Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Snack Time In Tahsang Village

Yesterday, Tuesday, we drove out to Tahsang Village to visit with the family.

The day before I had baked a pineapple upside down cake for Duang's son's birthday so we were bringing some of it to the village to share with some of the village children - especially Peelawat and Kwan.

Duang drove the new truck part of the way and did very well - much to my relief.
We arrived in Tahsang Village to find life going on just as it does every day. Various women and children were sitting on the raised wood platform with a thatched roof. While the women were busy talking and tending to the children, the children were busy playing with whatever they could get their hands on - empty plastic bottles, containers of powder, and plastic bags. There are not many toys available to village children.

We broke out the cake and the children including 8 month old Peelawat quickly devoured it. At about that time, Duang's oldest brother came by with his food cart.

Throughout Isaan, you will see food carts. Some food carts are pushcarts. Many of the food carts are side cars attached to motorcycles. Duang's brother has a typical side car food cart. He has a cart that has a small propane gas bottle and burner, unrefrigerated food case, a small ice chest, and a tray of various soda bottles along with plastic bags along with bamboo skewers. Sometimes he will also have a pot of soup or some other prepared food.

In the food case he had hot dogs, along with various meat based dumplings and turnovers. In Isaan the hot dogs are deep fried rather than boiled or grilled. The meat snacks are put on bamboo skewers placed in small plastic bags along with shredded raw cabbage to be eaten with chili sauce. To wash down the food, he sells small plastic cups of soda with ice from his ice chest. Duang bought food and drinks for everyone - 80 baht - $2.14 USD - a small price to pay to be able to photograph some of my favorite "models" - Fheng, Kwan, Mai, and Peelawat.

Most people in Isaan do not have photographs of themselves as children or photographs of their children. They have not been able to afford the luxury of photographs. This is quite different from my personal experience. I have many fond memories of going through my family album and listening to the stories from my parents related to the photographs. The album was filled with pictures from my parent's childhoods as well as my and my sister's early days. Duang does not have any photographs of her childhood and I have a sense of loss for her.

I know that I can not change the past but I believe that I can make the present a little better for some people in that regard. I enjoy taking photographs of the village children and then giving some prints to their parents.

It is not my intention to change Isaan to be like the America of my childhood. I only want to provide some joy in a small way to some people in thanks for all the joy that I have experienced here.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Isaan Funeral - 24 October 2009 (2552)

Saturday, 24 October, we went to see Duang's younger brother perform in a small village north of here towards the Lao border. He is an entertainer and puts on Mahlam Lao shows in the area. He is carrying on the family tradition from his father who used to perform shows and later taught many of the current local performers.

Mahlam Lao shows are performed to celebrate many events an occasions. We have attended shows that celebrated engagements, weddings, New Years, fund raisers for Wats, the start of the Rainy Season, the end of the Rainy Season, handicraft fairs, Monk Ordinations, "Thank You" from local politician, one year anniversary of a wife's death, - just about any and all reasons, justifications, or excuses to get together and have a party. Yesterday's event was a new reason for us - a funeral.

A village man had died three days ago. He was cremated at the local Wat earlier in the morning before our arrival at 10:00 A. M. Breaking from tradition, his family was having a party to celebrate his death rather than waiting a year. Many Lao Loum people wait for the first anniversary of the decease's death to have the party. This wait gives them time to earn and save money to pay for the celebration. The man's children had the money readily available so the celebration was held on the same day as his cremation.

The stage for the show was set up on a vacant lot across the street from the man's home. Three large awnings were set up in the man's yard and two awnings set up in the next door neighbor's yard. I suspect that the neighbor was also a relative as is pretty much the case throughout Isaan - families live close to each other. The village street between the two houses and stage was filled with vendors selling ice cream, soft drinks, and cooked foods. Further down the street and off to the side there was a "Jolly Jumper" type amusement for the children to enjoy.

The show started off pretty much as typical - some rocking music and go-go girls dancing. After about 5 songs, the show entered into what I call the traditional phase. During the "traditional phase" of the shows, the music is old time Lao. The rhythm is supplied by a wind bamboo mouth organ called a "khene". The khene makes a sound similar to harmonica and accordion and in my opinion - a little bit of bag pipe thrown into the mix. There is not much a melody to the songs but a definite hypnotic beat and rhythm from the khen. A singer accompanies the khene and sings traditional Lao music - folk music. the music is sung in a long drawn out style with many single words song out across a wide range of tones somewhat like yodeling. The music is definitely not for everyone's tastes. I enjoy its primitive tribal nature as well as its sense of linking to the past.

The songs appear to fall into two basic categories - laments of a dispossessed people living far from their family, a lost kingdom and culture, or lost love, the struggles of day to day living off of a poor land; the second category is free verse between a male and female singer with sexual intonations.

Today, apparently due to the reason for the celebration, there was not any free verse bet wen a male and female singer. The traditional music was limited to the laments sung by the female singer of the show. During one of the sadder songs, the youngest daughter of the deceased man, danced in her grief with a framed photograph of her father.

