then they all start laughing again. I can’t really understand what the heck is going on.

“Massage Man.”

“What? tired of the massage?” I ask.

They signal using their hands to show me the man Oy massaged smelled. Oy is now smelling tiger balm to recover.

“Oh!” I say. “Farang. They don’t shower.”

We all crack up. I can’t believe Oy is smelling tiger balm to recover. It is just too funny.

I tell them in Brazil we shower twice a day. Morning and Evening.

“Same same Thailand. Brasil good. " exclaims Joy

"I like Ronaldinho” laughs Wii.

I can’t really believe that even the ladies in the kitchen in Nong Khai know Ronaldinho.

Then they laugh about his front teeth. They tell me Thailand is bad in football and they, the ladies, like to play cards for money.

“For MONEY?”

“Little. 1 Baht”

We all laugh.

“JulieTAH ( as they call me) work here when”

I now am an expert in speaking and understanding broken English so I know it means that they are asking me till when I will be staying here. It means more in fact. It means they care.


They look shocked. 1 month ?

“Going to Burma.” I explain.

Lots of shocked faces looked back at me. “Maynamar ? Why?"

"Why not?"

“Not good. Not clean.”

I am curious to discover what are the prejudices these ladies who have never been there have against the Burmese. I, of course, cannot find that out in sign language. I just keep asking the same question.

Why? Why? Why?”

Eventually Pook tells me.

“Joke. Same Same Thailand”

As Roxanna appears later and attempts to speak her Thai, and I try to learn words we cannot stop laughing. People must think we are crazy.

Yes in exact one month I will be flying to finally see Burma. The country I did not see three years ago. When I bought the ticket months ago I imagined that by that time I would have had enough of being in one place. I am starting to think that I might have been wrong.

How could I possibly live without this roaring laughter? Without the Mekong? Without the sunsets? The simplicity of life. Helping people who show up. Hearing the amazing stories.

We, the Nong Khai victims, call jokingly Mut Mee a black whole. Only one month to go and I am already nostalgic. Well, I might do like everyone else. I might just have to come back once again. Well, I am sure I will.

Monday, 23 January 2012

Life Stories

I do not like writing one day after the other but last night I heard an epic story. So interesting it was that I who had accepted the invitation of a gorgeous English man to go check up Chinese New Year celebrations in town stayed behind to hear the story of a 76 year old lady. Wow, and how worth it was.

They say in Brazil that life begins when you are forty. The sentence could not have been truer than for Carley, the Australian lady I checked in about a week ago. Until last night all I knew from her was that she had spent lots of time in Kashmir, that she read voraciously the newspaper and that she was very friendly.

Where to even start?

"I arrived in Kashmir in the 80's. After crossing India, I arrived at the lake. I arrived in the house boat, and as I got out of the shikara I looked up. There was Kadir. I took one look and thought ' There you are. I was looking for you for my whole life. And I did not even know it."

Kadir, a Muslim Cashmere married man. Kadir who lived in a place that was about to be set in turmoil, war, killings in the eternal struggle of the Kashmere valley.

But that is not where the story starts. The story starts with a girl in Australia who got pregnant and married very early. A girl who spent a life in academia, in a loveless marriage and then became a political activist. A woman who is part of the group who set all legislation that till this day protects the forests of New South Wales and the rivers of Tasmania. By her forties her husband changed political activism for Rajneesh, also know as Osho. That was it for Carley.

Carley left the world of academia and learned to be a nurse, a practical work that could ensure her work anytime, anywhere. And so it was that she left at forty for the first time to see the world. She never stopped since then. She first went to China.

"I went in as a socialist, came back as an avid supporter of democracy."

Back to Australia to work a bit more and off she went to India. Met by the unscrupulous heat of India she immediately realized she needed to go up to the mountains. How to do it? At the time traveling through these roads was not so easy as they were mainly for the military. She met an Indian devotee of Gandhi and followed him to Manali. From Manali she went to Kashmir on her own carrying with her a bottle of Cointreau .

For those of you who know the very famous book Shataram Carley spent the first three nights of her Kashmir stay drinking with Kadir and Gregory David Roberts. Wishing him to disappear and leave her to be alone with Kadir. And so it happened that they started an affair that would change both of their lives forever.

Kadir’s wife was sent away and Carley stayed. She became close to his kids. She did not fully understand at first the impact she had had in that poor woman’s life. When she met Kadir he was suicidal. Unhappily married in an arrange wedding. He was unhappy in Kashmir having lost his older son and having left two daughters. In some parts of the world that is a true disaster. Carley was herself recovering from her own traumas. They helped each other.

For the next years she went back to Kashmir. She brought tourists. She paid for schooling and doctors and everything that was needed for his family. Always going back to work as a nurse. She was then able to get him a visa to come to Australia and so he worked every Cashmere winter of the following 10 years in Australia.

Carley suddenly realized she wanted to see more of the world. She could not just keep going to Kashmir. In the middle of the 80 she traveled alone through all the Stan countries (Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan etc ), Azerbaijan, Armenia in winter seeing first hand starvation and what the Soviet Union was doing to the place. As she arrived in Turkey and saw piles of Tomatoes and fruits all around she knew the Soviet Union would collapse very soon.

She loved Istanbul, but tired of the cold went south to Egypt. Loved Cairo hated how she was treated. After having seen the beauty of Islamic architecture all over she found Egypt was all about building big things. She missed Kadir and wanted to go back to India. In Egypt they would not give her a visa, she went to Jordan, they also refused it, she took a bus to Damascus only to arrive in the middle of Palestinian uprising because of the killing of someone I do not remember the name of.

She was eventually able to go back to Kashmir. By this time the violence had restarted. The army would round up man and make one Cashmere pick three militants or else that man would be killed. The women many times would come and surround men and army. Then violence escalated with children being shot in shikaras and even inside mosques.

She was furious. She was too outspoken.

“There was it. I had to either pick up weapons or leave. I was putting my family in danger for being so outspoken. The girls were growing up and I was a huge scandal there. His children needed their mother. I paid for her to have an operation to no longer have babies. I made a mess in that lady’s life. By then I started understanding the real dimensions of my arrival in their life. I had to go.”

“When was this Carley?”

“2003. I left.”

“Have you been back?”


“ Are you going to see him again ?”

“In another life I am sure. I am certain if there are other lives we have met many times before.”

“Do you feel guilt?”

“Yes. I feel some guilt for what I caused to that woman’s life.”

But her face lifts up.

“Do you want to know something incredible? My daughter was in India last year and she wrote me to ask whether she could go visit Kadir. She loved him. He was a charming man who enchanted my whole family. I agreed and was very clear that it was of outmost importance that she should be respectful to his wife. And so she went and I saw a million pictures of them together. His wife hugging my daughter! And then she told me that Kadir told her that neither him nor his wife will have anything to do with the decision of who his daughters will marry. It will be their own choice. I was shocked. I was shocked. I felt happy beyond belief. This is the most important thing now. They must have good weddings.”

As I hear the story in details. Ask every single question in the world. Go through the feelings myself. The complexity of humanity. The coexistence of a multiplicity of feelings. As I imagine in my mind the places I have visited being in war, being destroyed I feel an eerie feeling. I am so moved. I know these mosques, these boats, these shikaras she talks about. I even know Kadir. How many Kadirs have I met along the way in a mixture of gentleness with old traditions. People who we imagine so different but are always willing to go to different places than the ones they have been to.

“Carley, Thank You. This is an amazing story. I am so thankful to have heard.”

“Thank You. It is just a life!”

The Power of Stories

Two years ago I came to Mut Mee for the first time. At the time although I had studied a lot about Middle Eastern politics I had never been there, nor had I really had any personal encounters with middle easterners. It was at Mut Mee that I met the first Israeli that challenged my black and white thoughts about the Palestinian Israeli situation. From then on it has been as most of you who have been in this list long enough quite a deep dive in the political, academic, personal, emotional, rational, visceral, crazy world of that conflict.

It is somehow surreal how much in one way or another I always get caught up in it. It does not matter where I am Palestinians and Israelis always find me. And when they do I am now a bridge between these worlds to these individuals. Something incredibly surreal for a non Jewish, non Arab Brazilian citizen who has been crossing borders for as long as she remembers.

But back to two years ago, after I met the first Israeli who challenged me I met an older couple here. I wrote about them at the time. They had left Israel as a political statement. They were activist. She was a journalist. They moved to an island in the border of Thailand and Cambodia and here she changed topics of writing. Instead of writing about subversive topics she wrote the first ever written Thai food book in Hebrew.

