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.

Monday, December 6, 2010

Chang You Can Believe In

This post is a three parter. The first Chang is the one above; my favorite beer discovery so far in Thailand. That is not a profound statement since, here in Isan at least, there is nothing remotely resembling a microbrewery culture. It just means I have chosen Chang out of the 5 available choices. From the bottom up: Archer- 34 Baht for this sized bottle- about $1.25 (about 20 oz). 5.2% alcohol. Tasteless. Then comes Chang at 40 baht, and 6.4% alcohol, a flavorful lager. A beautiful label. An icon we can all get behind. Leo. By far the most popular here. Leopard mascot (boring!) and only 5% alcohol.Limp and limp flavor. 45 baht. Singha. Nice flavor. Not sure the alcohol content. 55 Baht! Heinekin. Status symbol. Same nice flavor as in the States but 90 baht a bottle! The nice thing about limited choice is how quickly I was able to siphon (not literally) through the available beers and declare myself forever a "Chang Man". To become attached to the sight of the green label and protective of its reputation. It makes trips to the store very efficient. No lost time in front of the cooler wondering if one should spring 9 dollars for a bottle of the latest IPA from Dogfish that may or may not be so far over the top as to be non potable. I am sure it will be nice to quaff a dark beer on tap once I am home, but for now I am quite satisfied with my Chang, and I know if I find it back in the states it will just not be the same. I pictured this bottle here in my wok in order to give you a glimpse of my wok in all its properly seasoned glory. I am addicted to my wok as much as I am to my dear Chang beer. Nothing sticks to it and cooking in it makes one feel wonderfully professional. It is all sizzling and shuffling ingredients about, lots of heat and action. I even managed to heat up the leftover mashed potatoes from Thanksgiving in it. I looked all over my little wok burner but there is no identifier of its BTU power. Sorry D. I can tell you it puts out a far greater heat than my so called "power burner" on my stove at home. Its one downside: it is difficult to lower  the heat to avoid burning things in flat skillets, such as the pancakes we made this morning (Rita, Ben, and Zach came for a night market supper and a movie/sleepover). Chang is the Thai word for Elephant, if you had not discerned that already from the beer label, and that is the second Chang. Two weeks ago a group of us headed 6 hours by van south and west to the town of Surin for their annual Elephant Roundup. Now that is a shit-ton of elephants!
Like many animal shows, such as circuses and rodeos, the elephant round-up provides a mixed experience. 
Elephants are compelling, partly for their sheer size and that crazy trunk, but I think mostly for the coupling of that gargantuan body with a wholly unique persona and physical grace. And it is breathtaking to be up close in a bustling multitude of elephants and not be knocked about by their gigantic limbs. How can they control such vast girth and muscle mass so adeptly? How can they tell what that big butt is doing? The smaller Asian elephants have been used in the region for hundreds of  years to do a variety of labor (even occasionally in war), primarily logging when Thailand still had a vast acreage of timber. So in some ways these magnificent animals played a part in the deforestation of the country. They helped in the destruction of their own natural habitat. Now that the available timber has diminished and technology has moved on, elephants have little left but functioning as tourist attractions. For this they fit very nicely, since they are so patient and accommodating, which, given their power feels like a tender gift. Here is the indomitable Rita ascending the face of a wizened fellow who could easily decide to squish her like a pesky bug. When he doesn't, we feel a sense of Khop Khun Kha!
 The challenge of course is to feed and care for such enormous creatures. Owners have formidable costs maintaining their charges.
The show involved much of the predictable silliness humans who pay for tickets expect in entertainment: a soccer game, a reenactment of an old battle, some circus type tricks, and of course, it being Thailand, lots of blaring stereos, drums, dancing, and cannonaded glitter. By far the highlight was standing in the swarm of elephants afterward, and above all feeling this fetus surge about inside its mother's uterus. Now that shook me, and I was happy. No wonder Miss Mary Mack Mack Mack wanted to go see them jump the fence. And for only 50 cents! Since I came back I have been teaching several of my classes that little clapping game actually.
Part three of this triptych is my very good friend Ben, who was given the Thai nickname Chang.