She had come back to Isaan from Bangkok where she works. This is very often the case in Isaan. To earn a living and to help support their family, young men and women leave Isaan to perform menial labor, heavy labor or to service the adult entertainment industry in the big cities outside of Isaan. This daughter had not seen her father everyday and had not taken care of him all the time so in her grief there was most likely some remorse as well as guilt. In Isaan, the youngest daughter is expected to care for her parents. In return for this burden and obligation, it is the youngest daughter who inherits the parent's property when they die. There are strong social pressures for the youngest daughter to "take care of her parents".

The deceased man loved to dance and particularly liked the song that his daughter was dancing to. The song was requested and dedicated to his memory so that she could make a personal goodbye. The song was about dying and all the people being sad at death but wishing him well so that he could rise and care for the people who had died before him. As the youngest daughter danced some relatives came up to join her for a while. They were giving her emotional support and telling her not to be sad because all people die. In Buddhism, death is seen as much as a beginning as an end. With the end of this life, there is the opportunity to start of a new life - hopefully a better life. It is the optimism of a possible better new life that the people celebrate and focus on. She was the only person that I observed to be noticeably grieving.

After the traditional phase ended, the show was like any other mahlam lao or mahlam lao sing performance - rocking music, go-go dancing, heavy drinking, and people dancing up a storm. Everyone was enjoying themselves immensely. People of all ages participated in the event. It was a family event.

After awhile, I ended up at the dead man's home. Underneath one of the erected awnings, men were assembling "basahts". Basahts are like spirit houses. These were made out of bamboo and banana stalks. Men had taken large banana stalks and peeled them to create strips of material that could be cut into decorative and ornate pieces to adorn the houses that are made out of woven fresh bamboo strips.

There were two of these "houses". One was for the dead man and the other was for his wife who had died prior to him. Inside of each of the basahts, sticky rice and other food items were placed for "Phii" (spirits, ghosts). On the table alongside of the bashats were offerings to the Monks such as sahts, tea kettles, candles, soap, matches, and pillows. Offering these to the Monks along with money would earn merit for the deceased people to help them on their journey to the next life. Merit will also be earned by the people who contribute to the offerings. Later in the afternoon the basahts as well as offerings were carried on the men's shoulders in a procession to the Wat. The procession was typical for Isaan - loud music, dancing, and drinking whiskey or beer. It was a celebration like any other more traditional recognized in the West as for happier events.

The basahts will remain at the Wat outside of the buildings for about a month. The offers will facilitate the acceptance of the departed into the spirit world. After the basahts have decayed to some point, the Monks will take care of disposing of them.

It may appear intrusive for a stranger who is the only foreigner at this type of event, who is a Christian and not a Buddhist let alone an Animist, to be walking around taking photographs. It may appear to us that way but not to the Lao Loum people. The man's family took me by the elbow and brought me closer to take photographs of anything that I wanted to. They were concerned about me having something to eat. People kept offering me beer and whiskey. I did not feel like a stranger or any bit uncomfortable for long. They readily and willingly answered all questions that I had - of course Duang had to do a great deal of translating! I am constantly amazed and surprised at the openness and friendliness of the Lao Loum people.

Towards the end of the afternoon, there was another religious ritual. The deceased man's family went up on stage and kneeled down facing the people. Two large photographs of the man and his wife were held so that the people could see. A large metal tray of food and drink as well as candles and some plant offerings were also on the tray. These were to help the man on his journey up. The relatives were praying as the female singer and khene player performed a traditional Lao funeral song. Once in a while, some of the people in the audience went up to the stage to offer condolences and money. It was a very touching and fitting tribute.

My brother-in-law then performed a requested song dedicated to the deceased man.

After what we thought was going to be a typical show but turned out to be another insight into the rich tapestry of Lao Loum culture and life, we returned home. Today as I finish this blog, I will go out and wash the new truck. After driving out to Tahsang Village the other day, the truck needs cleaning however according to Duang, the truck could not be cleaned for three days after it was blessed. I can't complain - it wasn't like when we moved into our house and had to wait for it to be blessed before we could ...

Friday, October 23, 2009

New Truck Blessing

We were up at 5:30 A.M. this morning in order to get out to the Wat near Tahsang Village in time to offer food to the Monks. After making merit, our truck was going to be blessed by one of the senior Monks.

On our way out to the village we stopped in Kumphawapi to buy some ready made food from the morning market. We then stopped at Duang's mother's house so that she could join us. Today was a holiday so the roads were not very crowded. Despite it being a holiday, the fields were busy. Farmers were busy harvesting sugar cane, preparing the harvested fields, and planting cassava in the former sugar cane fields. The sugar cane harvest has just started and is limited to small trucks - so far. Later in the harvest which will run well into the new year, large tandem trucks will take over hauling the harvested cane to the large sugar refineries.

