Peacetime at home

Even if you can't afford a trip to a beach like this at Phuket, Thailand, you can still take a vacation at home. Painting in PanPastels on board, ©Caron Eastgate Dann, 2012.

Even if you can’t afford a trip to a beach like this at Phuket, Thailand, you can still take a vacation at home. Painting in PanPastels on board, ©Caron Eastgate Dann, 2012.

This post is written in response to Kozo’s June Peace Challenge at Everyday Gurus, to write about maintaining peace at home.

In our hectic lives when every minute of the waking day seems to be filled with work, chores, to-do lists and regrets about so few items on those lists we’ve crossed off,  sometimes we forget that relentlessly, every minute, time is passing us by.

We often neglect relationships with the people closest to us in the pursuit of making those very people’s lives better: trying to make more money to buy them more things, trying to achieve what we suppose are life’s goals.

Yet on our death beds, we will never be glad we made more money, spent more hours working, bought more stuff or cleaned the house more often. We might, however, regret not spending more time on just being with those we love, listening to them and facilitating peace between us.

It’s so important to replenish, rejuvenate and find a sense of joy and peace in our lives, without feeling guilty for taking time out.

I’ve compiled a list of six things I think are important to promote a sense of well being, peace and inner health: I am not saying I follow these things all the time. Too often, I too forget that the world won’t collapse if I don’t meet a deadline.

1. Recycle some stuff you don’t need. There’s something cathartic about de-cluttering your house, and even better if that stuff can go to a good cause and your trash can be someone else’s treasure.

2. Read inspiring novels. Great books teach us empathy, something that is sorely missing in this society that sees angry people constantly tooting horns, pushing in front of each other, and discriminating against their fellow people. Read the classics: anything by Charles Dickens or Elizabeth Gaskell, or Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein; read recent novels—anything by Mitch Albom, for example; read historical novels such as March by Geraldine Brooks.

3. Take a vacation, or holiday, as we call it in Australia. Of course, not everyone can afford to actually go away on vacation to an exotic tropical beach, but you could take a holiday at home, even if it’s only over a weekend. A holiday at home means you vow to do no work—not even housework—on those days; it means the majority of every day is relaxing and enjoyable—read a book, watch a movie with your family, make a picnic lunch, lie in bed reading the newspaper.

4. Be a tourist in your own city, and visit the art galleries, museums, or other places of culture you’ve been meaning to see. Go to a live theatre show, particularly if you’ve never been to one before. Small, independent theatre companies desperately need your support and can often be surprisingly affordable.

5. Contact a friend you’ve been neglecting because you’re always too busy. If we don’t keep working at friendships, they are in danger of fading away. And even if this is the sort of person you know you could pick up with again at any time, it’s sad to get out of touch and miss the events, big and small, that are important in each other’s lives.

6. Go for a walk and get to know your neighbourhood. We spend so much time at our computers, in our cars, sitting in the train or bus, that we forget to walk. I walk most days, and often towards dusk, I pass an elderly Greek couple sitting on the veranda of their neat-as-a-pin house overlooking their carefully tended garden. We nod and chat now, even though our conversations are limited by a language barrier. But no matter, we mean each other well. On another street, there’s an old black and white cat who suns himself every afternoon on the warm concrete path outside the apartment where he lives. Then there’s an old man who looks about 90, who rides an ancient bicycle to and from the shops every day. There are all sorts of modes of transport round our neigbourhood: the other day, I saw a young man casually riding a unicycle along the street. Every day, I notice something I have never seen before.

For more on establishing and maintaining a peaceful home, check out blogger Julianne Victoria’s inspirations at Through the Peacock’s Eyes, and to discover what ducks have to do with peace, see the blog My Little Spacebook.

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About-face

This post is part of A Word A Week Challenge: Face, run by A Word In Your Ear.

Akha hilltribe woman, Doi Suthep, Thailand, 1991, by © Caron Eastgate Dann, 2011. Acrylics on canvas board.

Akha hilltribe woman, Doi Suthep, Thailand, 1991, by © Caron Eastgate Dann, 2011. Acrylics on canvas board.

I met and photographed this Akha hilltribe woman at a village on Doi Suthep, near Chiang Mai in Northern Thailand, in April 1991. Twenty years later, when I first took up art as a hobby, I decided to paint her portrait.

