Lotsa photos, not lotsa text:
Lotsa photos, not lotsa text:
One of the first evenings I was in Chiang Mai, I went out to supper with Koi and her friend Anisha, to a wonderful restaurant called Khao Soy, which, to no one’s particular surprise, specialized in a northern Thai dish called khao soy. The company was especially sympatico, the conversation was agreeable, the food was delicious. On the wall behind the girls were what appeared to be two large woodblock prints of mountains, so I got up to have a closer look. I liked them both quite well; they reminded me of a Japanese artist named Hideo Hagiwara, who did a series of thirty-six prints of Mt. Fuji.
The artist’s name was Wattanapong Yothaitiang. I snapped photos of his prints, and of the attached cards with the artist information. The price of each print was 15000 Thai baht, around $475, not inconsiderable, particularly for someone I had never heard of. On the other hand, I really liked the prints, and thought that if I could get in touch with the artist, I could perhaps negotiate a better price, especially if I were to buy several. So, later in the week, I went back to Khao Soy with Khae, Sukie and ChingChing, and asked Khae to find out the artist’s phone number from the restaurant owner. This proved to be no problem at all, and shortly thereafter Khae phoned to Wattanapong to see if he might be available to meet with us.
He proved not only to be available, but he offered to pick us up the following day and drive us to his studio, where we could have a look at his large selection of prints, paintings, and drawings, some of which were still in process. His woodblock prints differ in technique from Japanese woodblock prints in that they are printed from a single block, where Japanese prints utilize many blocks, one for each of the colors in the print. His method is called reduction woodblock printing, because for each new color to be added to the print, he must cut some of the original block away (hence “reduction”).
Wattanapong, who nowadays goes by the rather easier to pronounce nickname “Det”, picked us up at a temple in town, and the four of us (Det, Khae, Allyson, and I) headed back to his house, the entire first floor of which serves as his studio. He showed us his bio sheet, which is really impressive: works in several museums in Thailand; first prize in a couple of major Southeast Asian printmaking competitions; and he was the recipient of a gift from the Princess of Thailand in recognition of his artwork.
I wound up buying a dozen of his prints, smaller ones than the ones at the restaurant/gallery, but similar in imagery. Allyson was quite taken with two of his designs, and she bought both (one, destined for her mom, I particularly liked; it depicted a night scene with a hazy moon, that Allyson was sure would resonate strongly with her parental unit). As I thought might be the case, the artist-direct prices were more favorable, and I was really happy to be able to get that many prints from him.
Det proved to be an exceptionally affable soul as well. Although he spoke little English, he was gifted with warmth and good humor that transcended language barriers. Khae translated as we went along, and we all had quite a pleasant afternoon. His wife was with us for most of the time, and she was really sweet too, always ready with a smile. When it came time to leave, we all piled into Det’s Honda Jazz and made our way back to Khae’s house for supper.
Some of the prints will be for sale, and I will split the profits with Khae, without whose help the whole affair would never have taken place. If we make even a couple of hundred dollars on the batch of twelve, it will make a significant difference in Khae’s lifestyle. And, of course, she will be the go-to person for further purchases from Det, of which I expect there will be many!
Note: if you haven’t been following Mysterious Orientations closely for the past several days, it will probably make a lot more sense to you to start with the post dated January 22, 2013, titled “The Bruce Tierney/Colin Cotterill Saga Continues”; that way, you won’t have to skip back and forth to see who is who (and, as they say in Thailand, wat is wat…). Okay, they don’t really say that in Thailand, but it makes for a good story, ne?
If ever a title were deserving of the chance to catch your eye on a bookstore shelf, it would have to be Colin Cotterill’s second book featuring on-hiatus crime reporter Jimm Juree, Grandad, There’s a Head on the Beach. I have been afforded what must be a unique opportunity for a book reviewer, to stay at the author’s house on the Gulf of Siam, to “interview” him (and I use the word interview extraordinarily loosely), and to meet a number of the two- and four-legged characters upon whom characters in the novel were based.
