When I get back home, I am going to dig out my old passport to see exactly which year I first came to Chiang Mai. Was it 1998? 1999? Yesterday as we paused at a traffic light, Sopin, my friend and driver for many years, lifted a folded copy of a Mingei newsletter from April 2000 from the dashboard of his car and handed it to me, grinning. On the side facing up was a photo of Sopin I took in January of that year, showing him holding a small child in the playground at the Vienping Children’s Home, a local orphanage we visited that year. We had heard about Vienping from a Japanese sociologist we had met and had been curious to see if we could help their efforts to support families with HIV and to place children with no other options with new families. After several hours inside, we found Sopin quietly rocking and talking to a little girl by the swings. He looked up, his eyes full of tears, smiling. As we drove away, he explained that he came there often and gave money when he could. He was so grateful for his own daughter and for his son, who he had raised after his brother could not. Sopin won my heart that day.
Each time I have returned, Sopin, who lives across a small lane from my base at the Galare Guest House, has been my driver, and we have become friends—friends who can only speak in a sort of pidgin and mime—but friends who have shared children’s photos and stories on long car rides for at least ten years. As we ride, Sopin leans toward me and I speak loudly to be heard over the traffic sounds and past his hearing loss which occurred when he was in the army and a shell exploded near his left ear. Sopin has been my cultural and linguistic interpreter, my source for where to find offering bowls or packing straps, for which pharmacist to visit when I have been ill, for where to eat the best Khao Soy noodle soup.
I remember our first days with him in the red truck he used to have before it was ruined when the Mae Ping River flooded a few years ago—dashing to get boxes to the post office the last day of our trip. In the last few years Sopin’s wife Tim has sewn “Made in Thailand” labels on all the scarves and bags and cotton toys I have bought here—and there have been a lot! They have also generously stored goods in their tiny home for us until they could be taken to shipping.
This visit has me awash in nostalgia. I have been coming to this place on the other side of the world from my home for many years but never staying very long, generally about a week per visit. I do not speak Thai—only a “Sawatikah” and a “Kapunkah” here and there—pitiful really after so much time and a puzzlement to my friend Steve Werner who has lived here many years, speaks Thai fluently and plays host to a growing crowd of expats and travelers at his restaurant Spirit House at the northern end of the city. He always asks when I will be able to stay longer, to become a part of the circle of friends who sit at the big table.
Even with the language barrier, I have come to love this place and am grateful for the familiarity of my work here. I have been buying silk from Vinita for a decade, digging through bins of clay amulets from the same vendor and stopping in to visit the amulet seller’s scholarly brother to see what artifacts he has. I have seen their children grow, their shops renovated, their temples gray and I appreciate the smile of recognition and the wai when I step into their shop each year.
As you drive into the compound that is the Galare Guest House, it is impossible not to notice the wood sign that says “Your Home Away from Home”. It has been that for me. I have always stayed at the Galare and while I sometimes have flirted on Tripavisor with other options, I always come back. I enjoy the peaceful breakfast by the Mae Ping River, the warm laughter of Fon at the desk and the generous staff that has changed little in the time I have been coming. The staff here has been here a long time; they also never seem to age while my hair grays more each year. And—Sopin and Tim are right across the lane. My family and few of my “home “ friends have ever been here, but this place has become a part of my story.
This year is different. Sopin is on dialysis after spending a month in the hospital last September. He has lost 20 kilos and more of his hearing. His port, bound in clean white gauze, bulges from his open collar He tires more easily.
His car, the “Super Saloon”, the large old sedan missing its front bumper still sits in the alley by his house lovingly covered with a cotton cloth and a hand-made A-frame “Taxi” sign. The coins—old and new brought to him by friends and customers from all over the world- that once covered the doors and the dashboard have been pulled off and put in plastic bags, leaving little adhesive marks all over the interior. Tim took those and the paper bills from the ceiling off last September, thinking the car would have to be sold. But his special amulets in cases still swing form the rearview mirror. A photo of the Chicago skyline and a new dragon bobble from Mexico add to the décor. A special few monk and Buddha figures still sit above his steering wheel and the gear-shift is still ringed with many white cotton Buddhist blessing cords, with a new addition. The other day as we embarked on rounds the morning after his last dialysis session, Ellen gently tapped me on the shoulder from the back seat and pointed discreetly—a pale blue plastic hospital bracelet rested atop the cotton cords.
Now, we are headed home. In a few hours, Sopin will drive us and our many bags to the airport for the long haul back to family, friends, our homes and our work. While I haven’t asked any of the temple fortune-tellers what lies ahead, I hope to be returning next year, no doubt a shade grayer, and I hope to spend more days with Sopin in the Super Saloon.