To Garrison Keiller: For the good times.

“From Minnesota Public Radio”. Four stubborn words introduced me in a gentle but elegant way to A Prairie Home Companion. Even before I knew its name or its origin, the Tishomingo Blues took me on a long journey I never imagined it would or even could. Without it, I would never have undertaken my venture into literature, Roots Music, Folk and Country. Its unique reflection of America allowed me to grasp the history and culture of all Americans. A diversity that is unique, profound but ever so interesting.

Those were the times, the young pristine days of the Internet, when the concept Social Network was unheard of and could only be conceived by an evil-minded programmer. Armed with little more than a 33.6 kbit/s Dial Up Internet Connection, all of us discoverers looked at the broad horizon of the information age, jumping from one internet site to another, hovering over the vast amounts of news and information being thrown on the Internet. We didn’t dare even to challenge let alone question the divine plan Google set out of providing us with the perfect e-mail experience. And yet, among all this seemingly organized chaos, I found each Saturday a portion of Arts, Literature, Political Satire and a good dosage of innocent laughter in something I thought had long disappeared: a live Radio Show with Audience.

Before long, and obliviously advocating the show at home as being one of my major discoveries, I had found a partner in crime. When I mentioned A Prairie Home Companion would be coming to Paris two years ago, my sister and I quickly ordered a couple of train tickets to take the train from Brussels to Paris. So keen we were on seeing the show in real life, at least as much we were disappointed when we found out the show had been canceled. We consoled ourselves we at least had booked ourselves a long weekend in Paris to visit friends, dive into the beautiful Quai d’Orsay museum and wander through many beautiful parks and streets.

A Prairie Home Companion aired first in 1974 and, whilst the date I believe does not matter, its history does. From a state and city which names are seldom found in sensational headlines, whose people are bluntly overlooked or, if lucky, vaguely mentioned when discusses statistics, came into existence through hard work, conviction and never without the necessary mount of self-critique, not only a show but a microcosm that allowed people to grow, create, express themselves and share their work.

I’m too young to talk about the changes in the show, hiccups, setbacks, tried and lost formats. I wasn’t even born when Garrison decided to leave the show to get married and spend time abroad. Minnesotans might be loyal, stubborn, studied and arts-loving, I can imagine Garrison wanting to open up the show for something bigger. As allows the art mastered by a good bartender, a mix is far better than the ingredients served apart. A Prairie Home Companion allowed all Quality Ingredients to be distilled into a sublime cocktail bridging convictions, dogmas and styles. Together, humor and satire delivered on the promised intoxication.

Today, 15 years later after first hearing the show through a jittery Internet audio stream, I still try to find the answers to life’s persistent questions as I doze off during Steering and Decisions Committees, Preparatory Board Meetings and Management Decision Orientation Reunions. At least now, I can attest life is flowing like Ketchup on French Toast.

For the good times, Garrison.

Brexit: a mediocre catch-22

How more surrealist can it ever get? Dining in the Red Fort in Vilvoorde, a city north of Brussels, is always a special and delicious experience.  What used to be an old Flemish pub, or “café” in Flemish, now harbors a menu is refined and extensively Indian. The food is hot, the ingredients fresh and the atmosphere somehow exotic on a cloudy day. The dark wooden walls on the other hand move you back to a Flanders that once existed fifty years ago, but is now long gone. Vilvoorde, once home to many factories, has experienced firsthand how the world has come to change. I sit down after a hard day’s work and confide a friend this is the best Indian restaurant in town. Young and old enjoy Indian food together, with a beer, of course.

Enjoying a Punjabi specialty, we discuss the upcoming referendum. My friend James, for he has British roots, hints politely at the fact that they would probably stay in the European Union. His balanced answer is in fact a reaction to my bold statement and invitation alike we should have Afternoon Tea at Claridges, but only after the referendum, for we would be able to visit England as disaster tourists.

Today, with the Pound Sterling to historic lows and the stock markets in free fall, my ironic musing back then now makes place for unbelief and disappointment.

Many young people in the UK voted Remain and were let down today by a generation who enjoyed the benefits of tighter integration and the opening up towards the world, while turning its back on the European project when economic hardship hits and war is surrounding Europe. At the same time, the economic and social suicide of this decision might give way to many of us finding ourselves unemployed, again, for we belong to a generation without the privileges given to our predecessors.

