As I turn onto a smaller street branching off the main highway, I think to myself, "What am I doing here?" Many people in my sub-district extend vague invitations to their homes for dinners, and most times there is the unsurprising lack of follow-up. However, during the King's Birthday celebrations at the district government office on Wednesday, Buabon approaches me in her motorized wheelchair, first offering me lottery tickets for sale, then asking about my nationality and why I was staying in Thailand longer than the average American tourist passing through. After ten minutes of chit-chat, we exchange phone numbers as Buabon insists that I pick a day for us to have lunch together at her parents' house. Since my host mother and her neighbors are ready to head back to site, I quickly say that I will come this weekend and take a picture with her before leaving the event. The next day, Buabon calls saying, "What do you want to eat for lunch on Saturday?" With such a direct follow-up I rarely come across, it takes a moment for me to respond with, "Arai gaw dai!" ("It can be whatever!")
Occupied by thoughts of the past week, I redirect my attention to the neighborhood. About 100 meters ahead, I see a two-story temple and a small figure in a wheelchair slowly raising her left arm to wave me over. As I get off my bike to greet Buabon, she leads me to the temple grounds so that I can rest on a marble bench under a tree's shade. I present her a bag of tangerines as a gift, but she insists that I eat them since I am nuang-non mak (very tired) and she's saving her appetite for papaya salad. We then walk around the temple and adjoining school that offers classes to over 100 monks-in-training. I ask Buabon where she studied, and she smiles as she tells me how the elderly monks allowed her to learn with the other puu-pii-gaan (people with disabilities) despite the strict males-only policy. She stops at a golden stupa and says a quick prayer before we wai to the temple and head over to a restaurant across the street.
While the restaurant owner is preparing the papaya salad and I pick out ice cream flavors for Buabon's parents, I hear Buabon selling lottery tickets to a farmer who asks for her advice on what numbers to pick. The restaurant owner jokes that Buabon can get the cheapest person to buy all of her tickets and Buabon gives a sly smile as she pays for our meal and we head to her home three blocks down the road. "If I go too fast, you can get on your bike and go behind me," Buabon teases as she handles the gears on her wheelchair and points out the different flowers and fruits in neighbors' gardens.
Five minutes later, we arrive at Buabon's front porch, where her parents and two of their friends are chatting around a wooden table. "I have an American with me," Buabon triumphantly announces to her family and friends who pull up a seat for me and gather plates for the papaya salad and ice cream sandwiches. Throughout the meal, Buabon's mother asks how Buabon found another American friend in Chiang Rai. Reading the surprised expression on my face, one of the neighbors says, "Buabon always has a friend and goes everywhere. She's never afraid!"
After I clear the table with Buabon's mother, Buabon asks her father to retrieve an envelope from a nearby table. Once her father hands over a manila envelope, Buabon pulls out a bunch of pictures from last year: photos of nurses visiting Buabon for a weekly check-up, a snapshot of a health volunteer pulling Buabon's old wheelchair via bike, and photos of Buabon smiling widely in her motorized wheelchair with a Caucasian man in a similar device. "He is from New Zealand and he has polio too," Buabon says as she picks another photo of the man. "He understands why I am a puu-pii-gaan and he help me in my new chair! I am happier than last year." I nod in agreement as I see a significant difference between the pictures from last year and the person sitting next to me. Buabon's arms now look tan from venturing around the village everyday without assistance, while her already-amazing smile in the photos magnifies in reality. I couldn't help but feel happier as well.
As we put away the photos and began to say our goodbyes, I keep looking over at Buabon's parents and wondering about the age gap, with Buabon turning 39 next year and her parents well in their late 80s. Buabon senses my curiosity and remarks, "My parents are very old, chai mai?" I nod in embarrassment and Buabon giggles. "Mai bpen rai, they help me get things and I help them remember where the things are!" As I wave goodbye and ride my bike back to site, I have no doubts that the woman who "always has a friend and goes everywhere" will find a way for us to meet up again soon.
|Buabon selling lottery tickets to a driver at a restaurant by the temple|
|Buabon going full-speed down the street as I fumble with my camera to catch a photo of her|
|Buabon in her old wheelchair as a health volunteers escorts her around the village on a bicycle; Buabon with the man who bought her a motorized wheelchair and taught her how to operate it|
|Buabon and I at the King's Birthday festivities at the district government office. It's a pleasure finally meeting the woman who sells lottery tickets at these functions :)|