Late December 2006

This morning, while sitting at one of the tables by the pool visiting with a resident of the complex, I noticed Palm fronds falling from the canopy of green above me. I followed the thwup, thwup, thwup? of a heavy tool beating in the air to the cascade of fronds falling to the sandy soil below and finally, looked up into the tree from which they fell.

A ladder, probably 20-feet tall, rested against the narrow trunk of a tall Palm and atop it, a thin, grizzled man in cowboy boots, blue jeans, a colorful long sleeved shirt, and baseball cap, stood. He held a 12-inch long machete in his oversized hands and swiftly, with precision that comes only from years of repetition, he cut through the stalk of each of the fronds attached to the statuesque tree, leaving only a few tall fronds in the very center of the crown.

He made quick work of each of the ten or so trees in the patio, some only 20 feet tall, some 30 feet. I watched for nearly 20 minutes, the man trimming four trees while I gazed up into the bright blue Mexican sky. After the fourth tree, I retrieved my camera and as the dark man with the thin face descended from a tree, I approached him. I smiled and said in English, amazing. He smiled and pointed up to the next tree with a full crown.

Trabajo, he said to me. I smiled again and with my eyes, followed his pointing finger to the top of the tree.

I pointed to my camera and in English said, May I?


Si, he nodded his head and stood beside his ladder, leaned into the tree and posed for a picture.

Gracias, I said, and although my high school Spanish class was nearly twenty years ago and I have forgotten almost everything Mr. Perez taught me, I asked, Como te llamas? What is your name?

Carlos, the grizzled man said to me.

Carlos, I repeated. He smiled his big smile again and waited for me to tell him my name. me llamo Mariana,? I replied, and I wondered where the sentence came from. It popped into my head as random as a star shooting through the night sky.

Mariana, he repeated and nodded his head in confirmation.

Carlos stuffed the handle of the machete into the waistband of the back of his jeans and took hold of the ladder, grabbing both sides of the metal contraption with his gnarled hands and hoisting it to the next tree.

Climbing Carlos

I watched as he climbed the 25-foot Palm, the heels of his cowboy boots catching each rung of the ladder on his way. Carlos stopped every few feet and smiled down at me and on cue, I raised my camera over and over to snap his photo. Finally, at the top, he turned his attention from my camera and focused his hands on the regal crown of the giant Palm.

He worked with determination on the foot-long ball of bark that had formed at the base of the crown, peeling away layers of brown husk like the layers of an onion. He worked until the trunk was smooth, the husk discarded to the ground below, the space where the ball had been was nearly flat.

The machete suddenly appeared in his large, chocolate hands and he stopped once more to look down at me, Are you watching? He seemed to say. I raised my camera and snapped the photo just as he dropped the machete on the tender flesh of the green stalk. He held the severed frond in one hand and the machete in the other, balancing high on the ladder as he posed for a photo. Bueno! I called up to him. He laughed and let the frond fall to the ground.

Carlos 5

Carlos spent the next few minutes chopping away at the fronds, letting each fall the way the first had, until brown husk and Palm fronds littered the walkway and shrubs below. Finally, he stuffed the handle of the machete into his waistband again and descended the ladder. When he was planted on the ground, I called to him, Carlos! Gracias! and gave my best smile to let him know I appreciated his time. He abandoned his ladder and walked toward me, pointing at the camera in my hands.

See, see? he asked, and pointed to himself.

You want to see the photos? I asked, and he nodded and smiled. He leaned over my shoulder to see the tiny image of himself in the tree, holding the machete, dropping the fronds. I’m going to write a story, I told him, escribe story, and I pantomimed writing with a pen and paper.

Si, story, he repeated.

Carlos, Cabo San Lucas? I asked Carlos if he lived in Cabo San Lucas.

Todos Santos, he replied. My husband and I had traveled to the tiny artists village a few days earlier. The village hung over a bluff on the Pacific Ocean, perched somewhere between modernity and an ancient Mexican village.

Oh, beautiful! I said to him. He nodded his head and agreed with me, beautiful.

I had learned how many, how much while shopping a few days before and asked Carlos, Cuantos anos? How old are you?

Cuarenta nueve, he replied.

Forty-nine? I confirm.

Si, forty-nine anos, he replied.

Carlos must think I am more learned than I am, for he breaks into rapid, nearly unintelligible to me, Spanish and I make my mind quicken to keep up with his tongue. I pick out a few words, but nothing that will make a sentence and I realize that my education, although good, was wasted due to my constant residence in the United States. When it comes to other cultures and languages, I am nearly bankrupt.

