Tuesday, May 30, 2006

Seeking The Whole Nautilus

Seeking The Whole Nautilus

May have told you I was doing some landscaping consulting down here. After all this new post-tsunami reconstruction, what comes next? Landscaping, right?

Digger and Mel put in a bunch of new plants around their front porch, and when I rode up on my motorbike, they asked me what I thought. 'Looks good,' I told them.

Two doors down, Michael, recently returned from Sweden, and his Thai wife, Pom, put in new plants around their new fish ponds and asked, 'How do you like?'

'Looks good,' I told them.

Michael is also officially the owner of Bovi, who has now bitten ten people, according to Michael, who tends to tell the same story three of four times in a sitting, and each time he sees you.

"I tell them, 'He not my dog, but they say 'you feed him,' but I tell them I feed all da dogs, and they not belong me. I feed da cats, and they not belong me. I feed the Thai people also, and they not belong me,' hey?" he said, nodding his head as if to ask me if he was making sense.

"They tell me, 'He your dog. He sleep in your house'," said Michael, shrugging his shoulders with a look of resignation, like, 'What can I say to that?'

"So, I guess he my dog," he continued, followed by a vignette I'd already heard sixteen times. "He come here puppy after tsunami," he said, showing me with his hands how small the dog was. "He choose me. I not choose him. I feed him, and he stay. He only survivor of all dogs here. Before tsunami, he never make with anybody. Now, he make shit with everybody who come by."

As he told the story, a Thai man and his son rode by on bicycles, the little boy trailing a few meters behind his dad. Bovi, in the street at the time, began to make a move on the little boy. Michael shouted out, "BOVI! MAI!" and the little boy, watching Bovi all the while, screamed out in mortal terror.

Bovi eased up after making three or four stiff-legged aggressive steps after the kid, smiled, and returned to the yard, relaxing his muscles, lowering his ears, wiping the smile off his face, and glancing up sheepishly at Michael, who was giving him a tongue-lashing in Swedish.

The guys sitting on their porch across the street chuckled, and another Thai man, sauntering down the street, smiled and shook his head as Bovi left the yard and approached him, wagging his tail.

"He likes that guy," I said.

"He likes some people," said Michael. "Other people, he don't like."

Just then another motorbiker came by, the man lifting his feet off the foot pegs and onto the frame, gunning his motor as Bovi chased him down the street, Michael screaming, 'BOVI! MAI!" and Bovi ignoring him.

"That guy," said Michael, nodding his head in the direction of the biker, "he don't like."


When just arriving or just about to depart, don't you like to pay one last visit to your 'favorite spot', a place where there are no footprints, nothing to disturb your thoughts, and only the sounds of nature?

The other day, while walking the beach up around the Cape, I saw a piece of coral that looked "just like a chicken's foot," I told Digger.

After a few moments, he replied, "A chicken's foot? There's only about a million or so of those. You see them all the time."

"...and another piece that looked just like a brain."

He just laughed and shook his head. "You must've been up around the Cape."

"...and another piece of coral that looked juuuust like a cloud."

So, we look selectively for the perfect specimens, bypassing by all those fragmented or common shells, like Augers, Cones, Olives, and Arabian Cowries, and all that stuff collected by the tourists who are here for just a few days.

I've seen only three Nautilus shells, but they were all broken and much less than complete. The Nautilus, very rare, a cephalopod, found in the tropical Indian Ocean and Western Pacific. A weird, tenacled creature when occupying it's chambered shell, unchanged in 500 million years of evolution. I sure hope you and me don't take that long.

So, the Nautilus, or the piece of coral in the perfect shape of a heart, the 'cardium cardissa' or heart cockle, or something else unsual that might catch the eye in an early morning stroll down the beach before sunrise.

And then, washed up by last evening's high tide, there was that big piece of coral that looked just like a human skeleton; skull, rib cage, the pelvis, the whole bit, about the size of a German. The tide left it looking funny, as if it had dragged itself ashore. At first, I was shocked by the uncanny resemblance, teeth and all, on a piece of coral like none I'd previously ever seen. I approached it and said, 'People been looking for you.'

I thought it would look good propped up against one of my palm trees, legs crossed, kicked back, maybe holding a cigarette in one hand and a beer in the other. Maybe grinning, mouth agape, holding up a tiny roach. I could see it, couldn't you? like that skeleton on the rez that Misty said had the house burn down around it, and they found it sitting there on the charred springs of a stuffed chair, holding a beer.