I traveled Thailand at the time mainly with Israelis and once I went back my dissertation of my masters ended up being about the Israeli Palestinian conflict. From my masters I went into my PhD, I visited both Israel and Palestine, became friends with people in both sides of the wall. I cried in front of that wall and left feeling defeated.

I remember going to a human rights festival and watching the documentary Budrus which documents the struggle of Palestinians, Israelis and international activists to change the wall of separation that was at the time circumventing Budrus, a Palestinian village. I was deeply moved by the film. Not only because of the absurdity of a wall surrounding some villages and making it impossible for people to reach other parts of Palestine, but because of the power of people to unite in the face of absurdity to challenge injustice. The people gave me hope. Hope that humanity could go beyond ideologies.

I watched the film in London, found out it was made by a Brazilian friend of a friend of mine, and the people who gathered together came from everywhere in the world. The people protesting in the film came as well. As the filmmaker was present we were able to learn a lot about the 6 years of that protest. We learned about the Israelis who crossed illegally the wall to go to the protest to minimise the violence towards the Palestinians. We learned about the Israelis who slept in the house of Palestinians, about the soldiers who once released from the IDF changed sides and started to protest. We heard about the Palestinians who in turn protected the Israeli activists when the new order was to arrest Israeli activists for being illegally in Palestine. They did not care about the “imagined communities” they belonged to. They cared about what plain absurd. I cried the whole film. First out of anger then of emotion for human capacity to unite. As I watched the film I saw the man I had once met here. He was there, on a little clip of the news. I could not understand what he had said. It was not translated but I could see he was supporting the protest. I was so moved. I knew him. Even though I did not even know his Israeli name (but only his Thai one) I knew him and I knew what he stood for.

So it is that I am here not doing much when suddenly I see him and his wife in the garden. I am so excited. I run towards their table barely containing my emotion.

“Hi! You might not remember me. I know you so well. I heard you speak about your activism, and your book, and your experiences in the war, and I saw you in Budrus and and and and and” There was so much to tell. How could I explain to them how much they had changed me, affected me, how that one encounter had meant so much to me. How could I say it in one sentence all that happened since I had met them.

They looked at me surprised

“I remember you. You sing”

I sat and was able to vomit out some of what had happened to me in between now and then. They were of course very surprised. Now I could relate to almost all they talked about. I was astonished to find out they set up Uri Avenery, the Israeli 86 year old activist, website Gush Shalom. I really admire Uri Avnery’s writings. As I sat looking the Mekong I learned they too had moved here to Nong Khai. I learned their party had really grown. Their activism was still very active.

How strange is the world I thought. I am at Mut Mee. Julian, my friend and the owner, is half Palestinian. One of the new rooms and nicest rooms in the new building has a Star of David on the wall. It is a very syncretic star mixed in Buddhist and Hindu imagery. Julian had explained to me when I first arrived that the room was designed for his very good friend Carol who is Jewish Iraqi. “She is like me, cant go back to her family home, she is of the Diaspora”. Julian like, the Israeli couple does not think of nationalities, and groups he thinks of people. How many times have I heard him say “We are the same people.”

As I seat hearing the couple I feel an uncontained joy for being able to always encounter the nicest people. At night I don’t even want to waste time telling my Israeli friend about the terrible incident that happened two nights in a roll. I want to tell about this couple. I want to introduce them after all my friend is coming all the way here to visit me. I feel so happy.

As I seat looking at the Mekong I remember Uri’s words which are not new to me. As the couple tells me I have to share my experiences with the world I think I will post it. I will write once again about these people going around and changing the world. Changing perceptions in spite of ideologies. As we seat there I remember the words of Uri Avnery. They are not new but they are however important words:

“Nationalism is a relatively recent historical phenomenon. When a community decides to become a nation, it has to reinvent itself. That means inventing a national past, reshuffling historical facts (and non-facts) in order to create a coherent picture of a nation existing since antiquity. Hermann the Cherusker, member of a Germanic tribe who betrayed his Roman employers, became a “national” hero. Religious refugees who landed in America and destroyed the native population became a “nation”. Members of an ethnic-religious Diaspora formed themselves into a “Jewish nation”. Many others did more or less the same.

Indeed, Newt would profit from reading a book by a Tel Aviv University professor, Shlomo Sand, a kosher Jew, whose Hebrew title speaks for itself: “When and How the Jewish People was Invented?”

Who are these Palestinians? About a hundred years ago, two young students in Istanbul, David Ben-Gurion and Yitzhak Ben-Zvi, the future Prime Minister and President (respectively) of Israel, wrote a treatise about the Palestinians. The population of this country, they said, has never changed. Only small elites were sometimes deported. The towns and villages never moved, as their names prove. Canaanites became Israelites, then Jews and Samaritans, then Christian Byzantines. With the Arab conquest, they slowly adopted the religion of Islam and the Arabic Culture. These are today’s Palestinians. I tend to agree with them.”

As I seat by the Mekong with my old new friends I realise how much what people say changes us. Their words some two years ago had changed me. They in certain way stirred me along the way. Their words led me to go see the Middle East. To find out who these people really are. Couple weeks ago I got an email from an Israeli I met last time I was in Israel. He wrote me to tell me he had for the first time been to Palestine without a weapon. “I went and I walked with no fear. I met the people you talked about. Not the ones I had heard about.” He was not the first friend who had crossed that wall after meeting me. I never tell them to. I just tell stories. The stories of the people I encounter. Encountering the Israeli couple here again made me realise how powerful stories are. They changed my path .

Thursday, 19 January 2012

The Lowest Point

I imagine that every long trip has a low point. It has been now almost 5 months and a half since I left my life in England. It has been almost eleven years that I left Brasil to go study abroad. The lowest point in my journey happened last night. After being sick for so long, my existentialism was reaching unprecedented levels. I felt abandoned by all those that I once trusted, i felt I wanted to abandon myself. Why is it again that we live for?

As I cannot manage to reach any of the people who know me from within I decide that this is it I must just practice vipassana. I must just accept to bear all the pain on my own. There is angst and tension in the air that seems to be not only mine. Like a sponge I am sucking it all in. I had been for the whole day.

In England Julian, my friend and Mut Mee owner, is in Hospital with Ben, his son, awaiting for yet another heart surgery. Since Ben is little he has been struggling through this. Roxanna who works in the Gaia, the floating bar in the raft in the Mekong in front of us, passes by me incredibly shaken.

I am on the phone dealing with my own feelings, my own regrets. I am so absorbed by my pain that I see hers but do not hang up. She goes away. I seat in the stairs that lead us to the raft. Then I hear my new friend from Albania anxious about all that she can not really know because is far. Feeling entirely helpless I go to bed.

I fall asleep and suddenly I am awaken by noises. I am a bit confused but I have the feeling someone is knocking next door in Melissa's room. Melissa, a new yorker who used to work for the UN, had left her life and came to Asia to study yoga. Although her room is technically in my house it has a door that goes outside. She has no way to reach the inside of the house as the door that goes to the communal area is locked. It was a temporary thing because since she came to Mut Mee on a day we had no rooms we arranged that room for her. Keeping the door locked was a way of ensuring my privacy.

Mut Mee spreads in front of the Mekong. It has beautiful bungalows, mixed with new buildings, a beautiful garden, little soys ( streets) and it is always entirely open. My house faces the Mekong. I have a balcony that leads to a bank that is filled with grass, bamboos going down to the river. I enter the house through the side door. I almost never close neither the door to my room, nor the Verandah door.

That is why when I hear someone knocking in Melissa's door I can hear as if it is on my own. I am confused but go back to sleep. Suddenly I am awaken by someone opening my window, and then slamming it. i get shocked but again imagine it to be a friend of Melissa. I fall asleep probably for seconds and suddenly hear Melissa scream. She screams from the top of her lungs " get the fuck out of here."

Now I am paranoid. I am convinced it is a man. I am terrified. What could I do? i hear noises and then someone opens my window. I decide to be totally silent. I remember all my doors being open. i want to go check on Melissa but am terrified to do so. I do not want to speak because if someone was inside all that protected me was the fact that they did not know I was there.

I feel charges of adrenalin inside of me. All I can do within my ability is to call for help. All I can do is to actually text for help. All the men I know in Mut Mee are gone. Rob who works in reception lives in another village. i text him. It is 3 and a half am. I call so that even though I cant speak he would be able to see the messages. A lady picks up. I feel defeated I probably have the wrong number. I text Roxanna so she could call for help. She texts me back telling me the reason she was shaken earlier was because a Thai guy had ambushed her and wanted to have sex. Reading her message I am more terrified than ever.