But I nodded my head and parroted a few of the words Carlos has spoken to tell him that some of what he said got through, that I was paying attention, that I will remember. He smiled and enveloped my hand in his surprisingly soft grasp, shaking it warmly for several seconds.

Gracias, Carlos, Gracias, I said and smiled.

Gracias, senora, he said, and dropped my hand. It was replaced almost immediately by the machete and as I walked away, he moved his ladder to a new Palm, climbed the giant tree to its top, and went to work, once again.

Carlos 6

Originally published at

Traveling Notes–Expect the Unexpected!

March 20, 2015

I am at Kilimanjaro International Airport, returning home after a five day whirlwind trip here. The reason for the trip was “business,” meaning that establishment of a relationship between two American universities, and a university in Moshi, Tanzania.

I am reminded thought the reason is not just business, but to experience the vitality of life. An important part of travelling is welcoming the unexpected.

And this trip has done it—despite being so brief. Just today—in the morning there was a 370 student welcome for us at an elementary school. Friday was sports day, and the students were all dressed in androgynous “sports uniforms.” Then a tour of a hospital where I saw my first orthopedic surgery. The doctor was screws into a thigh bone, a procedure which involved using what appeared to me to be a manual screwdriver inserted through a hole cut in the leg. The patient, we were told was anesthesized with a spinal block. He had a screen up so that he could not see what was being done on his leg–but he could feel the pressure of the screwing, and hear the sounds of what was going on.  Ye gads.

I’m nor sure which caused this surgery–but our guide told us that the most common source was motorcycle accidents.  With a bit of wealth, Tanzania is being introduced to motorcycles, and the broken legs that his leads to.

Then on the way to the airport we drove through an area of Tanzania which has in recent years been cleared to plant maize. The rains are about two weeks late. Every evening the winds kicked up, but no rain. But today was different. As we drove to the airport in our cab, the winds did indeed kick in, creating a dust storm which led suddenly to zero visibility—and a cab driver who had to stop suddenly when a bicyclist appeared out of the dust. What cleared up the duststorm? Rain! Indeed, a torrential downpour arrived just as we left the cab.

All of this was “unplanned;” if you asked me what would happen last night, I would have predicted some boring tours of a school, health facilities, and a taxi ride to the airport. But that is the purpose of travel—the delightfully unexpected!

The House on the Hill

This morning, I walked to the beach before sunrise. Its only 4 or 5 minutes from the 3-story condo complex we are staying at, and still within the gated community of Cabo Bello, so I felt safe enough to leave my husband sleeping in the pre-dawn darkness, leave a note on the kitchen counter, At the beach- be back around 9? and slip through the salted air to the cliff that overlooks Calinda Beach.

I walked around our building, past the family swimming pool, down the sandy hill that curves through palm trees, and out through the gate just beyond the complex’s sewage treatment pool. The construction workers had not yet arrived to begin a new day hammering heavy nails and pouring concrete into the 3 or 4 mansions being built just outside our gates so I turned left toward the cliffs where the new houses will sit and made my way to the end of the continent, and waited for the sun to rise over the Sea of Cortez.

The construction workers labor all day, from the moment the sun rises to just after it sets in the early evening. They carpool but that is the wrong word- for every vehicle available, there are 10 or 12 men who rely on its fuel and tires and gasoline to take them to and from the worksite. As I sit on the rock wall between two of the mansions on the cliff just before sunrise, a small pickup truck arrives with 3 or 4 men in the bed, another 3 in the front seat. Without turning off its engines, the truck unloads its cargo and as the last man sets foot on the asphalt, the driver shifts into gear and 15 minutes later, returns with another truckload of men.

I wonder where the men come from; are they the random men who stand on the street corners outside of Cabo Bello and downtown Cabo San Lucas, hoping for construction foremen to pick them for the days work? Or are they permanent workers, who earn a decent, living wage and know they will have work again tomorrow.

Wood is scarce in this part of the world; in fact, we have seen no real? trees in Baja except for the giant palms that seem to grow everywhere down here. Scrub bushes and many low, drought resistant trees pepper the barren desert around Los Cabos (as the entire tip of Baja is called), but no real trees that would make for good building material. Instead, the construction workers that I watch as the sun rises mix concrete in small, revolving drums and pour it expertly into the forms that will build the houses on the hill above Calinda Beach.

