Tuesday, 28 July 2009

The Spirits Are Calling Mama Home

Older sister and older brother light the joss sticks.

Then they all make an offerings to the spirits.

It seems that the spirits like lao khao and Fanta too.

The faces are all serious though because Mama really is ill.

Her luck for the future can be divined by examining a chicken's gizzard.

And older brother says it's looking better for her.

Mama firmly believes that she is about to die.

The spirit of an ancestor has come to her in a dream and has been calling her to come over to the other side. She now is in a state of collapse and seems to have given up all hope.

A few days ago we’d packed up the car and were about to go to Peter and Laylai’s for a few days as we hadn’t seen them since getting back to our Surin village from England. I backed it out of the drive and Cat locked the gate and went to say goodbye to her mother who wasn’t looking too perky. She was complaining pitifully of a distended stomach, so we abandoned our trip for the moment and instead took her off to the local hospital in Sangkha.

We were received by two nurses wearing white gauze masks who quickly found her name on the computer. Though was this really right because although she now looks well into her sixties, their records were showing her as aged forty four? There then followed some banter with the nurses about another possible cause for her swollen stomach during which I discovered that almond eyes can laugh without any help from the rest of the face.

There followed a long wait before Mama saw the doctor and eventually came away with a bag of about six different medicines for treating a gassy stomach. At least we were assured that she wasn’t at death’s door, even if she persists in thinking she is. She’ll almost certainly fail to take the medicines and nature will take its course in any event.

Sadly though Mama has continued to decline and has been sitting doing absolutely nothing all day long in a state of abject depression. Which, let’s face it, is how anyone might feel when the spirits say you’re are about to die.

In the West we’d dose her up on Prozac, but here they go to see the ‘mor doo’, the soothsayser, the village spirit ‘doctor’ who can foresee everything. He tells them that out in the spirit world granny is hungry and is pining for company. The family should therefore hold a ceremony to keep her sweet and offer her chicken and alcohol and some sarongs and maybe then she’ll be happy and not call Mama home.

So early this morning a chicken was killed and cooked and everyone gathered at the front of the house. Mama’s older brother and sister and her youngest sister were there and also Mangorn her oldest son, Yut her oldest surviving daughter and of course me and Cat.

The offerings were displayed on a mat and a long ceremony began in which each of them was blessed in turn and offered up to the spirits, accompanied by low chanting. Then older brother broke off the chicken’s head and tore out the gizzard. If the forked tendons are nice and straight (they always are) everything will be okay.

We then move off to the wooden house to tell Mama that all is well and to tie white threads round her wrist in an age old traditional gesture of solidarity. Mama had been unable to make it up the garden for the ceremony and was sprawled flat on the floor in the uncomfortable way people in Thailand often do. She looked distressed and ill. Apart from the usual aches and pains and an arthritic knee, she’s in reasonable health with normal blood pressure but a long and hard life has left her in a fragile mental state. I only hope she now rallies.

Once again on watching this ceremony I was struck by the power of the spirits over peoples’ minds. There’s no question that the people here strongly believe in their malevolence and that this must quickly be countered with the necessary ceremony. I only hope Mama thinks this one will work for her as it’ll be immensely damaging if it doesn’t.

All societies hold a range of beliefs, whether in the spirits of nature and the ancestors or in the delusion of a monotheistic god. We do all have to ask ourselves about the meaning of life but for me it’s better to draw a blank than irrationally to build my life around the wrong answers.

In the meantime I can only look on and say nothing and of course pay for the alcohol and the other offerings to the spirits. I only hope it does the trick and that Mama is soon well again.

Andrew Hicks The “Thai Girl” Blog July 2009

Friday, 24 July 2009

Two Men Went to Mow!

Our 'garden' in a mess when the house had just been built.

Looking better when the soil had been laid a second time after the rains.

And looking at its best with the lawn resplendent some time ago. I can't even bring myself to photograph it again for this blog as it now looks so dreadful and neglected. Here's the story!

