Saturday, February 25, 2012


The Friday afternoon class of 2nd graders didn’t show up. This has been the pattern over the past six weeks, but over the past two they’ve arrived on time.   I busied myself with projects I’d been procrastinating:  cleaning out old crap left behind from previous teachers (my classroom was previously used as storage for a variety of random pre-school props), looking for my flashcard drawing marker that went MIA two days ago, and submitting an application for a program coordinator with an international organization that provides services to Burmese refugees here in Thailand. 
Friday afternoons are always chaotic at the end of the school day.  Diyo, the PE teacher who acts like an assistant principal and loves the microphone, announces the winning team in the weekly trash collecting contest.  Blue team wins again, continuing their month-long streak.  I know my suggestion to implement new criteria (team red has never even made it to third place) will be lost in both translation and the school’s power dynamics.   Tuy gave me a lift home and while she enlisted my help in getting her new cellphone activated, her sister’s new puppy City  played around the floor and peed on the newspaper I’d suggested she use for training.City at 2 months old with his other toy. He actually tried to bite my ankles yesterday, not a good sign.
City at 2 months old with his other toy. He actually tried to bite my ankles yesterday, not a good sign.

Previously, Tuy had been mopping up the frequent messes with “napkins” (think facial tissue), which worked for this pint-size toddler that Nan purchased at the market for 1300 baht (about $40).   Tuy was off to spend the night at her friend Aon’s house.  I was going to ride my bike up to the Friday market and get dinner.  As I left, City was gnawing on the braided toy I made from string that secured the cell phone package that Tuy got from her dad this afternoon. 

Lifted from This is a roadsite market in Viet Nam but similar to an image I saw yesterday.
 This is a roadsite market in Viet Nam
but similar to an image I saw yesterday.
Lifted from
I hadn't been to the Friday market for a couple of months.  There are regularly scheduled weekday markets that seem to pop up around town.  Tuesday evenings there’s a used clothes market, this Friday night market for the local hood from the surrounding countryside and another big Sunday clothes market that brings in people from all over Kamphaeng Phet.   There are also the markets that appear like flash mobs, do their retail dance for some length of days and then disappear leaving behind the  opportunity to seize that special something that was noticed in the rounds and trashy detritus.    The amount of labor that it takes to set up and take down the displays is staggering. The more sophisticated vendors have shelves in the back of their box trucks, but the vendors on the neighborhood Friday market are pretty rough.

I appreciate the types of merchants I see there:  dark and earthy, these are the folks that have been farming for the rest of the week.  As I sauntered along the row of tables right next to the highway, I’m struck by the variety that were displayed in the waning sun.   Raw meats and fish (alas, the eels in the bucket were not moving either physically or as merchandise), a variety of produce including fruits, leafy greens, root vegetables, dried chilies and mushrooms, smoked fish fillets, half of a fried chicken that the vendor will gladly use a cleaver and chop (bones and all)  into edible bites for your home dining pleasure, and a variety of prepared entrees in the ubiquitous plastic bags with rubber bands on top.

I haven’t gotten the guts to try the grilled squid  on a stick so I stuck with the chicken.  As I was looking for vegetables, Nay (pronounced like nigh) appeared, in all of her 13 year old awkward glory.  Nay and her younger brother Riu are usually in my classroom after school has dismissed.   I usually give Riu a coloring sheet left over from my other classes and recently have been utilizing Nay’s copying abilities to help me with making flashcards for the kindergartners.   Nay never seems very comfortable with me.  I suspect much of it has to do with my stature, some with the language, and the last bit with adolescence.Valentine from Nay. Note her school picture on the left.
Valentine from Nay. Note her school picture on the left.
She follows me, looking a bit dumbstruck, as I say hello to her mother and father standing in front of a large tray of tempura vegetables and entire grilled fishes. I decide I’m going to score some for the home team and purchase, but Nay appears so nervous that she’s forgotten how to say 15 baht.  “Sib hah”, I confirm with her mother, and my package gets bundled up with a nice little packet of green chili as a side dish.  Nay’s father jokes “Twenty  five!” and Nay leaves to walk with me through the market. 

