|Life on the Farm - A Visit With Old Mc'Brucey|
|Written by Jason Brink|
|Saturday, 04 September 2010 03:10|
“You know, its enough. We don't have a lot, but its enough.” Bruce says as he mops his brow with his ever-present pink towel. We sit on his front porch in bamboo chairs, watching the lightning crash down around us, our conversation dying out each time a bolt comes down nearby as we wait to feel the soul-shaking clap of the thunder inside out chests. “Its not much, but by god, I am happy. This country saved my life.” Bruce said as he mops his dripping brow again, the tropical heat bearing down on all of us...sometimes life in Thailand is like being in a sweat lodge, only without the lodge and clear mountain lake with a rim of ice to jump into when we are done sweating. The sweat part we have covered though.
“When I first came to Thailand I was miserable. I had too much money for my own good but I hated my life. Then I met Nitnoi,” Bruce reminisces. “She had nothing, but she had everything I wanted,” he says, his eyes and voice heavy with emotion. “If you ever find a woman like that, you hold onto her and never let her go for anything.”
Dad sits opposite us, watching with a silent inscrutability that seems to be the exclusive property of Asians in his age group. He doesn't speak English, though I sense he understands more than he lets on. In the jar next to him is rice whiskey with leeches and grass steeping inside for flavor. Bruce calls him crazy for drinking it, but he doesn't care...everyone here is ting-tong (Thai for crazy) in some respect...but when you really think about it, which one of us isn't? Four farang sitting on the front porch of a farm house in a tiny village off the Mekong in Northern Thailand called Bander. If you would have told me three years ago that I would be here right here, right now...I would have called you insane, and three years ago...I would have been right.
We arrived earlier in the afternoon. After spending a 4 days in Laos, it was good to come back to Thailand. We piled on the little bus that drove us across the Friendship Bridge between Vientiane, Laos, and Nong Khai, Thailand. After the normal immigration/checkpoint fun, I was standing back in Thailand with my brand shiny new Thai visa in my pocket. At this rate I am going to need to get new pages added to my passport sooner than I thought...thus far my sojourns in Southeast Asia have consumed four whole pages...I got some time yet, but eventually.
Bruce picked us up at the end of the Friendship Bridge, we piled into the truck with his wife Nitnoi and his tiny baby Adam. We stopped at the local market to see his beautiful little daughter Pear as she sold little sculptures made out of shells. Adorable little things spread out on the table in front of her with a handwritten price-tag with “20 Baht” written on it...about 65 cents. She had bought them at a shop near the coast for 10 baht and decided to resell them here on a curve of the Mekong, far away from the shell-crafts of the coastal regions. An irrepressible entrepreneur just like her dad. She beams as she catches sight of us, she had gained some familiarity with us during the last month during the TEFL course, and was delighted to have us visit. This morning, as I write this, Pear is sitting across from me sleepy eyed. She rubs her eyes and watches me write. She tells me Sienna stole her pillow in the middle of the night and that shes tired. She lived a few of her 8 years in England before Bruce brought the whole family back to Thailand, so she has the most adorable accent...Thai-English...incredibly cute. :)
As we wander through the market, we see tables heaped with fruits and vegetables which names I can only guess at. There is an immense woman sitting behind a series of plastic tubs filled with river fish, a small pump keeping the water aerated. She deftly reaches into one of the tub and pulls out two fat river perch and scales, cleans, and de-fins them with a steady practiced hand. One of the tubs is filled with river mud-fish, they writhe and struggle against one another to escape their inevitable fate as dinner at a Thai table.
Behind me, I hear a shriek...I turn... “Oh my god Jason, its a FROG!” Sienna gasps pointing at a bucket containing a bunch of smaller frogs and one immense bullfrog.
“Yep...that’s a frog...have you never seen one of those before?”
“Shut-up...its huge,” she says, glaring at me with a dead-pan expression on her face. “Take a picture!” I shrug and take a shot. The Thai woman sitting on the stool in front of the bucket reaches down and re-arranges the frog.
“Aloi mak mak!” she says, holding the frog up, a resigned Jeremiah-The-Bullfrog look on its face. She is telling us it tastes very good...and it probably does. One thing I have learned about food here in Asia is that the “Western Sensibilities” are mostly silly...there are things I will not eat, but I believe that everyone should have a little bowl of crickets every now and then...it reminds you that no matter what happens, there is ALWAYS something to eat should things get really bad. I would rather eat a cricket under controlled circumstances at a bar in Ban Phe than out in the woods during some sort of emergency and having to have the battle of willpower with myself as I hold a grasshopper up to my mouth and try to force it down my throat... They really aren't bad, crunchy, they kinda taste like metallic peanuts.
