The Intrepid Herbivores

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It must be some kind of hat?

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We were strolling around a marketplace on a hot afternoon in Chiang Mai. Joe was occupied in an intense haggling operation with some jovial ladies who were making him say the word “paaed-sip” (“eighty”) over and over again because the way he pronounced it, unaccustomed to the Thai language’s specific and nuanced tonality, totally cracked them up. Like, they were doubled over with laughter, tears practically streaming from their eyes. Joe reveled in the attention and was hamming it up with self-deprecatory good humor while trying to talk the price down on some amulets they were selling. We were just a couple of farang (foreigners) enjoying an afternoon at a goods market and providing some entertainment in the process.

I wandered off on my own and was browsing a table of old bracelets or something. Besides my small backpack containing water, snacks, sunscreen and other sundries, I was carrying in my arms a rice steamer I had acquired a few hours earlier. It was cumbersome to tote around in the heat, but I had really wanted one to take home after having learned how to use it at the Chiang Mai Thai Farm Cooking School. Consisting of a lightweight metal bell-shaped bowl, a woven, conically-shaped wicker basket, and a light towel to wrap around the wet rice, it was a method of preparation specific to kow niao, or sticky rice. I had never seen one before my cooking lesson, I loved the way it worked, and was really keen to have one for my own kitchen.  With it tucked in the crook of my arm, I stopped at this antique jewelry table and the vendor, a relatively tall, relatively hipster-esque Thai fellow with long hair and an almost Portland-style handlebar mustache immediately favored me with smiles and English pleasantries.

I politely returned his greeting, though inwardly rolling my eyes a little. Invariably on this trip, every time I went anywhere unaccompanied by my tall Caucasian boyfriend, even if it was just a few booths away at an outdoor market, it would only be a matter of seconds before a man would be at my elbow, eager to talk and flirtatiously use some English on this solitary western lady. This guy was no exception, but the thing he seemed most interested in was what I had swaddled in my arm.

“Do you know what that is?” he asked.

“Yes,” I replied, eloquently.

“Really? Do you know how to use it?” he inquired.

“Yes.”

“What do you use it for?” he continued, his eyes widening slightly.

“To steam rice,” I said.

His face split into a look of shock, confused admiration and outright disbelief. He beckoned to an older woman in the recesses of the stall, possibly his mother. She approached and after a quick debriefing in Thai, she turned to me with the same look of astonishment.

“You know how to use that?” she said incredulously.

“Um…yes.”

The two of them looked at each other and laughed in a way that said “well now I’ve seen everything!” Moderately bemused, I thanked them and continued down the row of market stalls.

Before long, an elderly woman seated at a low table caught my eye and waved her arm at me, urgently. Thinking she just wanted to show me what she was selling, I agreeably drifted toward her stall and put on my “I’m just browsing” face. She excitedly gestured at what I was carrying.

“You use it?” she exclaimed in terse English, in a tone that to western ears sounded a little like barking but I think was just inquisitive. Upon my affirmation she seized the attention of her companion, another woman of her approximate generation. She fervidly said something to her in Thai and they both looked back at me with that same gaze of incredulity. The second woman stood up, reached over, and snatched the whole thing out of my arm.

“You know how?” she asked as well. When I insisted that I did, with a swift hand she soundly set the metal bowl portion down on the table and leaned back, eyeing me with a cagey look. While we didn’t have the common words for me to understand her instruction, she indicated with a gesture that she wanted me to show her what I was supposed to do with the other part, the woven basket. The basket looks, to the untrained eye, like it could be a sun hat or something to carry fruit in. I quickly understood that she was testing me. I reached back across the table and retrieved it, deftly dropping it correct-side-down into the bowl. The whole stall erupted with gasps, cheers and exclamatory noises. They couldn’t believe that the farang knew how to use a sticky rice steamer. Of all things for a white person to be carrying around! And she wasn’t even trying to wear it on her head–she was going to actually prepare rice in it! The small group of mature women’s wrinkled faces beamed warmly at me as they returned my apparatus, shaking their heads at this oddity that had just wandered into their midst.

When I found Joe again he had gotten his audience to budge on their price (though not much, because they were really stuck on the hilarious number “eighty”), and had made fast friends with his amulet salespeople. We tucked our haul of souvenirs into my backpack and carried on, enjoying the market together.

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This entry was posted on May 11, 2012 by in Uncategorized and tagged , , , , .

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