Por's new house
The mooyangolee was already lit for breakfast and the pungent charcoal smoke made my eyes sting. It leaves a greasy taste on your tongue too despite not opening your mouth yet. The charcoal is home-made by one of the sisters by making a mud kiln out of the lumps of sod lifted out of the paddy. You put the wood in the oven and light a fire under it and cook the lumps of timber. It gets a bit more technical that you pipe the gases from the cooking wood back into the fire using it to fuel its self. When the wood is cooked there is no more gas so the fire goes out. I don't know what sort of wood they use but it chokes. Obviously it is a very cheap method of cooking because the family own the wood, own the sawmill, and sell the charcoal that cost them nothing to produce. But why can't they close the kitchen door when they are cooking and stop stinking the house, and more particularly my bedroom, out. It wasn't very hot this morning, or to put it another way, I didn't wake up wringing wet and stinking worse than the charcoal in the mooyangolee. It was still night-time and pitch black and I couldn't see a bloody thing. Not even the luminous hands on my Tag Heuer still on my left wrist. Funny thing about my Tag. It is by far the best watch I have ever owned and it cost me twenty five quid from Rhong Kluea Market so it must be genuine. It has never missed a beat yet every time I want to know the date it is quarter past the hour and hiding the numeral.
The cockerels were taking it in turns to crow and my right shoulder and right hip had gone to sleep. I hate sleeping on the floor - I'm too bloody old and crotchety for it and Thai mattresses are too hard and thin. Of course, they are good for you, and after a few days sleeping like this the backache stops. And I mean permanently. I wake up in my soft cosy extra deep memory foam mattress that cost nearly a thousand quid with a backache. Once I am used to the firmness I wake on a home made three inch thick mattress in Thailand feeling great. But I didn't feel great right now as the mosquito net string snapped in the dark room supplying me with a labyrinth of confusion as I thrashed about like Eric Morecambe looking for the slit.
I thought I found it and tried to step out but ended up wearing the entire net and stuck my little toe into the new silent type fan left stood on the floor that had tricked me into thinking it wasn't too hot today. The nylon net slid on the tiled floor beneath one foot while the other booted the bedroom door open with me mumbling words of dissatisfaction. I attained supreme resignation and turned on the light expecting Waan to complain furiously at my inconsideration. But she wasn't there. Instead one of the aunts, who I hasten to add was on the outside of the bedroom door, asked me if I wanted coffee. It isn't unusual for the women to ask because they want to make it for you which is nice. Every time I go to Thailand the first thing I do is obtain coffee because I am so fussy about how it is made and what type is used with the exception of I will suffer Nescafe 3in1 in a small cup if there is no alternative. And this kind aunt had taken my coffee out of my suitcase and put it in the cupboard for everyone to share. This is Issan Life. They share everything and it never occurs to anyone in Issan that you might not want to share something. I mean, why would you not want to share? What's the point of having something if no one else knows what it is like? If everyone knows it is good then when you have it they know you are happy, and that makes them happy.
Sounds like a mad ethos? Yes it does but you quickly adapt to a way that brings so much more personal contentment when you learn to stop wanting things for yourself.
I don't mind sharing and in fact I like the precept. But sometimes it becomes a burden for us foreigners and not because we don't understand it but because the sharing starts with the youngest and least objectionable and most often without warning. A few years ago I learned how to appreciate the world that is Issan when in Udon city I came across some proper English style jam doughnuts liberally sprinkled with granulated sugar. I bought three and the following day I went to get one from the pantry but they were gone and the missus told me she had given them to the kids but there was only enough to have half each. So after breakfast I drove 45 kilometres to Udon and bought ten. The next day I looked in the pantry and they were still there. I said to the missus to share them out amongst the kids and we can have one each to which she replied 'The kids didn't like them'.
It isn't my partner who has this very relaxed and unintentionally ignorant mentality. It is the Thai way. It isn't Buddhism, nor Asian, nor idiotic. It is that it would be rude to tell me the children didn't like the doughnuts because they were mine. Talking of idiotic once back in England she came home and asked me "What does fagking idiat mean?" Upon asking why she should ask me that she explained that she was waiting a long time at the bus stop when an old man came by and asked her what bus she was waiting for. A few minutes went by and he asked "How long have you been here?" To which she honestly replied, "I been here five year now" because to her this question always follows the question 'Where are you from'. The old man muttered to himself 'fagking idiat'.
I said yes to the coffee before looking at my watch. It was five a.m. and acrid smoke was pouring through from the scullery to the lounge. I pushed the door shut but aunty stepped through it and left it open before I had even moved. I shut it again but one of Waan's sisters came through the other way and left it open again. Anne has been learning English, she got into the idea when she was looking after our daughter who we planned to bring to England, but she struggles to put what she has learned into practice so I tried my best to say 'why not shut the door, look at the smoke'. As usual it was me who didn't understand and she answered 'kwan gep yoong'. It means 'the smoke will kill the mosquitoes'.