The events leading up to this referendum were carefully planned and orchestrated starting years back. Let nobody convince you otherwise. For decades now, the United Kingdom has refused to integrated fully in the European Union and has blocked many attempts for tighter integration or more efficient decision making. The Brexit today finally breaks the catch-22 logic the British they themselves have designed. Better decision making and being closer to the people requires tighter integration and more efficient structures and processes, thus reducing the national leverage.

I was surprised to find major newspapers and tabloids supporting the Brexit, but this really ought to be no surprise at all as they only translate the  narrow minder views of a conservative British elite. The campaign, the political murder and the atmosphere leading up to the final vote are nothing but mediocre. For the many references to Churchill, the second World War and the Commonwealth and at times the Empire, cannot hide that voters in England and Wales have failed to battle the extremism on the Isle it they fought before on the Continent. For he who claims this victory, knows he won at the expense of progress.

James, how about Afternoon Tea at Claridges somewhere in August? For it is now, a moment that might be only an mediocre anecdote in world history, we can meet the British who long for the economic and social policies of the British Empire. For it is now they can enjoy their 5 minutes of fame, after which the economics of inequality and poverty will put the citizens of England and Wales in front of a mirror that reflects the results of the policy of British leaders, not that of European politicians.

United Consumer F*ckers: Himalaya Herbals Aryuvedic Dental Cream

When a reviewer on Amazon stated that “It Contain Fluoride, so its not 100% Natural”, I doubted for a moment. I would never consider a Tooth Paste to be “rat poison” for it to contain Fluoride, as another reviewer mentioned, but was finally convinced to buy a Himalaya product when a friend of mine had me try a sample of Himalaya’s Organique “Neem and Pomegranate Toothpaste”.

After some thought, and having brushed myself through the remaining stock of Parodontax toothpaste, I ordered the entire Toothpaste line of Himalaya. “Sparkly White” seemed nice enough, as did “Complete Care”. Not to forget the Organic Tooth Paste, the most expensive of the offering.

To set the record straight, I am no dental hygiene freak nor do I aspire having the white teeth as one of the many Youtube starlets showing the latest Yoga poses. I was however very excited to start brushing my teeth using Himalaya’s “Aryuvedic Dental Cream” as soon as my package arrived in the mail. Only after my first gentle soaping of my fragile teeth with this magical aryuvedic solution, I took the packaging and reviewed the ingredients.

Himalaya’s “Aryuvedic Dental Cream” contains, even if I am uncertain what this exactly might mean, “100% herbal actives”. Among these, I find Pomegranate advertised for its antibacterial and antioxidant properties. Neem is mentioned for its medicinal properties and Mewak is to prevent tooth decay. Nothing better than nature to help you in maintaining clean and white teeth, I reckoned. Or so it seemed, as one ingredient in the list showed the Pomegranate and Neem in the toothpaste are apparently not strong enough to keep the Herbal Tooth Paste 100% natural.

2-bromo-2-nitropropane-1,3-diol, also known as bronopol, is an antimicrobial substance used as a preservative in cosmetics and shampoos. Its usage is not without controversy, as it is a recognized allergen and, in certain conditions, can liberate nitrite and formaldehyde. Not an aryuvedic substance if you ask me and certainly not a “100% herbal active” ingredient.

In the end, not Fluoride but bronopol made me throw away my lot of ordered Aryuvedic Herbal Paste from Himalaya Herbals. Strange as it seems, the “Sparkly White” and “Complete Care” do not contain bronopol. Buyer Beware; Indian Made in this case does not mean Aryuvedic nor does it warrant a 100% natural product.

