Monday, 2 July 2007

Dedicating Our Wooden House - Part II

It’s now early morning on the day of the ritual to inaugurate our new wooden house and all is activity. There are legions of ladies preparing food on the big bamboo tables and people everywhere milling around and chatting. There’s as many children as adults, always playing happily, which adds to that special rural sense of family and regeneration.

There’s a big crisis on hand though because Q, the young lad who’s been doing some of the carpentry, block work, tiling and electrics, a typical Jack of all trades, has just switched off the power to both houses and is striding from house to house, looking tight lipped and grim. He’s just discovered something drastic along the loose white cable that runs power down the boundary fence to the new wooden house. I now belatedly remember to tell Cat about the bolt of lightning in the dead of night that must have been not God’s but our electrics shorting out. She looks at me as if I’m mad.

‘Why you not tell me this before,’ she says, but like all such little local difficulties, the problem’s soon resolved and the power is on again with no fatalities recorded.

Cat now tells me that things are about to start in earnest and there’s already a small knot of oldies milling around the bottom of the stairs of the new wooden house. There’s Cat’s Mum, an old aunt, an even older uncle and Cat’s brother, Saniam, looking rather distinguished in the spectacles I bought for him at the one pound shop in Aberayron last summer. And of course there’s Cat’s great uncle who’s as old as the hills.

I wrote about this old man earlier, under the title, ‘There Go the Mango Trees!’, about this great uncle of Cat’s and how he must have been one of the pioneers who’d first settled in this area when all was still dense forest. In conflict with tigers and elephants, they’d cut back the forests to extend the rice frontier, and moved mountains, leveling the ground to form the rice fields with nothing more than hand tools. Ploughing with buffaloes, threshing and milling by hand and perhaps too poor to afford an ox cart, everything had to be done by hard manual labour. I can hardly imagine the heroic scale of such toil, all in harsh conditions of drought and flood, without the assistance of modern medicines and accompanied by a lifetime of constant pregnancies. Despite this tough life, he and his wife have now survived well into their eighties.

Life here was inconceivably hard, though at least in those days the earth was virgin and bountiful and there were forests in which to collect roots and berries, where pigs could root and timber be felled. If you had the need and the energy, more fields could be carved from the forest to increase your yields for a growing family. Then came the gradual shift from the steady equilibrium of subsistence farming to a modern cash economy, accompanied at the same time by an ever-increasing population. Now the forests are gone and every scrap of land is exploited to raise surplus rice for sale, to grow cassava and more recently rubber and sugar cane for sale into tough international markets.

Timber is no longer free and it’s an offence to cut even your own trees, rice land is surprisingly expensive despite its low profitability, the land is generally over-used and degraded and as infant mortality falls, agriculture can no longer support the increasing rural population. With increasing costs for new needs such as education and with rising expectations, the young and strong leave the villages to look for work, leaving the babies with Mama Papa and sending home their pathetically small savings. Perhaps the prettiest daughters too end up in perilous places such as Patpong, Pattaya and Patong seeking a way out of poverty. Meawhile, Thai television stirs a craving for consumer baubles and easy credit on punitive terms allows instant gratification with new TVs, a fridge, a Honda Dream motorcycle, or even a new Nissan pickup that the poorest can drive away against a tiny deposit and Papa’s guarantee.

I digress too far, though seeing this old man, so innocent in his simplicity, again reminds me just how much has moved on in Thailand during the eight or more decades of his life.

He now sits on the matting with the others at the bottom of the stairs of the new house, always silent, gazing around with innocent eyes that hardly comprehend all the change around him and smile out of his wizened, pixie face. In the middle of the group a severed pig’s head stares upwards with yellow candles lit and burning in its nostrils, next to it an offering of yellow flowers, candles, joss sticks and paper money placed on some bolts of local hand-woven fabric.

There then begins a low-key ritual in which the offering is symbolically passed between the men, accompanied by utterances that I cannot even begin to understand. As in all these ceremonies, such as for births, marriages and community events, there then follows the tying of saffron strings around the posts of the stairs and, to low chantings, the tying of strings round each others’ wrists. I always value this ‘baisri sukwan’ ceremony of the threads as it so evocatively suggests welcome, unity, closeness and community, and as I type they are still around my wrists as a reminder.

The pigs head is always there at these events too, though if I asked its exact significance, I’m sure the folk around me would be hard put to explain. That’s just how it is, they’d say; it’s what we’ve always done; it’s what you have to do. I can only assume that it represents an offering to the spirits of worldly fullness and wealth.

The local belief is that by building the house, we have intruded upon and disturbed the spirits of the place, the phi thii, and we must propitiate them with offerings so that our stay in the house is not an unhappy one. Cat too has made a small spirit house and this will be set up nearby for the spirits to reside in and where offerings will be made to them, lest they’re enticed into our new house and cause us trouble. It strikes me that today’s rituals are quite elaborate but not so different to house warmings and blessings of new homes in other cultures, and in the Christian church we even have formal exorcisms when a house is thought to be inhabited by unhappy spirits.

