Saturday, July 12, 2008

The Market

I don’t know what they were thinking at the pillow factory. Maybe they get paid according to how much polyester fill they can stuff into a single pillowcase. The pillows I bought at Tesco are like tall bricks, and last night my body finally rebelled.

Lying in bed this morning in a half-conscious stupor, I decided that I would cut open my pillows and remove some of the stuffing. An hour later, I had two somewhat flatter, softer pillows, and a new third “bolster” pillow that I made out of the extra stuffing.

Bed-in-a-bag sets in Thailand come with a comforter, fitted sheet, two pillowcases, and two bolster pillowcases – long, cylindrical log-shaped pillows. That’s right, no flat sheet, but two bolster pillowcases for I’m not sure what. Maybe people use them as body pillows, which sounds like bad back alignment waiting to happen. But I’m no chiropractor.

Today I decided to explore my neighborhood on foot, and apply some of the community mapping skills I learned in Peace Corps, which basically involves wandering around looking for landmarks in English so I can find my way home.

I set out for the market around noon, the perfect time of day for idiots who want to get heat stroke. My apartment is in a pretty central location. There’s a night market down the street that pops up around 5 pm everyday to feed hungry workers pouring out of their office buildings.

This morning, a Saturday, the street was lined with tarp-shaded stands full of clothes, random knick-knacks, plants, and cages full of rabbits, parakeets, gerbils, kittens and puppies for sale. As pets.

As pets.

I wandered further without purchasing anything live, and ended up at the park where Ahn took me yesterday. I had mentioned to Jaeb that I wanted to go running, so she stuck me on the back of Ahn’s motorbike after work yesterday and told him to take me to the park, where he was meeting some friends for sepak takraw, a popular game in Thailand that appears to be a combination of volleyball, soccer, and hackeysack using a loosely woven rattan ball.

<-- A sepak takraw player kicks the ball so fast that you can't see the ball. (Lumphini Park, Bangkok.)

The park here in Mahachai is a tiny spot of paved sidewalks, stray cats and manicured bushes that wind for a solid one-eighth of a mile next to a temple that seemed to be broadcasting a monk chanting over loudspeakers. Though ridiculously small, the park seems to be a popular place for runners, perhaps because it’s the only place in town that isn’t lined with shops, highways or factories.

Yesterday afternoon the air was thick, hot and still, and 15 minutes of heaving my feet one in front of the other was plenty. Half of my water content was now on the sidewalk. Amazingly, there were at least fifty women gathered around a small gazebo for a vigorous aerobics class set to loud techno, which was competing with the chanting from the temple.

My co-workers have been advising me to take motorcycle taxis everywhere, but there are a lot of places that are really accessible on foot. I don’t get the sense that people walk a lot in this city. I guess it makes sense – it’s hot as hell. Today I discovered that both the market and the temple are less than a ten minute walk from my house.

Right next to the park is a long pier where you can catch a commuter boat across the river. For 3 baht per crossing, it runs day and night ferrying migrant workers who work odd hours. You can even take your motorbike on the boat.

The river appears to become a port at this point. There are fishing boats docked all along the water’s edge, appearing to be in varying degrees of working order. The river also has tons of water hyacinth, an invasive aquatic plant that tolerates pollution really well and is known to wreak havoc on the water’s ecosystem, killing off fish, breeding mosquitos and water-borne parasites, and blocking sunlight from reaching other aquatic plants. As if the unfortunate smell and garbage floating on the surface weren’t enough.

I wandered away from the pier and into the market. It’s really quite amazing. There is so much fresh seafood – shrimp, squid, fish, eel, crabs of all sizes, lobster. And if the fresh version is too perishable for your taste, just walk a little further to find stand after stand selling the dried version. I came to the market armed with a very important phrase: thao rai. How much? Next time, I’ll also plan to be armed with its counterpart: numbers.

I wonder if most of the mamas selling seafood at the market are Burmese or Thai. I am so thrilled at the prospect of being able to get anything I could possibly want right here in my town. Need a pet turtle? Need a turtle for soup? Need a washing machine? It’s all here. I mean, except cheese and quality chocolate. I still haven’t found a supermarket nearby, only the Tesco that’s a bit of a drive from my place. I’m starting to miss bread.

People are generally pretty nice about my not knowing any Thai, despite the initial confusion. There are always some blank stares, some giggling and embarrassment, but always an attempt to help out the weird Chinese lady.

I know that my sense of urgency about needing to learn the language to avoid awkwardness is a bit unnecessary. Lots of expats live here and never bother to learn Thai. They’ve learned to manage the language gap. My brother’s high school friend, a Taiwanese American, has lived in Hong Kong for eight years and still doesn’t know Cantonese. If he’s shrugged off the constant assumptions about what language he should be speaking for this long, I’ll survive a few months while I learn some basic Thai.

The other night, over dinner with Francisco, I was marveling about the TV screens all over the Bangkok SkyTrain stations and on the train cars.

Francisco said, “Those things wouldn’t last five minutes on a subway car in New York.”

I said, “I wonder why people are so respectful of property here that they wouldn’t think to steal a TV screen.”

He said, “The question we should be asking is why people in New York aren’t respectful that they would think to steal one.”

And then we laughed at how ridiculous we are as Americans.

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