On Greece…

Never have I seen so much disinformation during, before and after the news. If a country is unable to repay its debt, it defaults. There is no emotion to this, it is pure finance. Greece cooked its books, falsified government financial information and went on a spending spree instead of investing in its economy. What we witness today is not “a victory for democracy”, but the rise of a new Hugo Chavez, be it this time in Europe. Don’t compare Greece to post WWI and WWII Germany and the treaty of Versaille, as there is no repayment for “destruction during the war”, nor is there any reconstruction to be done as no european bombs destroyed Greece past 50 years. The subsidies and money transfers were, unlike those received by Spain, a country that invested heavily in infrastructure and growth, used to enrich and enable a system based in corruption and clientelismo. Greece has no private banks -all of them are linked in some way or another to the government, and private investment or enterpreneurship is heavily guided. Flirting with Russia, I’m sure Tsipras has found a new friend in Vladimir. For the moment Greece exits the EU, the Council of Europe and the Euro, it no longer has to comply with the basic rules of democracy, best practices in government accounting and is no longer has its banking system monitored by the ECB, giving Tsipras and his financial supporters the freedom to govern the way they want to. For this it is strange so few media even discuss the proposal from the Eurozone in the slightest detail, as it is probably deemed “too difficult to explain”. Instead almost every media outlet finds itself lost in emotions without a real analysis, be it financial, political or geopolitical. Friends, the challenge is not keeping Greece in the Eurozone, it is keeping Greece a democracy. For it to be Europe’s fault, why were Ireland and Spain able to restructure, reform and debate without endangering the entire European Project? Probably because they never intended to leave the EU.

The South 2015: Tuesday March 31st 2015: Lithonia, GA

As you drive into Lithonia, very few clues are there to convince you this is much more than a commuter town. A Wal-Mart ungraciously displays it presence and it is joined in its omnipresence by every brand of fuel or motor oil known in America as I am leaving the East Expressway. Tucked away in the soft rolling hills and hidden by the beautiful trees, Lithonia started its heydays with the construction of the Atlanta Augusta Railroad in 1845 to connect the quarries with the world. With the prospering of the local granite industry, the -what is now known as- Lithonia Historic District grew both in size as in local importance. Lithonia, or the city of stone, is home to a number of quarries.

I’m woken up by distant chirping of overactive birds welcoming the day. As I open my eyes I feel the sun gently poking me as if it was telling me to get out of bed. The terrace at the back of the house looks at the high but somewhat bald trees that mark the start of the Arabia Mountain Heritage Site. We’re heading into the woods today and want to save some time using the pressure cooker to cook the rice. The experiment, as it was more than once detailed by my Indian friends at work, was not meant to succeed. Not to blame the equipment, it did not reduce preparation time at all but took the cooking time from 40 minutes to an hour. At last, as Etta James would sing, my rice has come along. Eggs, rice, tomatoes and a mid morning sun provide a heavenly breakfast.

We’re all set for a walk to Arabia lake. The good part is, the trail we’re taking is only instances away from where we are currently residing. We head towards Arabia Lake and leave the big trail for smaller hiking trails. I’ve noticed the sun can hit your hard in Georgia, especially when you’re out walking. It’s a weekday and with most people at the office, the clouds and the distant threat of a thunderstorm, the forest is all ours. A small mob of deer sees us, just as we see them. Some of the young freeze as I search my camera. Other members of the herd just don’t care and keep on going.

We reach the lake as we see a wall partially destructed by time to generate a tiny waterfall and even more subtitle creek. As I turn right I see a landscape abundant in stone but poor in trees, dotted with dark red Diamorpha. Arabia Mountain is a monadnock and was one of the three quarries that were actively exploited until the late sixties, when it was no longer viable to do so. Stone was transported by rail from the quarry to supply the local market and by extension the entire United States. Parts of those railways have been converted into comfortable biking trails. Today, more than 30 miles of biking trails through nature, across historic sites and a monastery as a gateway to this area make this truly a unique experience.

After a long walk, I’m getting hungry. Time to go back and prepare dinner. Tomorrow we’ll visit Atlanta. I can’t wait to drink Peach Juice on Peachtree Avenue. However, I have been warned I would have a hard time finding Peach Juice in Georgia.

The South 2015: Monday March 30th, 2015. Brussels – Atlanta, GA.