Today we drove out to a Wat that I had not been to before. This Wat was set out in the middle of the sugar cane fields towards the flood plain. Duang said that it was very old and had been there for 100 years. As we drove along the dusty dirt road towards the Wat, we came upon a road crew. Local villagers - men, women and children were busy trimming the heavy vegetation from the side of the road and were busy - very busy filling in some of the many ruts in the road. Later men were in the trees cutting off branches. Some red, white and blue pennant flagging nothing to do with any delayed 4th of July celebration, they are also Thailand's national colors)lined parts of the narrow road to the Wat. Later I found out from Duang that the next day, representatives from one of the local bus companies were going out to the Wat to present a check to the Abbot to help support the Wat.

The Wat was very primitive but very impressive. It's beauty was in its simplicity. The grounds were very well maintained and filled with trees, flowers, and plants. The buildings were plain wood and cement block. Situated throughout the grounds were wood cages with various types of birds in them. Some of the birds may have been talking birds but I couldn't really tell - they may have been speaking Lao but don't know it well enough to distinguish it from normal bird squawking.

The entire grounds had been swept with brooms. It was more of a nature preserve than a Wat. It was very peaceful.

Some women were preparing the offerings of food for the Monks. Duang gave them our offerings and she went to a smaller building where there a senior Monk. he appeared to be the Abbot. Two other women were there to make merit. The elderly Monk was quite a sociable person. He talked and talked. It was obvious to me that it was small talk rather than any spiritual lecture or dissertation. Later it all made sense to me - the Monk's last name was Veeboonkul - Duang's family name. The Abbot was one of her many uncles! I often tease her about how many relatives that she has around here - today she had the joke on me! This also explained why her mother accompanied us out to the Wat.

After the Monk finally finished with the normal merit making ritual, he started the ritual to bless our new truck. Once again the ritual was more of an incorporation of Animist beliefs and practices than a true Buddhist ceremony. After having me open the truck front doors, the Monk walked around the truck counter clockwise while carrying a small plate with thin yellow candles on it, an amulet that we had received before from another Monk, and a small statue of some sacred religious person, a Buddhist ornament that we had purchased at a "special" Wat in anticipation of having a vehicle, small laurel type leaves, and some money on it. He also had a hunk of cotton rope with him. As he walked around the truck he was very carefully checking out the vehicle almost to the point of giving the truck the "evil eye".

Upon completing his circumambulation of the truck, Duang's Uncle climbed in and sat behind the wheel. He seemed to be imitating driving the truck as he was chanting so softly that I could not hear him. Upon completing his incantations, the Monk took the cotton rope and wrapped it around the steering column at the bas where it penetrates the firewall. At this point, the ritual hit a technical snag. The cotton rope was not long enough to tie around the steering column. As much as he tried, he could not bind the strings together. He called out to one of his lay assistants who rummaged through the small building before he finally came to the truck with some colored cotton strings that are used for Bai Saii rituals (binding the 32 spirits inside a person's body to ensure good luck and health). These strings did the job just fine - completing the loop and binding the spirits of the truck. I was busy photographing and filming the ritual.

The Monk then honked the horn of the truck three sets of three distinct and LOUD honks - completely taking me by surprise - much to Duang's amusement. Having scared the bajeepers out of me and most likely the spirits, the Monk pulled out a magic marker and drew three symbols on the steering wheel hub. He then focused on the headliner above the driver's seat. He seemed to be either praying or meditating as he drew a complex graphic on the roof above the driver's seat. I had seen this done before but the Monks had used a chalk paste. I surmise that Magic Marker is a concession to modern times and an effort at greater permanence. The Monk hung the two flower garlands that Duang had purchased from the Kumphawapi Market from the truck's rear view mirror. Having completed with the vehicle's interior, the Monk exited the truck and had Duang, Duang's mother, and me kneel on the ground in front of the truck. He grabbed a fairly large bucket of water along with a coarse reed brush. He circumambulated the truck three times sprinkling the truck as well as us with the water from the bucket using the coarse brush.

The ritual was now completed and the truck had been properly prepared for our use.

Back at Duang's mother's home, Duang glued the statue, amulet, and Buddhist ornament to the dashboard to ensure that the protection continues.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Buying A Truck In Thailand - Part 2

Over two month's ago, we ordered and placed a deposit for a new Toyota pick up truck.

Over a month ago we got a call from the dealer that we could have the truck with a 2500 cc engine in a couple days but for the actual truck that we ordered with a 3000 cc engine it would be another month. Duang's relative, the salesman, told her that people were only ordering the model with the smaller engine. It made no difference to me and I continued to want the truck that we ordered. When I did not understand the answers to the questions that I asked I decided to take matters into my own hands. Using the Internet, I found the phone number of the Toyota factory in Bangkok and called them last Friday. The customer representative took down all the information and promised to call either that afternoon or on the following Monday. The good news from my call was that he confirmed that the factory was producing the exact model that we wanted.