She always stuck in my mind, because she was the only Akha living in a Lisu village. Through the guide, she told me she was aged 39 and had three children.

I had been living in Nonthaburi, central Thailand, since December 1990 and we had taken advantage of the songkran (Thai new year) holiday to travel up north for a few days.

The Lisu village we visited was a set-up for tourists really. I still have my journal from that time, in which I’ve written that the Lisus usually live in isolated villages high in the mountains, but this village had been persuaded by an elephant training centre to relocate within a half-hour trek of them so they could bring in tourists to buy their arts and crafts.

In those days, the village had no electricity, no running water, no TVs or even radio. In the past, the hilltribes relied on opium as their cash crop, but the Thai government had banned its sale, so they had to find other ways to make a living.

Lisu hilltribe woman, Doi Suthep, 1991. Photo ©Caron Eastgate Dann 1991.

Lisu hilltribe woman, Doi Suthep. Photo ©Caron Eastgate Dann 1991.

This woman was also at the Lisu village, sitting in the same hut as the Akha woman. They were both doing some sort of needlework.

Picture © Caron Eastgate Dann, 1991.

Merchants at a Hmong village, Doi Suthep, Thailand. Picture © Caron Eastgate Dann, 1991.

The next day, we went to a Hmong village that was not so far up the mountain and that we could drive into. This husband and wife were among the stall-holders there. All the adults then wore traditional dress and—even though there was an element of showmanship for tourists—I found the images unforgettable. Children at the more isolated village we had visited also wore traditional dress—at least for the cameras—but at the Hmong village, many were wearing T-shirts and track pants.

In my journal from that time, I’ve written about the Hmong village: “There was no road to the village until 12 or 13 years ago, and villagers once went to Chiang Mai only around once a year. Now they go more often, but still they resist development, although we did notice a pick-up truck in one garage.”

They resist “development” no longer, it seems. In November 2012, more than 21 years later, I returned to the Hmong village. These days, there are no traditional costumes to be seen, just jeans, T-shirts with marketing logos and other ordinary Western clothes. There are pick-up trucks everywhere. Most people speak English as well as Thai.

The village market today is full of the same “hand-made” crafts you can buy in Bangkok, Phuket, or anywhere else. There are still people assembling these goods, but they seem to come ready-made in large batches, to be quickly pieced together on site. Someone is making  a fortune, and it’s surely not the hilltribe people.

Writer’s Diary #3: Into the unknown

Let your writing take you into the unknown. (By the way, I visited this jungle path, at Queen Sirikit's palace grounds on Doi Suthep, near Chiang Mai, Thailand, in November. I didn't realise until I got home that I had been there before, 20 years ago).

Let your writing take you into the unknown.
(By the way, I walked along this jungle-like path at Queen Sirikit’s palace grounds on Doi Suthep, near Chiang Mai, Thailand, in November. I didn’t realise until I got home that I had been there before, 20 years ago).

I’m not the first to say “Don’t necessarily write about what you know; write about what you don’t know”, but I am still in a minority, as conventional advice tells writers to write what they know and what they know about.

This seems strange to me, since writing is a journey of discovery, a journey into the unknown, even if you know your subject matter. There is always something mystical about good fiction writing: it is more than the sum of its parts.

More important to creative writing than knowing about your subject or theme is being passionate about them and being able to write about them in a way that no one has written before.

However, you do have to do your research. While it’s tempting to jump right into the writing, doing some research before you start is a huge help because it enables you to concentrate more on the writing when the time comes.

When I moved to Thailand in the early 1990s, I decided I would write a novel set in 19th-century Siam. I knew almost nothing then about history in that part of the world, except highly romanticised (and mostly incorrect) information from popular western culture.

When I found the Siam Society, a club in Bangkok promoting the study of South-East Asian culture and history, I was on my way. They had a library of 20,000 books, many of them on old Siam. I did six months’ research reading these books and taking notes before I started writing The Occidentals. In those days, research was not generally done on a computer screen or using the internet, and we kept track of our research using an index card system, as I wrote about here last week.