I text Europe America.. All the people I trust to make the call I could not make. It is a 40 minutes of terror when I suddenly hear a motorbike coming. i hear someone calling out my name.

" Rob"?

It is him. i have never been so happy to see a man. I scream to Melissa. " are you OK? She is. Rob calls Roxanna who is terrified alone in the raft without credit on her phone. He goes get her.

Melissa is calm she explains that the man had tried to break in and crawl through her window. He clearly wanted to rape her. When she shouted he open my window and then left. Nothing had happened but the tension we were in, both me and Roxanna, for the lack of knowledge and what our mind allowed us to create had us both in tears.

Melissa told us that she kept looking for a weapon but she had none. I was astonished. Fighting the man never crossed my mind. I don't know if it is because I am too coward, too pacifist or simply because i was not face to face with him. All I could think about was to contact people. People who could come from outside.

But as the sun rose and the three of us had waken up things looked brighter. Yes it was awful. Yes I had never felt so vulnerable. Retrospectively, however, I realise that all my existentialism vanished. I who knew not why we live for did not want to die. I did not want anything to happen to Melissa or anyone. I wanted to help her, Roxanna and I. As the son rose I realised that I was not alone, I was just a bit unprepared. I needed more numbers of people who live here. I needed to learn to lock my doors at night. I needed to never let my imagination run wild. Melissa who confronted the man was way calmer than both of us who imagined him, who imagined what he could do. Imagination practically paralysed us.

I kept remember Suu Kyi' s words "When you are feeling helpless, help someone".

The lowest point taught me valuable lessons. It taught me I should have helped more. But that as usual within the limits of our own incapacities I did what I know best. I reached for people. As I am thinking about that Yong, who works in the kitchen, having heard the story seats next to me.

" Take my number. You call I come."

The lowest point reminds me that we must never let the evilness of one undermine our love and faith of the vast majority of people. That is how I know this is the lowest point. It is not as some of my friends suggested time to pack and go home. It is time to start going up.

Lots of love, Me

Friday, 13 January 2012

Sick Away

I think there are few things that are worse than feeling sick. Feeling sick for days on end while travelling is one of them. It is not that it does not matter having friends around, people offering their drugs, natural remedies, offering to buy food, or pain killers so that you don't have to move. Although these friends make you feel exponentially better there is this vulnerability that when you are sick and away from home becomes almost unbearable.

When you are sick home you can afford to be grumpy, not nice, close yourself in your safe room and sleep away. People will come and check on you even if you tell them not to. When you are travelling you cant inflict this on people, who as nice ad they are, are after all people who you just met a few months ago.

In the beggining feeling sick every single day with a fever that never leaves that makes you just accept the lethargy. But when the fever is accompanied by your head punching you, your eyes making you feel you are in a rocky boat about to throat up, always just about to, because the relief of putting outside that which causes discomfort does not come. Also when your throat stops allowing you to speak and eat you don't mind too much, but when it screams " listen i will tear apart all of your self respect, your ability to sleep and even breathe" then you cannot even just resign yourself to the fate. You want to vomit yourself out but you are too tired to. Then when you loose it. When you loose all the shred of hope and patience that you can just wait and things will be fine then you go search help.

It happened to me in the middle of last night. I just had it. I wanted to be magically transported to my home in Brasil. To have my mom annoy me with teas, and propolis and doctors, and notice that I have not eaten in days. I wanted my dad to bring me coconut water, and tell me not to hear depressive music, and insist that I must eat. I wanted my brother to tell me which antibiotic I should be taking and go into the details of all drugs he love so much. Then I would be a typical teenager. I would roll my eyes, storm out and just ignore them. I wanted my grandmother to ground me once again for washing my hair at night. I would disagree with them all but I would feel safe. i wanted Haiko to tell me the lights that were making me want to vomit were just migraine. But in the middle of the night here even the thought of catching a plane made me realise those were dreams. The truth is that I was too sick to even call. To even speak.

But when this point comes, that not only you are not better, but every second of being well is followed by feeling much worse minutes later then you discover painfully that you have to ( at some point ) to become your own mother, and father, and brother, and grandma, and husband. You have to swallow the pride, the pain, the lack of desire to move and you have to search help.

There are a million things that make you not want to do it. A foreign country. A foreign culture. A foreign language. the fear that it might make you more sick, be wrong, or you might just not be understood. But it comes a point that you don't care anymore about any of this. At this point you search whatever help there is. That is how I finally accepted my fate and decided finally to go to Hospital. I went once again, 2 years later, to the public hospital of Non Khai.

I walk to the reception.

" do you speak thai?"

i sign that I dont

" I speak a little english. Basics"

I put my hands in prayer in the "way" gesture and thank her. She is so gentle. I am so thankful. I wonder what is the likelihood of someone speaking english in a brazilian public hospital outside the big centres.

The place is clean. It is calm. Organised. She gives me a number. it is number 20.

There are not that many people that early. Another lady comes to tell me to wait a little. I try to communicate for her not to worry I was just one more patient.

But within minutes I am taken in. A young Thai doctor asks me about my symptoms. He looks at my throat and concludes it is bacterial. i need antibiotics. He asks me a few questions. When he notices I am from Brasil he smiles and tells me he loves the brazilian football team. Kaka, Ronaldinho. I once again want to kiss these football players who make me be so well treated everywhere.

I leave the hospital with a bag full of medicine, and a lovely treatment for almost no money at all. I wonder if it is the placebo effect of feeling you are now being treated that makes me feel immediately better. Not good. But better.

There is barely anything at all that feels as bad as being sick in the other side of the world. But there is also almost anything as good as to realise that when that moment comes you do stand up. You walk as much as needed to search for help. And when you do you can both appreciate more the people who have always taken care of you, but also yourself the one person who will always be there to lift you up.

Thursday, 12 January 2012

Travelling Families- Nong Khai Thailand

“This place is wonderful but it is not for kids. NO TV!?” I explain the customer that Julian, mut mee’s owner, likes to encourage guests to meet on the garden to talk to each other. “Well not if you have children. If you have children you have to have a TV otherwise they drive you crazy. They move too much. Hearing this I do not know whether to laugh or cry.


But this man is wrong. Working for the little time I have here I have noticed an amazing trend. The parents who do not want to be bothered with their children have this crazy children running around, who get very angry at the absence of a TV. Those are usually on a holyday looking desperate to go back to their comfortable homes. On the other hand I have met a few other families. Families of travelers going around the world, hoping to get more time together, and pleased to be able to show or discover the world in its diversity with their children. These families have the most amazing children.


I met for instance a French couple with their 10 year old daughter. They had left France because they did not want her to grow up in a place that was so “pessimistic”. They first went to Guadaloupe, then to Madagascar, and then here. In each place they stayed for a while. The girl Eva was one of the nicest 10 year old I have ever met. She was curious about the world. She told me about the places she had been. She wanted to learn about my travels.


Then came another French family who I had less time to spend with as I only met them on the last day they were here. It was their second time at Mut Mee. But three years before now they had been on a 14th month family trip around the world. The now live in San Francisco. It was the exact same feeling. They were curious, lively, and bright and had even before their teen years seen the world, and so many different cultures.


In India I encountered a few families as well. They always amazed me.


But just as I was pondering about the crazy children who needed TV, I see arrive a really lovely family: parents traveling with 2 children. One is 3 and a half and the other 9. Even before I talk to them I know they are travelers and not tourists.


When I show them the room the Raphael, the 3 year old is excited because there are pebbles in the shower.


“it is so Beautiful”


He gets to the garden and realizes there is a Buddha.


“We must water it”


I get him a little pot with water and there he goes watering plants and Buddhas around.


Every single person in the garden is marveled by the cuteness of the boy. His 9 year old brother is talkative. He is intrigued by the plants. He helps Raphael. They do not ask me if we have TV. They are amazed by the trees.


When I get to talk to the mom she tells me they are on a 2 year old trip. They have finished the 1st 6 months. I asked her whether it was hard.


“Much less than I anticipated. It took 2 months for all of us to meet. We were all used to our own lives. We both had jobs; the boys never spent that much time together. It was strange at first but now we are a family. A family that travels together.”


Little Raphael comes back with his empty pot. He does not ask for water but I refill it so that he can water everything else. Suddenly, as I look back at him looking at things I suddenly realize what I think it is. These children who do not watch TV all the time they seem to really SEE the world. They are intrigued by the pebbles, the statues, the trees, the tuk tuk, the rooster singing. These children seem to be simply more present.


I reconsider. That man (who needed the TV for his children) in being wrong was very right. Children without TV move more. As Raphael comes around with his little Ukulele composing a song about everything that is around I am really happy he moves, and talks and is not paralyzed in front of a machine.