This second installment (a third is due imminently) in the Jimm Juree series finds our heroine embroiled in two concurrent mysteries. The first she almost stumbles upon, when she witnesses one of her adopted canine friends playing with what appears to be a shrivelled ball on the beach in front of the family’s coastal guest house. As you might guess from the title, said ball turns out to be a human head, and its discovery launches Jimm into an investigation of a Thai fishing fleet that may be exploiting, and sometimes killing, Burmese laborers who have come to Thailand in search of a better life. Meanwhile, a mother-daughter duo, apparently on the lam from the law (or something worse) show up at the guest house in a car devoid of license plates or identification numbers, and a very flimsy-sounding explanation for all of the above. Naturally, for an on-hiatus crime reporter, this is a story that merits some delving into.
As is the case with the previous Jimm Juree novel, Killed at the Whim of a Hat, the characters are particularly well fleshed out, based as they are upon real-life individuals. The dogs in particular, all of whom I became well acquainted with, are exceptionally well drawn; if you met them, it would take only a short time for you to figure out which was which, just from the personalities ascribed to them in the book. The true number of dogs, however, lags behind reality in the book, as there are several recent additions to the family. Jimm Juree, as far as I can ascertain, is not based on a particular person, but rather an amalgam of others, spun into a cohesive whole that is self-effacing, engaging, and by times laugh-out-loud funny, not unlike the author, come to think of it.
Sadly, the plight of the Burmese fishermen that forms the basis of the book is far from fiction. They live in what could be described as tenements, if you were being charitable, working for pennies, eating rice and vegetables. Still, many of them, like undocumented workers the world over, make the pilgrimage to the greener pastures of the wealthier next-door neighbor.
A final note: In the first book of the series, Killed at the Whim of a Hat, Colin Cotterill used the whimsical device of beginning each chapter with an actual quote from former US President George W. Bush, one of the many in which the sometimes tongue-tied orator made a hash of what he had intended to say. This time out, each chapter begins with fractured song lyrics, along the lines of the famous Jimi Hendrix line from “Purple Haze”, “scuse me while I kiss this guy.” In the appendix at the end of the book, you can find the actual lyrics, in case you’re interested: “scuse me while I kiss the sky…”
Khae (pronounced “Kay” with a slight cough at the beginning) was about half the reason that I decided to come to Chiang Mai. After her nasty fall at Colin’s place the week before, she had gotten a doctor’s excuse from work for a month. She was in a fair bit of pain, and had somewhat limited range of movement (she couldn’t bend down to pick things up, and reaching above her head, to wash her hair, for example, was nigh on impossible). I thought I would spend some time with her and try to cheer her up, and perhaps give her a hand if she needed it. In the event, she didn’t need a lot of assistance, but she seemed happy to have me around for company, and we talked about everything under the sun, cementing a friendship that had started warmly but haltingly a year before. Khae arranged for me to meet, and hang out with, her “gang”: ChingChing, Sukie, and Fang, and then later on, an American girl named Allyson. Khae is the de facto earth mother of the group, the go-to confidante, the kind-hearted gentle spirit. This is not to say that she cannot get a bit grouchy by times, but it takes her longer than it it takes most folks I know to reach that threshold. She made sure that I saw all the must-see places in Chiang Mai, for which I will be forever grateful, as it is really one of the loveliest places I have ever visited. Breaking news: Khae just hooked me up with a Thai woodblock print artist, who is really great; I bought several of his prints, and I anticipate buying quite a number more for sale in Japan and the US.; Khae will be my Thai contact for purchase/shipping, etc. The full story of this will appear in Mysterious Orientations within the next few days; bookmark this page!