There is a very small middle class? in Cabo San Lucas; there are the many who live in the barrio on the north side of town (see Zona Residencia), who construct their homes themselves with whatever scraps they happen on over time and then there are the wealthy, who construct homes like the mansions that overlook Calinda Beach. In between the two extremes, very few people live on the west side of Cabo San Lucas, in rundown, but at least livable apartments.

I watch the men as they work on the mansions and occasionally, one man notices me staring and raises his hand briefly in greeting. I make my way back up the stonewall to the road and walk toward the construction crews at the nearest mansions, just across the street from each other.

The men watch me approach with curiosity; the camera in my right hand that dangles from a thin cord and loops around my wrist and my designer sunglasses give me away as a tourist, probably American, but I think that since I have been watching them so intently, they are puzzled.

Buenos dias,? I say softly as I pass two men in jeans, short sleeve shirts, and light work boots. Their shovels rest momentarily and in unison, they nod their heads slightly, the brims of their baseball caps covering their faces and reply, Hola, Buenos dias.?

I move on and although I feel the focused gaze of each man on the construction sites, I open my camera and begin taking pictures. As I round the corner of the concrete structure closest to the edge of the cliff, an older man with a crumpled cowboy hat and barely as tall as his shovel, startles me. I instinctively say, Buenos dias,? and he smiles at me like hes been waiting for me all morning. He nods deeply and I raise my camera, Por favor?? I ask and when he nods again and poses for me, I snap his picture. I smile and say, gracias,? and he beams again.

Truck in Zona Residencia

I spend nearly an hour watching the men work, taking pictures of the concrete monoliths that will have million dollar views of the Sea of Cortez, sitting on the rock wall. I watch as a man runs with his dog on the beach below. Finally, with the sun already high overhead and the day warming, I cross the empty patch of dirt from the edge of the cliff, back to the construction sites, and walk through the men again. The foreman, a burly man driving a new pickup with the name of his company stenciled on the passenger door, glares at me as I raise my camera and take one last shot of the house his men are building. The men turn away from me and focus on their shovels, pickaxes and wheel barrels with studied concentration and the thought, there is something the foreman doesn’t want me to see, passes through my brain, but I let it go and continue up the road, taking pictures of other completed mansions.

Later, as the sun goes down, I watch the men pack into the small pickup truck, ride away into the night and I wonder where they are going, where home is for them. I wonder, will what theyve been paid today be enough to put dinner on the table for their families tonight? I wonder, do they have dreams of living in the houses they build? Do they know that most likely, they will never be able to afford one of the houses on the hill? I wonder, what are their dreams? What are their realities? What makes them different from me? And I realize, nothing.

The House on the Hill was originally published at 

Travelling Notes—from Amsterdam’s Schiphol Airport

I’m on a rather strange trip from Chico, California to where I live, via Sacramento, California where I had a meeting on Thursday, and then onto Kilimanjaro International Airport in Tanzania.

The usual hurry up and wait of travel applies, except for the first day in Sacramento, when I went to a meeting of the committee which will advise Chico State’s president on a hire for a senior executive position.

The meeting went well—the usual range of nervous and earnest candidates making a case those of us who for them are a bit of a cipher. I suspect that I would like most of them in other circumstances, but such interview situations are so contrived—for both the interviewees, and interviewers. To be honest, I much prefer to be on the interviewer side of things.

For dinner we went out to an African American Soul Food restaurant. One of the people on our committee recognized Sacramento Mayor Kevin Johnson when he came in and quietly sat down at a table. Johnson is both a political and sports celebrity. It was interesting to watch him during his low time—it was not quite anonymous, but he was very accessible. A number of times patrons came up to greet him and take a picture with him. Other times, he quietly worked on his mobile electronic device.

My flight to Los Angeles the next day though was delayed by another celebrity who was not so low key. President Barack Obama was apparently in Los Angeles to tape a television program the night before, and departing for Washington (or somewhere else) that morning. Anyway, all the airspace in Los Angeles was cleared for the departure of Air Force One. And we in Sacramento were delayed—and I suspect the whole days schedule was disrupted by the morning shutdown. For me that meant my flight to Amsterdam was delayed, and I missed my flight to Kilimanjaro, Tanzania.

And so there I sit typing away in the Amsterdam airport, about to finally board my plane for Tanzania. Fifteen or twenty years ago I came here once or twice per year—but not recently. The airport is a bit older now, but still as always under construction. One of the really odd things is that most of the signs are now mono-lingual in English. The written Dutch language is very low key—there are few signs in that language; I recall reading a statistic recently that 95% of Dutch people are conversant in English. I guess that that reflects that statistic.

