Archive for the 'Travels' Category


ลา Khun Sopin

thailaos 085

We have learned that our friend and driver, Sopin Boonkiat,  has passed away after a long illness in Chiang Mai, Thailand.   Our thoughts are with his wife Tim and their children as well as his sister and mother, all of whom were our neighbors when we stayed in Chiang Mai.  Thank you to our friends at the Galare Guest House for letting us know.

In 2010, Ann wrote about Khun Sopin on Mingeity, and we felt it was right to post the link again now.  Here is Blessings far from home.

Thank you for all the happy times, all the laughter, and all the hours of story-telling as we drove in the Super Saloon.  Rest in peace, dear friend.


The Unexpected

I was enjoying the best muesli of my life on my last leisurely morning in Leh. It was heaped in a bowl with fresh mango, bananas, and apples, tossed with a rich, homemade curd, or yogurt. This magical muesli was full of nuts, crunchy flakes, and roughly cut chunks of fresh coconut still edged in little bits of husk. It was one of those chunks that brought tears to my eyes and a resounding crack, which I realized was my tooth and no nut. Damn. A trip to a Delhi dentist flashed before my eyes, and I was soon perusing the US Embassy list of dental professionals and sending emails to several friends who had lived in Delhi to get recommendations. My plans of cruising Chandi Chowk by bicycle rickshaw and hitting some favorite clothes shops seemed foiled.

As the day wore on, it seemed that perhaps my tooth was not cracked as I had feared, but was markedly looser. Even when my double dose of Advil wore off, I was not in pain. Chewing on the opposite side of my mouth and avoiding stout muesli seemed a good option until I arrived home in 10 days. My plans were restored.

Two days later, with a tattered clipping from a flight magazine in my sweaty fist, I was searching for some travel writer’s suggestions for Old Delhi’s best Indian sweets. The holy grail of this search was tiranga sohan halwa from the 200 year old establishment called Ghantewala. It was irresistibly described as a buttery confection chock full of almonds, pistachios, cashews, almonds, and cardamom. Surely, I could chew those nuts on the left side of my mouth… This was not to be missed.

We made our way up and down the chaotic Chandi Chowk, jostling other shoppers, being jostled by push carts, cows, dogs, pilgrims, motorbikes, rickshaws, and workers carrying impossible loads on their heads. We popped into several sweet shops and tried their specialties, but Ghantewala was not to be found. When we asked one plump lover of burfi at one stall where Ghantewala was, she shook her head, not understanding until we showed her the clipping. “Ahh!,” she exclaimed. “GHHAntewala!”, hitting the first consonant as if clearing her throat. She waved up the street in the direction we had just come. “GHHAntewala!”. We headed back through the mass of activity we had just passed through. Alas, no tiranga sohan halwa to be found.

Time for a change of plan, and there was the hive of activity that is the Gurdwara Sis Ganj Sahib, the Sikh temple in Old Delhi . Turbanned guides swept us along with pilgrims cueing to wash their hands and feet before filing upstairs to sit on carpets and pray in an airy, rose-scented marble worship hall above. Refreshed, we made our way to the mezzanine overlooking the ever-changing bustle below. There, seen just across the way on a small side street, was Ghantewala! We could see the sign, though it looked as if this 200-year-old-establishment was closed; a metal door was pulled down over the entrance.

Once back on the ground, we pushed our way over to the sweet shop storefront. In front of the shop, a chai wallah and some other vendors seemed permanently installed, as if the 200 year-old-shop had been closed for at least the last 50 years. The sign was worn, but right there it heralded that this was the home of the elusive tiranga sohan halwa. Perhaps it was only closed this morning? Had it gone out of business after such a long run? I made my way to a saried chai customer, and gestured toward the closed shop. “Ghantewala???” I shrugged.
She nodded, stone-faced, and turned toward the storefront. Her eyes locked with those of a young man. She nodded. He nodded. She waved us toward him and returned to her tea. We made our way through the crowd to where the young man had been standing. He was quickly headed toward a worn, painted green door next to the closed metal gate of the storefront. He pushed the door open and led us up a narrow staircase with deeply worn stone steps, into the darkness. Did Ghantewalah have a second floor office? Did they have stock there? Where the hell were we going?

