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The Curse Of The Termites



Years ago, my wife and I were house-hunting. Way back then, there were no fancy ‘villages’ – or housing development communities as I prefer to call them – with matching fancy price tags. Those villages with the big fancy entrances (complete with Roman-style pillars) and the optional security guard were still a long way over the horizon at the time.

The typical house in those days would be constructed of red brick / hollow cement blocks for the outer walls, and the floor would be of parquet with a ventilated crawl space below. The rooms (with the exception of the bathroom / kitchen) would be partitioned off with wooden panelling. If there was a second storey, it would be constructed of wood. There would also be a veranda in the front with built-in cement seating.

The house that we eventually settled for (and was within our budget) was found through a friend of a friend. He gave us some history on it. Construction had started on the house next to his; the outer walls and roof structure were already up and the parquet floor had been laid when it was abandoned in favour of a double storey structure in the front of the village.

Now this is a known construction practice – all the small and cheap housing are built first, right at the back of the village. Once these are occupied, construction starts closer to the entrance of the village, and these houses are typically larger (and more expensive).

The house had been abandoned for almost a year when we went to take a look at it. The undergrowth was almost at knee height, but I was quite determined to get a good look around. The structure looked to be in good condition, as did the roof. I was not so sure about the floor, though. We liked the house enough to have a chat with the owner of the village.

The second time we had a look at the house, most of the undergrowth had been cut down, and a portion of the parquet floor had been removed. On poking my head through the removed portion, I could see the tell-tale signs where those mud-lined tubes had been scraped off the inner cement walls…

The owner agreed to have the parquet removed, and have the void filled in and cemented over. At extra cost, of course. It wasn’t that much more, and included hollow cement block walls on the inside in place of the standard wooden panelling.

Termite control would be at our expense. After discussing further minor details, we agreed.

We got trusted people to come in and treat the ground and the rafters. It wasn’t after the main support beams for the floor had been removed that the true extent of the damage to the floor could be seen. Although the beams had been treated, this had been done only after they had been set in the cement. While it looked good on the outside, the termites had entered through the space between the cement and the untreated wood, and had started eating through the center of the beam, effectively hollowing it out…. In retrospect, I know we did the right thing.

The thing about termites is, you don’t realise they are there until the damage is done. The structure is slowly weakened over time, and the damage is hidden. It’s only when a load is put on the already weakened structure and the structure gives way that you realise there is a problem.

The termites also seem to know how to remove enough material without having the structure give way for a given load. As an example, my wife’s sister had a refrigerator over in the same corner of the floor for years without a problem. One day, she decides to move it over to the other corner, to make way for a new cabinet that would go in the center space.

The floor gave way.

When she got the beam replaced, it was noted that the termites had gone through the old beam, but had stopped short of where the refrigerator was…

The Thai word for termite is ‘puak’. This word is also used in slang terms, ‘slowly eat away’. In the same way the word ‘maengda’ (a kind of beetle that has a distinct odour and is popular in flavouring some sauces found in Northeastern cooking) can be applied to a person to mean ‘gigolo’, ‘puak’ can be applied to mean a person involved in corruption, in whatever degree. Including university.

Not so long ago, we needed to have the septic tank emptied. Now, believe it or not, there is a lot of competition here, as there are also private tank trucks moving around the villages, and there’ll be a guy or two on top shouting, ’Dood suam! Dood suam!’ ‘We’ll suck your septic tank!’ – don’t you love how crude that sounds in English?

Anyway, my wife decides to do it the correct way, and gives the relevant authorities a call. She is given a code number over the phone, and a day and approximate time are set. The price is set on the metered amount of waste that ends up in the tank of the truck.

I had other things to take care of, so I only got back just as these guys were finishing up. My wife said ’I’ve settled it already’, and left it at that. Fair enough. After they had left, I asked her how much it had cost. ’They wanted a thousand baht. But then they said, if I didn’t want a receipt, it would only be seven hundred baht.’ ‘Well, what did you do?’ ‘I’ve got the receipt.’

Hmmm. They issue a receipt, it’s recorded and the relevant authorities get a thousand baht. No receipt, that’s seven hundred baht in their pocket. Now, as a normal householder, receipts don’t hold any value whatsoever as far as I am concerned, except as a record of expenditure. And faced with the choice of paying three hundred baht less, what would you really do? Puak.