Two Men Went to Mow!

Do I still suffer culture shock when returning from a trip abroad to our home, a small rice growing village in the North East of Thailand?

After a couple of months away, this time visiting friends and family in England, Sweden and France, getting back to our house in the village has taken a little adjusting to. Having lived in my wife, Cat’s, Isaan village for several years it’s not culture shock exactly but on giving up all that London and the South East of England offers, I realize I do lose something by living here.

Not only that, but once here in rural Thailand, I again face the challenges of getting things done across an ocean of linguistic and cultural hang-ups. Apart from the fact the spiders and mildew have taken over, as always much in the house is broken… the upstairs shower and tap hardly flow, the roof is leaking again, light bulbs are broken and not replaced, switches not working, the gutters blocked and overflowing and as always when I go away the lawn mower is tragically injured and in a serious condition.

By living here I am of course excluded from my own language and culture, I have no newspaper, no television, no foreign friends nearby, nobody except Cat I can talk to (even the English teachers in the school who I know well have never uttered a word of English to me), and I have no farang food to speak of. I could happily get by on Thai food but here it’s invariably Lao and Suai food which are viciously hot and bitter. So I’m now really missing the fine foods of France, the cheese, the red wine, the confit de canard that Cat and I so recently indulged in.

Big C in Surin, our nearest proper shop, does have bacon and a few small packets of cheddar cheese (when not sold out), but it’s half a day’s expedition to go there and for the few pale imitations of western foods on offer it’s really not worth the effort. Better that I do without the pizza full of sugar and chilli, the cake whose icing is so greasy you could pack a bearing with it and the sweet pastry that’s surprisingly filled with pork. Quite rightly it’s all aimed at Thai tastes and so I’d better forget about my own cuisine and get by without any.

There is thus much cultural self-denial for me living out here, though in spite of that the one thing I do insist on is having a lawn.

It’s a strong cultural thing that Englishmen do generally love their garden and over the last few years I have duly tended the grass around the house, constantly pulling out weeds and cutting it weekly until I have what looks now just like an English lawn. Mow the grass and the place looks crisp and wonderful. Neglect to do it and it looks just awful.

Trouble is whenever we go away it’s impossible to get anyone to cut the grass properly as it’s just not important and when we got back, once again it’s long and overgrown and the ‘garden’ is in a total mess. They’ve cut it a few times while we were away, but just as I asked them not to, they’ve let it get far too long which doubles the work and it’s now more than my small suburban mower can reasonably cope with to cut it back again.

As always happens whenever we’re away the grass at the back is only half cut (yes, the petrol ran out) and the mower’s a basket case, and I’m the one who’s going to have to sort it all out.

But ‘mai pen rai’ says Cat’s brother Saniam who’d promised to keep it cut while we were away, he’ll now get it cut for me in no time.

He owes me one does Saniam as it’s not so long ago I paid heavily for his ‘get-out-of-jail’ card when they slung him inside for three months for being drunk in charge of a Honda Dream. Though I know I’ll still have to pay him for whatever work he now does and that I’ll be clearing up everyone’s mess around the house for the next few weeks anyway. But yes, he’s dug this hole by not keeping the grass short so why shouldn’t he sort it out.

First thing is to get Saniam to cut some of the longer grass with a sickle as the mower’s simply not going to cope with it that long. I ask him to do this but he goes and does something else instead. He spends half a day cutting the undergrowth on the vegetable patch and he looks shifty each time I ask him to spend an hour or two to make it possible to run the mower over the ‘lawn’.

Next day old uncle appears and on about my tenth request he and Saniam cut back the longest grass which uncle puts in sacks for his buffalo. Then unbidden, Saniam starts clearing all the cut vegetation from the veggie patch and spreading it across the lawn where I know from bitter experience it will stay indefinitely. Even an unused veggie patch is more important than a lawn which has no utility at all.

