Paul addressing the crowd using fluent Thai!
Sunrise on my morning commute. The nice color is courtesy of smoke from burning-off sugar cane fields.
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While roosters in the US clearly articulate the call “cock-a-doodle-doo”, Thai roosters begin their day at 3:00 am exclaming “ehrkha-ehrkha-aughhhhh” sung with a vocal quality somewhat more scratchy than that of a lifetime cigarette smoker. I’ve had much opportunity to study this.
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It’s cool season in Thailand, which means it maybe dips down to seventy five degrees Fahrenheit at night. I sleep on the floor with a large fan blowing at me full blast. It helps to get to sleep if upon retiring I wet a bandanna with ice water and park it on my forehead.
This makes the weather of the past 72 hours all the more bizarre. There was a stupendous midnight rainstorm that pounded our corrugated tin roof. The wind picked up. The temperatures plunged to the fifties. Last night I rode my bike home while being misted with ice water.
Our family eats meals as we sit on the floor, bundled in blankets. The wind howls under the roof, dislodging carbonized bits of sugar cane leaves, deposited there over the months as they burn off the fields after harvest. Black smudges are everywhere: the bowl containing my Maah’s wonderful cooking, my computer screen, the baby’s face. A friend commented that this the coldest weather he’s seen in the eight years he’s lived in central Thailand. Must be global warming, he said, digging his hands deeper into his jacket pockets and chuckling.
To quote Al Gore in An Inconvenient Truth, it’s about global climate change, not just its warming. Is there anything Al Gore said in that film that has turned out to be factually wrong? Anything
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It’s Sunday the 24th of January. Paul and I had planned a Skype call with Brian and Bill this morning because Saturday night was supposed to be our first shared night. But there was a logistical hitch (it’s really impossible for two old guys each with bad backs to spend the night together on a 24 inch wide, two inch thick pad on a tile floor!), so we missed out first “conjugal”. So first thing today I attempted to Skype with the Brian and Bill via an inadequate cellular connection. Because of the bad connection, they ended up typing questions, most of which are pasted below along with my responses.
- Can you tell us more about where you are?
- We are both in the province of Singburi, staying with separate host families for nine weeks. I am in the Amphur (District) of Bang Rachan and the Tambon (Subdistrict) of Ban Cha. Paul is in Amphur Khai Bangrachan, Tambon Pho Sangkho. We are in adjacent areas, but about an hour’s bike ride from each other. Paul is with a small family along a river; I am with a large one in an agricultural area.
- Bang Rachan and Khai Bang Rachan have historical significance because as the Burmese were invading the rest of the country, there was a strong pocket of resistance here which managed to push back the Burmese. There are statues here of the heroic resistance fighters.
- What have you been doing?
- This has been a transitional week, leaving the comparative sanctuary of the hotel on Wednesday and moving in with our host families. Wednesday was really nerve-wracking as we ate the last lunch in the hotel and watched as the parking lot filled with Thai families. Our noses pressed to the glass, we each wondered which one was there for us, like characters in a sappy orphanage movie.
- We spend about half of our time in groups of four with one language instructor, trying to learn Thai. Paul’s group, the “Youth in Development” volunteers, meet in a different town than we English teachers do. Some of the instruction is classroom-based, and some is real-world; one day we walked about a large market and learned names of food items; another day we rode our bikes to each others’ homes, met each family, and cultural exchanges (food, dance, song) (happily long on the food and short on the song & dance)
- How are your language skills?
- Pretty good in the classroom, but terrible in the real world. We are learning Central Thai, but my family doesn’t speak it. There are subtle variations I’m sure I miss, and obvious ones, like reversing Ls and Rs.
- How far do you have to bike into the city?
- For me it is about 30 minutes into the training hub, along a medium sized highway, then a huge one. I turn on every blinky bike light I can find and the Thais laugh at me, but at least I’m sure they see me.
- What kind of things do you do during the day?
