Monday, April 30, 2012

Get your bearings

It's time to find a house. The debate over moving out or staying with our host family continues with every new development in our village. For starters, the village is made up primarily of farmers whose living conditions could be described as mostly outdoor. Not that their homes are not structures, but the truth is most of them are as much outside as in, lacking much sealing out of the elements (and critters) beyond protection from rain. Mosquitoes are of course everywhere and in anything wet, so most people just live with mosquitoes. Our host family's house as mentioned before, is quite nice and well sealed, with screens on all of the windows. We have a sink, and a refrigerator, and a washing machine there which gyrates but does not fill water, drain, or change cycle by itself (for those of you have not figured it out yet, we are not living in grass huts on the Serengeti). The issue now is, that we need space, and as a married couple, at least in theory, privacy. Our village being what it is, most of the prospective rental houses are not going to have the amenities of our host parent's house. In fact, we have been told by many a respected village elder already, that we "live in the best house, with the best family". Our complications are several: 

1. we would like to have space for visitors, and more space than a bedroom of our own
2. we would like to live as independent adults again (those of you who have not returned to infancy by moving into a culture where you start barely able to communicate your need for the bathroom will have to take my word for this)
3. we would like to cook our own food (or have the option, without inner conflict) again
4. we would like to know what it's like to have to do everything in Thailand, on our own

This forth one is a little more idealist than necessarily true for me which is why the decision to stay or go has involved more deliberation than one might think. We may rent a house that requires us to going to 100% hand washing of clothing. It may also have us hauling water, it will certainly involve a lot of legwork for the basic logistics of eating. We will need to cook or buy our own food, which will take a significant amount of time with only a bicycle as transportation, and markets a few miles away. In almost all cases, our version of Thai food, will be substandard to the food we are currently eating (and not buying or cooking). Now I have never been a person that is too lazy to maintain a clean home, or cook a good meal, or even do laundry the old fashioned way, and of course Erin has not either. But as character building as these activities may be, I question the time expenditure. After all, we could be doing other things during those times, with others in the community, if nothing else the easiest one of the 3 things we came here to do, exchanging ideas with Thais.

As of right now, it looks like availability of a suitable house will decide whether or not we stay with mair and paw. We have already seen three available rentals. One of which was so full of pigeons, dead pigeons, and pigeon shit that we were a little taken back that the person in charge of it would even consider having humans inhabit the place. I was humorously corrected by our neighbor a few days ago when I told them that we were not interested in renting the "ban ki nok" or bird shit house when they told me that saying those words was not clean (we declined even looking at another place we call the "ban ki gai" for similar reasons). The second house is right off what they call in Thailand a superhighway (2 lanes with any conceivable form of transport on them at the same time), with walls so porous you could probably feel the wind blow, and another that is actually pretty nice but completely unfurnished to the point where we would need to spend 6 months salary to purchase what we need. We are now waiting to hear on a fourth place that we were informed is owned by a rather better off individual who lives in Bangkok currently. We are not sure that this house is even for rent yet because the owner supposedly returns to the village for short stays periodically though we are hoping that the allure of some extra cheddar in his pocket might get us a nice comfy house to live in.

Some of our friends in PC here have already found splendid places in Thailand to live for the next couple of years. Some have probably already decided to live with their host family for the duration. As one of three married couples I think, like the others, that Erin and I came in with the expectation that we would certainly move out on our own after a few months. That said, it will not be the end of the world if we don't. After every conversation we've had with our host family about the reasons we have for not wanting to stay in their home (even though they have essentially begged us to do so) they continue to be more understanding and come up with additional ways to make where we are in the bottom floor of their house, more like it's own residence. Yesterday paw told me he would be purchasing an additional gas burner for the first floor so that we could cook "ahan farang" there whenever we want. He reiterated that all of our guests are welcome and that he has no issue whatever with chauffeuring people around when we need it. I told him to hold off on the burner until we decide what we are going to do, and that we can purchase it ourselves. He's said well "gas is standing by" pointing to a place under the counter where the propane tank is probably sitting.


Friday, April 20, 2012

In brief(s) : Songkran, Songkran, Songkran

No, that's not a joke about underpants. But it could be.

In the 10 days since Josh last posted, we have experienced the madness of Songkran (pictures currently being updated in the album), the continuing "ap naam" (shower, or blessings, in this case) festivities that accompany the new year, a bpuat pra (monk ordination), a ngaan sot (or something that sounds like that - sitting vigil with a family morning and night for three days before the funeral/cremation of a deceased loved one), a tamboon gaan baan (I think), where the village donates tons of rice and other nonperishable food items to the wat, many an awkward and uncomfortable conversation with various members of our family and community regarding why we want to move into our own house, and many an awkward and circuitous conversation between ourselves about whether we really want to move into our own house at all, anyway. 

