It Takes a Village

(to Create an Engagement Amulet)

January 2023

My daily walks take me through the dense Bangkok neighborhood of Bon Gai. Eventually I reach the alley known as Soi Nana. Soi Nana is an ‘entertainment street’, which means that the sidewalks are thick with working ladies.

As I walk down the soi I hear entreaties from bar girls to sit & chat, but I wave them off with a smile and a friendly “Mai ben rai krup! I’m going to see my boyfriend!” ¹ This elicits giggles & I can hear the women whispering one another…

“He says he is going to see his boyfriend!”
”Whaaaat?!”

I am taking these daily walks because I am going to trek to the base of Mount Everest in less than a year’s time, and I know that it will not be easy. I also walked because it gives me a little more time to spend with my boyfriend Jackky when he leaves work. Jackky & I ride home on his moto. We shop for dinner from the street food merchants.

Every day I walk. Often, I have thoughts.

Frequently I think of Jackky. To save money I intend to go to Everest alone, but two thoughts linger in the back of my head.

1) I won’t make the journey to Everest a second time.
2) I don’t want to go alone.

On most days a third thought circles in my head, a ribbon tying the first two up in a nice little package:

3) I am very much in love with Jackky.
     And I know he loves me.

By the end of January, I ask Jackky to come with, and he enthusiastically agrees. We are now an expeditionary force of two.

February

In early February I resolve to propose to Jackky when we reach Everest Base Camp. We’ve been together for over two years, we’ve traveled quite a bit together, and I believe that our relationship has made us both better people. We challenge one another, question one another, and nurture one another in a healthy balance.

I spend February walking the narrow & vibrant alleys of Bon Gai planning my proposal. From intensive study of romantic comedies, I was very aware that a proposal had to be a surprise. But none of my research answered a very basic question… How do you measure someone’s ring size without tipping them off?

But there is another thing that’s bothering me. I am not a huge fan of the concept of engagement rings. I don’t like diamonds. (I consider them a scam.) Plus the idea that the ring is a fungible resource that a widow or divorcee can use to survive if they are widowed or abandoned seems (at best) archaic.²

Then one day I have an idea… how about presenting Jackky with a pendant. A personal token of my invitation to have him join me in marriage? But what will it look like? What will make it special?

Early on I decide that I want the pendant to be made of Thai hardwood. Thailand has a long tradition of religious and/or magical amulets, sometimes selling for thousands of dollars. To follow Thai custom, I decide to think of the project as an ‘engagement amulet’, a magical & powerful symbol of the bond that Jackky & I will have in our marriage.

March

By late March I’ve begun thinking about what will be on the amulet. I initially imagine an abstract Buddha in the meditating position. I know Jackky will appreciate the reference to his religion, but it isn’t very original… most Thai amulets have a representation of the Buddha. It has nothing that speaks to our relationship.

I walk. Hot afternoons & late nights. The ladies on Soi Nana started teasing me with “Are you going to see your boyfriend?” I laugh and say yes. Sometimes I have Jackky wave to the ladies from the moto as we scooter past. There is often more giggling.

Then it occurs to me. We have just returned from scuba diving Tubbataha Reef in the Phlippines. What about drawing a map of all of the wonderful places that we’ve traveled together? What if the amulet represented the Earth as seen from space with markers for each of our shared adventures?

My friend Faisal Malick is an amazing wood artist, and his wife Elodie does equally amazing things with locally-sourced reclaimed woods. I have a cutting board Faisal did where brass pins were embedded into the wood to symbolize the stars in a constellation. This technique seems perfect for the amulet.

I sit down at my Mac and start working on the design in Photoshop. Six hours later I have a mock-up of the amulet. It looks good, and the places we’ve visited together span the globe perfectly. I even sketch what I want the back of the amulet to say.

I send the proposed design to Faisal. He likes the idea, and says that Elodie can engrave the message on the reverse side of the pendant. Faisal donates a beautiful piece of Thai Amboyna burlwood for the amulet. It looks like my design for an engagement amulet will become real.

