Cowboys, Builders and Bureaucrats
Place your bets on whether or not Lert has gone to work after what we drank last night. There's no sign of Waan again and her sister said she was over on our land helping her brother-in-law dig up the man gao. That meant it wasn't raining and nor was the sun shining because Waan doesn't do either. The sky was neither white nor blue and you couldn't tell what the weather was going to do. Except be hot. It is the last of the summer, there is no breeze, nothing to take off the edge of the dry heat except more beer. And I can't do that for breakfast.
I wanted to go down the market again but with the plans Waan has for her mum's house I would have to plead with her first. The sandy soil was between her toes in her sling-backs and her tee-shirt had dusty palm prints down the front and as she used the back of her hand to wipe her forehead she fully resembled Barbara Good. Back at the house we found the truck loads of soil were already arriving which was when Waan decided to explain she was filling in the back garden for her mum because she doesn't like the vegetable swamp. When you are the falang you get used to being last to know. Six forty-five in the morning and there was a tractor with plough pulling up to level the peaks of tipped top soil. Nowhere else on Earth can you get construction going as quickly as in Thailand, which is ironic considering it is also the most difficult place on Earth to get construction going.
Waan had a quick shower and put on a clean shirt before curling up in Por Jon's old bamboo rocking chair that he had sawn off the skids to make it a lounger. He told me before he died that he'd cut them off because one of the grandkids had tipped it right over and cut their head open. I did say he was practical. I reminded her I wanted to go down town and was she coming with me and got the usual 'in a bit'. There was another builder on the way to measure up for the doors but with little sign of him showing up (refer to previous comment about getting construction started) I asked her sister to deal with it, not least because Anne has a reputation for no nonsense talking, and then went for a shower myself.
I hadn't given the lack of lighting a second thought. Neither was the TV on. And there was a reason for that. There was no electricity again. It doesn't matter that much, I do prefer the electric shower but I can dowse myself with the cold water from the butt, except Waan had used almost all of it. Turning on the cold tap wasn't going to be productive either because the water tower relies on an electric pump to get the water to the top. By now the tank will be empty. It never occurs to you that if there is a power cut there will also be no water so you still turn the tap on before groaning. I gave it up and brushed my teeth instead and ordered Waan into the truck while I considered the options of how to get a shower. Wait was the most likely result as there was an almighty bang partnered by a flash in the direction of the town. Followed by a good deal of rising smoke too so I guessed the electric wasn't coming back on any time soon.
Down the town was a couple of voluntourists looking decidedly out of their comfort zone. If voluntourist is a new metaphor to you it is a mix of volunteer and tourist and they are pretty much frowned upon by ex-pats and Thai's alike and their gullibility is exploited by Thai businesses. These ones were students on their gap year and wanted to give something back to the third world little children's orphanage. I know they mean well and in their inexperienced youthful years have no idea about the reality. They are not giving anything back and nor do they want to. Proverbially they are full of it. What they are after is something that will look good on their CV and in their naivety they do not know that future prospective employers will not fall for it because they made the same mistake thirty years previous. And neither do the volunteer places need volunteers. It is just a means of income and my advice to any student looking for a place is "If you have to pay for a place you are not a volunteer". I once met a volunteer English teacher who was being paid by the school. I don't know what is worse, the voluntourism or an English teacher who doesn't know the meaning of the word volunteer.
It will NOT look good on your CV and in fact looks like you are shouting "LOOK AT MEEEE - AREN'T I GOOD" so kick the idea into touch and get some real experience in a real working environment because working in an orphanage for a month you stand and watch and make up notes for your thesis that you see fast slipping away, you have no idea what is going on or understand the language. It is pointless as well as disruptive for the children's upbringing. So is working with animals in Asia, even if you want to be a vet, you don't know what the animal sanctuary is about nor how to look after the animals contained in a vastly different culture to the west. I find it quite despicable how many volunteer to work in animal sanctuaries in Thailand and then tell the World afterward how it is all a con' or scam and stories of cruelty and abuse. While Sybelle Foxcroft made a successful dissertation out of destroying the Tiger Temple it was unprofessional and did irreparable damage to her own reputation because everyone questioned her motives especially the authorities in Thailand. She is a friend so I choose to accept her story but the reality is she probably went to the temple having heard stories about the place. Someone at the DNP said to me "If you wanted to study tigers for a thesis you would not go to a theme park."
If you genuinely want to donate your time and energy there are many organisations that need your help such as the Free Ambulance, Tourist Police, Friends for Asia, the Father Ray Foundation. You should also find out what papers you need from the Thai Embassy but you definitely need a work permit.
I asked Waan to pull up on Kwaang's frontage so I could get a coffee and have a chat. The old boy whose name I cannot pronounce from across the road on seeing me had a walk over, mainly to have a moan, mainly because he is old. I really like him. No particular reason except that his wife is a family friend and he has been here for very many years and endeared himself to Thailand. He tried to explain to me in very bad English about this morning's mail announcement but as I am often guilty of, and as my mother likes to point out to me, I kept butting in with comments about how bloody annoying the tannoy is at seven a.m. and how I'd like to throttle the speaker's son until he was finally able to convey that he had a letter that was sent three months ago by his government asking if he was still alive or they would stop his pension.
There is an irony in this which seemingly blights all European Civil Services in their lack of appreciation that this is Thailand. The people are Asian. By definition this means they are dishonest so even if he were dead his wife could have filled in the form and sent it back and continued collecting the pension. Whilst she is a good lady her brother would certainly do such a thing if they were both to pass away. Regardless he had to telephone his Government in Belgium who didn't believe he was who he said he was and accused him of being dead. Quite why they should think this when quite clearly he is alive is inexplicable not least because all falang deaths are reported by the local Amphur to the appropriate Embassy but then this is the Civil Service we are talking about here...
