My wife and I live in Yannawa. This neighborhood is tucked away in a southern fold of Bangkok, in a crook of the Chao Phraya River that is said to look like the belly of a dragon. On most days, it's a peaceful neighborhood, and one that I've become emotionally attached to in my 16 months living here. Our neighborhood has a pleasant mix of working class and white collar people; it has outdoor fresh markets and an expensive grocery store; street food and ice cream parlours, whiskey bars and kindergartens. It's a neighborhood where people welcome you with warm smiles when you head out in the morning to buy fruit and eggs, and where the beer and chicken wing vendor knows your name, even if she can't pronounce it.
But lately my neighborhood hasn't felt very safe.
That's because we're hemmed in by the conflict on Bangkok's streets. There is fighting due north of us, on the usually quiet alley of Soi Ngam Duphli. Taxis have barricaded the area around Klong Toei, and tire fires stain the skyline from my eastward-facing kitchen window. Grenades explode not far away to the west, in Silom. When I leave the hum of my air-conditioner, I can hear the Army's gunshots poking holes through the tropical night. I wonder what they hit. It's more unsettling than scary.
A heavy despair hangs in the air in my neighborhood. Last night I strolled around. "Where are you going?" my neighbors asked with concern. "Be careful." And, of course "Stay safe." This being Thailand, everyone smiles with grace. But smiles can't hide the sadness in their eyes.
To escape the madness unfolding around us, to ignore the potentially disastrous outcome of urban war, I escape to my kitchen. I am so lucky to have a wonderful wife and a goofy dog and a fridge full of food and a stove and a home that's safe. And to pass the time I cook: chicken with garlic, white wine and bay leaves, or spaghetti bolognaise, and later maybe a roast of pork. I pounded my own massaman paste and slowly braise pieces of beef in coconut milk, then fold in the fragrant spices, tamarind and peanuts.
These times when I cook I can clear my head. There is only food. I can ignore the never-ending twitter updates, and the faces of death on the news channels, and the frantic calls from journalist friends who just squeaked out of another shootout. But as we sit down to eat, in the comfort of our air-conditioned home, with a cold beer or a bottle of wine, we can hear the gunshots peppering the air. There is so much suffering on our doorstep, and yet we sit and eat a meal, watch television, and try to take our thoughts to another place. We feel guilt, and helplessness. We love this country, and hate to see what's happening to it.
It's a very strange time to be here, indeed.
Update: Tonight, as I cook chicken soup, I'm staring out my window, waiting for a tanker full of gasoline that has been hijacked to explode. It's about a kilometer away - close enough to hear when it goes, but far enough to remain safe. I'm listening for the bang, searching for the smoke, and stirring the pot. I watch the drama unfold on the internet, and head to my window to witness it. And life goes on, strangely.
Further note: That photo above is not of the tanker, which was empty, apparently. It is just another fire, in a city with more than a few of 'em.