Tuesday, April 12, 2011

The cold sting of defeat

Today is the first day of, what I gather is, a week-or-so-long celebration of Thailand's Songkran festival. I don't know what this festival is about, or what historical event it purportedly celebrates, but a glaring component of the festival is that children (and adults) stand on the roadside and throw buckets of water at passers-by.

I have been told, for many of the tourists present in the country, Chiang Mai is the place to be for celebrating this festival; thanks to these Farang, Chiang Mai also attracts a higher than average number of Thai nationals to likewise partake in the higher than average revelry.

No thanks. Not interested. Not really in a position to go, either.

I would wager, due to the higher volume of current visitors, there aren't many rooms available in Chiang Mai; and if there are, they may only be available at the Travel Lodge or the Downtown Inn Hotel. Not only that, but according to what I read in the paper this morning, there are to be expected on average 50-60 road fatalities on each day of this week, and yesterday alone - the festival not having really started - there were 400 injuries and 29 deaths.

An emphatic double no thanks.

But as this is a Thai national holiday, a lot of my Thai co-workers are on vacation: visiting their home cities and villages; celebrating in what I gather is the true way to celebrate this holiday by visiting family. It seems like a sort of Thai Thanksgiving (a likeness that should be understood by any of my Canadian or American readers), even though it purports to be a sort of Thai New Years.

Our office is only 'officially closed' tomorrow (which is not to say I won't necessarily be here), so any of my colleagues who have chosen to leave have had to cash in some of their annual leave. I have other acquaintances who 'work' in Mae Sot whose offices/schools are closed for one or two weeks due to Songkran. Lucky kids.

As our office is open, I'm at work, dutifully working away at whatever it is I do here (though not right now - I'm writing this weblog entry).

Yesterday, one of my colleagues also still present informed me that should I encounter some children wielding buckets of water, I should just outstretch my arm, display my palm, and the children should retreat. I had an opportunity to test this theory after eating lunch today as I rode my bicycle back to my office from the intersection opposite the Mae Sot Hospital - not much more than 500 meters from my office, though in densely populated area from the hospital intersection. Today is a relatively sunny day - it's been overcast of late - but the street was streaked by water from the various shops I passed by, so it seemed I would have ample opportunity to test the theory.

To the first group of children I encountered - little girls, who stood with buckets of water at the ready, dripping wet hair and clothing, and smiles stretched across their faces - I extended my hand and watched both their buckets and smiles retreat. An emboldening first victory for me.

Cross 100 dry meters of cycling off the itinerary.

To the next group of children I encountered, 50 or so meters further down the road, there would be no repeating that first taste of victory. The ring leader of the group, who was awaiting my arrival outside my field of view on the opposite side of the roadway, had other ideas.

I outstretched my arm to the children, showed them my palm, and as the smiles began to fade, and the buckets began to lower in the hands of this second group, the ring leader - a man whose mustache made him appear to be older than I - came charging into the roadway and at the top of his lungs he announced his call to arms. As my head turned toward him, his bucket of water was the first to hit me, and I winced in his direction at the sting of its coldness. The water from that second group of children arrived less than a second later, rendering the front side of me soaked through to the skin from head to toe.

Further on up the road, as I approached a third group of children, it no longer mattered. I'd already been defeated and was soaked to the skin. I think they could sense my lack of conviction so their smiles weren't quite as big; but, apart from the absence of that initial shock I experienced care of the second group, their ice cold water still stung just as much.

Nothing beats spending the afternoon sitting at your desk in soaking-wet trousers.

Friday, March 11, 2011

No Farang at the KFC

I've left this blog dormant for the last few months, though with every intention of restarting it to chronicle my current set of adventures in Thailand; I just haven't known how to start or what to write. Part of it has been disinterest; the rest of it has been a combination of things I'm not sure how to describe.

Two things that happened over the past few days have contributed to a renewed effort, so in the absence of a compelling narrative for today's blog entry, I've decided to briefly describe them here.

The first contributing factor was something my mom wrote to me by way of email a few days ago. The message was as follows:

Hi Bud...just got the mail and you came in 3rd in the short story contest...you won $75. and a nice letter.

When I returned to Canada from Djibouti way back in September 2010 I was occupied most days (to lesser and greater extents) on preparing my report for the work I'd been doing there. This went on for close to two months, followed by a long period of nothing. No place of work to attend or job to do; no real reason to put on pants in the morning. So I was reading a lot.