Confronting this issue, I ask him to clear all his mess of cuttings off the lawn so we can make a start mowing the whole area but he goes and does something else instead.

This stand-off lasts overnight until, realising that the dry weather is about to break, I become more insistent and again ask him to clear the lawn of the mess he’s made.

Over the next few hours I ask him perhaps another five times, each time varying the request as if it were for the first time. Finally I gather up the bulk of the cuttings myself and put them in a pile on the overgrown vegetable patch where they can happily remain or be burned.

I then miraculously find the rake (my tools are usually scattered and hanging hidden in trees) and finally clean up the lawn and suggest to Saniam that it’s time to start the mower.

I smell something sharp on his breath and as he pulls the starter, comically he topples and falls over onto his back. The Briggs and Stratton engine starts first pull for me and I try a run through the grass but all is not well. Pushing the machine in front of me it’s impossible not to notice that the exhaust system is rattling all over the place and is about to fall off. One of the two fixing bolts has shaken loose and disappeared while the remaining one is about to do the same.

Which is exactly what happened last year with the petrol tank. This is likewise secured by two fixings and one of these had come loose and had fallen off so that the tank was rattling around and as a result had split along its top. I replaced the missing screw and someone had now wedged a stick tightly under the broken tank to support it.

But why do they let bolts fall off like this… a turn of the screw, as they say, saves nine. But no, it seems normal around these parts to watch a machine as it disintegrates, to wait until the bolt falls off into the long grass, to allow it to self-destruct and then shove it away in a corner to moulder. Why tighten anything up or do anything if it’s still running?

In my book, “My Thai Girl and I”, on the advice of a friend, I removed a cynical chapter about the incompatibility of man and machine in my village. In fact I published the chapter on this blog (see Is This Chapter Unduly Negative? 9 Feb 2008) and asked you for our opinion on it. Despite almost all the twenty or so opinions that reached me being positive about it, I nonetheless decided to omit the chapter as I didn’t want to take any risks.

Instead I included a section called, “Mai Pen Rai and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance” about how motorbikes are unmaintained and lethal and only get attention when they stop… and these recent experiences with the mower now bring all my cynicism flooding back.

Anyway, back with the story… the exhaust is now fixed and I give the mower a quick run but it’s cutting very poorly. The height settings on all each wheel are set at different heights, far too low, but soon this is fixed. So the problem must be the blade itself.

To get underneath the mower, Saniam tips it up the wrong way and black oil pours out of the sump. I then show him to tip it spark plug side up and I gaze in horror at the blade. It’s battered and bent, bowed upwards like the prop of a crashed Spitfire and even worse it’s been fitted the wrong way round.

Six months ago I’d had it serviced in Surin at a place apparently specialising in mowers. He’d managed to change the oil but failed as asked to sharpen the rotary blade, to clean the filter and plugs and replace two of the bolts holding the engine to the chassis that my helpers had watched fall off into the grass. And he’d then told me the blade was on the wrong way round and said he’d correct it.

The net result is that it’s now fitted wrongly, spinning round upside down with the blunt side cutting or not cutting the grass and the sharp side doing nothing as the trailing edge. No wonder it’s not cutting properly.

Saniam gets my tools to take the blade off but unfortunately its retaining nut is seized pretty tight. Using the wrong spanner and breathing fumes (which makes me relieved there’s no spark), he soon has the shoulders of the nut stripped smooth and useless and still it’s flatly refusing to turn. I realize it’s time to call for help and I also realize that the sump’s totally dry, the oil hardly registering on the dipstick so we’ll need some more oil.

Eventually the mower comes back to us from across the road, reputedly in working order and I ask Saniam to get it started. But no, he says he’s going to take the pile of cuttings from the vegetable jungle round to the front of the house and dump it all across the road instead.

