anthropology 100: Bangkok’s Songkran festival

This year we hit the streets to see what the Songkran festival is all about. We called up some friends to hang out and teach us how to celebrate properly. Actually, our introduction came hours before we dared to venture outdoors when a techno version of Flo Rida’s song “Whistle” started blaring through our house and down the alleys at 8am.

The first day of Songkran we weren’t planning to go into the chaos except we realized that we didn’t have any food. We walked to end of the block, rounded the corner, and took only a couple steps before our faces were smeared with white clay and our bodies drenched with super soakers!

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As we quickly found out, Thais take having fun on Songkran seriously! If you are anywhere near a main street in the three days of water wars, you are guaranteed to be a continually dripping wet mess for the duration of your stay.

People are set up on the sidewalks with large trash cans full of water every ten feet, which are continually filled by hoses running from every tap within the vicinity. They fill and empty their water buckets and water guns as fast as they can and come back for more. If you’re roving the sidewalks, like we were, you can refill your weapon of choice at anyone’s cistern, and after an initial water fight you end up on the same “team” until you leave to seek out another spot.

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Large mobs troll the streets in the beds of trucks, looking for a group of people they can pull alongside and douse before making a quick getaway.

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In retaliation against the street-goers, the sidewalk warmongers grab buckets of water and fling their contents into the faces of oncoming motorbike drivers and into the back carriages of songthaews.

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Vendors all along the street sell plastic bags full of white clay pellets. You take a pellet in your hand, mix in some water and voila!, you have a fistful of dirty sticky muck that you can slab onto your adversaries’ faces. At first I was giving people innocent streaks on their cheeks, like the eye black that baseball and football players wear. But after having clay shoved deeply into my ear and mouth several times, I fought back by smearing globs of the stuff right up people’s noses!

Nothing escapes the white clay – nothing!

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There’s lots of dancing, singing, and cheering.

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The water war doesn’t let up. From 10am ’til 9pm there’s a constant spray of water in the air and the roads and walkways resemble what they’ll look like several months later in the height of monsoon season.

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Now, it’s very hot in Bangkok at this time of year – most days approach or are over 100°F (38°C) – and cool off to a sweaty 80°F (27°C) overnight. So, you’d imagine that playing with water all day would be a great way to cool off and that you’d actually want to be splashed all day long. And this is true, until you get the surprise bucket.

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The Thais have an ingenious answer to making sure you don’t just stand there and sigh with relief every time you’re splashed, but that you run away screaming bloody murder to the delight of the assailant – putting giant slabs of ice into their water buckets. Even when its so hot outside that you feel like your skin is literally melting off, getting hit by a wall of icy cold water induces a bodily reaction similar to brain freeze. Your back and fingers involuntarily stiffen and your shoulders hunch up around your ears.

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It goes on and on and on for three days straight. They never seem to get tired of it. I enjoyed being in the midst of it and experiencing it, but after a few hours of celebration I was pooped.

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I’ve heard many other foreigners say that they refuse to leave their apartments during this time. And while I had a lot of fun at water play, I can see how it could get old quickly when every time you step outside for a minute means that you’ll have to track mucky water back through your house.

How do the Thais keep it up this long?

It’s evident that they really love this holiday. There are continual smiles on their faces, shouts of joy and shrieks of excitement, loud music and laughter. Both young and old look like they’re up to the highest form of mischief at all times. In the end, I think the reason why they stretch this holiday out as long as possible is because they have permission to abandon social norms.

In the three months I’ve lived in Bangkok, I’ve noticed that Thais go out of their way in order to not violate another person’s personal space. Sit down next to someone on a bench and they’ll scoot equidistant from you and the person on their other side. Rather than scrunch together to make room for one more, most times someone will jump up and offer their seat. It’s not much of a touchy-feely culture; sometimes you get a handshake with a greeting, but hugs are completely out of the question. I don’t blame them… it’s so hot all the time! I sleep in my boxers with a fan pointed directly on me all night long, and still, if Jessie rolls over and her leg inadvertantly touches mine I recoil away from it as if it were a branding iron!

