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Off the Beaten Track: a farang participates in a 100-day commemeration of a life

When God made heaven and earth, He decided that mankind would need a paradise on earth, which is why Thailand was created.

Khun (honorific term, similar to our Mr. Ms. etc.) Boi’s mother died three months ago. She was only 49, six years younger than I. In the Buddhist Thai tradition, at the 100-day mark after her cremation, family and friends will gather to commemorate her life and together with orange robed monks pray Buddha’s Teachings __ The Triple Gems. These prayers will release her soul from the bonds of this world. Khun Boi has invited my husband and me to celebrate her memory, “Please, you come; I cook for you, special!” We are honored to be invited and to experience this solemn occasion.

After knowing Khun Boi for over a year, I had, in my heart secretly adopted him as the son I could never have. He possesses all the qualities I would have wanted in a son: selflessness, boundless loving kindness and a sincere concern for others. Boi is a Thai Buddhist having been schooled in social and spiritual mores both by his mother and by the monks of his temple.

I am not a small western woman. I come from Eastern European stock, and if the name Olga conjures up images of corpulent athletic shot put and discus throwers with lumpy behinds as large as temple doors, then your image of me is correct.

Seven of us squish into a small Japanese import. My husband and I got the back seats, the middle ones, the comfortable ones, beside me sat Boi on two inches of seat. Beside my husband sat Khun Tong, Boi’s childhood friend, sitting serenely on two inches of seat. They endured us; consideration for the other was in their genes, in Thailand this is called “greng jai” something that Westerners are dearly in short supply of. It would take three and a half hours to arrive to Boi’s village.

The tropical jungle gave way to stubbled rice paddies and the rice paddies at the edge of the asphalt highway. In the distance rose expansive mountains separating Thailand from Myanmar. We fell out of the car every hour to stretch, breathe, eat, drink, and reported to each other about the numbness of various anatomical parts.

Boi’s village was small, 30 homes sprouted out amid rice paddies. One patchy narrow cement road welcomed us, along with a herd of water buffalo. The homes were brown wood, on stilts, surrounded by brown earth, brown skinned children with brown torn tee-shirts: a multitude of children. “Harro” accompanied by shy giggles greeted me, ‘harro, harro’ yelp, giggle, yelp snort! Khun Boi’s mother’s home was the only one constructed solidly of cement with wooden floors, ceiling fans, three bedrooms, huge kitchen, tiled bathroom and absolutely no furniture.

We were paraded down the road, like royalty and introduced to everyone, “this is my stepfather, this is my half brother, this is my auntie, this is my other auntie, this is my cousin, this is my other brother from my stepfather’s other marriage.” Aay, yaay, we ‘waied’ our way throughout the entire village getting more confused and hotter under the blistering sun. When we arrived back, the first pleasantry offered us was a shower… and we took it, with gratitude.

Magically, it happened. An ancestral code, which had been in existence for millennia, was awakened within these Thai villagers. The quiet empty house began to fill with life. Gentle laughter of women was accompanied by the jangle of pots and pans and the rustle of plastic bags full of chili peppers and garlic, spilling the secrets of what was yet to come. Barefoot children materialized squealing with delight at nothing and everything, and wiry men sat in blurred smoky discussion. I knelt beside a group of ten women who had begun to prepare food for the ceremony. I could not speak Thai perfectly, but I could peel garlic, perfectly. A sharper knife was handed to me to ease my job. I felt accepted by their smiles; by the way they discreetly moved over, to include me in their circle, their family, their community. I realized this was natural, the way it’s supposed to be.

Three men carried in a television, it gave birth to an animated karaoke corner, replete with microphone amplified to 100 decibels, enough to wake the dead. Many large plastic woven mats were spread on the floor. Like picnic blankets they beckoned guests with exotic plates of food. In an Asian home, all shoes are left by the entrance, and are never worn inside the home; to wear shoes is considered a dirty habit, understandably. Moreover, in Thai culture the feet are considered the least holy part of the body, and are tucked away while sitting.

I perched in discomfort beside friends to eat. It was quite a feat to tuck in my feet when sitting. Boi was effervescent, cooking for us “special.” I watched the bowls appearing endlessly from his hands. He was caring for his guests for the well being of the other, “greng jai” overflowing. Khun Tong gave glowing reports on how the dishes were made, which ones were hot, which ones were not. I bravely ate what everybody ate. Tong explained, “this is fresh pig’s blood, has spices many, so blood no smell,” continuing to reassure us “pig killed this morning, no smell, no smell.” I squeezed my sticky rice into a dainty ball, dunked it unceremoniously into the viscous blood, and instantly decided that this culinary delight was way too hot: I would not indulge anymore, smelly or not! My husband was smiling at me and looked like Count Dracula after a good feed. There was no end to dinner, to the singing, the dancing, the laughter, the liquor. Even in dance Thai tranquility was not lost. The equatorial night was pleasingly warm; a breeze full with the promise of rain further enchanted me. Boi told us that we would not be sleeping in the house because the women would have to begin, at four in the morning, to prepare food for the monks and more expected guests. We were to sleep at “auntie’s house, across street.” The home was built for shelter, not comfort. Khun Boi showed us our bedroom, our king-sized bed with crisp azure sheets, a pink diaphanous mosquito net and a fan, “It is for you. I turn on.” I told him everything was perfect, and it was.

Ushered in by birdsong, the new day proclaimed itself too quickly. I felt old: my body stiff. I put on my polite dress for the monks, no arms showing, no revealing necklines and no showing off of mushroom soup legs. As incense burned, devotions rose with the monks prayers. All sat on the floor, hands in prayer position, motionless, faces lit as if with an internal candle. (No one sits as beatifically as a Thai remembering their dead.) I prayed to Prajaw for Boi, for his mother’s soul. I prayed for the Kingdom of Thailand.

Breakfast time!

Emboldened by last night’s gustatory adventure, I ate everything in sight. Boi brought something “special”, a cup of coffee. His caring flowed over onto this new day. He murmured to me that his relatives “want to give you prayers.”

I sat in mute astonishment as old ladies knelt before me and in traditional Thai custom wrapped woolen string around both my wrists whilst whispering prayers. My wrists grew thick with string, thick with prayers. I would never face misfortune: of this I was certain! A wizened woman, having wrapped my wrists began to plead. Her demeanor crushingly charged her face filled with concern. I called Tong to translate. She was Khun Boi’s grand aunt and was asking me, now that Boi had no mother and no father would I please watch over him. I answered back in Thai because I knew the Thai word for “I PROMISE,” and suddenly I had a son!

The drive home was comfortable; I got the front seat and we continually stopped at various stalls along the way that sold food. Tong showed us edible berries from trees growing alongside the highway. My gracious, one can eat Thailand ! A welcomed rain cooled us down and buoyed our breezy spirits. We drove along, contentedly munching on dried bananas and cashews. In one heartbeat, on the wet highway ahead of us, a cement truck spun viciously out of control. I braced for impact. In dead silence we slid to within three feet of a crippling accident. The car stopped �" our breathing resumed. I felt like a heap of foam.

Behind my tightly shut eyes, in the silent stillness of my soul, I humbly thanked Buddha for friendship, family and the gift of life. Perhaps it was the power of their prayers that miraculously had saved us.

The engine purred confidently bringing us closer to Chiang Mai. Before me, the highway unwound, now dipped in shade. With the beating of my heart stilled, I knew we would make it home safely: of this I was certain.

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