Tuesday, February 27, 2007

Go Home, You You, My Friend!

Well, that happened…

There’s a great line from the movie “State and Main”, where a sloppy drunk Alec Baldwin wrecks his car with an underage girl in the passenger seat. He gets out, shakes his head, walks over to a couple friends, and in a daze, says, “Well, that happened.”

I find myself saying this time and again, when something so beyond the realm of normality occurs, and I have no choice but to just smile and laugh about it. Which is to say, my entire two years here in Thailand.

Every morning for two weeks now, I’ve been eating snacks and drinking coffee with a grandmother that lives in my neighborhood. She’s pushing eighty, is partially blind, and speaks only Lao. Oh, and she’s totally insane. For whatever reason, I tend to gravitate towards these people.

“Bai-AN!,” BANG, BANG, BANG. “Bai-AN!” This is my alarm clock. After a couple minutes, she’ll try to open the doors. Then the windows. One morning, I was sitting at my computer in my boxers, and the next thing I know, there she was standing over me, warning me that the coffee was getting cool. As she left, she said, “You’re fatter in your stomach than your arms”.

Some mornings I’ll bring over French toast, and we’ll nibble at it while we talk about our town and watch workers build a new house for an Italian’s “mia-noi”, or “smaller wife”. We have some great conversations, miraculously, about her life and the history of my town. With frequent pauses for laughter interspersed throughout.

My two best friends at site are a married couple, Pi Yong and Pi Nit. They promised me months ago that they would have a going-away dinner before I left. On the menu, my favorite Thai dish- Korean barbeque. Pi Yong is a great guy, a generous person that really cares for others. At least I think so, because for two years, I’m not sure I understood a word he said.

A PCV’s last days at site are notorious for last-minute revelations. Things that we wished we would have known two years ago suddenly become apparent to us. I met a PCV who did a lot of theatre projects, who on his last day at site, happened to ride past an abandoned building that turned out to be a fully operational stage.

This particular night, I was enjoying the barbeque and the company. Conversations with Pi Yong are usually fun, but also midly uncomfortable because I usually walk away thinking, “Man, I can’t speak Thai for shit.” I told Pi Nit as much, and she revealed to me, something I wished I would have known before, that nobody understands Pi Yong. The man is a mumbler. I’m a mumbler. So for the first time, we sat across from each other, laughing, conversing, mumbling, comfortably.

I paced around my house yesterday, eagerly looking forward to my going-away party last night. Going over some vocabulary in my head, I opened my front door and walked outside. Whoa. A family of four was showering in my yard, using the water spigot in the front of my house. “Oops, sorry,” I said as I walked back in. My bad.

When I got to the office that night, I noticed a big hole in the ground in front. In a few minutes I would be surrounded by cameras and politicians, planting a tree in this very spot. “We want you to come back and see how high this tree gets,” the Nayok told me. I looked up and saw that the spot we planted it on was right in front of a giant mural of the King on the second floor. So I’m guessing that my tree with grow exactly one story high.

When the tree-planting was finished, we walked to the back of the office, where they had set out mats and had a huge sign. The making of a sign in Thailand requires multiple painters and hours of work. They really put effort into this, and I proudly examined the sign made in my honor, reading, “Biran Kaderli”. Now I’m used to having my name spelled wrong, pronounced wrong, whatever. But usually it’s the last name. “It’s beautiful,” I said. “Did we write it correctly?” a friend asked. “It’s perfect.”

My counterpart asked me to put on a piece of cloth around my shoulder, explaining, “this is a Thai custom.” For the next hour or so, I was in a daze, grinning and floating along on the path of least resistance. The twelve elected officers of the TAO each wrapped a pakama (multipurpose loincloth), around my waist, and wished me success, money, and happiness in the future.

Next we sat on the mats, surrounding an ornate sculpture made of banana leaves. A woman who I’ve never met sat putting string on the leaves. We passed around a string and made a large circle, to keep out bad spirits. An elderly man sat across from me, chanting God-knows-what into a microphone. Somewhere near the end, he stopped abruptly, looked up at me, and asked, “What’s your name again?” “Bai-AN” “Doctor?” “just Bai-AN”. At the end, everyone whooped and took the strings and tied them around my wrists, wishing me luck and happiness. The woman who I’d never met before cried and told me she hoped I would come back.

After all this, we stood and the Nayok and Balat presented me with gifts. Thai fashion in general is definitely not subtle. Thais wear as much gold as they can carry, and apply makeup more erratically and abundantly than a twelve year old on crystal meth. I received a golden pendant that may or may not be helpful in locating the Ark of the Covenant. The Nayok placed it around my neck and we smiled for the cameras, looking and feeling like I’d just won the gold medal at the Special Olympics.

A week ago I visited my counterpart at her nurse’s station in a village a few kilo from here. We talked and joked about what I was going to give her when I left. We settled on speakers and a keyboard. She said she wanted to talk to me about the project we did a while ago.

I remember walking with this same counterpart almost two years ago, while she told me that no one in our community was interested in working with HIV/AIDS, and she had given up trying. So I took her to some conferences and gave her some resources, and the rest, as they say, is a gov’t funded student leaders training.