Thais also tend to be very passive and understanding of other’s mistakes. The phrase mai bpen rai (nevermind) is constantly used to dismiss all actions that could be deemed offensive. I’m sure that I’ve done many things that are considered to be culturally appalling here (like stepping over a seated person’s legs or stopping a rolling coin I’ve just dropped by stepping on it), but it’s always forgiven by a sincere mai bpen rai. So when a whole nation whose normal focus is on personal space and non-retaliation is sanctioned to fudge these rules for a couple days, they take it and run with it.

In America we don’t really have any holidays that give us license to break social norms in this way. Halloween and April Fool’s Day are the closest because they encourage trick playing and sneakiness. But I wonder how Americans would react if we were given a government-approved Songkran? Would we have the energy to spend long days playing war with our neighbors? Would we relish torturing innocent by-standers with ice-cold water down their backs and mud facials? Could we pull it off without destroying the fabric of our society?

Songkran was fun and it gave me deeper insight into Thai culture. If you’re ever in Thailand in April you should absolutely make a point to “play water.” And if you can think of a good way to get a 5-day weekend holiday in America, let’s get on that. I think as a society we could do with a few days of mandated fun.

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communications 200: Skype the world

Last night we were talking with a good friend from England on Skype, and I was on my iPhone scrolling through the “World Clock” feature in the clock app. Suddenly it hit me how odd my life has become. It was Sunday night and, like many other weekend nights, Jessie and I were cycling through the time differences for cities all over the world to determine who might be available to Skype chat.

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Not that this was a novel revelation. Jessie and I frequently look at each other, shake our heads and remark about how our life has played out: “Who are we? How did we end up living exactly on the opposite side of the world with neighbors whom we cannot understand because of a language barrier? Renting a townhouse though we’re still not entirely sure who owns it? Going nuts over finding an avocado for $2? Not blinking an eye when a motorbike packed with five people makes you jump to the edge of the sidewalk? Melting in temperatures that only fall below 85 degrees in the dead of night?”

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Is Nadia or Rochelle awake in New Zealand? Sarah, in Hawaii, must be getting up by now! How about Frances or Kat or Jordan in South Korea? Maybe Evan or Ian or Kristen are online in China. How about Heather in Singapore? No? Well then, is Dave or Natasja around in Poland? Anyone else in England? Are our families and friends awake in Michigan? Would Kate be close to her computer in California? Who else can jump into this conversation?

Part of being a traveler is meeting other people who are, in many respects, just like you. For indeed, traveling is what makes the traveler. I cannot count the times we’ve sat down in a restaurant in a backpackers area and come away several hours later with a complete life story, Facebook and email information and future plans to see a person we never knew existed prior to the occasion.

I fully and unabashedly admit, it’s exciting to talk with someone and after just two minutes know that you would be best friends if you could somehow stay in the same place together. This is a common occurrence among wanderlusts. But we can’t stay in the same place. By definition we move. Whether its two days, two months or two years; migration. We are in some sense nomads, people who must eventually continue on. But in our case the cause for mobility is not the scarcity of resources. So what is the scarcity?

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I’m not ashamed to classify myself as a traveler. There’s something in my marrow that cries out for adventure and new experiences, something that wants to take a big bite out of the world, then keep going back for more. Ever since my childhood family trips, I’ve had the drive to explore. Maybe it’s genetics. Maybe it’s curiosity. Maybe it’s discontentedness. Maybe it’s spiritual. Maybe it’s a present-day manifestation of the independent, pull-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps, Marlboro man mentality that has defined American mentality since it’s inception. Maybe it’s a tame form of insanity.

For better or worse, we have become people of movement. Better in that we have learned to live minimally, carrying our lives on our back, which has allowed us to focus ourselves more so on people than on ‘things.’ Better in that our eyes have been opened and drawn to the concerns of a global community. Better in that we have been stretched and shoved in ways that have made us stronger and more knowledgeable. Yet worse in that we continually find ourselves starting over. Worse in that travel becomes an addiction that desires to be continually fed. Worse in that we have no tangible, permanent community to which we belong.

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Then we moved to Bangkok, and we’re encountering culture shock, but not in the normal way it’s talked about. Our culture shock comes from having to pay rent and stock an apartment with furniture and appliances. It comes from having to follow a daily routine. It comes from seeing the same people doing the same things in the same place day after day, and knowing that we are now also those people.