Actually, writing the first draft of my novel took me only three months—half as long as it took to do the research (though when it was accepted for publication, my editor asked me to add 100 pages, so I had to go back to my research, and I spent another three months on the addition). I wrote every day, six days a week, for five hours, 12.30-5.30pm.

The six months’ ground-work had ongoing benefits: I used it as the start of research for my PhD in the 2000s, which in turn became my second book, Imagining Siam: A Travellers’ Literary Guide to Thailand, and which has led to an academic career.

In saying don’t be afraid to write about what you don’t know, I’m in good company. For more on writing about the unknown, see this article in The Atlantic by Harvard Creative Writing Faculty director Bret Anthony Johnston.

I’d love to hear from you about your launch into the unknown for the sake of your writing.

A Writer’s Diary #2: Goodbye, dear little filing system

1990s writer's filing system

Ye Olde Worlde Filing System, c1991.

Remember this? If you’re under 30, you’ve probably never seen one: it’s an index-card filing system. Before the internet, this is how we used to file our research. This is the one I compiled when I was writing my historical novel, The Occidentals, set in 19th-century Thailand.
I did six months of full-time research before I started writing the novel. This involved reading and indexing information from 42 books and hundreds of articles. Then, say, when I wanted to know about transport in Bangkok in the 1860s, I would look up the index card labelled “Transport”, and it would tell me the books, articles and page numbers where I would find the information.
Though I have not used this index since the late 1990s, I feel sentimental about it and have kept it all this time in my office. I’ve tried to throw it away several times, but something always stops me doing it. However, finally, I’ve agreed with myself, something once so useful has become just a waste of space.
So, I thought I would take a photo of it and write an obituary for my dear little filing system. Goodbye, you served me well, but now it’s time to go. Xoxo.

Here’s to a peaceful New Year: make goals, not rules

Wat Buppharam, Chiang Mai. Pen & wash, by Caron Eastgate Dann.

Wat Buppharam, Chiang Mai. Pen & wash, by Caron Eastgate Dann.

Whenever I am in Thailand, I like to visit several temples. I enjoy wandering around the compounds, and though I no longer call myself a Buddhist, I find an enormous amount of peace within them. This illustration was inspired by a photo I took when I visited Wat Buppharam in Chiang Mai in November. Just looking at it now makes me feel peaceful.

I would like to wish everyone a happy new year—tonight for us here in the Southern Hemisphere and tomorrow for others. Instead of “resolutions”, I’m going to make a list of things I want to achieve this year. That way, I will have goals rather than rules. One of those goals, of course, will be to write one post a month for the Bloggers for Peace cause.

Everything you wanted to know about beginning art…but were afraid to ask (part two): “Old Gadgets”

This post discusses not the techniques of painting, but a reason to paint, other than simply wanting to be creative.

One of the reasons I took up painting was because I wanted to use art to preserve the past. Of course, photography can do this too, and I appreciate fully its importance in documenting our lives and times. But for me, painting a picture of something makes it more personal, almost as if I actually manufactured the subject myself.

I had the idea for my “Old Gadgets” series before I started painting—in fact, it was the catalyst that led to me picking up a paint brush, laden with colour, and gingerly directing it across a canvas.

I’ve completed two paintings so far in the Old Gadgets series, of my manual typewriter and my film-era camera. They have been framed and they will hang on a wall side by side. Here is the first:

Old Gadgets No. 1: my manual typewriter, bought in Bangkok, 1991. On the case is the German version of my novel, The Occidentals (Das Erbst Der Schwestern). I wrote the first draft of this novel many years before it was published, on this typewriter. Acrylics on board.

Old Gadgets No. 1: my manual typewriter, bought in Bangkok, 1991. On the case is the German version of my novel, The Occidentals (Das Erbe Der Schwestern). I wrote the first draft of this novel many years before it was published, on this typewriter. Acrylics on board.

As a young journalist, a manual typewriter and a camera were my tools of trade (as well as a shorthand notebook and a pen, of course). I started at a small newspaper in Waipukurau, New Zealand—the Central Hawke’s Bay Press—for which I was both photographer and reporter. Here’s a photo of me there as a teenage cadet in 1979:

Caron Eastgate as a cadet reporter, Central Hawke's Bay Press, 1979. Note the manual phone. The typewriter is pushed up like that to indicate that I've finished my story and will now work on another. I'm also balancing my cheque book. I had to leave home to come to this job, and when I went to the bank to enquire about a cheque account, they told me I wasn't old enough to have one. When I said I was a reporter, however, they made an exception.