He then explains to Kwaang in very bad Thai the same story and on seeing Kwaangs smirk in the corners of his mouth I am beside myself with mirth and have to look away. Fortunately for all of us the old boy went back home waving his arms around above his head as he continued his oral dissatisfaction. I looked at Kwaang and we burst out laughing joined by the gaggle of Thai women who had been listening in - including his wife.
I got back to Mae's house before Waan just in time to listen to Anne giving a builder a good earwigging most of which I could only understand by the faces of the builders. I was nodding at him and pulling faces from behind Anne's back to signal I understood how he felt and when he asked if she wanted sliding doors or hinged I answered for her to try and give the bloke a break. He latched onto that quick time and started asking me what colour glass and what to do with the gap at the top. I told him whatever is cheapest because I'm a very poor falang. Oddly this is a joke that works brilliantly in Thai but doesn't translate at all, or to put it another way, it isn't in the least bit funny but the builder's foreman was in hysterics and had to wipe away the tears to measure the opening and ask me what I wanted to do with the rollershutters. I had no idea what he meant and Anne was repeating the words 'pra too' and 'kheun ban di' while waving the flat of her hand up and down. I told him he could have them to which he replied in Thai 'What in the name of a very fat water buffalo would I want them for' and 'I only have a motorbike' to which it was now my turn to have a laughing fit.
An hour later the new doors were in and the old rollershutter was in Ouan's bedroom. Something he will later discover when going to bed in the dark. Under normal circumstances in Thailand, a country which is not noticeably different to England in that all the builders speak the universal language of sshhh sucking air through the teeth while shaking the head and commenting 'tch' which translates as tch, obtaining replacement windows and doors would take around three working months not including the rainy season and public holidays. Thai builders work on average one and a half hours per day on any of three separate days in one entire year. And that does not include the shh, tch. However because Anne is doing the ordering, and she is able to instil fear into the bravest of men, things are moving at the same speed as the remainder of humankind. Meanwhile Waan has also got the land filling trucking company to start shipping forty truckloads of soil to our rice field on account that ten was enough for her mum's back yard.
Waan had also badgered some locals into starting construction on a Gut Dee for Por Jon. A Gut Dee is a small room for monks to rest during the day. Waan wanted to build something a bit special for them that would be remembered as to why we built it. Of course all of this is costing a ruddy fortune but when my missus is on a mission I have learned not to argue. Then she tells me she wants to get Mae's house converted into a bungalow. At which point I nearly feinted and after a sharp intake of breath asked tentatively how much it would cost. She didn't reply so I assumed she understood it was one job too many for the purse however I had assumed wrongly and she set about badgering her family into doing all the labour freely so I only have to pay for the roof regardless of the fact that materials would also cost a fortune.
I quite often have to stop her from cashing in ISA's and draining savings accounts and have tried on many a juncture to impart a sense of planning but in Issan folk it is non-existent and that includes the old Belgian chap's ire at the hospital in Udon, the Post Office, and the immigration service who recently told him his bank account not only has to have a eight hundred thousand baht minimum balance but must also have at least one thousand baht paid in every month. When he argued with the Issan officer that the minimum balance means exactly that the officer said he could withdraw money from the account and it only has to have 800,000 on the three monthly immigration check. The officer is correct except that now the old boy has to withdraw 1000 baht from his account and pay it back in every month. Thailand is blighted with this kind of bureaucratic absurdity and I cannot make my partner understand how long it will take to save that much money to our joint Thai bank account when she is able to spend it at the same pace.
A mate of mine once said to me about a builder in Thailand "If a Spanish builder told a Thai builder 'manyana' the Thai would reply 'oh, we don't have a word that fast'." And two tips for dealing with Thai builders: 1) do not pay them a deposit or no work will get done, and 2) do not give them beer or no work will get done. These same rules should also be applied to Bureaucrats, family members, your partner, and those cowboy outfits calling themselves volunteer placements. Though quite why you would want to pay to be allowed to work for free is beyond comprehension. If you deem that cynical then consider this; teachers, regardless of what institution they are in, are paid very well in comparison to other trades and that money is indemnified by the Government. Companies that place volunteer teachers are not only collecting money from the volunteer, they are also collecting the teaching salary from the school. I have heard people react bitterly when I explain the system but blaming Thailand for this malignant custom is derisory; the only people to blame are the voluntourists for perpetuating the practice.
It is hard to believe that in the space of a day our land had been transformed from a rice paddy growing man gao at the top of this page to a levelled landscape for building on though it can't actually be built on until it has been rained on six times. That's a kind of monk's tale (Thai version of wives tale) to measure how you know when the earth has settled enough to build on but it stands to reason as do many Thai legends that supposedly come from the wise ones.
It is that quaint bit amongst the many traditions that have simply refused to be modernised that is so endearing. I ask my missus when we should go and buy the poles and she has an audience with the monk and they in turn look for guidance and to the stars and study the scriptures and then say "October". Like it's rocket science to wait till the rainy season ends. And Thai's take this stuff very seriously while I nod in agreement knowing that if it is raining the builder wont turn up and if the soil hasn't settled the house will suffer from subsidence. But you have to accept this is the way traditional Thai homes are built. That front doors face South and the bathroom window must face West. The TV cannot face outward and the bathroom door must not face the front door. I have lost count how many plans I have screwed up and thrown in the waste paper basket because the kitchen is not in proportion to the lounge or the second bedroom is next to the master bedroom. I suggested we find a house she likes and just buy the bloody thing and got sent to bed alone for not taking house building seriously.