It’s not for me to tell him what to do as I’m not his father, I’m only paying him, but I tentatively suggest he uses the big barrow that’s standing beside us to carry the cuttings and stuff out of the garden. But no, he says, he’s going to carry it all by hand. This he does, ostentatiously doing it in as few runs as possible, the massive armfuls hugged to his chest meaning he can’t see where he’s going.

Because he’s now carrying far too much, only a small percentage of the grass and foliage actually reaches the front gate. Most of it’s now spread in a swathe across the grass we’re supposed to be about to cut and across the front lawn and entrance drive. Though the barrow would have delivered it quickly and cleanly, it’ll be at least half an hour’s work to clear it all up again.

There’s no use though asking him to rake any of it up so we can start the mowing, even though the main idea’s to give him a bit of work and some cash in his pocket, so I pick up the rake to do it myself and the handle promptly breaks.

In the fullness of time Saniam fires up the mower and does a few runs into the jungle of my beloved ‘lawn’ before the petrol tank finally gives up the ghost when the lug for the securing bolt finally and terminally sheers off. It’s now totally impossible to cobble it together, so a new tank will have to be ordered from Milwaukee.

Until now, I’ve really loved lawns and mowing. It’s really close to my heart and something I should be able to enjoy in Thailand. My Thai family think I’m a little deranged making such a fuss about the grass but it’s the one thing culturally that I’ve tried to cling onto here. I can do without food and English language media and things if I have to, but a tidy lawn round the house should be so easy, so possible, so satisfying.

In England I had a mower with a Briggs and Stratton engine and it was still pegging along after twenty years hard use when I left home to mow eastern lawns, but only a week or two seems enough to destroy them here. It’s not the mower’s fault, though would it be rude to say they’re not entirely ‘foolproof’?

When I’m in the village I do of course do all the mowing myself and I don’t let anyone touch the mower if I can help it, but perhaps I’m asking too much for even trying to have something distinctly my own out here.

But why’s it so difficult to get people to complete so simple a task for a few weeks without wrecking the machinery?

When paying someone for a day’s work is it offensive to tell them what you want done? Should I just let them do whatever they feel’s most important in the garden? Have I been unduly pushy or made unreasonable demands?

I’m really not sure why I get into these intense psychological games with Saniam in which he tries so hard to do the opposite of what I want him to do. Of course it’s partly that he hits the bottle too early in the morning, but the situation’s far from unique… I remember I had a very similar problem with a pleasant guy called Boat who’s a cousin of Cat’s.

I’d got him to paint the wall at the front of the house. From upstairs I could see that the top of the wall had never been painted and so I’d been to some trouble to take a hose and ladder and scrub it clean for painting. I therefore wanted Boat to paint the top so I took the ladder and asked him to do it.

Throughout the day I noticed that he hadn’t yet done it and I gently reminded him a couple of times. Later in the day I saw that he’d put the ladder away and I asked him if he’d done the top and he said he had.

But no, he hadn’t painted the top of the wall and it still remains unpainted today!

Perhaps I should give up trying even in small things, and as Kipling famously said, “A fool lies there who tries to hussle the East”.

Such are the setbacks every time I return to the village when once again I face the realities of living in a culture where I definitely do not call the shots.

Or am I over-reacting to my own frustration? Is my portrayal of the people around me unduly cynical or unfair, like the chapter in the book I was persuaded to remove. In living here should I instead give in on absolutely everything and, as I postulate in the book, take a Buddhist stance, stop striving and ‘go with the flow’?

Having myself lived in West Africa far too long ago, I very much enjoyed reading a series of novels about the colonial era by Joyce Carey. One was called, ‘Mister Johnson’ and was about the fraught relationship between a colonial District Officer and his eponymous clerk in Northern Nigeria. The books were hysterically funny but the big controversy about them is whether they fairly depict the predicament of a D O trying to cope with his cultural entanglements (Carey himself had been one) or whether the novels are a racist diatribe that mocks the stupidity and cussedness of their African characters.