Joy -Nong Khai Thailand

Music from Mali plays while I see on the other side the Mekong. The ladies in the kitchen have become daily more and more friendly to me. Who was it that once told me that Asians were not affectionate? Well, here, the ladies who work in the kitchen they hug me,  give me food, keep track of my attempts to eat healthy, laugh, and braid my hair.


I sometimes seat to eat with them. Not always as my attention floats between the people who live around Mut Mee, and the guest I become friends with. When I do the conversations are all carried out in Thai. They laugh a lot. Not discrete laughter, it is laughter that shakes the whole body. I always wondered what it is they laugh about. And I guess it is a bit like us in Brasil with our smiles that seem to rarely need a reason to come out. They just do.


There is the staff of the morning and the one of the afternoon. In the morning since I got here were Joy, Tia, Noy, Wii and Pook. And in the evening Man, Yong and and Gaew. From the beginning I got closer to Joy and Wii. Wii played combing my hair all the time. She is 32. Joy is 43. Joy had told me in broken words right when I first arrived that she had two children one boy who was 18 and a girl that was 11.


I eventually became friends with all of the ladies. Through sharing food, laughter, painting nails, having my hair braided.. it is amazing how few words we need to like people. But Joy and Wii were the only two who would appear from nowhere and hugged me till I could not breathe. Wii would sometimes carry me up even thought she is my size.


Today, as I came to work Joy suddenly said she would not come to work tomorrow. I wondered whether it was her day off.


“Are you coming Tuesday?”














It starts daunting on me that she might just not be coming back. The ladies laugh at my shocked face. That is what they do… like we smile.


“Are you not coming back at all?”


“I don’t know?”




“Take care of family”


“Are you serious?”


I still am not entirely sure this is serious. Joy has been here for more than a decade.


I go out looking for someone to actually translate to me what is going on. There is no one.


I come back. I am sad. I seat and ask again. It is clear she is going


“Are you happy?”


She becomes silent. The other ladies laugh and say she has enough money now, and does not need to work.


“Husband wants me to take care family”


“Do you want to work?”


“Yes. But husband wants me to take care family.”


I don’t know what to say. I feel sad. What will Joy do without the other ladies? Work in itself might not be the harder thing. But not getting her own money, her laughter in the kitchen.


“How about other ladies?”


“They have grandparents. It is just me and husband?”


“Is your husband nice?”




I don’t say anything. I am just sad.


“Sometimes not nice” I do not ask anything when she says that. I don’t know what that means. And in my cowardice I actually thank the fact that I can’t understand the language.


And so it is. It is the last day of Joy. Whose name could not be more appropriate?


I feel sad and angry at how much people intervene in each other’s lives. I wonder what it is that has changed that makes it necessary for her to be home now. I can’t speak the language to know. Without knowing the details all I see is that the ladies laugh. I smile but we all feel sad. Not knowing the details I understand from her movements, from her eyes from the few words that this is not her decision. It is the decision of a man who “sometimes is not nice”.

X-mas -Nong Khai Thailand

It is my first christmas outside of a country that celebrates christmas. Apart from the Thai ladies who work in 7/11 (which in Thailand is open 24 hours a day and seven days a week) and yesterday were wearing santa's hat I did not see much around Nong Khai that reminded me of Christmas. It is true I did not look for it.

Mut Mee, the guesthouse, of course is different. It is international territory so we had a party. Although I advertised the party to everybody who I saw, I myself had no idea what we would do. Julian has been hosting those for years, and as promised in his posters around, that would be a Christmas party without carol singing, since we were in Thailand :)

I have never worked in Christmas before. But it felt great to rush the whole morning to help settle all of those who had escaped christmas in their own countries. It was incredible to see the ladies in the kitchen organise overnight a party for more than 80 people. It was special to be again with so many friends who had returned for that.

The garden was full when I came out. The buffet was perfect. Holding food for vegetarians and non vegetarians. No turkey. The main attraction was a Thai band and a Thai group of traditional dance. More specifically they were from Isaan.

I sat around watching the Thai dancers move their hands in total grace. I sat watching the changing of colourful Thai clothes, and listening to the music. Truly astonishing to be in christmas in Thailand I thought. I who never even cared for Christmas was having a great time.

After we were invited to join the Thai dance and a few brave of us attempted to imitate the grace of the Thai dancers. As the dance finished Julian announced that next I would play with Gaspard.

Gaspard and I had practiced a few hours the day before. I did not imagine at the time that so many people would be there. I did not practice that much. Gaspard is good enough to make my own songs seem nicer than they are.

And so it was that we went from Isaan traditional dance to my own songs, to then attempt an homage to the great Cesaria Evora and Buena Vista Social Club. I shook a little bit inside. I explained I was no musician. I would just play a few songs. And so I closed my eyes. I tried to connect inside with my own music. Outside were people from every continent. Every country. Some friends, some people I knew not. Next to me was the talented Gaspard who transforms anything into beautiful music. In front of me the sweet scandinavian and my german friends in full support. They just sat there. I closed my eyes and felt true joy.

As the night came to a close and I sat talking to Jate, ella' s son, about Buddhism and people in the world I felt so happy. Our deep conversation was taken over by the fact that music restarted. The last survivors remained in the garden around one table singing. Every now and then I heard people saying " this is the best Christmas i ever have. It was nothing about gifts, and presents, but simply enjoying time with people." As the sweet Paulina exhaled saying that she would never forget this christmas I felt exactly the same way. Although I missed my family I felt I was pretty much at peace here.

I turn back to Jate, who works in Thai politics, and had been teaching me about asian history and asked him whether he was a nationalist.

" i used to be. But i am no longer."

" what made you change ?" i ask.

" jules, there is no national. There is just people. We are all just human beings. Not that different you know?"

Yes I do. I could barely put it into words how much I know this in every cell of my body. As I sat around having spent the night with Thais, Indian, Chinese, Scandinavian, Europeans, Africans, Middle Easterners, people of the americas ...and who knows from where else I thought... That we are definitely pretty much the same...

From a Buddhist country I wish you all a happy ritual of whatever ritual it is that you celebrate. A happy new year of whatever year that is important to you. But do celebrate it. And whenever you do, celebrate it with others. It does not really matter who they are. In ritual, it becomes pretty obvious, we are all very close.

Luis, estrangement love an hate- Nong Khai- Thailand

31- Luis, estrangement love an hate

"This Eternal contradiction between the love and hatred i feel for this feeling of estrangement that always prevent me from really staying where I am, while at the same time making me tired to be always going"

I read these words in my native portuguese. They come to me via email. From someone who knows me well, even while he thinks he does not. It resonates to me. It is the fate of the inbetweeners. All of us who are searching around the world something we don't know what it is and it is probably within.

Lina disappears in the little Soy ( street) carrying her heavy bags, wearing her little hat. I am now concerned for this new traveller of the world. In broken english she explains to me i am welcome in china. " Sure it is around the corner from Thailand". The strange part is that it is not a joke. I am serious.

When was it that all the people around me became people who find quite normal to cross borders so frequently?

I reread the portuguese words of my Brazilian friend who like me studied all over the world. And who is now back to Brazil. Is he really back? Not sure.

I have spoke lots of portuguese these days. There is an Angolan man here. I who knew next to nothing about the Angolan war now know a lot. Luis is without a question top ten in the most interesting people i have encountered here. His perfect use of portuguese, the beautiful melody that comes from angola, the fact he left in the 80's angola lived in china for years, practices vipsssana, knows so much about asian politics and so many other topics keeps me like a baby glued in front of teletubies.

The image he painted in my mind. The stories of the war. Images such as the one of his abusive alcoholic father (who beat him a lot as a child) dying in silence in hospital for 3 months. When Luis heard he was in Hospital, he flew to Portugal to meet him. He imagined they would speak for the last months of his father life. That he would tell him his story. But when he got to the hospital his father whose lungs had collapsed could no longer speak.

" In the beginning I spoke and he heard. That was too imbalanced so i became quiet we both just sat there in silence. Communicating in the absence of words. In the thirds month he just cried."

Luis felt no resentment. He was then a different men. "We all change. I feel bad he cried in the moment of his death. According to Buddhism one should be fully conscious and aware when death comes so that you jump consciously."

As I walk my Israeli friends to a tuk tuk i see Lina there. She is talking to people on a square. "Perfect! now she will cross to laos with my friends." But seeing her gentle smile and laughter i know she will have no problem anywhere. San, toothless no longer homeless, organises the tuk tuk for everyone. As she enter the tuk tuk she takes the plaster Doremon she had painted the day before and gives it to him.

