Monday, May 26, 2008

Puppets Are People Too

I've been fascinated with puppets ever since an early exposure to Walt Disney's "Pinocchio." How can a lifeless stick of wood, albeit carved and painted, seem so life-like?

Last night Pim and I attended a performance of "The Myth of Rahoo and the Lunar Eclipse" by the Joe Louis Puppet Theatre at the Suan Lum Night Bizaar. Basing their works on adaptations of the Thai epic "Ramakien" (a version of the Indian classic "Ramayana"), here is the lovely Benjakai, the niece of a demon king and the apple of Hanuman's eye, with her two (of three) handlers and a member of the audience. The movements of the puppets, particularly Hanuman, the lustful white monkey warrior, were amazingly real. Each was operated in full view by three classically-trained khon dancers, their movements echoing the puppet's own. Thai theatrical puppetry was invented in 1901 by the legendary dancer Krae Saptawanit, but fell out of favor after World War Two under competition with the movies. Sakorn Yang-keawsot, the son of two members of the first troupe, carried on the tradition which was given a boost when the King in 1996 honored him as the custodian of a dying art form. Performances began at the Lumpini night market in 2001. Given the nickname Joe Louis, after the black American boxing champ, probably because of his Thai name "Liew," Sakorn died last year, but the theatre has been continued by several of his nine children. The performance in the 600-seat theatre was clearly aimed at the tourist market (seats were an outrageous 900 baht apiece), but the audience last night was filled with many Thais and their children. The story was accompanied by a large orchestra of traditional instruments and two singers. I followed the plot easily because an explanation in English was shown on two side screens. After the show, Hanuman and Benjakai socialized with audience members to the delight of all. Perhaps puppets surprise us with their humanness because all too often the humans around us are dead wood by contrast.

The food at the restaurant in front of the Traditional Thai Puppet Theater Company's auditorium was overpriced and mediocre, definitely aimed at ignorant farangs visiting Lumpini. We should have eaten at the Khlong Toey Food Fair. It was held in a parking area at the side of the Queen Sirikit Convention Center, a 15-minute walk from our apartment through the Thailand Tobacco Monopoly's complex of huge warehouses. We walked along the road beside the lovely Benjakiti Park, separated from it by a tall chain-link fence. For some mysterious reason, Thai officials restrict entrance to the park to only single gates at each end of the large rectangle, neither convenient for us. This is no doubt the reason so few people can ever be found inside. The Food Fair was full of yellow booths, chairs and tables, the color for Singha Beer's logo (and also for the King, which is probably no coincidence). On a large stage, a talent contest featured pre-teen singers belting out luuk thung melodies, Thailand's country music. I appeared to be the only farang in evidence. So I toured the grounds taking pictures of the food and the entertainers. Since we'd eaten a late lunch, I wasn't hungry, but I was fascinated by the food Thais eat. There was all manner of meat (plus the insides that do not appeal), including pork balls, as well as fish, crabs, clams, shrimp and squid. A lone booth was selling Indian food with a chicken biryani that looked quite tasty. Besides beer, drinks included coconut and sugar cane juice, all fresh. I even found pizza, but it was a strange breaded dish advertised as originating in New Zealand. The Food Fair was subtitled "& Travel" so besides the Indian booth there was another selling sushi. But there were few takers. From the Food Fair, we headed over to Lumpini, which, since it looked closer than it was, required a short hop on the MRT subway.

A friend from California has written to encourage me to set aside any doubts I may have about my relationship with a much younger woman, and to "go for it!" Acknowledging concerns about age and health which she shares, she suggests: "If we can grab a little happiness, we should." I know, she writes, that "we should get what we can, when we can as long as others don’t get hurt."
I remember reading James Baldwin, I forget which book, telling about love that may only last fifteen minutes but can be as fulfilling as a lifetime relationship. Not a direct quote, of course, but you get the point. Even fifteen minutes would be nice. But I think Willie you must have years.
Stop worrying, she writes, about how it looks or what a stereotype you might be. Sage advice from a wise friend.

