Friday, August 16, 2013

This was actually last month, but here's the story

This week Erin and I completed a six day camp in Nakhon Ratchasima Thailand in support of the Thai/US NGO, Brighter Thailand Foundation (BTF). BTF’s charter is to develop leadership skills in Thai youth, and these camps work toward that end by bringing in adults from multiple backgrounds to facilitate student centered activities with high school kids for two days, after which the high school kids facilitate those activities themselves for elementary school kids the following 4 days. Day one and two, we had 16 high school aged kids “camp counselors” from two different schools, 7 Korean “foreign ambassadors”, 3 “Thai ambassadors” and 4 Peace Corps volunteers which were a sort of mutt mix between foreign and Thai ambassadors at this point. We also had the assistance of a Kenyan born American who has been teaching English at the host school in Korat for 3 years, can both read and write Thai and who gave me a bag of the best Vietnamese coffee, named Joel. Over the 6 days of the camp, we highlight five vocabulary words having to do with leadership: citizenship, responsibility, respect, honesty, and perseverance. Each activity is aimed at building these qualities in the youth and also having them synthesize in their own minds what they mean and how these concepts have to do with life.

I got to spend a lot of time with the Korean ambassadors during the day and evenings, then a couple days after when I travelled to Ko Chang (Elephant Island) for a short holiday with them in the gulf. All the Korean volunteers are current University students, mostly in Seoul. They came to Thailand on a month long trip which included working two Brighter Thailand Camps, the one I attended, and another in Nong Khai near the Laos border. After arriving Ko Chang, I received a call from my host father who has been working in a town 10 hours from our home in a province near Ko Chang, asking me where I was. Since he is working in Rayong, and that is right on the path back to Bangkok from Trat province, I decided I might try to go and see him. Since he left Sukhothai, Pa has not given me a straight answer on when he will be coming back, so I was beginning to be concerned I might not see him again! On Sunday, July 21st, I got up after 5 hours of sleep and a long evening of mechanical bull riding and went for a long run. I decided I wouldn’t hang with the PC girls who had come down for the rest of the weekend but would hit the road. Our BTF crew left Ko Chang by ferry boat to head back to Bangkok. The driver informed me after speaking with “pa”, that he knew where he was and that it was actually not out of the way for him to drop me off there at all. Four hours later, we arrived in Rayong and then spent another 35 minutes trying to straighten out the directions to where Pa’s house was. The van driver was very confused because neither Pa nor the individuals with him knew quite how to guide us in, even though it was obvious that we were very close. The address system can be pretty unreliable in Thailand, and often the location of temples is how people navigate. This is what we did. During this time, I am delaying a van full of 8 other people who are trying to get to Bangkok before the Korean restaurants close, and essentially driving all around a neighborhood in their chartered van, on their gas. Luckily we are in Thailand, where even if you are inconveniencing someone out of their mind, they will not mention word one to you. After a while we finally found the place, at which time I saw Pa standing by the side of the road looking half the age of last time I saw him and smiling when he recognized that it was me sitting shotgun in the silver van. At this point I departed the company of Koreans wealthy enough to afford to pay to come volunteer in a foreign country for a month and entered the company of Pa and his only co-worker, who would quickly become my first “Khamen” or Cambodian friend. He and Pa live at a tire repair shop on a large dirt lot, littered with various metal truck accessories for sale, and a concrete block and sheet metal constructed shack that covers a variety of automotive repair equipment and a TV from the rain and one room that has no door handle or lock. Pa sleeps in this room, which he shares with the inner tube stock and a large variety of old pieces of metal and used parts piled in the corners all around. His (our) bed consists of a raised particle board platform with two blankets on it, covered by a mosquito net. Pa has been working down here for close to 3 months now.