Yesterday afternoon, Wednesday, when the Toyota Rep had not called me back yet, Duang suggested that I call him back. I told her that I would call the next morning because if I called in the afternoon, he would only say that he would have to check and call me back the next morning. My strategy was to call him early in the morning and ask that he check so that he could call me back in the afternoon.

Today, before I could call Bangkok, we got a call from Duang's cousin, the truck had arrived at the dealership early this morning. We arrived at the dealer up the road from our home at 8:45 A.M. I had to sign about 12 to 15 different documents. After signing the documents, Duang's cousin gave me a paper with Thai writing on it and a bank account number. We walked across the main road to a branch of our bank and arranged to transfer the remaining balance for the truck from my account into the dealer's account. We were given a document confirming the transfer by the bank to return to the dealer.

We returned to the dealer and awaited the preparation of the truck to be completed. Everything that we had been promised was completed without reminding or asking. We were shown the various aspects of the truck. The dealer gave us a voucher for 300 Baht (about $9.00) to purchase fuel for the truck. This amounted to about 10 liters (3 gallons). Duang's cousin came with us to ensure there were no problems. We had 1,300 baht of fuel added and paid the difference.

We needed extra fuel because we had to go to Tahsang Village, Duang's home village. Once we left the dealership we could not stop. We could not stop by our home to pick up a camera. We had to go straight to Tahsang Village.

There were certain rituals that needed and had to be performed to ensure the safety of the truck and most importantly - us. I have written about the Lao Loum people maintaining and following many of their pre-Buddhist beliefs and this was to be another example of following Animist practices. Our home had to be "blessed" in a Brahman ritual along with Buddhist participation. In addition we had to install spirit houses on the property to appease the spirit of the house and the spirit of the garden to appease them and ensure that our home would be a happy home.

Animist rituals and practices exist for cars, trucks, and motorcycles. Upon exiting the dealership, I had to honk the truck's horn three times - I assume to signify respect for Buddha, Buddhist teachings, and the Buddhist clergy. Our route home took us to the first of the roundabouts in Udonthani - the one with a statue of the founder of Udonthani in the center. This man is worshipped by many people and often people can be seen circumambulating the shrine or making offerings. I had to honk the horn three times as we passed.

Duang called ahead to her mother to let her know the good news. As we approached Tahsang Village, Duang told me to take a different route into the village. We took the first left at the edge of the village and drove along the perimeter of the village until we came upon Duang's mother standing along side of the road. We picked her up and drove onto some one's property and parked the truck. I was instructed to beep the horn again - three times. Duang and her mother, took a small metal plate, fresh leaves sort of like laurel leaves (Bay Leaf), small yellow candles, and a bottle of water with a straw in it and walked a short distance to a shrine. The shrine wa not a Buddhist shrine - there were no statues in them. The shrine was a spirit house - Animism. There were Pahn Sii Khwan, banana leaf and flower arrangements, and garlands along with remnants of previous offerings inside of the spirit houses. Duang and her mother made their offerings and said some prayers to the village spirits to let them know that we had a new truck and to request their blessing as well as protection for the vehicle and its occupants.

From there we drove into the village to Duang's mother's home to pick up Peelawat, our 8 month old grandson. He was coming along with us across the village to the "outside" Wat that is located amongst the sugar cane and rice alongside of the flood plain. Peelawat liked the new truck and enjoyed watching me driving along the heavily rutted dusty road through the sugar cane and rice to the Wat. Upon driving through the Wat's gate I had to ... honk three times.

Inside the Wat grounds, we walked over to where two young Monks were relaxing with friends. Duang and her mother made merit and offerings to the Monks. One Monk came with us and unlocked one of the shrines so that Duang and her mother could make offerings and make merit inside. Peelawat and I stayed outside to enjoy the beautiful day. The oldest Monk, about 25 years old, came over to bless the truck and all of us with water. He dipped a rough brush made out of coarse reeds into an elaborate pressed metal bowl of water, and then sprinkled the water over the truck and us using the rough brush. This was an acceptable temporary measure until tomorrow morning - Duang says that tomorrow morning we will leave at 6:00 A.M. to go to a near by village where two old Monks are well known for taking care of new vehicles. I have seen this before and I will bring my camera to share the ritual. They will be writing on the headliner of the cab with chalk paste, and tying cotton strings around the steering column to ensure that the spirits of the car are bound to the truck to ensure that it runs properly and safely. They will also honk the horn three times as part of the ritual. At the end of the ritual a Buddhist statue will be set on the dashboard.

We returned safely home and prior to driving into our driveway - ... I had to honk the horn three times for the last time of the day.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Living In the Margins

Sometimes life seems more exciting and rewarding when lived in the margins - the margins between what is generally perceived as "right" and "wrong", or "Good" and "bad" or even "acceptable" and "unacceptable". The boundary defined by the ying and the yang. The art and skill is to never cross over to what is truly unacceptable.