I'd also received a lot of positive feedback about some of the entries on this blog, and had received positive feedback about some of the other adventures I'd chronicled through other media, so in addition to reading I thought I might also take up writing. At the time I literally had nothing else to do during the long empty periods between job interviews (which, by the way, never amounted to anything). There also happened to be a short story contest at the Burlington Public Library.

I decided to adapt one of my blog posts to a short story and decided on 'The Grasshopper and the Spider' as it provided me with the best opportunity to easily apply Kurt Vonnegut's eight rules of creative writing.

Kurt Vonnegut is a great writer. He's one of my favourites. He also happened to be self-taught. So I thought, "why not I?".

Well, in addition to Vonnegut, I started reading some other books available in the Burlington Public Library about the craft of short story writing, written by a bunch of guys I'd never heard of. In hindsight, I'm sure I'd never heard of them because they'd never written anything of note. Thus, I should not have taken note of them in this endeavor.

The end result was a convoluted story filled with excessive exposition and description, all of which contributed to repeatedly offending the cardinal rule of "show, don't tell".

Ultimately, the story placed 3rd in the competition - which gives me plenty of room for improvement for next time - but I never felt very good about the thing I'd submitted. For a long time I was reluctant to pick up the pen. Now that I'm $75 richer, with the added affirmation of having some potential, I'm ready to pick it up again.

The second contributing factor to my resuming this blog was a conversation I had with a Thai colleague over dinner last night. To set the scene, it was about to start raining, I was on my bicycle, I was already in the 'downtown' area of Mae Sot having just dropped off my laundry with my laundress, so I stopped at the Krua Canadian restaurant - affectionately known as "Dave's" by the people who eat there - to have some farang food and read my book. My Thai colleague showed up a few minutes after I arrived.

A few notes on the above paragraph. First, the book I'm currently reading is Catch-22, by Joseph Heller. I'm completely absorbed by this book.

Second, 'Farang' is the generic Thai word for a Westerner. Every place I've ever been has some generic word for Westerners or foreigners, including, but not limited to, 'Obruni', 'Firangi', and 'Qallunaat' (a term used in my own country no less). I usually take offense to the word's use at the beginning of my stay, first to the word's being directed towards me and then to other Westerner's having embraced it and adopted it for themselves; but eventually I embrace it to such an extent that I become someone prejudiced towards other farang (as if I'm no longer one of them).

Over dinner, my Thai colleague informed me that she didn't typically come to Dave's because she doesn't like farang food - and there are too many farang there. I found myself agreeing with my Thai colleague, in part. Importantly, I couldn't disagree more on the topic of farang food. I can't get enough of the stuff. I just like to read my book while I imbibe.

But, in agreeing in part, I said out loud to her, "I sometimes like to avoid the other farang by going to the KFC so I can read my book while I eat and altogether avoid being social." Something along those lines. While saying that, I realized it's something I've been doing more and more lately - as many as three or four times a week (it being KFC, it's something that worries me on several levels).

My realization that I'm going out of my way to avoid other farang probably means a lot of things, some of which I am well aware of but dare not say; however, the one realization I'm hanging my hat on and relating here is that I'm at that point in my current travels where I've started spending a lot of time crawled up inside my head and should therefore start working my way out - via my weblog.

If you accept the assertion that 'practice makes perfect' (I love catchy slogans and will readily accept them for the truth of their contents), and the recent news that a small segment of the writing community has accepted me as having the potential to be a brilliant writer (I'm extrapolating here), then all signs point to it being time to start writing again.

To digress for a second, I went out for lunch today with three of my Thai colleagues - one colleague from dinner last night; another colleague also from the Protection Unit; and one of the office's drivers. The driver selected the restaurant, as being the restaurant with the best-tasting dog's-breakfast-of-a-fish-and-noodle soup in Mae Sot, and the Thai colleague from last night treated us all to it.

I really didn't care for the soup but the new experience was welcomed.

Indeed, I could write an entire short story about today's lunch. By the mere fact of it being from my outsider, farang perspective, I'm sure it would have great potential for comic relieve for the folks at home I know to read this (hi mom). I note this because there are so many interesting things happening all the time that are worthy of my commentary but have to date been denied the opportunity of having that honour.

So, to borrow one of those $100 phrases from my previous life working in law offices, it is my intention to write more "on a go-forward basis".

(There are a few adventures and misadventures kicking around in my head already.)