Have ever noticed that the week before your vacation is often the busiest and more important week at work? All of a sudden everybody needs you, you are deemed irreplaceable and “who is going to do all the work while you’re gone?” is asked more than once during the daily coffee breaks leading up to your departure. Not that I am not flattered, but through the years I have learned that almost everybody is replaceable. I’ve been “replaced” in the past and so have many of my friends. I also learned that a visit to the doctor was in place to stop a sudden, but not entirely unexpected, infected toe nail that had returned from a long hibernation. The infection seems to wake up every time I am about to leave abroad on a trip where the main activity will be walking. My scheduled visit to the dentist was now to review her previous work as each time I took a bite the filling hurt. With half of my body aching from one or more ailments, a 32 year old octogenarian is ready for vacation.

I got an appointment with the doctor the evening before I took off for Atlanta. She seemed to be in the same kind as hurry as I was. She was about to leave on her annual ski vacation and a colleague had -unexpectedly-  referred the bulk of his patients to her. Different job, same issues. Her waiting room was full and patients still were coming in. She had a look at my toe and looked worried. I was prescribed antibiotics to stop the infection. I was somewhat relieved when I paid her. Her worried look didn’t ebb away as she called in the next patient.

The Atlanta morning flight was ready and after being scanned and searched for thing I do not possess nor should I ever want to travel with –except for a serious bottle of water–, I bought some delicious Belgian chocolates for my friends at the other side of the Ocean. Neuhaus is and will always be my favorite brand as their taste is neither to sugary nor is their chocolate too fat. A tad pricey, but when you compare them to other brands (such as Godiva, Marcolini, etc.) they stand out as the best, believe me. Of course, les goûts et les couleurs ne se discutent pas.

Captain Dave entered the plane. He was the Pilot and personally but casually informed us of the “current situation”. Polite and with the charm of a true Atlanta pilot he “could cut some corners” but it “still would take 9 to 10 hours instead of the usual 8+ hours due to a strike at the airport and a heavy head wind”. He and his co-pilot wanted to be home on time, preferable before 4pm, as they commute and didn’t want to be struck in traffic during the Atlanta rush hour. If we were nice and behaved, “they would keep on feeding us”. We all agreed. After all, only so few times a pilot informs personally all the passengers of a delay.

On board entertainment with Delta is absolutely fantastic. Yes, you can see the Four weddings and a funeral movie again should you so desire. So often during my youth this seemed to be the movie of choice during the trip, I now prefer the latest episodes from top HBO series. Today however, I continued to watch the seven part documentary on The Roosevelts. One family, two presidents. From different parties, from different times, they shaped the modern United States. It kept me going for over seven hours.

If there is one thing you have to know about me, it is that I like good food and a good glass of wine. Good food and enough food. The flight Brussels – Atlanta was being operated by Delta and all went perfect, if it weren’t that they offered one meal and one snack for about 9 hours of flying. The onboard entertainment might be one of the best, my stomach kept reminding me it also had a right to decent treatment.

First stop is Lithonia, where I will be staying at the house of a common friend. The first challenge is to find something to eat while driving towards, what can be considered as, an extended suburb of Atlanta. Snapfinger Road could be called “typical American”, with wide lanes crossing smaller entries or roads towards neatly newly built communities or providing access to community centers and churches.  In the most unexpected of places you find the best food. Neither a nice front nor elegant chairs to accompany an oak table. Takeaway Fish steamed and spiced up to perfection. A relief after nine hours of flying. Long live Google Maps and fellow diners’ reviews.

The South 2015: chronicles of the unexpected

Only so few times in a lifetime you take on a journey where you feel a chronicler and an explorer like Pedro Cieza de Leon. Open, inquisitive and with respect for local culture he wrote down his observations of what was then Peru. Not that I am about to detail an expedition with reports of battles, local power structures, fauna and flora, burial customs or observations of a civil war. But I am to share with you my experiences, insights and notions of my trip to Georgia, Louisiana and Florida. An expedition that takes you back into history, a trip that takes you completely off-road and back road to the road less traveled. An expedition, not a reality show, about real people who make today’s society. You won’t read any stories on Snooki, Jenni or Mike “The Situation”. We’ll talk about a thing “the union” seems to have forgotten all about: not the economy stupid, but its people.

The first seeds of this journey were planted less than a year ago in Paris, when I teamed up with a globetrotter and a curious mind like me. Dark brown skin, the delicate dreadlocks accentuate her inquisitive eyes. She is a Lawyer by trade, discoverer by profession. We met in Thailand in Chiang Mai on December 31st, when I saw her lighting her own lantern to celebrate the New Year.