Songkran, first. Songkran, as I'm sure we've mentioned before is the Thai New Year. Officially, it is April 13, but depending on where you are in the country, a number of other days may also be designated official holidays, or "replacement" holidays off of work for years that April 13 falls on a Saturday or Sunday. We, for example, began our Songkran celebration on Thursday, April 12, at 8 am, when we arrived to take part in the SAO (au-bau-tau)-sponsored festivities at the wat that's just a kilometer or so from our house.

We had been instructed to leave all electronic things at home. So we came with no camera, no phone, and a measure of confidence that our Timex watches could survive a soaking or two. We wore the bright flowered tee-shirts purchased for us by the SAO, matching in orange. (The full staff together provides an impressive rainbow from bright pink to a muted brown, all shirts in the same pattern.)

For a while, we sat around. We drank coffee. We drank water. We watched the set up of a few really ridiculous games--tie an eggplant around your waist so it hangs between your legs, hovering above the ground, and use it to hit a lime 50 feet across a dirt playing field; tie a balloon around your ankle and walk in a circle with 10 other people, trying to pop the balloons they also have tied around their ankles--and an eating contest that also, unfortunately for the contestants, involved a lot of baby powder. We wondered, for about an hour, what all the chairs were for, and where the people were, and why we didn't have our cell phones or our cameras with us. We watched the vendors set up. We watched the fire truck roll into the lot and set up next to the stage. Then, around 9 am, people began to show up. We started handing out waters and coffees to other people. We were given jasmine garlands to wear around our necks. We began to endure the music blaring from the speakers, and tried to avoid making eye contact with anyone who looked like they might be interested in making us dance.

That whole bit about not dancing only lasted so long. Soon, I was pulled (literally, maybe dragged is a better word) by a group of women that I've come to think of as "the usual suspects" when it comes to these dance party bits, out on to the dance floor in the dirt in the shadow of the karaoke stage that for the day featured three scantily clad young women and one very young looking girl, gyrating their hips and kicking their feet suggestively in time with the beat of that always too loud music. And then, we figured out why our cell phones and cameras had been left at home. Soon, someone had climbed the fire truck (rot naam, literally water vehicle) and was training the hose on the dancers. First shower of the day.

So the karaoke and the dancing continue intermittently all day. Soon there are awards and prizes being presented, speeches being given. Finally, the games that we set up earlier are being played, and are as ridiculous to watch as they sound. In the midst of all this, we are getting stupidly, refreshingly wet. Ice water down your back here, a bottle of lukewarm water down the front of your shirt there, bucket of water flung from who knows where every ten two twelve seconds on average.

The worst culprit for throwing water was one of the samacheeks (representatives) from one of the villages in our dtambon, who was pretty good at hitting his targets, pretty sneaky, and really, really amused by it all. It was hard to figure out how to react. Generally, Thais will turn around and waai, or say "kop khun" (thank you) because the water is a blessing, good luck. So I tried to keep my squealing to a minimum. About 3 hours into the whole thing, I finally started getting comfortable grabbing buckets of ice water and dumping them on other people, too. By that time, I think everyone except Josh and I were pretty drunk, and most conversation had completely degenerated into a few happy new years and then a bucket of water in the face. Good fun.

Then we ate lunch. After lunch came the main event, the ap naam/bathing of the elders. Two rows of chairs had been set up in a long horseshoe like shape that snaked through the trees that make up the better part of the grounds of our wat. We lined up behind the other SAO workers, each with a soda bottle filled with jasmine-scented water. After sitting with my feet tucked under my butt, shins on the ground, for three minutes of blessings uttered by the samacheek amphur (who represents our district at the jangwat, or province level), and realizing, painfully, that the Chaco buckles are ill placed for such a sitting posture, being in the perfect place to bruise the tops of my feet, I rose to find myself funneled into the rows of chairs that were now filled with kon gee (elders) facing each other and holding out their hands in prayer position.

Moving slowly through the kon gee, we tipped our bottles into their hands, water dripping into their laps, as they mumbled blessings, or threw the water back into our faces, or reached up and grabbed us with gnarled outstretched hands.

Then we spent another couple of hours dancing, avoiding dancing, getting wet, and soaking other people with ice cold water. Then, we rode our bikes home, and collapsed from heat exhaustion and too much loud music. (More pictures are in the picture album; link at top of blog.)

