Dtarn and Bingo were headed down the mountain and they invited me to join them. They were running errands for the village government they work for, the same village government that’s hosting me for the next two years while in the Peace Corps. I was happy to tag along. I needed to get to the post office, to mail some checks to friends back home who have been dealing with lingering bills and taxes for me half a world away. Plus I was almost out of bottled water. During the work week there’s a water cooler available at the office but on the weekends when the office is closed I’m on my own.
It’s always a treat to visit the city at the bottom of the hill; there’s not a lot up here in my mountain village. I walk the narrow streets to and from my work site and peer beneath the awnings and corrugated metal roofs covering the front porches of the buildings I pass to see what folks are selling: local fish and scattered pieces of pork that sit out all day, unfamiliar vegetables, a few bananas and pineapples. The corner markets here don’t offer the same variety of goods that I got accustomed to in Central Thailand during my training there. No one offers cut up pineapple or piles of oranges, things for the single consumer. There is no 7-Eleven here. The city down the hill is the provincial capital and has most big city conveniences: more people, more services.
There are at least two big, modern supermarkets, similar to the Walmarts we have back home. And that’s where I was hoping we would go. It’s so easy to get lost among the aisles of food and housewares there. It’s fun to amble about the kitchenware and plastic storage items, ogling the rice cookers and washing machines, dreaming of the day I’ll have my own apartment.
I mentioned to Bingo and Dtarn that I needed to buy water. I figured that simple request for water would lead us directly onto the 4-lane highway to the outskirts of town to the Makro or to the Tesco Lotus, the Thai super centers. But Bingo and Dtarn know this little city well and know where all the deals are. We drove through the hot and dusty city streets, dodging scooters and stray dogs, relieved I’m not allowed to drive here. We passed an array of businesses: paint stores and tire shops, corner markets and food stalls. We pulled over when we came to a small storefront that appeared to sell only bottled water and rice. While I was thrilled to buy a case of water for $1.50 what I really wanted was junk food. This storefront didn’t have what I was craving.
I didn’t want to admit this secret desire, this less-than-healthy hunger, so I simply asked Dtarn if we were going to the Tesco, where I knew all the goodies were. Naturally she wanted to know why. I knew what she and Bingo were thinking: the super center was expensive and several kilometers outside of town. But I wanted to covertly linger in the air conditioning and leer over the aisles of cookies and candies, knowing there were familiar European brands of treats and stacks of Oreos, prepackaged food items with a sprinkling of English on the labels. That’s where I really wanted to go but I didn’t have enough Thai under my belt to fabricate a story, so I blurted out the truth. “Pom kaw junk food,” I said. I wanted junk food.
I admitted my guilty desire and it was out in the open. I was hoping that they wouldn’t understand this bit of English slang but they did. They both laughed and repeated, “junk food.” Bingo smiled and kept driving until we reached a local grocery store a few blocks away. My tour guides were showing me places the locals shop at, not the places the foreigners go to. They pointed out the aisle with cookies and candy but stayed close at hand. I felt ashamed really, them watching me as I fondled the boxes of cookies, the bags of peanuts and tubes of Pringles, trying to anticipate my sweet and salty desires over the upcoming week. But I think they understood. When I reached for a bag of cashews, Bingo shook his head. He knew a better place. Cashews are a local commodity after all and he knew where I could get them still warm from the roaster. Yes, he understood.