Lest you think I’m prejudiced, though, I see real benefits to residing. When I walk down the street people know me and they greet me. I have a sense that in some small way I am contributing to their lives without any guilt that I’m just sucking whatever experiences I can get out of them and their country. We can spread out our belongings without the worry of how we’ll have to pack them all back up in a few days. We’ve made a habit of doing yoga several nights a week on our own yoga mats, and on weekends we indulge ourselves with cappuccinos from our espresso maker. Here’s the clincher: I even have a soup lady now. She sees me coming and starts making my order before I’ve even crossed the street.

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So what’s the point of all this? Only that every coin has two sides; every choice made denies another option. In the end, whether you are moving or staying, or like us, trying to figure out how to do both, take comfort in the fact that there is no perfect way to do life.

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seminar: Thailand days 3~4

Jessie and I have been continually wavering for the past five days between a sense of calmness and majorly freaking out! As many of you know, we’re seriously considering moving to Thailand in 2014. So this two week stint in Thailand is primarily a fact-finding mission as well as a time to visit good friends. On Tuesday we stopped by one of the organizations we’ve previously volunteered with and hope to stay connected with next year. It was great to catch up with the director and hear some of the plans for the near future and ways we might be able to contribute.

We also had dinner with a friend who’s been living in Bangkok for the past three years. She had some really valuable information as far as cost-of-living goes here. Apartment costs seem to be encouragingly affordable although electricity costs can add up and as anyone who has spent time in Thailand year round will know, there are times when air conditioning is really, really nice to have! Luckily, transportation and food are very cheap here. Our friend has been juicing for a while and she told us about a nearby market where we can get baskets full of vegetables for about 30 cents. If we move to Bangkok we’re definitely going to bring a juicer and an espresso maker!

Yesterday I met with the associate dean of English education at Assumption University. After a year of teaching elementary students in Korea, I’ve realized how completely burned out on the young’uns I am. So I’m hoping to get a job as a university professor in the English Language department. From our conversation it sounds like he’s interested in bringing me on some time next year. The job sounds like it could be fun and is a decent salary for Thailand. Also, we have a friend who worked there in the past and recommended it to us. However, there is a big downside. The campus where I’d be teaching is quite far out of the city, which would give Jessie a long commute to the volunteer organization. If we live there we’d most likely have to buy a motorbike, and I’d be a nervous wreck knowing she was driving in Bangkok traffic twice a day.

Jessie met with another dean about the Master of Science in Counseling Psychology program. She is on the fence about pursuing a masters degree in counseling, but if she is to do it anywhere she wants to do it cheaply.

After our meetings we slumped into a large booth in the central hallway of the campus. The conversation that ensued was simultaneously full of hope and concern. Can we make this work? Will we be lonely living so close to the city yet still pretty far out? Is it going to make us miserable having to spend our days in completely different realms and being on completely different pages from each other? Should I work a normal, steady job where I know I’ll get a sufficient monthly paycheck or should I use this time to pursue several of the location independent, self-employed ideas I’ve been preparing this past year?

I can tell it’s going to take many long conversations until we arrive at a decision. Luckily, time is the one thing we have plenty of right at this moment.

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seminar: Thailand day 2

Yesterday we spent the day shopping and eating. Jessie’s been concerned for quite a while that we don’t have very appropriate clothes for traveling in India, especially since we’ll be in the fairly conservative northern half of the country. Luckily, we’re finding that unlike our first time in Thailand three years ago, many of the clothes merchants in the area we like to stay are now stocking larger sizes to accommodate taller and bigger foreigners. So we each picked up two pairs of slacks and a shirt. Our slacks have Thai elephants and patterns on them, which is a bit silly but I think we’ll be able to pull them off. At the very least they are made from super thin material so they’ll keep the hot Indian sun from burning us while allowing a great deal of air circulation!

As we shopped around we were so confident because we’ve learned how to dicker down the prices from past times. Pants that started at a price of 280 baht (about $9) were bagged and handed over to us for only 200 baht (a $3 savings). That’s one thing we’ve definitely learned about clothes shopping in Thailand: you can expect to pay about 1/3 less than the quoted price if you stick to your guns. We’ve also learned that if you walk a mere block outside of the foreign districts you can get a metered taxi instead of trying to agree on a price with the driver, which is never fun. For example, just today we hailed a taxi to take us clear across the city. He said “300 baht” so we started to walk away. “Okay, okay! Meter!” he called after us, so we got in. The half-hour ride ended up costing us only 140 baht.