As for the languages I hear, Schiphol is still ever international, though of course there is still a lot of Dutch.

Zona Residencia

We rented a car at the airport and have been using it to explore the city and surrounding areas, and each day that we have driven outside of the area of our condo complex, I have become overwhelmed, feeling hypocritical and guilty.

One of the residents in our condo complex mentioned to me that there was only one paved road in Cabo San Lucas 20 years ago, but its difficult to believe if you stay on or around the Tourist Corridor?, as the main resort area of Cabo is called. The nearly 20 miles of high rise condominiums, hotels, and acres of perfectly manicured golf courses that stand today make it difficult to conjure a Cabo any other way.

But after staying in the Tourist Corridor? the first few days, we finally made it to downtown Cabo San Lucas yesterday and I realized, as we were driving through the city can it be a city if most of the roads are poorly maintained dirt or ancient cobblestone?- that the sociologist in me never sleeps.

Rush hour in Cabo San Lucas, Mexico. We have decided to drive north of the city center to the largest grocery and clothing store in the city, the equivalent of Kmart in America. We make the mistake of leaving the city center and tourist area just after 4:30 pm, Matt navigating our tiny rental car through the ancient cobbled and dirt streets off the main highway, onto the paved 4-lane Avenue Constitution. We have traveled the road several times since coming to Cabo a few days ago, but never at rush hour and not on Friday afternoon. We realize our mistake almost immediately, our little car required to sit through two cycles of the turn signal before we can turn onto Avenue Constitution.

At the light, a man in his late 40s or 50s approaches our car and all of the other cars waiting to turn left. He carries a small box of what look like granola or energy bars and in Spanish, offers up the bars for purchase. He shoves the box toward my husbands window but before the man can get close to the car, Matt raises his hand dismissively and says firmly, No, gracias, por favor,? and the man moves to the next car in line. But he is not the first, nor is he the last person who tries to sell us some novelty item as we wait for a stoplight to change.

We spot a truck several cars ahead of us loaded with 15 or 20 men standing in its bed; the ones on the edge with a railing to hold onto as the truck speeds down the highway, those in the middle with nothing but the shirts of men around them to hold if the truck brakes suddenly or, God forbid, crashes.

Although this is common practice in Cabo, from what we have seen, this is the first truck so heavily loaded. We follow the truck for several miles and reach speeds of 50 or 60 miles an hour, and still, the men stand effortlessly and fearless, their daily commute commonplace. I cringe at each light and unconsciously make sure my seatbelt is fastened tightly when the truck changes lanes rapidly, praying the men make it home to their families.

The signs on the highway that lead to the grocery store attempt to guide us in the direction those who run this country want tourists to travel and not travel: Zona Comercial, Zona Tourista and Zona Residencia. Avenue Constitution is the border between the zones and as we follow the men packed into the truck on their commute home, we disregard the Zona Tourista? and instead, follow the road north and skirt around the Zona Residencia? to the store and a little restaurant across the street that serves the best carnitas on the tip of Baja. We have made the trip several times before, but at rush hour, the drive is slower and for the first time, we pay attention to the Zona Residencia?.

As we sit in nearly stopped rush hour traffic, we watch cars and trucks veer off Avenue Constitution at each cross street we come to and enter Zona Residencia.

The Zona Residencia, the only residential area I have seen in Cabo but I am sure there are others, begins just to the north of the Avenue Constitution. It is probably 5 miles wide and extends many miles into the foothills of the nearby mountains, all one story wooden shacks with no grass, no sidewalks, no pavement on the streets, and a top each house, a 250-gallon water reservoir. Utility poles run the length of the area, but I wonder at the reliability of the electricity or telephone lines that travel between each pole.

I have seen similar shacks and neighborhoods other places: Tijuana, Juarez, a few isolated streets in California. But the sheer scope of the poverty we see as the cars exit Avenue Constitution into the Zona Residencia slows my thoughts, makes me realize I will never be able to understand what it is really like to live in poverty.

I have heard people in the States say, They choose to live like that,? or They don’t know any better,? but seeing the Zona Residencia in north Cabo, I understand that those people have never seen this. Even if they do see it, they will never understand the depth of desperation the people who live in the Zona face each day.

I am one of those people; I do not understand.