Meanwhile, back at the new wooden house it’s now the turn of the mortals, so we all gather on the big verandah where mats have been spread and a feast awaits. All the close relations are there to enjoy apparently unlimited quantities of food, soft drinks and of course alcohol. It’s a very special atmosphere, of aunties and elders and excited children, bright eyed and energetic, but so well behaved. The only shadow I can think of is the near total absence of the middle generation. They’re away in the cities, far from their rural roots so that parents and babies can survive.

Eventually, in a mellow alcoholic haze, the party begins to break up, though it’s still not yet ten in the morning. They all drift off home carrying ‘doggie bags’ of rich curries and foods that Cat has filled for them and that’ll keep them full for the next day or so, a tradition of giving that again seems universal at such events.

Yes, it’s still only morning and though the main even is finished, it’s never over until the slim lady sings. Tonight we’ll have more food and of course, karaoke, another well-established Thai tradition. All day long people come and go, and by evening the verandah is again full of people. The show and yet more serious eating has to go on, as always, the alcohol flowing freely.

The karaoke they like is the usual Thai popular music, though Cat allows me a guest appearance singing some bootleg Beatles numbers on our only karaoke CD that still seems to work. I particularly enjoyed the quirky track, “Come Together” whose lyrical double entendres really hit you between the eyes when you see them up in lights on the screen.

“Jojo was a man who thought she was a woman but she was another man!” It’s a raunchy story about an American transsexual and I’m happy that nobody could understand it.

Yes, karaoke is established as if an old Thai tradition. A few months back, Cat and I were summoned to an event at the village school to receive their thanks for a television that I didn’t know we’d given them recently. A local lady politician had also presented them with five new computers in strategic advance of a forthcoming election, and she was there too as the star attraction.

Anyway, after various speeches in front of all the kids in the school and perhaps a hundred adults and, after all donors had been hauled up onto the stage to be photographed and presented with nicely-printed certificates of thanks, the principal donors like me then had to sing karaoke. And no, I couldn’t refuse because karaoke is a compulsory part of social bonding, especially as I am a prime exhibit, namely the village’s resident farang. So I had to do it and join in graciously. To be mai sanuk, to be ‘un-fun’ is social death, a definite no-no. I, and particularly Cat, would never live it down.

The charming lady politician could hardly wait to get hold of the microphone and she took to the stage, a hard act to follow, but I was now suffering an attack of reticence and amnesia and couldn’t for the life of me remember what song I could sing.

‘Bee Gees, Bee Gees,’ hisses Cat at me, looking distinctly anxious… which is what she always calls the Beatles. Yes, Beatles is a good idea, but there are so many tracks! We scan the digital list of songs together and the first we hit upon is, “Get Back”. But do I know it and can I sing it? I’ll soon find out when I’m up there facing the music! My mouth is dry as I look down at a sea of upturned, angelic faces, white knuckles clutching at the microphone. I know they won’t boo me off but if I blow it, there’ll be a nasty silence followed by embarrassed laughter which’ll be even worse.

The music erupts and I’m trying to read the words. ‘Jojo was a man who thought he was a woman…’

I’d never sung this before, but thank goodness I do half know it and I belt it out happily. I then grasp that what I’m now singing to these little souls in front of me is all about a homosexual from Tucson, Arizona who heads for the bright lights and sells himself as a rent boy. ‘Get back, get back, get back to where you once belonged! Get back Jojo!’

How can this be happening! Experiences such as this that Thailand throws at me are often bizarre, transcending the surreal! When I later sang it at our house warming party, I smiled as I’d memorably sung it before.

Four years ago we built a beautiful reinforced concrete house on land I’d bought for Cat in her village and now while I’ve been away in the UK for a few weeks, she’s built this sort of wooden summer house and ‘museum’ down the garden. At last the picture’s becoming clearer and I think that really it’s a place for her Mama and Nan to live in, so that we’re not living on top of each other in our concrete house. It’s a great idea really and it’ll just emerge like the rest of my life, coming out in the wash with everything else from day to day. You’ve just got to go with the flow, I remind myself and don’t ask too many questions.

The main complaint from Thai wives is usually that their farang talk too much, so I always try to keep my questions to Cat well below the necessary minimum. Does it matter very much if, like the old man, I don’t really understand everything that’s going on around me?

Today there’s still more work to be done on the shower room, but as the spirits have now been taken care of, Mama and Nan moved into one of the three small bedrooms in the new house as soon as they could. Most importantly brother Saniam has set up a shelf in the corner of the room for the TV, so they’re well and truly installed. There’s plenty of work on hand, unraveling the chaos of plates and pans and plastic that are scattered everywhere after the party and there’s absolutely no risk of getting bored.

Cat’s dead tired after two months of planning and building so now perhaps we can get our lives back to normal… which is what I always say as we put the final touches to her latest project. And I never dare ask about the next one!

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