A Day in the Life
In some ways, this morning was typical. I was awakened by firecrackers, music, and chanting originating from the temple across the street. As I lay in bed, I greeted this ancient and inchoate alarm clock with a mixture of longing and loathing. Today begins Loy Kratong, arguably Thailand's most beloved and beautiful festival. But the firecrackers, which have been exploding for a week, soon lose their charm, especially if you are highly sensitive or caffeinated, more than twelve years old, or asleep.
And this morning the water didn't work, so I had to take an Indian-style shower using the somewhat scummy and slippery water kept, for just such occasions, in a big bucket in my bathroom. This is why I will never fully embrace religion. The chanting is lovely, but no one knows or cares why my water isn't working. Blame the gods; blame karma; it can't be helped; never mind.
Groggy, unshaven, I make hot water for instant coffee. More firecrackers. The distant rumble of motorcycles and tuk-tuks. A sunny day, after uncommon November rains and mild flooding in my office. The war against nature continues unabated, but after a few coffees the prospects of victory brighten. Birds chirp, and the ants are scaling the walls in endless trains, searching for the neglected crumbs of yesterday's dinner. They too must work.
In Thailand life takes a nocturnal turn. The mini-mart up the street may stay open until 2 a.m., but it will not open until late afternoon, despite advertised claims to the contrary. (Bang! More fireworks. Bang!) Bold, aimless, fitfully employed foreigners will stay up until six in the morning, despite the government's recent decree that establishments close at two. The night is gentler; and the Thais, fans of paleness, shun the sun.
Last night, visitors. The Dutchman complaining about the Thai tolerance of governmental corruption. The Canadian, recently returned from Mae Sai on a visa run. We order a pizza, and I say that I wish delivery boys in America would bow to me when I tip them, as they do here. Small courtesies go a long way.
A truck full of orange-clad monks passes by my window. Off to war. This week they have been busy pruning the trees of the temple compound, evidently in preparation (Bang!) for the festival. (Bang!) They burn the dead wood, which sends a torpedo of choking smoke into my poorly ventilated house. Sometimes I shut the windows; sometimes I leave. Flashbacks to India, where pollution is almost festive: we are all polluted anyway. Cultures, once again, gently collide: they believe in a next life; I do not. I pray for rain to extinguish their fire. Two can play at this game.
Rain does not generally come unannounced to Chiang Mai. Clouds gather around Doi Suthep, the largest of the hills that ring the city. Sometimes the clouds grow so tall that you can wrench your neck trying to see their tops. The first drops are flung, not scattered; and then one's eardrums are filled with pummeling rain. The Thais gather under awnings to patiently watch the soil of the worldly life run into the gutters.
Having worked up the gumption to shave - using a basin, as there is yet no water - I walk around the corner for lunch. It is true what they say about Thailand: you can throw a rock and hit a restaurant. I drag a copy of the dreary Economist along with me, and read about French xenophobia while I eat fried pork and basil leaves. The television in the restaurant shows a "submissive" Thai woman putting some mustachioed creep into a full nelson. Lots of comic book sound effects, Jackie Chan moves. The creep is subdued. Womankind triumphs.
Ever since somebody decided to incinerate some tourists in a Bali discotheque, people have been asking me to guess the likelihood of a terrorist attack occurring in Thailand. I tell them that if terrorists can attack the Pentagon, the very embodiment of invulnerability, I am inclined to recommend the moon as the only safe tourist destination. I am more afraid of dying in a traffic accident or from dengue fever. In Asia, calamity is barely newsworthy.
Lunch and Coke comes to 38 baht.
When I return to my office, the phone is ringing. I pick it up but there is no sound. This happens five or six times. You get used to chaos after a while. Ordering out for pizza is a way of reestablishing order. The phone rings again. And then: Bang!
