Leaving the Hills

I left Chiang Rai after successfully making pasta sauce out of a giant can of ketchup.

For my last weekend, Nim suggested we throw a party to give the kids a break from rice for one night with some Western food and ice cream for the kids. It started Friday afternoon, after a lovely last morning teaching at Montre School. Nim and her family picked me up and we rushed down the mountain to Chiang Rai for more shopping at the Big C. I'll make spaghetti and garlic bread! I exclaimed to Nim, thinking it would be an easy and culturally appropriate meal to cook up for the kids. And I wanted to finish it off with banana splits for dessert (we'd been singing the Banana Song everyday). I searched the rows of the Big C, looking for the right ingredients, with Nim running ahead of me. I found spaghetti noodles, and Nim added a few other kinds of pasta noodles to the cart to give the kids variety. Then she took a big can that read "Tomato" and some things in Thai on the label, "for sauce", she said. I found one small bottle of olive oil and explained how it was better to use that oil instead of their normal corn oil, and with each word I noticed myself becoming the type of farang which I usually resented. But sometimes one just needs olive oil.

Then we headed to the meat aisle, and Nim bought a pound of pork for the meat sauce despite my best efforts in suggesting a veggie-friendly meal or at least beef for the meat sauce. "You can't put pork in spaghetti!" I said, but I figured we could pull off a Thai-fusion spaghetti thing. After throwing in a gallon of ice cream, chocolate sauce and some Thai-style bakery baguette into the cart, we packed it all in the car and Nim's family drove back up to the village, while Nim and I spent the night out in Chiang Rai with Kru'Boom. I was the only farang dancing at the packed Face Bar that night. The nation-wide curfew was also lifted that day. We celebrated with a lot of Chang (chilled with ice cubes, of course).

By the time Nim and I arrived back at the orphanage on Saturday it was time to go into the kitchen and start cooking. The older girls followed me while the boys played with sling shots and the younger girls ran around the garden.

I looked around the modest kitchen and noticed the tons of rice they store, mostly given by donation.

As I unpacked the groceries for supper I suddenly felt sad. I had spent a month with the kids at the orphanage, and it wasn't enough.
Then I took out the can of tomato sauce. I had the girls help me open it with a knife, and I looked inside, sniffing the "tomato sauce". It was ketchup. I had olive oil, fresh onions, garlic and so many vegetables from the garden, some seasoning, even fresh tomatoes. But how could I pull it all off using ketchup? I did it anyway.

Here are some of the highlights of the night:

-Teaching the girls how to dice tomatoes. They were so amazed at how small veggies can get.
-There were two different packets of salt on the table. I went to use one for the boiling water, and the girls stopped me before I got the chance. "No! P'Jennifer, no!" They pointed to the other seasoning packet, and put a few pinches of that in the water. They talked about my mistake for a few minutes, laughing and joking with me. I went to taste both packets. They were both salty. No sugar, no garlic powder, it was just two different kinds of salt. I had no idea why one was apparently suitable for water boiling. If only I could read Thai. 
-Chopping garlic western style, to much of their amusement. I showed them "Canada-style" garlic chopping as they sliced it thin with the peel still on, village-style. I think being in the kitchen with those four girls was the best bonding session we had.
-Dancing to Gangnam Style and other Kpop and Thai songs, over and over again.
-When I said goodnight, some of the girls rushed up to me, gave me a hug and the ribbons they'd been wearing around their neck all night. 
-And I still don't understand what the difference is between those two salts. 

Sunday was church, more playing outside, more dancing and singing, more sticky rice, and ABCs. On Monday morning I said goodbye to the kids before they took off for school, and the ladies of the village were all standing around the front yard, and when the children left they all handed me bracelets (Akha style) they'd all handmade for me. After all the gifts I put in my heavy backpack that I loaded up in back of the truck before I took off down the hill with P'Nim, P'Dom, and Noong Jim, it's been hard to buy something at the souvenir shops I've seen while traveling around Thailand; it's just not the same. 

After my second family dropped me off at the Chiang Rai airport, I spent the day in transit, alone. It was hard not being surrounded by dozens of Akha children all the time. I munched on french fries at the Bangkok airport and watched some of the World Cup with other foreigners on one fo the many TV screens at Don Mueng Airport. I played on my laptop, ate overpriced airport food, went to the ATM and a money exchange kiosk, and by the evening, I was in Burma. I met a Canadian couple from Victoria at the taxi cue at the Yangon airport and we shared a taxi to the city. I couldn't stop blabbing to them about my experience up in the hills. I was already a world away and on the road again, but I haven't taken off my Akha bracelets. 

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