Sunday, August 26, 2012

A Moment of Zen, or something like that

This morning (Sunday) I took a little bike ride over to an eye clinic to get my eye checked out. It’s been red, so I thought I’d go see if I could get some drops to cure whatever’s ailing it.

The clinic is open in the evenings and on the weekends, and is generally quite busy. I came to this clinic once before, and the wait time was about 3 hours (!), so this time I decided to show up early. The clinic opens at 9:30; I got there a bit after 9 to secure my spot in the queue. I suppose I shouldn’t have been surprised that other people had had the same idea, because when I got to the clinic there was already a small crowd. Nonetheless, my wait time was significantly shorter than my last visit, and I was actually happy to wait. Why, you might ask? I have one question for you.

Do you know who else goes to eye clinics 20 minutes before they open on Sunday mornings? Old people.

I savor a good crowd to people-watch, and old folks generally fall near the top of my list. I’ve noticed this is particularly true here in Thailand because customs, dress, mannerisms, and all-around ways of doing things differ from the US in the most subtle but interesting ways. Also, there’s something different, in a good way, about watching a crowd of people who don’t speak the same language as you; relying purely on physical communication, facial expression, and gesture to interpret what’s going on is a fun and typically comically rewarding challenge.

After waiting for about half an hour in the main waiting room, my name was called and I was ushered into a second waiting room. This room held about 10 patients and two technicians at a time. The patients were made to sit on these little yellow stools along the walls, with everyone facing the center of the room—a perfect people-watching vantage point. The technicians were busy testing people’s eyesight, taking pictures of people’s eyes, giving folks eye drops, etc., all before they got called in to see the doctor. Amongst all the testing and dropping, the room functioned as such: when a person was called in to see the doctor, everyone shifted one stool to their right, and so on and so forth around the room until everyone eventually reached that exciting stool right next to the doctor’s door.

During my 30 minutes or so in this second waiting room, here are a few of the observations I made:

One technician was trying, with difficulty, to take a picture of an elderly man’s eye. I’m not sure what his eye problem was, or why it was apparently so difficult to take the picture, but at any rate there was a lot of talking... or rather, there was a lot of yelling, because the man could not hear well at all. I had to suppress my laughter at the sight of this young female technician yelling instructions (in Thai, of course) at this old man, trying to get him to adjust his head and eyeball alignment so she could capture the picture. A few of the other people sitting nearby were trying to help in some way or another, gesturing this way and that or attempting to reiterate what the technician was saying.

There was also a middle-aged man was there with an older woman who was presumably his mother. At one point, he was blocking the line of sight for people getting their eyesight tested. He was focused on getting his mother safely onto one of the very short stools, and wasn’t really paying attention to what was going on around him. The technician was politely but loudly instructing him to move out of the way, other people who were closer to him were trying to relay the same message, and the two people closest to him were trying to help by nudging him out of the way. Of course, the only place on his body they could reach from these little stools was his rear-end, so they were pushing at his bum to get him to move. After an inappropriately long time reminiscent of a Family Guy episode, he finally realized what was being asked of him, and moved out of the way.

It was also quite comical to watch all the people try to keep up with all the stool-changing. Sometimes a person wouldn’t be paying attention, and would not notice that it was their time to change stools. Of course, all the people around them did notice, and were eager to change stools themselves to get closer to the doctor. I watched as the people who did notice the stool-change look around to see if anyone else was thinking the same thing as them; then get a little shifty in their stool, perhaps trying to trigger some sort of awareness in the non-stool-mover and get them to move along; then as a last resort mumbling something to the non-mover to move along; and then finally having the satisfaction of moving stools themselves, thus bringing themselves one foot closer to the doctor that they showed up here so early to see.

All in all, it was a pleasantly amusing morning. And I got some eye drops for my eye. Success.

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Candle Festival and Long Weekend Adventures

     This past weekend was a four-day weekend in light of the Candle Festival—a festival that marks the beginning of what is essentially Buddhist lent, when all monks stay in their temples for three months. It also officially marks the beginning of the rainy season. Ubon is known for the candle festival it puts on, with events going on both Thursday evening and all day Friday (thus the long weekend).