During my working career there were many times when I was living and working in the margin that exists between night and day. It was during the interlude between the silence of the night and the breaking of a new dawn, that thoughts seemed clearer and the senses heightened.

It was often working on a night shift that I appreciated the simplicity and relative silence that the night brought to life. Just as appreciated and welcomed were the sounds of awakening day. There is something about a sun rise - the promise and optimism of another day - a fresh tablet upon which nothing has been written and awaits the recording of new chronicles.

Photography can be the same. Some of the more interesting and provocative photographs are taken in the margins - the time when the sun is rising or setting.

These are from my trip to China - predawn photos - the time where the differences between night and day become apparent as well as accentuated.

The photos were taken in Yangshuo, China. I was standing on the highway bridge over the famous Li River. I had gotten up at 4:00 A.M. to be in position on the bridge for the sun rise. I was on the bridge with 14 other photographers that I was travelling with in late October. I picked my spot and set up the tripod in eager anticipation of the breaking dawn. Although it was chilly it was great to stand in the silence and then to hear the chickens, and dogs waking up to greet the new day. Soon after the animals awoke, people started to stir - first with raspy coughs, and then with the sounds of staring the kitchen fires to prepare the day's first meal. Soon fishing boats or rather fishing rafts with fishermen and cormorants appeared almost mystically out of the last wisps of darkness over the flat river.

One of my colleagues called out to me to join them at their location nearer to the end of the bridge. I politely declined at first but when pressed I became more adamant. It was then in the breaking light of a promising new dawn that I realized that I had travelled thousands of miles to take MY photographs and not someone elses!

Right or wrong - I had chosen to take my photographs, my way, from my selected location.

Just as I have during much of my life, I wanted to enjoy the opportunities of that morning as well all my mornings on my own terms. I was happy and content. I was prepared to live with the consequences of my decision.

It was in the margins of that day between the closing of the night and opening of the day that I realized and reaffirmed one of my core values. In the clarity of the margin, I was at peace.

Later in life the memory of that chilly experience would help guide me through other life altering decisions.

Second Book Has Been Published

A Falang's Insights...
By Allen A. Hale

My second book is now complete and available for review as well as purchase.

The new book is a series of narratives and 327 photographs documenting Lao Loum life and culture in the North East Thailand region referred to as "Isaan".

Learning from my first book, I have changed the size of the book and limited the number of pages to 200 to keep the cost down for those interested in purchasing their own copy.

Clicking on the above icon "Book Review" will take you directly to a site to review the book.


Wednesday, October 14, 2009

A Brasilian Paradise - Parati

"Oh! God, if there were a paradise on earth, it wouldn't be very far from here!" - Amerigo Vespucci upon seeing the coastal region of Brasil surrounding the colonial town of Parati.

During my first assignment in Brasil, I took the opportunity to visit Parati. Working in Brasil was a great experience. I often refer to Brsil as a civilized country - civilized in the sense that in the state of Parana where I worked there were 16 holidays per year. The holidays were a combination of federal, state and religious observances. To make matters even better many of the holidays occurred on either a Thursday or Tuesday. The Brasilians typically converted these holidays into 4 day weekends great opportunities to get out and about to explore the country.

I flew from Curitiba to Rio De Janeiro's Aeroporto International Rio de Janeiro. From the international airport, I drove my rental car south along the coast towards Sao Paulo. Highway BR101, named Rio-Santos Highway, runs mostly along the coast with the heavily vegetated mountains of the Serra do Mar and Serra Das Araras on one side of the road and the Atlantic Ocean on the other.

Parati is a colonial village settled in the early 1500s. Parati was an important port supporting the gold mining industry of the interior regions surrounding Ouro Preto. Beside having a port, Parati was only place where the mountains and cliffs of the Serra do Mar could be climbed. Mining supplies traveled from Parati to the mines with gold leaving for Europe. Parati became very wealthy.

Parati's wealth and importance started to decline in the 1720's when an alternative route cut 15 days of travel. In the 1800s Parati was well known for coffee cultivation. Today it is well known for it cachaca (pinga) - raw white rum production as well as tourism. Until the middle 1950s the only way to access Parati was by sea thus helping to preserve the quaintness of the village.

The streets are covered with cobblestones. The buildings are trimmed with elaborate tile trim and pastel colors. Restaurants as well as shops are located in former residences which eliminates much of the commercial crassness of other tourist centers.

From the municipal pier you can buy a ticket to cruise on a schooner on the large and tranquil bay dotted with many forested islands. Some of the islands have beautiful houses on them - secluded retreats for the well to do of Sao Paulo and Rio.

Monday, October 12, 2009

"Doctor" Feel Good

Yesterday there was a festival in Kumphawapi. The highlight of the festival was long boat racing on the river or more like - flooded land that runs on the edge of the downtown center.

The long boats were around 50 to 60 feet long and very narrow. From bow to stern they were packed with paddlers. The banks along the water were covered with spectators watching and cheering on their favorite team. The main road's bridge over the water was lined with spectators and flags.

