Chapter 17

What’s in your head?

“ah eeyoh EH-yeh! eeyoh EH- EE-EHyeh! ah-ahm eh! ah-ahm eh! a-ahm EH! EH! EH!…”

As I sit in the small janitor’s closet-sized “office” that has been afforded the foreign teachers, my mid-morning coffee break is interrupted by the piercing sound of several girls outside the door braying in unison. I look up from my instant 3-in-1 instant brew to cast a quizzical look at Heinz, another teacher sharing the tiny space with me. The tall, white-haired German doesn’t even look up, but instead continues to be engrossed in whatever he is reading from the screen of his laptop.

I think to close the door to eliminate the choral distraction, but quickly realize the futility of the action. Our office, situated at the corner of the second floor of the main administration building, is an open-air design. The west-facing outer wall is latticed-brick, as is the top section of the opposite side that separates the office from the open corridor that runs along the front of the building. The openings are nice, in that they allow whatever possible breeze there is to flow through the space. What is less nice is the fact that the openings also allow rain pushed by a heavy wind to enter where I would like to be able to store paperwork without fearing for its integrity against the elements. 

The porous walls also fail to keep out spiders, rats, the occasional cat, and the sounds of children playing, arguing, or in this case, singing. There’s something familiar about the melody, but it takes me a minute to identify the tune the girls are belting out. It’s “Zombie”, by the Cranberries, a single that was released over 20 years ago, but continues to be one of the most popular western pop songs in the Kingdom of Thailand. Every cover band here has it in their repertoire and it’s almost always performed badly at least once a night at any given karaoke venue. 

Now that I recognize the tune, it makes a little more sense to me. What is lacking in the young ladies’ rendition is any form of consonant sounds with the exception of “m” in “zoMbie”. It dawns on me that they don’t know the words, much less the message of anger and hopelessness amid what was a long-running, ethno-nationalist conflict in a land on the other side of the world. As I recall the lyrics of “and their tanks and their bombs”, my mind immediately returns to the ongoing carnage I learned about just a few months before during a visit to Laos. The chime of the electronic bell announces the end of recess, dissipating my thoughts, and brings the singing outside the door to an abrupt end.

It’s been a little under two months since I started my tenure as an English instructor here at the mid-sized public school where I interviewed back in mid-March. Mat, the head of the foreign teachers, informed me a few days after that the administration had been impressed with my demo class, and was hiring me to start when the new school year began in the middle of May. It was a relief to be hired. I had been worried that I wasn’t going to be able to find a job here. 

Meanwhile, Jacob was in the enviable position of having to choose between over a half-dozen schools who wanted him to work for them. He and I continued to live as neighbors in the apartment building on Huay Keaw Road until April, when Brent, one of the CELTA instructors, asked me if I would house-sit and take care of his dog, Oscar, for a month while he was away in Bangkok. 

I filled those two months the best I could with exploring and a bit of travel. Jacob and I took a weekend flight to Bangkok, his first visit. We explored the city with a local lady I had met on my previous visit acting as tour guide. It was miserably hot and sticky, but we visited one of the more famous Buddhist temples, Wat Arun, enjoyed the river markets, and rode bicycles with shabby brakes around Sri Nakhon Park.

Upon my return from Bangkok, I took a hasty flight to Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia for a weekend as my visa had run out. It’s a beautiful city, the architecture and food were amazing, and I found myself wishing for more time. 

Back in Thailand, I accepted Jacob’s invitation to walk/climb the monk’s trail up Doi Suthep to the temple that rested halfway to the peak. He was in much better shape than me, and I felt a little bad for slowing him down. Once we got onto the temple grounds, the view of Chiang Mai and the valley below were spectacular, though a bit hazy due to the pollution.

We lived through our first Songkran experience. If you’re not familiar with it, Songkran marks the beginning of the Buddhist New Year, which falls on April 13/14 each year. Traditionally a cleansing ceremony was observed, with water being poured into the hands of a respected older person while asking for forgiveness, and people visit temples to drizzle water over the image of the Buddha. This has evolved into what has become a nationwide water fight that lasts anywhere from one to five days, depending on the location in Thailand. It’s next to impossible to go outside without getting wet. What would constitute assault in most other places or at other times is perfectly acceptable during this period, as people throw, spray, or pour water – some of it iced – at or on passersby. 

We were joined by four others from S. Korea and South America as we roamed the streets of Chiang Mai armed with various weapons ranging from buckets to high-powered squirt guns. We gave as good as we got, and in the end, we were all soaked. Unfortunately, we wandered too near the moat, where some of the locals were refilling their “ammo” from the canal that encircled the old city. The authorities had decided not to replenish the moat with clean water from the reservoirs that year and the stagnant water was a breeding ground for bacteria. Some of us ended up getting very ill in the next couple of days after being splashed with the contaminated “cleansing” water. 