Now writing about living in a small village in Thailand, I face the same dilemma. I want my stories be funny and to evoke the frustration that’s sometimes felt, I think, by many expats when trying to get things done here. To balance any possible negativity though, I have to exploit the humour of the situation to create an affectionate portrait of my life in the village.

I wonder therefore how my book, ‘My Thai Girl and I’ and this story about the miseries of mowing now come across to you, my reader.

Do you have any thoughts or Comments about this or on your own experiences in Thailand? I’d love to hear from you.

(For info about the book, see www.thaigirl2004.com.)

Andrew Hicks The ‘Thai Girl’ Blog July 2009

Monday, 13 July 2009

Just Like a Rolling Stone

This festival in the south of England is always a big adrenalin rush.

The Audi 'sculpture' in front of Lord March's family home.

Noises in the front garden... a Merc goes up the hill.

Tony Dron who I well remember at school far too long ago.

But who's this? Answers please by posting a Comment below!

Tomorrow Cat and I fly back to Bangkok.

It's been an amazing couple of months during which we've stayed with friends and family in Petersfield south of London, in Taunton, in Lapford near Exeter, in Stockholm, in the Charente, the Correze and the Morbihan in France, up north near Leeds and finally in Shrewsbury and Kidderminster. In total we've driven three thousand miles so Papa really is a rolling stone.

They call me Papa in Thailand and I'm not sure I like it too much and I'm dreading the day somebody stands up for me on the bus or Skytrain. Meantime I'll keep travelling and I'll take inspiration from one of the drivers at the Goodwood Festival of Speed who's still going fast at eighty years old.

The festival is an amazing celebration of motor sport and the car and I always love it for being so in-your-face. Burning clouds of carbon and truck loads of cash, it's so non-PC but such fun.

Cars from every possible era of motor sport in the hands of drivers equally historic tear angrily up the drive in front of Goodwood House, the home of super-toff and petrol head, Lord March. They push them hard though it's not too serious, just an excuse for the sounds and the smells and for the world's greatest gathering of the motor car made fire breathing monster and art.

It's good too that you can get so close to the cars and I managed some good shots of Tony Dron at the wheel of an eight cylinder Mercedes-Benz of 1937. My contemporary at school, he's had an exciting life as a motoring journalist and racing driver and at six foot five looks every bit the part.

Even more exciting was to see and hear one of the heroes of my childhood in another pre-war Mercedes, now aged eighty. His picture appears above.

Bearing in mind what a rolling stone fails to gather, do please post a Comment and tell me who he is.

Andrew Hicks The 'Thai Girl' blog July 2009

Friday, 3 July 2009

A Pretty Couple.. Who Are They?

This is one of me after a good night out nursing a massive hangover.

... and of me having problems with my computer.

More seriously, can you tell me where these carvings come from?

On my travels through life I love to collect things along the way, things that remind me of my experiences and of the special qualities of the place.

This often means buying attractive artefacts and handicrafts, though it's increasingly dificult to find something that's old but not just made for tourists. Anything that's more than a few decades old usually comes with a high price because the locals know its worth.

Strangely some of the nicest ethnic antiques that I've found have surfaced not in their place of origin but in Europe. As a result they weren't so expensive as nobody knows what they are or where they come from.

In an antique shop in Topsham, Devon I bought a delightful pair of wooden carvings of a husband and wife in traditional dress, at a broccante in Auray in Brittany a baleful red mask and at a car boot sale in Taunton, Somerset a fine tribal mask.

All are old, all are of good quality and none of them is mass produced for tourists as far as I can tell. My problem is I don't know exactly what they are or where they came from.

Of course I do have some idea, but can you please add a Comment telling me their origins. Someone out there knows or can suggest where I could send the images to have them appraised.

They are all beautiful things but they would mean much more to me if I knew exactly what they are.

They might even be worth something!

Andrew Hicks The "Thai Girl" Blog July 2009