I ask her about the perfect squares of a crushed leafy green vegetable dish that I’d tried to last time I was here.  In a pattern that seems to recur with me, I realize that this item is not what I’d hoped it would be.  Apparently topped with some kind of animal fat as a congealing agent, these salty nuggets of seeming health were packing calories.  Nay lugs the small watermelon that made it into the weekend dining portfolio and stands with me while I consider the merits of the fresh little sesame seed dusted donut holes.

Toothpaste mistake.
Toothpaste mistake.
At last, we load everything in the bike basket and Nay heads off to help her folks at their food stand.  I decide to do a little more shopping at the sundry table to buy a trail size of a thai toothpaste to check out the brand.  I’m a bit gun shy after buying the “herbal” variety  and having it both taste and look like something that came out of City’s rear end. 

When I return to the bike Riu is calling, “teacher Ellen!” and Nay has returned with her mother’s cell phone.  Photos are taken with me and the children, including one I don’t know.  I get on the bike, wave goodbye and head home along the path that parallels the highway.

The house is empty when I return and I settle into eating dinner, reading the Huffington post app and shaking my head over the republican candidates. At 7:30, I decide its TV time.  One of my contacts in The World of People Under 25 Years Old has revealed to me the secret of The Pirate Bay, and for this I will have eternal mixed feelings.   I’ve caught up on a couple of my favorite shows, but now fear that I am hooked into this free media connection and losing my readerly/writerly edge and self-imposed monastic approach to life.  On the other hand, access to American TV shows has increased the self-entertainment factor that books couldn’t meet. Tonight,  I settled into a couple of episodes of Mad Men season 2.   Then took a shower, did the sinus rinse, set the timer on  the A/C for 3 hours and, in a lapse of very poor judgment, took the computer to bed for a third episode that took me way past my usual 10pm bedtime.

Overly sated on media as midnight approaches, I shut the computer and do the usual reading before bed. By now, my nose is running and I’m starting to cough. Horrors abound in the thought that I might be sick again.  Egads!  I’d fallen asleep without using the net pot the night before!  Could this have opened up the grain elevator of infection????   I turn the light back on.  30 minutes have transpired.  I read some more, until the eyes close but the bed light stays on. 

Then awake an hour later. Get up for a drink of water.  Look in the refrigerator. Pace the living room.   Read again and actually finish the book.  Then turn out light.  Thoughts race about the dentist appointment I need to make in Bangkok, the math on the number of blood glucose strips I have in stock until I can resupply, what this next, final month of the school year will entail, the teacher’s meeting I wasn’t invited to today (likely an oversight and they will be doing the entire thing in Thai anyway), what kind of shoes will I need in Tanzania, the fact that I was feeling a bit isolated and  bored at work today.

My back hurts and the shoulders are cement. These Thai beds are so hard. I have a fond memory of the man with a memory foam bed. Move my position so that my feet are on my pillow. Flip. Toss.  Turn.  If I ever have a relationship I must have my own sleep space for times like this.  Try to muster the brain do a nice little meditation but it won’t stay on the task.  Try to stretch, feebly. I long for the stupor of physical exhaustion.  Damn those donut holes.

The rooster starts as the morning light comes filtering in through the curtains.  My eyes feel like sandpaper.  I’m awake, but a bit listless about starting a day when I have only a few goals on the agenda, and no social opportunities on the horizon.   So I lie there and think for a while.   There is laundry, a hankering to explore the new way to the Big C for some shopping, research for Tanzania travel, a bike ride to the corner market for dinner and perhaps a movie. And, in the eternal optimism that characterizes my time here in Thailand, another opportunity to get a great night's sleep.

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Waiting it out

The black and white dog with a nicked ear and a filthy coat shows up at the gate outside the house most evenings. I wonder how she stays alive; her body is emaciated but her eyes always radiate a hopeful expectancy as she trots over after seeing me pull up after work. She gets a handful of cheap kibble from the Big C placed on the ground outside the gate that surrounds the house and growls at the younger dogs that try and encroach. This is the life of the lost and neglected dogs of Thailand.

