Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Glossy tiles are dangerous when wet but the ancient temple at sunset will be worth it

It was a long journey leaving Bangkok on Friday.  Crowds were stacked up in front of the monitors waiting for information on flights.  Many who could afford it were to leaving to visit family and the white travelers seemed to be relieved to be headed to Phuket or any other part of the country.   A number of Thai professionals were plugged into one of the few power stations like elephants at the watering hole.  
My flight was first delayed from an early evening flight to one at 11pm and then again projected to leave well after midnight.  On the second delay,   I called my local contact, Kim, to let her know I would just get a hotel in Phitlsanulok for the night.  I had no idea when I would arrive and it seemed more sensible to avoid driving so late at night.  Kim had errands to run in Chaing Mai over the weekend, which while I was invited to participate in. With the uncertainty of my arrival and a need to preserve my mental functioning, I declined.   I think she was relieved about this.

The plane landed at 2:30 am.   While the rest of the western teachers were met at the airport by their hosts, I stoically waved goodbye and made it out to the curb with bags in the cart.  There was a harried conversation with an apologetic farang (forienger) who was trying to catch a bus to his next destination and thus took the first cab that came along.   Little did I know that would be the last white person I would see, let alone converse with.

 In that moment, I experienced a   thought that seems to recur with relative frequency.  “Really Ellen.” I said to myself. “What were you thinking?”  I waited by the curb in a bleary acceptance of the current reality.  Within moments, a cab driver pulled up, understood me and deposited me at the hotel where the night manager spoke enough  English to check me in.  Within the hour, I was sleeping.

With a morning phone call from Kim to confirm, JeJee and and Nuy came to get me around noon the next day.  JeJee is a “lady boy”, a term used to describe very effeminate homosexual men in Thailand.    In the school’s small truck, we bounded  across the countryside, passing the rice fields, motorbikes and farm trucks.  In typical Thai fashion, JeJee talked on his funny red  Ferrarri cell phone (it honks when it rings) and dodged around and through incoming traffic while sharing his dreams of finding an American boyfriend and bantering on in combination of Thai and broken, heavily accented English.  He was proud to share the photo of himself as “beautiful”, with wig, makeup and an engaging smile.    There was the obligatory stop for lunch at the rest stop, complete with a Pepsi and a toilet that required squatting and water scooped from a nearly receptacle to flush.

We arrived at the house where I am living and located just a few minute walk from school. The  entourage from school pulled up in motorbikes shortly later. Everyone swarms around, with concerns about the A/C (aa, prounouced aaaaah, like the Thais would pronounce air) not working, the condition of the washing machine (hose is broken).  I am simply impressed by the gleaming and polished 2x2 tiles all over the living room floor, the relatively new leather living room set. I am intrigued to see the hose connected right next to the toilet and then delighted to not need toilet paper.

No one speaks much English.  Nuy picks the travel hula hoop from my duffle bag and we exchange a few giggles on technique.   Once the initial move in has been completed, JeJee runs me into town for some quick groceries at 7-11.  Thailand has one of the highest per capita prevalence of these stores and one can top up a pre-paid phone card  in addition to getting a slurpee.  I ask to go to the hospital for a bandage change and relived on three fronts:  expedient healing, bandage materials and only 120 baht ($3.)

Shortly after we return from the store, the contingent returns with packets of “Super Coffee” (Nescafe, sugar and creamer with a dash of ginseng encased in small packets), a case of bottled water, two packages of kleenex and a fan.  Uben (head kindergarten teacher) ,Chan (the janitor) and the  aa repairman show  up and replaces the propane tank on the unit, which goes a lot faster with the headlamp I provide.   Everyone wishes me a good sleep and leaves me locked inside the gate around the house.  I feebly unpack a few items, close the door to the house, fire up the shower that encompasses the entire bathroom,  revel in the noodles and crawl into my silk sleeping sack without opening the book.   This is the definition of delicious relief and security, landing softly with an extended stretch of runway for the night.

Roosters wake me up with the early morning light, with the thunka thunka of what I think is a washing machine in the front yard of the very simple shantytown complex across the street.  Uben and the aa repairman show up to finish the work on the aa, and Uben and I  look at my photos from Alaska. She also notices the hoop and gives it a whirl.  JeJee comes at noon to run me through the washing machine, which is not his not his best skill set.  This results in a lot of water on the kitchen floor and a "Near Whoopsie" slip on the gleaming tile, to which my new Thai friends laugh nervously.  JeJee runs me through  the UNESCO world heritage site of ancient temples that is located just down the road then onto the “Big C” the supercenter mall. Kim calls and we make arrangements for the pre-semester teacher’s meeting the next morning.

The first day of school arrives for Ellen.  I put on the long skirt and yellow shirt because it’s Monday, and Thais have special colors for each day.  I wait at the head office for a bit and eventually, I am escorted to the teacher’s meeting and seated at the front of the room.  There are presentations by a person that I think is the assistant principal and a number of other senior teachers before  The Director and her daughter Kim (my supervisor) show up.   There is more discussion, which Kim translates as reports from the project-based learning workshops other teachers  have attended.   Eventually, The Director nods in my direction.   After my new roommate and fellow Thai teacher, Tuy,  introduces herself.  I stand up.  I say (in Thai and read from the script of written materials we were given at orientation)  “Hello.  MY NAME IS ELLEN. THAILAND IS BEAUTIFUL. THE THAI PEOPLE ARE VERY NICE”.

The teachers look at me a bit stunned, then break out into applause. I grin.    I sit down and realize that I neglected to put the feminine polite at the end of each sentence, which sounds rude to the Thais.  One must carry on.  In Thailand, if you try hard with open heart, all will be forgiven.   After the meeting, I am greeted with smiles and the typical Thai way of touching on the arms and the waist. This seems common with the women in this country. My new roommate and fellow English teacher, Tuy, gave me a ride home on her motorcycle with an arrangement for Kim to pick us up for another Big C shopping trip later in the evening.  I got the verbal memo to wear pink tomorrow.

The evening falls slowly here.  The neighbor’s pool table has the occasional subdued interaction of both the balls and conversation.  The papaya trees, larger unidentified deciduous trees and the low forest scrub punctuate the background as the prolific  dragonflies wave around in circles in the late afternoon light.  This place has a very strong identity, which I can appreciate. The students start tomorrow and I suspect my first class will be sometime later this week, where I can teach “Hello. My name is…  and it will be pronounced “Helro my naay if…”    I have finally arrived.

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