Tuesday, May 11, 2010

chai encounter


Today I finished my third 300 plus page novel in less than a week. Although I feel like a proud daughter when I find myself in a ferocious reading spree as my mother put all other casual readers to shame, I am feeling a bit nervous because I only have one book left and I have 7 days to go before I head back to Chiang Mai (the travelers book exchange heaven for well-read, well-traveled paperbacks). I decide to head down the road for a Chang, the local brew, in the service of creating something else to do, and maybe to slow down my reading spree. Last night I taught English to a group of three young ladies and one young lad at the local noodle shop. This has been a SalusWorld tradition in this project and at first I didn’t want to disappoint the consultants who came before me. Twice a week for eight months visiting consultants have been holding English classes at night in a noodle shop that sprang up a few short months after our arrival in this displaced Shan village in northern Thailand.

To be totally honest I didn’t really want to do it. I’m a psychologist for goodness sake. After spending 10 minutes with these kids I realized it was the best guilt based decision I had ever made. They were sharp and sweet and keen to learn. I pray I teach them as much English as they have taught me Shan, but I doubt it; one of them busted me last night for spelling Wednesday wrong. Based on the fact I so enjoyed myself with them and because they asked, we upped the evening classes from 2 to 4 times this week and I am stoked. My best lesson to date has been to teach them the alphabet in American Sign Language, the first foreign language I studied. The lights went out during our lesson and I heard them correcting each other practicing the signs as they walked home from escorting me back to my abode with candles.

I have a day and night free and I have no idea what to do with my time. Last month I was training, frantically prepping for a pending training or engaging in delightful supervision sessions with amazing team of coordinators. The sudden slowdowns in life have unfortunately never been easy for me. It seems I feel more balanced with a check list of activities to get done rather than relaxing in one of the most sought after travel destinations in the world. For some reason I can’t warm myself to Thailand. It is beautiful no doubt, but I find myself agitated whenever I am here, longing for other less developed and much less tourism savvy environments on the planet like Lofa, Yelwa and Dagon Plaza.

As I saunter down the street to the market to buy my Chang and some snacks of dried fish and rice cakes I see a guy from a distance. The first thing I notice is that he can squat on his hunches Third World-style, indefinitely. For some reason I find myself longing to speak Thai so I could saunter up to him and strike up a conversation. As I draw near, I realize I know this guy. It is Chai. Chai is a whisper of a man but hip in his own way and not in the slightest way anachronistic. Berkley cool in worn out clothes, wiry, muscular, flip-floped, well over fifty but doesn’t look a day older than thirty-five. A week of acclimating to the land of maybes and half-smiles, longing for a place and it’s people just across the border, I find him, or he finds me, sauntering down the road sweating and somehow fearful of the motorbikes coming at me on the empty paved road. For some reason I have this nagging feeling that a few of my local passer-byers have a itch to hit me and might even consider doing it they could be assured they could get away with it. He greets me kindly and I tell him I will be right back as I notice they are closing up the market and I want to get the treats I had been planning for (God forbid I skip the beer and barrel through my last novel). As I walk back I am given another chance to watch him and I am struck by how much I like this guy, given I know so little about him. The last time I was here I had asked after him and I had been told he was nowhere to be found and that maybe he had returned to Shan State. 14 months later, out of nowhere, there he is smiling at me, as engaged as I remember him. We smile and shake our heads in that this is unbelievable kind of way and then he moves towards his motorbike and says “home?” At first I baulk and refuse because that is what “we” should do when an oppressed illegal immigrant on a bike offers a ride to a privileged white gal in fancy sunglasses sweating along the roadside. He turns his head like a trusted dog does paying attention to you when you are telling them a story, trying to make meaning out of the nonsense coming out of your mouth. I quickly realize I am being foolish and awkwardly jump on his bike because the pegs are not out and I unconsciously have the residue of a long forgotten bike trauma (a burn on the leg from a Harley that was only slightly more dangerous than it’s driver) burned into my memory and my calf. Chai’s English ranges from profoundly good to non-existent; so, I chat away on the back of the bike showering him with genuine compliments based on what I remember about his participation in my first 2 week training on basic counseling and I ask him how his trip to Shan State went. I have no idea what he understood as he only grunted and then dumped me in front of my house, smiled, and turned around and left. He has an idle power I envy and I remain hopeful that is not the last of our ever so random encounters.

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