Koi (pronounced more or less like it looks, but the K sound is about halfway between a K and a G) was the second half of my initial reason for visiting Chiang Mai. We had talked for some length at Colin’s house, and I looked forward to the chance to get to know her better. Although Koi works with the others, as c0-worker or mentor, she runs with a different group. So it was only once or twice during my stay in Chiang Mai that I was in the company of all of them at one time. If you have been following Mysterious Orientations, you will remember Koi as the “Great Organizer” who shepherded a group of Burmese youngsters into a well-trained play unit, despite the fact that Koi speaks not a word of Burmese. While the others were in class or at work, Koi and I would often go out for breakfast, and we managed to make time for an occasional afternoon chat or supper as well. Koi has a dream to open a guest house in her late grandmother’s traditional Thai stilt house, located in a mountain village outside Chiang Mai. The house adjoins a working coffee plantation, and guests during the winter harvest season could actually pick their own beans, roast them, grind them and brew a cuppa in the space of a short stay. For Java-heads, this would be an unparalleled experience. The problem is that the startup money, while quite modest by Western standards, is kind of monumental by Thai standards. We have looked into kickstarter-like organizations to see if there are some funding options, and I am confident that she will have the place up and running by next harvest season. She is attractive, engaging, motivated and hard working; how can that not be a winning combination?
ChingChing (pronounced Shing-Shing) was our designated driver, piloting the crowd around Chiang Mai in her new dayglo lime green Nissan March, a small four-door car we get in Japan, but not in North America. I loved it; it is roomy and smooth riding, and it seats four more comfortably than my considerably larger Honda Civic, even though the exterior size is roughly the same as my Mini Cooper. Ethnically Chinese, ChingChing is really beautiful: perfect makeup; a great sense of style, and a photographer’s dream, as you will see from the many pictures I took of her. Many pictures, you ask? Well, yes, because ChingChing is also something of a ham, making flying leaps in between my camera lens and whatever I think I am taking a picture of at the moment (I am slightly, but only slightly, exaggerating here). Although her English is virtually as limited as my Thai, we managed to communicate very well, as her expressions telegraph every thought going through her mind; she made me smile constantly, and she made me laugh out loud more than anyone new to my life has in quite some time.
Sukie (pronounced just like you would think) was, in many ways, the group member I related to best. Where the others are all super-feminine, Sukie is a bit of a tomboy, yet warm, affectionate and exceptionally centered. When one of the others would channel her inner drama queen, it would be Sukie who would step in and calm the situation down. It was as if her motto in life was “go along to get along”, and when I explained that saying to her, she grinned and tapped her heart twice in a “that’s me” acknowledgement. Despite 40-odd years and a dozen time zones separating us, we shared an affinity for off-the-beaten-track music, and were able to turn one another on to lots of new (to us) stuff. Her tastes are eclectic: Lily Allen; Boys Like Girls; Hikaru Utada; traditional Thai music; LMFAO. And yet, she was entranced by Richard Thompson, Matt Andersen, Howie Day, and REM, none of whom she had encountered before. Because Khae was in some discomfort, she sat in the front passenger seat of ChingChing’s car everywhere we went. My spot was the place I would typically refer to as the penalty box, the center position of the rear seat, with Sukie to my left and the passenger(s) du jour on my right. Sandwiched as I was between several attractive young women, I was forced to reconsider the term “penalty box”. Often we would arrive home late, and I would have one cuddled up on either side of me, sound asleep, and not the least bit inhibited about using my shoulder as a pillow.
Allyson, the American member of Khae’s “gang”, hails from southern Alabama, but you would never know it from listening to her. A bit of interrogation about that unearthed the fact that she had gone to some lengths to shed the accent after being teased about it in college. Nowadays, you’d think she was from LA. We met one evening at a supper outing at some very local eatery, the kind with plastic tables and chairs, kids and dogs wandering among the diners, and curious locals surveying us with an equal mix of curiosity and amusement. On the menu, slotted in between more prosaic offerings, were scrambled brains and some unidentified raw meat dish I immediately dubbed “rat tartare” (and which I opted not to partake of). Allyson sat across from me, and as we were two of the three native English speakers at the table, we fell into easy conversation. For a woman in her early twenties, especially one from southern Alabama, she has an impressive number (and variety) of stamps in her passport: Thailand and Kenya among others. She occupies a volunteer position teaching English at Payap, a Christian university in Chiang Mai. She receives a small stipend plus a room in the women’s dorm, and she will stay for the remainder of the school year. Early on, we discovered about one another that we both have a love/hate relationship with writing, and both of us have to drag ourselves to the chair every time we feel the need to write. We chatted about favorite books, writers we admire, and so on for the better part of the evening. After that night, she was a regular member of our ad hoc group, and we had the opportunity to talk at length about pretty much anything: travels (naturally), family, boyfriends and girlfriends, religion. One of the peculiarities of foreign travel is that sometimes friendships can be sealed in a matter of hours or days, as opposed to the rather longer gestation period of a hometown relationship. Perhaps it is because there is an innate honesty shared among fellow travelers; after all, if you show someone your true colors, and they don’t like you, in a few hours or days one or both of you will be on the road, and you will never have to see one another again. On the other hand, if you really resonate with one another, you fast-track your way through the learning phase, and find yourself inextricably bonded with someone you didn’t even know a few days earlier. This is how it was for me with Allyson, and I’m pretty sure how it was for her as well (I hope so…).