During Orientation, while Zachary caused every high school girl to blush, titter, and verge on fainting, Ben's most ardent fan was the ladyboy math teacher. Not that he doesn't get his fair share of female attention at Wong Ga Sai high school where he now teaches. But this was typical of Ben's luck. Our biggest gas during Orientation, not counting playing a game called Kitty in the Middle, was observing Ben do Thai dance. This may be where Ben earned his moniker, elephant, but I doubt it since most elephants could sway to the rhythm quite a bit more gracefully than Ben. Ben comes from Richmond, Virginia and a long, proud tradition of teachers. Yet Ben studied economics and religion at Hampden-Sydney, and he had never spent a day teaching before arriving in Thailand. Prior to coming here, Ben worked as a rafting guide in Wyoming. He ventured west, got his rafting guide license, and made a life for himself. He set out for Thailand in spite of a potentially life-altering medical condition, and the risks he would face in a foreign medical environment. What is interesting about Ben, and what makes me admire him so, is not his less than stellar luck but the pluck with which he meets it. Ben flashed us his signature dance move until I thought I might need stomach surgery myself. And then he stuck with it and got pretty damn good at it. Well...he got to an acceptable point, let's say that. Ben has embraced the experience that is Thailand, I think, more fully than any other volunteer. He scooted up to play tak kaw on the public courts in Pla Pak and he set himself up as the soccer coach for the boys team at his high school. He dives into every dish and in one short month he has come to know that first of all he wants to teach and second that he wants to stay in Thailand longer than one year, and that he wants to live  in another 10 countries. He does not come from wealth or a family of world travelers. And he has none of the jaded ennui that often accompanies wealth and privilege. That is why I love doing things with him, because he loves doing them. He has the genuine curiosity and humility that encapsulates the best of an America I think may be a thing of the past, before we got so stuck on the idea of our so-called exceptionalism. I am probably being overly dramatic. Ben is a hell of listener- the kind of person who alertly witnesses what you are sharing with a rare non-judgmental patience. I can tell you  he has helped me, a ragged-old-bag-of-sorry, through some of my harder days, just by the way he hears me. Perhaps this is where he got his nickname- the ears and the patience. Of course, if you ask Ben, he flops his arm in front of his body, and says,  Oh, you know. It's the trunk. You know. The trunk! 
         There was a moment in Surin where Ben proved just what kind of person he is. We were, thirteen of us, happily drinking out doors at the small bar with the motorcycles (shown in an earlier post), when a very drunk and revved up large fellow with a shaved head wandered in with a half empty bottle of whiskey. I saw him duck in the bar and my old man radar immediately got clicking trouble, though at this point no one else but my friend the bar owner really noticed him. He was shirtless and my gut just read, watch that. and the bar owner and I exchanged knowing glances. I didn't think about it again since he was gone for a while, but then he came stumbling out the the bar at the other end of our table of volunteers. I tensed again, but it appeared though he was talking aloud to himself he was going to stumble on into the night. Then one of the volunteers from my end of the table, apparently someone with no radar at all, hollered to him to ask how he was doing. That was all he needed. Seeing us for the first time he swiveled around to stand behind Ben and Rita and begin disclaiming in a drunken rant some nonsense or other. Everyone at the table quickly quieted down and the scene became very tense. He was not overtly aggressive, but he was so drunk his lit cigarette kept flailing within centimeters of Rita's face. He was a big and stupid drunk and the situation could have easily gone any which way. I know I did not act, though the situation clearly called for it. Ben got to his feet and stood toe to toe with him. putting himself between the drunk and everyone else. Ben is not small, but this man was easily four inches taller. Ben quietly and firmly said, "It is time for you to go." The guy looks him in the eye. We hold our collective breath. Ben says it again and takes him firmly and steps him down off the sidewalk. We breathe a collective sigh of relief. He has not decided to challenge Ben. He is suddenly a friendly drunk about to stumble on his merry way to some gutter. Ben turns back to the group with a smile. But no! The drunk is going to stumble into an oncoming truck! We suck in another wheezing gasp. Ben springs back into action, darting down into the street to grab the silly drunk in his arms and save his life. The truck rumbles by, the drunk stumbles on (oblivious to his near fatal moment), and Ben turns with a hearty laugh at the strangeness of it all. I don't recall anyone thanking Ben, but I am now, here. Thanks Chang.  I have lived long enough to know the vast gap between those of us who think we would act in those two moments and how many of us actually would. So I raise my Chang to Chang and all the changs! May they all live long and prosper!

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