The only way I could get it home was to drag it up the beach and strap it onto my motorbike, on the back, with it's feet on the foot pegs and securing it in place with a bungee strap around my waist. I draped the arms over my shoulders and let the chin rest on my back, reminding me of how the Japanese girl, Lulu, used to ride over the mountain to work at the volunteer center last year, hitching a ride from the jungalows. She'd put her chin right on my shoulder blade, and I always wanted to ask her, 'Is that the way they ride in Japan?' but never did.

But Lulu was very small, and this piece of coral was quite large, like I said, about the size of a German, although not as rigid. In fact, it was flexible enough for me to ride quite comfortably, which I normally can't do with someone on the back, because of my knees.

About a mile from the house, I turned and asked it, 'How you doing back there?' and I couldn't get home quick enough because the early-morning traffic was getting heavy, and people were staring. I felt somewhat self-conscious and embarrassed as they looked at me, laughing by myself as I rode down the road.

The Laundry Girl and the chicken-on-a-stick lady, and the people at the shoe shop all told me they saw me driving down the road with a skeleton on the back of my bike, and I had to tell them, laughing, 'No. That was a piece of coral.'


Monday, May 15, 2006

Slicing Through The Ectoplasm

Slicing Through The Ectoplasm


Khuk Khak, Thailand - On the beach of the Andaman Sea in timeless monotony, one wave rolls beneath the next, crashing behind another; one day bleeds into the next, one lifetime rolls onto another. A generation, then another. What is gained? What is lost? Want to know the future? What happened yesterday? Check the DNA. Today, what did Earth spin into motion?

And for how long have those Sea Turtles dragged themselves ashore to lay their eggs?



The drive north on motorbike to Takuapa ('Tah-koo-uh-pa') seems longer than it really is, a mere 25 kilometers, a half-hour ride, a lifetime aboard a Honda. North of Cape Pakarang, approaching Bangsak Beach, the air beneath a cool, tunneled patina canopy of jungle is thick and lava lamp gelatin, the road lined with orange blossoms, surreal, dreamy, and two dimensional.

Slicing through the ectoplasm aboard a Honda Wave, skin and sense of self stretching deep into the jungle, entering a timeless dimension of amorphous being.



They say it's good luck to see a cobra, and the Thai will even chase them, getting them to stop, coil, and fan out its unmistakable hood. So it was good luck, I suppose, to see that cobra exiting the garden, headed for the jungle. I didn't chase him, but thought of what Milo had said about that rattlesnake under my cabin on the reservation.

"You've created the perfect environment for a snake," he said. "Water, mice, birds."

On the television set, the ten-year old son of a Thai snake charmer played with a cobra, squatting, constantly moving his knees, hands, arms, swaying his head before the confused and undulating reptile, poking the snake's chest (if a snake has a chest), up in the snake's face in a stare-down contest, the cobra flicking its forked tongue, until the cobra finally struck, and the kid, practiced enough to anticipate the snake's attack, would quickly leap or lean back, just milimeters from the snake's deadly fangs. Quite a spellbinding show.

But once, the snake got him, right on the nose. The father and somebody else, maybe a grandfather or a medicine man, jumped up quickly, pulled the snake from the kid's nose, and immediately applied a paste. The studio audience gasped, and then applauded. Quite a show.



Just east across the quickly-filling reservoir, the Wat Komaneeyakhet, a vast, manicured complex of buildings, the school, the Temple, monks' dwellings, administrative facilities, open-air pavilions and dining rooms, they're getting a new swimming pool and tennis courts.

The Wat is getting a complete make-over, including a big opening ceremony a few months back for, I think, the completion of the entry-way arch at the highway, a beautiful, ornate, relief work of mostly gold and lots of other colors, all executed in Siamese style that you can sit and look at for a long time.

Three or four dozen men and women Thai workers have been busy over there for months, and after wondering for a long time just what it was they were building, along with the new long, two-story classroom buildings, and new monk's quarters, it looks like, finishing touches are being completed on the pool and courts.

It's probably for the school kids and not the resident monks. If it's for the monks, I'd like to get a shot of monks playing tennis in flip flops and saphron robes.

Went over there (to the Wat) the other night at the invitation of my students, who informed me that they (the resident monks) were having a Vientien ceremony, a lighting of the candles ceremony, there under the full moon.

One of my students said it was Buddha's awakening, but then they said it was candles. Same student said we shouldn't kill the mosquito in the temple when I brushed one away. Then, one of the monk's assistants, a local layman dressed in white, an adherent or something, was standing talking with another of the students, and reached up and slapped a mosquito on his forehead.

"What about that?" I asked. "He just killed a mosquito."

"Reflex," said my student, grinning.