Fang (pronounced something like “Fon”) is for me, the conundrum of the group. There are two distinct sides to Fang: the slightly rambunctious, flirtatious and outgoing public persona, and the warm, curious and introspective private persona. Having met her twice before, and exchanging only the briefest of pleasantries, I was really surprised to find that her English was quite good, perhaps the best of the group (hence my earlier comment about not putting too much stock in first impressions). As you can see from the pics, she is adorable, but if you ask her what she thinks of herself she will respond with “too fat”, “not beautiful” and the like. That said, she is almost as much of a ham as ChingChing, regularly asking to be photographed alongside charming hill tribe children, or next to one of Chiang Mai’s myriad exquisite sights. Often she would look at the photo and ask dubiously “Am I beautiful?” Naturally, the skeptic in me had a sense that I was being played, so when I took this photo…
and she asked me “beautiful?”, I took a critical look at the picture and said, definitively, “Beautiful…flower”. This earned me a slap to the back of the head, which I no doubt deserved. That said, on my last day in Chiang Mai, as we arrived at the train station literally one minute before the scheduled departure of my train to Bangkok (which, oddly, turned out to be perhaps the first on-time departure in Thai railway history), it was Fang who was running alongside me down the platform to my sleeping car near the end of the train. Hustled onto the train by an impatient conductor, I never had the chance to give her a goodbye hug.
Shortly after I got settled in on the train, I received a phone call from Khae’s number. One by one, the Girl Guides of Chiang Mai came onto the line to say the goodbyes we had missed out on at the station. Allyson was last to the line, and she told me that there wasn’t a dry eye in sight, which I could easily believe; a similar situation was playing out on the southbound train.
True to her word, Koi picked me up at Chiang Mai train station sometime around dawn, a good hour and a half before she’d normally have had to get up for work. Even if I hadn’t liked her before (and I quite liked her before), this would have strongly endeared her to me. She was driving a full-size 4-door Isuzu pickup truck, with a growly diesel engine. We sat half again as high as most of the rest of the car traffic, and it was easy to imagine ourselves piloting a HumVee through the back streets of Baghdad, on high alert for snipers. We stopped for coffee and croissants en route to my hotel (which Koi had booked for me, and which was the nicest hotel I had stayed at in Thailand to date). Large room, two thick and fluffy bath towels, silent aircon, and limitless hot water. Pricewise, it was a bit upscale from my typical Lonely Planet-esque digs, but well worth it for my planned few-day stay. I was able to check in early, around 930 am, and I immediately availed myself of a shower, testing (and affirming) their claim of limitless hot water. This put me in the mood for a mid-morning nap, after which I poked around my neighborhood, the Muslim Quarter and the adjacent Night Bazaar, which, despite itss name, was alive and kicking by midday.
Koi phoned me later on, suggesting supper at a riverside restaurant run by a friend of hers. Across the river, the city lights twinkled, reflecting in the calm waters. Accompanying us were Khae and three of her friends from Payap University: ChingChing, Sukie, and Fang. As far as I could ascertain, Khae’s friends had limited English at their disposal, an impression that was borne out by the fact that they sat at one end of the long table and spoke in Thai, while Koi and I chatted in English at the other end. This would turn out to be a reiteration of a lesson I seem to keep forgetting: don’t rely too strongly on first impressions!