Caron Eastgate as a cadet reporter, Central Hawke’s Bay Press, 1979. Note the manual phone. The typewriter is pushed up like that to indicate that I’ve finished my story and will now work on another. I’m also balancing my cheque book. I had to leave home to come to this job, and when I went to the bank to enquire about a cheque account, they told me I wasn’t old enough to have one. When I said I was a reporter, however, they made an exception.

Note the telephone: Waipukurau was the last  town in New Zealand to operate a manual exchange, which didn’t become automatic until 1980. You would turn the handle in the centre of the phone and tell the operator what number you wanted. Many people were on “party lines”, that is, several houses shared the same phone number, each with a different letter at the end. So, you might ask for “2645E”, for example. We were all convinced the operators listened in to juicy conversations, and they definitely knew what was going on in town. I remember one day asking to be put through to someone I wanted to interview, and the operator said, “I can try for you, but I’ve just seen him go past on his way to town”.

We were still using manual typewriters at metropolitan newspapers in Auckland when I moved to Australia—and computerisation—in 1988. After the move, I thought my days of writing on manual typewriters had gone. I was wrong. When I moved to Nonthaburi, near Bangkok, Thailand, in 1990, I decided to write a novel. I had an electric typewriter with a memory then (I got my first personal computer in 1992). The problem was, the electricity was unreliable and, particularly in the wet season, would frequently drop out, though usually only for half an hour or so. This disrupted my writing, and I decided I would have to buy a manual typewriter again to work efficiently.

I found a cute German model in a dusty little shop. I think it cost 2000 baht (about $AU100 in those days, but less now). I hadn’t used that typewriter since 1993, however, and it was gathering dust in the spare room. So I asked on Twitter what I should do with it, and a friend of mine who lives round the corner said she’d love to have it (she collects such things). But first, I decided to do a painting of it, so I would always have it, and as you can see above, I did. This picture took me a very long time to do, working on it most nights for a couple of months until it was right. Each key has about 10 coats of paint on it.

In the 1980s and 1990s, I loved photography and used to shoot about 20 rolls of film whenever I went on holiday. When I lived in Bangkok, it was a great hobby, because film processing and printing there were much cheaper than in Australia. I bought my first Canon Eos in 1990, and a new Eos—the subject of Old Gadgets No. 2 (above)—in 1999. I still have the latter camera in its case, with film and all the other things you see in the picture, but I haven’t used it since 2005. Here’s my old camera:

Old Gadgets No. 2: my film-era camera, 1999. Acrylics on board. The prints are from a trip I did to China in 2001. The slides are the only ones I ever took, on a trip to Vietnam in about 1996.

Old Gadgets No. 2: my film-era camera, 1999. Acrylics on board. The prints are from a trip I did to China in 2001. The slides are the only ones I ever took, on a trip to Vietnam in about 1996.

I stayed at my mother’s house for a few days this week, and in my room there is a large portable cassette player we bought in the US when we lived there in the early 1970s. I remember when my parents bought it, and it seemed the ultimate in modern sound equipment. I think it will become Old Gadgets No. 3.

Travel theme: Mystical

This post is in response to this week’s challenge from the blog Where’s my backpack?, which you can link to here.

We woke on the last morning of our stay at the Golden Triangle, near Chiang Saen, Thailand, to find the view from our hotel balcony obscured by thick fog. So thick was it that most river traffic stopped, though a few brave (aka foolhardy?) souls were still plying the waters, sounding their horns as they went. 