Months pass.
I walk.
The ladies of Soi Nana giggle.

October

Faisal contacts me to let me know that he’s ordered the slim brass rods to make the map markers from overseas, as rods that slim aren’t available in Thailand. He also mentions that he hasn’t been able to find a finding³ in Thailand that would work to hang the amulet from a cord. He promises me that he will continue searching. He includes a photo of the sort of finding that he is looking for.

Wanting to help, I make a trip to the jewelry district of Bangkok. I don’t find anything that would work. (All of the findings are made of silver, and none are the correct dimensions for the amulet. When Jackky & I head for Vietnam on October 21st, Faisal is still looking. I search the jewelry district of Saigon. I find nothing.

After Saigon we headed north to Hanoi. A quick google finds that Hanoi has just created a jewelry district. It’s new and not very large. When I have a free moment I jump onto the back of a mototaxi and go take a look. Most of the findings in Hanoi are gold. It doesn’t like I’ll have any luck here either.

At a shop that sells jewelry boxes, I ask the proprietress if she knows where I might find a finding like the one pictured above. She casually pointed across the street. “Go ask the guys in the back of that shop.”

So I do. I show them the photo on my phone. There are questions. They ask for dimensions. A quick call to Faisal yields a crude sketch.

Finally one of the guys says that he may be able to get one for me in a week. I tell him that I’m heading back to Bangkok the next day. I tell him that I need this part for an amulet that I’ll give to my boyfriend when I propose to him.

He stared at me for a few seconds, then says “Come back tomorrow morning.” He doesn’t say if he can make it happen, just “Come back tomorrow morning.”

The next day I’m waiting outside the shop when they open. The salesman holds out two perfect findings, crafted overnight from brass and perfectly sized. (He made an extra for me, in case I needed it.)

I am a little nervous. He never gave me a price. I ask about the cost, and he says ₫1,000,000. (A million dong! Which is about US$41.) I happily pay the price.

November

Back in Bangkok, I drive to Faisal’s house with the hard-to-findings. Faisal does the final assembly of the amulet.

There is one thing missing, a cord. Very close to Faisal’s house is a mall containing a cluster of amulet vendors. Faisal says that they are a bit stand-offish, but I have the power of romance, and I’m not afraid to use it.

We come to the half dozen stalls selling amulets. I turn towards the only stall staffed by a young guy. “Can you help me with a cord for this amulet?” I ask. “I am going to present it to the man I love when I ask him to marry me.” He says that he can’t help me but then leads us to an old couple running a booth. Thai is exchanged, and then the mother gestures for me to show her the amulet. She examines it for moment, then cuts a length of thick black silk cord. She ties the double sliding knot that is traditionally used for Thai amulets. As she finishes each knot she cuts it, melts it with a lighter, and then squishes the hot molten ends between her two fingers.

The Engagement Amulet is perfect, and I carry it in my backpack as we trek the Himalayan range from Kathmandu to Gorak Shep. After 12 days of steadily ascending through the mountains we arrive at the base of Everest. Everyone is suffering from the lack of oxygen and the dry dusty air. Jackky is having a very bad day, and lays curled up under his parka in the corner of the common room. Somehow I convince him to step outside into the freezing cold air. I point to the mountains. “Look at how beautiful they are!” I say. He turns to look at the mountains, and that’s when I drop to one knee in the glacial dust.

Jackky turns around. He sees me there on one knee. I’m holding a little box.

“Oh noooo!” he says, and he starts crying.

I wait.

Then he says “Yes.”


¹ “It doesn’t matter, with respect! I’m going to see my boyfriend!”
² And it’s a lie. The diamond market is tightly-controlled and stones almost always have much less market value than the buyer originally paid.
³ A ‘finding’ is an accessory used to make jewelry, such as a clasp or attachment point.

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