I will never be forced to ride in the back of an overcrowded truck, hold on for dear life, just to get back and forth to work. I will never be forced to stand on a street corner at rush hour and offer granola bars or plastic chicken eggs with pop-up chicks to passing cars. I will never, unless it’s by choice, live on an unpaved street. I will never run out of water and not be able to drink from the tap. I will work, yes, but never as hard or as long as those people I saw in Cabo. I may have times when money is tight, but my children will always have Christmas presents and birthday parties.

We didn’t make it to the grocery store that Friday night; whatever we needed, we realized we could do without until another day. We didn’t go out to dinner. Instead, we drove back to the condo, ate leftovers, again.

We were lucky; we are lucky. We don’t understand.

Zona Residencia was originally published at 

The Best Carnitas Ever

The Best Carnitas Ever was originally published at 

We are in search of authentic? Mexican cuisine without the upset digestive track that we have been warned of multiple times before arriving in Cabo. The last few evenings, we grilled steak and giant red and yellow bell peppers on the oversized grill by the pool; the Costco down the road makes it relatively inexpensive to cook for ourselves. But we have heard of a local eatery that specializes in carnitas and have been assured by Miguel that the food is safe to eat, despite being outside of the tourist zone. A tiny advertisement stuck in between the pages of a photo album in our condo proclaims Los Michoacanos 2-for-1 Tacos Wednesday!? and the handwritten note that accompanies it says, Best Carnitas EVER!!!?

We drive north out of Cabo San Lucas on the road to Todos Santos, just past the new CCC supermarket and Soriana the Cabo San Lucas equivalent to Kmart – and hang a sharp u-turn in front of the American-sized shopping center. Matt guns our little rental car and amid angry horns honking, crosses two rows of oncoming traffic, and veers into a dusty parking lot filled with old Toyota pickup trucks, American made minivans, and micro-cars not so different than our rental cookie-sheet on wheels. There are no lines on the postage-stamp sized dirt parking lot, but Matt notices a car leaving what appears to be a parking space, and guns the engine again to grab the lone spot before another car claims it.

It is Wednesday at Los Michoacanos, and even though the lunch hour is over, all but a few of the tables in the open-air restaurant are full and a line of people 6 or 8 deep waits in the To Go? line for tacos. We stand at the entrance and watch as half a dozen wait staff, dressed in jeans and bright red t-shirts emblazoned with cartoon pigs gathered around a large cooking pot, run from table to table, to the open kitchen, to a work station where a woman stands and cooks tortillas, back to the customer. They run the maze of tables over and over again, bringing soda in a can, bottles of Mexican beer, steaming plates of carnitas filled tacos, to the families and locals who sit at the plastic covered tables in white plastic chairs.

We find an empty table near the front of the restaurant and almost immediately, a waiter somewhere in his mid-20s, brings a carousel of traditional salsa, avocado salsa (not guacamole, but a thinner, pale green, almost milky sauce), and chunky pickled peppers and carrots. He takes our drink order and returns a few minutes later with a cold can of soda for me and a slushy bottle of beer for Matt.

We give our order of carnitas tacos to the waiter, and from our vantage point in the center of the restaurant, watch as he takes our order to the man behind the long counter who yields a cleaver as effortlessly as an executive does a pen.

The man behind the counter stands while he works, fetching large chunks of fried pork from a glass display-warming case that holds freshly cooked meat. He drops the ham-sized pieces on a well-worn hard plastic cutting board and with blurring speed, chops the pork into bite-sized carnitas. He picks up a handful of the shredded meat and drops it into a metal scale, sometimes adding a few more pieces to the scale, other times, taking back a few shreds before scooping the meat onto a plastic-lined piece of parchment and wrapping the package expertly. Every few minutes, the cashier handling the To-Go? orders walks to the man, retrieves a package of carnitas, and exchanges it for a few hundred pesos with a waiting customer.

But we have decided to eat at the restaurant and after bringing bowls of bean soup to our table, the young waiter returns to a table a few feet from our table and waits while a woman kneads a large round of dough across a concave stone. She pulls golf-ball sized pieces of the white cornmeal into her greased hands, smooths and rounds it until it is nearly a perfect sphere, then drops it onto the base of a metal press and brings the top of the press down quickly, flattening the ball into a 6-inch round disk no more than an eighth of an inch high. She tosses cooked tortillas into small cloth-lined baskets and returns to rolling the dough over and over.

The waiter picks up a basket full of tortillas, places three or four on each plate, and takes the plates to the man behind the counter, who drops a few ounces of shredded carnita meat on each tortilla. The waiter sprinkles the tacos with chopped onions and cilantro and within 3 or 4 minutes of placing our order, our steaming plates of carnitas tacos arrive.

