Thursday, November 25, 2010

Wandering Star

Two weeks before the holiday I started hearing cannonballs fire, late at night, from the window of my room. Fighting had not taken to the streets, but firecrackers had. Unhampered by US laws restricting the sale of small colorful explosives, fireworks are set off by anyone and everyone, everywhere – often with little heed to passersby. As we drew closer still to the holiday I would on occasion spy a lone lantern floating away into the night air – a tall cylinder of paper with a flaming circle on the bottom that propels it upwards. I watched them – beautiful and lonely – before bed, not realizing what was in store.

Loy Krathong, is one of largest two festivals in the country and involves the floating of lighted Krathong, small banana trunk and flower decorated offerings to be set to float in the river. It coincides with the twelfth full moon and celebrates the life of the Buddha among other things. In the north of Thailand, the holiday has been combined with Yi Peng, a festival of floating lanterns, ensuring that water, earth and sky are all equally alight. For the three days of the holiday the city takes on a festival appearance, a mix of Hanukkah, Christmas and Halloween with small clay lights lining balconies and walkways, fireworks and lanterns going off and folks flocking to the streets.

How to describe Loy Krathong along the Ping River? Imagine a war zone – It is night, maybe 10 pm, there are bombs going off in every direction, smoke is thick in the air, crowds of people, sparks of light whizz - some up into the sky others colliding with shoes and legs, some explode with a bang, others in a shower of sparks, the river is alight and so is the sky. Got this all in your head? Ok now place this along the banks of a large muddy river along the East side of the northern city of Chiang Mai, Thailand. That’s pretty much Loy Krathong for you.

All up and down the river food stalls are crammed selling meat on a stick, fish on a stick, piles of soy soaked noodles, pulled violently-orange iced tea, fried rotis, fried eggs, fried chicken. At the river's edge thousands of men, women and children are casting their sorrows into the water carried in the petals of flowers and the origamied banana leaves of Krathong and each with a solitary candle and a small outcropping of smoldering incenses.

From the banks too shoot fireworks – reds, whites, greens, purples. They spin in tighter and tighter spirals arcing out over the water until they land again and are extinguished in a hiss. Others go off with a gun shot and little else. Still more explode into enormous cascades of light. Along one bank a parade makes its slow progression up the street hemmed in by crowds. The bridges are by far the most dangerous. Crowds and fireworks are in closest quarters here and fireworks carve out their priority. Everywhere are huddles of people setting off lanterns (khom fai) into the sky: narrow and long, wide and big, red ones, ones painted with the colors of the Thai flag, ones shaped like soccer balls, hearts, gigantic panda heads. They bob and sway like jellyfish high, high and higher into the sky so that it becomes near impossible to distinguish stars from their glowing imposters. Calm and chaos coexisting for three long, glowing nights.

But the real magic of Loy Krathong came outside the city at Mae Cho University where we headed off to, via motorbikes, late Saturday afternoon. Once at the University, forty-five minutes outside the center of Chiang Mai, we allowed ourselves to be swept along by the crowd making its way to a pre-designated field. The field was stuck with long poles crowned with unlit candles and we eagerly took up our post next to two such poles, leaning large, human-sized lanterns up against them. What followed was an hour long out-door service of monk chanting as the sky grew darker and darker. Lanterns from outside the clearing floated high overhead in a meandering line, an orange-hued milky way. And then we were standing up, thousands of us, Thais, Westerns, teens, adults, babies. The candles were lit and lanterns were hoisted overhead so that the circular wicks would catch flame. Slowly the lanterns around us expanded. We waited. And then, finally, with a signal thousands of hands let go and one thousand lanterns floated upwards. Slowly, gracefully, so at first all we could see was the flickering glow around us and then the entire night sky was suddenly burned out in the glow, our visions consumed by the enormous, circular rings.

One thousand lanterns in the sky create an entire starry overlay to the real celestial landscape, a brighter, closer collection of ever-shifting constellations. For those who have watched Princess Mononoke, the bobbing lanterns resemble Miyazaki’s wide-eyed tree spirits. And when the lanterns finally extinguish and fall slowly back to earth, dusky grey against deep blue, so to do they resemble the spirits' movements, a descent not fluttering or plummeting, but fully bodied and stunningly sorrowful. I have experienced few moments as breathtaking or truly magical as this.

