Monday, August 03, 2009

Boredom is Past Tense

I continue to reunite with old friends on Facebook and the question they most often ask is: "What are you doing in Thailand." In three days I will celebrate my second anniversary as an expat in Bangkok, and I usually refer them to this blog which is a chronicle of my pleasures and occasional frustrations living in a foreign land. Every day, as I ride the buses and walk down crowded sidewalks rich with strange sounds and smells, I think of making notes toward a list of reasons why I came and now why I remain. But just as photography sometimes puts distance between the photographer and the event (I learned this many years ago when I viewed the bullfights in Tijuana through a lens ), recording the daily delights can sometimes take away from their surprise. I will say this: here in Thailand I am never bored.

This past weekend is a case in point. On Friday I joined the Little Bang gang for lunch at an Indian restaurant in Silom. Pandit Bhikku begins his eight-week series of rains retreat talks at at Planet Yoga this Thursday and passed out packets of fliers he designed for distribution around the city. Later I connected with Marcus, Ikumi and Colin for an afternoon cappuccino and conversation at Ricky's II Café in Banglamphu, now a weekly ritual (habits do not have to be boring). After her work, Nan met me at Central Pinklao and we went for dinner to the Barbecue Resort, an airplane hanger-sized al fresco restaurant nearby where about a thousand Thais cooked meat, fish and veggies over small braziers. The temperature inside on that hot evening was about 20 degrees higher. Thais love to barbecue and these eateries are incredibly popular; I've not seen them mentioned in books on Thai food. We stuffed ourselves.

Saturday I joined Jerry and Eric for a field trip to one of the "wacky wats" Jerry had listed in a so far unaccepted book proposal. We took the Skytrain to the eastern terminus of the line at On Nut and walked to Wat Mahabut on the Phra Khanong canal, an area which was rural not so long ago. According to a popular legend, during the reign of King Rama IV, a beautiful young woman named Nak lived in the district with her husband Mak. After she became pregnant, he was called up by the army and was injured. While he was recovering in Bangkok, she and the baby died in childbirth. When he returned, the ghost of Mae (mother) Nak cast a spell on him and he thought that she and the child were alive. Villagers who told him otherwise met ghastly ends. One night he saw her supernatural side and fled. She was ultimately captured and her spirit confined to an earthenware jar which was thrown into the river. There are several versions of the legend which have her escaping and being recaptured. The story of Mae Nak's transcendent love for Mak has inspired four films, one of them animated, and a musical. A large shrine complex has been erected at Wat Mahabut where worshippers who seek, or are grateful for, pregnancy present gifts of toys and clothes to an effigy of the mother and son. Gifts of cloth are wrapped around a large Bo tree trunk. We wandered around the shrine and went down to the river where people were offering gifts of fish, turtles and cockles to the waters in Mae Nak's honor.

Nan and I met at Siam Paragon in the early evening for ice cream. After a short nap at home, we took the bus over to Banglamphu. Our dinner at Tom Yung Kung Restaurant in a quiet lane behind Khao San Road was a disappointment. The whole red snapper was roasted to a crisp and tasted more like KFC fish than what was expected. Only the mango sauce was tasty. Our goal was Gulliver's, a large pub on the corner of the backpacker's road, and an evening of disco dancing. We nursed a couple of beers while the place filled with farang and the Thai girls (and ladyboys) looking to meet them. The music was an ear-deafening wump-wump-wump, although I did hear the Mamas and the Papas singing "California Dreamin'" underneath the mix at one point. Luckily it was dark enough for my advanced age to be missed. A grandfather in their midst might have cramped their style. Laser lights made LSD-like designs on the ceiling and walls. A small stage between two pool tables in front of us was crowded with dancers on display. Why is it that women are so much better at it than men (except for two black men who were impressive)? I did a passable bump and grind. By the time we left the bodies were so dense we had to squeeze with difficulty through the large room towards the door. But I had a good time.