Los Michoacanos serves nothing but carnitas tacos and bean soup; no rice, beef, chicken, fish or shrimp. No enchiladas, taco salads, burritos, or dessert. No chips. Nothing I am used to in California except for the carnitas. Even the beans are different.

They put a lot of faith in these carnitas,? I tell my husband. He shrugs his shoulders as he scoops four different types of salsa on his tacos. I dont understand how he can taste the food under all that salsa.

I inspect my taco before taking the first bite, looking carefully for anything that shouldn’t be in the meat, but find nothing suspicious. I drizzle a spoonful of avocado salsa over the meat and lean in to take a bite.

I realize, almost instantly, that there is no need to serve anything at Los Michoacanos but carnitas.

We return to Los Michoacanos the following Sunday and are treated to live music three men dressed in matching jeans, long sleeved shirts and cowboy hats who sing and dance in choreographed unison. We arrive just before 3 pm to mostly empty tables but less than 30 minutes later, every table in the restaurant is filled with families in Sunday-clothes, just in time for the rich-Spanish music to fill the open-air restaurant. We eat several tacos each and then order one or two more and extra tortillas. The woman making the tortillas smiles when we watch her fill our order.

We make one last trek north out of town, just past the Soriana, loop a quick turn against traffic, on the Wednesday before we go home. It is late in the afternoon, early in the evening just after the sun goes down, and as we pull into the little parking lot, we realize we have made an error arriving so late on 2-for-1 Wednesday at Los Michoacanos.

Although the restaurant has no doors or windows, its lights are dimmed and the kitchen is empty and we realize it is closed, sold out of food for the day. We have been told there is no need to lock doors here even though it is in the barrio, but we have not witnessed the trust that exists, the unwritten respect here for local people and businesses, until now. It is something that cannot be legislated. We stay in the car and watch as a potential customer walks through the darkened dining room and checks behind the counter for an employee, then heads back to her car.

We could stop at Hard Rock Cafe on the way back to the condo, or pick up food to go at McDonald’s or Dominos Pizza, but we decide to make no stops at all. There are still a few tortillas left over from our excursion on Sunday and since its our last night, we decide to clean out the refrigerator. Maybe we’ll use the tortillas and cook some quesadillas on the grill.

Maybe we’ll just heat the tortillas and dip them good salsa.

I stand at the outdoor kitchen by the pool and heat the tortillas until they soften and darken against the heated bars of the grill. I slide a tortilla off the grill and feel the heat of the fire on my palms, feel the womans hands, the ridges of the press embedded on the dough. I place sliced pieces of soft Mexican cheese on half of each tortilla and remember the woman who kneaded the dough against the dark stone, rolled the ball of dough in her palms, flattened each into a disk and cooked it just before it came to my plate.

I imagine the people she must have fed, standing behind a table in the middle of a restaurant in the middle of the barrio in Cabo San Lucas.

Love, Duty, and Marriage in a Classic Thai Novel

Originally published here at in October 2011.

Behind the pAINTING

In summer 2011, I had the pleasure of co-teaching a Sociology/English class for American students in Thailand.  One of the real pleasures was using novels to illustrate sociological principles.  It was kind of like profession (sociology) meets hobby (reading novels).  I hope that the students liked it—I certainly did, and this blog is about what was my favorite Thai novel of the summer, Behind the Painting.  It proved to be ideal for discussing a wide range of subjects stretching across both sociology and literature, particularly the meaning of duty and love in structuring Thai and American society.

Behind the Painting by Siburapha is a classic Thai romance novel used to teach literature in Thai high schools.  The first half of the book was published in 1937-1938 as a serial in the newspaper Prachachat, and the entire book later in 1938.  The English translation by David Smyth was completed in 1995, and published by Silkworm books in 2000.  The story drips with references to the Thai aristocracy; indeed, the lead female character in the story, as well as her husband, are always referred to by their aristocratic titles in Smyth’s translation.