It goes without saying that we didn't buy the bullfrog, but it could very well be on the menu for another night, you never know. We continued through the marketplace, a woman hands me a little doughy ball thing...rice flower, coconut milk, onions, and raw sugar...interesting, kinda goopy and rubbery but not bad. We go to sit at Loopy's place and have a beer while watching the sun set over the marketplace. Loopy means “The Boss” Bruce tells us. Loopy turns out to be a Thai man in his 50s or 60s who owns this corner marketplace. He shakes our hands enthusiastically and looks surprised when I wai'd him but was quick to return it.
We sit and drink and watch as a mahout brings a baby elephant down the street, its entire 4.5' tall body bristling with little hairs. I didn't know elephants had hair on their head, but this one did. Even though he was tiny for an elephant, he was still a massive beast, probably weighing 500-600lbs. He looked as us with kind eyes and a smile as he poked at our pockets with his trunk. I stood near him and stroked his head and ears as Sienna fed him chunks of sugarcane. It was the strangest feeling to feel the finger at the tip of his trunk as he sniffed and searched my hands for more sugar. The Thai people call elephants “chang” and they are seen as being very lucky. Earlier in the day, Bruce told us the story of his son Adam being passed under the belly of an elephant in a Thai birth ritual. It is apparently Thai tradition to do this to children, as it will better stack the deck in their favor for a fortunate life.
We make our way back down the road, past a few farmhouses to Dad's house. I don't know Dad's name...I suspect at some level I am not being told to save me the embarrassment of not being able to pronounce it. Bruce shows us through his farm in the fading light...we walk past the trellising that holds what appear to be beans...I ask if they are and his response is, “Well, yeah, but no. You have to remember that everything you know about fruits and vegetables is wrong here...you don't know anything again, and many of these fruits and vegetables don't have names in English...there is just too many.” We continue on our way, he shows us the cows, the ducks, the okra, and finally...the rice paddies. Acres of rice, green and verdant even in the fading light. A lightning strikes in the distance, its flash reflecting off the water in the rice fields. Everything is quiet, and smells green.
We are introduced to the rest of the family, nieces and nephews run amok as their mothers sit on the concrete outside under the awning and do prep-work for dinner on cutting boards. We go inside and sit at the table with Dad. The four of us farang talk and laugh as he watches with amusement. We get out some money to contribute to the cost of the beer and dinner, his eyes twinkle and he speaks rapidly in Thai, taking Josh's hand and leading him away to the little motor scooter...they return a few minutes later with another bag of large bottles of Singha...its going to be a late night. After a while, dinner begins to trickle out. First a plate covered with bits of fried fish in some sort of sauce. Then a plate of some sort of sauteed beef, then a plate of sauteed mixed vegetables, then a crock full of gaeng keowaan gai...green curry chicken, then plates of rice. Everything smells heavenly.
The gaeng keowaan gai begins a discussion concerning cooking ingredients, one of which is these little tiny tiny eggplants used in the sauce. My mother would be pleased to note that I have found a variety of eggplant I do not believe needs to be launched into the sun.
Now, I have had Thai food in the States. Basil Restaurant on 11th Street in Paso Robles is one of my favorite places to go. It was always good to get their Basil Spicy Fried Rice...rice is a wonderful thing is you are hungry for a thousand of something or so. I have had Thai food here in Thailand, at Sa's Place, Bedrock Guesthouse and Grill, and at S-Land...as well as a bunch of other places in Bangkok and Ban Phe... but I have NEVER had Thai food in a Thai home before.
I try a piece of the fish...its is mud-fish caught out in their rice paddies...it is INCREDIBLE. The sauce is fantastic...the vegetables are fantastic...the beef is fantastic...everything is unbelievably fantastic. I sit with these wonderful people, we eat, we laugh, we pass things back and forth. Dad passes me a dish full of chili sauce and a chunk of bamboo heart. “Pet pet!” he says... “Very spicy!” I dunk the bamboo spear in the chili sauce and eat it...it is HOT...a sweet powerful hot that builds. Its delicious...bamboo heart and chili sauce are quickly dealt with...when all is said and done we have made a powerful dent in the food.
The in-laws begin to leave, everyone begins to say their goodbyes. During the course Pete told us not to wai until we felt is...and I felt it. A deep respect and gratitude that words cannot quite express. They left, and we sat on the porch watching the rain. I love it here, and I am happy.