Staggering off to the bathroom, tip-toeing though gaggles of women crouching around chopping boards and boiling pots, I was desperate for a shower having not had one the night before. I was minging and the stale body odour had surpassed the embarrassment limit on the sweatometer. A non-drinker can get through several litres of beer every day in an attempt to cool down. In fact the body is so desperate until you acclimatise that it is instinctive rather than desirable. The Thai are used to it of course but they drink luke warm water from an old pop bottle or often you see large ice buckets with a lid on and a tin mug on top. Usually the ice has melted long ago but the water tastes fresher even though it has come from a plastic bag and a metal mug but it is more often, and marginally, cool.
To westerners, a rural bathroom leaves a lot to be desired and I have seen blogs and forums with complaints about the standards of accommodation. There is a big difference between a villager's house and a hotel but those who complain have booked a backpackers jungle trek or the cheapest 'real experience' dormitory. I once read a seriously intended complaint on Thorn Tree from someone who had booked a stay with an Issan family but wasn't told before booking what the house would be like. With experience I know that you could walk into any village and be welcomed by strangers and if you offered them some money they would take you in. But why would you expect an agent in Khao San Road to know what a family's home would be like in Kok Nowhere nine hundred kilometres away from Bangkok?
What's worse for the plaintiff is that the 'real experience' is exactly what he got. But that isn't the worst for me. The water from the pipes is remarkably cool and hot running water is surplus to requirement for a Thai family as well as being expensive to produce. The shock of pouring cold water over your body first thing in the morning is breathtaking. It's like taking a cold swim as soon as you get out of bed. Which is pretty much why papa wanted an electric shower, but the expression 'brass monkeys' is appropriate because it certainly shrivels up your ruperts at 5.30 in the morning, and there is something about a man's ablutions that deserves a little more privacy. The walls are only eight foot high but the roof is another four feet. And there are decorative garden wall air bricks fractionally above head height. There is a sense of exposure while Thai would consider it the height of rudeness to peek but you know when you huff "good grief almighty" at the cold water shell-shock, all those women on the other side of the wall preparing vegetables can hear it.
Even brushing your teeth is a palaver that must be dealt in the nude and I have to do it with bottled water or I will be visited by the evil spirit of the tap water. The locals are adept at using the water from the tap and without getting second-hand toothpaste in it. An absolute necessity if you prefer not to upset the next who wants to shower. Bearing in mind this water also flushes the toilet, washes a variety of genitals, and rinses the bathroom walls and floor. Mae's bathroom also houses the washing machine so is cluttered with laundry baskets and washing powder but it is practical when you shower. You undress, chuck your clothes in the laundry, shower, then take a clean towel off the airer. Unfortunately for me I forget every time how shite Thai laundry is. If you use the hotel services, a laundry, or do your own washing, I guarantee Thailand will ruin your clothes. They will come back to you with a grease mark that won't come out, or a hole, or discoloured, or something the shade of pink. And it isn't unusual to discover someone else wearing your clothes either.
As usual I never gave it a thought until three days later my Paul Smith tee shirt came back to me with some additional artwork.
The women jabbering away as they chopped with outsize machete's and sliced through green things that constitute vegetables were making a superfluity of dishes in a copious quantity for the monks breakfast. It isn't to show off nor is it gluttony but the women want to give the very best they can for the monk. None of it will go to waste as when the monk have finished their only meal of the day the gathered crowd will share what is left. Which is usually most of it. One time in a small temple a monk put some of his food on a plate and offered it to me. This is a great honour and an invitation to eat with him rather than wait. Unfortunately for me, what was on the plate was definitely not to my liking, but it would have been woefully insulting to not eat it. The gang of chefs were amused at my attire of a bath towel as I tried once again to tip toe through. I should have just climbed over the wall. One old lady was fascinated at my whiteness and followed me to the bedroom with Waan's brother telling her to clear off and then telling me to put on a shirt. All he was wearing was a pair of shorts but of what interest is he? Village men often wear just shorts and only cover up when going out in the sun. For children it is how they grow up.
The monks entered the house through papa's old roller shutter doors to a quietened muffle just like in church and the men hurried around to place the towels and water and the women went into overdrive to make sure every dish was the same on the oversized trays. Meanwhile the congregation got bottles of water and mugs to do the passing of life ritual of slowly pouring water as they chant while the cooks in panic mode were sharing out the dishes making sure every one was exactly the same. They would be horrified if it looked like one of the monks were being shown any favour.