Fresh mangoes have disappeared from the street carts, and with them the take-home delicacy of mango and sticky rice smothered in coconut sauce. This was the first year I have been to Thailand when mangoes are in season and they were the icing for me on this expatriate cake I am enjoying. But with hardly a fare thee well, they are gone, a short season indeed. Rambutans and Mangosteens, however tasty and exotic, are no substitutes. Even the delectable litchi (aka lychee) nut fruit which Pim brought home the other day can not take the place of the mango. Noel first introduced me to mangoes and taught me the way he learned growing up in India/Pakistan to cut open and eat them. Pim's method is quicker and simpler. But any way you slice and dice them, the mango is the undisputed king (or queen) of fruit. (I'm still endeavoring to stomach the smelly durian which Pim loves to eat).

I spent the weekend (no Memorial Day break here in Thailand) working on the syllabus and lesson plans for my class which begins on Thursday. I still do not have a working visa but I'm told the necessary documents should be ready when I get to Wat Si (for another trip to the immigration office the following day). After shelling out a considerable sum on printing and copies, I went to Office Depot in Silom on Saturday and bought a Lexmark x2550 printer which prints from the computer, and also copies and scans documents. It was ridiculously cheap, about $50, but the ink will probably cost me my wages as a teacher. I soon discovered that the Mac Image Capture program did not feature optical character recognition (OCR) capability, which is unfortunate since I want to import portions of my text, New Headway Elementary, into files for class handouts. So I'm on the prowl looking for a copy of OmniPage, a program I once had which will do just that.

The PAD anti-government demonstration yesterday drew either 5,000 or 10,000 people, depending on which English-language paper you read. This is the group whose anti-Thaksin demonstrations in 2006 brought down that government and precipitated a military coup. Now they are threatening to take to the streets again until Prime Minister Samak resigns along with over 100 politicians from his party who are pushing a charter revision to protect Thaksin and the administration overthrown by the troops from corruption charges. Samak has offered to hold a referendum on whether or not the constitution should be amended, but opponents say that is an expensive way to delay justice. It's a confusing scene, and there appear to be black and white hats on both sides of the political fence.

There is an interesting article on gas, "Running Out of Fuel, but Not Out of Ideas," in the New York Times by Ben Stein, former speech writer for Nixon and Ford, and the actor who played the science professor on "The Wonder Years." I don't particularly agree with his free market solutions (get oil from coal, pursue nuclear solutions to the energy crisis), but any article that mentions Will Rogers, "Mad Max" Chuck Berry and Neil Young gets my attention. He says that during the Nixon years America got one-third of its oil from overseas. Currently it's two-thirds. And the sources are decidedly undependable (of course it doesn't help that we wrecked the Iraqi pipeline). He also cites America's dependence on huge vehicles, bigger than most third-world houses, for transport solutions.
After all, do we really need to have a 6,000-pound S.U.V. take a 100-pound high school student across town to buy a Diet Coke? Do we really need cars so big that they have flat-screen televisions for the children in the back?
I see few SUVs in Bangkok. Mostly the roads are clogged with taxis, buses, tuk-tuks and an incredible number of motorbikes. Of course we need to lower our energy needs rather than "to drill on the continental shelf, even near where movie stars live," which is one of Stein's suggestions. The Asian solution, at least for the majority, is the motorbike. Imagine, my friends in the U.S., your streets filled with motorbikes rather than SUVs (of course bicycles are better but they are only in the majority in Vietnam).

In the Bangkok Post this morning, the commerce minister floats a plan to patent the monthly full moon party on Koh Phangan when thousands of revelers take various drugs and stay up all night to bay at the moon. He said the idea had already been stolen by the Singapore government for a similar party on its artificial island of Sentosa. Intellectual property experts, however, cautioned that not everything can be patented. But then why, despite challenges from Santa Cruz does Hermosa Beach apparently hold a patent to the name Surf City? Another story in the Post tells of the tribulations of an Afghan journalist who was found guilty of distributing an article that questioned the Muslim practice of polygamy. The penalty? Death. Islam, at least as it is interpreted by numerous religious states, is fast loosing my support. And speaking of the Post, the above is a picture of the lovely lady, surprised by my camera, who sells it to me from her store down the street every morning (along with water, milk, bread and ice cream). She also throws in a Thai lesson for nothing. Mom & Pop stores like her's still thrive on the sois of Bangkok but their existence is threatened, as elsewhere, by the burgeoning chain of 7-11's which are owned by the largest corporation in Thailand. Here is her competition, not far up the soi.

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