Set in the 1930s Japan, Behind the Painting is about a young Thai student Napporn and his relationship one summer with the newly-wed wife of a family friend.  Napporn at the time the main story is set has been in Japan already for three years, seeking entrance to the upper class status that a foreign university education provides ambitious Thai.  As with all well-born Thai, Napporn and his father consider such study abroad as a means to pull their impoverished country into modernity, and an entrance to the Thai ruling class.  Still, Napporn’s father knew that there was risk to such a trip; in preparing Napporn for his long trip abroad—it will last eight years—so Napporn was betrothed to a woman chosen by his father, to preclude Napporn seeking out a Japanese wife.  Completing the setting for the novel, are two visitors from Thailand who arrive in the summer of Napporn’s third year in Japan.  They are a widower with the title Chao Khun Atikanbodi (roughly Lord University Dean), who Napporn knew previously in Thailand, and his new wife Mom Rachawong Kirati (roughly “Lady Kirati”).  They are in Japan to spend the summer and become better acquainted following their marriage.  At 22, the commoner Napporn is a youthful host for the 35 year old Kirati, and the 50 year old Khun Chao.

Both Khun Chao and Mom Rachawong Karati are educated members of the Thai aristocracy, and are quickly swept into the swirl of social events in pre-World War II Japan.  What this means for Chao Khun is activities among his peers at men’s clubs, embassies, and the world of Thai and Japanese elite.  For his well-educated wife Mom Rachawong Kirati, it means pursuing her aristocratic passion for painting, and frequently being left in the company of the young student courtier, Napporn.  The two of them share an enthusiasm for the world of art, literature, public parks, nature, and intellectual life.  It is in this context that despite the differences in marital status and age, and even social status, the two find each other to be kindred spirits.  In wide-ranging discussions, they explore the beauty of the Japanese country-side and architecture.  More dangerously, the explore definitions of duty, loyalty, marriage, and love.  In the process of these dialogues, a picture of the elegant Mom Rachawong Kirati’s life as the idealized woman of the Thai nobility emerges.  This creates an increasingly personal dilemma for the now lovelorn Napporn who wrestles with the implications of being in love with a married woman, while he himself is engaged to his father’s choice.  In contrast, Mom Ratchawong Kirati, the question about the ideal of the loyalty to duty and class, or one rooted in the longing for the union between love and marriage is never in doubt.  Painfully for her the answer is clear: duty comes first.

How Mom Rachawong Kirati and Napporn both reach this conclusion is the heart of the book, as the tension between romantic love, marriage, and duty to class and family is explored.  In developing this point, there is actually much to be demonstrated for the western student who reflexively assumes that love and marriage are inextricably tied together, and trump broader loyalties to family and class.  They do not, as Mom Ratchawong Kirati, and even Napporn, demonstrate with their own arranged marriages.  Behind the Painting makes the point well that marriage is about duty, and preservation of society as much as love.  Love comes first only for the most fortunate—and the most craven.

Mom Rachawong Kiratis’s Marriage

Mom Ratchawong Kirati was one of three daughters raised by a father who was a royal administrator during the days of absolute rule in Siam.  Aristocratic girls in that day were raised in a protected environment, with the expectation that they would find a suitably aristocratic husband, who would both enhance the status of their family and hopefully also be a love match for the daughter.  It was a cloistered world, or as Mom Ratchawong Kirati describes the situation:

Before the change of government [in 1932], the aristocracy lived in a world of its own….When I finished school my father drew me into that world with him and forbade me to associate with people beyond it….I continued my studies with an elderly foreign governess…you may imagine the sort of conversation to which I was exposed…The virtues of a lady… the proper conduct of a household.  I had McCall’s and Vogue magazines to read, from which I learned to preserve my beauty and care for it well…something like caring for a hydrangea in a vase…We are born to decorate the world and to pander to it.  I do not say this is our only responsibility, but you cannot deny its importance.  Pp. 123-125

But Mom Rachawong Kirati’s success as a “hydrangea in a vase” was bittersweet; her cultivated beauty attracted wide notice, but no eligible man stepped forward to ask her father for her hand.  Thus, despite younger sisters finding husbands who both loved them, and met the approval of the families, she remained in her father’s household virtuous, lonely, and unloved.  Finally, at age 34, her father suggests that she marry his good friend Khun Chao who was recently widowed, even though he was almost 50 years old.  As she notes Khun Chao was a good man, but regretfully not one whom she can love; any hope that she can have anything but a dutiful but loveless marriage is sacrificed to the expedience he provides.  So she dutifully enters into matrimony, and the two embark on the trip to Japan where she meets Napporn.