Lizards, frogs, sa-corpions and sa-nakes. And the ever-present-in-the-evening mosquitos here are like the three rounds (bullets) between tracers - it's the ones you don't see that get you.

In a huge open-air pavillion with a stage occupied by six or seven resident monks in front of an enormous buddha, much of the evening's hour-long repeat-after-me chanting, prayer, and amplified teaching ceremony went right past me for two reasons; the mosquitos around my ankles kept me fidgeting and divided my attention, and the whole thing was in Thai. After the half-hour discourse/teaching/dharma talk, I leaned over to ask the Laundry Girl, "whud he say?" and she said, 'Uh..." whispering, "I'll tell you later."

"Something about Buddha, wasn't it?" I asked.

Perhaps she didn't understand the humor.* If so, perhaps it wasn't appropriate for me at that moment to be cracking a joke.


* The genesis of this joke relates back fifteen years or so ago with Uncle Larue, Joseph Afraid Of Bear, who spoke (rarely) at length (in Lakota) during purification ceremony on the Cheyenne River in South Dakota, south of Hot Springs. Outside afterward, around the fire, I asked, "Whud he say?"

After a short silence, allowing elders Ernest and Uncle Joe time to respond, Brother Tom, it was, blurted out, "He said something about God."



Pen, the local lady who spends the rainy season in France with her husband, and arranged for the English classes to be taught in the Khuk Khak community building, was showing Mel the classroom when the village chief was testing the new tsunami warning system over loud speakers set up throughout the village. The old man's voice croaked out throughout the community, sounding something like, 'Testing...testing...nuong...song...sam...nuong...song...nuong..song...sam.'

"Do you have a siren or taped message to play in the event of a tsunami?" asked Mel.

"No," replied Pen. "We just get on the speaker and yell, "EVERYBODY! 'RUN! RUN! RUN!' "



Love Our Gas, Do Anything For It

Down at the 'petrol gah-rrahge', as Mel says, the gas is only about fifty cents a litre, and that can run a Honda for about a week - you might have to go back on Thursday for another fifty cents worth. Relatively speaking, that seems like pocket change for transportation, recalling how my last trip from S. Dakota to Denver exceeded two hundred dollars, US., one way.

Wudden on a Honda, wuzzit?

Motorbike Culture

But then, where do you have to go? In Saharut Amereeka, as they call us, we go EVERYwhere in our cars. Go to work in our cars, go to play in our cars, pick up the groceries, the kids, the laundry, go to the corner in our cars. Gotta have a car. A drive-by wouldn't be a drive-by without a car. Over here, a drive-by means, 'on a honda' .

Among other wild-ass ideas that never got off the ground, I was thinking of instituting the drive-by funeral parlor, where you could , you know, give your last respects at a drive-up window, something someone like Bryan could really appreciate. Church service, the same way. All in the comfort of your car .

Most people here are too poor to own a car, thusly, about ninety percent of the population is on motorbikes, just about anywhere you go in Asia. That's the good news? Bad news is, more people are buying cars.

So you'll see whole families aboard a bike, already told you, no helmets, everybody wearing flip-flops. Things you'd find appalling in other countries, such as the much-practiced art of propping your infant child on the seat in front of you if they're too young to stand on the seat and hold onto the mirrors. Baby can't even hold its head up. If they're three or four, they can stand on the frame and hold onto the mirror posts.

And there's a strange sort of pride you'll see in the eyes of a mother as she goes down the road with her ten-month old, can't walk yet, but old enough to stand and ride.

And before they're old enough to stand and ride, they've got a custom-made wicker child's seat designed especially to fit over the frame of a motorbike. They sell 'em in the shops, a kind of a little high chair. Most of the time, the kids don't seem to be enjoying the ride, dirt in their eyes.

Most of the time, they seem to be quite terrified, as if they know their lives are in extreme danger. It's the parents who are smiling. They've got the kid as a shield.


"Tttttttthat's a lance," said the stork from Amsterdam, who probably wouldn't like knowing he was refered to as such. "Ttttttttthat's madness," he said as I began to exit the lumber yard with three fifteen-foot lengths of bamboo for my thatch roof. "Why don't you let me deliver that for you," he said, nodding at his truck.

"It's not mad," I replied. "Everybody does it. Haven't you seen some of the loads people carry on a bike?"

"IIIIIIIIIIIII knowwww," he said, with a hint of whiny exasperation that I wondered was a cultural thing with the Dutch, "bbbbbbbbut tttttttthat stilldoesn'tmakeitnot mmmmmad."

