Thursday, March 17, 2011

Of Mangoes and Zucchini

A friend once told me while standing in a parking lot in Down East Maine, "Mainers never lock their cars." Never? I asked. "Well, except for August." Why August? "If you don't," he said grinning, "Someone will fill it with zucchini." Most Americans can relate to that. Here in Thailand, it isn't August, but early summer, in March. And it isn't the green squash, but mangoes.

Our tree is heavy with the popular fruit. Since February it has become a hazard walking from the door to the gate, as mangoes drop regularly when they ripen, or often as the squirrels yank them off the branch and snack on them. We salvage what we can, and when feeling industrious, raise a picking basket ten to fifteen feet (3-5 meters), fastened to a bamboo branch, fixed to it by a bungee cord. I'm pretty proud of the contraption I pieced together. Two years ago we watched helplessly as the fruit splattered on the driveway all throughout February and March. If eaten green, the mango has the sourness of lemon, but if wrapped in newspapers until yellow, the pulp is soft and sweet.

Mangoes are the zucchini of Thailand. This time of year they are sold everywhere, from the tiny mobile street carts to grocery stores. One large mall has row upon row of mango merchants vying with each other to sell the tropical fruit of the season. Riding recently with colleagues, I listened to them explaining the various ways to eat mangoes: Mango pie, mango chutney, mango jelly, and a favorite of Indians, mango "lasseh," blended with yogurt and ice, and just a dash of cinnamon and nutmeg. We have a constant supply of mangoes in our refrigerator, peeled and sliced for breakfast. I never thought I would tire of eating it, but in truth, I am. A little. And with a bit of guilt, for it is a luxury when we are back in the northern tier of U.S. states. One saving grace: we have no car here, so we needn't worry about the free bags of mango that might show up in the back seat in early summer.

Sunday, March 6, 2011

Paradise Lost

Thailand welcomes over 43,000 tourists each day (compared with the environmentally conscious Bhutanese who allow only 21,000 per year into the Himalayan kingdom paradise). Such numbers bring massive amounts of money, but of course the consequences on the environment are painful. Coral reefs have been declared off limits to visitors and beach cleanup crews simply bury the mounds of trash under the glistening sands ( The tourist-related damage to the ecology is as great as the Thai authority's ability to ignore it.

Recently, I returned to Samet Island (Koh Samed) for the first time in over 20 years. I would not have gone had it not been the site of a friend's wedding. Although officially a "national park," the island now looks no different than Phuket's clogged beaches. Payment of 200 baht (US$6) collected by "park rangers" is the only indication of Thai park interest.

Garbage dumps line the road, and bars, spas, shops and massage parlors jam the sidewalks, all vying for the tourist dollar. Resorts (what's in a name?) are a jumble of bungalows between the speakers blaring rock music. Indeed, I did could not locate a restaurant that did not consider that the sounds of rolling surf might be a soothing alternative. Loud tourists, mostly European, bared nearly all of their ample lipid-enhanced bodies; a painful sight to this wanderer's eyes.

Along the main road to the beach

As usual, a temple and its grounds offered solace as I sought respite from the ATVs, loud music and parade of cars along the main rutted dirt road (it has not been paved in the time since I was last there). I wandered among the greenery and sat for a few moments to let the peacefulness soothe me. It lasted nearly ten minutes before the amplified sound of the annual music festival invaded the atmosphere. I gave up and returned to the crowded beach. I realize that I am but one more contributor to the despoiling of what was once a beautiful hideaway. But no more. That was my last visit to Koh Samet.