As it turned out, by “few-day stay” turned into a nine-day marathon. It was lengthened thanks to a bit of stupidity on my part: after it proved impossible to secure a sleeper car on the return train to Bangkok, I opted for the second best choice, a VIP bus. A note: people in Thailand (and Japan too) customarily speak languages that have no “V” sound, so when they pronounce “VIP” it comes out sounding something like “Bwee-eye-pee”. I tried to explain that the “V” sound can be made by putting your top front teeth against your lower lip, and blowing air through the opening while making an “uh” sound in the throat. I might have well been explaining this in Swahili. Or Martian. So, back to the VIP bus. It turned out there wasn’t one of those available either. All that was left was a standard bus, which is comfy enough, I guess, but which does not have personal movie screens, gratis snacks, and an attentive hostess. There is a hostess, but she is not attentive. Khae went ahead and booked that for me, suggesting that we hold off paying for it until that evening; with luck, in the meantime, there might be a cancellation on the train. We had until 11pm to pay for the ticket. Not to telegraph the ending or anything, but at 11:09 Khae looked up from her winning UNO hand and let out the Thai equivalent of “aargh!”, correctly making the observation that the window had closed for paying for the bus ticket, and I had lost my booking. This created some difficulty: as originally scheduled, my Wednesday night bus would have gotten me to Bangkok on Thursday morning. I would have hustled over to the Cambodian embassy to obtain my visa, which would be ready early Friday, and by Friday evening (in a perfect world), I would have been drinking 50-cent Angkor draft beer at a Siem Reap sidewalk bar. Missing that bus meant that I would be stuck in Bangkok over the weekend awaiting my Cambodian visa on Monday, which didn’t appeal strongly, so I bagged the whole idea and wound up staying in Chiang Mai for an extra four days. This was no hardship whatsoever, as Chiang Mai is one of the loveliest places I have ever visited, and nobody has ever had more charming guides!
12:45, scheduled departure time from Bangkok’s Hualumphong Station to Chiang Mai. We are still in the docks; there is no sign of train personnel anywhere that I can see.
1:15, train pulls out.
2:00, some food is coming around; it looks like some meat, might be chicken. On a bed of rice. I ask what it is. “Jut mooment,” the vendor replies. He hustles off toward the end of the car to confer with his counterpart a dozen rows away. He is back a minute later, his face illuminated by a big grin. “Rice!” he says, giving me a broad and rather unexpected wink…
2: 15, going by some industrial-looking area now. Could be Newark, but for the palms.
2: 40, here are some bougainvilleas about the size of apple trees, no kidding. Bougainvillea is one of the few flowers I recognize, along with such other obscure and little-known flora as the rose, the tulip and the orchid…
3:15, We are coming into the country. It’s flat here. Kansas flat. Flat as a Neil Young rendition of the Star Spangled Banner. (Note: I really like Neil, but perhaps more in rock-anthem than national-anthem mode…)
3:25, lovely scenery punctuated by occasional railway stations, teeming with after-school activity.
4:05, hawkers move up and down the aisle, offering cold drinks, some fruits that I have never seen before, in-shell peanuts, and Thai renditions of popular American snacks: Lai’s Potato Chips; Rit Crackers. I am pretty sure that two of these folks are ladyboys. The two cutest ones.
4:15, one vendor after another, in endless procession. Sometimes, like now, they get bunched up when one gets a big sale or when somebody is headed the opposite way toward the bathroom. By the way, the “commode” is simply a hole in the floor. If you look into it, you can see railroad ties and gravel beneath you. Prior to this, it has never occurred to me to time a bathroom break, but I would hazard a guess that this is the longest pee of my life, in distance if not in duration (60 miles per hour, for forty-five seconds, yields a distance of 3960 feet, by far a personal best; at this advanced age, who’d have thought?).
4:45, a flock of egrets stands guard at the edge of a rice paddy, their reflections standing on their heads in the water. We pass by so quickly I have no time to turn on my camera and snap a shot. It sounds as if there should be a haiku made from that
“Egrets reflected; we pass too fast for photos; %&*#^”
(Note: to fit the haiku form, in which the first line must be five syllables, the second, seven, and the third, five once again, please substitute the excised swear words with five syllables of heady language of your own. The possibilities are endless; use your imagination.)