Homeless dogs are everywhere in this country, hanging at the outskirts of markets, playing in parks, sleeping on the medians of intersections, and maintaining a steadfast presence on side streets.  Generally benign, the canines are more concerned with neglected, discarded or dropped food scraps than anything else. They are resourceful and productive survivors.  They dogs are always “intact”, possessing the full function of their reproductive organs and using them as often as possible to create litters of puppies that play in the same public areas.  Last night, I saw a dog surreptitiously uncovering someone’s food offering to the spirit house, nosing the bowl to access the rice inside. 

I’ve struggled to reconcile my conflicting feelings about these canines. I appreciate the way that the Thai people tolerate their presence.  Just last night, I saw a large truck signaling a turn into a parking lot for a noodle stand near Sirijit park. As I passed on the motorbike, four dogs were illuminated in the truck’s headlights as they slept in the middle of the parking area. I suspect the driver would have given a few warning honks and perhaps sent out a human emissary to shoo them away.   However, some dogs are so obviously feral that they appear dangerous and are unpredictable. The pack that hangs around the north entrance to  the Ancient Forest Temple across the Street occasionally singles me out as a target, barking, snarling and running  alongside the bike which results in me lapsing into English curses and pedaling faster.

There are a few dogs that patrol the schoolyard and keep the chicken bones, ketchup smeared plastic bags and other discarded leftovers under control. The cook’s dog just had a litter and she patrols the campus with swollen teats.   The Director’s family has a pair that just sired another litter that was given away to people in the community.  Wazi, a teacher who helps me in a couple of my classes,  brings her ancient canine, Goptop,  in to dotter around the campus.  Goptop and The Director’s male dog both happened to be patrolling the school cafeteria during the lunch hour and got into a showy snarly altercation that resulted in screaming children, adults yelling at the dogs and a rapid intervention by the Phys Ed teacher and a plastic chair that finally broke it up.  Goptop was dragged away by his collar and forced to walk on only hind legs.   The other teachers say, “they never had children, so he is their baby.”   I can relate.
Goptop in the lunch line after the kids have been served.  He is looking at his owner who is serving herself.
Goptop in the lunch line after the kids
have been served. He is looking at
 his owner who is serving herself.

Most of the dogs are so dirty, infected, aloof or skittish that I have no desire to get close to them.  One dog in the Ancient Forest Temple Across the Street has lost nearly all his hair on his back from an unknown condition.  Perhaps there could some potential for one of these dogs to be nurtured into a housepet if they were adopted as a puppy.  Chilidog - my longtime canine companion who died of old age in December 2011—had a habit of placing his head on the pillow next to mine as we slept.  There was more than one night he was spooned up against my back.   Could any of these dogs achieve this same level of princedom?   I was shopping last night and found a plastic dog bowl for only ten baht (30 cents) and struggled mightily with the thought of purchasing it for my canine acquaintance so she wouldn’t have to eat off the ground.  In the end, I didn’t.  It’s better not to get too attached.

Thai Buddhists believe that people who “misbehaved” in a previous life are reincarnated as homeless dogs.  With that perspective, there’s a sense of tolerance and compassion toward these prevalent canines.  In many of Thailand’s temples, dogs are welcomed and fed from the community’s offerings made to the monks.   Alongside of the river vendors set up tables of fish food, where for twenty baht people can make a food offering as a tool to build their own chances at a better life.   In the Ancient Forest Temple Across the Street, there is a old woman on a red motorbike outfitted with storage baskets on both front and back.   Her tiny pet dog balances on the back seat as she makes the rounds, laden  with a couple of 10 kilo bags of kibble.  Every day around sunset the resident dogs make their way to the perimeter road for the hand out.  As the night falls and I make my way back home on the main road, she passes me on the motorbike and waves.

The dogs are just trying to tough it out in the current life.  Perhaps it’s our obligation to ensure that they are treated with kindness and compassion during their relatively short lives.  There is a small but potent power in a gentle word, a tossed scrap, a fleeting thought of well-wishes to bolster them on their long journey up the karma ladder.   Just don’t make eye contact with the leader of the pack when you’re riding by before dinnertime.