A friend from Singapore visited me for a few days after I recovered from my fever, which I was gratified to learn was not the dengue variety. She and I took a bus to Chiang Rai and visited the White Temple and other attractions. There I ate “hang lay”, a spicy northern Thai pork belly curry with pork belly for the first time. Scott, the British expat, had told me this was a must-try. It was delicious, and evidently Chiang Rai was known as the best place to eat it. 

After my friend left for home, it was time for me to move into my own new place. Mat had graciously taken me around to several spots with housing rentals in the district where I would be teaching. I chose one that was close to the school for convenience. It was a lovely property with a private swimming pool, a cafe, and the landlady, Sunshine, was as sweet as could be. My “home” was considered a studio apartment, but in reality was simply a hotel room with a bed, closet, and a couple of tables. My first request was for the television to be removed as it took up valuable space and I didn’t want to watch it anyway.

I had only a few hours in my new place before I had to wake up early the next morning to head to the airport again. The 30-day visa exemption I received upon my return from Malaysia was expiring, and I also needed to obtain a proper 60-day tourist visa from a consulate in order for the school to begin processing the paperwork for my future employment visa and work permit. My flight was to Udon Thani, in the central northern part of Thailand. From there I took a minivan to the Laos border, and then another to Vientiane where I submitted my documents at the Thai consulate. 

Since there were two more weeks before the school year started in Thailand, I decided to extend my visit to Laos. My visa took only one day to process, and I was able to pick it up the following afternoon. During the day I explored the capital city a bit on foot. I wasn’t particularly impressed with the town itself. It seemed dirty and threadbare. One surprising find, however, was a Chilean restaurant serving fresh empanadas and tacos.

Because I had brought the incorrect photos for my new visa (wrong background color) I had ended up having to get out of the line and remedy that problem. Fortunately, there was a kiosk at the consulate just for that, and I was able to turn in my paperwork just before the 11am cut-off time. I received a ticket to pick up my passport with the new tourist visa starting at 1pm the next day. My number was 600. I returned the following day promptly at the hour specified. Then I waited three hours in the heat as the staff was calling out numbers beginning with number one. Of course. After that, I caught a night bus out of the city to Luang Prabang, twelve hours north of Vientiane.

I spent the following week in the beautiful small city on the Mekong River, which still bore the signs of having been a French provincial town during the colonial times. Before my arrival, I had contacted the guesthouse where I planned to stay, and in exchange for free room and board, I volunteered to spend a couple of hours each afternoon meeting travelers who were coming into town off the two-day “slow boat” tour of the Mekong. My goal was to get them to stay at the guesthouse, which offered free dinner and whiskey in the evening. I met lots of people this way, and later I joined many of them around the communal table for an underwhelming meal of instant ramen noodles. But as promised, the whiskey flowed, and along with the inexpensive beer, we had a great time together. 

Those new acquaintances also helped me celebrate my 49th birthday by taking me out to dinner at a lovely restaurant on the river and an informal party back at the guesthouse. I blew out the candles affixed to donuts, which evidently were the only confections available at the last moment. As we got drunk on the whiskey and beer, passed around freshly-rolled (and still illegal) joints, and engaged in rather silly behavior, I recalled all of those previous years of my life where I had been prohibited from enjoying myself in this fashion. I was nearing my fifth decade on this planet and only recently engaging in activities that most of my generation had probably grown out of years before. Less than 24 hours prior, I had gone skinny-dipping in the Mekong as the clock struck midnight, because one of the women had challenged me to do something I’d never done before. It may sound trite, but it was exhilarating to me.

While in Luang Prabang, I took the opportunity to visit the UXO visitors center. UXO stood for the English words “unexploded ordnance”. There, I found sobering information and photos of the devastation still being wreaked upon the land and people of Laos from a war that ended when I was a child. The U.S. military had bombed the shit out of Laos in an attempt to control the flow of munitions from Hanoi, Vietnam in the north to the southern parts of that country. Because of Vietnam’s crescent-shaped geography, passage through the neighboring country was a more direct route. The U.S. military dropped more munitions on Laos during the Vietnam/American war than they had in all of WWII. Many of those bomblets didn’t explode on contact, and up to 300 people per year, including children, are still being killed or maimed by ordnance that was left behind during their grandparents’ generation. Near the exit of the museum there was a box for donations to help those who were injured by the leftover bombs. I placed the only U.S. money I had in my wallet, a $5 bill, into the box. It seemed only fitting. 

The Laos trip was my last opportunity for travel before beginning my new job at the school. When I returned, I felt energized and ready to meet the students. But before that, I was to learn the dreadfulness of Thai staff meetings.