For a Rotund Guy…

January 29, 2013

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.

 

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The Burmese School of Lang Suan (a few final thoughts)

January 29, 2013

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.


Burmese Children’s Day 2013

January 25, 2013

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.

 

"Tiptoe thru the tulips with MEEEEEEE..."

Tuptim contestant No. 1

Tuptim Contestant No. 2

 

None of that girly stuff for this cool customer...

 

Colin surveys the troops from the sidelines...

 

This gal could capital-D Dance!

 

...as could this boy, who did a very cool robot-step I cannot begin to describe!

Tuptim contestant No. 3

 

"Danger; Explosion Imminent!"

 

The patiently-awaited moment of gift-giving...

 

"Gifts, schmifts! Gimme some grub!"

 


Khae’s Fall From Grace

January 24, 2013

Friday was to be our day for gathering provisions. All the toys were on hand for the kids, but there were still lunches to be ordered, ice cream to be delivered, balloons to be inflated, and so on. The previous day, Koi had scampered up a leaning ocean-side coconut palm tree

Ta-DAH!

to pose for pictures, and Khae decided to give that a try Saturday morning. It proved to be a bad move, as she lost her balance and dropped about eight feet to the ground, landing on her bottom. She was in a good deal of pain, which I could easily relate to after a similar fall last year from a moving motorcycle; her fall was a greater distance, mine was onto pavement, neither was any fun. I gave her a couple of extra-strength ibuprofens from my travel stash, but they didn’t seem to bring appreciable relief. By mid-morning, she decided it was time to go to the emergency room of the local hospital, and we gently moved her to Colin’s car for the twenty-minute ride. The waiting room was quite full, so we shifted Khae to a wheelchair and settled in for the duration.

Not the preferred mode of transportation!

The orthopedic surgeon, purportedly en route by plane from Bangkok, never showed, and finally Khae was admitted to see a general practice resident, who gave her a prescription for muscle relaxants and a four-day reprieve from work. “Is there anything else you’d like?” he asked.
“How about a month off?” Khae countered (remember that…). I was asked to wheel her into the nurses’ area where she would receive an injection for the pain. I guess the nurse thought we were married, as she didn’t even hesitate for a moment in pulling down the back of Khae’s jeans a fair bit to give her the shot. A better man would have modestly looked in the other direction, but I was taken by surprise, and the sad fact is that I am not a better man. If a photo of this existed, and I am not suggesting that it does, I would never put it in the blog. Just saying.

On the plus side, the injection seemed to alleviate the pain, and by the time the bill had been paid (about $2), Khae was able to move about on her own, and make transitions from sitting to standing and vice-versa much more easily. A bit more than a day later, on Saturday night, she and Koi would make the eight-hour-plus train trip back to Bangkok, followed by a twelve-hour bus trip to Chiang Mai, arriving just in time for work (which, of course, Khae had a doctor’s exemption from) on Monday morning. Instead, she used the day to pay a follow up visit to her usual doctor, where x-rays showed that she had broken her C-12 vertebra. She was ordered immediately to bed, and the doctor told her not to plan to return to work until a month had passed, an ironic and uncomfortable lesson in “be careful what you wish for”.

As I write this, I am in Chiang Mai (the blog runs a consistent ten days or so behind), and I saw Khae yesterday. She is doing a lot better. She is wearing a lower back brace, but she can walk around some, and she is okay to ride in a car. Her spirits are good, and the nature of her work is such that she can do much of it at home. She gets around reasonably well, although there are a few things that still give her pause, like reaching up to wash her hair; bending over, fuhgeddaboutit!


The Bruce Tierney / Colin Cotterill Saga Continues, January 2013

January 22, 2013
Last year about this time, while on a trip to Thailand, I had the opportunity to visit author Colin Cotterill, a long-time favorite of mine thanks to his Dr. Siri series of mystery novels set in 1970s Laos (The Coroner’s Lunch, The Curse of the Pogo Stick, and enough others to keep you busy for quite some time). Another writer friend, Timothy Hallinan, no stranger to Thailand his own self, engineered the meeting, and expressed a great deal of envy that he was stuck in LA and unable to join us. As it happened, I arrived at Colin’s house just in time for the annual Children’s Day at the local Burmese school that Colin founded several years ago. It was a profoundly moving experience for me to spend the day in the company of thirty-odd Burmese refugee kids who accompanied their parents across the border to Thailand in search of work, often without the benefits of papers or permission. Colin and his team, of which I became an ad hoc honorary member, led the kids through games of musical chairs, concentration, and stomp-the-balloon-attached-to-the-other-guy’s-ankle-before-he-can-stomp-yours. There was music; there was something resembling dancing. There was fingerpainting, which morphed into body-painting, as fingers were used to scratch an occasional itch or to poke a classmate. Lunches were provided, followed by mounds of chocolate ice cream, as much of which ended up on the outside of the students as on the inside.

In the normal course of things, these kids sleep on floors, eat rice and vegetables (if they are lucky), dress in hand-me-downs. Essentially, they have nothing, yet they are some of the most engaged and gregarious human beings I have ever met. I was pretty humbled.

So—fast forward to 2013. I am once again taking my midterm break from Japan in Southeast Asia. I flew into Bangkok about ten days ago; as usual, I had no plan. I did, however, fire off an email to Colin before I left, and was pleasantly surprised to find out that this year’s Children’s Day would be taking place two days after I arrived in Thailand. Colin suggested that I get in touch with his adopted daughter, Nok, and take the train down the coast with her group, all of whom were going to participate in the festivities. Nok was amazing: when she found out that I was coming, she arranged a hotel for me for the night before our departure, accompanied me to a great local restaurant for a late supper, and secured a train ticket for me. It was like having a travel agent, translator and personal assistant all rolled into one. I imagine I could have managed all that on my own, but not without considerable gnashing of teeth and tearing of my few remaining hairs.

