Sunday, July 13, 2008

Sunday in Bangkok

I remember Sundays in Greenwich Village in the mid-1960s when we would wake up late in our top-floor garret apartment on Christopher Street and then stroll down to the corner newsstand on 6th Avenue to pick up copies of the Sunday Times and Herald-Tribune, weighing in at several pounds each, before going to the neighborhood bakery for a selection of cheese Danish. The rest of the day was spent reading the newspapers, listening to Bob Dylan's latest, drinking coffee and stuffing our faces with sugary snacks. If it was a nice day outside, we might take a walk later to Washington Square several blocks away where we would listen to the itinerant folk singers by the fountain while (if it was summer) the kids were cooling off in the water.

Here in Bangkok my apartment is even smaller and the two English newspapers are nowhere near as heavy. But today I will go downstairs after 10:30 when the Central Pinklao mall opens up the street and track down Sunday papers in one of the several bookstores where farang customers are expected. I can get a free copy of the Nation's Daily XPress insert at the McDonald's across the street. In afternoon, after finishing this blog, I may take the 79 bus to Siam Square and see a film, perhaps "Get Smart" (not for the TV memories but only for the performance of that droll clown, Steve Carell). Or maybe I'll listen to music at one of the mini-Woodstocks which seem to take place every weekend in the large plazas outside the Central World and Siam Paragon supermalls.

My English class for the monks was held yesterday because Thursday fell this week on Wan Phra, the Buddhist sabbath which corresponds to the four phases of the moon. Here, Phra Nandawan from Shan State, Myanmar, and Phra Chheang from Cambodia, talk about the first exam that I had given them the previous week. Both did very well. This week I taught the use of "can" and "could" by encouraging them to talk about their abilities to ride a motorbike or speak another language. All can speak at least two (their native tongue and now English) but a number could also speak Lao, Khmer, Burmese, Cambodian, and even French and Japanese, not to mention Pali, the holy language for Buddhists. All are majoring in English with one more term before graduation. My writing assignment this week was for them to write a formal letter applying for a job as either a tour guide or an English teacher. Last week they wrote a description of the place where they lived before becoming a monk, the house and village. It's a wonderful way for me to learn about Southeast Asian life.

Next week my students are on holiday once again. Thursday is Asalha Bucha, the beginning of Vassa, or Buddhist Lent, the three-month rains retreat. The holiday is celebrated on the fifteenth day of the waxing moon of the eighth lunar month, and it commemorates the Buddha’s first sermon in the Deer Park in Benares and the founding of the Buddhist sangha. Vassa dates from a suggestion by the Buddha to observe a pre-existing practice when monks avoided traveling for a period during the rainy season to avoid damaging crops, and remained in their monasteries or temples. Primarily practiced now in the Theravadan Buddhist tradition, it is a time to renew one's vows and meditation practice. Many laymen will become temporary monks. (From the top of my apartment building I can see the back of this large statue of a Buddhist monk on the grounds of Wat Sri Sudaram next to my school.)

I barely took notice of the 4th of July last week except for this Uncle Sam blowing balloons for children in the Big C mall. I was occupied in getting all the necessary documents for my work permit application. Following the lead of Dr. Subodh from India, another teacher at Mahachula in need of working papers, I asked Dr. Chatchai, an administrator for laymen at the university's head office at Wat Mahathat, to help, and he graciously agreed. To get the required medical certificate, I walked from my apartment to the nearby Chao Phraya Hospital and, after having my blood pressure and weight checked, I told the doctor I did not have diabetes or any other dangerous condition (conveniently forgetting about the cancer). I was given a clean bill of health, for 100 baht ($3). Now it's all over but for a few signatures and the trip to the Labour Department with a Thai speaker to translate. Of course it's never that easy in Thailand and so I'm prepared to encounter a few more roadblocks on the way.

A friend writes from California that he is "slowing down," and he mentions a mutual friend who is likewise experiencing the inertial effects of aging. The expression amuses me. Yesterday I saw a mother with her infant son who had obviously just taken his first steps. He walked with a delighted swagger, tethered to stability by his mother's hand but obviously eager to get out on his own. It's not that the young are fast and the elderly slow. It's more about the delight we take with each step, fast or slow. I've seen too many aged who have obviously been crushed by the weight of years. Even the youth sometimes walk under bent backs, afraid to cut loose and prosper. I, too, like my friends, am slower now that I once was. Waking up, it takes time to get the arthritic kinks out of my bones. My balance is a bit off and I walk carefully in order to avoid falling (which I've done a few times in public, once at the feet of a prostitute outside Nana; she was very kind and helped me up). Yesterday, I ran to catch a bus and it took all of my energy. I can swim five laps in the pool but no more. But my delight in life is undiminished. In a week I will turn 69. That's the year we used to giggle about when we were teenagers. It wasn't a label I wanted to wear. Dr. Chatchai looked surprised as he fill out my forms and learned my age. "You look younger," he said kindly. I don't want to hide behind a youthful appearance. My years are not a weight but an attribute. I accept them proudly. (Turning 70, however, will require a whole new set of considerations.)

Chris, my oldest son, turned 43 on Friday in Sonoma where he lives with his wife Sandy, two dogs and a cat. He was born in London not long after his mother and I left our Greenwich Village apartment and went in search of European adventures. His British birth certificate was confiscated at the American embassy, but I got him a duplicate. And whenever he wants he can claim British citizenship. As I watch BBC (True came yesterday and adjusted the dish so we can now get English news), that seems like a pretty good idea to me. But they have a comfortable home and he has an absorbing (if occasionally debilitating) job running the computer sales side of Pottery Barn. Chris was an early pioneer of computers for advertising graphics and helped turn Gap online into their number one sales outlet. I like to think that some of his music and film obsessions come from my genes, but he has vastly exceeded my grasp of technology. Both he and Nick, my youngest son, have tried to explain, with little success the digital mysteries to their dad (who remains mostly stuck in the analog era). Recently my two older sons, Chris and Luke, who live on separate coasts, have connected on Facebook, and, along with their half-sister Emma, they have included me in the loop of their viritual family. This is the modern way, I know, but I miss the hugs. Happy Birthday, Christopher Edward Yaryan.

I went looking for some underwear at Tesco Lotus the other day and discovered I had to buy the XXL size. What an embarrassment! But Thai men are smaller and a size large for them fits a 32-inch waist. Pim and I regularly weigh ourselves and I haven't gained any weight. The flab remains, however, and I contemplate visiting the exercise room next to the sauna and the pool on the 6th floor of Lumpini Place. Contemplation is alot like meditation. It requires almost no physical effort. So instead of exercising, I surf the web and lust over the new 3G iPhone which is not yet on sale in Thailand. While the TV cable is now fixed, I'm still unable to see any YouTube videos, and there is little information on the web about YouTube's capitulation to Thai censorship. It may just be the TOT internet connections. If I can figure out how to get a proxy ISP, I may get around it (but that requires more technological know-how than I currently possess). The political scene has cooled off somewhat with the anti-government demonstration that had blocked streets for several weeks ordered to disband by a high court ruling. The courts have also intervened in several political disputes, to the point where one scholar has called it a "judicial revolution." Thaksin's fate may be settled by the court when he appears to face long-standing corruption charges this month. The economy is in shambles and the Samak government is poised to fall any day now. But it's a beautiful day.

This final photo is a view of the Pinklao bridge from the terrace outside the coffee shop at Thammasat University in Bangkok. I think (but am not sure) that I can see Lumpini Place in the distance.

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