In the park where the monkeys hang out, there were all kinds of booths with games such as burst the balloons with darts, food, and drink. We also saw two small elephants being paraded around the grounds.

So why am I not posting pictures of this event? I don't have any. I could not walk. I have an injured foot that severely limits my mobility.

Three days ago I was demonstrating to Duang my Lao Loum dancing moves to one of my favorite songs. The moves involved stomping with alternating feet. I did this in bare feet on the concrete and tile floor of our living room. The next morning my left foot felt as if it had a cracked bone or stepped on by an elephant.

After two days I decided to listen to Duang and have the foot checked out. She knew of a "doctor who has Santa Claus inside him who take care of people good". The translation is "There is a doctor who has the spirit of God in him which allows him to take care of people well" Her cousin was going to see him yesterday so I could go too and be taken care of. Since Duang was putting both of her good feet down and insisting that I see a doctor and would not allow me to go photograph in Kumphawapi until I had the foot looked after, I agreed. Besides this sounded interesting - "a doctor with Santa Claus inside..." I am open minded and besides this had a sense of adventure to it. Despite my open mind and sense of adventure, as my late grandmother used to say "I am not crazy ... yet".

Prior to going to see the miracle worker of the paddies, I had duang, her son and his girl friend take me to the emergency room of the private international hospital here in Udonthani. I saw a doctor and had my foot x-rayed. I do not have a cracked bone or a broken bone but I do have a sprained or bruised foot as I had suspected. Years ago I had the same injury when I cut firewood for my children in Yellowstone National Park using Rambo karate kicks. Knowing that nothing can be done other than rest the foot, elevate foot, ice the foot, take Motrin, and wear an elastic bandage on the foot, I was reassured that consulting the "doctor with Santa Claus" would cause no harm. The total bill for the emergency room visit - $23.53 U. S. dollars.

We went to Tahsang Village to pick up Duang's cousin to see the doctor. Well in the end 10 of us ended up in the pick up truck. We had to go through Kumphawapi to get to the doctor so I was able to glimpse the festival.

We drove way out into the middle of the rice farming region. Six times we had to stop to ask or to confirm directions to the place we were going to. Surprisingly, everyone knew about this guy and was able to guide us on our way. After about an hour we arrived at a typical Isaan village and found the doctor's place.

Several people were there ahead of us. I hobbled inside of his house and sat down on a wood couch in his living room which was also his clinic. Three woven reed mats, sahts, lay on the floor. Each saht had a patient laying on it. On the floor next to me were several, as in 50 or more, medical syringes. Along with the syringes were just as many hypodermic needles - factory fresh in their sealed packaging. This was a relief to see that he was exercising good practices for injections. A stethoscope lay on the floor that the doctor used to listen to each patient's heart through both their chest, and neck. Next to the unused syringes were many bundles of injectable medicines scattered about the floor. There was a cardboard box that contained different sized vials of injectable medicines. A small plastic bag was used to contain the disposed of empty vials. A Glass jar was just about filled with discarded needles.

Duang's cousin although a young woman, is partially paralyzed on her left side - I suspect fro polio or a mild stroke. I know that she also suffers from epilepsy. I asked Duang why her cousin was seeing the doctor and Duang explained to me that her cousin had been getting dizzy and passing out lately.

Her cousin laid down on the saht and the doctor checked her heart with the stethoscope and felt her ankles with his hands just as he did with every other patient. He spoke about 30 seconds with her and told her that she had a bad heart. He then gave her two injections. Since I could not move well, I had Duang bring me one of the empty vials that had been used on her cousin. The vial was "Diazepam" more commonly known as "Valium". That did it for me - there was no way this doctor was going to be doing anything for me! There was no way he was going to be doing anything for Duang! Prior to entering his house he told me that he could "take care of me one time only - 100%". I did not see a medical diploma or license on the walls. The lack of medicines other than injectables seemed suspicious to me. The fact that everyone ended up with 2 or three injections made me extremely suspicious. Knowing that he injected someone with a "bad heart" with Valium scared me. I declined as best as I could without him losing face and I was adamant to Duang that she would not be examined.

Of the 10 people in our group that went to the doctor - 6 received injections and paid their $2.94 USD. I was appalled. When we got back home I explained to Duang why I didn't let the doctor treat me and would not let him treat her. I told her that the doctor did not cure anyone but only made them "feel" better. The trip back to Tahsang Village was quiet, just about all the patients had gone to sleep.

As I was writing this blog, I discussed yesterday's events once again with Duang. I told her that I did not think that the man was a real doctor and that I knew more about medicine than him. She said "No he not doctor, he man that wants to help people. He go to school to be a doctor but not finish after two years. he learn some things in school to help people (no doubt giving injections). Santa Claus (God) told the man to help people and complained that the man had not been a Monk yet." The man went to the local authorities and told them that he had two years of school and wanted to help people so they apparently allow him to "practice medicine" She told me that the man was going to be helping people for five years and then he was going to become a Monk. She said the people felt better that he had helped them. I explained the difference between being cured and feeling better.

