Friday, 16 January 2009
A Farang Laments
Threshing the rice just has to be 'sanuk'.
But my hundred keys are a complete mightmare!
The broom and basket man turns up just at the wrong moment.
Mama spends half an age haggling over two brooms.
Sadao hunters intent on making the soup impossibly bitter.
The big Cat wields the big stick...
... while Nan does the difficult work.
I’m not sure retirement’s supposed to be like this. The last month has been positively hectic.
My book launch at the start of December meant going to Bangkok by bus… it’s a long journey and crossing the Atlantic’s a fair bit quicker. Then we’ve had not one but two trips to our favourite island, Koh Chang.
So that Cat could get back to college we drove home on the last day of the New Year holiday and the roads were really crazy. Hundreds died over the holiday as always and the last miles down Route 24 were complete madness and the next day Cat decided to stay at home after all.
The sight of so many small pickups over-loaded with young men returning to their low paid jobs, packed in tight between bags and bedding, the truck’s tail almost dragging along the road was deeply sad. With no work to be had in Isaan, these lads come home for a few days a year to see the family, to party and to drink, before taking the long journey back south.
Desperate to get there, these end of holiday drivers go mad and take appalling risks on the crowded roads. And this year it was really bad and all of the major routes were blocked solid. Our final run home from Prakonchai along Route 24 which usually takes about forty minutes this time took several hours. The road is good but with only one lane in each direction the traffic was nose to tail, even on our side heading east away from Bangkok.
Sometimes when the traffic ground to a halt the drivers behind us grew horns, jumping the queue and overtaking inside on the hard shoulder. Everybody then started doing it and soon there were four lanes of traffic in each direction, cars, trucks and buses, all locked in tight together.
There was no hope of any traffic flow and we sat gridlocked for hours, vehicles sometimes plunging down the embankment and driving through the rice fields to get a few hundred yards’ advantage. Meanwhile the migrant workers sat in the back of their pickups getting colder as the sun set and facing an indefinite journey into worsening traffic jams. If it was chaos here hundreds of miles outside Bangkok what would it be like as they got closer to town.
I had little to complain of as I was home before dark, though I lament the selfish driving which made things so much worse for all concerned.
A Political Jam
Looking back over the final month of a traumatic 2008 I’m reminded that a week is a long time in Thai politics. During December the governing PPP party was dissolved by the Constitutional Court for electoral irregularities and the People’s Alliance for Democracy lifted its catastrophic occupation of Bangkok’s airports. Smiling politicians wielded knives, noted the way the wind was blowing and the side their bread was buttered and then by sleight of hand rather than the ballot box, pulled a plausible young Prime Minister out of the hat.
I wish Abhisit Vejjajiva well but only wish he’d come to power in a more conventional way as the problems he now faces, seem well nigh insuperable.
Satellite Dishes Again
It was an exciting month for us too. While I was away in Bangkok Cat called to ask me if she could buy a satellite dish to receive more television channels. At a cost of only about four thousand baht, a dish could be fitted that would receive hundreds of news and other programs, many in English she said, and with no monthly subscription.
Of course I jumped at the idea. Because of cost and as CNN and Fox News are pretty poor, I’ve never subscribed for English language television here, relying on my newspaper and the internet for serious contact with the outside world. I’m now quite good at lip reading the farang movies dubbed into Thai but yes, English language TV would be a nice luxury.
On getting home I scanned through the channels with the remote becoming increasingly disenchanted. I soon discovered that Cat and her family now had fifteen more channels in Thai, while I’d got telly from Yemen, Bangladesh and Nepal in the vernacular and in English an overdose of loud American evangelism.
‘Come to Gahd! Be saved! Give us your money!’
Sorry, I seem to have spent most of it already.
While I was in Bangkok I pushed the boat out and bought a movie on VCD. It was ‘Mamma Mia’, a star studded musical based on the songs of the Swedish pop group, ABBA. I was looking forward to a rare English language treat but despite my disappointment over the satellite television, it’s since taken me almost a month to view it. With the new cannels the television is even more heavily used than usual and I got some black looks when I asked to put on my movie.
I’ve played literally a handful of movies in the five years I’ve lived here, but yes, it was a bit selfish of me jamming their Thai television for a couple of hours. Nobody seemed the least bit interested in Meryl Streep and Pierce Brosnan, but maybe they now appreciate how boring it is for me watching Thai television when I can’t understand a word of it. Or maybe they don’t!
‘Mamma Mia’ had subtitles except that they too were in English. Because of the racket around me I found this quite useful but more funny were the subtitles for the incidental sounds. ‘He moans gently.’ ‘Engine hums.’ ‘Clink of cutlery on glasses.’
Keys, Cars, Brooms and Sadao
Meanwhile in the village things were humming too. The end of the rice harvest means work and a little money flowing in and there were smiles all round as they collected the rice stooks for threshing.
I had plenty to do before my book launch but suddenly on my last morning before getting the bus to Bangkok Cat announced that we must go to Surin for Mama to have her arthritic knee checked again.
‘When exactly, Cat?’ I ask her.
‘We go today… right now of course!’
I do not complain but merely lament that plans around here never seem to be laid in advance, not even the day before. As plans are always scrappable, pre-planning is a waste of time. You decide what to do that day when you wake up in the morning.