The next morning, Songkran day, we (I say we, but really Josh) was off "work" and we slept in, well into the heat of the day (say 9 am), and then woke to find the kids len naam (playing water) by the side of the road again, tossing water at passing cards. We sat around for awhile, ate, sat around some more, and then were persuaded to go to Muang Gao (old Sukhothai) to len naam there. At first, only the adults were going to go, so we got Paa's pickup ready with about a 100 gallon trash can full of water. Then the kids wanted to come, so we had to switch to a pickup with bars screwed on top, so it would be safe. 

This provokes no concern.
However, we switch to the car in the foreground to take the kids to 'kothai for some water fighting. 
At any rate, Josh and aren't allowed to ride in the back of pickups - with or without 6-year-olds to keep us safe - and so we piled into the cab. We drove the 20 km or so to 'kothai, and found that we were pretty well safe from the mayhem and madness, as we stayed dry and powder free, while, as we pushed our way through the worst traffic I've seen in Thailand, so far, Bangkok included, and mobs of wailun (teenagers) dancing in the streets, everyone in the back of the truck got soaked. After an hour and a half or so of bumper to bumper water fights, we turned around, purchased more water from a woman who was pumping it out of an irrigation ditch, or a well, or something, with a giant hose, and then made our way back home, only stopping at 7/11 to refuel (the people, not the car) with snacks. (Side note: when I refused a bite of our driver's girlfriend's hotdog, tomato, lettuce, onion and hot sauce concoction because I really preferred by Oreos, she smiled knowingly and understandingly, and said, "Ohhh. Tongsea," thereby pronouncing that I had diarrhea. "Mai chai!" I said, NO! but I think maybe the point was lost as we pulled back onto the highway.)

The rest of the day was spent languishing further in the heat, complaining more about it, and dumping buckets of water on our heads. 

On the third day of Songkran, my husband said to me: Why don't we take a song taew to 'kothai for a beer? (Does that work with the rhythm of The 12 Days of Christmas? Yes? Okay good.)

So, we did. We had Paa drop us off at the bus stop closest to us, where the song taew (truck like thing that passes for public transit) passes about every hour or so. He waited with us until the song taew arrived, even though we had also run into Pii Gwaang, a woman who works with Josh at the au-bau-tau, and her boyfriend, Pat. He lives in another province, because he is in the military, and had come to visit for Songkran. He was going to take the song taew to 'kothai, and then board a bus to go home to see his family. At first, he was kind of a jerk. He was dismissive of Josh, and only wanted to talk to me. This was doubly annoying since I really only wanted to talk to Josh, but kept having to answer questions in Thai. 

So we all boarded the song taew, and after about 5 km a woman boarded and sat between Pat and Josh, cutting off the conversation. About 2 km before our ultimate destination, the Sukhothai bus depot, where we were supposed to catch another song taew to our penultimate destination, Muang Gao, the song taew pulled over and an old woman with a plastic basket helped herself on to the side of the road. Meanwhile, a tall, skinny, wrinkled old man with one tooth caught Josh's and my attention, "going to Muang Gao?" he asked, probably in Thai, but it could have been in English, seeing as he was hell bent on getting the attention of what were probably the only two farangs he'd see all day (us). Yes, we said. Get off here, he told us, take tuk tuk. I couldn't really see out the back or tell what was going on. I was kind of pushing Josh to get up - I even told him to - although I'm not 100% sure whether that was to get off the bus and go with the old man, or to get a better look. Before Josh could get up, Pat completely redeemed himself and said, bau-kau-sau, the word Gwaang had yelled after us as we boarded the song taew. Bau-kau-sau, which is actually three Thai letters that stand for something that I can't pronounce or remember, is the legitimate government owned/operated bus company. Mr. Angry Tuk-Tuk was clearly not part of that elite club. A few more hurried sentences were exchanged. The song taew pulled off, with all of us, minus the old lady, still in it. The old man and his one tooth and raised fist cursed us all as he disappeared behind us. 

Ten minutes later, we arrived at the station. Pat decided that he would come to Muang Gao with us, "to take care you" as he put it, and so we soon boarded another song taew and rode over to the old city (actually, to the back of the Sukhothai Historical Park, right in the middle of the gift-bazaar. Sneaky bastards). It was about 9:30. We began to walk around, finding ourselves right in the middle of the same mayhem that had seemed so far away in the truck cab the day before. 