After a delicious Vietnamese meal in one of the lesser touristic quarters in Paris, a kind gentleman with a white beard and a tangle of hair picked us up to go to a local café in the center of the city. Alas, I forgot the name and the exact place, but what I do remember is that the doors of the relatively small venue were all open. No front door, no back door, no window. For once, Parisian weather allowed the otherwise explicit border between the inside and outside to fade away and give way to the sound of blues and jazz mixed with the background noise of a vibrant nocturnal capital. Singer, Musician, Attentive Listener all sat together and shared a large but small table. Chairs were hap hazardous being added. A singer I never heard of, a drummer who had fame and a guitarist who was often in Brussels. I was introduced to a world that was completely new to me.

In the brasserie they had the best of lamb. Tasty, tender and it was shared with all participants. Food was served and I was introduced to Colin. The sound of the blues became a feeling, an emotion we all seemed to share. Colin and I got talking. About Belgium, how he served in the war, about his homeland, about his travels in the world. He spoke French and was from Louisiana. That is, French and the Creole language from his hometown.

The idea of visiting Colin in his hometown, Vacherie, in Louisiana took hold. I liked it, and so did my friend. I was warned though; visiting Colin is not an ordinary thing and I should prepare something. Recite a poem, sing music or play on the piano. I got searching and found “Louisiana Man” back in my music collection. Last February, we started planning.

Chiang Mai: Happy New Year!

January 2nd, 2014, writing from Chiang Mai.

When last year in my hometown a true Thai festival -under the patronage of the Thai ambassador- was organized, I was impressed and amazed by the entrepreneurial spirit and managerial skills exhibited by the Thai women present. If not surprised at the number of Thai currently living in my city, I found myself staring at the men-happily-married-to-thai-women club, all -passively if I may say so- centrally seated together at the center of the market square. In line with the mood at the festival, a Thai Airlines representative exuberantly told me I could get “special prices if married to Thai woman”. As a subject matter expert once confided to me, Thai women are “clean, nice company, good mothers and very nice cooks.” He also told me they are “low in maintenance cost” and considered all other women “out of their mind”. The conversation ended when I asked on how and when he fell in love with his current wife.

My travels through Thailand confirm more than ever that Thai women are indeed great cooks and efficient entrepreneurs alike. If in need of a good meal at a reasonable price, never doubt to venture out on the street and sit down before a food stall, where you’re certain to observe one or more female cooks making each dish in less than two minutes. Menus here are overrated, English is practically not spoken and the best food is obtained by pointing.

Chiang Mai New Year's Eve - Fresh FoodDelicious red curries with a good portion of Fried Rice and the complimentary glass of water, it is unheard of in many Chiang Mai “authentic” restaurants. It is however genuine Thai. In Chiang Mai however I found myself for the first time in Thailand staring at a Burger King full of tourists, flyers for Pizza Hut look-a-like restaurants and stumbled on billboards advertising the next premier league match.
“Spicy…?” might be a innocent question but is in reality for every Thai an unpronounced challenge. Having a foreigner over and have him ask for something spicy, is not unheard of to a cook, but should be compared with entering an oral exam and claiming to the professor you not only know this course, but are about to engage in a scientific critique of his entire repertoire. The chef took on my challenge and as my bowl with noodles was being served, staff and the casual Thai lookup up smiling and waiting for me to take the first bite.

Tears are running from my cheeks and my nose is completely cleared as I pay and stand up in awe to admire the sky. It’s New Year’s Eve in Chiang Mai and the sky is gradually filled with moving orange dots high in the air. At first I think the stars were falling down, on the earth. White rectangular lanterns are being lightened and the air in the lanterns slowly heats up. The lantern starts its journey to eternity taking with it all your worries.

It’s past 10pm when I set out to find the Phae Gate buzzing with activity. A central stage is to host a popular Thai band, while in between songs prizes are being given away. The boulevard that sets the limits of the old city is full of people eating food from the local stands. I join them in ordering some bbq’d squid, Northern Thai Noodles and finish this peculiar dinner with a freshly made Ice Cream.

