Saturday, June 30, 2012

Settled In

After my last post, something changed. Thailand went from being some exotic place that I was “experiencing” to being, simply, my home. I can’t say all the bones in my body have fully adjusted, nor do I really ever expect them to, but my initial high from being someplace new has died down, and I finally feel settled in to living my life here in Ubon.

Before I moved to Thailand, I had absolutely no idea what to expect. Whenever people asked me questions about what living in Thailand was going to be like, the only response I could give was, “I don’t know. I haven’t been there yet.” I suppose I thought that Thailand would somehow be this exotic place, far from home and from anything I knew. Just the name Thailand brought connotations of tropical weather, exotic culture, and adventure.

While there are all of these things and more, I have come to realize (perhaps naively) that life here is just that—life. Everyone is just living their life, trying to get by and have some fun while they’re at it. Sure there are some pretty big differences in culture and in the way things get done, but ultimately life marches on day by day, just like it does everywhere else in the world.

And I’m getting used to life as it exists here. Going to the market is no longer an adventure; neither is picking up food from a street vendor or riding around Ubon on the back of a motorbike (ok, well, sometimes it still is ^^). It’s just my life now. I’ve settled in, and it feels good. I know I will continue to run across things that leave me wide-eyed, amazed, and let’s be honest, downright confused, but for the time being, that feeling of total awe is no longer part of my daily life.

On one hand, I’m a little sad that I don’t get that jolt of excitement every time I go someplace new or try something new. On the other hand, it feels really good to be settled into where I’m living and what I’m doing. I can sit back and take a breath now that I have an established routine and know (at least to some degree) what to expect from each day. Ultimately, it feels like I’ve begun a new chapter. If my life in Thailand were its own book, I’ve gotten past the intriguing prologue, and have started Chapter 1. The ohmygodiminthailand feeling has subsided, but now I can really get into the meaty stuff and begin the story.

And this is where my story begins every day: my apartment, or "mansion," as they're called here. Unlike mansions in the US, mansions here are a one-room apartments with a bed, a wardrobe, a fridge, and a few other small pieces of furniture. It also has bathroom off the back. I'll spare you pictures of the interior, as it's a bit messy.

My "mansion" complex. Mine is in the corner on the right, hiding behind the shrubbery.

There is it! My front door

View as a walk from my apartment to the street. Across the street, behind the wall you see there, is an airbase of sorts, or so I understand.
View from my bathroom around sunset.

Monday, June 4, 2012

Muay Thai Boxing (a descriptive story)

Driving down a dark road, wet and glistening with recent rain, feeling a bit anxious but also excited. What was promised to be a half-hour drive has turned into an hour and a half long stop-and-go journey: buying sticky rice, sausage, and spring rolls at a bustling night market for a late dinner, dropping by a 7/11 to pick up some beer, stopping at a gas station in the countryside to eat and wait for the man who is bringing us to the event, and the final leg of the journey in his car, across the provincial boarder to our destination.

Finally, the car slows down for a left-hand turn, and then there’s the familiar jolting and jostling characteristic of pot-holed dirt roads. This can’t be a main road. We must be arriving.

As we approach the building, I quickly survey the place and the people. Many cars—and even more motorbikes—are crammed into every parkable space. There are a few incandescent light bulbs lighting the scene outside, revealing the faces in the crowd. First thing I notice: very few women. Next: zero farangs. My nervousness increases, knowing how out of place I’ll be here. I reassure myself that everything will be alright, and when I hear the car’s engine grumble to a stop, I open the door and step out into the hot, humid night.

Walking from car to destination, I try not to look too much like a deer in headlights, and follow close behind the two men who are regulars at the scene—both muay thai boxing officials, one of whom was a former fighter himself. We pick our way across the muddy driveway, snake through the jumble of motorbikes, and walk past the people hanging around outside. A quick word between our chaperone and the young man sitting at the entrance, and we’re in, free of charge.

Rounding the corner of the building, the ring comes into sight. It’s a typical boxing ring, raised to be at fans’ eye level. Moths and bugs are teeming around the bare light bulbs that hang from the tin roof covering the ring. The area around is open-air and dimly lit; the floor is dirt, and muddy in places from the recent rain. The ring is surrounded by fans who’ve driven anywhere from five to a hundred kilometers to watch their friends, brothers, and sons enter the arena. I get many double takes, but am relieved to see that the fans are more interested in the fighters than the farang.

One fighter, then a second, hops up into the ring. These two are in their early teens. Their skin is glazed with Thai oil, and they wear nothing but a colorful pair of boxing shorts and boxing gloves—this is international style, so no padding. Each fighter also dons a mongkhon (a decorative headband), pra jiad (armbands), and a lei of bright yellow flowers for the wai khru ram muay, a traditional warm-up activity performed by the fighters when they enter the ring. Traditional muay thai music begins to play from an old but powerful sound system; a high-pitched reed instrument, a tambourine, and drums beat out a steady, driving rhythm as the two fighters perform their ram muay, each routine unique and beautiful.

Then the music pauses briefly, and the bell rings. The match has begun. It’s a beautiful, violent, captivating dance between the fighters. At the onset of this Saturday-night adventure, I wasn’t sure how I’d feel about watching live muay thai boxing. I find I can’t turn away. Things start slowly, a probing kick here, a testing punch there, but as the fight progresses through the 3-minute rounds, things speed up; more parts of the body are used, contact made between fighters becomes more powerful, and through the crowd’s cheering I begin to hear the sound of foot on ribs, knee on ribs, glove on ribs and glove on head. The movement is dramatized by the water and sweat that is flung off of the fighters as their bodies are jolted this way and that.

Towards the end, it is clear that both boys are exhausted, but although they must be feeling it, their faces do not convey pain. As the punches and kicks become slower and less accurate with fatigue, one boys’ slow down more than the others’. A last hit, and the slower boy falls to the floor, unconscious. After he has been revived, the referee grabs the standing boy’s arm, raising it high in the air, signaling him as winner. The boys respectfully acknowledge each other and leave the ring. Before long, the next two hop up, and the dance begins again.

[Photos courtesy of one of the other teachers at Assumption College, who came along on the adventure]