Nong Khai is a funny place. If you bike around you see how is it that the Thais keep their smile even when this place is on the verge of a revolution. At around 5:30 older thai ladies dance by the mekong. You see tai chi, and aerobics, salsa. You see gym machines in the street. In nong tin park there is a lot of people running. There are lots of thai food stands. Metal frames to climb. Ponds. And little tables on the ground where children and adults paint. Plaster dolls, and cartoons figures are for sale. One buys them to paint.

Doremon is one of those. The one Lina had picked and painted perfectly. Mine I left behind in the fear someone might not understand my conceptual modernist approach to painting :) Lina hands it to San whose eyes get full of tears. And like this one more friends disappears into a new country.

But it is not all sad. As Lina goes Fred, the scandinavian boy who biked with me is back. Gaspard, the French guy who can play Django is back. Ella, who wrote about her father, is back. Mike, the scaffolder, wrote me to say his is also returning for x-mas and bringing the germans. Yasha (james), the californian who studied for 40 years Buddhism is here. The Brazilians shall be back soon.

It turns out that Inbetweeners are growing and growing. And for these people crossing borders to spend x-mas and new years with friends is not so absurd anymore. Even when x-mas and new years seem just as arbitrary as any other day. I reread the sentence of my friend who says he feels me, more than he knows me.

"This Eternal contradiction between the love and hatred I feel for this feeling of estrangement that always prevent me from really staying where I am, while at the same time making me tired to be always going"

I know it from within. This love and hatred we have for estrangement. There is so much pain that comes from this loss of roots. But there is also so much love. The hate comes from how weak ideas become. The love also does.

Lina goes. She is crossing to a new country showing new people the chinese are not that different. Luis, the Angolan, will stay for a while before he goes to yet another vipassana retreat.

" Buddhism fits a nomadic life. A life of movement and detachment."

As he says that I think once again about my friend's sentence. Maybe the love and hatred reside in this one word "detachment". Something I both aspire to, but am deadly terrified of. But if the Buddha was a good teacher it surely must lie in the middle path... There is some irony to this though... As write this words a smile lifts me. Yes, if the Buddha was right, and we must text it, then that what we inbewteeners search, must lie in between.


30. Pizza and San
.Toothless homeless is beyond joy. As I go down the stairs to reach the river and go to the Gaia I ran into him and Lina, the Chinese girl. He is carrying a pizza. Roxana, the English girl who works here (although she should be on TV doing stand up comedy), had explained to me earlier that now Toothless homeless was no longer homeless. He was living with Handless- The drug dealer.

Now that he had a house he could finally make the pizza he had promised us. He was starting a new business: pizza delivery. With unconstrained joy he carried his pizza on his hands, and like a 7 year old that has lost all of his front teeth he smiles from ear to ear. Lina, the Chinese little doll, is next to him.

She is so delicate. In her little dress, Fine hands that seemed to have been drawn by a painter, and that move almost as if she was a ballet dancer. Her smile always concealed by her hands while her shoulders move up. I can barely understand him.  But through gestures, unarticulated words, Lina’s translations of what she understood I get it. He wants me to go into the Gaia and pretend he had dropped the pizza on the Mekong. He is like a child in ecstasy.

I go into the bar and try to play my part on the game. I am awful at it. No one really understands what I am talking about. So I tell my friends. “Guys toothless homeless is here with the pizza, but he wants me to say that he has dropped the pizza on the Mekong. You have to act surprised when the pizza comes!”

Everybody does so. The pizza is brought. He unwrappes proudly and it does indeed look great. The pizza is devoured in a second and everybody is interested in supporting this new business. Even though we are all skeptical about the time it took him to produce one pizza. San, Toothless no longer homeless, tells me that next year he will put teeth back in. He thanks me for insisting on making Lina stay. “Thank you. Thank you! I will make vegetarian pizza for you next week.”

“Are you in love San?”

He opens his arms, lifts his shoulders and gives me a huge smile.

“I can pay for sex you know. But Lina is like an angel. I have not had a girlfriend since I a teenager”

I am not sure Lina knows she is in his mind his girlfriend. Maybe she does. She seems happy to have friends here. He pays her bill before she can see.  She is shocked and struggles to pay back. He does not let her. He wants to offer me drinks. I thank him but refrain. My Israeli new friend watches with me the scene. We are playing guitar in the Mekong. I play the Israeli song I learned. Preek, the Thai bartender, shows me the bossa nova song I taught him the day before. As the boat rocks as it has never done before, I imagine it as a living organism. I imagine it as big giant roaring with laughter up and down. A giant that is being tickled by all this joy

Jordanian Women and Lina -Nong Khai Thailand

29.Jordanian Women and Lina

Tuckeh, Tuckeh screams the enormous gecko. I cannot see it but I know it must be huge by the sound I hear. I still remember the first time I heard them sing. At that time I was in a little village in the middle of nowhere. I was curiously listening to that weird noise, trying to communicate with the Thai little girl in my house. She kept saying it was a Tuckeh and I kept imagining a Tuckeh to be a bird. When she finally took me by the hand to show me a huge looking- like- iguana gecko I was shocked. At the time I pondered for the first time how it was that legends came about.

It happen again in Kashmir when I in the middle of the track heard from inside my tent the strange noises of birds and sheep who seemed to be fantasy creatures. I had never imagined those sounds featured in nature. People from the city are like that... We find sirens, horns, and huge agglomerations natural and are totally shocked by the real sounds of animals. The Gecko sings, the mosquitoes bite over whatever it is that I am wearing, the Thai drink and talk behind me. I probably should go to bed.

I was in a mellow mood a couple days ago. Too many goodbyes. It should not be surprising to one that has decided to travel, then to temporarily work and live in a guesthouse... But today mellowness has left, probably temporarily, but it is now gone. Today I am greeted by the sun bathing parts of the garden, parts of the Mekong. The wind is chilly on my face. Prokofiev plays. Unknown faces have their breakfast. Soon the usual Mut Mee crowd will be here. Soon Nong Khai victims will appear and tell stories, and we will laugh about something geeky. I should write about them sometime.

I left the Gaia, bar boat that floats on the Mekong, earlier then usual last night. I was fascinated by Lina the 25 year old chinese girl who was there drinking beer but too tired to stay longer.

Lina can speak little english. She laughs a lot, but in a discrete small way that makes her look like a doll. Every word in English is difficult for her but I am too curious as it is not so common to see a chinese single traveler. No one knows she is here. Not her family, not her friends.

" Luckily my parents are concerned about my sister"

A sister? I am puzzled. How about the one child policy.  " oh i come from the village not the city"

I wonder how many people actually live in China. I wonder how is life there.

"I am old for China. 25 I should be married and have a baby. But I don't want to marry and I don't like babies" and she laughs a bit more.

She apologises for her poor english. She works as a make up artist for weddings. I am impressed at how much we can tell each other with so little language.

As this lovely girl laughs half drunk half confused with a foreign language I keep wondering what makes her cross to vietnam, cambodia, thailand, laos in secret. What does she think and feel as she is going around alone barely speaking to anyone.

San, who Roxana calls the toothless homeless Thai guy is also there. I never understand him to well. He is always so friendly. He seems to be in love. Claire, the sweetest Irish girl I have ever met, watches with me their conversation. it seems incredible that Lina and San can actually communicate. Lina does not speak english that well, and san neither. But somehow they do.

As I seat alone writing these words I wonder why is it that I cross these borders? What is it that we search? I am still not entirely certain of what it is but encountering the young chinese girl makes me realise that this search is quite universal. Whenever people tell you we are so different we should be suspicious.

These days Julian gave me a book to read. The book was the true story of a Jordanian catholic woman. I started reading the book and as i turned the pages I kept thinking " this is impossible!" the way she described jordanians was so surreal. As if men in jordan were completely inhuman. I kept telling Julian that that could not be true. it seemed like the perfect book to legitimise an occupation in any muslim country. He begged me to read on. So i did it.

It was story of two friends. A muslim girl and a catholic one who had to manipulate all men in their lives to be able to get what they wanted. Simple pleasures. In the end of the book her friend gets killed in an honour killing. The author runs away promising to avenge the death of her best friend. In the end of the book there was even addresses to whom you could write to help. The book disturbed me a lot. How could that possibly be that they were soooo different. As I finished it, Julian encouraged me to google the author. It turned out it was a hoax. She had been born in Jordan but grew up in the U.S. that story which she sold as real had never happened.

