Our life is an apprenticeship to the truth, that around every circle another can be drawn; that there is no end in nature, but every end is a beginning.

Saturday, December 4, 2010

Anthony Bourdain Lite- Digression!

Fancy thinking the Beast was something you could hunt and kill! . . . You knew, didn’t you? I’m part of you? Close, close, close!   Not so long ago, as I was being shown around my two schools for the first time, my directors asked me what I wanted to do for my breakfasts. I could come to school and be fed on campus, or I could fend for myself and eat at home. Still a great big wuss, I imagined facing a surfeit of rice and the possibility of fish at 8 am, and so I said I would be fine making my own. Past volunteers had described starting out the day in their stations with toast and peanut butter bought at Tesco, or even cereal, and apparently it gave them the courage to face immersion in the otherness of Thailand. My Paw Aaws were fine with my decision, but they emphasized their inability to increase my food stipend. I mulled it over and changed my mind- after all, I was not having my dinner cooked for me, so I would have plenty of opportunities for falang food if I developed a fixation. In our final pre-teaching shopping trip I actually went into Tesco and spent the outsized money required for pasta and Campbell's soup and peanut butter. The pasta was from Italy, and I recall setting it on my counter with a sense of pleasant security. I even planned a blog entry around my first "breakdown" when I would cook it and took this photo to commemorate the moment:
Well, the canned sauce was so dreadful, and the meal such an emotional and taste let down, that I filed the photo and moved on. Yet the primary reason it was such a 'non-event' to ingest this bland dish was the unexpected delight I took in my school repasts. I took to rice for breakfast like the proverbial duck to his H2O. In fact, the one regret I have is that I am not one of the volunteers lucky enough to have my dinner included in my lodging. The volunteer J has an interesting theory: by eating a steady diet of rice we will better acclimate to the impending hot season. It is  true that I have been wearing sweaters on days that dip into the frigid mid-70's already. J's logic goes like this: Rice only grows where it is hot. Therefore it is the best food for bodies in a hot climate. It fits so nicely that I fully endorse it as scientific fact. There is the nagging question of what the hell grows in any cold climate to help you there? I suppose whale blubber might work..It is true that no critter here has much fat on it, and so, with the exception of the new generation of corporate produced sugar fed fat kids, neither do most of the locals themselves. It may be viciously insensitive of me to say so, but it sure seems like a scorching hot and humid day would suck much more for a fat person than for a slim one. For one thing, there is so much more of you for the sun to beat down on- and beat down is the right phrase, believe me. I have never had sun slam into my body with such palpable weight! ANYHOO... good golly I have a way of going astray from my target- hmmm wonder if that is why I am sitting (kneeling actually, I moved my laptop downstairs and the table is a little low) in Northeastern Thailand at 51, broke and typing on a blog while listening to the Grateful Dead on internet radio out of University of Vermont. University of Nebraska has a very good station also by the way, which I tuned into out of deference to my mustached colleague whose formidable mind was formed at this fine institution. I don't know why the majority of kids listen to so much absolute shite mainstream hip hop and pop when there are so so many great college and international radio stations available for free? Where was I? Telling how wonderful I am? Yes, of course! Breakfast. Yes. This morning at Thai Samakee I was met with this lovely sight:

Notice the lack of my new sarcasm indicator (*). I mean it with great enthusiasm. This is a glorious treat for me at 8 am, in my shaded spot looking over the students who mill about or clean the school grounds with 5 gallon buckets. The fish are tender and bursting with smokey flavor. And above them is a bamboo soup concoction that is ripping hot spicy and perfectly balanced between crisp and tender, like excellent a dente pasta but in a more raw plant sate. I left out the woven basket of sticky rice that one balls up and uses to pull the meat from the fish and to accompany the bamboo, only because I like the balance in this photo better. I had no sooner mawed my fill when Kru (teacher) Pon showed up with the meal that she had bought for breakfast. Apparently in her inevitable Thai way, when I had asked Kru Thon about the meal she was holding, she naturally offered it to me, though it was probably her own breakfast, or the other teacher's or for lunch or only Buddha knows what.  Now my western politeness kicks in and I sit back down to do my best with the breakfast bought for me. This appeared to be the usual very salty noodle chicken soup I have been served on other occasions- decent but not one of my favorites- until I dug around a bit at the bottom and turned up this:
Though cocky about my fish and red pepper skills at this point the first thing that went through my mind was the money I was finally going to make when I sued whatever restaurant had let this deformed baby's hand slip by quality control. Regaining my senses, I deftly slid the foot to the back part of the bowl and pushed it under broth, out of sight, making a big show of enjoying the noodles: alloy mak mak! No luck. Kru Pon dug the malformation to the surface, pulled her own from her bowl, and tucked it into her mouth with exaggerated gestures, as if I had forgotten the location of the food ingestion hole on my own face. Alloy!!!! Mak!!! Several gnashing and slurping moments later only the thickest top bone emerged. Cornered. I know the words Mai Chawp - I don't like- a moment of decision. What would Anthony do? Well, besides the fact that he would probably be drunk so he serves as a very poor mentor, I resist the impulse of proving myself to anyone, so it is immaterial what he would do. I just dig him because he is funny and raw and seeking authentic gustatory experiences. I know that is not original since AB made the new edition of Stuff White People Like, which always makes me feel like I have an enormous target on my back and, as the dart sinks in, I die a little while simultaneously acknowledging, Of course! Perfect! If I were God and men were created in MY image they would ALL love The Wire and NPR and the TED conference, etc.. It also occurred to me,  What the bloody hell! These are the same people who have a whole foot etiquette entering and leaving buildings and shuffling on the knees to the Buddha Icon and tucking the feet behind oneself and never stepping over someone and this lumpy thing that spent umpteen hours stepping in the shit of its fellow chickens shows up in my flipping breakfast and I am supposed to eat it? The long and the short of it is I rolled back and threw that sucker in and did my very best to fight the gag reflex. My mantra in such moments is: It didn't kill her. It won't kill me. I do make someone else go first- ostensibly to see "how it is done" but more to make sure that I am not having an acid flashback or they are not pulling an elaborate hoax on the falang. I did spit out several more bones than Pon did. I don't think anyone present fully bought my feeble attempt at a smile of enjoyment. Yet. Yet I am glad I didn't back down from the moment. Speaking of which, I wonder if Proust had internet radio he would have gotten out of that sickly writing bed when a really terrific song came on, just to dance around the room? Here I go...Brad Meldau. Ooo bet that is on SWPL. Among the silver linings to the cloud of living alone in a concrete bunker in the middle of nowhere is the freedom to scat sing badly and dance around in stupid pants. I have a truly treacly self-help tome bubbling up in me from time to time. The millions I could make...Anyhoo, the foot was not the poison my gag reflex was telling me nor the delicacy Pon insisted. It tasted like..chicken! but not especially flavorful chicken and with nothing texture wise, like the bamboo, to recommend it (I didn't buy the big bag of feet I saw on sale at the night market tonight). My belly double full ( I am probably repeating myself here, but I often think of the hobbits with their attempted second breakfasts etc.) it was time for me to ride off to the sports extravaganza at the neighboring primary school. This was a week-long congregation of ten schools to test the mettle of the girls and boys in such sports as football, volleyball, foot sol, tug of war, and Tag kaw. More on the specifics of some of those at another date. For God's sake I have to wrap this up! I split my cheers between the two school's teams, and thanks to Boom's infectious screaming-cheering I actually got pretty worked up over a tie-breaking shootout between NongYaSai and Kuruku in footsol ( NongYaSai lost on the 11th kick and I was happy to have Boom there to say loudly SHIT! to). I was treated with unnecessary deference, as usual, with the announcer mentioning my name several times in the play by play and the men offering me some of their whiskey. About three shots worth with a glass of water chaser. Unsure of the rules of imbibing I just took it as a shot. That seemed to work. A nice mellowing agent for the chicken foot pawing at my belly. Still, a bit much for my 11:30 am in-the-now-hot-sun-head, so I smilingly went looking for Rita who had invited me earlier to lunch with her Chok Noi crew. Needed a bit of rice to add ballast to my heeling ship. Rita was long gone, but there at the picnic table, under the blaring speaker (some kind of Thai singing to what sounded like a German marching tune), were my Thai Samakee students, eating. In their incomparable way- so happy to see me! They insisted I join them. The blaring music meant we could all resort to gesturing and throw out any semblance of English or Thai as we dug in.
 I ate the whole bag and they were Arroy Mak Mak!

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