Day Two on Old Mc'Brucey's Farm
Tonight, I sit on the same front porch, in the same bamboo chair, with Dad watching me write. We share a few words in Thai...he speaks no English and my grasp of Thai is rudimentary at best, so when we need to say something it involves pantomiming and gestures. Tonight I have learned about the “lom yen”. “Lom” is the Thai word for “Breeze” and “Yen” is the Thai word for “Cool”. Tonight we sit on the porch drinking a couple bottles of Singha, enjoying the lom yen...the cool breeze. He looks at me and gestures for me to sit, “Sanuk sanuk” he says at the lightning begins to light up the sky over the rice patties. Sanuk seems to be roughly equivalent to “Enjoy” but it seems to be also connected to “Relax”. I hear other words tossed around that I am beginning to understand. I pick up fon...or rain. It is certainly going to rain tonight.
Today was another wonderful day, it started slowly...washed my other set of clothes I have with me right now...everything I have had with me for this trip fits in one small backpack...and that includes a pair of dress shoes, a laptop, and a metric crapload of cables and electronics...and I can't figure out why the heck I needed so much stuff to begin with. The more I travel around, the more I realize I don't NEED things. Everything I own in this world with the exception of a few things back home fits in a suitcase (albeit a large one) and a backpack...the suitcase and most of my possessions currently reside in Jasmine's room back in Ban Phe...she was kind enough to let me park it there whilst I ran off on my visa run to Laos. Everything I have with me right now fits in the backpack...a mil-surplus MOLLE bag...and its still more than I need.
After last night's festivities, Bruce was feeling a bit under the weather. He slept for a good bit of the day while the rest of us had our own adventures. There isn't really much in the way of tourist type things here...which is wonderful. We spent the day driving around, visiting various local attractions frequented by the people of the area themselves.
We went to an “Exercise Park” on the banks of the Mekong. As we pulled up I saw this elaborate series of brightly colored machines that looked like playground equipment. It turned out to be a very nifty series of exercise machines with sand-filled weights and spring-powered resistance machines. It was a far cry from an actual gym, but it was a hell of a lot better than nothing. You could never really have something like that in the States...too many openings for litigation...that’s why we can't have nice things. Here though, people know better than to put forth a frivolous lawsuit. We played around with the brightly colored machinery with Pear for a while, all of us being lead on a workout by the exuberant 8 year old.
After we finished there, we went and sat in a gazebo overlooking the Mekong for a while, watching the small boats ply the waters. The river was swollen and turbulent...this year is the most rain they have gotten in anyone's memory and the waters of the river are threatening to break forth. The turgid waters are filled with rafts of drifting lumber and brush, carried into them by the rain in the higher lands.
The waters lapped at the middle steps of our next stop, Wat Si Chomphu Ong Tue, a temple completed in 1607 and containing a tremendous cast bronze Buddha. Pear leads us inside, directing a service for our benefit to the amusement of the local worshipers who had arrived. She marched us up the front steps, directed us to make a contribution to the offering box...I put in 100 baht. Pear then directed is to pick a flower offering from the table in front of the temple and handed us each a bundle of incense sticks and a piece of paper containing a pure gold square. We knelt and lit in incense, all of us following and mimicking the movements of a 8 year old... acting on the faith of a child. We placed the incense in the sandbox for holding such things. The other worshipers stopped and watched, respectfully maintaining their distance. We knelt before the statue, each of us following her smooth movements with our own clumsy and uncoordinated attempts to follow along. (As I write this in the early morning, Pear just woke up and came downstairs...sleepy eyed wearing her little nighty to offer us all coffee and toast in her little British accent. I think Robert Heinlein said it best in “Time Enough for Love” when he said through the voice of Lazarus Long, “Little girls, like butterflies, need no excuse.”) We all knelt and prayed our own private prayers. We stood and respectfully struck the gong at the entrance... Three strikes with the massive padded hammer. As I struck the gong the first time on its ancient and well-worn boss, the tone resonated through my being, it wasn't loud...it wasn't deep... but it penetrated me to my core and chilled me to the bone... I had already removed my shoes out of respect before climbing the steps of the wat, but had I been wearing them I would have taken them off for I knew I stood on hallowed ground. We continued out of the wat and we watched Pear and Gkit (Pear's cousin) release fish into the river. I now have a small copper Buddhist medallion on my neck with my other talismans, a reminder of that gong strike against my heart.