I could not believe it. or better i could. I was so shocked how even I who have Palestinian and Jordanian friends was by the end of the book questioning whether this lady was right. Whether all the niceness i had experienced. All the similarity was a product of my own mind. After all she was born and raised there. So when i found it was a fake I was both relieved and furious. That was such a criminal book. One that sells the idea that people can be completely different... To the point they seem inhuman.

So as I watch Lina and San engage in what is quite universal ...a man flirting with a girl. As i ponder why she crosses borders I know this is quite universal. In all societies there are those who want to see the other side of the border. In all societies there are those who know that in the other side lies difference, but also enormous similarity. We might not know what we are looking for but in this journey we encounter each other. People who come from different culture systems, philosophies, languages, customs, practices, beliefs etc and when we meet we realise that books that preach sooo much difference cant be that real.

Scarf and Wetlands -Nong Khai Thailand

The sun is blasting in the blue sky. We carry with us no knowledge of the region, a map that features not much more than the departure and arrival point and lots of laughter. We ride bikes we rented from a Thai man we do not understand. The arrival was going to be the wetlands according to our drawn –by- someone- we- do- not- know map. The wetlands  stood 27 km away from where we were. Some of our friends predict it will take us 1,30 hours to bike that, some others predict our death out of exhaustion. We are so unprepared that we do not even really know what it means to bike 54km.  Together with me are a Brazilian couple who is traveling around the world, and a Norwegian boy. We don’t really mind. We go without anything in us that obliges us to finish or arrive anywhere. We go for the ride.

We ride first through the promenade that lies in front of the Mekong, then we exit the town, then we take roads, then we arrive in villages. We take detours and encounter protective dogs, and “waying” ( to way is the gesture of putting both hands in front of you in a prayer gesture.) people. “Ways” are accompanied of swadikas if the person who greets you is a woman, sawdikap if it is a man.

We are in Isaan the poorest and less touristy province of Thailand. It is by far my favorite place here. As we ride along little villages literally no one speaks any English. We “way” back, we respond to every single child who crosses our way. They wave. We knew we would never take one and half  hour to go. We are not people who really mind arriving, we mind encountering. We stop for fruits, for views, for detours. We stop for pictures.

The sun is so strong that even my fellow Brazilian friends who had come from Africa break slightly the vow of never complaining of heat. See they also lived in the UK and when they left to travel Africa they swore never to complain of the sun. That is precisely my own sentiment. So we complain of the heat but with enormous gratitude for it.

We are tired. We see a little village. We see a lady that makes food. I know how to say Kao which is rice. We ask Kao with vegetables. I say “Jeh” to specify I wanted vegetarian. We decide to eat just to have the excuse to seat down. We are not hungry we think. The Thai lady prepares meticulously the fried rice we are going to have. The smells of  chilies and who knows what else starts to float in the air. We love being there. A little village on the backyard of some old Thai lady waiting for this food that we are now desperate for. The little Thai boy plays with his gigantic teddy bear. The king face hangs on the wall.

As we devour the delicious food that is served to us we feel there is no way on earth we could possibly bike more. We are lethargic. We want to sleep. We need coffee. We search for it and we are lucky enough to find a little market where the lady points us to ice coffee. I look around. We get little things. We find the shop the great excuse we need to just stop. As I am going through the items I see a little wallet. It is a perfect one. Perfect for coins! I want to buy it. It is colourful and perfect. I take and as it hangs in my hand I realized they come attached to keys. I am puzzled looking at it, when the sweet Thai lady comes. I suddenly understand that it belongs to her.

She takes it from my hand gently. I apologize. She removes the keys, opens it and removes the money from inside. She then holds it in front of her body, and makes the gesture of giving it to me. “From me to you” kind of thing. You all know how emotional I am. So yes. I get really emotional.. I tell her I can’t take her wallet. She holds her little bag in her chess, then points to the sky and gives it to me. I am speechless.  I had done nothing apart doing lots of “way” when I came in. My friend suggests I should give her money. I cant do it. It is a gift. I want to give her something as well. I have barely nothing with me. I do have my scarf. My favorite scarf I bought in the middle east. The one that traveled with me Palestine, Israel and India. That is it. I will give her my scarf. I walk towards her and repeat the same gesture. From me to you. She is happy. We do not exchange a single word. Just gifts carrying different stories. Just a respect and deference gestures and smiles.

Arriving at the wetlands seems even less important now. We mount our bikes taking every view we see with more joy. We pass rice fields, families, children, and when we arrive finally at the Wetlands I realized that it is really true.. to me what matter is not the end point, it is always the journey.

Jan -Nong Khai Thailand


The Mekong was whiter than ever last afternoon. How many colours can the Mekong be? We all seat at the communal tables under the straw roofs looking at that different light. There was some fog lingering over the water. The sky was a mixture of pinkish and blue. How long will it take me to get used to the fact that I now live in front of the Mekong? How long will it take for me to be bored by its colours? For the Mekong to become normality? Julian, mut mee’s owner, has been here 20 years and he still looks at the river in awe. How could we not? Most of us farangs had heard about the Mekong in geography or history classes when we were children but did we ever imagine it would lie in front of us like that? Showing us everyday a different face?
It was a strange day yesterday. I decided to seat on the Asian Pavilion in the morning and watch the redness of the Mekong under the sun. I felt my “soul” was finally almost totally here. It takes a while for body and soul to be in the same place. Sometimes it requires just letting go of the past. Just let it feature as a faded story of which we are mere observers. As distant observers the reenaction of memories does not seem to make the body liberate strange endorphins which make you more anxious than you should be. I guess many people can spend a whole life with soul and body entirely separated. Mut Mee is special it helps so many to find this little port where you feel home and both meet.
Not so long ago I wrote of the Danish man who was heartbroken by his Brazlian Mulata who had abandoned him for another gringo. He was not staying at Mut Mee but yesterday as I was watching the whiteness emanate from the Mekong I saw him appear. He looked devastated. I stood up to talk to him “Can I stay here now. I need to rest.” He had no bags with him so I asked whether he was ok knowing fully well he had come here to talk to me. I a total stranger had once heard his pain and now I was the personification of this port he needed.
“ My mother died last night. Can I have a room ?”
I ask him to follow me. I take him to the nicest room we have. He starts to speak. His mother who was a fit 92 year old woman made fire everyday in her house in Denmark. He had spoken to her 4 days before and she was very happy. “The house caught fire. She was burned to death. I can’t think straight I need to rest. There is also my son in hospital”
I do not know what to say  since any word seems profane. I ask him whether he wants to have a seat. I know he does not even really need a room. He has one in some other guesthouse. He needs to talk. I ask him what happened to his son. He is 17. He had diabetes. “2 years ago just after my 28 year old marriage was finished the doctors made a mistake and injected him with too much insulin”. The story gets complicated he is attempting to speak in Portuguese. I do not want to interrupt. Suddenly I understand that a medical mistake his had put his son in a coma for 1 year. There was nothing the doctors could do anymore.”
“I wanted to kill the doctor. I needed to leave. I ran away to Brasil. I met the Mulata there. She got pregnant. She abandoned me.”
The stories become intermixed. I can barely follow. He goes back between Europe and Brasil. His son is brought home. He can’t move. He can’t see. He can only scream in pain “ahhhhh”
“But then something good happened. I realized he could hear me. So I told him. If you want to say yes say AH. If you want to say no say Eh. He now could speak!”
As he says this words my eyes fills with tears. He found joy in this basic communication. Inside of me I know not what to say. I just reached his hand and said I am really sorry. I don’t need to say that… I do not need to say anything…. my whole body shows I am listening. Sometimes this is all we can do.
Looking at my own emotion he breaks down and cries. “it is too much. She left me I am crazy about this woman. My family hates me because I had to go away… I had to go I was going to kill that doctor! My mother burned. She, the mulata, had an abortion of my baby.”
I don’t say anything. I just pause in silence wondering how can all suddenly collapse like this in one’s life?  How can both his children and mother sometimes seem less painful than the abandonment by a young Mulata in Brasil. I watch in bewilderment. The coexistence of feelings. How much it hurts heartbreak... How much it fogs priorities. He thanks me for hearing. I wish I could do something. I wish I could magically help. I cant do much. I suddenly remember the sweet Italian who rescued me when I most needed help. I remember that words don’t matter that much. It is simply this silent understanding. This silent unjudgning understanding… yes sometimes we just run away. Sometimes we go with the hope that our soul will follow our bodies. That our minds will stop at least for a second. I watch that man in front of me. I see he is fragmented. He is in a million different places at the same time. I know that feeling.
At night he comes down to the boat. He takes the guitar and plays a sad tune. This morning he comes to talk to me. He is a bit more in place. Some seconds of it. In the garden he meets the beautiful Indian flute player.
“I will go pick up my flute to play with her.”
He seems a bit more in place today. Less words. It consoles me to see he has found some solace here. Some solace till he has to cross borders in the air to go back to Denmark in a couple days. As I hear the beautiful sound of the flute coming from the garden I hope with all my heart that he will have at least from some briefs moments his soul and body together.  I hope, kindness of strangers, music and the Mekong can work for him as it does for me.