At the top of the steps, we were in total darkness. Our young guide flipped a large circuit switch on the wall, and then a second, and the space flooded with fluorescent light. There were two large posters on the wall: “Root Canal Project”, with garish pink illustrations of gums and yellowed teeth, and a blinding set of “Dentures”. There, now no longer in darkness, a smiling man in wire-rimmed glasses and a crisp linen kurta sat at the counter, awaiting patients. Apparently, he was waiting for me.




Summer 1974

On my morning walk around Lake Avondale today, I found myself thinking about the summer of 1974. That summer, I took my first trip out of the US. I had saved all my birthday and babysitting money for years to travel to Spain with a group of fellow high school students to spend most of the summer living in a dormitory at the University Complutense in Madrid. We had Spanish classes in the mornings, roamed the gritty city in afternoons, and in the evenings discovered sangria and discos with the oh-so-sophisticated Spanish college students that shared the summer campus. In July of that year, Francisco Franco fell ill, and we spent several anxious days on emergency standy-by to leave; our group leaders worried that his death would spark campus riots and nation-wide upheaval. That August, we sat up late one evening to watch President Nixon speak, and resign. We were stunned and then mocked by our Spanish Professor the next morning. “ You are tired today? Americans, so strong!” he said curling his cardiganed arm and pumping his fist.

It was not the much commemorated anniversary of that resignation that sent me into nostalgia today, but rather Holland Cotter’s great piece in the New York Times today in which he “curates” a show of the art and architecture that changed his way of seeing through the years. In “A Lifetime of Looking, Magically Recovered,” he imagines gathering all those discoveries in an exhibit chronologically arranged according to his life, beginning with Vermeer’s The Concert, a painting he discovered at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston while he was a college student, a painting which sadly was stolen in 1990 and is still missing. He takes us on a tour of the African masks, the Haiga Sofia, the installations and sculptures and other finds that shaped him, ending with a description of the Great Mosque at Djenne, Mali seen in changing light through a day and into the night.

So, as I walked around the lake this morning, I began to think of what I would collect in such an exhibition, but perhaps since I have been a gatherer of thrift store items and market finds rather than an art critic for the New York Times, my thoughts turned to the summer of 1974 when I first travelled and purchased my first travel souvenirs. That summer, aside from gifts, I bought a damascene pendant that I believe is scratched but is still in the bottom of my jewelry box, a now spotted white embroidered shawl which I am certain is in a trunk somewhere, a set of six etched wine glasses (three of which survived my college years), and a talavera plate and cup. The cup now holds pens and such on my desk, and the plate is stacked in a cabinet with other plates and platters more recently collected and more recently used. These were very serious purchases, chosen with utmost care and teenagerly consideration of what it meant to own such things, to be judged by these choices. I remember acutely the feeling that I was defining myself by these early purchases, that I loved them, and that I had begun the adult process of making a home by choosing these objects on my own. 

talavera cup talavera

Thankfully, I learned to take myself and my purchases much less seriously, but I do recognize that the summer of 1974 set me on a path of travel and shopping that has enriched my life these last 40 years and more than filled my house.


So, dear readers, dear fellow collectors, what were your first adult purchases? Do you still have and use them or have you cast them off and begun again?  — Ann



A Soundtrack of Mexico City

As we have been going about our shopping and exploring in Mexico City these past few days, we have been carried along by the sounds of this place.  At San Angel artisan market, we were met with the playfully instructive demonstrations of the toy violins by Guillermo Figueroa as he chose the best ones for us to buy.  And was that a cat screeching in the wriggling black bag  the gentleman was holding as we were carefully selecting the Lorenzo paintings?  Our horror turned to annoyance when the cat screech turned to a parrot caw; he had a noise maker in his mouth.  Those sounds followed us through the day as did the drone of “botaneros, botaneros, botaneros” by strolling women relentlessly hawking decorative wooden cocktail picks.  The unheard sound of salsa music entertained as we watched the dance class through the large plate glass window of a second story building while we wiltedly waited for our taxi at the end of the shopping day.