"Ok," I finally said, taking him up on his offer after trying to balance the poles on takeoff and striking the rear quarter panel of his truck, him watching me all the while.

He also offered me advice on which thatch to buy. The ones that rotted.



Sunday, May 07, 2006

The Shop Comes To You

The Shop Comes To You

Khuk Khak, Phang Nga, Thailand - If you wait long enough, they say, eventually, everything will come to you. That's what they say. One might wonder if they're just talking about 'things', or Karma, or love, or money, or what.

Over here, if you sit at home long enough, everything will eventually come to you. There are vendors of every sort, and they'll bring everything to your door, in the manner of the Fuller brush salesman and the milkman, for those who can remember the milkman, or the fishman. But that was back in the day, long before Mrs. Sweeney's Microwavable Frozen Square Fish Bricks.

"You and I are going to become very good friends," I said to the ice cream (that's 'Isa-Kareem') vendor when he jingled his way past my house, looked up, saw me looking back at him, then swung into the empty lot beside my house where everyone in town, it seems, comes to view from a panoramic vista, the continuing dredging work on the ever-expanding reservoir that will someday export water to the villages of Khuk Khak, Bang Niang, and Khao Lak.

That's one long-ass sentence, inna?

Besides selling me a drumstick, he dismounted his three-wheeled motor chariot to check out my newly-installed thatched roof over the back patio, suggesting reinforcement for the monsoon winds that will otherwise blow it away if left it in its current, what I had previously thought was finished, state.

And Yahn, who seems to stop by every day, and whom it seems, doesn't have a working job, has said on three or four occasions that the pitch needs to be increased to shed the water. Otherwise, it'll mildew and eventually rot.

But did I listen to either one of them?


The first big wind presented an idea of what the isa kareem man was talking about, and a few weeks later, after several rains, when the whole business began to mildew from trapped water, it became apparent what Yahn was telling me, and I realized that maybe these Thai might know something about living in the tropics.


Mr. Gui, who runs the big hardware store in Bang Niang, said a good one the other day when I was trying to explain to him the high mountains of Colorado. 'Much snow', I told him.

"Ahhhhh," he said. "Sah-No."

"Yeah," I said, making the motions of a downhill skier. "Sah-Kee."

Yeah, downhill sah-keeing on the sah-lopes.


"Repeat after me," I told the three-times-a-week English class of a dozen adults above the Khuk Khak shoe shop. "Slllllleeep."


"Let's try again. Sllllllllllllleeeep."



They gave me a name over here last year that I took a long time to figure out what everyone was calling me.

'P' Yai.'

The 'P' is an honorific title, and I knew 'Yai' meant 'big', so I naturally assumed they were calling me 'Mr. Big', either because of my XL American size, or maybe because they had somehow heard of who I almost could've been, back home in my own country. Who knows? Someone could've said something.

'Don't you know who he almost could've been?'

Wonderful line, inna? Came from the reservation, 1998, relatively recent. Along with, 'Be your own damn nigger,' spoken with the emphasis on 'own', as would an aging southern Black grandmother, sah-peaking to her grandson.

The quote, now moving rapidly toward both coasts from S. Dakota, arose while ditch-digging one day, laying a new copper water pipe to replace the plastic one that wasn't worth a shit to begin with, and had been punctured repeatedly by gophers, playing a mind-game with Brother Tom, who insisted the gophers were 'against' him, and that yes, he was out there yet another day, another time, attempting to 'defeat' the gophers. Happened six or seven times before we dug up the whole damn thing and replaced it with copper.

If my memory serves me correctly, which I have learned lately that it often does not, I told the crew at the time, "When my momma see-int me off to schoo, she told me, 'Boy, you ain't nevva gon' haf' to do fiel nigguh work again. Evva.' "

But here it was, some thirty seben eleben years behine what she said, and there I was, right along with Bo and Manuel and Lupe' and that other guy who left after one day, doing field nigger work that I thought I had left a longgg-ass time behind me, in graduate school, at least.

That was back in the day, before Manny approached me, telling me I could make it to the top if I kept a good work ethic and stayed away from fast women and that 'bad crowd' down on 32nd street.

"Instead of looking at de championship," he told me, "you could be looking at de yudge."

But did I listen to Manny?


He would always say after the match, "I try to tell you, but you no leeson. NOW look at you!"

And sure enough, the fast women and bad crowd got me up in front of a local magistrate, who told me, "Son, you had a chance to almost be somebody. Considering her age, I'm only going to give you thirty-six months. You can do your time in the state prissson, or you can take your chances in the 'Nam."