Friday, November 12, 2010

To Enter the Heart

I have covered rain and rambutans, the eccentricities of my college classroom and the traffic rules of Chiang Mai, but there is one entire area of my experience that I have neglected to touch on. That of course is pashaa Thai.

As I mentioned in previous posts, my Thai lessons began informally with my students acting teacher, to their very confused teacher. Thai has five tones: middle, low, high, rising and falling, thus the same collection of letters can have completely different meanings. Having lived in the Kingdom for six months now many of the tones have come to sound very distinct. That was not the case upon arrival.

Just like Kiswahili which has wonderfully similar words (Ona = to see, and Oa =to get married. Or: Elewa = to understand, and Lewa = to get drunk) Thai also has its share of aggravatingly similar sounding words that have the potential to lead you easily astray (Glaai – falling tone = near, but Glaai – middle tone = far. Or Suay – rising tone = beautiful, but Suay – low tone = bad luck).

Learning three words a day from each of my classes, I had, within a couple of weeks, collected a hodge-podge of words that my students thought necessary additions to my slowly expanding Thai lexicon. Pen, pencil, eraser, blackboard, leek, car, fan, sticky rice, dance, door, mackerel.

But my Thai teachers have not been limited to my students. While I have taken some more formal Thai lessons, the best lessons have been those that happen by chance in the markets, at food-stands on the roadside and in the school office.
I have learned colors from my Thai co-workers who explained one morning that each day of the week is assigned a color and that government officials are traditionally supposed to dress accordingly. Monday = Lwang (Yellow), Tuesday = Chompoo (Pink), Wednesday = Ke-ow (Green), Thursday = Faa (Blue), Friday = Som (Orange), Saturday = Mooang (Purple), Sunday = Dang (Red). While many no longer organize their outfits based on the official colors I was told that some do continue to observe by wearing color-coordinated underwear.

I have come to notice that Thai is spoken, at least for women, two to three octaves higher than normal western speech patterns. This was made apparent to me when returning to Thailand after my three weeks away and speaking Thai again for the first time. You smile a lot more when you speak Thai. This is partly because there are certain sounds that can only be made by pulling your mouth back in a wide grin, and partly because (again for women) there seems to be an emphasis on making everything sound extra cute.

Fruit words are my strong point, a direct correlation with the quantity I consume on a daily basis. There are a number of ladies who have helped expand my vocabulary in this avenue. The smoothie woman at the Chiang Mai Gate Market who has come to learn how much I love mangoes was the first to teach me the staples of my smoothies. A woman who runs a fruit stand outside the back gate of CMU quizzed me multiple days running and only when I had successfully repeated malago back to her would hand me a bag of sliced silken papaya. Another woman who runs a stand at the corner of Suan Doak Temple not only taught me the words for Pomelo, Jackfruit and Pomegranate, but had me teach her the English words for her produce and write the English names below their Thai counterparts.

I’ve learned vegetables from Denali’s host mom who runs a vegetable stand, body parts from the women who I receive massages from, and I’ve collected a handful of dirty words from my older students. An old couple that sell noodles at the school cafeteria were first to instruct me in the words for small and large rice noodles and the all important pet nit noi (only a little chili please).

In my linguistic wanderings I have come across a few classic examples of words that are truly excellent when heard with a western ear. Two personal favorites: The Thai word for a pumpkin = Fuck-tong and the Thai word for an incredibly bad smell = Men.

One of the most fun and fascinating aspects of learning Thai is how so many words are a kind of puzzle. Two simple words will be combined to create an entirely new word. There is a kind of poetry to these words and they seem to inherently encourage you to ponder the deeper meaning and understanding of the word. My favorite collection of puzzle words are ones that utilize the word Jai meaning "heart" in Thai. There is:

Tok Jai = “Falling heart” which means: “surprise”
Jai yen yen = “Heart cold” which means: “calm down”
Tang Jai = “Balanced heart” which means: “balance”
Kao Jai = “Enter heart” which means: “understand”