- Our housing area is a compound of several homes and a common central area next to a part of the building that’s on stilts. It provides shade and a place for hammocks. Kids toddle about between the women, who are either happily talking to each other in Thai, and/or laughing at me for my attempts at doing the same. I seem to be an endless source of amusement. This morning I went for a short run, attended-to every minute by my host father on a bike wrapped in a sweater with a fuzzy blue balaclava (temperatures plunged to the seventies with a powerful rain overnight; everyone is all bundled-up). Then my host brother guided me through using the small plastic washing machine and hanging up my clean clothes.
- What kind of toilet does your family have?
- The bowl part is Western, with no tank behind it. You flush by using a plastic bowl with water dipped from a large masonry tank. The protocol is then to utilize the same bowl and your left hand to, ahem, clean yourself après defecation. After an inaugural experience at this, I have since consistently cheated: I use Kleenex and store it in tightly-tied little plastic bags which go into my backpack and end up in the waste can at school.
- There is a larger tank, too – several hundred gallons. There is a different Tupperware that you use while taking and “aap naam” or shower (squatting on the floor and dumping water over your head). All the water goes to the tile floor where it quickly drains out of a hole in the corner.
- How many people are in your family and what is the land like?
- Still not sure where my family ends and the neighbors begin, as everyone is always hanging out everywhere, and everyone seems to like to hang out and laugh about the things the strange new American has done or tried to say. “Dozens” is the best I can come up with. The land is a lot like central Minnesota — flat, rolling — with sugar cane, rice, palm trees and blasting heat instead of corn, oak trees and snow.
- Language skills, as in they’re teaching you?
- My host family is great, but not very instructional. They’re farmers, not university professors. Their language training techniques consist of repeating the same words louder and louder with their faces closer and closer to mine. The intention is fine even if the pedagogy is weak.
- How sweaty is the biking?
- Except for today, it is as hot and humid as you can imagine, and I am instantly soaked. I ride in my fluorescent-orange biking shirt and I bring a change of clothes with me.
- No Buddha, just the picture of the king?
- Lots of pictures of the king; nothing Buddhism-related in this home. Many agricultural area houses seem not to have the prayer houses and shrines you see in more densely populated areas. Paul’s Maah (and Paul) give food to the monks who come with a cart every morning, and in the evening she guides Paul through ritual bowing and candle-lighting before an image of the Buddha. He politely obliges in the interest of cross-cultural exchange, and, well, because he’s Paul.
- Is the cockfighting a family thing, or just one or a few people? Is the cockfighting a hobby, or source of income?
- The cocks are a source of great pride for my host brother, and he spends a lot of time fussing with them and caring for them. I’ve not yet seen him take them away for a fight. I attempted to talk with him about the fights, but he was somewhat not forthcoming—either because of our language mismatch or because though cockfighting is legal, the gambling associated with it is not. I hear from a reliable source that a competent cock can bring its owner about $5,000 baht — about $138.
- How is the family food?
- Splendid! Rice, of course, and plenty of fish so fresh that there are several now splashing in a tank next to me as I write this. Eggs, and chicken, and vegetables, usually all stir-fried in a wok my my host mom, squatting before a small coal-fired burner. Eggs and chicken are artisinally-sourced: from the coop next to the outdoor cooking area.
- How do the kids play?
- They don’t have toys or balls. Mostly young girls shyly hang with their moms, and a few toddler boys scramble about in the dirt area where everyone hangs out, doing things little boys do – whacking the dirt with sticks, etc.
- What will you do with the rest of your day now?
- Laundry, ironing, studying Thai, being the main source of amusement. After my run this morning I rolled-out the yoga mat and went through a few routines to try to bring some relief to my bad back – I soon was surrounded by family who thought the whole routine was the funniest thing they’d ever seen in their lives.
- Will you see Paul again today? Or not enough time?
- We need special blessing from the Peace Corps to travel to different Amphurs, so we will not see each other until our next conjugal on Saturday. Hopefully, we will have a mattress by then!
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