Doctor Feel Good makes his patients feel better but I doubt that many are cured by his efforts.

Absolutely scary - another reason why we need to know as much as we can about everything in order to make informed decisions.

Saturday, October 10, 2009

History Can Be A Cruel Judge

This week has been rather low key. We continue to go into town for Duang to see the doctor every two or three days as he directs us to. She is recovering very nicely from her surgery. New skin is growing over the grafts and her hearing has already improved noticeably. The visits to the doctor are to clean the ears and for the doctor to monitor her condition. We are not charged for the visits and they are an opportunity for Duang to keep up to date with the other patients that we see at the office - time and time again. Here in Isaan gossip and small talk is a big pastime with doctor's offices and hospital especially fertile grounds.

I have completed my second book, and am editing it prior to ordering a copy to preview here in Thailand. I was able to keep it at 200 pages so am pleased that the price will be what I had targeted.

Another big activity this past week has been connecting with people that I have not communicated with in over 38 years. What was extremely difficult just 10 years ago, is fairly easy now with the capabilities of the Internet. In reestablishing contact with people from the past, I got motivated to haul out my college yearbook - University of Rhode Island 1971.

It was a very sad and embarrassing experience. It was sad in that the yearbook was such a piece of crap. In their song "Book Ends" Simon and Garfunkel sing

"Time it was and what a time it was it was,
A time of innocence a time of confidences.

Long ago it must be, I have a photograph
Preserve your memories, they're all that's left you"

Well there isn't all that much left of us in the university yearbook. The photographs are very poor and the writing was not much better. The book was not even organized very well. To find a photograph of a classmate in the yearbook you need to know their Zodiac or you have to thumb through all the photographs until you find them. To use a current popular phrase "What were you thinking ...?" After 38 years, do people care anymore than they did back then what some one's birth sign is?

Most of the photographs lack any captions so much of their significance is lost.

All in all it was embarrassing much like watching a 1968 through 1971 movie starring Elliot Gould - Embarrassing and just as painful. It is painful to see and realize that so much of our memories of our graduating year were high jacked by political click that usurped the yearbook for their personal political agenda.

Of course I am guilty like so many others of not caring about the direction of the yearbook or the politics of the day. This apathy allowed the extremists to have their way. Unfortunately most politics is the same be it radical, liberal, conservative, or whatever. It participants are basically cut out of the same mold - egocentric arrogant megalomaniacs.

I remember at the time of the late 60s and early 70s I was as much opposed to Mark Rudd, Rennie Davis, Jerry Rubin. and Abbie Hoffman as I was to Lyndon Johnson, Spiro Agnew, John Mitchell, and Richard Nixon. I saw that they were the same people only with different clothing and hairstyles. They shared the same arrogance and intolerance for dissent. They all needed the same adulation and affection. They thirsted for the same power and control.

It is ironic how politicians and leaders all end up with the same self defining look of arrogance - a smirk to dismiss all that dare to question or oppose their intentions.

Looking back at the year book, I see the same traits and ensuing results in the yearbook. It is lamentable that the staff could not anticipate the future and allow for it in their work product. They could have better served their present and definitely served their future much better.

Karl Marx wrote "History repeats itself ... the first time as tragedy and the second time as farce". From afar it seems to me that the radical and derisive politics of the 60s and 70s are unfolding a second time. The times have changed. The issues are the same. The cast of characters are the same. Only the actors have changed.

There may or may not be a Final Judgement but there is a harsh and cruel Judge for all of us to reckon with in the interim - History.

Monday, October 5, 2009

Bang Fai Phaya Nark - The Naga Fireballs

Yesterday, October 04, was Ok Phansa here in Thailand. Ok Phansa marks the end of Buddhist Lent and coincidentally the end of the monsoon season. During Buddhist Lent, the Monks are confined to their monasteries and Wats. There is some debate as to the origins of this requirement. One cause is attributable to the need for the Monks to avoid trampling an living creatures while walking about on the flooded lands. The other reason is said to be to prevent the Monks from trampling the newly planted rice during their excursions.

Here in Isaan, the full moon of the eleventh lunar month, marks the celebration of Bang Fai Phaya Nark (pronounced Bang - Fye - Paiyah - Nah). The focus of this celebration are the "Naga Fireballs". This is no small event, the most popular Thai television station, Channel 7, was broadcasting the event live throughout Thailand and Laos.

The Naga fireballs are globes of light that rise up out of the Mekong River and surrounding ponds as well as tributaries to the Mekong. The fireballs are silent, smokeless and have no odor. As the full moon rises above the horizon, the fireballs begin to rise out of the water to a height of about 100 feet. The reddish balls upon reaching their apogee, disappear into the dark sky.

