Tuesday, November 16, 2010

The Race Is Done, The Races Are Done

Duang Wears Her Funeral Clothes to the Races

Prior to going to the final long boat races in Kumphawapi on Sunday, we attended a funeral in Tahsang Village for one of Duang's relatives.  The woman was 82 years old and had been ill for a long period of time.  She had not left her home in 10 years.  Her race is done. The big difference for this funeral was that it was a Christian funeral.  Duang had never been to a Christian funeral before and I could tell that she was a little apprehensive about attending.

Unlike the typical Lao Loum Buddhist funerals that we have attended there was a noticeable effort made by people to wear black clothing.  Buddhist funerals based upon my experience are a pretty much come as you are ceremony.  At Buddhist funeral rituals, I have not seen people dressed for mourning.  At the Sunday Christian funeral the women were dressed in black and the men if they were not in black wore dark more formal clothing.  Soccer shirts were not the fashion of the day for the funeral.  Duang had made a black lined lace long length skirt and blouse some time ago so she was dressed appropriately.

We first stopped at Duang's mother's house in the village and picked up Peelawat to attend the funeral with us.  When we arrived at the home of the deceased relative there were many similarities and many differences with a Buddhist funeral.  OK - the obvious one - there were no Monks.  This may seem a facetious remark, but after awhile of living here in Isaan you become accustomed to and expect to see Buddhist Monks at all events.  To not see Monks at an event is a revelation.

The body was inside one of the refrigerated rental coffins that are used for Buddhist funerals.  There was a large framed photograph of the deceased person supported by an easel next to the coffin - just as for a Buddhist ritual.  There were many floral bouquets surrounding the coffin.  The floral arrangements were a Western style and would be not out of place at any funeral home in the USA.  At Buddhist funerals the floral arrangements or tributes appear more Eastern style and plastic. In addition to floral arrangements there were some some black signs with silver writing - I assume to the effect of "Rest In Peace"  Unlike a Buddhist funeral, there were no offerings of robes, blankets, rice, food or whiskey placed on top of the coffin.  There were several lit candles on the floor in front of the coffin but no Joss sticks.  People knelt on sahts in front of the coffin and candles to say their prayers.

Outside of the home the scene was very much like a Buddhist funeral.  Women were busy preparing the traditional foods that are served to guests at special celebrations or ceremonies - sticky rice, cucumbers and salad greens, pork larb, raw beef with chilies, and meat soup.  The cooking was performed over a combination of charcoal and propane fires.

Tables and chairs were set up underneath the canopies for guests to eat and wait.  On each of the tables there were 1.25 liter bottles of Coke and Sprite as well as bottled water.  There was also a small metal bucket of ice cubes for the soft drinks.  This was just like a Buddhist funeral.  However, unlike a Buddhist funeral there were no bottles of beer of whiskey available for the guests.  In addition, unlike the Buddhist funerals that I have attended, there were no card games or other forms of gambling going on.  There is, as they used to say in the Old West or at least in the Old West movies, a new sheriff in town.  Gambling is illegal in Thailand except for the National Lottery.  It is just like in America with drugs and prostitution being illegal.  If you are looking for it you will find it and often quite easily.  Here in Isaan "arrangements" or "accommodations" can be made to ensure that your card games, dice games, or numbers game will not be interrupted or more importantly - you will not be interfered with.  The former arrangements are no longer valid or available.  There is a new head police official in the area and he is cracking down.  Even with the Police crackdown, I believe that there would not have been any gambling at the Christian funeral - Duang's Christian relatives are rather conservative and fundamentalists.

The funeral ritual commenced with ... well the best way that I can describe it as was a pep rally cheer.  Duang's cousin who appeared to be like a Deacon got up and said something like , according to Duang, "Christian good" to which the congregation punched their fists in the air and shouted "Amen" and "Hallelujah"  This was repeated three times.  The people then sang a song to the accompaniment of a guitar and keyboard.  I was not familiar with the song but it sounded nice and seemed appropriate for the occasion.  Duang asked me if the same thing would happen when we attend a funeral in America.  I attempted to explain to her the differences between the various Christian denominations and how their rituals are different.  I think that she understood but then again I have explained Christmas to her but when I deviated from the religious aspects of it and brought in Santa Claus - "the wheels fell off the vehicle". 

When divine intervention is sought for our family back in America she prays to Santa Claus as well as Buddha in her nightly ritual.  When conditions improve, she points out to me "Good. You see Buddha and Santa Claus take care, take care good"  I now realize that all this confusion could have been avoided if I had not put money in her sock that was hung with care in front of the hotel television set of our room in Bangkok on Christmas Eve two years ago. Since she is so comfortable in her believes, I don't make a good thing worse by trying to explain even more.