5:15, across the aisle from me sit a monk in saffron robes and another man with whom I exchanges pleasantries in English. He says he is 43 years old, but he looks about 28. It is the Asian way, I think. In Japan, when girls hit about 13 or 14 years of age, they all look like they are eighteen. They then manage to continue to look 18 until they are about 30, at which point they look perhaps 24. This carries on through at least their fifties, during which time they appear around 35. When they hit their eighties or thereabouts, they accelerate strongly, and begin to take on the appearance of dried apple dolls, but by then, who really cares, right? Anyway, my new friend shows me photos of his sons, ages 9 and 12, who will both undoubtedly look 28 when they are 43, just like their dad. He recommended an elixir for good health, and I took down the recipe just as he said it, or at least as I understood it: 8 eggs, one bottle of Diamond-something (which can be gotten at Foodland), leave in a plastic bag in the sun for either five or nine days (presumably this depends on how healthy you wish to be), and some lemon sugar. If you decide to try this, I will not be responsible for any errors in understanding or transcription.
6:55, fields are burning left and right. There is something controlled about the whole affair, although I’d be hard pressed to say exactly what. I have been prone to a nagging cough off and on this trip, and the smoke isn’t helping matters, but it is such a beautiful contrast against the dusky sky that I seem predisposed to liking it (not that my liking it or disliking it affects things one iota; I just don’t want to be a curmudgeonly traveler before my time).
7pm, six hours and change in my half-seat; my butt is thoroughly numb. Not Comfortably Numb, like the Pink Floyd song, but Thoroughly Numb. Thoroughly Numb Bum. Ah, another haiku:
Aspens and needles (think about it…); shifting takes concentration; thoroughly numb bum
Where are all these haikus coming from, you ask? I think they must stem from my all-time favorite haiku, one which, sadly, I didn’t write:
Haikus, so poetic; but sometimes they don’t make sense; refrigerator.
10:45, my chubby seat mate has finally detrained, at some station deep into the Thai outback, a station so small that it didn’t even have it’s name written in English, unless by some chance it was called “Toilet”. At last, some stretch-out space. My grandma always told me if I couldn’t say something nice about someone, I shouldn’t say anything at all. I wracked my brain looking for something to say about the woman with whom I had spent the last hours in intimate, if unwanted, contact. This is what I came up with: for a fat girl, she didn’t sweat much. I guess it served me right that some one else got on board at the same station, and that she had been assigned the seat next to me for the rest of the trip into Chiang Mai. At least this one is smaller. And cuter. May be a ladyboy, though.
Too dark to read my watch, must be 6-something in the morning; we pull into Chiang Mai station. Koi told me to phone her whenever I got in, and she would pick me up. I wrestle with the notion of phoning at that ungodly hour. I phone anyway. I wake her up. Fifteen minutes later, she is at the station, looking bright-eyed in a way I never could have, even when I was her age.
We shoulda checked the train schedule last night. Thai trains, unlike their Japanese counterparts—well, let’s just say you cannot set your watch by them. Maybe not even the date. When we got to the station about twenty-five minutes ahead of the scheduled departure time, Colin went into the office to find out if the train was on time. When he returned to the outdoor bench where I was waiting, he grinned and said “Only fifty minutes late,” as though this were a good thing.
“Fifteen, one-five?” I asked hopefully.
“Fifty, five-oh,” he responded.
(1st shoulda: shoulda phoned ahead and checked whether the train was on time.)
Oh well. In the event, the train was only about a half hour late (thus actually early in its lateness, timely in its untimeliness), so goodbyes were somewhat truncated, ameliorated slightly by the fact that I will likely see Colin once more this trip, sometime in February.
I had secured a sleeping berth, thereby eliminating what might well have become the second shoulda, thus consigning my tired bottom to some
plastic-covered seat whose springs were in the rusty autumn of their useful lives. I got an air-conditioned upper berth, which, wonder of wonders, was sufficiently long for my non-Asian reclining length, and wide enough for my seriously non-Asian girth. The aircon was about what I have come to expect in Southeast Asia, not unlike walking into a SubZero stainless fridge in a loincloth (note: in that example, it would be me in the loincloth, not the fridge, despite the misplacement of the adjectival phrase). Thoughtfully, the railway company provided a blanket, thus eliminating what would have been my third shoulda.