On Sunday our activity destination was Dusit Zoo. Unlike some of my friends, I am relatively undisturbed by caged aimals. I don't like to watch the big cats pacing in their cells, but I do love to see the rampaging monkees and the colony of meerkats who play in the sand and peer watchfully at the giraffes and zebras next door. Most of the animals were sleeping, the lion and the tigers (but not the bears). A goat who escaped from his pen munched leaves near the hippopotamii in their poop-filled pool (yuck). We attended a show in the amphitheatre but most of the pets declined to perform, including the parrot that was supposed to take a 20-baht bill from Nan's hand. Several families left in disgust. We bought lunch (pork and rice, chicken and rice) in the food court and ate in a pavillion on the lake surrounded by several families (one brought a full-scale picnic from home for their brood). A large monitor lizard swam close to the shore scaring the kids. Afterward, we rented a bicycle boat and cruised the waterways. Rain threatened but never came. We missed the penguins on this visit but will come again (it was my fourth time).

After another nap, it was time for the Sunday movie. I wanted to see Johnny Depp as John Dillinger in "Public Enemies," and we arrived just in time for a couple of previews and the King's anthem which begins every entertainment performance. All, of course, must stand (you can go to prison if you resist). We brought a blanket as Bangkok cinemas always set the thermostat to "frigid." The film was long (Nan kept looking at her watch), but Depp was impressive as the gangster who was the Clark Gable of crime in the early 1930s. I only saw glimmers of Jack Sparrow's twinkle a couple of times. Shooting people with a Thompson submachine gun is not as funny as running them through with a pirate's sword. I thought Billy Crudup was terrific as J. Edgar Hoover, turning him into a simpering press chaser with a hint of a lisp, and Christian Bale was fine as the wooden Melvin Purvis who killed Pretty Boy Floyd and led the police to Dillinger outside a theater in Chicago. He quit the FBI in disgust at Hoover's tactics. I was surprised to learn he'd committed suicide 25 years after Dillinger and just after a diagnosis of brain cancer. Well, the popcorn was tasty and the Coke properly chilled. After the movie we had dim sum at Shanghai Restaurant in the mall.

Last week I gave my students a miderm exam. We may not be half way through the term, since I haven't learned yet just exactly when it ends, but it seemed like a good idea. Verb tenses, of course, were important, and difficult since Asian languages do not have them. One typical mistake is for Asians to say "I'm very boring" when they mean "I'm bored." So far we've covered present and past simple and continuous. After the test we began looking at present perfect (the names have always escaped me, although I know when a tense sounds "right"). Each week I prepare a song for my monks, blanking out words on a lyric sheet and asking them to figure out what goes there from a short list. For a sound system, I use my iPod and speakers. Many of the songs that I play have been suggested by students. Last week they'd requested a Michael Jackson song. I'd never listened carefully to his lyrics before, and was impressed. The problem with most of his songs for my exercise is the excess repetition. I finally chose "Black or white," thinking the theme would make a good discussion topic. Then I polled to see what they liked best and, amazingly, they chose the same song. On the back of the lyric sheet I included the bio from Wikipedia for the listening comprehension lesson (I read something each week and ask questions to see if they get it). Monks can't dance, or even sing, although one student did a great "whoo-hoo" just like Jacko. Their bare toes were tapping. Jackson's diction and the words were difficult, but they got the message. I told them my favorite line is "I'm not going to spend my life being a color."

And a variant of that could be: I'm not going to spend the rest of my life being an old man.


Barb said...

Well Bill, I had to read the entire blog to find out how to stop my depression!!!! It was well worth it. I too, will not spend the rest of my life being an old woman!!!

Hazel said...

I watched Mae Nak Prakhanong on a bus TV with a faltering subtitle(travelling from Huahin to Bangkok). It was fun, but it's from your account I finally understood what is it exactly about. Thanks.

MJ's Man in the Mirror, the part "if you wanna make the world a better place take a look at yourself and make a change" -- I wonder what would be the monks' take on that.