Now, I have been close to being a Buddhist for years, I am enough of a Buddhist that I do not feel I am intruding or that I am somewhere I should not be in a temple, but I believe there is something that most non-Buddhist people fail to understand...especially those who come from a Christian background. I was speaking to Jasmine the other day, Jasmine is a wonderful wonderful woman and a very good Christian. We were discussing religion as I am wont to do with anyone who sits still near me for long enough, and she mentioned that Buddhism runs contrary to the Ten Commandments obeyed by most Judeo-Christian sects. The second commandment contains a prohibition against the worship of images, the statues of Buddha are seen by many as going directly against this commandment.
This is a very large misunderstanding on the part of the members of these sects; that when Buddhists pray at their temples and wats, that they are praying TO the statues...they are not. Buddhism is compatible with almost any religion because it is not a religion in of itself, it is a way of life. Buddhism is a transformatory way of living, not a structure or bureaucracy. It is entirely possible to be a Buddhist AND a Christian, or a Buddhist AND a Muslim. I even once knew a man who was a Buddhist AND a Satanist. Buddha is not a god...not in the western sense of a omnipotent being in the sky who governs like some earthly king. Western incarnations of God always carry with them some sense of “Kingdom” that mirrors the earthly kingdoms. Jehova sitting on high with his Cherubim, Seraphim, Archangels, Armies of Angels doing battle in a very human sense with the powers of Darkness. Lucifer and his Dark Angels, the Demons, Archdemons, Captains and Generals of Hell commanding their legions of Fallen Angels... Most western religions bring with them these VERY human characteristics and governmental systems. I firmly believe that if you go on long enough with Democracy being seen as the “ideal” that you would see democratic systems operating on high as mirror images of the earthly worlds. Without exception religion changes to fit the culture...not the other way around.
Buddhism however embraces an entirely different concept...Buddha isn't a god...Buddha was just a man who was born on earth and lived a perfect life and is seen as an example to all others of the potentiality of human life...we CAN do it better, we CAN make life better for everyone and we CAN make this world a better place. The statues of Buddha and the wats serve as a reminder of this fact, not as something worshiped for their own sake.
As the evening progressed, Pear wanted to play cards. I remember being her age and wanting to do everything I could to entertain the guests my parents had over, often much to their irritation. There is only so many sock-puppet shows a parent can endure. I think this is universal to all outspoken children, we thrive on the attention and approval of our superiors. Pear went to the market and bought a deck of cards covered with anime characters and printed on cereal-box style chipboard. They were numbered and had two different colors, but no suits. She insisted that we all be dealt six cards and play an uno-style game matching the numbers up and each drawing a card if we could not match the number...after a few rounds of this I explained to her that the game could never end because we would all just keep going until we had a 4 and that nobody would win. We modified the rules slightly and I named it “Pear's Folly.” Pear was very impressed by this, I don't think she understood I made it up...as we played the only rules that really became evident is that the girls were allowed to cheat...especially Sienna.
Later in the evening, we were treated to an appearance by Hunter S. Thompson....I mean, Sienna. Sienna has been nursing a cold/tropical flu for the past few days. Last night she took a cocktail of various cold and flu medicines...just a few things we all had hanging around. One thing I have noticed about backpackers, is while they don't always have an extra pair of clean socks, they always have their own personal pharmacy. She became completely and totally loopy. Before the evening wound to a close with all of us watching Zombieland on my laptop we had managed to concoct a story concerning flying horses defecating on windshields in a “giant intersection” which began as a large multi-lane intersection and later became a place where all the giants of Jack and the Beanstalk proportions met...fantastical stories about phalanxes of flying horses weaving through the legs of massive Fee-Fie-Foe-Fumming giants with the sole purpose of crapping on windshields...Sienna is fun when she is taking cold medicine. I would include the entire dialogue leading up to these events, but it is very much a “You had to have been there...” thing, so I will not. :P
Today, we head back to Ban Phe. Sienna and I are taking a bus from Nong Khai to the bus station in Rayong where we will catch a song-tau to Ban Phe...the city I marginally call home right now. Monday I begin job searching in earnest by going to Bangkok and buying a suit...it should be quite an experience. Josh will continue on from here to Chang Mai to try to find a job in Northern Thailand...I need to be by the sea though, and I have a girl who smells of Jasmine blooms waiting for me back in Ban Phe.
NOTE: All of this was written over the past few days and is just now being put online. Let me know what you think!
|Last Updated on Saturday, 04 September 2010 03:52|