Songkran is Thailand's celebration of the lunar New Year, making it the third new year we've welcomed in since January. At the heart of the celebration is water, lots and lots of water. Scented water is reverently poured on Buddha images and the hands and heads of respected elders. Water is liberally splashed and sprayed on everyone else. Songkran is officially celebrated from the thirteenth of April to the fifteenth, but kids on my block have been spraying each other with hoses for a week and a half. It is a nationwide water fight.
The Thais I've asked aren't really sure how the festival became such and extravagant water fight; most blame it on the heat. April is brutally hot and taking a week off from work to throw buckets of water on passing motorists seems a good way to cool down for everyone involved. In reality, the fun is laced with danger; drunken traffic fatalities soar over Songkran.
As someone who thoroughly enjoys living in Asia, I've had to come to terms with being bumped, jostled and perpetually crowded. Being chased down the street by brigades of bucket-toting hooligans seemed beyond my natural limits and for the most part I've stayed close to home since the festivities started in earnest. But what's the fun in that?
Yesterday afternoon, in the baking heat of the day, Kristin and I decided to take a walk down the canal adjacent to our neighborhood. It's about twelve feet across and leads all the way into downtown Bangkok. A narrow cement walkway runs along the canal, in some case the only way to reach the ramshackle Thai houses that line both sides. It's always a tight fit when a motorcycle comes humming along the sidewalk.
It's a short distance from the gate of our neighborhood and the canal. We passed a handful of Thai boys spraying passing traffic with red dyed water. They said "Hello" to us, but let us pass dryly. Sometimes being a foreigner means no respect at all, but other times it means added respect.
A hundred meters down the canal, a stone's throw from our house, a very wet family beckoned to us. One man scampered over and blocked our way, shepherding us onto a rickety wooden bridge across the sludgy green water.
Once across we were lovingly soaked by everyone in the family. People poured water over us from silver urns, smeared us with powder, sprayed us with high tech water pistols, bowed deeply and gave us ceremonial flower wreaths. There was no discussion by us or by them; we were completely and sweetly welcomed. We splashed water back and laughed, feeling quite at home. If I am open to it, life gives me everything.
Still sopping wet, we were ushered into the house. A feast of cold meat sat on the linoleum floor. Always leery of sitting meat, I announced us both as vegetarians. A plate of apples, watermelon and sticky rice with mango appeared.
Our host, an older man with blood red eyes wanted to know if vegetarians drink alcohol. They do. He poured us a glass of Thai rum diluted with questionable water. I sipped the weak mixture and started my traditional Thai conversation.
"Kun chi arie?" I asked, Thai for 'What's your name?'
Our host held us his hand imploringly, "I no speak English."
Undaunted, I tried again. "Kun chi arie?"
He looked at me befuddled.
"What's your name?" one of his relatives called out.
"My name is X."
X's younger brother is a police bigwig and fluent with English. He joined us and took over as interpreter and guide. I asked about a neighbor's orchid nursery, visible from the canal. Within moments we were picking our way through a maze of water-filled trenches and around countless fruit trees: mangos, pomegranates, trees with coconuts the size of basketballs.
We walked under a vast black canopy that shaded several thousands exquisitely beautiful purple and white orchids. Grown in the dried husks of coconuts, orchids are a hardy, easily maintained plant. At least in Thailand. Plants the nurseryman sells to exporters for five baht (12 cents) go for twenty dollars in America.
The nursery spanned several acres. We walked throughout, our guide stopping now and again to pick flowers for Kristin, demonstrating minor differences in species. Before we returned home, we visited the nursery owner. He sat in his house with a circle of friends playing Thai poker.
The men studied their hands carefully, drinking Thai whisky and laughing. The cards were long and narrow, made of plastic and featured intricate geometric designs and confounding Thai numerals. They gave me a sample hand and guided me through my draw: three of men, seven of men, six of sandals, four of breasts. The men discarded their unwanted cards into the center of circle. The dealer gathered them up with a bamboo stick equipped with a foam rubber tip. He shuffled and dealt the same cards back to the players. Bets were limited to five baht, barely enough to buy a lovely twenty buck flower.
We walked back to the house on the canal, where the festivities seemed to be dying down. Our guide soaked us both again, explaining, "You can play all day." As he splashed me, he rubbed my shoulders. "Chok dee," he said, "Good luck for the next year." He coated his hands with a talcum/water mixture and splattered our faces. X, his face obscured in streaks of snow white powder, explained that only the face was polite. He clutched his bosom several times to illustrate the rude locations to powder. We splashed and powdered them in return, taking care to be polite about it.
Neighbors arrived bearing small bottles of scented lotion. From eldest to youngest, they sprinkled everyone in the household. X lives with and cares for his mother, a frail old woman who spent most of the time laying on the floor, collapsed by gravity. She had nine to eleven kids in her life, nobody seemed exactly sure. She laid so still and so flat, her dress seemed empty, like laundry. Still, the neighbor managed to bow to her and get himself lower. She sat up briefly and smiled as he carefully sprinkled her hands with rose-scented lotion. We got our doses in turn.
After securing a handful of calling cards and phone numbers we walked home. We smelled sweetly of flowers and lotion, our faces pale and smooth with powder, our clothes damp with next year's good fortune.
Were greater fortune even possible.
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