Thursday, 1 October 2009
No Bamboo In Bamboo Land
Living in the back of beyond in rural Isaan, apart from English newspapers and farang food, there’s not many things you need that you can’t get hold of quite easily. Although there’s bamboo everywhere, including in our back yard, there’s a strange shortage though of stuff made from bamboo.
Yes, you can get pre-Ikea knock-down chip board furniture everywhere and fold-down steel kitchen tables that are totally hideous. But if you want attractive bamboo or rattan furniture for an exotic Eastern look you might as well forget it!
For the locals of course, wicker or rattan smacks of the past and they much prefer fifties chip board chic, but the strange thing is that functional bamboo furniture can be seen everywhere. It’s quite nice and all the little grass roofed eating places in town use it… but can you buy it here?
Not a chance?
After we’d built the house, I’d always wanted a decent bamboo table and chairs so we could eat out on our downstairs verandah, but they’re simply not available anywhere. This puzzled me so I worked on the problem as intensively as a CIA spook for three years until I discovered the truth. Bamboo furniture comes from a bambooish sort of place in Ubon province about three hours away and you can only get it there. Apart perhaps for a few roving pickups loaded to the sky that come round the villages, you can’t buy it here.
Ultimately therefore, three years on, despairing of my old jeep, I had to buy a new pickup and drive to Ubon and find the bamboo shops myself in order to fulfill my farang dream of eating off bamboo furniture.
This minor frustration was recently mirrored in a severe marital tension that has occurred between me and my sweet though straight talking wife, Cat. Just before leaving for a trip to see my family in England the rains began early and it seemed that the gutters round the house were blocked with leaves, probably from the eucalyptus from next door. The result was that they were overflowing in the worst of the downpours and water was cascading down the front of the house and onto my valuable bamboo furniture and precious antique ox cart.
“Cat,” I say to her desperately, “We must get gutter man in to unblock the gutters”.
“Cannot,” says Cat. “In Sangkha not have gutter man.’
“But we only need someone with a ladder who can get up there and do it in a few minutes.”
“But in Sangkha nobody have ladder. I ask already at all the shops.”
I quietly seethe in frustrated disbelief, silently accusing Cat of not being bothered about this disaster and telling me what she wants me to hear.
So it seems that Surin folk don’t do ladders then. When they built our house all those five years ago they did it without a ladder, instead standing on upturned paint tins and climbing painfully up the wooden scaffolding. And nobody in all the builders merchants in town knew of a gutter man, insisted Cat, even though they all sell guttering. And certainly nobody, but nobody in Sangkha has a ladder.
Seriously, Cat tells me, nobody has a ladder because they’re always made of bamboo and bamboo stuff’s made in Ubon and not in Surin.
So we flew off together to England leaving unblocked gutters and torrents of water falling down the front of the house. When we got back, like the mowing, nothing of course had been done about it.
I tackle Cat head on asking her to get it sorted and get one of those ‘kill-at a thousand-paces’ laser looks.
I’ll go and cut some bamboo from around the pond and make a ladder myself if I have to, I tell her. I’ll charter a helicopter to drop me onto the roof. I’ll clear the gutters if it’s the last thing I do… and given the height and the steep pitch of the roof, indeed it might be.
Then Cat’s brother Saniam, taking a break from helping us to cut the ‘lawn’ goes somewhere and walks back about five kilometers to the house carrying on his shoulder a short bamboo ladder. He tells me through alcoholic fumes that he’s going to stand the ladder on the low kitchen roof, climb up and over the top of the house and dig out the gutters for us.
I contemplate scraping his remains off the path at the back of the house and decide to put a damper on the whole thing. Drunk in charge of a ladder is not a good idea Perhaps tomorrow he’ll be sober, I fantasize, but no, it never happens and I soon notice that the ladder has gone.
Then one day I hear Cat’s frantic voice loudly calling me from the back of the house. It must be an invasion from Cambodia, World War Three or the pig’s escaped again. Then I hear what she’s saying to me.
“Andrew, gutter man come. Run, run quickly!”
I’m out of the house in a flash and at the gate and sure enough there’s a modern pickup with a ladder on the roof coming down the soi. Like many Isaan tradesmen, the man who does gutters drives far and wide looking for work, announcing his arrival with an intrusive loudspeaker that can be heard for hundreds of yards. Cat had heard him coming. This was the answer to my prayers.
But shock, horror… all he had on top of his truck was a short bamboo ladder!
Just like Saniam’s plan, this he perched precariously on the kitchen roof and in bare feet scaled up and over the house to clear out the gutters and repair a few leaks. I watched him climbing down again, the foot of the ladder stood on the steep slope of the kitchen roof. It was shocking to see the risks he was daily exposed to through his own casual attitude to life and death. And who would have to pay hospital bills or compensation if he fell? It would be me! Like when a motorbike runs into the side of your car, that’s just the way it works around here.
I’ve written before about the pleasure Cat takes in gathering wild food in the surrounding countryside. I’m quite proud too that we’re self-sufficient in obtaining our own drinking water and have so far lived to tell the tale. While many farang friends buy bottled water, releasing thousands of plastic bottles a year into the wild, we drink real organic rain water.
For six month it rains heavily and a peripheral purpose of the gutters is to channel the sweet water into the three vast ceramic storage vats we have around the house. These usually last us out over the ensuing dry season, so it’s a system that saves both the planet and my satang.
Of course the roof water’s safe, I tell myself. The air’s clean as there’s no industry with only the methane farts of buffaloes to pollute it, and I’ve never had a tummy problem from it.
But then while gutter man was still working away up top, I went around the house and saw the mud and gunge that he’d scraped out of the gutters, dropping it in heaps to the terrace below. I was truly horrified. We’d been drinking water filtered through the leaves and dirt of the five and more years we’ve been living here.
And why this extraordinary negligence with our well being and health? Essentially it’s because this is Surin and not Ubon and here they don’t make bamboo ladders. So that’s why until now we’ve never once managed to get the gutters cleaned out.
What might be a good idea would be for me to get in the pickup, drive the three hours to Ubon and buy a ladder so I can do it myself in future.
But no, I’ll buy ten of them at a good discount and I’ll cruise round the town and villages selling them. Then that way the ladder famine in Surin will in part be relieved.
While I’m at it I might as well get some tables and chairs and sell them too!
Andrew Hicks The “Thai Girl” Blog October 2009