You may well wonder how I can work under these conditions. When I worked in an international school in Thailand, I often wondered at the administration's expectation that we teachers operate on a first-world schedule while dealing with a third-world infrastructure. Electricity (and thus air-conditioners) would quit, water dry up, classrooms fill with the myriad carcasses of flying termites. You build up a tolerance.
While writing the preceding paragraph, I heard the unobtrusive yet inquisitive call of "Sawatdee kha" from below. Kha: a female. When I arrive downstairs, she seems somewhat alarmed that I am not Thai; nonetheless she calls to a friend. They have been hired by a Canadian company to sell coupons for Burger King. They are both very enthusiastic about Burger King -- I, less so. The smaller and bolder of the two flirts with me in the Thai way: charmingly self-deprecating and half-sincere. "You stay here...alone?" she asks, giggling and covering her mouth. They go their way, a giant cardboard cheeseburger proudly displayed.
I have unplugged the phone; I may lock myself in the closet.
I am always interested in a writer's immediate surroundings. I write, with pen and paper, at a desk.
The Burger King girls pass by, waving and saying goodbye.
On my desk are many empty coffee cups, a bowl containing the horrifying residue of ma-ma, Thailand's answer to Ramen noodles. An empty bottle of Leo beer. Chopsticks. A pack of cigarettes that carries, on a black field, the grim warning "Smoke cigarette make old fast." Numerous cahiers, which in Thailand are never without cover artwork and sentimental inscriptions: "You belong to me", "For you everyday: To be all we can be, / we must dream of being more, / to achieve all that is possible, / we must attempt the impossible." A phonebook bearing the transliterated title "Thai-lan Yel-lo-payj-jes" and a bottle of "Spring-kel" water. A ceiling fan spins audibly and lazily overhead.
The monks are sweeping. Will they burn?
Just as every dog has its day, so every day has its dogs. Orwell wrote about them in Burmese Days; his Englishman Flory would fire his rifle to end their torturous baying. Here, as the sun goes down, the monks repeatedly ring a bell. This causes every dog within earshot to start howling lugubriously. It is their one chance to shine. Usually they are dodging motorcycles and looking skittish, diseased, and underfed. For some reason their resentment toward engines is focused on bicyclists, whom they pursue with ardor and bared fangs.
I walk up the street to the mini-mart. Every day the same teenage girl sits behind the counter and watches Thai comedies on a small TV. The Thais are unexcelled adapters. When she is not watching TV, she probably sends silly text messages to her friends, or sings to herself. Pascal believed that man's biggest problem is his inability to sit still; obviously he had never been to Asia.
The water, Allah be praised, has returned.
My immediate neighbors are students from Chiang Mai University, and occasionally they invite me to drink with them. Being students, they invariably drink what is Thailand's cheapest and now its most popular beer: Chang. Drinking a beer called "Elephant" may sound dangerous, and it is, especially when you start drinking before sundown, as the students often do. My Canadian friend was recently knocked off his motorbike, and his arm scraped, by what was probably a Chang-addled local. Only real expatriates have scars, you see.
Being near the University, I am always in the midst of students, signified by their uniforms of white top and black bottom. And at the risk of offending those who trivialize physical beauty; or who think that chivalry is stupid, demeaning, or dead; I wish to say that the University girls, taken collectively, are the most beautiful people on Earth. There, I said it. Seeing them is an exquisite agony, the worst nightmare of a mediocre poet or would-be hermit. I have often thought of taking up painting instead, or some other sublimating form of worship. Sufi ecstatic dance, perhaps, or the bongos.
Tonight, thousands of people will gather on the Mae Ping River to celebrate Loy Kratong because that is what Thais have done for hundreds of years. Strange that such an extraordinary agglomeration of humanity and expression of spirituality could be described using such banal terms. Anyway, the purpose of the festival is collective absolution, the sending down the river of one's accumulated sins.
The monk rings the bell. The dogs, on cue, howl. It is 5:30 p.m. The sun has dropped behind the hills, and the march of repentant sinners has no doubt already begun. There may be hope for humanity yet.
- The End -