A new member of the PHA (Persons with HIV/AIDS) Group in our local hospital came to talk to her, apparently. She said that youth leaders had been giving announcements and HIV education on the village loudspeakers and that the village was responding well, treating this woman with respect and acceptance. My counterpart cries easily, and I cry easily, so you can see where this is going. This particular woman wanted to thank my counterpart for doing a project like this, and came to get treatment at the hospital because she felt welcomed by the announcements.

Since then my counterpart has already started applying for funding through the UNDP and has future projects planned, all for people who, two years ago, she thought had no interest in AIDS projects. Impressive woman.

HIV/AIDS projects are amazingly rewarding, because they’re always cost-effective. If a small business project had just one person come for training, it’d be a failure. But an HIV project that convinces one woman to come get life-saving treatment at the hospital is worth every baht.

So I biked home, peddling as fast as I could, dazed and shocked, grinning from ear to ear, looking and feeling like someone who spent two years actually accomplishing something.

Well, that happened.

Friday, February 16, 2007

Carnies Without Borders!

Have you ever wanted to join the circus? Screw that, join the Peace Corps instead! So what if you can’t throw knives or walk on tightropes? Your pale skin and round eyes will have them urinating themselves with laughter and wonder like no freakish flexibility or warped pituitary gland could ever provide you. I pity the man who gets shot out of a cannon every Friday and Saturday night to put food on the table when all he’d have to do is come out here, eat some sticky rice on a mat with his bare hands, and say, “Delicious!” to put the crowds in a frenzy. Step right up, folks, come one, come all, see what all your friends have been talking about – the AhhhhhhhhhMAYZiiiiiiiiiiing… FALANG!

Today was one of those days when you get home, sit down, and say to yourself, “what the fuck just happened today?” Well, each day is a new adventure, and seeing that I haven’t yet had the opportunity to insult a midget in my blog, I thought I’d jot this all down for you.

I live on a twelve lane highway that daily prompts me to swear under my breath at the rural community I imagined when I joined PC. The way to my gov’t office is like a “Choose Your Own Adventure” of how to get killed on the way to work. I play frogger with drunk, sleepy truckers and keep my eyes peeled for ten year olds piled four-deep onto motorcycles, zipping by following no lane or traffic rules. If I stay past dark, I have to swerve to avoid transsexual prostitutes who come running onto the street to grab my bike, yelling, “Sexy, you, you, I, boyfriend, handsome!” How many brothels do you pass on your way to work? I pass eight. Seriously.

So anyway, this particular day I was waiting for an opening across the highway when a yellow gas truck came rumbling into view. A man was standing on the top of the vehicle, holding a walking stick and wearing a ski mask. I repeat, a masked man was standing, unsupported on the top of a gas truck. He pointed at me, tilted his head, and stared at my strange figure as the truck rode past. God, I wonder what this guy must have been thinking, seeing something so unbelievably weird.

I eventually get to the gov’t office where I “work”, and am impressed and saddened. The local gov’t administration has built a new office, away from town, right next to the factories that pay the taxes it lives on. It’s ridiculous. It cost 1 million, 700 thousand dollars. DOLLARS. I really can’t explain how much money that is here. That’s obscene. Our old office was fine, but nothing you’d call spectacular. Well, that’s what the village fund is for! I talked with my counterpart as we sat shaking our heads at the calculator. He assured me, “the desks and chairs are included in that price.”

Our office does not have internet, by the way. That’s not a real necessary purchase. Instead we boast, and I mean boast, that we have water heaters for instant coffee in each of the twenty rooms. What I love about the place is that since Thais are scared to death to eat, sleep, or be alone, they all pack into one office and leave the rest vacated. Barren, devoid of life whatsoever, except the water heaters, boiling and re-boiling water for no one.

So anyway, I asked the President of the TAO why they built this new office, and he answered me that they paid for it through the King’s 60th anniversary fund, and that he had hoped to teach the entire TAO English so that the King would come and visit. One million and seven hundred thousand dollars. ONE MILL>GD*Y#(*#%#.... (Editor’s Note: My head just exploded.)

As we descended the steps and walked out in front of the almost finished building, I passed and heard people start laughing. In a normal world, maybe I had toilet paper trailing behind me. In this world, that’s not necessary. I turned around to see the construction workers pointing and laughing at me, and I swear to God this is true, one of them was about six-three, and the other a midget. They were holding a rail level, the midget with his arms above his head and the tall guy looking like he was curling him, like a dumbbell. There they stood laughing hysterically trying not to drop the rail. Nowadays, I spend a significant part of my life trying to figure out if I’d entered the Twilight Zone. I thought a second, thinking, I guess it’d be impolite to laugh at a midget and a tall guy. I looked up at the President, who chuckled, put his arm around me, and led me outside.

There we stood under the giant portraits of the King and Queen blocking the front windows of the new building, as the Nayok explained to me his grand plan, and how it had included the Peace Corps. It’s too bad, he said, that we finished the new building so late, because now the workers won’t learn English and the King might not visit.

Which is exactly why the circus comes to you. From thousands of miles away in some cases.