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.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

On the Road with Rita and Heata'

Just think. You could be down at the bar with all the other ancient falangs, but instead you are up here with us, totally having fun. Rita to me as I bedded down on the nice concrete floor at the foot of the bed she and Heater were occupying. And it is true. I totally did have fun. We journeyed north this past long weekend, Constitution Day on Friday, to the city of Nong Khai, where there was indeed a sizable cadre of 60-something British,  French, and German fellows, gathered in bars and on the sidewalks, some with their young Thai wives, some with young, half Thai children, some just sitting around drinking together. One old geezer getting his white beard fashioned to look like Santa by his Laotian houseboy. Yet here was I, spending my time with three young twenty year olds. What is the matter with me? Well there is the fact that most of those grey falangs fall into two categories: one; successful types and retirees who have cashed in and are here reaping the multiplying factor of the relatively cheap Baht (and its impact on the native women), and  two; the working types who are dealing in international business and just happen to love Thailand (I cotton to these more). -I am an English teacher but I have no idea how to correctly punctuate that last sentence. Forgive me the error of my ways, Buddy Montgomery. I fall into a wholly different category- that of a footloose fool and his paltry earnings, soon separated, leaving me literally on the verge of bankruptcy. Silly me,  I came here with next to no money to try to help the kids with even less! Yet the real reason I found myself with this crew is I genuinely enjoy their company. They keep me grounded by reminding me what an immature jackass I can be, and they laugh at my jokes, which, since I make it a consistent practice to laugh at them also, helps me feel I am not completely insane. Believe me, this is a necessity in Thailand. There are days when an old white dude could come completely unglued. Yesterday, for instance, after teaching my first class I was informed that our school was canceled so we could attend the party for the nearby school's departing director. Thirty minutes later I was drinking brandy at the head table with a crew of retired army majors, nodding my head endlessly, pretending I could hear them (never mind understand what they were saying), over the raucous and horribly flat karaoke blasting us. It was 11 am and in each window was a primary student staring in. Not a surprise since we were in their primary school cafeteria. Ahhh Mondays! I doubt a show like The Office would fly here. People would watch and think, What is funny about regular, everyday life?
          The Thais have  a very different sense of what is embarrassing and what is appropriate. They ask you your age within the first fifteen minutes of meeting you, man or woman, 18 or 80, and they freely comment on your physical features. They don't mean it in a bullying way. Like the hitting I see constantly on the playground or the laughing at mistakes made in the classroom. Today I wiped my hand on my face and it was covered in dry erase blue, so my face afterward was too, and the whole class laughed their asses off at my expense. These are kids who bow when they go by me to show deference, and I know they love me. They are laughing because they are not pc in the way we are. This makes me consider how socially, as opposed to morally, constructed what is pc truly is. My face blue is funny. Why pretend otherwise? I am 51. Why pretend I am not or that it is a secret and be afraid to ask? It may be how close and different the Thai relationship is with matters of life and death. Today at breakfast I marveled at Boom when she dug the eyeballs out of all the small fish on the communal plate. She looked at me watching her and explained,  I like the eyes. She is not proving anything and her stomach does not have anything to overcome when her fingernails pop out those fish eyes at 8 am. But point your feet at the Buddha image? No way. They say that Thailand is the land of contradictions as well as the land of smiles, and I think I may have to rename this blog the land of digressions.That is what happens when I go so long between posts. Too much happens!
      So here is a photo of Rita I snapped at Jes' the morning before we left:
You can imagine that being stared at is not such a delight for Rita, since it is nothing new for her. In a country of dark-skinned and black-haired citizens she stands out as if she glowed in the dark. The Thais are highly enamored of light skin, roman noses, and blond hair. In Isan, I am not a totally remarkable phenomenon. Rita is. So what is for me a flattering change is for Rita an overload of what she has experienced most of her life- being judged by her outward appearance. Hers is the icon of desired beauty the world over. Hence the toy I snapped a photo of in the Nakhon bus station on our way out:
This is both a blessing and a curse, obviously.  It opens certain doors, but it comes with many potentially constrictive costs. When I think of Rita's potential  to derive comfort, security, and power in the US or any other western nation, I am left in awe of the fact that she was brave enough to venture to the wilds of Thailand. She had one warm up in a semester in South Africa while in college- so many fortunate young people now complete similar semesters. In my day people dropped out to make money or to take a break from studying, but I can't think of anyone, with the exception of those majoring in a foreign language, who just went to Chile, or Greece, or South Africa. Hopefully all those experiences will help make the US less insular in the future. I think it has made a universally positive impact on the 20 somethings I know. Like Rita and Heather. The fact that at 23 these two pearly toothed blonds had the chutzpah to set out to Southeast Asia on their own for a year is directly related to their success at navigating a prior long-term foreign experience ( Heather was in Greece). The reason they are here on a voluntary basis rather than as simple travel bums (that was de rigeur in my day- the backpack bum your way across Europe after college- a time of lesser college debt!) may be due to the fact that both went to Catholic colleges. Say what you will about the politics and gender issues of that institution, I do admire their sense of duty towards helping the less fortunate. But unlike the drab nuns of yesterday ( I know if they read this they will both find the analogy of themselves with nuns onerous- which is why I am leaving it in! I don't even think Heather is Catholic come to think of it), these two emissaries are