Wednesday, February 9, 2011

My life is in the capable hands of middle schoolchildren in Chang Mai, Thailand.

“Remember what Bilbo used to say: It’s dangerous business, Frodo, going out your door. You step onto the road, and if you don’t keep your feet, there’s no knowing where you might be swept off to.”

-J.R.R. Tolkien, Lord of the Rings 

My life is in the capable hands of middle schoolchildren in Chang Mai, Thailand.

There was a testicular brushing by a large, gorilla-hairy, unjustifiably enthusiastic TSA agent. Which was followed by a hand between the glutes credit card swipe. Then a 14 hour flight from LAX to Taipei, Tawain. What do you know, of the four hundred plus passengers on the plane the only two Caucasians aboard were seated together; myself and a Canadian just dying to tell me how his recent stay in Florida summoned to mind America’s obesity epidemic. No wonder you guys are against universal healthcare, he explained, you’re going to have to pay for all those fat f***s. Yeah, well at least our biggest exports don’t include Celine Dion and breakfast syrup.

What? Listening to A New Day Has Come while eating maple-drenched pancakes is your preferred way to start the day? Fine. Take this then, you infuriatingly thin Canucks. Michael Moore’s made documentaries about your communist healthcare and low murder rates; you guys are so(ooo) uninterestingly utopian.

Yeah, you heard me.

But all that, it was a lifetime ago. Before I landed in Krung Thep (Bangkok), rode a sky train, a subway, and then an actual train into northern Thailand. Because after the plane landed I noticed a newspaper article about a flower festival in Chang Mai, complete with parade, floats and pageant. So I went.

In northern Krung Thep, during a four hour wait at the seedily dilapidated Bang Sue train station, there’s not another farang (white foreigner) within a couple kilometers, and a monk materializes aside me. Adorned in orange, we sit quietly for a few hours while I try to stare at him without looking like I’m staring at him. Before the train comes he rises abruptly and storms off, and I know what I’ve done. Read about it a hundred times before leaving. It’s my feet. The right one. After three hours of sitting I propped it on my knee. The bottom of my foot, it was pointing at the holy man. Aghast, I quickly restored the sole to concrete contact, but it was too late.

Buddha, forgive me.

In Thai culture feet are the lowest and ‘dirtiest’ part of the body. Toes should remain on the floor. Always. To point one’s open foot at another is highly offensive. Of all the people to insult, I aimed my callused rash ridden right sole at one of the robed. I’m certain that, in his infinite Buddhist compassion, this monk was able to pardon the cultural gaffe instead of harboring anger necessitating that he remain earthbound another lifetime or two.

Real-Time Travel Tip # 1: You’re going to offend others. Embrace it. And try to ensure your victim has spent a lifetime cultivating compassion. The liklihood of retaliation is diminished.

A thought: if I had only flipped the monk the bird and told him to f*** off it would have been a-okay. He may have even smiled at me. But here feet are the Hiroshima of insults. That’s the difference crossing an ocean makes.

After a twelve hour overnight train ride I followed this same monk on foot into Chang Mai at six a.m. The streets carrying an early morning mist, the air cool and brisk, the atmosphere East-Asian-ethereal.

Two hours later crossing the street becomes life-threatening. Imagine swarms of twelve year-olds maneuvering motorbikes around you as you extend a foot from the comfort of the sidewalk into a four-lane street. Thousands of pre-teen bees buzzing around tuk-tuks (three-wheeled taxi go-carts) and semi-trucks and you. The older bikers, they’re even worse. With experience comes expertise. Instead of avoiding you by feet it becomes inches. Anyone over forty only needs a half millimeter between their handlebars and your head.

This is me thinking I should have shelled out another twenty baht (about 60 cents) for additional incense and lotus offerings at the Wat Phra That Doi Suthep. Since when did one need Buddhist blessings to successfully cross the street?

Keep drifting.

The Wat Phra That Doi Suthep, in the hills hovering above Chang Mai, one of the most sacred northern sites.

A muay thai match, I watched in fascinated horror as two fourteen year-old girls (respectfully--with wais and pre-match dance) kicked the living crap out of each other for five rounds. Watching Thai boxing is like watching cobras dance with each other; an exotic mix of beauty and danger.

I couldn’t make this up. At the Wat Doi Suthep this photographer’s wearing a vest that reads: JESUS.

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