Mrs.Lobinson -Nong Khai Thailand

25. Ms. Lobinson

.I float on the Mekong. Tod, the Thai guitar player, sings Mrs (l)obinson. He asks me whether I want to play and sing. I do. I play Brazilian music, and the very few songs in English I know. But then a Thai boy comes he wants to play with me. I remember Dorjee the Tibetan in Exile traditional singer who so many times I jammed with. I like this practice now: learning to walk inside in another rhythm. I know most Thais who are there. We greet each other. There is so much joy in recognition.


As I am singing in Portuguese and older Danish guy comes to talk to me. He is heartbroken. A Brazilian Mulata has stolen his heart. “She is pregnant of me! 5 months and left me. She already has two children of two other gringos”. He looks at me, his hands moves in the air as if he is taking his heart out , he then throws it on the floor and steps over it. “That is what she did! She told me she was going back to Fortaleza! Do you know what it means???” I don’t, but he explains to me. She is looking for someone else. He is 56 she is 26. I am dazzled how is it that these older men suddenly act like little boys in love. The power of women just flabbergasts me.


I go back to the lady bar with my friends. The ladies now recognise me which means they smile more than often, and greet me back in a joyful way. The ladies who were in the boat with me before hug me. A Thai lady I do not know tells me I sing from inside. She hugs me and thanks me. She cant really put into words, so she breathes deeply and puts her hands in a prayer gesture and she ways at me (the thai greeting). Why is it again that we think we are that different? I can’t really figure it out right now.


I spend more and more time with the ladies who work in the kitchen of my guesthouse. Last night every single one gave me a little hug as they left. I am not sure this is practice. I still remember a shocked little 6 year old when I in my brazilianess just hugged her when I left the school I volunteered in. Not the ladies in the Kitchen. Wi, Joy, Noy, Tia are very affectionate.


Today after they told me swai ( beautiful ) to my red nails I grabbed my nail polish and painted Noy’s nails. I barely understand their jokes, or laughter, but it really does not matter. When I finished Wi made me seat, got her little bag, got a comb out and arranged my hair in two beautiful braids. I loved it. I loved seating in the sunny garden as she combed my hair. I loved not knowing what she was doing. I loved looking at it in the mirror once she was done. I loved our little exchanges that do not need that many words. What is it again that makes us soooo different? I just don’t now.


As I listen to the old European who is heartbroken I recognise that Scandinavians just like South Americans feel sometimes their hearts have been taken out and stepped upon. As I sing with Tod I feel music has also no real boundaries. As I seat laughing with the Thai ladies in the kitchen I know laughter needs no language. As I am welcomed by prostitutes in a lady bar I know that respect needs not much cultural understanding. Even in the complicated conversations about the differences between Mayhayana and Hinnayana Buddhism with an American 70 year old monk and mystic and an older Thai lady who has done her PhD on Thai and Buddhist culture we seem to understand each other pretty well. The more I travel and meet people either exchanging thoughts, words, or simply acts of kindness I feel that yes that is a lot of things we do really differently, but overwhelmingly I still keep thinking we are so alike.   

Lisa -Nong Khai Thailand

24. Lisa
Lisa is 49. She comes from Sacramento California. She always had a dream of going around the world. She teaches in school and for the past 30 year she has been dreaming of going around the world. Not in 80 days, but in 7 months. When you are traveling, hearing of someone who is going around the world starts to become common. I still remember the first time I heard of someone who had crossed Mongolia by horse. I was amazed. Now I have encountered so many people who have done it that it seems banal. But of course it is not banal! It is crazy and amazing.


I met an Israeli in India who told me he used to feel it was heroic when people told him once they returned to Israel that they had traveled in Asia for 7 months. Being in Asia himself he concluded “There is nothing heroic about it, it is actually pretty easy and pleasant.” He is right and wrong at the same time. It is easy and pleasant and at the same time heroic. It challenges it all, but the challenges of our notions eventually become normality to the point that cows and monkeys in the street don’t make you take out your cameras, and at some point not even notice them. And then it is mainly just pleasant.


For instance Roxanne who works here with me was reading the BBC news and she spotted an article where the man had been arrested. She asked me to go through the article with her to see if I could spot anything wrong. “Man riding a bike on the sidewalks” (standard practice in Thailand), “No helmet” ( standard), “ Carrying one baby in front of him” ( one baby??? We see whole families). It was a joke, we laughed about it, but yes it is actually true.


But back to Lisa, she had a dream. So after 30 years she organized herself to go. And on the first day of her vacation she found a lump in her breast. It turned out to be cancer. I look at her as we float on the Mekong. “How are you Lisa?”. Lisa is joyful, on my birthday she made me a balloon and a card with a poem. She gave me chocolate.  Lisa goes to the orphanage to play with children here in NK and is about to take a job teaching for 2 months in a little rural village. “I guess growing old is overrated. I was not going to let cancer get on the way of my dream.” And so she went through surgery, and radio and rented her house and left. In Bali she fell and hurt a leg but she would not let that stop her either. I watched her recover here. Listening to her made me remind me of my own determination to live well when I was in hospital. It is just amazing how much more resilient than we imagine we can be. “I could not do anything better right now. I am seeing the world.” As we both float on the Mekong I agree with her. Yes going around the world is both heroic and pleasant.

James and Desmond -Nong Khai Thailand

Yesterday I met two incredibly interesting men. They were both Anglo-saxon and both between 70 and 80 years old. One was a true Scottish gentleman, and the other a true subversive north american. Apart from the kindness, and the interest in different cultures that was common to both that was nothing else that made them alike.

The Scottish man was gentle and spoke softly. Everything about him was soft. He dressed like what I imagine british civil servants doing safaris to dress like. He was a patient man. And did not mind waiting for my slowness, nor the fact that other people were taking all of my attention. As a true British gentleman he waited in total stillness. When i was finally able to help him I was mesmerised. Not so long ago I had helped here a very nice Canadian couple that had taught in Morocco and in the UAE for 10 years. they were now teaching in Thailand and they had nothing really of positive to say about the UAE. This Scottish gentleman, close to his 80 had taught English in Saudi Arabia decades ago. As I asked him about it his face lit up. " It was wonderful. The hospitality! I was invited to houses, and when the women would hide away their fathers and husbands would tell them to not be silly because it was me." I was moved, he did not feel entitled to be invited to houses, he did not feel people should be behaving in that or that way. He talked like someone who was thankful for having had the chance to be there. I asked a thousand questions and as he spoke I could see the excitement of a little boy. I kept wondering about what makes someone leave Scottish mountains to go to the desert of saudi arabia but I did not ask. Even at almost 80 years old keep going learning about different cultures.

The second man was completely different. All that the first one was slow the second was fast. Million thoughts and million words. He was a physicist and had worked in many different projects. As a child he had had a Buddhist vision but at that time Buddhism was not popular in the West as it is today so he did not know what it was. In fact, he used to think all children had these Buddhist visions but simply did not talk about. This man moved in fast speed, carried a Buddhist monk bag and knew all that I possibly could want to know about Buddhism. I was amazed. He could actually answer all of my doubts about the lines of Buddhism, about the separations, about the different Buddhist, mystic and Tantric practices practice... All that had never remained clear from my conversations with lamas and monks he could answer. As we talked and talked I discovered he had been studying with the Tibetans for the past 40 years. He had been a monk, and considers himself a mystic. He had met the holiest of the lamas and had no respect for tradition. " because something is tradition it does not mean is right. It simply means it has been practiced for a long time." although he identifies much closer to the Mahayana tradition of Buddhism ( of which Tibetan Buddhism is part), he had also lived with the Theravada monks in Thailand as a monk for a year. He has an absolutely brilliant mind. One of those that is hard to follow because can think in abstraction just as well as in concrete terms.

What makes people like these two men keep crossing borders? Is it the life that they lived that made them this way kind of accidentally? Or is something they could not escape? Have they chose this life or has this life chosen them? They seem happy, and have lived intense lives. Would they do it again? Are they happy? What is the price they have paid to see other words from within? Everyday I wonder more and more about these questions. Does happiness come from belonging or from detachment? Where does it come from? I look at these two older men healthy travelling and living abroad in fascination. I look at them half mesmerised, half terrified. I want to see all they have seen, I want to see it all in the hope to dissolve all boundaries that separate me from others, but while I am successful in daily braking a little bit more these arbitrary language and cultural separations, I simultaneously feel more alone.