I said to to her, "What the fuck, Your Honor. That's an easy choice. I'll take my chances in the 'Nam."

The rest is history.


So, I was big then, compared to the Vietnamese, and I still am, compared to the Thai. That's why they call me 'Mr. Big'.

Or, that's what I thought. Then, here I come to find out that it don't mean, 'Mr. Big' or 'Big Daddy' at all, but rather, 'Big Brother.'

"Ohhhhhh. P' Yai," they say when they finally get it. "That's like means, big brother. Same same oldest son."

Donchaknow that let the wind out of my sails, when all along I thought it had something to do with importance.


So, besides the ice cream man and the lady who comes by selling chicken-on-a-stick, there is the Knife Man, selling any kind of shape and size of balade imaginable. See? They've got me talking like that. That's 'blade'. He's got everything you need, from fingernails clippers, Edward Scissorhands and general purposwe kitchen knives, up to a French guillotine.

And besides the Ice Cream Man and the Chicken Lady and the Knife Man, there's the Broom Man, the Aluminum Ladder man, the Fresh Fish & Meat Lady, the Salad Lady, the Burmese Wicker Chair Guys, the Portrait-of-the-King vendors, the Basket Lady, the Carved Buffalo Horn Lady, the Feather Duster & Toilet Bowl Brush Man, the Iced Pop-in-a-Sack and Snack People, and the Cushion & Stuffed Animal Man, coming through either on foot, pulling a two-wheeled cart, or on 3-wheeled motorcycles with side cars, outfitted with sun shades or umbrellas for when it rains.


And it was raining last night, so the Bamboo Girl who was going to attend the dinner party chose to remain in Takuapa instead, and bring down the free bamboo chair tonight, instead of in the pouring rain, when all those people who we didn't think would show because of the weather, showed up anyway for dinner, the first fifteen being Thai, and making me wonder if any of the foreigners at all would show.

They did, fashionably late, and staying late, whereas all the Thai were gone by 8:30, except for Jack.

Turned out that we ordered way too much food. The fish and chicken curry were big hits, but we had too much fried rice, and didn't really need the ten kilos for the one vegetarian who showed up.

Had just the right amount of small giveaway trinkets, flower arrangements, potted plants, shower caddies and the evening's main prize for that lucky person out there, a fully automated electronic mosquito zapper, that I ended up keeping for the house.

An open house dinner party was how it was billed, and an open house in the tropics needs a mosquito zapper. Had to re-think that one. Had to think outside the giveaway box.

"What's the occasion?" a few had asked, and I tried to explain the ideas of give-away and, 'feeding the people' out of a spirit of thanksgiving, any day, any time, and not just on one prescribed American holiday that reminds many Native Americans of an unpleasant series of horrific circumstances arising out of this one particular event that subsequently became institutionalized in American history as 'Playoff Day'.


So, here I was holding this dinner party with the excited anticipation of giving away as much as I possibly could, and then all these folks began showing up with gifts. The wife of Nakon, the iron- worker who custom-made my iron gate, showed up with two plants, an Aloe and an Orchid; other people showed up with food, drink, and desserts, and I ended up with more beer than with what we had on hand for the beginning of the party.

That's the way it went, everyone asking me about the house, "How much you pay?"

If you're a foreigner staying long time in a rental property, everyone asks you that same question. On the street, they'll all ask you where you're going. If you're a foreigner, or 'farang' as we're known here, they know you must be going somewhere. You've GOT to be going somewhere. The third question is, 'How long you stay?'

I want to say, "On planet Earth?" and, "Heaven, I hope," to where I'm going, and, "Why is it important to you how much I'm paying? What are you going to do with that information?"

But that would be too smart-alecky and far too oblique for the humor to be appreciated, so I don't use it that much, instead, answering honestly, "Not much", "Khao Lak", and, "six months," to their questions.

We laugh about how that question, 'Where are you going?' from complete strangers, would be received in New Jersey or New York.


The big event of the evening was the low-key arrival of Chatchada, the internationally famous supernova artist-in-residence who assists Digger and Melanie with their art and English program at Senanakul High School up in Takuapa. She GAVE me one of her pieces, a framed charcoal abstract of fishing boats, prominently displayed on the kitchen wall, the first thing you see when you enter the house.

'Better leave it right where it is,' I thought, gazing at it in admiration. Leave it where it is, rather than take it back to the States and run the chance of having it ripped off in my absence, like those drunk Indians did this time when they broke into my reservation home and took with them all my tools, irreplacable artwork, and ceremonial drum, Brother Tom said in an email.

Home? Where's home? You mean planet Earth?

How long you stay? I don't know.