On another occasion, the washing machine dies. My wife issues an ultimatum. ‘Fix it. Or you won’t have anything to wear in two days.’ Hmmm. With my limited ability in trying to repair this electromechanical device – in this case throttling the drain hose, and giving it a kick in the washer motor – I have determined that the problem is beyond me and the repairman is needed.

She gives the company a call, and they make an appointment for the next day, reminding her that there is a four hundred baht service charge, which she is not entirely happy about, but agrees to.

The repairman comes and goes the next day. I wasn’t around, but she was really upset when I got back. ’Is it fixed?’ ‘Yes. But I would have preferred it if you were around to see the repair.’’ What did he do?’ ‘He replaced a capacitor.’ Ah, I knew it involved a spare part. ‘But I am very angry with him.’ ‘Why?’ ‘Because he charged me one thousand baht but only wrote the bill for eight hundred after I gave him the money.’ ‘Did you scold him?’ ‘Yes, but he gave me his mobile phone number and said if it got spoilt again he would repair it for free. And also that I would save four hundred on the service charge for the next time than if I called through the company.’

We let it go. Puak.

A week later, the washing machine refused to drain. The wife was livid. She finds the number and calls him. When he finally answers she gives him a telling off as to how short-lived the repair was, and that she wanted him to come immediately. After some animated conversation, she puts the phone down. ‘He can’t come today, it’s Sunday and he’s taking special Sunday school. Classes will finish late this evening. He says if the problem persists to call him tomorrow when there will be someone at home.’ I guess I’ve been nominated to fix it now.

I try opening the lint filter. Nope, that didn’t work. I try to feel to see if a coin has got stuck in the tube. Can’t feel a thing. Well, now for the fun part. I get the tools, then tilt the machine back at an angle so I can get to the hoses in the bottom. There’s water sloshing around inside, it can’t be bailed out. Both the maid and my wife are delegated to make sure it stays tilted in that position against the wall. I remove the first clamp. Nothing happens. Then the next. Nothing. The final one, and still nothing. Hmmm, there’s something inside blocking it. I poke my finger in, and feel some sort of soft material. Okay. One bent coat-hanger to the rescue. Twist. Pull. Success!! A whole waterfall of sour-smelling water gushes out. Ah, well. I needed a bath, anyway. After putting the clamps back and trying out a wash cycle with some bicarbonate loaded in to remove the smell, I turn my attention to the object that has been blocking the system.

It’s a pair of panties.

My wife recognises them and calls out to her sister. When her sister gets there, she points to the still soggy, twisted panties in my hand and says, ‘They’re yours, aren’t they?’

The termite syndrome. It happens everywhere. Upcountry, a friend’s brother-in-law worked as a construction supervisor. He would routinely order more than he needed, and when it was found there was a surplus on completion of the job, he’d sell it and pocket the money. Another habit was to have ‘ghost’ workers. If there were thirty labourers working on a particular day, he’d bill his boss for thirty-two and pocket the difference. Puak.

Another guy worked as a company driver. He’d routinely get the petrol station to pad his receipts, and was found out (and terminated) only when he got too greedy. You cannot physically get one thousand five hundred baht worth of petrol at one go into a tank that is designed only to hold nine hundreds worth… Puak.

Another driver would siphon a liter or two of diesel fuel per day from the company vehicle and sell it later from home. Puak.

It happens on a larger scale, too. Instead of widening a complete stretch of road at one time, only a percentage is finished. That gives the excuse that another budget is needed to complete the rest of it. After all, if it were finished in one go, there wouldn’t be an excuse for the second budget, would there?

Look at how fast the major highways deteriorate. Overloaded trucks are allowed to run up and down. Highway construction is compromised when there are too many subcontractors in the chain. No, no. It’s the puak under the road surface hollowing out the gravel. Really.

The sad thing is, by and large termites are useful insects. Out in the countryside, they eat up dead wood – tree stumps and the like that you’d need an excavator to dig out otherwise. They mix the soil layers and aerate it. If you drive in the countryside, I’m sure you’ll notice the termite hills. And, on closer inspection, that many have garlands placed on them by the local folk. I still don’t know why, perhaps I’ll find out one day. But I guess not all types of puak are bad.


Stickman's thoughts:

Ahhh, that's a new word to me.