colorful, vibrant, independent, and outgoing. They are far from sticks in the mud, but they have no use for the sort of debauched drinking or life draining experiences of some of their American peers. They spend exactly zero time trying prove they are hip or fashionable or blase. Rita is from Colorado, my birthplace, so when she talks about missing the mountains, skinning up the back country for private night skiing, the crisp high altitude air (she's from Snowmass at 8000 ft), the aspens turning their special golden yellow as the winter's breath threatens the fall air, I can fully appreciate what she yearns for. There is something particular about a Westerner I won't bother trying to wrap my words around here, but I recognized it in Rita right away. In her frankness and lack of guile, the way she extends an open hand to a stranger. In her teaching placement, Rita was stuck out the farthest of all of us, with me the next down the line, so we helped each other through some of the initial acclimation struggles. Then we spent an extra week together as our schools vied against each other during "Sports Week".  This meant spending long days as a "fan" at elementary school volleyball, soccer, and tug of war, which can be a hoot for about 2 hours, but by the third or forth day in a row, under the hot sun, sucking down dust and the smokey haze of fall burning, wears a bit thin. So it was great having Rita to bet against and commiserate with. My friendship with Rita enhanced my already stellar status with my students. Here she is with my faves, who clearly adored her, especially after she got into a tickle war with them.
 All of our small schools took a whupping from the bigger schools , so neither of us ended up with any real bragging rights. Rita did get very heated about one tug of war match her school lost. I thought she might attack the officials. She can be a tad competitive...The idea of letting your daughter, to the Thais, go off on her own to a poor and foreign area, is tantamount to saying you don't care about her or even dislike her. While they all pigeon hole me into the rich falang here for a young Thai wife, they have no ideological place whatsoever to put Rita. They ended up nearly suffocating her with protection and attention initially. Two months in she has ensconced herself in her small village and she is thriving. When Rita is not telling me how old and shriveled I am, she is apt to be seeing the best in others and telling them so. She described Heather as, Someone who is very modest and unimposing initially but then it becomes very clear how intelligent and knowledgeable she is.  Which I conveniently twisted into, You seem pretty dumb at first, so it is surprising to find out your not as dumb as you seem. This drew some wonderful comments from Rita I cannot print on a family friendly blog. Rita's real assessment does sum up Heather well. The other half of me, the one who has lived in Maine for the last 21 years, relates closely to Heather, who hails from nearby New Hampshire. The more you get to know Heather, the more you appreciate her wicked humor, her mental quickness, and her emotional toughness. No one tells a better disaster story; no one is more fun to make laugh. Here I am doing my best to see if I can make her toss her cookies:
 I guess when I look at this I wonder just why it is they do let me go anywhere with them! In our four days together I always felt we were on the the same page. When some of their counterparts would have probably been searching for the local nightclub, the four of us were in a bookstore completely mesmerized by the map section (we each bought giant maps of Thailand). The only challenge was we were so comfortable going with whatever any of the rest of us decided that sometimes noone would make a decision, and there was a lot of the nose game played to avoid having to be the one who chose (Ben, of course, always lost...). There was just the right combination of planning and chance so that we made some wonderful discoveries, like our hotel room which came out of desperation but proved to be both a fantastic deal ($4 each per night) and a perfect location. Here they are on our private deck overlooking the Mekong and the bridge to Laos:
We found it at night at the very end of the river walk after checking at least 6 other places that were sold out (the one that wasn't had the definite air of a brothel).
Nong Khai is like the first class version of poor Nakhom Phanom. The river walk is not bordered by a road but by restaurants and shops so it is much lovelier and quieter to tour. Besides being greener in general, the land from the river path down is terraced with gardens instead of trash. What they call their Indochine Market is not housed in one large building as in NKP, but instead snakes a narrow lane for many blocks between the first and second set of buildings off the river, setting the first automotive path even further from the river. As a way station from Thailand and Lao, and the most direct route to Lao from Bangkok, it is also markedly more prosperous, so the stores stock more and better inventory. A great contingent of tourists flocking the town were Thais on holiday, a cheery sight after the somewhat downtrodden and hardscrabble views we are used to seeing. By far the highlight of our trip was the sculpture park on the outskirts of town. The vision of a single, untrained artist and completed mostly by unskilled laborers; it was a gas. For a mere 20 baht entry (Thais were only charged 10), the four of us were delighted, impressed, and entranced by every piece.
It was Rita's idea to start imitating the poses, and though we were a little worried we might offend someone, the Thais present found our silliness infectious and several began doing the same thing. Later we met a very sweet Thai woman who described the process of asking blessings for ourselves, our mothers, fathers, and ancestors.
We all agreed the park was worth a second trip later, hopefully with more knowledge of the symbolism of the various pieces, which clearly had much Indian influence.

The sculptures span into contemporary times, and there were dogs on mopeds, some toting machine guns, and other complete oddities.

Thought the bus ride to Nong Khai was long and slow (a little over six hours), and we had to get up very early on Sunday to catch the 6:30 AM bus (that naturally left at 7:30),
it was great to go out on our first unescorted adventure. I couldn't have asked for a better crew of homies to go with. I think it is a testament to our compatibility that we immediately began planning our New Year's holiday together to a wilderness area to go climb a well known mountain and go camping.
Totally fun!


  1. Was that an e.e cummings reference I saw in there?

  2. Geez if it is, it is unintentional.