It is raining (it is always raining) and a stream of mud slides down the road to my gate from the mountain that is melting at the foot of my street. There is a strong stench of cat urine in the air.I have just come home from the hospital. But I’m not there yet. Friday I was supposed to teach the government officials. I bicycled to the Government Building in the center of the city and no one showed up, I was sort of expecting that, I never made clear when I would be returning from my conference in Cha’am. I went to a coffee shop after that with a book and sat around and people eventually found me (sitting around coffee shops and knowing someone I know probably will come in and that I will then most likely have a nice conversation with them is something, I think, I need more than a home. I am thinking here of the orange cafÈ in Aix-en-Provence, the first time I lived by myself—didn’t know the language, of course, and would often walk down the cobblestone street to that cafÈ, sit in the sun (there was a time I radiated towards the sun and not the other way around) and most certainly Alayna, Amber, Billy, Josh, someone, would walk through that warm plaza squared with hanging green tree branches and centered by the fountain, they’d sit down and the conversation could last hours, half of days. And I never felt like I was wasting time. And obviously Juna’s or Gimmee. Obviously.)
My supervisor, Pi Jarue, finds me at this particular coffee shop on my corner (no enclosed walls, plastic stools for seats and a blaring, giant TV in the corner, dogs asleep on the floor, dirty cats twist around your ankles and you feel their course fur and ribs, Chinese tea in metal pots at every table, coffee and sweet rice with jackfruit wrapped in banana leaf…) Pi Jarue introduces me to Cheryl, an English woman in her mid-50’s who has been in Thailand for two years and has funding to stay for the next seven. She came with the tsunami and volunteered in Kol Lok with all those volunteer/vacationer kids, whom in my last group email I began to express a little bit of mounting rage towards. Cheryl was disgusted with the programs, how after the tsunami they would throw these Westerners who were mainly in Thailand to vacation and say they volunteered (they had good intentions. Good intentions means nothing.) into the school systems with no background check, no experience, no cultural training, and they were supposed to teach English. They’d stay there for a couple of weeks hung over and dressed in flimsy beach wear, smoke cigarettes outside, play with the kids hair, and assume because Thai students can parrot words back like none other that they were actually teaching them something.
In the end all they really were bringing, flighty and flirty and crispy tan bacon skin, was more instability to children who were wrecked– severely.
All the while millions and millions of dollars are being poured into my province, Phang Nga, you have no idea. There is so much money here. (Why do I only have a chalkboard when I teach 250 students for a whole day?) So many dusty computers and giant SUVS and plasma screen TVs. And I know I overuse this word, but really, it’s just all a bunch of shit. If someone spent a little bit of time here they’d realize there is no need for that. There is need here… Thailand doesn’t need what America does, or England, or Germany.
Christy’s school, Ban Mueng, the school who lost the most students in the tsunami (over fifty out of three hundred) are still recovering from the Westerners who came in after the tsunami. Christy said they were grossly indecent. Years later it is still a vulnerable issue. That is the same school that still doesn’t have one physiatrist to talk to those broken, lost children. Pi Tim, Christy’s counterpart tells her, “you have no idea how much these students have changed.” She is worried. She doesn’t know what to do. “They are empty now, they don’t care. About anything, anything.”
(Christy tries as she can to work with those students but says how difficult it is. They don’t care about anything. They’ll sniff glue in the back. Just get up and leave.) One of the most disturbing things I have witnessed in all of this is that in the mass amounts of charity and good will that has been targeted to tsunami effected regions of Thailand there is still no physiatrists in that school, in the vast majority of the schools. Why did no one think of this?
Intentions have no value. They don’t. And giving away your money is the easy part. Charity isn’t easy. Creating something, in someone else’s culture, that is even a little valuable, that can sustain itself, is difficult.
I tell Cheryl that I’ll help train the certified teachers, with language and culture, who are coming here to teach for at least a year, who will be older, responsible, take this seriously, will understand the implications, she says. I’m happy to help her, I give her my number. (She asks if there is much to do in my town, wants to give the new teachers a head’s up. I say, uh, sort of. She says, well what are you doing tonight? I tell her going with Pi Nee to aerobics in the town’s center. Imagine about 200 Asian women done up in makeup with sprayed out hair in spandex doing the most bizarre aerobic moves you have ever seen. It’s hysterical. It’s my favorite part of the day. A lot of my co teachers are there. They tell me it’s good that I come but I shouldn’t eat dinner because then I’ll get fat, I say but I’m hungry! They just smile at me like I don’t know anything, BUT that’s another story.)
