Of food and trust (and other stuff)

Sunset at Mahanakorn University of Technology

The „bring your own“-concept works well in Thailand. While I often have to get into discussions about hygiene regulations when I hand over my cloth bag for bread or my own lunch box in Germany, here, nobody refuses. Only my insulated ice tea mug was rejected once. People make look at me strangely if I refuse the extra plastic bag (“Seriously, you brought your own?” - Thailand loves plastic, really) or drink something without a straw. Bew, the owner of the best coffeshop on the Mahanakorn University’s campus, who knows the names of all of his customers, also knows my quirks: own bamboo straw, own reusable cup, not milk, but brings coconut milk. He finds this a bit strange, coconut milk is meant for cooking, not for milk tea, but he’ll keep it in his fridge for me. I have become quite addicted to iced green milk tea and also the “Cha Thai”, the Thai milk tea that is artificially colored red. Most of the coffeshops don’t have vegan milk alternatives, but they all accept it if I bring it myself. Sometimes that will make the drink cheaper, but not always. 

The lady at the Trat bus terminal also first said she couldn’t make me the tea with soy milk, until I bought it myself next door and brought it back to her. Shortly after that, I’m in the minivan back to Bangkok – well, almost Bangkok, for the university where I do my placement is located a bit outside of the city, in Nong Chok. There’s thirteen passengers on the van, bags between our knees, and we make a lot of random stops. Sometimes we get off, some people get snacks, sometimes only the driver gets off, sometimes we just stop, wait, and drive on. It is one of these stops, I’m waiting for the others to buy their chips and water and get back in, so I can go back to my seat just by the door, when suddenly the door closes and the van takes off. I panic, my backpack with phone and wallet is on my seat. Without my phone I can’t even use the translation app to ask the other passengers what’s going on. None of them speaks any English. One of them gestures me to get some food and sit down, and I soon calm down and understand that the van is going to come back. Everyone’s luggage is inside and we were not just abandoned halfway to Bangkok. So I sit down, lower my respiratory rate and have some food. The man who made me sit down eventually has to pay for the food, for of course my money is on the bus. I can’t explain, but he understands it anyway. When the van comes back, he doesn’t even want his twenty baht back.

I generally have great trust in people and always assume that they only want you good. The Thai people keep reassuring me in this.

My contact person at the university, Trust, has already organized everything for me. When I reach Nong Chok, Baiyok, another vet student is waiting for me with the key to my dorm room, and she shows me where to find all the important things: washing machines, the store to buy scrub suits, the supermarket, and the market for fresh produce. Trust picks me up half way to the Faculty of Veterinary Medicine the next morning to give me a quick tour of the campus. This will be my home for the next two weeks – or three months, depending on the point of view, for not all of the departments I’ll be working in are located in this suburb.
First, I am shown around the small animal clinic, I’m not sure why, as I won’t be here at all. “This is Ina from Germany”, Trust introduces me, and the intern simply replies “I know.” Now she is confused, haven’t I just arrived last night? Well, almost all of the small animal clinic’s staff remembers me from the karaoke bar two weeks ago. I, on the other hand, can’t remember their names. I’m having a hard time with Thai names, I have not yet gotten the hang of their sound. Everyone has a short nickname, but the nametags (if I am able to read them) and the Facebook names are normally the full name, and the nickname can’t usually be guessed from that. So for now, the only name I know in the large animal hospital is my supervisor Dr. Pui, and then I learn the names one by one. Many of the vets work with exotics, ruminants and horses, but the students rotate through the clinics in a monthly rhythm in groups of ten to fourteen people. As I am following the action and not just one species, I get in contact with three groups: ruminants, equine, and obstetrics. Already on my first day, I am invited to dinner by some of the students, and I love the little restaurant near the dorm so much that I go there almost every day. Kade, the owner, remembers me and my weird habits quickly: no meat, no fish sauce, and no milk in the green tea. She makes up vegan versions of her most popular dishes, for example deep fried mushrooms instead of chicken.

When I order my tea at Bew’s, he always send me away, sometimes he has such a long list of orders that it will take half an hour or more until he puts my drink on the counter. The same goes for the canteen: You order, then leave and come back after a couple of minutes. When I wait too close by, I will be eyed suspiciously and told a couple of times that it will take a minute. So I can go back to the patient and pick my tea up later. I’m not sure I could do this in Germany. If they saw me walk away they probably wouldn’t make me anything. But then again, all of this takes place pretty much outdoors. I can see Bew’s counter from the bovine clinic.
The students leave their bags with valuables openly in the clinic, too. But with time, I come to understand that not everyone trusts everybody. At first I think everybody is just being nice and they don’t want me to feel lonely – somebody is always accompanying me home, and Dr. Pui drives me home if it’s already dark when we finish work and always makes sure I get something to eat before she drops me off at the dorm. It would actually be faster to walk, it really is a short way from the clinic to the dorm, and with the car you have to make two U-turns. After Bas and his girlfriend Phon have taken me out to dinner, they also insist on driving me home. “It’s a five minute walk! Don’t bother, really”, I protest.
“It’s dangerous”, Bas says. “All the foreigners, from Myanmar, mainly. And your dormitory isn’t as safe as ours, your main entrance is always open! My brother wants me to keep a gun in the car for my safety.”
Wow. Somebody’s afraid of foreigners! Not me though, as it seems, as they take me to have dinner with them twice.

Not really a lot of choices for vegans
 The Thai are very proud of the food and I can’t count the times I was told that I’d be missing a lot by being vegan. But the students become creative, whenever they find something vegan, they bring it to me to try, they discuss which dishes might work without meat… deep-fried seaweed, bubble tea without the milk, noodle soup, and of course, sticky rice with mango. Moss, with whom I talked about food a lot, actually gets me a plate of this dish and brings it to me for lunch. The staff at the clinic lets me try raw mango with chili sauce. And although three people have by now written down “no meat, no egg, no fish sauce” in Thai for me, I never use these notes, as somebody is always ordering for me and explaining it to the cook. Or Kade has created something for me. Today, for example, she made me coconut and galangal soup that she gave me in my own lunchbox at ten to nine, so that I could have it for lunch. Officially, the restaurant opens at eleven.

Garlic at night...
  Ae, Mimi and the other students from the equine clinic are always amused when they watch me eat. Not only do I refill my own water bottle all the time, I bring my own straw, too, and then I eat these weird combinations of rice and vegetables without meat… I’m such an odd fish!


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