We got water dumped on us. Powder smeared on our faces by drunk teenagers and kids (not drunk) and adults of all ages. We had nothing to len naam with, so we just accepted the blessings as we wove through the crowd, trying to avoid stands where people were throwing dirty river/canal water, and generally just taking it all in. 

At around noon, when we thought we might head back to Sukhothai and see the new city a little, we were told that only tuk tuks were going to back that way. The traffic was so bad that the song taews wouldn't be running anymore. Not until later that evening, anyway. So, Pat called his girlfriend, who took the bus to Sukhothai, met us in Muang Gao, and walked around with us for the rest of the day.

With Gwaang and Pat, we ventured into Sukhothai Historical Park, completely bypassing the ticket sellers and walking in through a gate that had been placed askance. We saw tons of people milling around, biking, soaking up the heat and sweating it right back out. One farang who walked right by us, about 10 inches in front of my nose, was our fellow asasamak, Sarah, who had travelled with her counterpart from a neighboring Jangwat to watch the parade that was unfolding before our eyes in the historical park. 

This was a happy coincidence, not only because we love Sarah (see the link to her blog, De Chan Ma Jak Meung Nashville, to the right), but also because her counterpart and counterpart's husband were able to give us all, including Gwaang and Pat (who had decided to stay another day after all), back to the bus station. Josh, Sarah, and I rode in the cab of the truck, of course, while Pat, Gwaang, and the kids endured yet another round of soakings at the hands of bucket-wielding revelers.

On the song taew back to our amphur, we met a Thai woman who had lived in New York for 12 years, is from our district, now lives in Bangkok and studies medicinal plants, from that elusive thing called the "scientific perspective," knew both about the Peace Corps and where it's previous office had been located, and who told us, in no uncertain terms, that we must visit the neighboring countries of Cambodia, Laos, and Myanmar while we are here. She also gave some pretty detailed commentary to our Thai escorts about Americans and what New York is like. 

Too exhausted to make use of such an impressive and one-of-a-kind contact, I shook her hand and wished her Happy New Year without asking for a card or writing down her name or contact information. 

Celebrating is hard work. Like pong chu rot (MSG), it makes you forget things, as Pat would say.

GREEN (don't forget to check out all the rest of the pictures in our Picasa Album. See link above).

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Who wants to be a monk?

In the last week we have witnessed the ordination of three monks, a cremation ceremony for one Royal family member, and the cooking of a cat with an oxy-acetylene torch.

Let's talk monks first: Several of our hosts have communicated that it is customary for young men to enter the monk-hood at about the age of twenty. Evidently, the period for which they will remain monks typically ranges from as long as a few months to as little as a couple of weeks as will be the case for the young man whose "buat pra" (ordination) we attended on Easter Sunday. Ordination events here last for two days and are a significant production. Many people are fed by the family of the young man. A disc jockey  is hired and of course along with that there is a lot of singing and dancing. Sounds pretty standard for a party, I know. The thing about Thai's is that is that when it comes to festivities, they go BIG. This particular party lasts for two days, where people eat all day, and people drink all day, and the Thai dj blares at a volume that is beyond the comfort of this avid concert goes and lover of hip-hop music, pretty much all day. People do talk, but most of the activity is focused around large trays of food (3x2 feet) being brought out to recent arrivals to the party by a small army of what appear to be relatives. The cooking pots look to be around 10 gallons each, and there are many. Typically at least five different dishes arrive on the trays, accompanied by rice of course and bottled water with ice. If you are a drinker, which most men are, the ubiquitous Hong Thom is never late to follow. You eat what you can, and then wait a while and eat some more. If it appears you are low on any one item, another bowl quickly appears. And if you come in the morning, there will be different food than when you dropped by at night.

The Thai dj usually shows up with some sort of vehicle mounted equipment (think pick-up bed with shell stuffed to the brim workstation), at least one trailer stacked 10-12 feet high with giant woofers strapped down and ready to go anywhere, and sometimes with his own stage. Since pretty much everything is done outside in Thailand, the dj can literally pull his vehicle up (often an 80s model "pup" truck weighed down well on its rear leaf springs), wire up the speaker trailer and blast the fast base with flute music in no time. Thai music is like nothing I have ever heard before. It boasts an ever looping fast base beat reminiscent of electronic music, a hammering flute, and non-stop wailing lyrics. When performed live by musicians, it sounds nearly exactly the same as on recording.