The next day I run a day long English Camp. 150 students. I am armed with the normal set of materials. A blackboard and stump of chalk. A lot stray dogs. I think materials are overrated anyway. It’s fun. The kids have a good time.
After the Camp I book it to the bus station, catch my bus, and head to Taukah Pah to have dinner and drinks with Christy, Rueben (Peace Corps Volunteers) Sam (long-term private foundation volunteer), Rusty and Laura (also long-term, another foundation, volunteers). As I am walking down Christy’s road, a road I’ve walked down about a million times before, the giant dogs come running at me barking and jumping, this is normal. Dogs always chase you, but normally I think of it as a false charge, as long as I don’t run I’m fine. Well I wasn’t and a German Shepard mix bites into my leg.
You know, I’m extremely awkward with these things so I don’t even cry out. In fact, when the owner comes out, Christy’s old neighbor, I formally bow and wai her as my leg is bleeding.
I turn into Christy’s gate, they are all mingling around the front porch and I laugh, “I was just bit by a dog.” This was a big to-do. Who knew? I thought I was fine because I had that five shot series rabies vacinaction. Nope. You need a booster shot immediately, then another. You need to have it cleaned at the hospital. (That could have been my most painful experience to date. Far, far beyond the pain of the actual bite.)
Had to hitch hike to the bus station. Rueben, Sam, Christy all agreed to come to Phuket (party island of Thailand) with me to go to the hospital and spend the night. We catch the 9:30 pm bus, get to the dead, bright emergency room at 1am and then after an hour of awful cleaning procedures I wish on no one, go to Patong, get a hotel room and go to a bar. It must have been three am at this point. Patong is like an international Jersey shore scene with the addition of painful human trafficking and more prostitutes than you can imagine. No one was up for the scene. We retreated back to the room.
Rueben was saying how he is applying for the AIDS Committee because there are high-risk students at his school. He said how in the school brochure for his school he had to translate into English what his counterpart was telling him, which was explaining the kids who are from hookers and the male tourists who then, of course, go home. Rueben said something like, “students who were salvaged from the sex industry.” Sam said, you should just say “Made in Patong.”
We laughed hard like we always do at this whole giant mess.
The next morning it’s raining and Sam, Christy and I sit on the balcony, drinking coffee and overlooking the prostitutes walking home and a steady rain. “This rain will last for weeks,” someone notes. We nod. It will. Sam goes, “Buddhism, how they work it here, just holds people down. I’m getting so sick of it. The merit system. You are born with good karma or you are born with bad karma. By accepting your fate because of your sins from a bad, former life, well it’s really easy to manipulate a whole society that way. Those rice farmers saying, I have no money because I was bad in a former life. I mean yeah, Thailand wasn’t colonized, but it was in a way. There is a rich Bangkok elite dictating this. These people are trapped, completely, and brainwashed. And they are bred to religiously believe they deserve whatever they get. Good or bad, they deserve it. They deserved the tsunami. They deserve their poverty. Well you can do anything you want to those sorts of people. Screw them over again and again and again. And all they’re working on is doing good to build their merit, boost their karma, and get them to the Nirvana when they die.”
Christy and I nod. I sip my coffee. I am here, in Thailand, in the south, my whole body is here. But it’s all temporary. It’s all an act. None of this really applies to me. I’m an American. I can try on lives like coats. This is just a phase of my life. Two years. This is a joke– these people. It’s awful. It’s liberating. It’s awful—I don’t know what it is.
The next day we hang out a bit, I have to go back to the hospital (and again on Tuesday), I get back home, walk up my hill, it’s dark and cool and the mountain is illuminated by the moon like it always is on good nights. The scratchy Muslim prayer calls are crying out from the mosque speakers in town. The chants bouncing off the mountains, I think there is nothing as beautiful as this sound right now.