Nostalgie de la boue

On my last visit to Central Park, there was a small patch of mud just inside the entrance gate to the Sheep Meadow. People hopped over it or walked around the edge. As I was leaving, a pair of toddlers approached. She was about three and a half, he was two. Their matching navy-blue outfits were immaculate. At the patch of mud, they stopped dead. Alien substance. Bad?

Mom followed, pushing a huge sports-utility stroller. She was as blondely, blandly perfect as they were.
    ‘Ewwwwwww!’ she said, as though they were forced to ford a twenty-foot latrine. ‘Get in the stroller! Now!’

I felt sorry for these kids who didn’t know what mud was for. I remember making mud pies with my friend Danielle, stirring them with sticks and fingers and singing ‘Shit-ty, shit-ty, shit-ty’ until our mothers came out to explain that that wasn’t a nice word for little girls to say.

Thai kids have a very different life. Ton picked me up in a jeep yesterday as I walked back to my bungalow. There was a borrowed three-year-old in his lap (no seatbelt, of course). He belonged to one of the kitchen staff.
    ‘He like to drive. When I go in jeep, he come.’
Ton’s hands were by his side. The little boy flicked the turn signal at the bottom of the road, and Ton helped him haul the steering wheel around to the left. The kid steered us home single-handed while Ton worked the pedals and the gears. They chattered the whole way. Bear in mind that Koh Samui has the highest rate of traffic accidents in all of Thailand, which chills my heart as I walk to the fruit market every morning, flinching at the onslaught of 18-wheelers driven by toddlers.

Thai kids run naked on the beach. They clamber over guests at beach huts and shout ‘Hallo! Spiderman!’ They sing and chase skinny chickens. They are tickled half to death and folded into deckchairs at Bangkok market stalls. On the buses, adults stand up to give them seats. They are so free that’s it’s never quite clear who their parents are. I would like to be reborn as a Thai child. And I swear I’ll never raise a Manhattan veal calf of a kid.

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