Oddly the age difference between the 35 year old Kirati and 22 year old Napporn is similar to that between that of Kirati and her husband.  Nevertheless, the relationship becomes very different.  It is through the words of Napporn that we learn how he falls deeply in love with Mom Ratchawong Kirati, while knowing full-well that her duties are first to her husband, and his own to his family and his fiancé in Thailand.  This is the context as the friendship between the two blossoms. She confesses to him that she is in a marriage that is unlikely to develop a true love due to the difference in age; she even confesses that Napporn is her best friend.  And in the process Napporn becomes infatuated with her, and in a private space at the park at Mitake, he steals a passionate embrace and kiss from the older woman, while confessing his love to her. He pleads with her that she reciprocate his love, but she avoids the question.  Mom Ratchawong Kirati, despite Napporn’s entreaties, refuses to confess that she too loves the forbidden Napporn and entreats him to look at her as an older sister.

The Healing Effects of Time and Duty

Behind the Painting is particularly effective in expressing the heartbreak of such youthful love on Napporn, a conviction quickly described by in a dialog between the two (p. 132):

Kirati: “….I shall consider you a friend for life”

Napporn protests “But I shall gone on loving you, all of my life.”

Kirati: That is your choice, of course; but in time, you will renounce that right, and you will do it of our own accord.

Napporn: I know otherwise

Kirati: The very young have such faith in themselves; I congratulate you on that enviable faith, Napporn.

Within days of her departure, Napporn writes Mom Rachawong Kirati two long love letters, which she receives after her return to Bangkok.  In her response Mom Rachawong Kirati again protests that there relationship be that of an older sister and younger brother, a common and appropriate relationship in Thai society.  And her protestations are successful—Napporn’s letters from Japan to Thailand become less frequent, and eventually are only sent at the rate of about three per year. Napporn’s love does indeed wane, as indeed Mom Ratchawong Kirati predicted.  This slow-down even continues after the death Chao Khun two years later, an event that leads the widowed Mom Rachawong Kirati to withdraw from society, and become a recluse in an aristocratic Bangkok neighborhood.

But to his surprise, and despite Napporn’s loss of interest, Mom Ratchawong Kirati is among the small group greeting Napporn at the quay upon his return from Japan at age 28, as indeed is his father, and a strange woman he doesn’t even recognize as his long-waiting fiancé.  Thus, the relationship between Napporn and Mom Ratchawong Kirati is re-established as she wished as that between an older sister and younger brother; for Napporn at least, the infatuation of his youth died as indeed she predicted it would.  His father’s arrangement for Napporn’s wedding proceeds, and Mom Ratchawong Kirati is invited; it is only at the last minute that she cannot attend due to ill-health.

Thus as a married man, Napporn strives to create a loving relationship with his new wife.  But then unexpectedly, Mom Ratchawong Kirati calls her old friend Napporn to her bed where she presents him with a painting—of that glen in Mitake where he so passionately kissed her.  Near death she mysteriously explains: “Your love was born there and it died there, but loves thrives in another body—one that is ruined and soon will be no more.”  And indeed, Napporn was called to her deathbed seven days later where, unable to speak, she scrawls on a piece of paper tragic words that are central to Thai romantic literature “Though I die with no one to love me, still my heart is full…for I die loving someone.”

Love, Marriage, and Duty in Behind the Painting

Mom Ratchawong Kirati’s story is a well-known in Thai literature, Thai film, and is required reading in schools.  It is important because indeed, Thai society often wrestles with the tension between familial duty, and matters of the heart.  In describing this tension, it is apparent that the conservative nature of Thai society is not simply the result of pseudo-Victorian sensibilities that the Thai aristocracy brought back from Europe (or Japan).

An alternative interpretation is that such literature is also about the virtue found in denial of self, and duty to a broader social honor.  Notably such themes are central to the doctrines of Theravada Buddhism which then, as now, permeate Thai society.

Thus, as much as being about love lost, Behind the Painting is also about duty fulfilled—albeit at a steep cost in terms of the immediate happiness of Napporn and Mom Rachawong Kirati.  Or as Mom Ratchawong Kirati beseeches Napporn “Napporn, I beg you to believe that you must confront reality and only reality; let it be your judge and your guide in life.  Idealism is far more attractive—but believe me, it is of little worth in practice.”  Napporn’s response is not that of the scorned, but of one who believes in the wisdom of such self-denial.  Napporn responds in a fashion which seems, ironically quite modern in the context of the changed status of women, and not as a scorned lover: “I realized that I was looking into the eyes of a woman so intelligent and so wise that I could not begin to follow her.  Such a woman should have been a great figure in history, not merely Khunying Kirati.”


Siburapha (1938/2000).  Behind the Painting, and Other Stories, translated from the Thai and introduced by David Smyth. Silkworm Books: Chiangmai.