The first part of our conversation was to inform me that Lyn, Pa’s coworker and for all practical purposes current life-mate, is Cambodian. The next part of the conversation was a brief discussion about whose Thai was better, mine or Lyn’s where Lyn mentioned to Pa that mine definitely was but as I spent more time with him, very quickly came to disagree with. Lyn has been working in Thailand for 13 years, has a wife and daughter living on the coast near a town called Sattahip (who he visits on weekends), and spent the last couple of years selling stuff out of his wife’s store and the years prior to that on a sea going fishing boat as a chef. From what I could tell he is skilled in basic labor for automotive body work, which is what brought Pa to work in Rayong. Lyn does sanding and otherwise supports Pa who is a skilled welder and body man from his time working abroad for Korean firms in Libya and Taiwan. The work Pa and Lyn are doing right now is to turn a hunk of metal that was once a truck that had a devastating multiple roll-over accident, into a drive-able machine again. The truck has no glass, no seats, no carpet, no lights, no color. When I asked Pa if it the frame was bent, he said yeah, just a little bit, but the motor is still good. I stood there trying to imagine what Pa and Lyn had already done to this vehicle since it got there since basically I was looking at a truck body resembling one at a factory before it had anything but the metal. The roof was the only part that showed damage, but as if it had been pounded flat again, and put back on. For Pa and Lyn’s efforts on this truck, which is scheduled to take them a couple of months working almost every day, to repair or replace the metal surfaces, sand and paint them, the owner will pay 30,000 baht or $1,000 dollars. Other craftsmen will come to the shop to replace the glass as soon as the exterior work is done and all the interior paneling, headlights, etc. are replaced.

Since I bought a bottle of Beefeater gin on the island and because my coworker failed miserably to help me drink it, I arrived at the shop with over two thirds of that fine spirit remaining. I told Pa that I would need some ice and some limes and so he walked me across the busy street from the yard to unlock a store room, somewhere around 2000 square feet in size. We entered there and the room was full of shoes and jeans and jackets, in addition to big 50 kilo sacks of rice and as always a random assortment of other things that were for sale. Pa explained to me that all of this stuff came from Cambodia, is second hand, and that the people he is working for make a business out of selling it in quantities large and small. He further explained that almost all of it comes from factories or other companies in Korea; this was evident by the Korean writing on the fronts of the jackets. We did not have to pay for the ice, and Pa let me know that this is where the shower was as well. On returning to the lot, I made at least three rounds of gin and tonic for Lyn and another man who showed up just after I started mixing the drinks. Lyn commented on how the drink tastes so good that you just keep sipping and are drunker than you think before you know it. First time drinking it, Lyn described my favorite cocktail the G and T pretty well, I thought. We sat watching Thailand’s Got Talent together where I saw my first Thai beat boxer competing, and Pa and I took turns answering the standard questions about what I am doing in Thailand, whether or not I have a woman, and what the hell it was that lead me to be sitting there with them on what turned out to be Lyn’s bed (a thatched table, outdoors on a concrete patio with a plastic table cloth on it). Lyn commented that all his stuff had been stolen, pointing to the area around the “bed”, in the one display of negativity I observed in my time with him. Sleeping outside at the shop apparently does have some draw-backs.

After cocktail hour, it was time to go down to the night market and buy some dinner. We only had to walk a couple of hundred yards down the road to get to a typical Thai outdoor market that was just starting to close down. I procured a bag of “yam khaw mhu-yang” or grilled pigs neck salad (a barbeque pork dish made with mint and crushed red pepper) one of the most delicious foods in a country of many) and some sticky rice for dinner. Then I picked up some fried chicken just because they had some left. As we got to the end of the market everybody started laughing and asking each other “does father look like son?” We had come upon the owners of the shower/store room/ice place. They were selling all kinds of the Cambodia imported goods under a canvas tarpaulin. After a few minutes of looking at the various steel toed boots, and Korean, industry jackets, Pa told me he had to wait and drive the truck back to the store room because the woman could not do it. So I joined the five of them in stuffing this compact pick-up with an 8 foot high box on the back with shoes. I thought about how the Koreans I arrived with earlier in the day have parents that are probably high level officers at these very companies with which a chain of circumstance has lead their excess to be for sale in an outdoor Thai market in an industrial section of Thailand where I “worked” for a very brief moment in time. We packed up, went “home”, and Pa, Lyn and I ate dinner at the shop Thai style. I was pretty tired by then, so I called it a day.