Out of the Mango, into the Sticks
Bah. As they say, even the best made plans of mice and men oft go awry. The wife's busy through the weekend, and the kids will be at their aunt's place. She is under the impression I'll be having drinks with friends after work on Friday night, like they sometimes do over at our place. Whenever that happens, she'll show her face outside for approximately fifteen minutes before retreating to the comfort zone in front of the television set in the room and the air-conditioning on. It bewilders her as to how some of us can sit down and enjoy our beers in the garden with all the mosquitoes and such; 'What do you guys talk about for so long, anyway?' Well, she doesn't hang around long enough to find out. Later, we usually move on to a small but decent restaurant a little further down the road – my Thai friends like this place as they have a decent menu with food suitable for consumption with alcohol. I like it because it is within stumbling distance.
This Friday, however, I'm taking the day off. Instead of going to work, I've made arrangements for a short trip with my mia noy.
We've planned on meeting up at her place up north of Bangkok come Friday, making our way down to Rayong for the evening. There's a nice beach-side hotel I know a little down the road, and I can already picture a nice sea breeze and a couple of cold beers in her company. Small things like these keep your blood pressure down.
I call early on Thursday evening to confirm plans for Friday when she tells me the plans have changed. 'Sorry, my sister called. We have to go to Phitsanulok.' I don't get upset. Understand that she will not call me, even though she has my number. It is one of the rules we have lived by over the years. 'Okay. Why?'
Her sister's family are not persons of means. If anything, they are living below the poverty line. This did not really bother them as they did, until recently, have a roof over their heads, and a small vegetable garden to supplement the wages her sister got by working as a maid at a small local hotel. Her husband, though able-bodied, is a lazy bugger who is quite content to stay at home and not work.
'Her daughter is getting engaged on Saturday. It's a bit of a mess, I'll explain tomorrow when you get here.'
Eh? I thought her daughter was rather young to be getting engaged.
'How old is she?'
After leaving home a little earlier than I usually do, I grab a quick coffee at a Jet service station before continuing on to Da's place. I manage to get a quick hug and a squeeze in before her daughter shows up on her way out to college. 'We're going to the market now, I don't know if we can get this when we get to Phitsanulok.' This is partly true. The local wet markets open really early in the morning; by ten most have closed for the day. Several kilos of pork, chicken and assorted vegetables and herbs later, it's a bit of an effort to close the boot of the Volvo. 'Don't forget, we have to repack this in ice once we get back home.' Okay.
Repacking can be hot, sweaty work, at the end of which you need another shower. We both needed a really long one. Fortunately the kids were all out so there was no need for a second.
Once on the road, Da explains. 'Paew's daughter, Nok, is pregnant. She didn't know till they went to the clinic. The boy's parents have agreed to an engagement, with marriage in the not too distant future.'
Now, if they hadn't agreed, the young man would have been immediately put in jail had the police been notified. This is one rule that is applied without prejudice.
Paew wants to meet us at the hotel where she works. Now not having been to Phitsanulok before, I found Google Earth and an online Thai map service absolutely invaluable in planning the journey. I got to the hotel on the second try. I also note that Paew is quite hopeless at giving directions.
After a late lunch – which by the way cost more than the hotel room booking – we head out to the outskirts where Paew stays. It is fortunate that the small soi is paved. The vacant lot and the house, however, were not, and as it had been raining earlier, the car wheels and my shoes got full of clay.
Da has the rest of the day planned. 'We borrow the cooking utensils from the wat. Then we go back to town to buy candles and joss sticks, as my sister has absolutely no idea as to what to prepare. You can drink when we get back, but you have to buy your own beer.' Now while the last statement may sound a little unkind, the hotel staff had given Paew a carton of Chang beer and a few bottles of Thai whisky to help her out. Da knows I won't drink Chang.
I am able to get my latest beer of choice, Federbrau, at the 7-11 in town. I find this new Thai beer quite pleasant. Also, for some reason, you can't get Tiger there any more.
Back at Paew's place, the ladies are already at work, chopping meat and veggies on the floor of the kitchen. It's a bit easier to walk around as the ground has now dried up and you didn't have to use the plank walkways. This is when I realised the extent of Paew's situation. This wasn't Paew's house we were in.