The remaining  days in Mexico City  have been punctuated by fireworks’ whirrs and pops left over from the bicentennial celebration of the Independencia, and soothed with the sounds of classical guitar at a corner cafe as well as the smooth tenor notes of a strolling singer in an antique gallery.  And our nights’ sleep have been jolted by brake squeals, drunken conversation, and bad rock bands from the bar across the street.  But we were lulled back to sleep with quiet memories of Jorge Marin’s empty angel wings filled by a mother and child on a boulevard near Chapultepec Park

Jorge Marin's sculpture "Alas de la Ciudad", 2010



Blessings far from home

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.

My friend and driver Sopin, resting for a moment in the passenger seat of his car.

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.

Tim and Sopin Boonkiat

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.

Entrance to the Galare Guest House in Chiang Mai

Fon’s warm spirit and ready laugh help make the Galare a special place.

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.

Sopin’s trusty Super Saloon, which now must be hot-wired to start each time.

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.

Blessing 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.

— Ann


“My mother is looking at the sky.”

Every night in Luang Prabang, a forest of red canopies appears down the main street.  The night market features mostly Hmong women selling hand-made goods, T-shirts and imported knock-off craft items from China.  An occasional stall will have a collection of old sticky rice baskets, a few pieces of jewelry or some old textiles or parts of textiles.  We found some gorgeous old copper opium bowls our first night here– arguably the best “score” of the Laos portion of the trip.

The last time Mingei shopped in Luang Prabang, we found lots of rustic jumping folk toys which were missing this time around.  But the women of Luang Prabang have been very busy making something new– hand-stitched children’s books.  We gathered the books from all around the market, settling in front of each stall on the ground to read the simple stories about farm and family life among the Hmong.  “My father is pounding the rice.”  “My brother is riding a horse.”  Each of these descriptions is accompanied by a wonderfully detailed, charming image hand-stitched into the book.  We tried to cull the ones with English errors, expecting that many of our customers might prefer proper modeling to “My sister is picking the pineaple.”  or “My younger is minding the pigs”.  Minding the pigs?  We did wonder about the real authors of  these little storie as the women who made them do not spek any English. There were lots of books to chose from, and we probably picked all that ended “I am a boxer.”  We also skipped the ones that told portions of a fairy tale in which a character is pushed off a cliff and shoots his wife.  Maybe next time.  By the end of the evening we had chosen about 2 dozen books, including one that we will be keeping behind the counter which features two frazzled-looking creatures on the cover of “Travelling in Laos”. After reading dozens and dozens of these books aloud to each other (much to the amusement of their creators) we were really quite punchy, even uproarious, but managed not to push anyone off any cliffs–


Same Same

One of the most popular T-shirts mottoes in the Hmong Night Market here is “Same Same”.  Yesterday when we visited another weaving village, this time south of town, only  one loom of many was strung with lovely cotton in natural and beige thread.  A traditional pattern was begun.  A woman who saw us eyeing the work, came over and demonstrated a few passes, explaining that this piece would take three weeks to finish.  We asked to see her work, expecting more of the same.  She guided us to a pile of weavings in garish colors, machine made of synthetic fibers but in similar design.  “Same same”, she assured us smiling.  “No same same”, we replied in unison.  “Cotton?” we asked hopefully?  “Lao silk”, she nodded proudly.  A neighbor pulled a synthetic piece from her pile and smiled, “Cotton.  Same same.”  We drifted away back to our tuk tuk.

Today, a new tuk tuk driver dropped us at our guest house and we engaged him for our return trip to the airport tomorrow.  After we asked his name, he politely asked ours.  “Ann.”  “Ellen.”  “Oh!”  He smiled.  “Same same!”  We smiled, nodded and drifted away.

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