     My Candle Festival activities began about two weeks ago, when I went to one of the temples to see people actually making one of the candles (see pictures). Traditionally, people offered candles to the monks to provide them with light during their 3-month retreat from society. Today, the candles are a tad bigger than they used to be, and thus are primarily made of metal framing and paper mache, with only the outer layer being wax. Like the temples they come from, these candles are incredibly detailed, every inch of their surfaces covered in intricate hand-carved designs. Each candle tells a story as well. Luckily, when I went to see the finished candles the night before the big parade, I had a Thai friend with me who was much more knowledgeable about the candles’ stories than I was. It was great to receive some insight into what I was looking at.


One of the candles being constructed two weeks before the festival at one of the big temples in town.
Same candle, this time all done and out on the street for all to see on the night before the parade
We couldn't figure out what this creature was...any thoughts?
Some candles were a dark orange, and others a much lighter yellow. Not sure why

At the parade on Friday morning
Thai dancers on one of the music floats
Dancers from the school I teach at...I was so proud!

     The parade itself on Friday morning was quite a spectacle, but after a while of standing around in the heat, it became clear that once you’ve seen one gigantic candle and ensuing group of dancers, you’ve pretty much seen them all. Especially when they’re moving at a laboriously slow pace, and often not moving at all. The more I watched, the more I felt bad for those who were actually in the parade—they seemed to be melting in the heat right along with their makeup. I enjoyed the festival for what it was, but the true highlights of my long weekend were in the following days, out on the boarder of Laos in and around a city called Khong Chiam.

     On Friday afternoon, I went with a few coworkers and some other people to one of my student’s family-owned hotels in Khong Chiam, east of Ubon. The hotel is right on the water where the Mun River flows into the Mekong River; this point is appropriately called the “two-color river” because when the two rivers flow into each other you can see their slightly different shades of brown mixing together. It was pretty cool to see this out on a little tour boat, but by far what I loved most about this excursion to Khong Chiam was simply sitting out on the deck of the hotel, watching the fishermen who occupy the Y that the rivers make.

Boat from which we saw the two-color river
Can you see the different colors?

     The tranquil, untroubled work of the fishermen was in sharp contrast to the Candle parade I had watched earlier in the day. The first bordered on gaudy and was hot, stuffy, crowded, noisy, and ultimately not a true representation of real life. I mean, the candles aren’t even candles anymore—they’re just the skeletons of candles, inflated to be larger-than-life size and made much for the purpose of competing with other temples’ candles for first prize in the parade. Talk about straying from original intent... Watching the fishermen was markedly different. There was no show, no costumes, no spectators, but I enjoyed watching it so much more. It was incredibly peaceful to watch the fishermen at work, paddling and motoring their long, narrow boats through the wide, slow-moving rivers, following their nets hand over hand, and carefully and skillfully bringing up fish that had become entangled. I watched them as the sun set, through twilight, and into the night. The night fishermen were perhaps my favorite to watch, not because I could see what they were doing (I couldn’t), but because they reminded me so much of fireflies, their head lamps slowly bobbing and seeming to blink on and off with the turn of their heads. I could have watched them forever.

Fishermen on the two-color river, where the Mun meets the Mekong

     I returned to Khong Chiam on the last day of my long weekend with a friend to visit a Soi Sawan Waterfall and Pha Taem national park. After spending nearly all of the last three months in a city, it was so refreshing to visit some of the beautiful natural attractions in Ubon province. The waterfall was absolutely gorgeous, and fell into a huge collection of potholes fit for swimming, jumping, and exploring. After relaxing in the cool water and receiving a few waterfall massages, we ventured to Pha Taem national park, which has prehistoric rock paintings that are around 3000 years old. The main area of the park is a large plateau of bedrock, from the edge of which you can look out over Laos. After admiring the view of Laos and the Mekong, we followed a long, thin trail down along a cliff face to see the paintings, made of red paint and still very much intact. Just as beautiful and interesting as the paintings were the cliffs on which they were painted—the beautiful curves and colors of the bedrock reminded me of some places I’ve visited in Arizona. I definitely plan on returning to this park for a camping trip during the dry season, because other than having ancient rock paintings, it is also the location of the first sunrise in Thailand, which I am sure will be quite a sight to behold.

Soi Sawan Waterfall

The potholes reminded me of the swimming holes in the Northeast US :)
A little swimming hold at the bottom of the falls--a perfect place to relax in the cool water and get a few waterfall massages

View from the cliff top at Pha Taem national park. The view looks across the Mekong river to Laos
Ancient cliff paintings
And the cliffs themselves were beautiful as well...I kept nerding out as I tried to identify the different geological features of the cliff face.