After explaining some of the differences between a Roman Catholic funeral ritual and Protestant funeral ritual, Peelawat decided he had had enough and he wanted to go back home.  I drove him back to his home so I missed the remainder of the funeral.  After awhile Duang walked back to her Mom's house and we were ready to leave.  We did not leave for the races quite yet.  We had to visit another cousin's house in the village.  We had attended their Christian wedding a while ago and now they had a one month old daughter.  The baby was having a Bai Sii ceremony (Animist Ritual) later that day to, depending upon your religious persuasion; welcome the baby into the community and family or to bind the necessary 32 spirits inside of her so that she would be healthy, and have good luck.  No matter the reason for the ritual, everyone could agree that it was cause for a party.  There would be live music, food, beer and whiskey after the ritual.  We paid our respects to the family and especially the sleeping baby before heading out to the races.  Although we were invited to the party, we were not going to attend. It had already been a busy weekend and we were getting tired.

Just as the previous day, finding parking was no problem at the races.  It was a warm afternoon and Duang was not dressed comfortablely for a full day at the races.  She was wearing her funeral outfit as well as short high heels - not very appropriate for walking on the rough bank of the levee.  I realized that we would make only a short stay at the races.  Other factors were to play in the decision to stay only a short time.

We walked up a dirt road to the top of the levee and headed to the starting line.  There was definitely more people watching the races than the previous day.  Everyone appeared to be in good spirits - literally and figuratively.  The beer and whiskey was flowing easily.

We found Duang's brother where we found him the previous day.  We bought a Lemon Ice Tea to enjoy and to cool off a little.  He was in a shaded area so I told Duang to stay with him while I took some photos.

One Way of Traveling In Isaan
I used to take photographs mainly of landscapes and animals.  However my overseas experiences have allowed me to evolve into mainly photographs of people.  Here in Southeast Asia, photographing people is not difficult.  Besides the many interesting subjects that are available, the people in general like to be photographed.  Right after leaving Duang with her brother, I saw a young father arriving with several children.  He was on a motorcycle with his two or three year old daughter in front of him.  The remaining children were in a sidecar.  Besides the beauty of the little girl, I found the children in the sidecar to be an attractive and unique subject for a photograph.  Although I was some distance away, I had a telephoto lens to capture the scene.  The young father noticed me and posed the family for me to photograph.  He was not suspicious or paranoid.  He was friendly and no doubt proud.


Oops I have been spotted - still an interesting photo
I took advantage of the situation and walked over to say hello and show the photographs to him and the children.  They appreciated the photos - well everyone except for his young daughter, she was afraid of the falang.  It is always interesting to realize how different we are and to young children frightening because of our appearance.  I don't take it personally.  I take it as an opportunity to demonstrate to a small child that falang (foreigners) despite our looks can be "Khun jai dai" (people with a good heart).  Yesterday the little girl was not buying anything that I was selling.  She remained suspicious and apprehensive much to her father and her uncle's amusement.  They asked me to photograph them so i was pleased to accommodate them.



After spending some time with the family taking their photos, showing their photos to them and trying to communicate I was a marked man.  Duang had joined me on my walk along the top of the levee.  People would try to talk in English and then would be amused when I answered back in Isaan.  I came upon a large group of young been who had been celebrating.  They wanted their photo taken so I obliged.

ATeam that Told Me that they were #1- one of several teams to do so that day
A little further along the levee another team stopped and wanted their photo taken.  I asked them if they were "Number 1" and they said that they were.  I told them in my limited Thai that I did not understand because the other team had told me that they were #1 and they had different uniforms.  They caught on to my joke and we had a big laugh.

Another Team Claiming to be #1 - I guess that they are all winners
I had Duang stay in the shade while I went off to take a few photographs prior to leaving.  I told her it would be around 15 minutes.


Most Races Are Won or Lost At the Start

A Close Race at the Midpoint
Someone is going to win, the other is going to lose - so it is in long boat racing
As I was wandering along the levee I was called over to a small bar or restaurant - a collection of plastic chairs, plastic tables, an ice chest, a charcoal fire, and a canopy.  A group of middle aged men were partying it up.  They offered me a glass of whiskey.  I declined and tried to communicate that I had to drive my truck and that the Police like falang too much for me to be stopped after drinking - an allusion to the practice where foreigners sometimes get stopped and "fined" 200 baht  ($6 USD) for Fill In The Blank  I sure didn't want to get stopped and have the Police discover I had been drinking.  The guys were very friendly and insisted that I share a drink.  Not to be unfriendly I drank the whiskey.  To be polite I stayed a little longer to talk.  They offered more drink which I declined and informed them that I had to get going because my wife would be angry.  They then wanted me to sell some whiskey.  I believe they wanted me to buy a bottle of whiskey.  I acted dumb and said that I did not understand.  Not much upsets me over here but there is one thing that really BOTHERS me and that is people assuming that because I am a foreigner I must be rich and therefore obligated to buy drinks for anyone and everyone. I don't support redistribution of wealth in America and I will not support or participate in it any where else.  Where I come from a free drink is no strings attached especially after it was politely refused to begin with let alone one free drink obligating the recipient to buy a bottle.  Just then Duang appeared.  I reminded the guys my wife would be angry and I had to go.  After introducing Duang we said good bye and left.  I told Duang it was time to go home, the people were getting too friendly for me.  She was tired and glad to hear that our days at the races had ended.

The Blue Team Approaches the Starting Area

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