However, some things you don’t dicker over, like restaurant prices and convenience store items. So when we walked into the pharmacy to pick up a few ORC packets (for electrolyte rehydration) and the lady told me they were 90 baht each, I quickly handed over 270 baht for three packets. The price seemed a bit steep to me: I thought that they’d been cheaper when we bought them before, but since we hadn’t been in Thailand for over a year I didn’t trust myself to be remembering that correctly. I was also confused. For some reason I was thinking that 90 baht was equal to $1 instead of $3. It’s hard keeping all these different exchange rates separate in my head sometimes!

After we stepped out of the pharmacy Jessie said that she thought the price was pretty high, but I explained it away. A few hours later we walked into a 7-11 to buy some water and they had the exact same packets at the checkout counter for 6 baht a piece. That’s right…six! Not only had the pharmacy woman overcharged me 84 baht, but she’d sold three packets to me. So basically I got ripped off for about $8.50 by a pharmacist. I never expected that!

This isn’t the first time I’ve been had, and with all the travel we do I’m sure it won’t be the last. The nice thing about being cheated in South East Asia is that the amount is always pretty miniscule. So I’ve decided not to get too upset over it (or let Jessie’s occasional teasing get to me, haha)! I’m treating it as an important reminder that I have to be on guard, especially in the places I’m most comfortable with, while on the road. But if at any time you find yourself strolling along Soi Rambuttri in Bangkok in the future, steer clear of Rama Pharmacy. They stink!

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seminar: Thailand day 1

Well, we’ve finally arrived in Thailand! After a solid year of working at the English Village in Seoul, it’s finally time to relax and unwind. We stayed up pretty late saying goodbye to friends, packing and emptying our apartment our last night in Korea. With only an hour of sleep we dragged ourselves to the airport. Both of us had upset stomachs and were feeling subpar.

Luckily, I’m tall. I try to use this fact to my advantage whenever I fly. I smile at the person working the check-in counter and ask for an exit row because I have long legs. So far it’s worked every time! Our 5 hour flight wasn’t so bad because we had plenty of space to stretch our legs!

In the past three years Jessie and I have spent a considerable amount of time in Thailand, but somehow I’d forgotten the extreme contrasts you encounter in Bangkok. On the metro from the airport to our hotel we witnessed row after row of pristine condos set in manicured, palm tree-lined lanes. Tall fences marked the boundaries of these subdivisions, while just over the fences were tracts of land with dilapidated, burned out old housing blocks and lean-tos where dirty children squatted to play in the dirt. The stark contrast of mere inches separating big money and no money is confounding.

We checked into our room on Soi Rambuttri in the backpackers area of the city and tried to decide what to do with our new freedom. After a short rest we hit the streets. The backpackers area is a small network of streets and alleys in western Bangkok that are packed with hotels, restaurants and street merchants. You literally can’t walk more than ten steps without seeing a clothes stall, food vendor or massage booth. As we checked out all the old (and a few new) places we came upon a large group of Korean children waiting in front of their hotel. As we walked by, several of them called out “Oh! Handsome boy!” Jessie and I had to laugh. We’d just traveled a thousand miles and yet we still couldn’t escape Korea!

We ate dinner at our favorite restaurant. Ethos serves fresh vegetarian and vegan food along with the most unique smoothies in the area. Of course, our first meal had to be a red curry and pad thai! We greedily devoured the vibrant flavored dishes and washed them down with a tamarind coconut shake and a masala chai smoothie.

We were both super tired so we decided we needed to go back and catch up on sleep. But before that we wanted to make sure we were completely relaxed, so we decided to go to our favorite massage booth and get a foot massage. Now, we’ve talked with hundreds of people about Thailand. Some people love it and some people don’t care too much for it. But NO ONE can tell me that it isn’t worth coming here if only just for the massages. For a mere $6.50 per person, Jessie and I had our soles pressed, kneaded and rubbed for an hour. It was absolute bliss! We had to keep hitting each other to make sure we didn’t fall asleep! We staggered back to our room and fell onto our bed in a total state of relaxation. All in all, I’d say it was a very successful first day of our holiday!

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