It was the fourth shoulda that was the killer, though. I shoulda planned just a wee bit ahead and gotten a berth for the fourteen-hour train ride to Chiang Mai from Bangkok. Failing that, I shoulda at least booked a cloth seat in an air-conditioned train car, as the outside temperature hovers at about 30 degrees Celsius (somewhere north of 90 degrees Fahrenheit). So, remember that apocryphal plastic-covered from a couple of paragraphs back? Well, that is where I am sitting just now, squirming from time to time to adjust my bottom just so, avoiding the one spring that lies in waiting just below the surface of the vinyl cover. Shoulda…
We left Bangkok about two hours ago, and as near as I can tell, we are in (wait for it…) Bangkok. The city has not given way to countryside yet. My seatmate is a woman in the, um, matronly Polynesian mold, giving me a further reason to squirm in my seat, at least the half of it that is not occupied by her left thigh. This is not by way of complaint, I hasten to add. Give me a few more hours until I get to that stage. For now, I will enjoy the hot breeze, a cold drink (Birely’s Orange: think Fanta Orange, minus the fizz, and add about two tablespoons of sugar; but hey, it’s cold!), and the healing powers of travel writing.
From almost the first moment that Colin Cotterill and I laid eyes on one another, our acquaintanceship has been characterized by an easy back-and-forth banter, usually at one another’s expense. Forget your phone? Drop your keys? Don a shirt so loud that even Jimmy Buffett would cringe? Head for the passenger side of the car in Thailand without realizing that it is in reality the driver’s side, thanks to the right-hand steering wheel (guess who did that?)? Do it at your peril, for it will certainly come up in conversation at some later time, and with the requisite amount of embellishment that you might expect from folks who eke out livings as writers.
At the beginning of my stay, the “T-Belt” warning light flashed ominously in the instrument panel of Colin’s aging Toyota Mighty X pickup (this is the same vehicle as the Tacoma pickup in the US, albeit with a seriously puffed-up moniker). “What is a T-Belt?” he asked me, with some trepidation.
“You’re a guy and you don’t even know that?” I countered, scornfully, channeling my inner Tim Allen. I went on to explain its function to him, possibly incorrectly, figuring what the hell, he’ll never know. He did, however, schedule an appointment with the local Toyota dealer for two days hence. This presented a problem: the girls had gone home, so there was nobody to drive the second car to take him home after he dropped the truck off. Although I drive a motorcycle and a bicycle on the left side of the road in Japan, I was a little leery about driving a car on the “wrong” side of the road, particularly his nice shiny new Honda (and double particularly in Thailand, where the only rule of the road seems to be “me first”).
“I’ll just throw a bicycle into the back, and ride it home after I drop off the truck,” he said.
“Sounds cool,” I replied. “Mind if I come along?”
He looked at me dubiously. “It’s kind of a long ride, maybe twenty kilometers.”
No worries, I thought. I have ridden that far and farther many times in Japan. We noted the odometer reading when we left the house: XXXX26.3. Every so often I would steal a glance: XXXX39.7; XXXX44.2. He caught me once and said philosophically: “Too late to turn back now.” When we got to the dealer, the odometer read XXXX55.1, just shy of thirty kilometers. In all fairness, we would go back a slightly shorter way, but it was still a pretty long ride in the heat. I got off to a slightly rocky start: first I caught my pants leg in the chain, and then I suffered a flat tire, the rear one, naturally. The first was easily sorted, and thanks to the ministrations of a kindly stranger with tools, so was the second.
The rest of the ride went without a hitch, a nice ride along back roads dotted with temples at every turn.
Total elapsed time: just over an hour. Although I was a bit sweaty from the heat, I wasn’t winded at all. As we drank long pulls of cold water by his kitchen sink, Colin looked over at me and paid me a Colinesque compliment: “You know, for a rotund guy, you’re not entirely unfit.” I may have to get one of my quilting cousins to make me a sampler with that saying embroidered thereon for posterity.