Chaing Mai New Year's Eve 2014Just as I finish my meal and get up I see a dark appearance lighting up her own lantern. Contrary to the lanterns sold by the street vendors, this lantern is red and bigger than the ones available. Considering she is more experienced that I am, I ask her if she can help me with setting up and lighting my own lantern. Fizzy hair, curious eyes and an enthusiastic smile appear. A smile that makes me clear I should let go of all my worries. Strategically positioned to prevent my lantern to get stuck in a tree and burn half the city down, I observe how my worries flow away.

As 2014 sets in I wish you a year full of love, authentic experiences and positive challenges. Let it be a year where we can take on the future and grow together. Let it also be a year where we share our stories together, either good or bad ones, and create an atmosphere were friendship and love can blossom. Leaving all 2013’s worries behind -and I’ve had a few, I confess- I want to thank you for sharing a part of your life’s story with me. It is an honor.

The midnight festive mood gives way for the more brute night life experience and I decide to walk back to the hostel. As I turn onto Chiang Mai’s main boulevard, a young Frenchman, clearly having lost the last bit of inhibition and supported by a drink in his right hand, clings on to me in a firm way. Talking every pedestrian as a distinguished member of the public, he tells me bluntly and in French “you have to smile more”. “2014 will be a difficult year with challenges, but you will move on, grow positively and…”. He stops talking, grasps for a breath and gives me a long hug. His message delivered, he disappears in the crowd and is not seen again.

A prophet has been born.

Happy New Year!

Travellog: Amphawa, a way of life.

December  21st, 2013, writing at San Sook Guestplace, Ayuthaya.

In this economy, it’s all about “experiences” and less about goods. These are not my words, but those of a close personal friend and entrepreneur. I believe he is right. We love, live by and are constantly seeking trusted and new experiences alike. One recent experience during my trip to Thailand gave me first hand insight in the art of crafting the perfect experience: the Amphawa floating market near Mae Klong (Samut Songkram).

The ease and fluency with which the Thai are masters at giving you the right experience at the time and, more importantly, at the right price is just amazing. Althoug part of the same experience, I’m not talking about the usual Thai eloquence with which each hostel owner seemingly is aware of the degree of occupation at every other place in town –fully booked except for his place- or the ostensibly retired government worker who wants to help you in Bangkok with finding the right place by placing you on a Tuk Tuk to a Reservation Center at the outskirts of town.

I am talking about the Thai Railways station supervisor who holds up an entire train to allow you to get at your cup of noodles, made at the local food stands and skillfully packed to enjoy a small meal on the three hour train journey. Or entering a Guesthouse, being welcomed by the Lady of the House with a smile and a hot cup of coffee –at no extra charge-, before being shown the rooms. Or the random motorcycle driver who stops to help you understanding the symbolic but ever so wrongly scaled and ignorant city maps who assist little if at all when explaining the locals where you want to go.

Taking the train from Bangkok to Mae Klong must be part of the MaeKlong Railway TrainWalhalla of every discoverer alias backpacker to get the authentic experience. After taking a cab to Wongwian Yai Train Station, the journey really starts once you step on a Japanese second-hand train, standing in the middle of a respectable and orderly organized street market. With seats as rectangular as they today still are being designed for certain Japanese High Speed trains, this train is bound to take you slowly out of the highs and lows of Bangkok. As the numbness of the seat sets in, the shabby constructions, makeshift markets, the occasional howling dog along the despicable Bangkok alley makes place for a view over fields filled with water dotted with industrial development, distant highways and rice plantations.

After one hour and a half I scramble to get my backpack and, not finding any latin characters, rush to get off the train before it enters its depot. Finding the boat service which will take me from one side of the river to the other seems harder than I ever imagined it to be. Descending from the train at Mahachai station, I peer above the little stalls to find an exit to this densely filled market, alias train station. I make it to the city market and turn right, only to find a street packed with stalls, local shops and the occasional pharmacy.

It’s just before midday and the village is enjoying gracefully the chaotic positive energy of its habitants. The mood is festive; the environment suffocating for the packing smell of food stalls is mingled with the peculiar smell of dried fish. Mahachai market is one of the oldest fresh seafood markets.