Lady bar -Nong Khai Thailand

22- Lady Bar

A German physicist, a British scaffolder and I seat in an a lady bar. The physicist has just landed in Thailand. He wonders what a lady bar is. "a mix between a bar, a disco and brothel" answers my British friend. "So are all this girls "? " Apart from that girl, and her mom who owns the bar yes". That girl is Lolita. She is a girl, she wears a navy blue dress poked with white dots, it is tied on her waste. She smiles in that true discrete, and laughing Thai way. She looks like an Asian doll. She is the daughter of the owner of the bar. She is playing pool, she is amazing at it. Around the bar are mainly older Farang ( literally guava, but it is the word for white foreigner) men. "Are all these women prostitutes?" asks again the German physicist? We nod.

These Thai prostitutes are lovely. They are pure laughter and I just wished I could understand what goes inside their minds. Just as I could never really know what went behind Tibetan monks smily faces, I also do not know what goes behind these girls smiles. And probably to find out you have to ditch a whole bunch of preconceived ideas of what happiness entails.

Nong Khai lies on the border of the Mekong. It is the border town that leads to the "friendship bridge" into Laos. When I few years ago ( that now seem like in another life time) came to Thailand to volunteer I was asked to choose between a city, a town or a rural village. Seating on my very comfortable couch in London I decided for the rural village. I obviously had no idea what the ruralness of the village meant. I somehow thought in my mind that bc I was an anthropologist and came from south america I would cope just fine. As soon as I landed in Bangkok I realised I had been probably quite naive. It took me a while to accept that being in a less than 50 houses spread around village surrounded by rice fields where no farang went, with no running water, sauna like heat, not understanding language or culture was way more challenging that I had previously imagined. My catharsis happened then in a Buddhist funeral. Then things suddenly fell in place and I learned to love the simplicity of it.

It is strange how some knowledge is just embodied. Many times I was asked how was it that I got along in that little village without really knowing the language at all. Actually it took me weeks to find out they spoke Lao and not Thai. Yet all I remember is that we did communicate. Last night, as I sat in between two people on the back of a motorbike all these memories flooded me. I could really remember in my body taking these rides before. As I sat again in a lady bar puzzled by it I remembered the clandestine relationships I had seen taking place here when I first arrived.

I enter the kitchen and the Thai ladies who work here offer me some food. it is Jeh (vegetarian) they say. It is Coconut milk, bananas, sugar and salt. I don't really want it but how can I refuse such an offering. I seat and we eat. We attempt conversation. they laugh the whole time. Suddenly I remember how it is that you start to understand things. You just have to ditch all that you know, all your preconceptions. Then you can have whole conversations even when you don't know which language you are speaking.

Incoherence -Nong Khai Thailand

21. Nong Khai, Incoherence

. I seat at the the communal table that lies under the straw like roof in the middle of the Garden of Mut Mee Guesthouse. When I look up I see the white light bathing the Mekong. On the other side of the river I see Laos. Behind me are lush green vegetation, trees, and some of the houses that host our guests. I look up again, turn around and I see the people. Some Nong Khai victims, some tourists.

Most people here have been here before. Nong Khai victims are those who have just stayed. Some have been here now for years. This place is crazy I think. In front of me I see some of those who just stayed. Computer geniuses, university professors, yogis. I see the Dutch sadu looking like painter who has been living in India for the past 25 years. There are also the temporary victims those who come to stay for one day and are now for over a week. What is it about Nong Khai?

Nothing really I think. There is a really interesting sculpture park. The promenade along the river is nice. In some places you see low tables on the pavement, some people who seat on the ground. Mainly thais having Thai food. You also see the older Europeans with young Thai girls. Lady Boys who you cant ( at least not at first) tell are boys. Prostitute bars that are really friendly like. There is the people who come to volunteer, the people who are crossing to Laos. There are the massage parlours offering more often than not happy endings. There is a total difference view on sexuality. There is nothing really that is that special about Nong Khai and yet it holds many here.

It must be Mut Mee I think. The communal tables, the craziness of the stories that go around, the fact that people suddenly connect and stay. It must be Julian and his story telling. I really don't know what it is. The surrealness of all that could go on and just be normal here. This morning for instance we all watched a snake snatch a HUGE gecko from the wall. We watched the snake constrict it. It was like national geographic live. Ambivalent feelings from all. "It is nature" said someone so children, young, old people all looked and observed for hours the slow process of the fight between the gecko and the snake. The snake constricted, the gecko made noises, we looked anxiously, shocked, curiously, marvelled. The fight for life in both sides. I don't know how many hours it took for the snake to manage to swallow the whole gecko. And as it finally did, this Thai man who no one knew grabbed a broom, and got the snake, took it on his hands, open its mouth, removed the gecko. It couldn't be alive we all thought. He threw the snake away in the jungle and released the gecko who petrified at first barely moved. Then after the Thai man encouraged the gecko to recover from the whole shock somehow it did. The crowd was divided. Some were happy for the Gecko some felt pity for the snake that worked for hours for nothing. He was a monk. Barely spoke english had once been bit by a tiger in Kanchanaburi. We all wondered whether he had then removed food from its mouth as well.

It is strange Nong Khai. Watching that battle for life was strange. It felt like it was arbitrary my decision. Why was I supporting silently the Gecko, why did I also think it was wrong for the monk to intervene in the natural process of that snake finding food to survive? I wanted both things to happen simultaneously. I wanted both the snake and the gecko to win. That is it I know what is it about Nong Khai: it is ok to be completely incoherent here. It is ok for you to want completely contradictory things at the same time. Everybody does it everywhere but here they just don't hide it.

20. Nong Khai, Waxing

20. Nong Khai, Waxing

.Is there anything more scarying than being waxed in a country where people usually dont?As I lay down in the table and watch the gorgeous mysterious thai girl slowly try to figure out what to do I feel a silent despair. why do I wax anyway? My mind is taken back to the English guy in Camden Town who took 5 minutes in a complicated choreography to open for me an overpriced coconut. That day I could see in my head the 10 year old northeastern Brazilian children taking 3 moves in 3 seconds to do what obviously had been embodied by them. Why was buying coconut water in England was what I wondered then. And just like waxing although it did not make any sense It made me happy.

As I think of this about 3 different girls come up. They speak Thai, they consult each other. And I try in broken language to explain what I want. That is obviously a terrible idea. Too late anyway.

I look at the beautiful girl and it is suddenly so obvious to me how much worlds I had changed. The chaos of Hindu India, to the silence of Buddhist Thailand. The male domianted public Indian world where all masseurs, and waiters, and cooks were male, to the female public dominated Thailand. In India I met women after women who dated Indians, and Tibetans. The. foreign guys were secluded from this intercultrual dating scenario there. In Thailand girls grab foreigners in the street. As I look the gentle gorgeous Thai girl it seems so obvious to me why. The are really like a fantasy. Smiling, kind, fragile, mysrerious. At least at first before these foreigners have to confront the difference of cultural reality, or till they might experience the anger of a Thai girl when she does not get what she wants.

Yes the burn me. Yes they have no clue what they are doing. They seem to be doing s Thai massage but with wax. They compress the wax on me on familiar thai massage moves. They pull slow and upwards rather than fast and close to the skin. Before they do that they look slightly terrified. They smile and say appologetic things in a language I dont grasp. I laugh too. It is a really funny situation.

Even as they not very profiiciently enough remove the cloths with wax causing even more pain than usually I feel happy. Everyday I now do yoga with Julian seing the Mekong and Laos on the other side. Everyday I now sleep under a blue mosquito net that makes me during the night look up and feel like I am in a fairy tale. Everyday I have a conversation with someone new. Everyday I meditate. Life is simple and it feels good.

The Thai girl asks me where I am from. "OH Brasil?" She is excited, she has never met someone from there before. She likes Kaka. I am surprised. How is it that I can thank these Brazilian football players for making people react to me with joy. They know where I come from not bc of wars or imperial power. I am always met by smiles bc of ronaldinho or carnaval. The worse it could ever be attributed to being Brazilian is the latent mystified jungle like sexuality foreigners think of. That way easier to deal with then deep rooted resentment because of the poliical history of ones country that as an indicidual one hss almost nothing to do with.

It is painful. It is terrifying. And it is at the same time great. That is really the greatest problem, I have to deal with here. The rest is simple and pure joy.