I was put in mind of something my Uncle George told me shortly before my first-ever date: “Be sure to compliment her looks or her outfit. And make sure it is not a backhanded compliment, like ‘for a fat girl, you don’t sweat much’.”
I am now compiling a list of compliments to be doled out in Colin’s direction the next time I see him, for instance: “As English guys go, you don’t seem totally gay.”
Coda: When it came time to pick up his truck, I followed Colin home in his shiny Honda and I didn’t crash it or anything. No compliment was forthcoming.
The Burmese school in Lang Suan, Thailand, is a beautiful example of what one concerned human being can accomplish upon seeing a need in his community and addressing it. Colin probably wouldn’t tell you any of this unless pressed to do so, but I am not operating under any such constraints.
Out of his own pocket, he rented a small one-room concrete building in a none-too-great part of town, hired a couple of Burmese teachers, and put out the word in the Burmese community that a school was now available for their kids. Because some or most of them are there illegally or quasi-legally, the kids were not eligible to enroll in Thai schools, and even if they had been able to, they’d have been woefully out of synch by virtue of speaking little or no Thai. Now, though, they have the opportunity for an education in their home language, even though they are living far away from home. Colin pays for the rent, the utilities, the teachers’ salaries, the incidentals.
Last month, the school became the first Burmese-language school outside Burma to secure accreditation from the Burmese government, meaning that kids who finish, say, 4th grade in this school are eligible to pass into 5th grade in Burma when they return home. This is huge, and completely unprecedented.
I have to say, this is the sort of ground-zero effort that really resonates with me, much more than dashing off a check to the United Way.
The problem, and it is a problem shared with many such schools, is that the shoestring budget does not allow a lot of extras. The kids go through supplies (crayons, pens, pads, etc.) like the proverbial hot knife through butter. A larger screen TV would be wonderful, so that thirty-some students wouldn’t be huddled around a laptop screen to learn lessons or watch a recess-time DVD. A nutritious school lunch program would be a godsend. If the spirit moves you and you would like to help out in some form or fashion, email me, and I will put you in touch with the principals. You will be supporting an exceptionally worthy cause, and a bunch of sweet and deserving kids will thank you profusely from afar.
Early Saturday morning we made our way over to the school, about a 20-minute drive from Colin’s seaside house. It was a two-car convoy, or I should say, one car and one truck. Colin’s diminutive Honda Brio, tinier than any Honda sold stateside, would accommodate only four, and we were five. Also, don’t forget the aforementioned containerload of toys, games and snacks. The kids, dressed in their Sunday-go-to-meeting best, applauded as we arrived. I wanted to do a rock-star fist-pump and yell “Hello, Lang Suan” (cue the applause…), but discretion won the day. The little girls were all made up with rouge and pink lipstick, and the whole place had the look of the dressing room of an amateur production of “The King and I.” A dozen charming Tuptims smiled shyly and waied, a kind of quick curtsy combined with a palms-together praying hands gesture. It’s an incredibly charming effect.
It didn’t take long for us to be absorbed into the group. Although the kids don’t speak much Thai, and virtually no English, they were quickly whipped into shape by Koi, who was apparently channeling a drill-sergeant previous incarnation, this despite the fact that Koi speaks not a word of Burmese. In short order, she had the kids singing “Hello hello, how are you? You are my friend and I love you…” What it may have lacked in melody and harmony was more than made up for with exuberance and volume.
I recognized some of the kids from last year, and clearly at least some of them recognized me as well. One of the older boys, a stout fellow of about 12 or 13 named So, quickly demonstrated leadership potential, so he was drafted to provide Burmese explanations of the rules of the various games on offer. Since last year, the kids had become quite a bit more adept at gamesmanship. As an example, during last year’s game of musical chairs, quite a number of the kids proved most willing to share their chairs with their competitors when the music stopped, an unanticipated display of team spirit in a distinctly non-team sport. No such largesse this year, however; it was every man (or woman) for himself (or herself), and woe to anyone, participant of bystander who got in the way.