After some searching I reach the boat service and, relying on common understanding as no common language is at hand, I pay the 3 Bhat to get on the boat. Once arrived on the other side of the Chin River, Bam Laem seems, in comparison with MahaChai (market), desolate with more stray dogs on the street than cars. Luckily there is a 7/11 on Main Street, giving me an opportunity to procure my lunch. Turning to the right, I start my walk to the station to continue our voyage to Mae Klong. Walking past a huge temple, next across an elementary school, I cross rails which cannot hide this line has been in operation since 1902.
Initially to transport fish to Bangkok markets, the rail today transports mainly passengers. At the end of the Train Line I find the Bam Lean P1030495train station, where the Station Master and the ticket officer stare at two stray dogs that are vastly asleep and a number of railway mechanics whistling while they fix a blue railway carriage. I’ve arrived too early.

The adventure continues as we get on the train to MaeKlong. Well into this second ride of the train, the train manager falls asleep. Little later I notice the water, until then just below rail-level, now seems to be higher than the rails. Suddenly the train manager wakes up and calls me. This must be the main attraction of this trip, as I am allowed in the driver’s cabin to take picture of how the train drives through the water.

Moments later I witness how we enter a market, where the shop fronts and awnings are moved back to allow the train to pass. As soon as the train has passed, merchants put back their goods and continue to trade, hindered only by small troops of Japanese and Chinese tourists.

Amphawa is being touted as one of the last places where authentic Thai riverside living can still be observed. The intricate network of lakes and flows are all connected with the ocean, causing a peculiar situation in which salt water enters with high tide and fresh water leaves when low tide sets in. This has allowed for a special way of living, in which every family has a boat to fulfill the majority of daily tasks and were able to fulfill in their needs.

To get to Amphawa I need to take a Songthaew first. Finding the Bus Station in MaeKlong (Samut Songkram), or more specific, the spot where Songthaews of all kinds find somehow their customers, is difficult if not impossible. Our Travel Guide points to the North, while somehow everybody in this little town seems to direct me to different places. After a good amount of searching, I notice a Songthaew with a couple Asian, but not Thai faces. “Amphawa?”, they yell. I climb on the little open van and push unwillingly some 10 year old Thai schoolboys of the van. The advantage of being big and white.

With us on the Songthaew are 5 Chinese travelers visiting Amphawa. They seem to be happy to see some western faces and start a conversation in English. Not really fluent, but they are certainly more talkative than the quiet stares from the Thai on the Songthaew and certainly informative. Together we jump of the van and without hesitation one of the Chinese interprets the little map next to the makeshift stop. Apparently they do understand the Thai way of interpreting city maps.

We scroll together to the Amphawa market and, before they realize it, they are being sold a 1000 Bhat hour tour of the old market. The well-built Chinese youngster asks the boat tour vendor if they get to see any real market on the tour. She answers fluently but with a more subtle voice that trading is only done in the morning. We look a tad surprised, as our guidebooks indicate the “real” market is about to start now. Of course, little did we know there is more than one type of market.

It’s Friday 4pm and buses full of Japanese and Chinese enter the parking at the back of the market. The sky is still clear although the sun is gradually showing its eagerness to end the day gracefully. Stands with food, desserts, fruit and memorabilia fill the small streets around the canal and the vendors are at their best.

Food stands are to be found on the boats, while the tables are on the docks or the steps leading to the pathway. The smell is seducing, the produce fresh and the price great. Three hours later, loaded with a memory of the one hour tour of the market and its surroundings, the taste of some fresh Thai seafood and the sweet impression of colorful Thai desserts, many tourists get back on the bus and leave for their next stop.

I observe the tourists that chose the fast way into town and were content to have found the authentic sensation of true Thailand. Among these Asian visitors I notice some well-of Thai, just to be overwhelmed by Chinese, Malaysian and even Japanese nationals absorbing the distilled fragrance of authenticity. A visiting French couple seemed unimpressed and told me they were a bit disappointed. No authenticity, little to offer and, as they confessed to me, they expected something more, perhaps something bigger. They, however, did not choose to stay the night at the Amphawa market.