Sunday we saw the most impressive rig so far: an "E-tan", which is an oversized topless pick-up with an exposed motor and single wooden bench seat, purpose built by Thai companies for farming. This one, was fully decked out with all the knobs and switches to rock your party. A photo should be on Picasa today and is truly worth a look. Got to love Thai ingenuity. 

Sunday morning, while much of my krup krua (family) back home was asleep on the night before Easter, Erin and I danced our way down 3/4 of a mile of main street to our local temple. We were surrounded by about 100 buddhists and trailed by a four piece band with loud speakers in the back of a truck. After circling the temple three times on arrival, with the whole parade (only now he band was on foot with the loudspeakers on a wheeled basket), the young man entered the temple to receive his robe and more blessings, I assume, and we all went back to his house to eat again. I asked my host paw Sawaeng why his older son who is he same age as myself and not married, why he has not been a "pra" yet? He responded that the family could not afford the party. These usually cost around 100,000 B, he said. Without bothering with the dollar conversion, suffice to say that Erin and I will live on right around 16,000 B/month including our house rental. 100k B is big money.

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Reflections... A little off topic

A few days ago, I was speaking to a man with whom I may eventually be working somewhat closely, and he asked me what I thought of our President.

As I answered that I like Barack Obama, I kept in mind the Peace Corps' many insistent warnings that we are not to discuss politics. In this case I didn't think offering support for a currently seated president was taking much of a political stance, and anyway, my Thai isn't good enough to do that, even if I wanted to. I then asked the man what he thinks of our president, and he responded by saying that he doesn't like that Obama acts as though he is the "policeman of the world." I responded by saying that I think a great number of Americans seem to think that way, and I wasn't sure if any other president would be doing any differently. I also tried to move the topic elsewhere by mentioning that Obama had sought to increase the number of Peace Corps volunteers in his initial year in office, and this mention encouraged a few jokes at my expense, and then the dropping of the topic entirely.

Some seven and a half years ago, I was in another developing nation during an election year, and was asked similar questions about Bush. I probably gave different answers, but what I remember were the many conflicting messages I received from Malians about their own impressions of our then seated president. One man told me that he liked Bush because he had stood up for what he believed in and acted on it, like a man should (this was in the beginning stages of the war in Iraq, fall 2004, though it's hard to remember what conclusions were being claimed about WMDs at that point, but I'm sure an enterprising Google-searcher can find out). Another handed me a letter, written in French on an airmail stationary, with a quite opposite message on it. I don't remember what it is exactly, but it was about how America's actions in the world might be expected to encourage some armed resistance. It was said quite a bit more harshly than that. I was instructed to mail it to the White House upon my return home. I never did, in part because I wondered if I should translate it first, and in part because I didn't know if I should accompany it with a letter of explanation, and likely in largest part because I wanted to keep it as a symbol of something. It is currently at the bottom of a box, sealed in a plastic bag, with a lot of other mementos from that 16 weeks I spent in Africa.

Today, during a bit of random poking around trying to find the most worthy 10 articles to use my "10 free articles per month" level of non-subscription to the New York Times, I found myself following the trail of news (which started almost a month ago, I'm ashamed to admit) about the Coup d'etat in that very same African country where I spent a semester. (Here's the NYT Africa page: When I was in Mali, I was in one the more stable countries in West Africa. I was in a country that was hailed for its broad embrace of democracy. Yes, there were rebels north of Timbuktu. Yes, we flew to Timbuktu because in the wasted desert between Timbuktu and Dogon country were bands of rebels and nomads known to attack caravans and vehicles. It was a country with some 90 political parties. It is somewhere that I have since wanted to go back to, and dreamed about many, many times.

It is also a country that I fell completely out of touch with - losing all contacts and addresses and all contact with anyone therein, including my host family and the man I apprenticed with at the art market, long long ago. These connections were lost to the inevitability of coming home and to the events that happened when I did. But today, reading about the marching and looting in Bamako, a sprawling city whose public transportation I currently really, really miss, I wish that I could reach out and see if my family is okay. Or ask them what they think of anything.

At night here, I have been losing myself in Douglas Adams' fantastically absurd series, The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, lately. Part of the absurdity in the book stems from the fact that everything about the main character Arthur Dent's life is entangled with every other part. So everyone he meets and loses track of, he is destined to meet (and likely lose track of) again. I feel a sense of bitterness, looking back at the missed opportunity to build cross-continental relationships, that life doesn't really entangle itself that way.

And so, although I feel a sense of connection to the tragedy of another stable country being lost to a coup d'etat amidst what appears to be a general and pervasive global turn toward instability, I also feel the loss of that connection in a strange and immediate, and very sad, way.