Nok and Khae, Supper at Colin's

Oh, I almost forgot: Nok also arranged an early morning taxi for us to get to nearby Hualumphong Railway Station, from which we would catch the train to Lang Suan, some eight hours south of the capital (by “some eight hours”, I mean some number between the scheduled eight hours and the rather more likely eleven or twelve). The taxi ride was pretty amusing. Nok and her friends Khae and Koi were in the back seat of the tiny Toyota Yaris, stuffed beneath monster plastic travel bags full of toys for the kids. I sat up front, my two carry-ons in my lap. In a few minutes I would find out that this was but the tip of the iceberg: the trunk was full as well, and my services as an indentured bearer would be required. We hefted bag upon bag to trackside, heaving a collective sigh of relief before making overdue introductions.

I had met Khae last year, and although her English was a bit fractured (still much better than my Thai), we got along great. She had (and has) a warm smile and a warm heart. She also has a wicked sense of mischievous humor, displayed most prominently when we were playing the card game UNO, the object of which is divest oneself of all the cards in one’s hand. Every time I would get down to my last card or two, Khae would drop a “draw four cards” card on me, give me a soulful wince, and say one of her best-pronounced English words: “Sorry!” She almost looked believable. Almost.

Khae, the girl whose mischievous smile suggests she is not the least bit sorry...

The newcomer to the group was named Koi, a pretty girl from the north who speaks very good English, switching seamlessly from Thai to English and back, often within the same sentence. I would discover that in addition to her facility with languages, she could display the organizational skills of a Marine drill sergeant, but I am getting ahead of myself.

Koi cuts into a durian, which smells basically like fermented sweat socks

Late in the afternoon, four weary travelers alighted the train in Lang Suan; by the time we finished loading our stuff into Colin’s small Toyota truck, we lacked only an elderly woman in a rocking chair to complete the Beverly Hillbillies effect to a tee!

Khae, Koi, and Colin, plus one overloaded Toyota Mighty X


Seven Gods Revisited, January 2013

January 21, 2013

My second adopted New Year tradition since I have been in Japan is the early January pilgrimage to the temples of the Seven Gods, in search of blessings for the year ahead. Each of the gods exercises dominion over one or more of the important facets of life: health; wealth; relationships; etc. To the best of my recollection, the gods are Hotei, Bishomon, Ebisu, Sneezy, Dopey, Sleepy and Doc—but don’t quote me on that.

At the first temple, you buy a shikishi card, a gold-trimmed piece of handmade board, upon which the seals of the seven temples will be affixed, one by one as you visit them. It is a self-guided tour, and you can undertake it in any order or direction you choose, taking as long as you like to complete the circuit. Once your card is fully stamped, you can get $2 off a Big Mac set at McDonald’s. Okay, just kidding about that part. When the card is completed, you display it in your entry hall, in case one of the gods should appear at your door in disguise, like some celestial trick-or-treater. I’ve saved all my old ones, just in case.

This year, we had a new addition to the revelers, onee-chan Yuki, home on holiday from art school in Milan. Dressed in her best bohemian black, Yuki went from temple to temple with pen and pad in hand, dashing off quick studies of each. She’s pretty good, actually, and I will be happy to act as her agent, should you want to buy one of her paintings or sketches!

 


First Sunrise in the Land of the Rising Sun, 2013

January 19, 2013

It has become a New Year’s Eve tradition for me to set off on a bus tour with Saki and Masako to some scenic vantage point from which to watch the first sunrise of the New Year. Each time, the comfy tour bus has been filled with well-oiled revelers who became progressively more well-oiled with each passing hour. The schedule is usually some small variation on this theme: leave Tokyo around 9pm; drive for a couple of hours during which the conductor prattles on incessantly, every so often occasioning applause or group expressions of sugoi (kinda like “wow”) or suburashii (wonderful), which I join in enthusiastically, despite the fact that I have no earthly clue what she has been talking about; arrive at the first rest stop, a necessary evil as most of the passengers are of an age that they need the washroom facilities rather more often than they used to, and then of course they need to top up their diminished blood/alcohol ratio soon after (in the digital age, I tend to think of this as biological downloading and uploading).

Before midnight we arrive at a temple, where white-robed priests will literally ring in the New Year using a striker about the size  of a truncated phone pole on a bronze bell that would make the Liberty Bell look like (and undoubtedly sound like) a weak sister. Everyone bows, prays, dispenses five-yen coins into conveniently located receptacles, and mouths slurred but well-meaning wishes of akemashita omedeeto (Happy New Year) to one another. Then in orderly Japanese fashion, everyone files back to the bus for a snooze before sunrise, and perhaps the first tiny drinkee of the New Year. Around 4:30am, the bus driver, possibly the onlyperson on the bus besides yours truly who is not totally in his cups, starts the grumbly diesel engine, and we make our way into the night—to the ocean, perhaps, or to a vantage point west of Fuji-san, from which the sun will illuminate the mountain from behind, slowly turning the snow-capped peak a lovely shade of pale rose pink as the first sun rays pierce the eastern sky.

 
Cynic that I sometimes am, I nonetheless continue to find this scene incredibly renewing and unspeakably beautiful. Happy New Year, everyone!