A CELEBRATION OF LIFE
I'm starting this post after another intensely refreshing cold water bucket shower. Despite the heat of most work days, it's a harrowing experience everyday to clean off. Anyway I thought I would give a few anecdotes on places I have visited around the Mae Mut area these first two weeks.
A week ago there was a four day blessing of the newly built crematorium just down the road. The ceremony was paired with something of a 1 year anniversary funeral for, as Nok put it, "a girl who everybody loved and she just didn't wake up one morning." Every night the buddhist monks' chants would float through the air to my house. Lilting and disembodied, they were a deep lullaby and usually put me to sleep. In the morning chimes would tickle my ears long before the sun peaked over the mountains and the chanting would begin again. Many of the Thai workers commented on how scary the sounds were, as apparently monks in the dark mountains are akin to creepy kids in the hallway in American horror movies. Needless to say, when Pee Hom invited Gaina and I to join her and her daughter the last night of the ceremony, I was expecting a solemn occasion.
As we approached the glowing lights of fires and strings of camp lights, I began to realize the situation was quite different. Around 100 people were moving about, sitting in circles of lawn chairs, and chatting with smiles amongst the chants. A pavilion was set aside as a prayer area, where the monks led anyone who wanted to pray. I joined for some time feeling slightly unsure as whether to copy everyone's bows or sit still and reverent. I can imagine what a newcomer to Catholic mass in an unknown language must feel with traditions and motions abound. Everyone was quite amicable however, and excited to converse in very broken Thai. After removing ourselves from the worship area as a microphone error put a halt to the chants, Gaina and I made our way to a circle of children.
The kids were gathered around cylinders that glowed with an orange flame almost exactly the shade of the monks robes. We were graciously given our own paper lantern, which we patiently waited to watch swell with the heat of the dripping oil candle beneath. When the time came, our lantern drifted up through the trees to become a slightly brighter star. It wasn't a release of 1000 lanterns, but when we were told to say a prayer when we let go, I thought it was quite spectacular and majestic indeed.
About eight kids launched a lantern just after ours. They held the thin paper amid yelps and laughter. When their lantern ended up harmlessly caught on a tree branch there were screams of delighted terror, no doubt thinking the whole forest might burn down. I couldn't help put see a striking resemblance to fireworks gone amuck during 4th of July block parties of years past. Much to mine and the kids delight, fireworks were exactly what came next. As sparks flew into the air along with prayers floating on the night breeze, I realized what a celebration this was. Surrounded by opportunities to mourn the already deceased or the people soon to be ashes on this very spot, everyone was instead celebrating life. Death was a reason to take joy and stock in all the wonderful life we are given.
The day following the christening ceremony was rife with encounters of a local nature. In the afternoon I went with Gai Son and Soo Pan to gather some bamboo up on one of the mountains. We made our way through town with only one hitchhiker leaping off the back of the moving pickup. As we left the buildings we gave up smooth pavement beneath the tires. The road pressed in and we reared up steep deeply rutted sections. We passed cornfields clinging to the embankments with roots bare and dry in the mountain air. At the end of our jarring excursion was a pair of weathered Thai "lumberjacks" sitting in a shaded area next to a dollhouse temple on top of a mountain river dam.
The bamboo was cut and split into broad shingles already. The pieces of the soon to be guest house roof were quickly deemed too long for the truck bed. With few words (and very few that I understood) Gai Son and Soo Pan set to extending the the truck bed with the materials present. Within five minutes, a rectangle of wood was cut, shaped, and lashed to the truck with bamboo strips. In short time we had the full load of bamboo was layered and secured with barely a rope in sight.
As we worked we were passed by two hiking groups on guided tours up to Gai Son's village. One couple from Holland stopped to inspect our activities and chat for a bit. Truthfully they seemed more intrigued by me, an American in a Green Bay Packers shirt hauling bamboo seemingly by choice. It was strange suddenly looking outside through the opposite side of the tourist glass. I was now something to be observed, an interesting tidbit from someone's trip to Thailand. I wondered how one might feel when their whole village and lifestyle is subjected to a foreigners scrutinising. My coworkers and friends are now the interesting natives who are advertised on the travel packages. The guide threw in a few factoids about roofing in rural Thailand and they were off, leaving us to a bumpy ride back down to the village.
As we entered the village right before ours, we were halted by the mayor. Dressed in a t-shirt and old sweatpants, he looked much the same as others returning from the corn fields for the evening. After a few minutes of discussion we were asked to dump all of our purchased bamboo and be on our way. I didn't find out what had happened until I returned to the farm. Apparently there is a public building project in the next village and all the bamboo must go towards it at this time. Marco was unaware of this when he asked for the bamboo and Nok was able to sort it all out with a joint meeting of our mayor and theirs. While this first struck me as quite unfair to Marco, it highlighted an admirable quality in Thai culture. Building here is a communal process. Everyone will contribute with their hands or their wallets to all houses and structures that are constructed in these smaller villages.
This group mentality shone through again the night following the bamboo incident. The drinking water delivery man managed to get his wheel stuck in midair above one of our irrigation canals. Nok made one phone call and suddenly five minutes later a motley crew of belching, joking Thai fellas made their way into the porch one by one like the seven dwarves. In thirty seconds, the car had been lifted and the water unloaded. And then they were off. This delivery man is the same who picked a up group of hikers with Marco after a mountain top truck breakdown. Helping your neighbour seems to be as constant as the planting and harvesting of rice every year in this tucked away valley.
While much of of my time has been spent with local villagers, that doesn't mean I haven't spent my time seeing sites as an outsider. A week ago I spent some time at a local guesthouse in a village down the road. It's next to an elephant camp that gives rides to the patrons. While the site of the majestic beasts chained within a twenty foot radius and the caustic smoke of plastic burning in the trash heaps out me off, my time playing with elephants was undeniably wonderful.
First we fed the elephants bananas with the owner of the guesthouse. Their trunks were as dexterous as an hand I had ever shook. They slurped up banana after banana continuously and pulled gently on my arm asking me to play. Kisses from the wiggling nostrils were snotty and the hairs on top of their heads were bristly like brushes we soon washed one with. With an inside track to the camp we splashed around in the river in a teenage elephant. Rolling in the water next to tourists passing on river rafts, we scrubbed and rode the muscly grey beast loving the cool rush of water. Beautiful and intelligent, it was a shame to see these animals chained up and ridden on in baskets of bikinied and sunglassed visitors. But they sure are fun to play with.