The Nomadic Life

Indulging in Creature Comforts in Bangkok, Thailand

Iced CoffeeI nodded my head dumbly as the girl next to me listed the names of floating markets and Thai Wats (temples) she had visited since arriving a few days earlier in Bangkok.

“Are you going to check out the Palace?” She asked.

“Yeaah….” I said, rather than admitting to the fact that after a year of barebones living in Madagascar, I hadn’t bothered to research the popular tourist attractions in the Thai capitol and indulgently went straight for the cluster of Bangkok’s malls instead. While I had loathed shopping malls in the States, I had escaped the afternoon rains in one every day since arriving in Bangkok. Each day when the other hostel guests left in search of “real Thai culture”, furiously snapping photos of monks and Buddha statues, I was shedding a small tear of joy at the site of a Starbucks. I know my past self might give my current self a self-righteous eyebrow raise for buying a McFlurry and Starbucks latte, but pretentious ideals be damned — it feels good to have a coffee made right.

Besides, hiding out in a shopping mall didn’t necessarily imply hiding out from the nature of the city. From what my brief encounter with the city, the stylish, well-designed commercial hubs of Bangkok sought to achieve more socially and culturally, than the drab shopping mall outposts of suburban America. Some, such as  Terminal 21 — a mall themed after an airport with each level representing a different global city — created a full sensory experience of escapism. Shopping MallThe Tokyo floor was filled with independent designers selling their clothes (some irresistible, some awful) while the basement housed the cutest, dessert-happy food court I had ever stumbled on. The top floor food court was modeled after the San Francisco’s Fisherman’s wharf with such attention to detail it felt obvious that the designers had traveled to and gained a good sense of each of theses places. Even beyond aesthetics, food court food in Bangkok malls were actually good.  “If you want to eat like Thais do,” a half-Thai friend living in Bangkok admitted, “head for a food court.” After trading in money for a set of paper coupons, head for whatever counter looks most enticing. Personally, I decided “most enticing” meant sushi, shrimp dumplings, and mango sticky rice.

Eventually, we did wander around a temple, hopped a boat for the hell of it, and crashed a hipster bar on Thanon Mahachai (near our equally hip hostel, Niras) decorated with fixie bikes and old metal lawn furniture. But for the lion’s share of my time in Bangkok, I simply reveled in the overwhelming availability of foods I’d craved but not seen in months (bacon!), taxis that didn’t explode exhaust fumes into the back seat, and the fact that stylish young girls far outnumbered barefoot women mixing floral with plaid. Bangkok may not be filled with the “traditional” “exotic” or even “beautiful” most people travel to South-East Asia for, but it still had an intoxicating pulse distinctly its own.

Bangkok Graffiti

Photos: (1) Iced Latte at a Cafe (2) A Bangkok Shopping Mall (3) Bangkok Graffiti of Meats

Africa Madagascar The Nomadic Life

Shopping for Second-hand Clothing in Madagascar’s Markets

“This,” I thought as I tugged at the bright, tacky-but-could-be-cool fabric from a tangled pile of frip (used clothes), “is clearly where fat clothes come to die.” Giggling since the piece that had caught my attention turned out to be a pair of shorts double the width of my waist – an “XXL” still on their faded value village price tag – and tossed it back into the pile.

From the other side of the low, makeshift table and plastic awning, the vendor registered my interest in her small mountain of goods and began unearthing more gaudy-fat shorts and placing them in front of me. “This one is good… une mille,” she said in a Malagasy-French hybrid typical in bigger cities. “Ngeza be! It’s huge!” I responded, holding the shorts to myself.

Ngeza be!” she repeated quietly while chuckling to herself, apparently more amused at a foreigner speaking Malagasy than the actual meaning of the words.

I smiled, made some small talk, and continued to sift. While sorting through various frip that are as much a staple of a Malagasy market as the rows of women with woven baskets full of rice, bananas, or hog-tied chickens, I feel like a treasure-hunter or archaeologist. Most specifically, examining the hodge-podge of fashion tossed out by trend obsessed Americans, French, Koreans, and who knows who else reminds me of the garbage archaeologist of Arizona – digging up information on the modern American’s lifestyle habits by taking note of what they put out on the curb each week.

Hidden in the depths of those street-side piles of cotton, polyester, and spandex, are the sequined, child-sized princess dresses and Halloween witch costumes worn briefly by American kindergarteners before hopping from attic box to thrift store to cargo freight bound for Madagascar. Relics of phases – fat phases, neon-spandex clad aerobic phases, pregnant phases, Hot-Topic inspired Goth phases – and the items simply too-awful-even-for-Value-Village get their last shot at a new owner in the open-air markets of third-world Africa. And while a few seriously amazing pieces are always buried among stretched maternity pants and flashback-to-the-80s-vests, sometimes I wonder if only vahazas (foreigners) can see how weird this stuff is. Or weirder, the 4-year-old-boys with snot running down their faces wearing the polyester princess dress, the ubiquitous Santa cap in the chilly highland Julys, or the grandmotherly old women wearing chuck-high-tops or bondage pants, completely oblivious to the social symbol they hold on the other side of the world. I’m still waiting to find something tossed from my own transient wardrobe among the lot.

A brilliant turquoise catches my eye. I tug on it and out emerges a cheap, vintage-inspired cotton dress with black trim. “How much?” I ask. “One thousand Ariary,” she demands. I begin to haggle, but she cuts me off “prix fixe,” she says. I can’t help but feel I’m being lied to, ripped off, but like the dress too much to care. So I hand over a crisp, purple 1000 Ariary bill – the equivalent of 50 cents – nod my thanks and continue along the dusty market.