The Lao Loum people believe that the fireballs are caused by Phaya Nagi, a mythical serpent who is also King of the water underworld (reference my previous blog "Go-Go Girls at the Gate ..." dated 10 May 2009.). The fireballs at the end of Buddhist Lent commemorates the fireballs that the Nagas (serphents) created as offerings and entertainment for Buddha upon one of his returns to Earth.

There are several places to observe the fireballs along the Thai side of the Mekong River. Yesterday we went to one of the more popular locations, a town named "Phon Phisai" which is located several kilometers downstream from the border crossing town of Nong Khai. Along the Thai riverbank hundreds of thousands of people sit to await the arrival of the fireballs. We decided to beat the notorious traffic jams by leaving our home in Udonthani around 11:30 A. M. and taking a roundabout route through the small villages set out amongst the rice paddies rather than than more direct route on Isaan's equivalent of the Interstate highway to Nong Khai. Our strategy to Phon Phisai worked like a charm.

We found a place to park the truck one block from the river bank and one block from the Wat over looking the Mekong. We walked the one block to the river and encountered a pedestrian walkway filled with restaurants, food vendors, souvenir booths, and drink booths. On the other side of the pedestrian walkway was the grassy river bank. At some locations there were nice elevated wood pavilions jutting out to close to the water's edge. These locations were already filled with families. Other locations of the walkway were filled with tables and plastic chairs that had reserved signs on them. We found a great place to set up our saht (woven reed mat) to await and view the fireballs.

Built into the river bank was a series of concrete stairs to form stadium seating approximately 6 levels high. Between the last concrete step and the river was a 15 foot high grassy drop off with some scattered bushes to the water. We selected a great spot across from a restaurant that had live entertainment. Our spot had a a little shade which was very welcomed because it was sunny, hot and humid. I sweated from 1:30 P.M. until the truck A/C cooled me off at 10:30 P. M.

We entertained ourselves until sunset around 5:30 P. M. With the setting sun, some of the spectators launched "Khom Fai", Lanna style paper sky lanterns. Khom Fai are tissue paper hot air balloons that rise into the sky from the hot air created by the burning wax or paraffin ring suspended inside of them. They create a very warm light and rise very high into the night. Last night was absolutely perfect for them - still with no wind.

We had been told that the Naga fireballs would be most likely to appear between 6:00 P.M. and 9:00 P.M. I didn't quite understand.

Some scientific people attribute the Naga fireballs to release of methane gases caused by decaying vegetation in the river mud. These scientists also state that these gas bubbles spontaneously ignite was above the water's surface. I did not quite understand.

At 6:00 P.M. I looked up the river towards Nong Khai and saw thousands and thousands of lights coming towards us. I joked with Duang about seeing the Naga fireballs. Shortly later the lights were quickly passing by us. The lights were actually small fires floating upon the river - being swiftly swept downstream by the river current. Now it was starting to make sense. Now I was understanding.

This must be how people can predict that the ball will appear on Ok Phansa night. This must be how the gas bubbles, if that what they are, can ignite. There still remains some mystery in that the river is always swiftly moving at this time of year so the theory of releasing gas from decaying river bottom vegetation isn't full credible.

The flow of floating fires upon the river continued unabated for three hours. While the offerings were floating by, people on the riverbanks - both sides, Thailand and Laos were occupied launching fireworks and fire crackers over the river. The launching of sky lanterns and fireworks filled the night sky with a variety of lights and sounds.

After two hours, we had not seen any Naga fireballs. We were considering leaving at 8:00 P.M. when I noticed something different headed towards us - lighted boats. Earlier in the afternoon we had seen some river boats (similar to pirouges in Louisiana) lashed together with strings suspended from frameworks attached to the boats. The boats were headed upstream towards Nong Khai.

The boats were now floating downstream with the river current. Suspended from the strings were burning candles to create the effect of large floating outlined boats. It was beautiful. After an hour the boat parade was over. We had not seen any Naga fireballs. It was 9:00 P. M. so we decided to head home. Our return strategy was the same as the one that got us to Phon Phisai. It worked well ONCE WE SPENT ONE HOUR in horrendous traffic traveling the two miles to get to the split in the road to Nong Khai and our interim destination of Baan Dung.

We had not seen any Naga fireballs. We don't know if anyone did. But we may have come close, too close ... when we first arrived at "our" spot we went up to a booth under a large shade tree to buy some ice teas. While I was paying there was a small commotion, a small 3/4" by 18" long green snake, was slithering up the tree trunk just behind the booth. Later in the night, there was a group of young men on a saht drinking, singing and having a great time by a lit candle on the ground about 15 feet from us. All of a sudden we heard them yelling, hollering and saw them jumping around. I thought that perhaps one of them had caught on fire and then I saw it. I saw it in the dim light. On the ground slithering towards us in a fairly rapid speed was the afternoon snake. Half way to us, the snake turned and disappeared into the overgrowth where I had been tramping around taking photographs. It was pretty exciting. Perhaps when he gets older there will be more fireballs.


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