The villagers left after breakfast. Only a small group of family and close friends would go to the temple for a private 'bones ceremony'. Not very different from a burial but there are important rituals to follow to dignify all that Pa Jon did in his lifetime. And off we traipsed again to the low mutterings of Issan folk as the gaggle natter away in pairs. The indistinguishable sound is the same regardless of the language that made me insular, almost lonely, in my world of ignorance that shared itself unequivocally and without bias on both sides of my isolation. So many around me, all of whom are my friends, yet I was unable to convey nor understand what was going on or participate in their renditions. Not for lack of language skills that was once described by my friend Bleak as 'Reet Luverly' on Thorn Tree, but because of all the rituals and the colloquialisms of Issan and Buddhist tradition. Ignorant in my knowledge and being ignored. Not deliberately. Just because they were distracted by the opportunity to talk to acquaintances and family rarely convened.
Bleak I should add was being overly generous and he knows it. Yes I can ask for a cup of coffee and often I can understand the discourse between my partner and step-daughter. I can negotiate my way around Thailand without assistance (a comment best described as 'bragging'), with the use of a sat nav anyway, but I know what the word for hotel is and can almost read a menu in Tai script. I choose the word Tai script deliberately because I feel to call it an abugida is insulting. That implies it is based on a set of pictograms, which of course it is, but no more than is the Alphabet. I am told it is Brahmic and descended from Sanskrit but it is nothing of the sort and my apologies to those language professors for disagreeing but even the 'menialist' (of which you can now say 'there is no such word, so what would he know?') of laymen can see just looking at the scripts of SEA they are all entirely different and Tai-Kadai stands out as individual despite having spread far and wide from Kra in Central China to the northernmost parts of Malaysia and whilst the Tai alphabet may have spread that far, the languages, and how the script is used, have not.
I have also seen it described as 'Neolithic' and 'pictoral', which is easily disputed with the argument that you would not be able to spell loan-words, of which there are many in Thai, such as 'computer', or 'Microsoft' which are spelt คอมพิวเตอร์ and ไมโครซอฟต์ respectively. You could argue that they are correctly pronounced KgAWM PEW TUER and MAI GkROH SAWRF but that is because of the Thai vowels and that they have one sound half way between 'G' and 'K'. Compare that to Mandarin you find they have no logogram for loan words and use the western spelling. That surely implies Tai-Kadai is an alphabet and most often I find the insulting argument is made by people (usually men) who cannot read and write in Thai and having seen how it is taught have made an assumption that all the characters are based on archaic survival. Historically that is its roots, but Thailand is a progressive nation, and everything from its' language to its' architecture has progressed with it.
I have heard it said that Thailand has been held back by its' determination to cling on to Royal ascent and class distinction and maybe it has, but we should not measure Thailand by western expectations. Thailand has its' own unique way of doing things, it has evolved into a country of survival and endurance, it is a thing of beauty that can only be admired and rarely understood. If you do not understand, admire it, do not try to measure it. Should you fall for that Pyrite the only sufferance will be yours.
And I was suffering. And all those around me have the same problem. They do not understand me anymore than I do them. They are appreciating this funeral, enjoying it, and celebrating it. I am not. They are making the most of this assembly. I am loathing it. The nominated funeral leader drew out the trolley and scraped the sides and floor for the loose ashes before looking down upon the results of his labours with a wry smile of deep satisfaction and then invited the daughters to come and start the melee. Raking your fingers through the 'old man's' ashes looking for coins and trinkets seems an odd ritual but the girls suffered such panic as they frantically tried to be first to find anything and everything and were pleasingly fulfilled each time they found a charred five baht coin or one link from a bracelet. These objects were of a value that I would never appreciate though I was gratified with witnessing the relief and contentment it was providing them.
Meanwhile some of the menfolk were sweeping out the shed below the furnace onto a pre-placed sheet of corrugated iron and then brought it out in front of the prayer hall where the rest of the ashes were added. Everyone was on their knees looking for other bits of metal before embarking on the strangest ritual of reshaping Pa Jon into a body with appendages including genitals. Two orange candles were lit and placed where his eyes used to be and a net was draped over him like a robe. A tray of his favourite dishes was placed by his head so he can have breakfast and a huge bag of 'sai sin' (a sanctified white cotton string) was placed on his midriff and stretched out for each of the monks to hold as they chanted for his safe deliverance.
Then came the purification ritual that I had heard of before but had never seen. That of the 'bones ceremony'. Two small ornate brass pots are brought to put in some of the ashes while all the bones that have not been incinerated are picked carefully out of the remains and placed in the aforementioned net now being held aloft. A bucket of minted drinking water is brought in with a pouring bowl and the bones are washed. Everybody takes their turn to pour water over the bones before three bones are placed in each of the ornamental pots and the rest in a clean white linen and tied up. A much larger urn is brought in for the remains and the bagged bones placed on the top. A lid is made of white cotton and tied securely around the rim. Then the eldest son with a big knife cuts a long slash in it. I have no idea why.
Then we buried Nai Jon Ladsa-Ard and said goodbye.
I asked Waan what was next and she replied, "We have to build the house". No I didn't understand either but we made our way back to grandma's where a dozen or so locals were already hard at work building a bamboo shed on stilts for Pa Jon to rest his weary spirit tonight.