It’s now a rush as the clinic closes at mid-day so we do what has to be done to get ready… money, car keys, wallet and so on. But there’s a panic as the gate is locked and nobody can find the keys. The pickup’s locked inside the garden and there’s a tense hunt to find the keys. They have to be somewhere!
Cat and I seem to have endless problems with keys. Neither of us is particularly clever with keys but all my efforts to establish a place in the drawer where the gate key lives proves to be a waste of time. Invariably it’s not there.
‘Where my motorbike key?’ asks Cat to the world most days of the week and it’s always when she’s late for the 7.30 roll call at college. Once we had the Honda Dream stripped down to replace the key mechanism when, just in time, the keys were found in the long grass.
The other problem is that as well as the gate keys there are twelve doors in the house, each having three duplicate keys, a number of cheapie desks and cabinets having a total of fifteen lockeable drawers and doors again with duplicate keys, plus two cars and two motorbikes all with more keys. This means that, with various padlocks for the wooden house and so on, we have a total of at least a hundred keys, and most of these are unmarked and scattered in drawers and plastic bags throughout our domain.
I did try to find some key rings with writeable tags on them but failed dismally, so I bought some cup hooks and made a board on which some of the main house keys can be kept. I lament however that nobody who uses a key will ever return it to its rightful hook so either I lock the keys in my bedroom cupboard or I resign myself to total chaos.
We did eventually make it to the doctor’s in Surin that day after Mama had spent ten minutes buying a couple of brooms from a passing room seller. And a week later I got safely back from my book launch in Bangkok. Then two days before driving to Koh Chang I suddenly remembered that the tax and insurance on the pickup are out of date and there’s a blind panic to get this sorted before we go. I’d hate to be prey to the many police road blocks en route or smash the car the very first time it’s uninsured.
This all falls on Cat as I can’t do any of the phoning nor read the paperwork, though she’s not optimistic we’ll get it done in time.
Next time we’re at the traffic lights she buys one of those beautiful scented flower garlands that you hang from the rear view mirror in the car and which confer total immunity from road accidents. She loudly complains that the cost of the flowers has gone from ten to twenty baht, though they’re still cheaper than the farang-style insurance that’ll cost me more than twenty thousand.
Miracles now performed and with the insurance all set up, I’m determined to get on the road early as we must get to Laem Ngop by seven in the evening to catch the last ferry.
‘Must go rice fields tomorrow before we go and get sadao to give to Sai and Sao on the island… early morning so it’s fresh,’ says Cat brightly.
‘I’ll see you in hell first before we make ourselves late just for some foul tasting leaves to ruin their food,’ I reply, though a little more diplomatically than that.
‘Then we get it now!’ says Cat.
The day’s nearly over so I stop my packing and Cat, Nan and I immediately head off to the rice fields with a bucket and a long bamboo pole. Scattered through the rice fields are the last of the sadao trees whose new shoots are used to make palatable curries as bitter as bile.
Nan climbs the trees like a monkey, while Cat wields the bamboo. This has a split end which she places over the shoot before twisting the pole to break it off. My lowly job is to pick up the leaves and put them in the bucket.
Cat also tries digging out some crabs from their holes but doesn’t have much luck thank goodness. Taking crabs to the seaside does seem a little silly. Anyway we now have a nice present for her friends on the island, even if it’ll be a bit jaded by our arrival at the end of tomorrow.
Our twenty baht offering of flowers took us safely for two trips to Koh Chang and back, a little short of forty hours traveling in all. It was fun, though on getting back the second time the house was in such mess it’s taken days to clean it up. I’ve stopped lamenting the different ways of keeping a home clean and tidy though… it’s something I just have to live with.
The Scourge of Alcohol
The other small ripple in the pond was that brother Saniam had just been caught by the police on a borrowed motorbike without a helmet, driving licence or ID card and, what’s worse, blind drunk. He’d been cast into jail in Surin for thirty days where he’d been beaten to a pulp and had his shoulder dislocated. It didn’t sound fun but for a fine of 3,000 baht in lieu they could let him out immediately.
He has no money to pay the fine and nor does anyone else… except me of course. He’d never survive the thirty days inside so I promptly paid for his ‘Get Out of Jail’ card. It’s ironic though that not more than a year or two ago I paid a much larger sum for his induction as a Buddhist monk. That’s just the way it goes but I cannot lament my Thai family as things like this come with the territory.
Anyway he turned up handcuffed and guarded in a tumbril-like police pickup and was duly released into the wild in return for the cash. It was all properly documented and he now has to do twenty hours community service and report regularly and I hope though doubt that this short sharp shock might prove to be positive. Alcoholism can be very hard to beat.
I much lament the level of alcohol abuse in Thailand where Surin men have the reputation of being among the worst offenders. As our neighbours go off to earn 130 baht for a day’s work in the rice fields they stop at the shop to buy eighty baht of hard liquor. Food seems to be far less important to them than booze.
I’d better stop lamenting my expat predicament though. England isn’t much better on the alcohol stakes and there are many things in the West that are far more lamentable than my farang tensions over living in rural Thailand.
Take modern celebrity culture for example. The internet has a huge educational potential but I’ve just read that in seven of the last eight years the most active topic on Yahoo searches has been guess what?