Thursday, April 15, 2010

A More Traditional Songkran - 14 April 2553

On Wednesday, 14 April, we got a late start to return to Tahsang Village. I spent much of the early morning finishing up my Federal and State Income Tax returns. Even with not working and not much dividend income, the task of preparing the returns was no simple manner. My accountant in the USA had completed the returns and sent them to me as electronic files. I had to print them, sign them and mail them. The Federal Return was 26 pages long, the State Return was 7 pages long but required that a copy of the Federal return be included. We went out to have copies made and to mail the returns. We got copies made but found out that the Post Office was closed for three days for the Songkran Holiday. We will mail the documents tomorrow. This is a lot of documents for having not to pay any taxes. It must be part of a jobs creation program - complicated rules, and many forms.

We had missed the ritual of pouring water on the hands of the elders in Tahsang Village due to our morning efforts. The picture above was from two years ago. Even without the US tax tasks, we would have missed the ceremony in the village. We could not leave Udonthani prior to 10:00 A.M. because we had to go to the Chinese wholesale market to buy more beer and whiskey, and cigarettes for the family market in the village. With the hot weather, the holidays, and gambling, "Momma" is selling a great deal of those items along with ice. Two days ago the ice distributor in Kumphawapi ran out of ice. Fortunately he was restocked the next day.

Although we had missed the Villagers pouring water on the elderly people, showing respect for the elderly and getting the elderly people's blessing for the New Year, we were obligated to "take care" of the elder members of Duang's family. Songkran is a very important family reunion holiday in Isaan. Leading up to the start of the holiday, the roads are filled with Lao Loum workers returning to their homes in Isaan from the big cities were they work. Our first visit was to the next village to pay respects to Duang's uncle who is in failing health. He is a very important member of the family as well as in the local community. He is a Brahman and performs many of the pre-Buddhist Hindu and Animist rituals. He conducts marriages, and the bai sii rituals. He often leads the people in the merit making rituals involving the Monks.

Duang's son and his girl friend took a small insulated jug and filled it with some cool fresh water along with a bottle of scented soap. They drove over to the village with a bunch of the Tahsang Village relatives. We loaded up our truck with the rest of the relatives, or rather the relatives that broke away from the ongoing three day village dice/roulette game. It didn't matter to me because I had Peelawat, 14 months old, sitting up front with me although he kept trying to shift gears as I drove. We got splashed with water four times by people along the way between the villages.

Duang's Uncle and the other elderly relatives that live in the village were seated upon a raised wood and bamboo platform outside of his home. Everyone gathered around the platform. Donations of money, small yellow candles (birthday cake type), and some garlands were placed on a medium sized metal plate to offer to Duang's uncle. Duang's older sister, who was actually raised by him and his wife, knelt on the platform and offered up the gifts to the assembled elders while the other people, the three younger generations. knelt on the ground before the elders. The younger people all offered "wais", Thai gesture of respect that is very similar to a praying gesture, to the old people. Peelawat was not interested in participating although at 14 months old he has been taught and many times does give wais. Peelawat wanted me to hold him while I photographed the ritual. He also took advantage of me holding him to reach up to strip leaves off of a tree branch to analyze them before tossing them to the wind. I believe that more will be expected of him next year when he will be two years old. Children in Isaan participate at a very early age in the rituals as well as events that define the Lao Loum culture.

After some chanting by the young people and then by the elderly, the young people took turns pouring the scented cool water on the hands of the elderly people with the elderly people giving their blessing and best wishes to each person as they poured the water. Sometimes the young people gently and lovingly poured a little water down the back of the old person. After the elderly had been cared for, some of them poured water gently and lovingly on the backs of the younger people. It was very moving to see the sense of community, dignity, respect and affection being reinforced by all the generations in this ritual.

We returned to Tahsang Village where Peelawat and I stayed in the market while the others went across the main farm road to repeat the ritual with a different group of elderly Aunts and Uncles. The temperature was 41C (105F) with 35% humidity so Peelawat and I minimized our time under the sun. Sitting inside with a fan blowing on us, and sharing ice cubes suited us just fine.

With the Aunts and Uncles taken care, the family focused on Duang's mother and father. All their children and grandchildren and some of their great grandchildren participated in the water pouring ritual along with the money offerings. Duang's father made everyone laugh because he insisted on removing his shirt before the start of the ritual. At the end one of the neighbors, perhaps "mau mau" (drunk) ensured that everyone got splashed with some ice water. It was a good time for all.

I have been asked on more than one occasion about how do they define "poor" people in the Lao Loum culture. It is true that the people do not have many material possessions. They are subsistence farmers with the elderly cared for by their extended families and neighbors. But these people do not measure a person's wealth strictly on their material possessions. To the Lao Loum people being happy, doing "good" and having a "good heart" are important factors in determining a person's wealth. Perhaps it is that we believe we have only one chance to grab the brass ring or to grab all the gusto that we can in this life while they know that if they don't make it this time around there will be another opportunity in another go around. Being content and focusing on their spiritual wealth this time around increases their possibility of success sooner than later.

They may not have much. But they have each other - far more than many other "rich" people.

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