The fog gave the place a mystical, otherworldly quality, a totally different view to the one we had woken to at dawn the previous day, which looked like this:

With fog or without, this is an enchanting area to spend a few days. From the delightful and aptly named Serene Hotel, where we stayed, and which seems to be the only hotel on the river in this village about 7km from Chiang Saen. One of my aims while we were away was to do a painting on location, so here is my effort:


I’m relatively new to painting, having taken it up early last year. I loved art as a child, but never quite knew what to do and was never able to get my ideas successfully onto canvas. Now, I paint most nights. I travelled with a miniature art set, including an ingenious and tiny watercolour paint set, which I housed in a pencil case:

 

Back to Bangkok

Bangkok, 1992: the infamous Asok-Sukhumvit  crossroads. Lane upon lane of cars, trucks, motorbikes turning in, turnout out, turning all about, it seems. No crossing lights or lines for pedestrians, no indication of how one should get across the seemingly impenetrable traffic ocean. But I have done this many times before since moving to Bangkok in December 1990, and I know just how to go about it. As I ready to step off the curb, a plaintiff Irish voice sings out, “How the be-jaysus do you get across here?” I laugh and say simply, “Follow me”. And he does. Like the Red Sea parting, as we step out into that rabble, it somehow makes its way round us, and we arrive, miraculously unharmed, at the other side of the road.

Bangkok, 1991: view from the Tara Hotel, Sukhumvit Soi 26/1

Cut to Bangkok, 2012: the infamous Asok-Sukhumvit intersection looks as daunting as it did 20 years ago. Only now, I am viewing it from above, serenely gliding by in air-conditioned iciness on the BTS (Bangkok Mass Transit System) Skytrain. It’s my first trip to Bangkok in 11 years, though I passed through on my way to Phuket in early 2005 to report on the aftermath of the tsunami.

Bangkok 2012: view from the Landmark Hotel, Sukhumvit

The skytrain and other transport systems completed since 1999 have changed not only the face of the city, but the nature of what it is to live in or even just visit Bangkok. There are walkways everywhere now, up to stations and across major roads.

The trains are packed night and day, but Thais are ever polite, making way for others, giving up seats for those they deem might need them, and allowing people to exit the train before they enter. And even if you don’t have anything to hold on to, it’s hardly necessary, the ride is so smooth. In a week of catching trains all over the city, I saw no drunks, no thugs, no menaces, no rude people, no graffiti, just people going about their daily business. At 20-40 baht per ride, the train is not cheap for the average Thai (though it is cheap compared with public transport in Australia), but it certainly beats any other mode of transport across the city.

There is also a quick, efficient and cheap train service from Suvarnabhumi International Airport. However, there is a major problem: you will need to connect with a BTS or other train in the city, where most stations don’t have elevators or escalators, and you find yourself having to lug your bag up and down flights of stairs in the heat and humidity. The BTS has been much criticised for the lack of disabled access. So if you are elderly, unfit or in any way disabled, you’d still be better to take a cab.

And if you have a child in a stroller or pram, you’ll need to be travelling with another adult to manage. This hasn’t changed. Another memory I have from the early 1990s is on Sukhumvit Road, a major shopping, apartment and hotel area, when I came across a young English woman with her baby in a pram. She was standing on the curb, crying. When I asked her what was wrong, she said, “I’ve just moved here, and I just can’t see how I’ll ever get across this road”.

While I note that the landscape of the city has changed markedly in the last 20 years, and that you can readily buy western food and drink such as a cappuccino or a British sausage, in essence, Bangkok has hardly changed at all since I lived there in the late 1990s: I was still addressed as “Sir”, a term of respect, interchangeably with “Madame” (pronounced in the French way); my rudimentary street Thai was still needed to negotiate prices and times and to give street directions; the smells of lemongrass, fried garlic, basil and chilli still competed with nameless less pleasant ones; goods for sale in the markets looked like the same ones that had been on sale in 2001 or 1991.

There is one major change to daily life that I noticed: that is, I hardly walked on the streets. I used to walk everywhere from my apartment in central Bangkok, because taxis and tuk tuks were too slow. I knew every shop, market and clean toilet within a 3km radius.

This time, from the skytrain whizzing along Sukhumvit, I saw with pleasure that the small tailor’s shop where I used to get clothes made from 1997 to 2001, Mr Lucky’s, was still there. Unfortunately, I didn’t have time to go in: I was too busy going other places fast. Last time I was there, the proprietor, Mr Lucky (naturally), had recently been back to India to marry a bride selected by his parents. I hope his life has lived up to his name, and that perhaps I will have time to drop by next time I am in Bangkok, which, I vow, will not be as long as 11 years from now.