My experience is more positive. An extensive walk culminates at the docks next to one of the two bridges of the Amphawa market. When I sit down to eat at only a foot away from the green-grey water, I hestitate to order but then, convinced by the smile of a young Thai girl handing out the menu, continue to order some squid, shrimps and rice. To my surprise, the presentation of my food, the wooden sticks that accompanied the meal and the form of the plates remind me more of my recent travels to Taiwan and the stories of my sister on Chinese food than the Thai food I had eaten until then. The taste however is priceless, authentic and truly Thai. Fresh seafood, sometimes hard to find even at home living 20 minutes from the coast, was here readily available, cooked before my eyes in open boats and spiced by “la mamma” herself.
8pm and the first stalls close down with a certain confidence. Not soon after the first shops at the riverside dim their light, souvenirs are being covered or locked away while the floating boats which cater to the ad hoc riverside food corners float away into the distance. As I walk to the Guesthouse, I notice how new every building is. I’m particularly impressed with the stylish renovation of the Rimrabeang Guesthouse, which for its style is worth only the most exigent tourists. We share this house with Japanese tourists. Adjacent to the guest house is a coffee and ice cream parlor.

All day long Asian tourists of different nationalities stopped to take pictures of the Guesthouse Sign with a bicycle next to it. Sitting down for a coffee I realize this place must be famous, but till today I do not know why. All houses have been renovated and only occasionally, behind the tourist stalls, one can see a convenience store Thai style. This market ought to generate an additional 500 USD for each household in the region, hence its importance and economic driver for the community.

Indeed, the real story of Amphawa is different and often neglected. It is the authentic way of life of the people around the canals in the region that is considered heritage. People having a boat to travel and transport goods over water from one place to another and, why not, trade goods from place to place. It’s about the ecosystem -or what is left- stemming from a unique symbiosis of water based settlement and its architecture.
This way of life exists and is still part of the daily reality of many people. It should also be said that Thailand is now as much part of the global village as is every other country in the world. Food comes in from the market and people have options to buy produce from many different outlets. Many, if not every, house on the river is today also connected by road.

The Amphawa market today is a development project. It is a tad touristy. Its target audience is not European nor is it American, which makes it all the more interesting. Thai, Chinese and Japanese spend some time at the market and allow this way a local economy to flourish. This tourism sprung from a local need, that is, to generate honest revenue for the local community.

Amphawa market is an experience and, may I say so, a daringly well constructed one. My stay at the market left me with a lasting impression, especially of the Thai capacity of giving you a true experience, with a smile and a sniff of authenticity. The only danger is, as the construction of a new hotel showed this year, Amphawa might lose its authentic flavor to that of tourism development ventures.

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A late tribute to George Carlin

George, you once said “I believe people go where they say they will go once they die”. George, where did you say you were going to? Three years after your death, I’m more than ever convinced you got right to the problems facing our society today.

It was the Internet that introduced me to George Carlin. Surfing the web, I was fascinated by the United States, its culture, economics and diversity. Freedom, as the word seems to imply, allows you to forbid speaking out certain words on the airwaves, but not on the Internet. These contradictions got me reading, investigating and writing.

My airline trip would never be the same again. Maybe God was a man after all, especially looking at the work he delivered here on earth. Talking about straight talk! Yes, some of his work was and still is controversial.

I savored Carlin’s work in reverse: starting with his latest HBO specials I gradually discovered his past work. At High School, comedy was our thing and George Carlin just fed our critical minds. The dirty words never could get us shocked, but his confrontation with the established values got us thinking. Yes, we got to think and to laugh alike.

I enjoy reading his stuff, just because it goes back to the surrealistic reality we have become accustomed to. After a hard day at work, putting on an HBO special from George Carlin puts me back on my feet. Reading one of his bestsellers can make me laugh even when I’m in a stranded train.

Words are my thing as well. It is amazing how people stare at you for playing with words during a meeting at work, for giving an opinion or for just telling the truth.

After his death, his life story was published. “Last Words” takes you through George Carlin’s life, from the beginning nearly till the end. The book –I got it as a birthday present- just goes to show that nothing is free or easy in life. Even more, it shows Carlin was not just shouting and yelling dirty words, but brought on stage a view on life he assembled by living and doing his thing: playing with words.