They were actually staying in a tin shack – with three covered sides and a roof – built in a vacant spot between this house and the next. The house they had been staying in was just behind, and had belonged to Paew's husband's father. The old man had passed away recently, and had failed to mention that his sister had used the land title deed as collateral for a loan. The sister had not repaid the loan, and they had suddenly found themselves out on the street.
I call the wife sometime towards the end of the evening and tell her I won't be back this evening. Too many beers. She doesn't sound happy and mumbles something about too many beers being bad for the health before hanging up.
With most of the cooking done, it is almost eleven by the time we get back to the hotel. Da has indicated we have to be up by four to get even more stuff from the wet market. I have resigned myself to my fate, set the alarm on my mobile phone, and am thankful there is at least a hot shower. After her shower, Da leaves her towel hanging next to mine on the back of the chair and comes to snuggle under the blankets with me. Very therapeutic.
We check out before five; the market is a stone's throw away. I guess it is still an unusual sight upcountry for a farang to be seen walking around a wet market at five in the morning. Perhaps even more unusual, is that I am fluent in Thai and that Da and I have obviously been together for a long time. The vegetable lady couldn't stop looking up; the two girls selling chickens kept trying to include me in the banter, and the guy selling khanom jeen (white noodles) gave me his card, saying 'I'm here every morning.' I guess he would, since we did walk off with fifteen kilograms of his produce.
Back at Paew's, the morning's purchases are prepared. This is for the spirits of the deceased relatives, and consist of steamed pork, chicken and a bottle of Thai whisky. These offerings are placed on a table with lighted joss sticks, and can only be consumed after the joss sticks have gone out.
A pickup load of people and two motorcycles signals the arrival of the boy's side. An auspicious time of 9:09am has been set for the ceremony to begin. Pleasantries are exchanged before everyone sits off to one side of the couple to be engaged. Both sets of parents then face each other, before the dowry is exchanged. In this case I am told it was ten thousand baht, and would go to the girl's parents. <For those of you who foolishly pay a gazillion baht, take note! – Stick> The well-wishers could then contribute a certain amount to the couple's future start in life and tie a white string on their wrists for luck. This money would belong to the couple, and was meant to give them a bit of a start in life.
Food and whisky was then served, and Da was complimented on her cooking style.
It was interesting noting that everyone had a very pragmatic view of things. The boy's father was of the opinion of 'We can't choose our relatives, but if they're happy, let's try to keep it that way.' Everybody laughed and agreed. Even the dowry was based on what they could afford; 'Why cripple ourselves and the couple from the beginning when something affordable and agreeable to all would work?' I was under the distinct impression that the dowry was to be kept for the couple to be used in time of need.
The bellboy from the hotel arrives on his bike, looking a little flustered. 'Am I in time?' For the food, yes. Apparently he wanted to come earlier, but didn't know how to drive the hotel transport. 'If I could, I would have.' The rest would have to wait for the driver.
This brings up another observation I've made over the years I've been here – company things seem to be taken as personal property a lot of the time and is there to be used. Perhaps his working environment could explain a lot as it appears to be a Chinese-style run hotel. This is where an owner will try to keep all his staff by treating them like extended family. In return, he would expect extreme loyalty from the staff. As Paew had been with this hotel many years, and was now in a difficult position, her husband was offered a security guard post and a small salary just to show his face at the hotel front entrance. I wonder if the lazy bugger will take it.
Rural extended families seem to function in much the same way, where the 'yours' and mine' blend into a very grey area. After all, not everyone can afford to buy a motorbike (or farm vehicle, etc), but it would be a major loss of face to not allow others to use it when needed.
Da has obviously dug into her savings for this, something she is loath to do. I've contributed a small amount so far, but I know she'll be a bit stretched because of this. I quietly give her what she's spent, telling her I need the 'boon' (merit) more. She smiles and accepts. Damn. She knows me too well.
She also knows once I'm home I'll probably face a telling off for drinking too much the previous night, and a lecture on when are you going to quit, it's bad for you, you know.. blah.. blah.
Which'll probably have me reaching for another cold beer fairly quickly.
Very nice indeed.
The observation about communal property in the countryside is so true – and it is something many foreigners (me included) really struggle with.